Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Gender (dis)order

Tamara Shefer

Psychology Department, University of the Western Cape

Central to the construction of gender are the dualistic subjectivities of male and female with their designated roles and characteristics. Within a restrictive regime of gender norms and rules, children's lives are ordered from the moment they are named 'boy' or 'girl' upon birth. While gender is socially constructed and takes on different and constantly changing forms in different times and places, the division of society along gendered lines and gender power inequality are globally evident. Yet the path to gendered subjectivity is by no means smooth and unproblematic as socialisation type theories would have us believe. Rather, children and adults take up their subjectivities by positioning themselves in often fluid and shifting ways in relation to the dominant discourses of gender. Furthermore, the development of a gendered self also involves a struggle with and against the expected gender role and identity, especially for girls and women who find themselves constructed as unequal 'other' in patriarchal society.

This paper is an exploratory account of some of the experiences of resistance to 'gender and sexual orders' as they emerge in autobiographical essays by a group of students at the University of the Western Cape. Students were asked to write an assignment for a developmental psychology course at 2nd year level in which they reflected on their experiences of gender and sexual development. The essays were rich and contained a wealth of information about diverse South African experiences of growing up as girls and boys. I expected to hear of the process of socialisation, the rigid and often oppressive experience of being moulded into the designated roles. But what really struck me was the number of women who told of rejecting femininity, desiring masculinity (or what that represented) and shared their stories of actively resisting, albeit not easily, their designated gender. While some would like to pathologise these accounts as 'gender disorders', there are different readings which suggest that gender development needs to be theorised in ways which account for the multiple positions that boys and girls, women and men may take up in relation to the rigid and restrictive categories of femininity and masculinity in patriarchal society.

"The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist' - that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender... Indeed, precisely because certain kinds of 'gender identities' fail to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility, they appear only as developmental failures or logical impossibilities from within that domain. Their persistence and proliferation, however, provide critical opportunities to expose the limits and regulatory aims of that domain of intelligibility and, hence, to open up within the very terms of that matrix of intelligibility rival and subversive matrices of gender disorder." (Butler, 1990, p.17) (my emphasis)


The story of this paper dates back to an assignment that I set for 2nd year psychology students at the University of the Western Cape, an historically black university (HBU) in the Western Cape, as part of a Human Development semester course. Students were ask to write an autobiographical account of their own gendered and sexual development. I set such an assignment partly out of my own needs for interesting reading, as marker of about a third of 650 assignments, but also because I wanted to stimulate self-reflection and creativity on the part of students who all too often are required to regurgitate sections of the textbook with little reference to their own lives. I had also hoped that the assignments might provide some insights, possibly data for my own research and long-term interest in gender and sexuality.

With my feminist lenses, I had expected to read about students' experiences of socialisation, of being moulded into boys and girls - the usual signs of gender construction, like clothing, toys, parental expectations etc. I had expected to hear of punishment for straying out of prescribed gender and sexual roles. I had expected to hear of experiences, especially by women, of sexual abuse and harassment. I was hoping to hear of the diversity of gendered development in South Africa, stories of the complex intersections of colour, class, and gender that are usually excluded in the euro-american texts that we rely on for our teaching (Seedat, 1990, 1992; Shefer, Van Niekerk, Duncan & De la Rey, in press). I did hear all of these things.

But what I was not really prepared for, at least was surprised by the extent of and intensity of, was the number of women who expressed deep resistance to prescribed femininity and described locating themselves in different positions to what was expected of them sexually and 'genderally'. There was a wide range of these kinds of accounts, but all of them speaking of experiences I had not often heard voiced publicly, that underlined some of the questions that I, and many others, have about sexual/gender difference and the complexity of the construction of these subjectivities.

