Some things I have learned about sex, gender and sexuality by Mary Heath

Welcome to this Friday Afternoon presentation. This afternoon there is a treat in store, as Mary Heath presents ‘Some things I have learned about sex, gender and sexuality’. This presentation uses stories about everyday life to explore ideas about sex, gender and sexuality.It questions the dominant idea that there are only two sexes and two genders, and that sex should always be congruent with gender, drawing on queer theory – and intersex and transgendered people’s life stories. It also examines the challenges bisexuality and queer theory present to dominant ideas about sexuality, proposing that there are more than two sexualities, and that sexuality can change depending on time, circumstances, and other factors. Mary suggests that people who believe that their own sex and gender are uncontroversial have much to learn from paying thorough attention to the richness of human diversity rather than accepting the dominant two-sex, two-gender story. She suggests that refusing to accept the limitations of the accepted accounts of sex, gender and sexuality opens the way to exciting conversations on these subjects. These conversations, and the social change which they are making possible, have much to offer to people who fit within the dominant models of sex, gender and sexuality as well as those whose lives are currently erased and denigrated by them.

Mary Heath teaches law at Flinders University. She is a founding member of BiAdelaide and Stop Rape Now. Mary will be available to participate in discussions in this Friday Afternoon Forum.

Further reading (free to download)

‘Up the steep side of the queer learning curve: Some things I’ve learned about sex, gender and sexuality’ by Mary Heath

A bibliography of papers / books related to queer matters and narrative practice

Published on January 21, 2013

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Troy Holland

    Hi Mary and other contributors,

    This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to hear you speak, Mary, and I appreciated your presentations very much. Both times I have been left with many questions and ideas which I see as a good thing (perhaps this is partly because I’ve had the privilege of not often being questioned, implicitly or explictly, in regard to my own gender or sexuality).

    There are two things I would like to raise/question.

    The first is related to a case of a young person who is consulting me at present. This person hasn’t consented to me discussing their case so I will talk more generally about it. This young person describes their sexuality and gender (in addition to other aspects of identity) in quite a fluid, even openly constructed way, and would like to express their identities more publicly. The person’s parents identify the person as a male and have said the person can make choices about expression of identity when they reach the age of 18. After viewing the presentation and subsequent discussion this has me thinking about the rights of the young person, the rights of parents to influence/control the choices of a minor in their care, and the effects of all these expressions, influences and controls. I haven’t really come to terms with how I might address this in consultation accept to listen to and respond to the descriptions and expressions of identity the young person provides me. If anybody has ideas about how I might helpfully respond in this situation, I would love to hear them. I suppose what I have done so far is allow the young person the right to express their preferred identities and futures, and discussed the effects of the controls of the young person with them – it’s not something I have discussed in detail with the parents except to hear what their position is, to which my response was almost no response.

    The second point that interests me is the idea mentioned by Andrew and responded to by Mary of the possibility of understanding paedophilia as a sexual orientation. To me if we are understanding sexuality as socially constructed, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of constructing paedophilia in this way. Of course, I’m uncomfortable with many things and perhaps one important idea from this conversation is the importance of being able to talk about things, even if they may make us uncomfortable. But regardless of what might influence a person to be sexually attracted to children and act upon that, my preference would be politically and legally not to consider paedophilia a sexual orientation. I have heard that it is very difficult for people who have committed child sex offences not to re-offend and I agree that more helpful ways of intervening are needed, but I don’t see that accepting paedophilia as a sexual orientation would assist with that. Always happy to hear arguments to the contrary.

    Thanks to all, I am enjoying this discussion very much.

    Warm regards


    1. mary heath

      Dear Troy,

      Thanks for your kind words. I salute your welcoming questioning yourself. In my experience, if I can hold my nerve when challenging questions come my way, learning of high value (even if it is sometimes tough learning) often flows. Not to say that is always a comfortable process!
      I hope that others will contribute their thoughts about the situation currently facing you.

      Of course, there is not magic answer to the complex life context of the person you’re mentioning. I am not sure that rights are always the best way to think through things–though at times a rights framework can make a valuable contribution. I guess I would be wondering about things like: what are the risks of expressing the fluidity that this person feels? Is the young person able to grasp them and make informed decisions? Can these risks be well managed if ze decides to express the fluidity ze feels? What are the risks of the person being prevented from expressing what ze feels? Many trans and genderqueer people whose stories I have heard have gone all the way to attempting suicide or giving it serious thought before they have been able to decide to express themselves. Often when the people who love them understand this, it allows a different perspective on their relationships and on the behavour others find tricky. What resources does the young person have and where can more come from? What resources do these parents (who are facing their own struggles) have, and how can these be expanded?

