Struggle of the Sexes: Learning and Unlearning about Gender

This article was originally posted in the April 2018 Features Issue of The Underground.

Growing up, I used to hear things like “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to college to get more knowledge” around the school yard and in the classroom. I saw it as a teasing/flirty nursery rhyme thing; I never put too much stock into it. But now I’m starting to think there’s some truth to the saying.

I’m not suggesting that all men are secretly extraterrestrials, just that we are very different than women. Now, I know that some of these differences are a matter of biology and physiology: bodily structure (like number of ribs and hip shape), genitalia, the presence of certain hormones and chromosomes and things of that nature. But the differences I’m interested in discussing are differences that are the result of how men and women are taught. Specifically, how men and women are taught to behave as men and women and what it means to be a man or a woman.

Think of it like this, biology and physiology dictate that if you are a woman that means you have breasts. Learned behaviour would dictate that if you are a woman that means you have to keep your breasts concealed. (Otherwise you’re a slut). I’m interested in the latter.

You’ll notice that in my descriptions I haven’t mentioned transgendered people or people who are intersex, and there’s a reason for that. Not to be purposely discriminatory but because of what we’re taught and the way we’re taught, being transgender or being intersex are completely foreign concepts.

Being intersex means being born with both male and female sex organs or other sex-specific characteristics. Being transgender means that you identify with a gender other than the one you were born with (I.e you were born a male/man but you feel as if/you identify with being a woman). In both cases, people don’t entirely identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. A majority of people don’t fit into that category, you may have heard this being referred to as being cis-gendered. The reason being intersex or being transgender doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit with most people’s understanding of gender is because most of us were taught to think of gender as a binary. Binary means two. Two options: a or b, it is or it isn’t, you are or you’re not. There is no sometimes a, sometimes b, no middle ground, no alternative option.

Binaries are nice because it makes it easy to separate things into two neat categories. Nothing falls outside of the two categories and people are not encouraged to consider anything outside of those two possibilities. But for transgender and intersex folks, these categories are insufficient because they fall outside/in the middle. Just because they fall in the middle doesn’t mean their feelings or experiences are wrong or don’t matter. Or worse yet, that they don’t exist. The fact that the organizing system doesn’t properly apply to them doesn’t mean that they’re flawed, only that the system is.

Imagine this, growing up you were taught there is red and there is blue and only these two colours and all objects are either red or blue. If this is what someone was taught and all they ever knew was red or blue, the second something purple comes along it would throw them right off. As far as this person is concerned, purple shouldn’t exist and isn’t something they comprehend. But this purple thing does indeed exist, by all accounts has always existed and is a thing in-and-of-itself, distinct from red or blue. Because of the gender binary we’re taught, we’re not even given the proper language to talk about or understand what it means to be transgender or intersex.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to understanding gender as a  binary is that it doesn’t put everybody into a category. The other problem with gender binaries is the fact that it does. Binaries are a simple way to organize something but it’s also quite limiting. A binary determines what the categories are—male or female, red or blue, solid or liquid—and what factors or characteristics qualify (or have to be present) something for one category or another. Binaries and binary categories can be damaging because they dictate what things that fall into the categories “should” be like. These are known as normative claims or norms. Based on these gender norms that have been put in place, if you don’t follow the norms or agree with the normative claims than you must not be normal.

The gender binaries and the norms developed from them determine what the categories are—man and woman—as well as what classifies someone as one or the other. Because we’re taught about gender this way, this is how we understand ourselves and each other and in turn how we act and treat others. Basically, all you need to be a man or a woman (or at least to be classified as such) is meet certain criteria. These criteria are based off of norms and stereotypes. For example, as a woman you’re supposed to like pink; blue is for boys. As a man you’re supposed to dig sports, ladies are into fashion. Women are supposed to want to settle down and be prude, men are supposed to be wild and unfaithful.

These attitudes aren’t ones we’re born with, they’re learned. Your biological sex—what reproductive genitalia you’re born with—is something you’re born with, your gender—your interests, your attitudes, how you’re expected to act—is learned. It’s the nature vs nurture argument, basically.. Which leads me to the point I wanted to raise: because we’re force-fed gender norms and develop different understandings about ourselves and the opposite gender, we have a weird way of treating and understanding one another. Some of these differences are small and hard to notice, sometimes it’s not until someone says something or points it out that we realize the discrepancy. For me, one of those moments came while I was writing an article about rape culture.