The paper is exploratory and not rigorously theorised, but my reading of the experiences is clearly infused with social constructionist, discourse analytic philosophical frameworks and contemporary debates in feminist theory. Feminist and other critical literature of the 1960's and 1970's theorised gender as socially constructed and therefore contextual; constructed differently, in different times and places; and constructed within a system of gender inequality, such that what is male is valued more highly and has access to more power, than that which is female. While the distinction between gender and sex may have served an important role politically, the term gender has become as problematic as that of sex. Inherent in traditional feminist theorising of gender is a deep assumption that while gender is not biological, the female, disempowered gender is imprinted on the biological female body while the male, empowered gender is imprinted on the male body. In this way the essentialist conception of gender inequality as being tied to biological differences is inadvertently perpetuated. The conceptual distinction between sex and gender has been critiqued as setting up a rigid deterministic relationship between sex and gender (West & Zimmerman, 1992) and perpetuating the biological vs social dualism (Butler, 1990). Moreover, the traditional notion of gender, while challenging the social constructions as restrictive and repressive, especially for women, still reproduces and naturalises the notion of a dualism of gender, the binary opposites of male-female.

Post-modern theory has facilitated a way of moving beyond binary oppositions to acknowledge the multiplicity of gendered and sexual identities that may exist. In line with Michel Foucault's (1978) influential work on sexuality many have begun to theorise the way in which sexual identity and practice, including the identities of heterosexual and homosexual, are socially and historically constructed (for example, Richardson, 1996; Rubin, 1984; Vance, 1984; Weeks,1985, 1990; Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993). Theorists have begun considering how men and women, girls and boys may position themselves in multiple ways to the dominant discourse of gender and sexuality; may shift and change in relation to this discourse; may resist and reproduce these subjectivities, in what may appear to be contradictions and confusions (Smart, 1996). The students' stories illustrate resistance to stereotyped femininity, are evidence of subjective agency, but their interpretations of these experiences are also deeply imbedded in dominant discourses on gender and sexuality.

The title of the paper gender (dis)order, while raising questions about the gender order, is also raising questions (not new) about the way in which disorders are constructed in society. It is evident that our society still depends on a dualism between order and disorder, normal and abnormal, healthy and ill, in order to maintain order, in order to reproduce dominant power relations. We have massive evidence in contemporary modern society of the marginalisation of that considered to be 'other' to normality, of the locking away and treatment prescribed for those who do not 'fit' into their prescribed roles and identities. There are those I believe who would like to interpret some of the stories of the students as disorders, as evidence of some pathology or disturbance in 'normal sexual development' that needs to be 'treated'. Psychodynamic explanations, such as an unresolved oedipus complex or an unconscious repression of femininity, might be offered up as ways of interpreting such deviances from the sexual/gender order. Such frameworks are pathologising and stigmatising and foreclose any questions or debate about the rigidity of sexual categories, that may facilitate a destabilisation of those very categories. I do not want to glorify the students' experiences for many of them do indeed speak of psychological and emotional pain, but as will be illustrated, this is usually associated with the rigid and punitive gender system which constructs their experiences and desires as wrong, bad and abnormal.

The paper draws only on the experiences of women. While there were a few men who spoke of desiring to be women or resisting masculinity, they were in a minority. I think this is significant, and has to be understood within the context of patriarchal and androcentric society in which masculinity is valued and imbued with such power, is set up as the norm, while femininity is 'other', is always lacking, is as Spender (1980) puts it "minus male". Some of these significations emerge very powerfully in the students' accounts.

Before going further I need to share some of my discomfort in sharing the stories. Issues of representation in feminist research, knowledge production and struggle have been debated in the South African context and globally (Letlaka-Rennert, 1991; Lund, 1991; Serote, 1992; Bonnin, 1995). Questions like who has the right to represent who, to speak on behalf of whom, to do research on whom have been raised and debated, often with much emotion, particularly in the arena of feminist research methodology and critique levelled at the predominance of white women researching black women has been powerfully articulated over the last few years (see for example, Funani, 1992; Thompson, 1992; Fouche, 1993; Gouws, 1993; Sunde & Bozalek, 1993; Robinson, 1994). I am aware of my own identity as a white, middle class, english-speaking, urban woman and that I am representing the experiences of predominantly black, many of working class, rural background. Furthermore, I am the lecturer, already in a position of power, interpreting students' experiences through my particular ideological perspective and from my particular social location in what appears to be an exercise in voyeurism. The paper is about power and the process reflects power inequalities itself. I choose to believe, not without ambivalence, that the richness of the experiences, the questions they inspired in me, the challenges they pose for gendered society, are important enough to share. Students were of course fully informed that their essays might be used for research and were asked to indicate if they did not desire this. Those marked 'not for research' were not used.