      One other observation I would make is that sometimes when a person feels they are being prevented from doing something which (at that moment, at least) feels really important to them, they will strongly resist the imposition of others’ will in order to reclaim their sense of being in control of their own lives. I think that our general unwillingness (in my society at least) to allow people to be fluid and to experiment and change, closes down the option to try something out and decide against it. People with a stake in the status quo are so concerned the person might choose for it, that the stakes are made unnecessarily high and the number of choices available drops.

      For many queer and genderqueer people, facing hostility and perhaps also facing our own feelings (internalised oppression) means all our choices have consequences we need to live with. Being told those choices are not ours to make does not always lead to a relaxed assessment of which choice is preferable and for which reason/s.

      You might look to getting some resource for yourself around these issues so that you can approach these sessions with more capacity. You could investigate Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad’s work to help you out.
      On the question of paedophilia (while we are discussing the not at all straightforward), I completely agree that more helpful ways of intervening are needed, and seldom currently available. But I don’t think we should be confused about sexuality as socially constructed. Some lovely things are socially constructed, and some terrifying, damaging things are socially constructed. Some things that we accept as socially constucted seem quite amenable to change. On the other hand, many thing that I believe are at least in part socially constructed seem so impervious to change that most people believe they are not socially constructed at all, and seek explanations for their rigidity in other places (like biology). Social construction is a sizeable and very mixed bag (I hope this exression is not too cultually specific to make sense!)

      best wishes with these big questions, Mary

  2. Vikki Reynolds

    Greetings Mary,
    I appreciated your Dulwich article, and also Barbara Baumgartner’s expansive reflections. Its grand to then hear you teaching. I “super”vise a transgender free clinic in east van, BC(Canada) and I’m a queer/trans ally, meaning I’m straight and have cisgendered privilege. I appreciated your locations, and how you’ve invited fluidity into your teaching, locating in messy ways that challenge the gender binary we’re all policed by. Your locations invited me to think about where you’re an ally to your trans friends, and where you are the one needing allies. I appreciate that you’ve shown a bit of real life positioning of the complexity of addressing issues of gender and sexuality… and invited us into some of your story that messes with the binaries of straight and queer, and shows the intersectionality (as Crenshaw would say, 1995) of your identity.Esp the situation with the men who approached you with a knife, and how being a “woman” was useful in that moment, while holding onto the analysis that a gay man would have suffered further violence. The point isn’t a pissing contest about oppression, but always attending to the multiple sites of our power and privilege. I really appreciated the stories you used to show your theorizing and analysis in practice. I’ll share this teaching video with my supervisees and students, big respect vikki

    1. mary heath

      Dear Vikki,

      Thanks so much for these generous thought about what I’ve said.

      It’s a rare treat in the scheme of the writing I do to have something I’ve written extended, expanded on and made more useful by a commentator at all, let alone in the rich and vivid way Barbara has engaged with it.

      Thanks so much for the work that you do, which I have been introduced to.

      To me there is a constant interplay between privilege and oppression, with each of us standing in a unique intersection of these social processes, with unique experiences of that intersection. At the same time, the parts of this experience that we share with others in some way can be rich resources in seeking to move against the oppression that we experience as well as that we collude in or impose on others.

      Big appreciations for your part in this process! Mary

  3. Andrew Tyson

    Hi Mary Heath

    Thank you for addressing this very interesting topic. I would go so far as to state my belief that it is a challenging topic, one that requires people who wish to consider it to stop and think rather than merely act on their often unconscious and culturally trained ‘reflex’. I admire the bravery involved in talking about it. However, there are a few points that I would like to argue about with regards to your presentation.

    Let me start off by stating that I am a believer in social justice (well, what I deem to be that, based on my own admittedly cultural and life biases); thus I believe strongly that people should be more tolerant and understanding of differences in other people than we often are. In accepting others as valuable members of our community, I don’t see any problem in acknowledging that the large majority of people in terms of sex, are biologically (chromosomally or genetically) either male of female. Still, there are obviously people that are born with a variety of genetic mutations that effect how their external representations of their sex (their genitals, for example) is expressed. (Please note: mutation is merely another name for a different genetic arrangement than the ‘majority’ form, and a process that evolution is totally dependant on for adaptability to changing environments, as well as changing and developing of new species). That some people are born in a form that is not interpretable as specifically one or another of the two biological defensible sexes, does not make such events a majority case; and I would argue for the continuation of the idea of two biological sexes on the basis of merely the majority genetic expression.

