Anxiety and the Gender Politics of the Unborn – or – Why We Didn’t Find Out

One of the big choices we faced was whether or not to find out whether the baby appeared to have male or female sex characteristics during our 20-week ultrasound.   This, of course, is not the way people usually frame this question.  The ordinary question is more like “are you going to find out what it IS?”  After a time, I took to answering this question with more than a little sass.  “We already know what it IS – it’s a baby.”  This generally earned me a frown and a change of topic.

But really – I want to ask ask – calmly and honestly, why do we care?

Why do we care whether a being that cannot even breathe on its own, one that is likely at least 10 years away from anything like its first romantic experience (16 if it takes after its dad) – why do we care whether such a being has in between its legs and its hips something that will eventually be a penis or a vagina?

I’ve never taken a Women’s Studies or Gender Studies course, but I do know that sex and gender are best thought of at least somewhat separately.  They are likely related, and in many complex, subtle and vital ways.  But the point is, we should think of them somewhat on their own.  Gender is something that is at least to some extent socially mediated.  Sex probably is too (at least insofar as science is also always socially mediated) but I think of them as two concepts at two ends of a continuum – “gender” refers to that part of this continuum that is most fruitfully thought of as socially mediated, “sex” to that part which is best understood along biological lines.  Call this a pragmatist account of the sex-gender distinction.

And while we’re talking about continua – both sex and gender are themselves continua: there are babies that are obviously sexually “male” and obviously sexually “female,” but there are also babies (and adults) that seem to fall in the middle.  And gender: there are people who identify as “male” and “female” and also those that find some other identity description to be meaningful.  When I was in high school, I remember reading interviews with Michael Stipe, interviews where he refused to answer the question of whether he was “gay” or “straight,” because, as he very rightfully put it, sexual orientation (in addition to and in relation to sexual and gender difference) is very much a continuum as well.  And then different people mediate their particular continuum locations (sex, gender and sexual orientation) and the intersection between those locations in their own ways.

So even assuming just 2 possibilities along each continuum, we get 2 cubed, or 8 possibilities (and I’ve just been suggesting that 2 is too low of a number).  And that’s only considering 3 pertinent aspects of ourselves.  Throw in things like intelligence, creativity, physical acumen, etc, and we get many, many more possibilities.  Maybe we are not each “unique and beautiful snowflakes,” or maybe I’m overplaying our uniqueness vis-a-vis these categories, but the point is, “what ARE they?” is a ridiculously simplistic question to ask about anyone at any age.

All of this complexity and subtlety seemed to me to be likely vitiated if we “found out.”  I know this is something a lot of people do.  But I also know a lot of people do lots of things I don’t think they should.  I don’t feel nearly as strongly about this as I do about other sorts of choices people make, like the decision to vote politicians into office who to oppose pro-social-justice policies or military adventurism, or people who intentionally evade their taxes through legal or illegal means, or drive cars that intentionally spew forth carbon dioxide in excessive levels.  But I do think there is a moral dimension to the choice about how we treat our children’s sex and gender identities.

And strictly speaking, I don’t think “finding out” is the problem.  It’s just what I think a lot of people do with the information that’s bothersome.  And I’m not just talking about parents.  I’m talking about any random stranger on the street.

While Brooke was pregnant, for reasons I really don’t understand, many, many people (family, friends, strangers) really wanted to know the sex of our baby.  At the very least, perhaps they wanted to buy it an item of clothing.  Maybe they were just making conversation and didn’t really care one way or the other.  Whatever it was, I almost always experiened some anxiety on their parts.  Which is weird, because, whatever the baby “was,” at least when it’s a newborn, its sex characteristics seem pretty far from the most important aspect of its identity.  Whether it could eat, breathe, whether its heart worked, even whether it had 10 fingers and toes – those all seem far, far more important to know than whether it’s a boy, a girl, or neither of the above.  But no one ever asked us about any other of its appendages – they just wanted to know if it had a penis or a vagina.

Brooke and I thought long and hard about whether to “find out.”  We decided that we did not want the baby’s gender identity to begin being constructed at least until the baby was born.  This seemed like a small concession, given the immensity of the gender-construction machine that our society has developed.  After the child was born, presumably whole store racks of blue or pink clothing could be shipped en masse via Amazon Prime, Or Amazon Mom, or whatever, to our house (or we could just get a bunch of used clothes, which is what we were planning to do anyway).  So why not at least give it 9 months?