Another related difficulty was my experience of helplessness associated with reading essays that were sometimes extremely troubled, confused and emotionally turbulent. Though I did insert notes into these assignments suggesting a 'chat' with a counsellor at the Student Counselling Centre or myself, I remained with a burden of guilt at having 'opened up' issues for students without being able to offer any subsequent support. I can only hope that there is value, as I believe there can be, in reflecting on one's life and its difficulties. I also did try to address some of the issues in the classroom in the lectures on gender and sexuality development.

Students' accounts of gender and sexual development(1)

Not 'fitting' femininity

I marked about 200 scripts out of a class of 650. Although I did not do a rigorous quantitative analysis, about 8-10% of women spoke of difficulties in and intense resistance to 'fitting' into prescribed femininity. For some this began at an early age, and became less significant in adolescence. For others, the feelings have persisted to the present age. For some the experience of 'difference' was more an experience of 'fitting in' with both boys and girls, than of not 'fitting in' with femininity. Interestingly this is constructed in retrospect as 'not having a particular gender-role' as illustrated by this quote:

I think of my pre-school years as a struggle since I did not have a particular gender-role. When I was with the boys I acted as if I was one of them but when I was with the girls I did the things girls normally did and enjoyed myself. This struggle with acquiring the 'proper' gender-role continued through to primary school. (my emphasis)

This experience of feeling comfortable with both boys and girls becomes even more difficult at puberty, as illustrated by another story:

When I was 11 or 12 years old I had many more girl friends than when I did when I was younger, but I still had many more boyfriends. I think that I needed those girlfriends to identify with. The physical differences between boys and girls were becoming more prominent and us girls started to discuss the boys who were liked and boys were hated. And because of my strong friendship with the boys I always knew both sides of the story. I even wrote letters on the behalf of the boys to the girls they liked. Sometimes I didn't actually know where I belonged because I wasn't a boy and sometimes the girls treated me like a boy so at times I was left out in the cold, unsure about my place.

For others, the experience of not fitting in, was more one of feeling extremely uncomfortable with the feminine role, for example:

Frill dresses did not suit me, I could not put on socks and get my hair done. I was different. I was always dirty. My mother tried to punish me for that behaviour (getting dirty). Her punishment was not effective. Because I found myself repeating the same thing again. I was everyday with boys, I used to play rough and I was really comfortable with it.

Playing with boys was not encouraged by anybody. Because it changes ones behaviour. My character suddenly changed, I ended up being aggressive. As I grew up, I found myself in a complex situation. People no longer associated with me. They could not play with or around me. I was in darkness, loneliness. My only friend was a bicycle.

.... It was not only my behaviour which was strange, my physical structure said a lot as well. I was so thin and I would eat as if it was for the first time. I was more of a boy than a girl.

... At school it was the same situation. There were playing groups of boys and girls. They would tease you for playing with the wrong gender group. I would be a victim all the time. I felt inferior and neglected.

This quote also illustrates the construction of non-stereotyped behaviour as 'strange', abnormal and of the heavy punishments, both overt and covert, associated with not conforming to the prescribed role.

Boys have more fun

For many of those, described as 'tomboys', wanting to do boy's things seemed to be about desiring to do more physical activities, and was associated with a form of freedom, activity, excitement and danger, denied by femininity:

I got bigger and just about ready to go to school and did not want to do girls stuff anymore. I wanted to try out boys stuff because it seems that they have all the fun. They always played rough, they have to be aggressive in whatever they do and I started to play with them. We jumped over fences and walls. We climbed trees and jumped off roofs. I played with their cars and their toys and I also cried for my own...

