Imagine this image: a human brain in a vat. The brain has been removed from a real, live person and painstakingly wired into a machine which keeps it alive, utterly duplicating the necessary processes of organic flesh. Sight, sound and smell are simulated by clever contraptions, emotional surges provoke the correct chemical and hormonal reactions. To all intents and purposes, the being – the brain – is real, their sense of self intact: they are simply no longer housed in a body.

Which begs the question: do they still have a gender?

It’s an interesting problem. Socially, gender is assumed through assessment of a person’s physical body, their voice, mannerisms, clothes and so on: but strip away all these things – remove even their possibility – and what is left? Is the brain (we’ll call it Sam, a neatly androgynous handle) gendered depending on the sex of its original body? Is it possible for a ‘female’ brain to wind up ensconced in male flesh, or vice versa? If one accepts that homosexuality is more often an innate predeliction than a conscious choice (certainly, I believe, it can be both or either), what role does the physical wiring of our brain play? Is it the only factor? Does nurture always prevail over nature in matters of sexuality, or vice versa? Is it a mixture? If so, does the ratio vary from person to person? Why? And so on.

Let’s lay some cards on the table. When it comes to sexual orientation, my two rules of thumb are: 

(a) mutual, intelligent consent; and

(b) the prevention of harm to others.

In a nutshell: all parties have to agree to what’s happening, and no bystanders can be hurt or unwillingly drawn in. While this doesn’t rule out BDSM (provided, of course, it keeps within the bounds of said rules), it definitively excludes rape and paedophilia, which, really, is common sense. Anything relating to homosexuality and transexuality, however, is fair game.

A few more points, in no particular order:

1. Life is often unfair.

2. Life is often weird.

3. Insofar as evidence is concerned, human beings are still shaky on the definitive origins of personhood (souls v. genes, or possibly a blend of both), but most people will agree that brains and gender play a more important role in this than, say, knees and elbows.

4. Original notions of gender roles developed in the context of reproduction and childrearing, but provided both these things still occur in sufficient numbers to ensure the survival of the species, there is little harm in broadening or questioning their parameters.

5. People have, or should have, a basic right to assert their identity. Reasonably, there must be some limits of credulity – there was only ever one Napoleon,  mankind are distinct from dolphins – but within the recognised sphere of human gender and sexual orientation, it seems counter-intuitive that appearance should dictate black and white rules for what is, quite evidently, an internal and subtle determination.

Witness, then, the idea of transgender couples, in which one partner may undergo a sex change without ending the relationship. Witness, then, the case of Aurora Lipscomb, born Zachary, who identified as a girl from the age of two and was removed from her parents when they refused to forcibly contradict her. These are just two examples that buck the trend of traditional gender ideas, and rather than making us squirm, they should make us think. When and why did certain socio-cultural ideas of gender develop, and how do they change? Consider, for instance, the well-documented and widespread instances of winkte, berdache and two-spirit people in Native American culture, compared to the deep-seated fear of these concepts in western traditions. Look at the long-standing tradition of male homosexuality in Japan, particularly among samurais, and the role of Sappho in ancient Greek lesbianism. Think of hermaphrodites.

Point being, there’s a wealth of diverse and fascinating history surrounding the ideas of gender, sexuality and male/female roles, to the extent that many legal restrictions now placed on non-heterosexual couples and individuals are faintly ridiculous. Throw in the question of child-rearing, and there’s a tendency to reach for the nearest pitchfork. Personally, I find debating my views in this matter difficult, if only because debate is meaningless without a modicum of mutually accepted middleground, and where my opponents object to homosexuality and transsexuality as an opening gambit, it’s well-nigh impossible to discuss the matter of non-heteros breeding, adopting and/or applying for surrogacy without both sides resorting to instant moral veto of the contrary position.

Still, it’s always worth trying, and the whole issue fascinates me. Socially, I marvel at where the next hundred years could take us, and cringe at how far we might also fall. But in the interim, I return to the question of brains in vats, and how, within the parameters of such a hypothetical, gender is determined. Is it innate, biological, genetic, spiritual, chosen consciously, chosen unconsciously, socially conditioned, random, nurtured, culturally selected; or can the glorious gamut of human existence countenance the possibility that these options simultaneouly coexist as true, contributing on an individual basis, in individual ratios? Or is that too confronting a thought?

Comments
  1. Iain Hall says:

    have you read Ursula K le Guin’s book “the left hand of Darkness? very good if you are interested in notions of gender.

  2. fozmeadows says:

    No, but I’ll keep an eye out – I enjoyed the Earthsea Quartet.

  3. You always have such interesting ideas🙂 I personally think gender just relates to body image. If a person relates to having a female body, then she (her mind? her soul?) is female. So if this floaty brain had no recollection or conception of having a body, I think it would have no gender.

  4. Mr Sharpbottom says:

    Foucault devotes much time to this idea in ‘The History of Sexuality’ (Vol. 1 & 2). He contends that sexuality should not be envisaged as a locus of experience, because normative discourses of sexuality include domains of knowledge (savoir), a system of rules, and a model for relations to the self.

    Gender (as we know it) is ontologically realist: doctors determine it by looking at a newborn’s genitals. Yet to consider whether sentience is ‘gendered’ is interesting. From a social constructionist standing, you may argue that gender informs sentience and sexuality (through social interaction, life experience) but is not a sole determinant (thus accommodating for homosexual and transgender identity, albeit inadequately).

    Either way, the thought of my brain sitting in a vat does not enthrall me.

    A.

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