Men and women are different but it’s complicated

Just recently, Germaine Greer made the news by saying that transgendered women are not real women. When you need the obvious stating, it’s always good to get an Australian to do it.

Yet the question, ‘what is a woman?’, gets to the root of many modern issues and to the foundations of building a biblical view of men and women.

The dispute ranges across all the disciplines (it would be a mistake to single out theology as necessarily any worse or better than other subject) including the sciences.

Despite the growing awareness of intersex people, biology has generally done an outstanding job of dividing humans into male and female. At a very basic level of biology, most people see and accept that men and women are similar but not the same.

Sometimes these differences are minimized and sometimes emphasized by either ‘side’ to suit their argument at the time. One of the more disputed areas surrounds the brain and for a non-scientist it can be quite confusing. Do you trust this expert or this one?

Yet the differences between men and women extends far deeper than external genitalia – the XY, XX chromosomes are not exactly news to us. Chromosomes have a lot to answer for. They may explain why women are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s and why women develop more auto-immune diseases and more prosaically why, according to science, women are always freezing in offices. It also explains why men aren’t as good at synchronised swimming. We’re less flexible and don’t float as well.

From the very serious to the everyday inconvenience our different bodies explain why even air-conditioning can be sexist and an equality issue.

Chromosomes also lie at the centre of modern confusion. They explain the reality of intersex which is more complicated than most of us realise: Some boys only develop penises when they’re 12!

In the midst of all this it’s encouraging to see theology begin to grapple with this complexity.

Chromosomes also reveal the confusion of the transgendered. Our bodies hide deeper differences that can’t be altered with a sex change, yet this very point is strongly contended.

Tyler Ford was born a girl, transitioned to being a man in college and now is agendered. Tyler says,

Strangers are often desperate to figure out what genitalia I have, in the hope that my body holds the key to some great secret and unavoidable truth about myself and my gender. It doesn’t. My words hold my truth. My body is simply the vehicle that gives me the opportunity to express myself.

It’s a quote that captures the spirit of our individualistic age perfectly. Our bodies are simply blank sheets on which to express ourselves, which may explain in part the rise and rise of the tattoo. It’s certainly the narrative that the mass media has embraced and a new BBC sitcom for the transgendered is just the latest evidence of that. It’s certainly a narrative that has taken hold when 9 year olds can write to Disney complaining that Disney World excludes the transgendered.

The folly of this cultural narrative of the right of an individual to express themselves however they want to is exposed when the transgendered want to be parents or want to fight in MMA.

As Andrew Lillico points out it reveals to very different ways of seeing women:

The advocate of “she” for M-to-F transsexuals wants to tell us that gender is fundamentally completely a matter of attitude and feelings and nothing to do with reproductive organs.  But the feminist wants to tell us that being a woman is absolutely nothing to do with attitude and feelings and totally about reproductive organs.

Yet that leads us back to differences between men and women. When women who were men compete against women who have always been women, then the new women who were once men are unfairly advantaged against the other women. There are good reasons why women shouldn’t compete in many sports against men.

But that leads to further problems because if we’re not willing to let women compete against men in sports, why would we let them fight in combat?

We’re protecting women in the trivial (yes, I called sports trivial and I love sports) but throwing them to the lions in the field of combat. The inconsistencies are evident and the problems mount.

The dangerous ground though is not in saying that men and women are different (although that’s highly unpopular in places like Sweden) but in trying to figure out what if anything those differences amount to.  This sort of thinking can lead one down the garden path, as recently travelled by John Piper.

Instead we need to rethink the meaning of bodies which is the ground for working out what it means to be male and what it means to be female.

Photo by jlinczak

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