My poor mother suffered from all this because she said she wanted to raise a girl not someone that she is not always sure of to what gender it belongs. She wanted to buy dolls and teasets I said no I want cars and guns...

She wanted me to behave like a girl... I can still remember her saying 'If you hurt yourself don't come run to me and I don't even want to hear about it. A girl is not suppose to behave like that. How many times must I tell you that...' ... But typical child I would just ignore all that and would never go to her whenever I got hurt or one of the boys bullied me. I would cry in silence or fought back for all its worth.

The excerpt (above) also illustrates the pressure put on girls by parents, especially mothers who appear as the 'keepers' of femininity. Clearly, the construction of boys as tougher and less vulnerable is attractive to girls, as voiced by another woman's experience:

My parents constantly remind me of how stubborn I was and I can surely remember all those terrible spankings I got. I was very devious, I would without reason bite an unassuming victim, their toes being my speciality. I think my parents spanked me to get rid of my bad habits but also to avoid social embarrassment. Here I was a real hooligan when I was supposed to be all sweet and quiet, of course to fit with the sweet frilly appearance I had. I think if I had been a boy my parents would have attributed my behaviour as being normal, adventurous or just boyish.

......Parents are more protective over girls. When I was younger my parents would not let me sleep out because of safety reasons. When I got older their excuse was that all the wrong things happen when you sleep at friend's places. When I go out my parents want to know where I'm going, with whom and how are we going to get there. When conferring with my male counterparts on this topic you find that they have no such problems. People perceive females as being fragile and more susceptible to attacks but males can also be raped and attacked.... (my emphasis)

This construction of femininity, particularly at the moment of menstruation, as fragile and needy of protection was very common. Another student spoke of her mother's response to her menstruation:

When my mother came to know about my menstruating, she sat me down and gave me a talk about the facts of life. One thing that I clearly remember and that I know I will never forget is her telling me that a woman is like a delicate, fragile piece of glass and that once that glass is broken, it can never be put back together. That was her way of telling me that I was now a woman...(my emphasis)

Thus for these woman, as for others, being feminine was experienced as a liability, restrictive and inhibiting, making masculinity with its relative freedom and invulnerability extremely desirable. Taking on femininity then was often experienced as a loss of male companionship and previously enjoyed male activities and something forced upon one by parents and peer groups.

Constructed as 'boy' or 'tomboy'

Many of those who expressed choosing non-stereotyped activities and ways of being, spoke of being constructed as a 'boy' or a 'tomboy' by others. This 'naming' sometimes took place from birth or early on, thus at times preceding and creating their own experience of difference. The following student's account illustrates how being constructed as a 'boy' because of her physical appearance and/or her interests, lead to deep discomfort which was only overcome, with some pride, when she was recognised as eventually looking like a 'lady' after puberty. This story also illustrates the powerful role of the peer group in regulating gender identity:

To a certain degree I think I looked like a boy. On one occasion when I went shopping with my parents, a lady passed by and said 'what a cute boy' to me. It bothered me that the lady said so because I knew that I wasn't a little boy, but a little girl.

I remember when I first started school when boys only wanted to play with boys and girls only wanted to play with girls. I always seemed to fit in on both sides, because I could arm wrestle with the boys, although they did not really want to play with girls.

...At primary school I received many comments from girls, it was almost as if they were jealous, because I spent more time with the boys... I always preferred playing with boys at primary school level. When people at school made comments about me being a tomboy I became upset without showing my feelings. ...

One afternoon one of the girls in our neighbourhood had a modelling contest at her home. Every girl entered. I was the only girl in our neighbourhood who did not participate. After the show the girls' mother asked me why I did not participate... Out of the crowd one of the girls told her that I did not like modelling and that I was more interested in playing with the boys. She also said that I was a tomboy. Somehow whenever I heard someone mentioning that I was a tomboy, I got a thrill through my body, because I did not like people calling me that.

