I talk to my cat all the time. I call her “sweetie” and “munchkin” and “honeybunch”. I gentle my voice when I talk to her – I raise my pitch and soften my tone. When neighbourhood male cats have taken to hanging around the back porch, I’ve talked to them too. I say things like “hey big boy, how’s it going” in a no-nonsense harder voice. Me and male cats, we’re buddies, you know?
When I am differentiating between male and female cats, I am applying all kinds of associations to their ‘maleness’ and their ‘femaleness’ – these are the associations I’ve learned through my own conditioning. It’s because of the associtions that I modulate my voice and choose different words.
I am speaking to animals in ways I’ve been trained to speak to human children, by having imbibed such voices in my own infancy and early childhood. We raise the pitch of our voices when we talk to girl babies, and we don’t when we talk to boy babies. Try it yourself and see.
And when we modulate our voices and use different words to boys and girls we teach them their gender. Their malleable, malleable brains form certain neural pathways in response to pitch and word choice, even though they don’t know the meaning of the words we use. So the sex associations we have as a result of our conditioning become the basis for how we condition the next generation.
I doubt that I’ve taught my cat her gender. Animals learn much more by instinct than humans do, and far less by after-birth brain conditioning. I’ve sometimes thought that the greatest cruelty any hypothetical ‘creator’ did was to create beings who had to be as vulnerable to environmental stimulus as humans are. But of course that’s what makes us “free” and therefore responsible for our actions.
Our brains are open codeways ready to start programming on the tiniest incentives. Everything impacts us, from acts of loving kindness to mild failures of such to egregious cruelty. And though every human responds to those actions in unique ways, thus creating unique personalities, the ways we respond to neglect and abuse are depressingly similar. So much so that the word “freedom” seems an overstatement. Children who have experienced violence and boundary violation in infancy grow into adults who hate themselves, who feel ashamed of themselves, who either engage in self-destructive behaviours (especially if they’re female) or in behavior destructive to others (especially if they’re male).
Many children suffer from the ways they’re en-gendered by the people around them. I’m sure there are female babies who squirm uncomfortably at all the high-pitched cooing going on around them, and I wonder if some male babies are frightened by all the verbal shoulder-punching they receive. Babies are not blank slates.
All participants in the nature/nurture debates have to acknowledge that babies are born with unique tendencies, or potentials. These are exacerbated or suppressed on interaction with people in their environment. To really help a baby to bloom into their fullest potential, caregivers have to be sensitive to those potentials, seeking always to nurture the positives, while not giving undue attention to the negatives. I seriously doubt that any caregiver looks for unique gender potentials in order to nurture those. We all have such preconceptions about gender that we’re blind to any potential deviation from the norm. And perhaps we’re unable to respond to and to create gender any differently.
I’ve tried to talk to my female cat like I talk to male cats, and vice versa. I can’t do it. It feels too false.
There was a news story a few years ago about parents who decided to keep their newborn’s sex a secret from neighbours and strangers. They found people’s first response to the baby in its carriage would be to ask its sex. When they refused to say, the responses were confusion and even anger. When they didn’t know the baby’s sex, they didn’t know how to lean in and speak to it.
In attempts to look for what might be essential to each human sex, I was browsing animal websites. It became clear to me that some authors of animal science sites were having real trouble trying to describe animal behavior in ways that didn’t reflect patriarchal beliefs.
Here’s a quick question: what do you see in this picture?
How many of you say there’s a male lion with his harem or his mates? Most of you, right? Of course, that’s what patriarchy teaches. The male is the centre of the group, and the females belong to him.
You’d be wrong. What you’re seeing is a group of female lions, who form the stable core of the pride. On the periphery is their male mate. He is disposable and replaceable. They don’t belong to him; if anything, he belongs to them and his role is to service them by impregnating them. Every few years he is replaced by a stronger lion.
Here’s how “Live Science” describes a pride of lions: “ African lion prides consist of up to three males, around a dozen females, and their young, according to National Geographic.”
That’s a phallocentric description, one that puts the males front and centre. Here’s another way to say it, one that reflects the reality of the pride: “Lion prides consist of about a dozen females and their young, plus up to 3 males”.
Here’s a description of primate behaviour from anthro.palomar.edu. I’ve challenged the website descriptions that reflect patriarchal bias.
One-male-several-female groups have polygynous mating patterns. That is to say, one male regularly mates and lives with more than one female at a time.
Why is it “One-male-several-female”? Why not “Several-females-one-male”? And how about “several females regularly live and mate with one male”?
Polygyny is generally not a promiscuous mating pattern. Rather, the male and his female mates form a distinct mating and child rearing group.
Oh really? How is it that the females belong to the male? How about “the females and their mate”?
The authors of this article try really hard to see primate behaviour without distorting it through patriarchal lenses. You can see that in the following paragraph:
It would be a mistake to automatically assume that non-human primate one-male-several-female groups are dominated by males. Among geladas, females largely control the social group. This is despite the fact that the males are larger, stronger, and more aggressive. Mothers, sisters, and aunts act as a team in chasing off other unrelated females. They also collectively select their mutual mate among a number of potential suitors roaming in and out of their territory. The male that is chosen usually is one that does not act abusively towards them and is willing to cooperate with them in defending their territory. The relationship with any particular male may be short-term. The stable core of the community is the group of related females. This is a long way from stereotypical male domination.
That’s pretty good clarification that the females are the most important and central part of the group. As with lions, the male primates are replaceable, and their role is to serve the females. However, then the authors write:
One-male-several female groups may take a different form when predator pressure is a problem. In open grasslands, hamadryas baboon communities are much larger, usually consisting of a number of polygynous families. In such multiple one-male-several-female group societies, males are the dominant, controlling members. The adult males not only “herd” their own sexually mature females, but also maintain order and protect the community from predators. This is not unlike the traditional Arab polygynous marriage pattern in which wealthy men acquire harems.
Okay. Imagine the scenario of a group of motorists stuck in road construction. Several flaggers direct traffic. Do any of us believe we are the harem of the flag women? Or imagine being directed by a white-gloved police officer when traffic lights aren’t working or roads are exceptionally congested. Do we feel we belong to the officer? Of course not. To be ‘herded’ is not to be owned.
Secondly, this animal behaviour is totally unlike Arab marriage patterns for the simple reason that such marriages are class-based and involve financial transactions. Women are bought as brides by those with the money to do so. Men with more money can buy more wives. Furthermore, women are sold by their fathers. In primate communities the fathers have no ownership of the females.
So you see, even conscientious observors can’t help but perceive the world around them through the biases of human patriarchal social conditioning. That being the case, I wonder how we can possibly change things.