Back in high school, there was an incident during the last semester of my grade 12 year that rocked half of our grade and completely changed the landscape at school. One weekend at a party, a friend of mine, Elaine, drunkenly agreed to having a picture of her taken while she was topless by one of my other friends. That same weekend, another friend of mine, Amanda, took a couple nude pictures of herself using her phone to send to her boyfriend at the time. The following week, all the pictures were shared amongst a group of boys via a BBM group chat. I was part of this group chat. Things took a turn for the worse when the pictures were circulated outside of our BBM group.

The hallways were ablaze with gossip. “Slut.” “Whore.” Soon enough, the whole school had heard about the photos if they hadn’t seen them already. “I wanted to hide my face wherever I went because most people had seen my naked body,” Amanda told me. Eventually, the photos ended up online and the police had to get involved. Amanda and her family were threatening to lay charges against some of the guys in our group, who were judged to be more guilty than others. This incident took place between the “cool kids” in our grade and needless to say caused a lot of division and animosity amongst us; most of the people involved in the incident don’t speak to each other to this day. Amanda and Elaine felt betrayed. “I lost a lot of friends because of this,” Amanda explained. She felt betrayed, like people she knew and once considered friends “exploited me like they didn’t know or care who I was.”

During the interviews, and while writing and researching for the article I felt an incredible amount of guilt. Although I was judged as being one of the ones who was less responsible for the fiasco than others, I felt awful. Not only because these women were my friends and I did nothing to stop the situation from escalating but because of the damage we caused them. Both Amanda and Elaine ended up dropping out of high school. Elaine was so distressed from the ordeal she lost more than 20 pounds and spent most of her time in her room, surrounded by darkness with little contact with her friends and family. That broke my heart.

I felt like by writing the piece and trying to educate people on rape culture and why it and the situation was so problematic, was my way making amends for my role in the incident. I learned a lot from the experience and was glad to earn the forgiveness of Amanda and Elaine. Unfortunately, not everyone felt this way.

One day I was having lunch with a friend from high school, who was also a part of the BBM group, and I told him about the interviews with Amanda and Elaine and the article I was working on. He responded “Serves the bitch right,” and laughed. I couldn’t believe it. How could he think any of what happened was their fault? The answer was right in front of me all along; rape culture.

Rape culture, a term first coined in 1974, refers to attitudes towards non-consensual sex, patriarchy and gender inequality inherited from one generation to the next. According to feminists and some sociologists, staples of rape culture include name calling, sexual objectification and victim-blaming.

Rape culture also plays a part in other gender-based issues our society is currently dealing with. The #metoo and #timesup movements aim to address and combat rape culture directly by publicly addressing it and holding those responsible accountable. The responses to these stories alone have highlighted further discrepancies between the way men think and the way women think.

First of all, there is the issue that so many women have come forward with harrowing stories of sexual assault but seemingly no man knows a sexual assaulter. Or at least no one is willing to admit it.

The first step towards  changing and dismantling rape culture is by making dialogue about sexual violence towards women supportive and survivor-centric, according to Shannon Giannitsopoulou, 27, co-founder of feminfesto. femifesto is a “grassroots, feminist collective based in Toronto” as Giannitsopoulou describes it.  Giannitsopoulou is critical of mainstream media and the legal system, finding both to be guilty of “questioning and blaming [survivors] for their actions instead of asking why would someone enact that violence?” she said.  For femifesto, the most problematic aspect of rape culture is the attitude people have towards survivors of sexual violence, in particular, the attitudes of the media and people in law enforcement. In December 2013, femifesto released a Media Toolkit designed to help media outlets on how to be respectful and supportive or survivors in the way they report issues of sexual violence. Femifesto’s main objective is to shift rape culture into “consent culture” by changing the way people think and speak about issues of sexual violence.

A Toronto Police survey from 2007 revealed that 44 per cent of survivors of sexual violence are concerned about the court’s and the police’s attitudes towards sexual assault. And 50 per cent of survivors don’t believe the police can do anything about it. When Emily brought the matter to the police, she said they hurt her more than they helped her.

“The police did nothing. They basically blamed me when they came to my house. I didn’t feel any better once the police got involved, I actually was appalled at the way these officers talked to me and my parents,” she explained.

Statistics have shown that survivors can’t rely on the legal system for justice as only 3 of 1,000 reported cases of sexual assault end in conviction and only six per cent of all cases are reported. If survivors don’t feel as if they can be helped by law enforcement, who do survivors have to turn to?