    As to gender reassignment surgery that is often undertaken shortly after a child with genetically variant sex is born, I would argue that a social imperative is being applied in such cases. The social imperative that I am referring to is the ‘need to belong’. If a parent has a child that is not clearly definable as of either biological sex, at least in our dominantly western culture in Australia, I suspect that they (the parent/s) may feel a sense of guilt, or of having done something wrong that has affected their child. (I make this proposition on the experience of parents I have interacted with who have had a disabled child, and their expressions of a sense of guilt regarding their child’s situation). The parent/s may fear how their child will struggle with peer acceptance, let alone acceptance of themselves for who they are; and thus, I would imagine that a parent or parents who is/are advised by medical professionals that their child can be ‘fixed’ would be very willing participants to what you implied was ‘mutilation’ of their child in order to get them to look ‘normal’. I would not consider this particularly enlightened, but I would indicate my belief that it is a very understandable point of view. In your paper that you provided as a downloadable addition to your presentation, you mentioned experiencing events where you felt a loss of community because of a relationship with a person that your past community would in general reject; thus I am sure you can understand and empathise with parents predicting the potential for their child to experience rejection, and wanting to prevent as many adverse possibilities as possible.

    As for gender, from what little I have read on the topic from various psychology journals, there is certainly some indications that it is socially constructed; and thus in more recent decades their has been a gradual acceptance of various forms that vary from the interpretation of what goes along with biological sex. You noted yourself various interpretations of gender, most implying negativity such as an effeminate man or butch woman; but also ‘queer’ which was interpretable as a positive alternative.

    After considering sex and gender, there is the problem of identity and sexual orientation – I would argue that these are very strongly tied together in the human psyche. I personally identify myself both as a ‘man’ and as ‘heterosexual’. I can not conceive of claiming to be something other than the commonly and culturally accepted description of being a man, nor could I conceive of being sexually intimate with anyone other than what is commonly and culturally accepted as a woman without feeling extremely uncomfortable (even distressed). I don’t feel like I have a choice in my feelings about this. Still, I can understand that there are many variations of what people would, if they felt free to do so in our culture, identify themselves as and how they would describe their sexual orientation.

    I have in recent years worked with a number of individuals who are on the sex offender registry, and as part of my role I have advocated on behalf of many of them in terms of opportunities for education, employment, and housing. Still, I raise this question; ‘if we are to accept a diversity of sexes, genders, identities and sexual orientations for the sake of treating people with the respect and justice that I believe we all deserve, when do you choose to state that some identities and/or orientations are not socially acceptable. This is specifically in relation to paedophilia; for some people develop identities and sexual orientations that attract them sexually to children. Do we accept such individuals with their likely sexual behaviour, a behaviour which is supported with some passion by various intellectual individuals of such identity/orientation even though it is legislated as illegal in much of the Western Cultural world? Or, do we argue that it is a choice that they make, and thus can choose alternative identities/sexual orientations? (Note: so far I understand from texts I have read, psychological and other treatments for people who are in prison for paedophilia have had a very low success rate for enabling such people to change their orientation/identification. People convicted of paedophilia are predominantly considered to be at a high risk or re-offending, even after finishing their jail sentence.)

    In this point in the history of the dominant western culture, there is a lot of emphasis on rights – the rights of the child, human rights, etc. Still, we often ignore such rights for the sake of pragmatic political or economic reasons – for example, the refusal to ratify marriage between homosexual couples (something that seems so easily done if there was the political will); the discrimination against the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory through control of government provides finances (job-search or pensions) under the ‘Intervention’, etc. I agree with you, Mary, that we should be willing and able to accept a far wider range of human difference than what we currently do; but in the end I do think there is a point at which we should state ‘thus far and no further’; even if the ‘line in the sand’ is an arbitrary choice which certain people will still contest as discriminatory. Where the balance is, I don’t know, but I live in hope that there is still room in our culture for positive changes; which is at least partially supported by the fact that such topics as you have presented on can still be publicly discussed.


