If gender isn’t a binary, we’re all both oppressed and oppressor

One of my recent blogs, although personal, highlighted a truth that perhaps a lot of people don’t really want to see – gender isn’t a binary, sex isn’t a binary, and, the hardest to swallow of all if you’re a certain brand of feminist, gendered oppression isn’t a binary.

We’re already used to understanding other forms of oppression as non-binary – for instance, I can see myself as one of the 99% safe in the knowledge there are ruling class oppressors who possess almost infinitely more of the world’s resources than I do. Or I can own up that I am also one of the 20% of people who use 80% of the world’s resources.

And of course as humans we like to focus on what’s unfair to us, so most of us like the 99% idea a lot more than we like the 20% idea. That’s human nature.

So isn’t it great when a form of oppression is so binary you can be absolutely sure what side of the inequality gap everyone is on? Except those binaries don’t really exist in the real world. Even biological sex, we now understand, is a spectrum and not a neat either/or, although intersex people have been routinely erased and mutilated in order to preserve the false binary.


Just to hammer home this point – the following biological differences between “men” and “women” are all unreliable and non-binary – genital configuration, skin thickness, muscle strength, body hair, aggression, tallness, fertility, hormonal balance, levels of testosterone, levels of oestrogen, voice depth, brain cavity size, chromosomes. That’s before we even look at variations in socialisation.

I was in the business of mopping up after female oppression for a long time, working as I did in domestic violence, initially for women-only services. There’s no question in my mind that if we’re talking average case scenario here, men oppress women and that’s that. And yet in reality I have seen gender-typical and atypical stories. Sure, the “script” that sticks in my mind is of the king of the castle perpetrator who keeps his wife pregnant and submissive, but in reality there are a million stories and a million scripts. Many of these are gender-normative, but of course, not all of them are.

Here’s the thing – women were not socialised in some side-room while patriarchy was going on – women were socialised by patriarchy too. And whatever socialisation leads people to perpetrate controlling violence, having a vagina does not render immunity; women are capable of everything that men are, I have seen that amply proved in my work too.

Clearly it’s society’s intention to indoctrinate men into this cult of violence and somehow preserve women so that they will be “safe to raise the children”. That’s the childish, binary fantasy, one that some very simplistic forms of feminism align with – that we can broadcast gender-specific messages out into society and they will always meet their correct target.

But here in the real world, we have assigned-female people who tune into “Man FM” and assigned-males who tune out; like Rani Bakr says, a penis is not a “miniature shortwave radio antenna tuned to pick up signals from the patriarchy” – the messages are everywhere, we all receive them and from day one we are making the complicated appraisal “is that message for me?”

Rani - antennaes

Masculinity in women’s spaces

One of the reasons I used to like women-only space was that the full diversity of the gender spectrum could be seen without the interference of an assumed binary. Believe me, women-only space is neither patriarchy-free nor gender-free – all the dynamics of gender that play out in society can be seen there. Even while we chanted to the goddess and claimed to value the sacred feminine, social norms were overall skewed towards the valuing of masculinity over femininity, just as they are everywhere else.

In spaces where there are a higher proportion of people who grew up “tomboys” – i.e. having been more influenced by male social conditioning than most girls – there is a problematic tendency to see masculinity as neutral and femininity as false and artificial, something Julia Serano explores in her book Whipping Girl. As such, spaces can end up being quite prejudiced against women, both cis and trans, who were socialised in ways that are more similar to the female archetype (known as “femmephobia”). Such women are sometimes seen as fake, as traitors, even, for falling into the trap of female socialisation. They also tend to be expected to take a place in the heirarchy below people with more male socialisation. Nobody seems to recognise that male socialisation is not natural or default, but just as artificial and constructed as female socialisation, albeit with a different position and purpose in the hierarchy.

In feminism, this often means the dominant voices are more male-socialised – if you listen to many prominent feminist’s personal anecdotes there is often a narrative of having been looking at female socialisation from the outside; of having instinctively rejected it long before political awareness set in. This is at once both helpful and problematic. Helpful, because it shows the value of gender variance in bringing gendered oppression to light, but unhelpful because it results in people with more male socialisation being those that do more of the speaking for women.

We need to start recognising that if gender is indeed socially constructed, and I believe it is, that there is a spectrum of socialisation that relates to individuals’ own responses to and identification with that socialisation.

In other words, it’s possible to have been born with a vagina and still be brim-full of male socialisation – in fact, I would go so far as to say that male socialisation influences all of us to a greater or lesser extent.

Those of us with more male socialisation need to recognise the power of that socialisation and its impact on the way we are in the world, even at the same time as we are allowed to acknowledge the oppression we experience for not being cis- or hetero-normative. It is for us as individuals to reflect on whether our voices are a little louder and more confident because we grew up thinking of ourselves as exceptions to the female rule.

3 thoughts on “If gender isn’t a binary, we’re all both oppressed and oppressor

  1. jon

    I’m with this post part of the way, gender and sex not being binary (of course). BUT the systems of oppression are much more binary. Just like people of color can be prejudice but can’t be racist because their individual acts of prejudice aren’t backed by a system of oppression.

    You wrote: ” whatever socialisation leads people to perpetrate controlling violence, having a vagina does not render immunity; women are capable of everything that men are”

    Certainly: on a global level like Margaret Thatcher or Madeline Albright, and in a hypothetical (and unfortunately, real) relationship.

    If a woman oppresses a man inside a relationship, there isn’t an economic bias in the system that limits his options on escaping the relationship. Though it’s true that society doesn’t see him as a victim or allow him to be one, it’s also true that he wasn’t socialized to accept and submit.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I agree in generalised terms with what you’re saying, of course, as a feminist, but it doesn’t really address what I am saying. I’m not arguing that reverse sexism is a thing, but that people like Margaret Thatcher are able to co-opt patriarchal structures despite having a vagina – she did have a structure backing her up in her abuses of power, and it was patriarchy, even though she visibly also experienced sexism as a woman.

      Race is a good example, because race is also non-binary, as in there are white-appearing people who actually have a more complex ethnic heritage, there are people who are raised to think of themselves as white but discover later they are not, there are people who “pass” as white but still have internalised messages about their true racial heritage and there are people of colour who are raised in white culture if they have been adopted, and all of these people have a more complex relationship with race than a simple, binary one, and none of these complexities are anything to do with “reverse racism”.

      An example would be my ex, who likely had Indian heritage – most of the time he was taken for white and his heritage wasn’t spoken of, but after 9/11, when people were particularly focussed on obsessing about brown people, he suddenly started to experience occasional racism – this wasn’t “reverse racism”, it was actual racism and part of the very structure of racism, – he was experiencing despite his habitual position of white privilege, precisely because race isn’t a binary.

  2. refter2012

    As A transperson (mtf) I have the experience that patriarchal norms and values and expectations are indeed transmitted by men and women. Women are also bearers of those patriarchal norms, values and expectations.


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