There were times when I felt that there was something wrong with me, because I did not have the same interest like the girls my age. I did not like wearing dresses, I did not like wearing make-up like other girls and I did not like playing boring 'girlish' games. I enjoyed playing rough games with the boys. Many times I wished that I was a boy, because I felt like an outcast being a tomboy....

When I went to high school I thought I would not be seen as a tomboy anymore. To my surprise I was still seen in this way by people I did not know before I came to that school. I attended a girls high school. At this school I tried very hard to let people see that I am an ordinary girl. Although I tried very hard, I still received comments like 'you should have been a guy'. ...

At high school if you did not have a boyfriend, you were slow or there was something wrong with you. As I became conscious of the guys, I became conscious of my weight and the way I dressed. It was very important for a girl to have a nice figure and to dress sexy, because that was known to be the way to attract guys... I joined weigh-less and a gym.. I thought that if I had a boyfriend then the girls at school would not see me as a tomboy, so I had a few brief relationships with guys... , but this did not change the thinking of the girls at school.

In matric I attended a co-ed school ...It was the first time in my whole school career that I was not seen as a tomboy or that I acted boyish..When my friends from primary school, high school and even guys that I played with in the road see me now, they cannot believe that I am the same girl who was so 'tomboyish'! Many of my male friends say that I am so ladylike, unlike before.

Quite a few of the women spoke of parental disappointment attached to their birth as a girl, especially by fathers, illustrative of the widespread cultural preference for boy children. These women constructed their fathers' behaviour towards them as central to their desire to be boys and resentment at being girls . One woman spoke of how her mother used to say how glad she was that she was girl, her first born. She continued:

I usually asked her whether my father was also (proud) glad that I was a girl. She would only reply that he was grateful that I was healthy. This however gave me the impression that he wanted a son to be his first born. He actually called me 'my ou seun'.

When she was five years old, a son was born:

Eventually this baby was born and to my disappointment it was a boy. My father was very happy because now he had his son that he wanted. On the other hand this baby was now competition for me. I saw they gave him a lot of attention and I realised that I must now show my father that I can still remain his 'boy'. ...

I totally disagreed with how a girl should be raised. I supported my father's view. His was that a girl can do what a man could do. .. I helped him around the house or help him wash the car. ... My mother was not impressed ... because I started to dress like a boy. .. I begged my mother to cut my hair. But dressing and behaving like that did not stop my body to develop hair on different places... My breasts started to get bigger... My mother also realised that her daughter should start to wear a bra. I was quite shy and wondered what my father would say about it. I also wondered whether he is going to 'reject' me again...But if that was not worse enough, I started to menstruate.

My mother explained to me what was happening to me and that I am developing into a woman. It was quite difficult to understand that if I am going to have sexual intercourse that I could also have a baby. I was only twelve years of age. but this did not stop me from playing with the boys. I actually played more than ever with them so that they could not suspect any differences.

Another woman spoke of a similar experience of her parents' desire for her to be a boy and how certain indicators, like clothes, names, etc. play a significant role in constructing gender. The story highlights the impact on her levels of confidence in shifting from boy to girl:

'Oh dear, it is a girl, what a blessing (with sarcasm). What in heavens name are we going to do with all that 'stuff' (clothing)? .. Everything is blue. These unfortunately were my mother's words when straight after my birth, the doctor announced that she had been blessed with a baby girl...

It appeared that apparently for some medical reason, rather, say mistake, my parents had been told,.., to expect a boy. From the excitement of expecting another son in the family, my parents could not contain their excitement and had gone around telling friends and relatives that they were expecting another son. It is within my tradition, Venda that is, that the grandparents are positioned to name their grandchildren. I was given a name before my birth and it was a boy's name too...