    Andrew Tyson

    1. mary heath

      Dear Andrew,

      I am glad to share with you a commitment to social justice, and I agree that these are challenging questions (and you have raised lots of points!)

      You have argued that we should retain the concept of two sexes because this is a majority genetic expression. I think it is clear that I don’t agree with you. It *is* the majority genetic expression, and I would not seek to deny this. But these are not the only two genetic expressions of sex and I can’t understand what we can gain by ignoring the others or pretending that they do not exist. In Australia right now there are two political parties which get the majority of all votes, but that is not a reason to ignore the minority parties or the independents, and if we did so, our understanding of Australian politics would be impoverished. I think that silence and ignorance about intersex conditions has led to needless heartache and suffering for many intersexed people and for those who love and care for them.

      Speaking of those who love and care for intersexed people: I think that the parents of newborns whose sex is not readily determined want the best for their children, certainly including the wish for their child to belong and be accepted. There are few parents who would willingly agree to anything they saw as mutilation of their child, and it was not my intention to suggest otherwise. Medical advice has been the basis for many such parents agreeing to their children having surgery on healthy bodies when the child is unable to offer informed consent. Sometimes parents have not been fully informed. Some of these surgeries have turned out to cause lifelong loss of function.

      Adult people who live with the aftermath of these surgeries have expressed the wish that they could have been given the opportunity to decide for themselves, that their families had been supported in informed decision making, and that the rest of us could be a little more aware and relaxed about human diversity. I do not think this is too much to ask.

      I see that we agree that gender is socially constructed. As for identity and sexual orientation, I don’t think there is anything problematic about you (or anyone else) experiencing a fixed sexual identity and/or sexual orientation. Many people share this experience (even if their identities and orientations differ from yours). Given how common this kind of experience is, I often wonder how some people can tell homosexuals that they should ‘choose’ differently: many homosexuals feel a very strong sense of having a fixed orientation from an early age too. I am, however, keen that we acknowledge that some people find identity and orientation to be multiple and perhaps also fluid. I cannot see how this calls other people’s experiences into question.

      I certainly have argued that embracing human diversity is an excellent goal. I can see that I am happy to embrace a wider range of human variation than some people. However, this does not mean I am happy to accept absolutely every form of human behaviour. I do not believe that sex without consent is acceptable, and I do not believe that children can consent to sex with adults if we give ‘consent’ full meaning, and conceptualising paedophilia as an orientation does not change this.

      Here’s to positive change!


      1. Andrew Tyson

        Dear Mary

        My apologies for my misinterpretation of your point – re: ‘mutilation’. Having the experience of a sister who is physically disabled, I have seen how medical experts, with the best intentions, can put pressure on parents to make choices that can have major negative repercussions for their children over their life-span. For a parent who gives birth to an intersex baby, I expect that they would experience a wide range of emotions, potentially such as shock, guilt, anxiety about their child’s future, and have great difficult in making clear and informed consent decisions about surgery for their child. It is because such births are few (I have no statistics to rely on, so this is an assumption), I imagine there would be few organisations that can give parents of such children serious levels of support – particularly immediately after the birth, and a fuller and more complete list of considerations or options than the medical professionals.

        Although we can’t agree on the definition of sex pertaining to only two biological distinctions – i.e. male and female; I can agree that we should not ignore the fact that some people are born genetically sexually indeterminate – neither specifically biologically male or female, or that their biology is not physically expressed clearly. Such divergences of genetic expression and the corresponding effects on the lives of those born biologically with these outcomes are a matter of great interest to me due to how they experience, and what their experiences express about, our society – particularly issues of social inclusion, identity formation, and justice. Just the fact that some people who have been born genetically indeterminate and have received surgery to make them look like one sex or the other, and can still regret the decisions of their parents is indicative that we do not understand the effects of sex on identity, let alone the process of sexual identity formation or orientation – medical expertise notwithstanding (creating ‘normal’ looking genetalia through surgery for a baby does not mean that the adult person the baby will become will necessarily feel like they are correct for their ‘sex’ – as you have discussed). I have greatly valued the willingness of some people who have experienced the difficulties of being intersex to present and explain their stories to the rest of us – particularly as many such stories are filled with issues of rejection, struggles to accept themselves in the pressure of rejection from others, etc. It is very brave of people who have experienced rejection and discrimination to stand up and publicly risk further such rejection from ignorant people who don’t want to learn.

