No “sex,” please. We’re Canadian

A friend drops a note to say he can’t write at length because he’s embarking on a romantic get-away with his partner. Romantic get-away? I think. Partner? Isn’t Neil married? I catch myself. Don’t ask, Janet. Idle curiosity and gossip are forbidden.

Of course. But my thoughts are now running on a familiar track. How much that word “partner” covers up! “Partner,” “spouse.” These are slippery terms. My university prefers “spouse.” When you retire Human Resources asks you to sign over survivor benefits to a spouse or spouses. You’re not asked whether the spouse/spouses are male or female. Or whether you married them under the old laws of Canada or the new laws. At my interview I interrupted to say that I call my spouse, “husband.” I got what used to be known as an old fashioned look.

Fair enough. Still, isn’t it odd that as a society we shun the words that that refer directly to differences between males and females?  Could it be that we’re prudish?

Some years ago I edited a book for a Toronto research institute describing school-board guidelines for Family Studies programs in middle schools and high schools. In these courses students were taught a good deal about the naming of body parts and how to assemble them. They were taught almost nothing to suggest that there may be emotional and behavioral differences between male human beings and female ones. Or different responsibilities. The programs did not talk about motherhood, or mothering, for example. Or fatherhood and fathering. The preferred terms were “parents” and parenting. Cover-up words.

Grandmothers and grandfathers, of course, were “grandparents.” Brothers and sisters were “siblings.” The course manuals were filled with pictures of naked males and females at all ages, but issues of maleness and femaleness were not directly addressed. At a guess I’d say that in their out-of-school hours the young people in those classes spent at least some of their time pondering questions of behavioral difference. Why are boys so gross? Why are girls so easy to offend, so weepy? “What are you supposed to say to girls?” “What I do if he says he loves me?” But information on that kind of thing the kids had to pick up on the street. I am not saying that the courses avoided all moral advice. Much was said about controlling anger, for example. Much was said about cultivating tolerance. The advice was always genderless.

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1 Response to “No “sex,” please. We’re Canadian”


  1. 1 oonae April 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    I like the way this post addresses the concerns of those on the left as well as those on the right. The right may want sex differences to be discussed up front for a variety of reasons, but the left ought certainly to want them discussed up front as well. We hear a lot these days about the problematic nature of the colour-blind position — a position that doesn’t acknowledge ethnic difference and therefore both ignores past (and present) injustice and misses a chance to celebrate different cultures and histories. The same could, and should, be said of sex and gender. Vive la difference.

    The idea behind the school board plan is to create more families committed to equal parenting. But you can’t do that by pretending that equal parenting is the norm. Instead, they should present studies that show (as they all do) that women remain the primary care-givers and do more work around the house. Then, if they want to get funky, they can look at arguments made by feminists that this is not a good thing, and arguments made by both feminists and anti-feminists that it is a good thing.


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