Having a boy's name and being dressed in blue clothes was enough to confuse anyone. It was only understandable on 'my part' however that I wear the clothes until I grew out of them. Unfortunately the confusion only became a confirmation as my attires pretty much summed up 'my gender'. Not only did I wear boys' clothes, but I turned out to be a splitting image of my father. When I turned 4 years old, my birthday party was dominantly attended by boys. In pre-school I played with boys and shared their toys. I even went as far as to relieve myself standing. It was no importance to me that I was genitally different from the boys, but the fact that I dressed as other boys and had a boy's name, was enough justification for me not to question it at all.

Came the age of 6 and time to start school... I had never worn girls' clothes and all of a sudden this whole new idea was being introduced to me. The scenario would be that in the morning my mother would dress me in a white shirt and a black tunic (school uniform) and the moment she disappeared, I would replace the dress with a pair of black trousers from my own clothing.

This brought upon me a lot of confusion and chaos. It turned out that not only did I have to wear dresses to school, but that people started calling me by a name, a girl's one too, that I had never been called by before... Pulling through that phase was a very destructive stage in my life. The bright, bold, talkative 'boy' that I used to be, became a reserved, shy, timid girl.

Following this loss of confidence, she found herself becoming more settled in prescribed femininity during high school and concludes as follows:

Although I am a woman in every respect, I tend to prefer men's clothes, deodorants and as few people have commented, I sometimes walk like a boy. Some people do not understand my style and choose to want to label me as something else. This time instead of shying away and feeling intimidated, I tell myself as well as anyone who is concerned that, regardless of what my appearance is, I am obviously woman enough to have a boyfriend who is man enough to notice the difference in me. Besides, this time my body could not fool anyone even if I tried. (my emphasis)

Gender and sex

The last sentence in the excerpt above leads into another central theme emerging in the essays. Gender and (hetero)sexuality are deeply interwoven in cultural constructions of identity, for it is sexuality that "defines sexual difference for women, and gives femaleness its meaning as the experience of a female subject" (De Lauretis, 1984, p.184). Thus gender identity is conflated with, is integrally bound up with sexual identity, which further renders the distinction between gender and sex spurious and dangerous. As Butler (1990) points out it is the "heterosexualization of desire [that] requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between 'feminine' and 'masculine'..." (p.17) Being a woman is powerfully bound up with heterosex, as illustrated in the account above. Becoming a woman, carries with it the imperative of being sexually desirable to a man, and desiring men as sexual beings.

The experiences of the students however illustrated a far wider range of articulation of sexual/gender difference than allowed for by the traditional binarism of male/female. For some of the women, desiring to be (like) a man also meant desiring women, while for others, desiring to be (like) a man did not mean they did not desire men sexually (as illustrated by the story above). In spite of 'breaking some of the rules' of the gender/heterosex order, it is clear that the dominant gender discourse still impacted powerfully on the way in which the women reflected on themselves and their desires. One woman speaks about her developing sexuality upon entering university and how she was immediately viewed as lesbian or bisexual because of her rejection of stereotypic femininity. Thus 'tomboy' in the supposedly asexual child becomes lesbian in the postpubertal woman. This particular woman, though not indicating her sexual preference, alludes to it, and illustrates what appears to be a fairly resolved position on her life choices.

During this time I still had the same image, wearing men's clothes, short hair and walked like a man. At school they thought I was a 'tomboy'. Now according my peers on campus either homosexual, lesbian or bisexual.... At home my mother and I had a conversation and I do not know how but it ended up by whether I was homosexual or not. I answered her and assured her that I will at least start to dress like a representable woman. I started very slowly by wearing more feminine clothes, a little bit of cosmetics and tried to change the way I walked. ...

