Unspoken Assumptions: Gender

Trying to read, teach, or talk about the actual practices of witchcraft without leaning on gender as a short-hand is tricky.

Gender having assumed importance is everywhere.

From the obvious
  • The goddess is the divine feminine true source of everything
  • Women are like the Goddess because they are fertile creatrixes
  • Creative work is feminine, Destructive work is Masculine
  • Air and Fire are masculine, Water and Earth are feminine.
  • Lets stand boy-girl-boy-girl in circle cause that is balanced!
  • And basically every list of correspondences for herbs, rocks, planets, divinities, spirits.
To the less obvious
  • "Your energy feels so masculine, I never would have thought you were a trans man."
  • "We are all a balance of male and female"
  • "I'm a gay boy, so I've always felt called to the Goddess more than the God"
  • Women can only invoke/aspect female identified dieties. Men can only invoke/aspect male identified dieties.
  • Women are more naturally inclined to receptive magic and Men are more naturally inclined to projective magic.

We could add a lot more to these lists, including an entirely separate list of "Things that are influenced by gender assumptions" such as there are very few female-identified ceremonial and chaos magicians compared to male-identified (anecdotal, but I'm pretty confident that my experience is fairly representative).

The thing is, gender is not empirical. It is not an essentially observable thing. You cannot look at a person and reliably understand their gender or their relationship to their gender. You cannot determine gender from genetic analysis, a brain scan, presentation, orientation, or any other empirical evidence.

The only way to know a persons gender is to ask them. And even then it could be a moving target. Or maybe they don't even know themselves. Hold that thought, I'll get back to it in a moment.

An animation of a game selection screen where the selected difficulty is moving between Easy, Normal, and Hard. The game is titled "GENDER - THE GAME"

Names and Attributes

An attribute is a thing that describes a person or thing. I currently have long mostly brown hair. That is an attribute.

A name, on the other hand, is a way of referring to a person or thing that identifies them, but does not intrinsically give you information about the attributes of the person or thing.

Culturally, we've been using gender as a type of attribute collection. A person of Gender: [GENDER] can be assumed to match the majority of attributes in the collection.

The thing is, these collections have never been anywhere close to universal. Every culture and sub-culture has a lot of variance within the attribute collection. And even within very specific sub-cultures the list of attributes associated with a gender changes with time.

The result of this, is that when we talk about or think about gender outside of a very specific sub-culture and time-frame, it is impossible to accurately identify the list of attributes associated with a gender.

As a result, our short-hand breaks down. Which means that when we are talking about an international community of witches, trying to use gender as a reliable attribute is clumsy at best, and extremely damaging at worst.

Gender is not empirical, and is not a useful attribute collection

There are a number of things that people use to try and suggest that Gender is an empirical measurable thing. The truth is however, that they all break down under any sort of scrutiny.

The most common is the idea of a birth-certificate. What is put on your birth certificate is the gender which you were assigned at birth. When you see the terms AFAB and AMAB these refer to "Assigned Female at Birth" and "Assigned Male at Birth."

People often ask why we say "assigned." The assumption is that you ARE male or ARE female at birth. We say assigned, because being AMAB or AFAB is the result of a Doctor looking between a newborns legs and determining what their reproductive organs appear to look like.

The problem with this is that there are a lot of things you can't tell about a person with a cursory glance at their newborn junk. For example, you can't tell what their internal organs look like or how they will develop. Assuming that all individuals are simply male or female is reductive and ignores the real existence of intersex people.

It is also worth noting that you cannot tell whether someone is going to like sports, music, cooking, computers, blue, pink, or anything else based on a cursory glance at their newborn junk.

Animated images of young people in stereotypically gendered settings wearing blue and pink.

So gender-assignment by a clinician and Birth Certificate is neither empirical, nor reliable.

The next assertion is often about secondary sexual characteristics. People who have boobs are women and people who have a penis are men. This, again, completely ignores the existence of intersex people. It also ignores the existence of people who are not intersex (or do not consider themselves intersex), but who also do not develop sex characteristics in a way that we find culturally expected based on the gender they were assigned at birth.

