Who Decides your Gender?

If you remember nothing else from the words below, please remember this:  presentation is not gender.

Thanks to an economy-based society that loves a hierarchy, some bodies are treated as more valuable than others.  And, again, thanks to an economy-based society, other bodies are willing to pay a premium for access to those bodies. If you’ve ever been to a nightclub that has ladies night, you’ve participated in this system; think no cover for ladies or drink specials on martini style cocktails and other “feminine” drinks that incentivize women to come and drink while charging men for access to that space, and by default, those potentially intoxicated bodies.   In fact, it’s not uncommon for businesses that run in the sphere of the sexual to price their fees based on gender.

Money for access. It’s a tale as old as time – but when we add in a third party who decides which bodies are given what value we encounter a host of problems.  Some of these problems are being faced by local sex club Oasis Aqualounge as they continue to struggle to integrate the recognition of non-binary, genderqueer and genderfluid individuals into a pricing structure rooted in a gender binary, or to put it bluntly: while they try to figure out the best way to profit while punishing and rewarding the sexual capital of their patrons’ genitals.

Now, they would not describe their policy this way; they’ll tell you it’s gender-based and geared towards creating a more welcoming space for certain members while erecting some barriers to entry towards others – but I’ve yet to see how having the financial means to cover a higher entry fee lowers one’s sense of entitlement within that space.  Frankly, it’s more often the opposite.

I need to keep this brief, so I’m not going to delve deeply into the problematic nature of attaching price tags (and really, such cheap ones) to bodies in sexual spaces, or how needing to answer to a business’s’ bottom-line creates challenges for creating spaces safe enough to play and explore one’s sexuality in. But I do want to address the problems of having a gender binary pricing structure in a world where trans folks, genderfluid, genderqueer, and non-binary individuals exist (because they do exist, and they always have).

Oasis has discussed publicly and with individuals how they suspect cis men are cheating the system by claiming the identity of non-binary to gain access to the club at a reduced cover charge – and on nights where single cis men would not be allowed into the club at all.  This creates an atmosphere of suspicion in which transfeminine, genderfluid, and non-binary folks who happened to be have been assigned male at birth are treated with suspicion and hostility while their gender and their validity within their gender identity suddenly becomes the subject of public debate. At this time, Oasis has no official published policy for what happens when a staff member questions another’s gender identity. This has led to folks having to repeatedly confirm their gender and defend their right to partake in nights that should be directed at them.

Why I’m talking about this now is because a group named Silence is Violence has teamed up with local porn collective Spit and Oasis for an event entitled “Silence is Violence” in October.   The event mixes in games, socializing, and porn shoots with workshops on kink, polyamory, sex work, and boundary setting, presumably to reduce sexual violence through education and consciousness-raising.

As much as I want to applaud the event for doing necessary educational work and being willing to meet people where they are, when we consider the term Silence is Violence I wonder what call to action that creates to speak about the violence that is done when we take the judgment of one’s gender away from the individual living that gender.

We cannot look at sexual violence in relation to sexual assault alone. To do so ignores important gender diversity issues. To do so ignores an important history of reproductive rights being abused and disregarded. To do so ignores how harmful it is to have a hierarchy of bodies that tries to tell us some people are worth more than other people. Sexual violence, gender based violence, racism, classism, autonomy; these are all threads that weave together complex issues that cannot be truly understood while only looking at one strand.

Given this, I think it’s incredibly important to speak candidly about how violent it is to deny someone’s agency over their gender identity based on another’s perception of whether or not it hits enough gender norms and stereotype boxes to be acceptable. This is especially important as most folk’s concepts of gender are still deeply rooted in binary ideas!  In case I am not being clear enough, let me be frank:  being asked, even indirectly to defend your gender identity and expression is degrading, humiliating and should be completely unnecessary.

Gender is about more than genitalia. It’s about more than expression too – you may have heard the phrase ‘all gender is performance’, but that comes from a misreading of Judith Bulter’s work in Gender Trouble.  Butler has since clarified this – gender includes performance (both by us and on us by a society that assigns a gender at birth, gives gendered names, and demands conformation to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ cues).  No need to take my word for it.  You can read this excellent commentary from Julia Serano or hear it from Butler directly.  For some folks, gender has nothing to do with presentation and exists purely as an internal feeling – and that is legitimate.

What does that all mean? Gender is complex.  Just like every other complex thing that humans have tried to sort into neat little boxes for the sake of “order” (and let us be honest, a single, very specific view of order that is tied to keeping status quo and power in the hands of certain people), reality will spill out of these boxes and things may get “messy” – or as I like to call it, delightfully complex.

What does that all mean?  That you cannot tell the gender of a human being simply by looking at them.  You can make some assumptions, but you must be willing to own that you are making an assumption based on your understanding of something and be prepared to be wrong  – your perception does not overwrite someone else’s reality, and when you try to force that you create an intentional act of harm towards someone – you are perpetuating violence.  When Oasis starts questioning their patron’s gender identity and considers creating policy based on a staff member’s reading, they are perpetuating violence.

All oppression is intertwined.  We cannot overlook the violence directed at and perpetuated against our trans friends and family in the name of reducing sexual violence – they are different facets of the same problem.  If silence is violence, how can we be silent on this?


Heather is a MEd candidate in Social Justice Education and Sexual Diversity Studies.  Her research interests focus on the co-creation and co-maintenance of consent.

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