Even though I seem confused I am not. I know that I am a woman who physically, genetically and biologically differs from men but I strongly believe in the fact that psychologically we do not differ but can do anything. (my emphasis)

Note the use of 'representable woman'. In this case, a language error (given that the writer is probably a second language English speaker) but still standing as a Freudian Slip, for she means much more than merely being presentable. The imperative is to construct herself as one who is representative of her gender, which means painting on the signs of femininity (clothing, cosmetics, and so on), so that even though her private sexual practice may be constructed as 'other' to her identity, she maintains the 'face' of femininity. The conflation of non-femininity in women with lesbianism is also evident in the following quote by a woman who makes sure to disassociate herself from lesbianism:

In my teens I became really aware of my sexuality as I became interested in the opposite sex. In females, awareness of their sexuality becomes obvious in their change of their dressing style and wearing of make-up. I was a late blossomer and only started wearing make up in Std 8 - don't get me wrong I was interested in boys but it just took me some time to get rid of my sweet image and realise what had to be done to reel in attention from the opposite sex. There was a time I envied girls who were tomboys because they seemed to have a certain connection with boys because they shared their passion for sport and played these sport with them. The camaraderie however ended on the field because guys always have doubts about a tomboy's sexual preference. (my emphasis)

Many of the women spoke of the pressure to have a boyfriend in the high school years. While this was common in all the essays by women students, it seemed particularly important for those women who had been viewed as 'tomboys', in order to 'prove' their femininity:

When I reached high school I realised that many things were expected of girls. Having a boyfriend was one of those things. One boy was interested in me and my friend encouraged me to go out with this boy. I then agreed to go out with this guy, whom I did not like. I didn't have much interest in boys at that stage but peer group pressure caused me to think otherwise. The boys and girls acted totally different.. The boys in high school were more sexually orientated. Everything they talked about was sex or they were looking through 'dirty' magazines. I think this lead to the fact that the guys in my class usually touched the girls on their rear and other private parts of their body. I found these acts very disturbing and generalised that all guys act this way...

Two years later I decided to give in to the pressure and agreed to engage in a relationship, which only lasted a few months. During this time I concluded that most of the guys who are in a relationship are most probably pressured into it just as much as the girls are (But no one of them realise this).

Penis envy?

The following story is one which illustrates the author's considerable creativity in enacting her resistance to prescribed femininity and her sexual desires. In particular we see Thandi (not her real name) strategically adopting masculine subjectivity and discourse to achieve her desires. Her story, reminiscent of Victorian lesbian tales and rich material for Freudians, is however full of pain and is further evidence of the damages effected by a restrictive gender and sexual regime.

During these 27 years there were some times which one cannot forget because of sexuality and part of it was really confusing .... I hated myself as a girl for the fact that I should sit down when I pass water and I never loved dresses, even now. During that time ...people would just say that she (myself) is a tomboy and I thought 'yes, why should they call me a tomboy, therefore that I do have a penis and its hidden inside me and maybe if I grow up it will come out'.

I did everything that a boy should do and I did it five times better than them and there was always that discrimination and that did not bother me so much but sometimes it worked me psychologically. I never mixed with women and I felt superior to them for the fact that I am not like them. Growing up has some implications especially when there are girls around. My friends (boys) started proposing and had girlfriends and they would ask me to back off because they told me that what they were doing was boys' things. That really made me feel very sad but I told myself that I was still going to do everything with them and I am going to propose to some girls and I am going to have more girlfriends than what they had. It worked, and they protected my identity from those girls who did not know me.

They had to pretend as if I am a boy too. That worked also, but the problem now was that, I had to wear a uniform when going to school and that was for girls of course. Some girls whom my friends dated were in the same school with me, so I had to hide and if they saw and asked me questions I would just tell them that 'I have a twin brother, maybe you are talking about him' and I really got away with that. It was then that I started, we can say, 'having sex'.

...Some said that I am a boy and some said that I am a girl. I did not have any problem with the confusion some people had about my sexual identity.

...even at school I never entered girls toilets ... In fact I liked it very much when they called me a boy. Things started getting worse and worse with my parents, especially my mother. My mother started by not buying any trousers for me and did all these things that girls do and now I was round about the age of 15 ...I valued ... being called a boy because I also thought that I was a boy. I was in high school now and things were tough because now I could feel love and beautiful women in my school knocked me off my feet.