For one example, AMAB people may develop gynecomastia, but the development of breasts does not make them female.

Other people will begin to cry "But chromosones!" Again, not that simple. There is the assumption that women are chromosonally XX and men are chomosonally XY. Again, intersex people exist. There are a variety of different chromosonal sexes, including XX, XY, XXY, XYY, XXYY, and XXX. (There are more I haven't listed).

And if that wasn't enough, some people can have different cells in their body with different chromosonal copies.

And none of these chromosonal geno-types are 100% predictive of primary or secondary sexual characteristics or hormonal development.

The gender binary is systemic, not observational

If you have any belief left in two discrete genders or sexes after reading the above, I invite you to stop reading, because nothing here is going to be valuable to you.

One of the most common arguments about gender is that even if it isn't something that is empirical and completely biological, there are still fundamental differences between men and women.

There are a number of problems with this notion. The first problem is that it asserts a false dichotomy. As we know from above, there are more than 2 chromosonal identities, and none of those chromosonal indicators are an empirical pointer to gender. Gender is a cultural phenomenon which we have culturally associated with sex because we are generally pretty lazy thinkers.

Well, that's not fair. The real reason is "because patriarchy."

The thing to understand is that gender is a SYSTEM. It is one way of looking at and thinking about the roles, or attributes (see above), that make up a social group. But the man/woman binary system is not the only one. It isn't the only gender system historically, and it isn't the only active gender system in use right now. Here is a brief introduction from wikipedia

And most importantly, it isn't even the only system in use amongst western cultures. In fact, the binary-system is rejected by most researchers who study gender and there is a movement (particularly among young westerners) to view gender as less of a fixed point and more of a fluid continumum. Common genders in this (still developing) system are: Man, Woman, GenderQueer, GenderFluid, Nonbinary, Agender, DemiBoy, DemiGirl, and many others.

An Animated selection image alternating between characters from Gravity Falls that says "Gender: Female, Male, Bill Cipher"

So why is gender so important to so many of our practices and traditions?

It's a great question. The simple answer is above. Patriarchy. Our culture is massively colonized by the idea that men and women are fundamentally different and distinct, and that colonization (which relies upon the gender binary remaining intact) is used to enforce the idea of masculinity as "normal" and femininity as "lesser."

Many of our roots as modern pagans and witches come from the work of privileged european men. The result is that their basic prejudices about the roles and functions of men and women and their steadfast belief in the gender-binary is an underpinning of a great deal of the practices that have influenced and created modern occultism.

Even cannonically egalitarian and explicitly non-male traditions such as Wicca (and it's many offshoots) and the Dianic tradition (distinguished from Wicca for it's notability in being strictly female-centered) still accept the idea that there is some intrinsic, empirical difference between men and women, and as a result that intrinsic difference must be expressed in the ineffable and magical.

One of the most interesting discussion points that comes up when discussing this underpinning is: "But creating magic is about creating life and you need both the masculine and the feminine to create life."

The thing is that it's not true. First of all, sex and gender are not the same thing. And as discussed above, the idea of biological sex is not a simple binary any more than gender is. If you're interested in reading a little more about this, here is a good essay to start with.

Secondly, as noted above, there are more than 2 sexes, and many combinations of sex are capable of procreation depending on which organs they develop.

Third, even if we are reductionist and say "well you need an ovum and some semen to procreate." that says nothing about either gender or sex. The assumption that people have here, is that feminine = "egg" and masculine = "sperm."

And yes if you want to be that precise with your language, then you are correct, you need both those things to procreate (currently). But neither of those things carry any empirical or intrinsic meanings beyond the literal. If you wish to be specific, you need to divorce the connotative meaning of those terms.

Fourth, our world is full of a wide range of diverse life forms, and even if we accepted the reductionist idea that procreation is a simple "Man + Woman = Baby" equation (it's not, see above), the rest of the natural world disagrees with us. And as witches and pagans, who are supposedly working the "magic of life" in communion with natural forces, it behooves us not to limit ourselves to the asserted "and you need both the masculine and the feminine to create life" stuff above.