Earlier this year Toronto got it’s own all-female ride sharing service, DriveHer. founder Aisha Addo is excited to finally get the project off the ground nearly two years after she conceived the idea

Touting itself as an alternative for women who may otherwise feel uncomfortable or unsafe to ride in male-driven vehicles, DriveHer has secured a licence from the city to operate as a private transportation company. Its insurance coverage is provided by Northbridge Insurance, and all the drivers underwent a rigorous background check, according to Addo.

Users of DriveHer will have a range of access to services through the app, including pre-scheduling options, safety tips and built-in emergency buttons in case they need immediate assistance while in the car.

While the company will initially operate in Toronto and the GTA, the plan is to gradually expand throughout the country.

Addo, who is also the founder of Power to Girls Foundation, said DriveHer is both about safety and empowerment of women. In a male-dominated industry like taxi driving, incidents of sexual harassment, prying personal questions or lewd comments have been reported in Toronto and across the country.

Last year a Halifax cab driver was acquitted of a sexual assault charge involving an intoxicated female passenger. The judge outraged many in the community when he notoriously declared that “a drunk can consent.” The decision has since been overturned and a new trial is pending.

Another Halifax cab driver is on trial this week facing sexual assault allegations.

By putting more women behind the wheel, Addo believes female passengers will have an option to choose instead of feeling threatened or trapped.

“We do hope that every woman will use our platform, but it’s okay if some of them want to use other services,” she said of potential backlash from other industry operators. “There’s no segregation. I just want women to feel safe when they are on a ride.”

Now it’s easy to see this and think that this is discriminatory and an example of the Left’s reverse-ism but take a moment to reframe your thinking. Instead of asking why someone would invent something like this ask yourself why would someone think that this is the best or only solution?

When I was talking to a friend about it at UTSC he commented “whoever has a problem with this idea clearly has never felt unsafe in a car with a stranger.” It’s hard to blame someone for doing something in order to feel safe. What we need to look at is the actions and attitudes that make women feel unsafe, especially men. Whether it’s nonconsensual contact or staring a little too long, it’s important as men that we identify the things that make women feel uncomfortable and work to keep them from happening in the future. Listening, self-reflection, open and honest dialogue and genuine efforts to improve will be necessary to see the changes so many are demanding come to fruition.  

“That campus out in Scarborough”

Written in collaboration with Emily Zheng. Originally published in the March 2018 Issue of The Underground.

As UTSC students, we all share the same campus, but our feelings towards our campus vary greatly. We asked UTSC students to share their thoughts on the best and worst aspects of UofT’s second-oldest campus.

If you’ve been a part of SCSU’s Orientation in the last two years, the headline of this article might look familiar. It’s part of a cheer UTSC adopted a couple of years ago; one that I came up with. When I made it, I was only trying to come up with a catchy call-and-response cheer; I wasn’t considering the implications of what it meant to be a UTSC student, or exactly how I would respond to someone if they asked me what school I go to. It wasn’t until I was asked that exact question a couple of weeks ago that I started to think about it critically.

I told the woman that I graduated from UTSC the year prior, then began telling her a bit about the campus and my experience as a student there. She seemed surprised by a lot of what I had to say and had a very different idea of what UTSC was like. I found this weird. I decided I wanted to hear from other members of the UTSC community regarding what they liked, what they didn’t like, what things they thought could be improved on, and their overall impression of the school. First-year management student and frequent contributor, Emily Zheng, was also interested in hearing the opinions of UTSC students. “Is this a home away from home or do we dread the very thought of having to be anywhere near this place?” she inquires. Emily was the first to share her thoughts.  

“Personally, it’s both my home and home away from home, mainly because I live on res. UTSC was my first choice, and I have never regretted that decision. I love the quietness and feeling of tranquility from this little community, even if it is kind of in the middle of nowhere. My university experience has been surprisingly wonderful so far, despite the ups and downs. What I like most about this campus is the vibe. It’s nice, it’s peaceful, and you can always count on running into familiar faces. I took a class at St.George this semester, and I immediately felt the difference and an overwhelmingly noticeable isolation. Being at UTSC gives me a unique sense of comfort, something I need in order to call a place a ‘home’.

The small campus size and the feeling of community is something many UTSC students cite as a positive. The sense of community is particularly strong among students who live on res. According to first-year computer science student and fellow res-dweller Adham Farag. Jz Dong, a first-year social science student comments, “The school is nice, small, and cozy. [It’s got] more of a community feel to it than downtown. UTSC is a big community where lots of people get together, and they’re all different, but somehow it works. It’s magical.”