        From what little I understand of social processes, it appears to me that people are generally unwilling to change their world view unless they are put into a situation that they may have no alternative but to do so. This certainly matches my experience in working in the disability sector, where most people seem to be shocked or become uncomfortable when in the presence of someone with an obvious disability (such as being in a wheelchair). Furthermore, they seem to become comfortable again when people with disabilities subsequently leave their presence. I suspect that the experiences of people who are intersex, and probably for many who are orientated sexually other than heterosexual, are at least similar – no one wants to be uncomfortable, and thinking can be painful because of bringing about a state of uncertainty, and since the majority of our society are clearly sexually differentiated and heterosexually orientated, there is some pressure to deny the existence of those who are not like that. However, as difficult as it maybe for people who have certain expectations and understandings of reality to be willing to experience diversity, I agree with you that greater tolerance and acceptance of diversity can lead to a better (more thoughtful) society.

        As an aside, I think Australian politics is terribly impoverished, and Australians are all made smaller (perhaps more parochial or small minded – only concerned with insignificant trivialities) because of it.

        Again, we agree that there is nothing wrong with having a fixed sexual identity and orientation. As you stated, many people experience that fixed sense, of knowing they were one particular way from their earliest memories, irrespective of what their identity or orientation is. This unfortunately, from what I understand, also applies to some people who feel sexually orientated towards children. Embracing human diversity is a great goal, but there is also a need to understand what one is embracing. Given the work experience that I have had with people who are convicted sex-offenders, and in some cases convicted of paedophilia; we need to understand them to in order to be able to live in safe societies where people need not fear each other. That does not mean that we condone the act of paedophilia (I agree that sexual activities between individuals should be consensual, and that children can not give informed consent), but that people oriented that way may also have no flexibility to change it; and thus need understanding and support, and some vigilance, in order to fit in to our societies. Like people who are intersex, they are in our communities, so we would be better to learn how to live well with each other.

        I realise I have diverged somewhat from the main topic here – sorry about that.

        Anyway, the topic of sex, gender, and sexual identity/orientation is a very complex and fascinating source of revelation about what it is to be a human being. Keep up the valuable work of challenging people’s preconceived ideas and expectations.

        Again, here’s to positive change.


        1. mary heath

          Dear Andrew,

          Misunderstandings are sure to arise in relation to any complex subject matter. It’s overcoming them that matters most in my mind.

          I’m glad to find us in agreeement in valuing the willingness of intersexed people to share their stories and undertake advocacy even in the face of the risks that this poses for them. I have benefited greatly from reading, listening to and conversing with such people of courage. Social change is a complex business, but I think it’s pretty clear that while advocacy for your people and support from allies are necessary conditions for social change even if they are not immediately sufficient. I am in awe of the activists and advocates I see doing this work.

          There are some complicated questions underlying what you say about ‘orientation’ . To my observation, many people use the word ‘orientation’ to express something that they believe is fixed and unchanging and determined in some way without the choice of the person who experiences the ‘orientation’. Using ‘orientation’ in this way offers a way of understanding a person’s inclinations (usually, sexual inclinations) in a way that does not automatically imply blame. If the person had no choice in their orientation, why should they be blamed for it (even if others find it repugnant)?

          Some advocates for gay rights have used this way of talking about homosexual sexual orientation as a way of seeking to overcome homophobic constructions of homosexual people as having made bad/immoral/offensive choices to be homosexual.

          I don’t feel qualified to enter a discussion of whether paedophilia is best described as an ‘orientation’; and I don’t know enough to say whether change in such cases is possible, though I am optiimistic about humanity’s capacity for change in general. However, I believe that no matter what your orientation, moral choices are required. Conduct is not automatically moral because it arises from someone’s orientation. I could not accept that a man raping a woman could be justified because the man was heterosexual. I do not think that cheating can be justified by reference to orientation. Perhaps an understanding of how people with a particular orientation have been treated (humiliated, persecuted, discriminated against) might allow me to feel compassion for the choices they have struggled with, but their choices may still have caused damage and suffering.

          To my way of thinking, people who experience attraction to children and who want help not to act on that attraction, should be provided with that support. I am not arguing that we can excuse or welcome every kind of conduct that flows from an ‘orientation’.

          I am inviting consideration of whether normative heterosexuality is the only acceptable orientation, and clearly I believe that morally appropriate relationships are possible outside that context. For that matter, immoral and inappropriate choices are possible within normative heterosexuality.

          best wishes, Mary

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