All that said, there's another problem here. Not all people are capable of procreation. For both biological and psychological reasons, not everyone is procreative. So when you try to stick to your guns and say that magic requires a procreative balance, you are fundamentally saying that non-procreative people are not magical. You are also saying that individuals cannot do magical work independently, since we as a species are not asexually procreative. (Although many living beings on earth are, and we have no idea about the type of procreative behavior that might go on off-world.)

And that brings us to my favorite assertion / assumption.

Everyone is both male and female

Apparently, the reason individuals can do magic is because everyone is both male and female.

The underlying assumption here is that "maleness" and "femaleness" are either a) attribute collections as discussed above and all people contain some aspects of each collection; or b) forces or energies which exist in a cosmic balance (this is where we will commonly appropriate the idea of Yin and Yang and put it to work to represent genderedness and balance.)

There are a number of problems with this assumption. The first being that it is sloppy. It conflates gender as an identity (meaning a person HAS a gender or IS a gender) and gender as a component (meaning gender is a part, as in we are all made up of different parts and everyone has both male parts and female parts.)

But lets examine both of those ideas. If we are all both male and female (we aren't) then what is the point of this discussion to begin with? If all of us contain both of these fundamentally different binary components, why is gender identity a thing at all? Why aren't we all just people? Oh, that's right. Patriarchy. And us all being both male and female is a great idea, but serves only to distract from the very real truth that we don't get treated the same and that we are allowed to be different, unique, diverse people with a variety of attributes and skills.

But perhaps we're not made up of equal parts of maleness and femaleness and that's why some people are female and others are male and that's ok too. And of course, gay men are still more male than female but perhaps the ratio is more like 55:45 instead of 70:30 like normal. I suppose that lesbians, being 45:55 instead of 30:70 probably deal with less of a wage gap then other women since they are so much closer to men.

I'm sorry. I can't even be serious with this particular idea. I'm trying. But honestly, genuinely, it's silly.

When people say "Everyone is both male and female," they're trying to be inclusive and egalitarian. And it's really a noble goal. But it's significantly less empirical than any of the other ways of discussing gender I've listed above. It's also erasing. You're basically saying: "Well gender isn't a real thing cause we all have all parts of it, so stop thinking about it and accept that it is the way I've told you it is."

And I know that's not the intent. But that's what is communicated. When someone says "I'm Italian" you don't usually respond with "Well, we all have a common ancestor." When someone says "I've studied european folk magic" you don't say "Well, all magic is from the same source." And when a cis woman says "I'm a woman" you don't say "Well, we're all human at heart."

Even if we assume that we, and the entire rest of the universe, is somehow made up of two primal substances which, for some reason, we determine to be maleness and femaleness, we would not be able to correllate those things to gender. Those fundamental substances might exist in equal or unequal parts within individuals, but they would not be correllated to gender, and so their hypothetical existence isn't relevant to an analysis of why we have to gender everything in our craft.

Unsurprising Plot Twist: We don't need to do this

There's no reason for us to continue gendering everything. We do it because it's easy, and because the people who we learned from did it. But it's far more harmful than it is helpful.

Why is it harmful? Because it's an illusion. Gender exists in our culture and society. It is a real thing. But it is not a fundamental expression of reality. It's not a natural law of the noumenal or subnoumenal worlds, and pretending that it is limits our ability to create meaningful and communicative observations. When you have to describe everything as masculine or femenine you lose a great deal of information.

Science has advanced a tremendous amount in the last few hundred years. A big part of why it was able to do that is because every once in a while enough anomalies arise in the dominant paradigm that causes a new paradigm to arise. New understandings and rules take the place of those that came before. Gender is perhaps useful in a cultural context. I think it is most useful as a guide in exploring new systems and understandings of it. But imposing an arbitrary social structure upon our witchcraft, upon our gods, and upon our understanding of the world? Lets leave that to our predecessors.

image sources

Header: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/gentian-mountains-blue-blossom-356554/