And to be clear – I’m not saying that we were intending to avoid any attribution gender upon our child.  It would be foolish to think we could do that.  All I’m saying is that we wanted that process to begin, at the very least, after the child was born, and also we wanted the process to unfold thoughtfully and consciously (at least insofar as that was possible).  Or perhaps even stave it off until the child itself could think.  Even to conceive of latter possibility is probably naive as well.  Gender is, after all, at least as much felt and experienced as it is thought about.  It was not as though the baby would be a five-year-old before it would begin forming its gender identity.

But it still felt wrong to start that process before the child was even a viable human being.

After all, though our sexual characteristics (and our gender identities) are very important to all of us, and it would be naive to think they aren’t, it seemed to us far worse to begin the “princess” or “little man” narrative before he or she was even here.  A lot of people apparently can’t handle this.  They just “need to know.”  They just want to “make plans.”

 Those explanations sound innocuous enough until one stops to think – what plans do you want to make?  Gendered plans.  Plans that prescribe certain attitudes, emotions, thoughts and interests onto the child.

 To clarify again, we weren’t trying to live as if there was NO SUCH THING as gender difference or sexual difference.  I’d been told by many people who understood all of what I’ve said above, and agreed with it, that they were surprised by the extent to which their child still made those choices in a very sexual-difference-conscious way.  I don’t doubt it.  I do think, though, that there’s so many social cues all around that it may be difficult in many instances to know that made the boy grab the truck, or the girl the doll.  We may say it was “just them,” when we didn’t realize what we and others had contributed to the system.  I’ve heard people assert that their children gravitated towards blue or pink things “naturally,” but this is patently absurd.  As anyone who’s ever played in  any baby shower trivia games knows, even 100 years ago, pink was seen as a masculine color.  At least that much is social, not natural.  What else is would be very difficult to tell.  As Rousseau pointed out in another context, it is extremely difficult to discern what is natural and what is social in a given cultural arrangement.  The point – for me anyway – is at least to try.

Apparently, according to one of our ultrasound technicians, couples actually get in arguments sometimes upon learning the truth.  Men especially have difficulty accepting that they’re having a girl.  Nevermind (of course) that the man contributes the sex characteristics for the most part.

And what if the baby were intersex?  Some small but actual number of infants is.  Did we want to spend 7 months telling people this?  And letting them form their weird ideas about how they’d handle that?  Or listening to their awkard and ridiculous, pseudoscientific and ignorant reactions to that fact if it had turned out to be have been true?

We also didn’t want to give it a name before it was here.

Perhaps it sounds ridiculous but we wanted it to form its own identity to the extent that that is possible.  We recognized we’d be inevitably helping to shape who the baby would become, since we’d be its parents, but we also recognized that here, we wanted it to have some of its own way.

This, of course, stops no one, not even the most random stranger, from offering their theories in lieu of an ultrasound machine.  And all these theories, as I took to joking, also with a bit of sass behind it, have “about a 50% success rate.”  Just enough to convince people that they’re onto something.  You can win a 50-50 bet 3 times in a row and start to think you’ve cheated probability.  And someone can hear a “galloping heart beat” and see a baby “sitting high” and guess “boy” 3 times in a row.  Pretty much anyone who believes that, though, is impervious to the logic of the situation.  They’re making totally nonfalsifiable claims.  This, however, did not stop me from trying to argue it out with them.  Again, this brought about frowns and a change in topic.

Ultimately the use of the ultrasound to determine the baby’s sex seems like technology acting in the service of a certain kind of ideological/institutional mechanism – that of the production of gender – but presenting itself as just neutral, “cool” even.  We steered clear of it.  This may have caused some people frustration in casual conversations with us, but it also meant they had to make more deliberate choices, rather than just follow preordained marketing scripts.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but gender attribution seems to me to be the very first capitalist marketing decision made for us, most often when we’re very young, and now, more and more, before we’re even born.  In some ways our vast consumer empire can be seen as a massive sorting algorithm.  Perhaps the window you’re reading this in has an ad that something picked out for you to look at.  And the first sorting choice is “boy” or “girl.”  As gender identities, those are to some extent culturally mediated.

We didn’t want to break that machine, but to again echo Thoreau, we wanted at least to be some sort of counterfriction.  So we didn’t “find out” until the night our child was born.



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