To get more insight on the differences between UTSC and St. George, we found someone who studied at both campuses. Fourth-year poli-sci and international development studies major, Abu Bakr Baig, spent a year studying downtown before transferring to UTSC: “Transferring to UTSC is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’ll forever be grateful I did it,” Baig admits. When comparing students at UTSC vs those at St. George, Baig explains, “The people [here] are generally more socially aware, down-to-earth, and chill.”

UTSC’s small size, emphasis on community, and the friendly demeanour of the students and faculty help to create a welcoming environment. A couple of students mentioned that they were thankful they didn’t have to do much travelling between classes which can save a lot of time. These factors can help students feel relaxed, valued, and safe on campus. One student who feels this way is third-year human biology student, Andrew Vyravipillai: “I’ve never taken courses at St. George but I feel like it is more intense there. There are more students, so a heightened feeling of competition to perform well. One may feel like a number in a pool of students, like they don’t belong,” he explains. Vyravipillai says that a welcoming atmosphere can help make students feel comfortable enough to express themselves. For Baig, being able to express himself and have conversations with his profs and TA’s was one of the best aspects of his time at UTSC: “Some of my most memorable moments during my undergrad include the conversations we would have in these classes, and the interesting class content we would go through.”

But don’t get it twisted; this is still U of T we’re talking about, so expect a couple all-nighters here and there. First-year computer science student and avid gamer, Hoang Nguyen, knows that being a UTSC student is difficult, but isn’t too worried about it. When asked about the workload and whether UTSC lives up to the #UofTears reputation, Nguyen cooly responds, “University is challenging, like it’s supposed to be, and I signed up for that, so I can’t complain.”

That’s all fine and dandy but we all know that things can be improved upon. “The only complaint I really have about the campus is the lack of food options. That can be improved upon, and, hopefully, it will be as the campus expands and new buildings are added,” Baig says. Unlike St. George and Ryerson which are situated downtown, UTSC students don’t have the luxury of stepping off campus to grab a drink or a bite to eat. So, we have to make due with what we’re given. This is an issue almost all UTSC students but it’s especially troubling for students who live on campus: “Our food options aren’t the best though, which makes it a bit difficult for people who don’t cook,” Farag explains. This leaves UTSC students in a predicament where they either spend ridiculous amounts of money on sub-par food, take time to travel off-location, prepare meals and snacks at home, or simply go hungry. There are limited options available on, or close to campus, and the nearest mall, Scarborough Town Centre, isn’t all that close–not to mention the students history and contentious relationship with UTSC’s food service provider, Aramark.

Although food is important—and I’ll be the first to say so—there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to issues that need to be addressed on campus. Alexson Philipiah is a fourth-year anthropology student who’s been at UTSC for six years. Philipiah, like many, enjoys the fact that UTSC is a small, tight-knit community, where it’s easy to run into familiar faces. He also likes UTSC’s unique combination of “flavours”: “I don’t mean flavours to represent just the racial demographic but to represent the varying ideologies that exist and permeate at all corners of this campus,” Philipia explains. While he says that diversity is a good thing, Philipia thinks that there are race issues that need to be tackled: “People here seem to casually speak in generalizations and place a heavy emphasis on culture and race,” he comments, adding, “I never used to care about race much until I came to this campus and learned about all sorts of things people apparently thought of towards Tamils and darker skinned people.”

The phenomenon Philipia is referring to is known as shadeism or colourism. Shadeism is similar to racism, because it’s a form of discrimination based on skin colour; however, shadeism is typically regarded as an intraracial issue (between members of the same race), as opposed to an interracial issue (between two or more races) because it’s based on one’s skin tone rather than their skin colour, i.e white or black. “ I believe UTSC needs to create a more balanced political sphere and create more intercultural dialogues that aren’t just about critiquing powerful systems of oppression like white supremacy or U.S imperialism…but culture clashes between ethnic groups within just this campus,” Philipia concludes.

Ali Javeed is a psychology student coming to the end of his first year at UTSC. After two gruelling semesters, Javeed is left with mixed feelings about the campus overall. I ask Ali how he describes UTSC to people, he replies, “I tell them that, objectively speaking, UTSC is the best option with its comparably smaller class sizes, accessible profs, and services. The campus offers high-class education with connections to UofT resources from the comfort of a small community. I make sure to warn them though that it won’t be at all like the university experience they might have expectations of. It’s definitely a sacrifice or trade-off; one that I think about very often.” He goes into more detail about what he means:

“School spirit? It’s hard to gather a collective identity when people aren’t necessarily attached to the campus. This stems from a number of factors, beginning with our lack of distinction between study and community spaces. There are tons of places for students to just sit and hang-out, but when it comes time to study (and you KNOW that UofT students study hard), there is a lack of dedicated and quiet study spaces on campus (like Robarts). Sure, we have a library, but from the white noise of the sputtering vents, to the constant chatter, or even occasional emergency alarm, it becomes extremely challenging to focus directly on your work. Headphones don’t necessarily help. All of this applies only if you manage to find a seat – all of which are usually saved with jackets or binders, but I don’t blame them; if you leave a seat after 10am in the library for a quick bite, guaranteed you will not get it back. People end up staying, talking, eating, (and sometimes studying) because they have no other chance at a semi-quiet place with outlets, chairs, and a desk. What’s the other option? Students trying to study in spaces that are public which will rightfully be loud and distracting as well. Who knows if there will be outlets (surprise: there won’t be), space to spread out papers, or to comfortably type on a laptop.  – The final option? Go home. This lack of space effectively drives people off campus, thus removing the need or even possibility of a vital collective identity that this campus NEEDS. Although our student body may be comprised primarily of commuters (myself included), this does not mean that we can’t develop an attachment and love for our campus. This lack of space infuriates me since the CORE reason we are at the University of Toronto Scarborough is to study and earn our degrees (you and I know that no one comes to party). We have a library that is continually turning students away who just want to sit and learn, and in my eyes, this is a great disservice to its – dare I say – customers.

Food. Asian Gourmet? Why is that place still running? After a history of food poisoning, and finding bugs in meals, people STILL line up. The existing food places have a monopoly on our tired, hungry asses, so even though we are quite literally being robbed from Treats for a “Shawarma box” that isn’t full, or having the extra protein of a moth at Asian Gourmet we still come crawling back because we have no other option. As a result, these food places are not required to hold up any sort of standard – even if they slapped customers across the face as we made our menu choice – we would keep coming back (or maybe not – Classical Conditioning). Why? If you are sleep deprived, stressed, monstrously hungry, and want a quick and economic choice, walking 30 minutes, wasting bus fare, or even blowing money on UberEats just isn’t sustainable. (I will say though – shout out to Nasr’s Hotdogs, an ICON of the UTSC food community). Marketplace has some variety, but it should be open much longer – if only they had an accessible body of eager, jobless, young adults who are in desperate need for any sort of cash flow…oh wait. HIRE STUDENTS. Afraid of their quality? With a job pool so large, the best will rise to the top, and if not, they can be easily replaced. Food is essential to developing a connection to a space – eating is a traditionally a social activity. Campus food has the potential to be more than just a transaction, but a connection. A great example is the Food trucks lined down St.George at UTSG with their quality, consistency, value, and taste. I implore you to try them.

Sports. We have a beautiful facility down the road, but I wish I knew when the games were. There’s a certain identity that builds when you’re screaming from a stand for “your team”.”

One of the most interesting points from Javeed’s rant are his comments about the size of the campus. Most students are happy with the size of the campus, but Javeed isn’t always too thrilled with the space he is given: “When I want to be alone, I hate the fact that I can walk from one edge of campus to the other in 10 minutes; we all need some privacy sometimes, you know?” I thought this point was interesting because he’s not the first person to bring it up to me. Friends of mine have mentioned this to me before; because the campus is so small, and you’re bound to run into someone you know, this might mean having to put on a brave face when you’re holding back tears or getting caught up in longer-than-expected conversations when all you really want to do is study.

To conclude, Javeed summarizes, “We lack the buildings, spirit, sports, foods, clubs, location, campus life, study spaces, adequate lighting, and collective identity of other institutions of the same par as us, but what makes this campus what it is are the people. It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t have met the brilliant, diverse, and unique people that we did if we chose another university – we wouldn’t be who we are without them. I may seem cynical in my analysis, but I point these things out because I can see what our campus community could flourish into. Once we make some calculated changes, we can vastly improve the student experience at UTSC.”

For me, UTSC was more than I ever could’ve imagined; when I started applying to universities, UTSC wasn’t even an option I considered, but now that I’ve graduated from here, I’m eternally grateful did. I got to be a part of Frosh, ARTSIDEOUT, TEDxUTSC, the soccer team, The Underground, and have met dozens of incredible people I wouldn’t have if not for UTSC.

Baig says it best: “I have loved UTSC ever since I completed my first year here, and now that I’m graduating, my appreciation for it is growing even deeper.  I’m convinced my undergrad experience would not have been as fulfilling and memorable had I gone anywhere else.”
UTSC is home to bare Scarborough manz and sweeter tingz, and I’m thankful to be a part of it.