At school I was a girl but after school I would quickly run home and change what I wore and I would wear a trouser and after changing I would go and visit girls from another school.. This was a risk because children from other schools usually know each other but for some time it went right until my neighbour blew it one day....I was embarrassed and my identity as being a woman came out. I had to leave the school to go to another school where no one knew me. I went to a private school and there we did not wear a uniform, ... I enjoyed life there because I was living my life the way I wanted to...even my principal liked me very much. Once he told me that I was the most handsome boy in his school... Really I can say that, that made me not to think of myself as a woman but as a man and I kept asking God 'when is my penis going to appear?'

When one goes to church, the preacher will tell you that everything is possible with God and well I did not want too much but just a penis.

Thandi goes on to speak of attending a summer camp, seducing a woman and beginning a long-term relationship with her:

The worst part is that she even introduced me to her parents and they really loved me and her mother even called me here son-in-law. I loved that because I could see that they really believed in me, but I knew the truth. She really loved me so much and at that time she was still a virgin, ... she wanted me to break her virginity and I kept saying that the time is not right or I have a headache or stomach-ache and I always got away with it.

Thandi's story takes a surprising (or not so surprising) turn when she next speaks of having sex with a man:

A time of confusion arose when I came to terms that I am a woman and I had sex with a man which did not make me myself and more because now I was going to be the mother not the man I was always fantasising about.

... I wished that I could go to a place where none knew me to start a new life. My girlfriend was admitted into hospital at that time because she heard the news about me and she suffered from a shock because I was not the kind of man she thought I was and all the 9 years we had together as lovers just went away. I may have faked my identity but the only thing which I was honest about is my undying love for her ...

Thandi concludes by saying that while she now clearly sees herself as a lesbian, she feels very ostracised by both men and women:

...I wish I could have a man on campus to put away the labels they are giving me..

I have quoted extensively from Thandi's essay because it raises most clearly questions about notions of disorder. Is Thandi suffering from what sexologists have called "gender dysphoria" (Blanchard et al, cited in Crooks & Baur, 1996, p.53) ? Or has she got unresolved penis envy a' la Freud? Or is she illustrating a desire to own the phallus and have access to male power a' la Mitchell (1975)? Or is there a way of constructing meaning of her story that does not pathologise or politicise her or her desires? I don't wish to discount the crucial role of power and the phallus, and that penises do represent the phallus, which does mean access to male power and privileges. The danger with this framework as Smart (1996) points out is that the phallus always collapses into the penis thereby 'inadvertently inflating male power' (p.161). Clearly, as in Thandi's experience, pleasure and desire also play a role. She appeared to do quite well without a penis in 9 years of a relationship with her woman lover. Were it an option for Thandi to engage in male activities and a loving relationship with a woman without having a penis in a non-homophobic society, one wonders to what extent she would have desired one.

This desire for a penis was not an isolated one but appeared in a number of other essays, and in one woman's account lead to a sex change which she believed allowed her to lead what she describes as a 'normal' existence, reflecting the discourse of abnormality associated with 'wrong' gender and non-heterosexual desires:

I was very grateful because it was successful [the operation]. I used to feel I had no identity. [Now] I feel as normal as everyone else.

This final account illustrates some of the confusion associated with desiring both masculinity and femininity and not being allowed to identify with both. Furthermore in this account, the desire for a penis emerges as meaning as much a rejection of the repressions and abuses associated with femininity and being a woman, as it does a desire for maleness and what that represents.

The most significant incident that made me realise that I'm a woman, was the time I started to menstruate. I felt that it was so horribly unfair, because my mother told me that I shouldn't associate with boys anymore. She didn't inform me why I shouldn't. ...

I continued being a tomboy. Playing rugby, soccer, cricket and other sports with the boys, without mentioning to them that I had become a 'woman'. After a couple of months they found out about this developmental stage and chucked me out of their group like as if I was suffering from a disease. Frustration overwhelmed me, because all of a sudden I had to try and adapt to my ascribed gender role... irrespective of if I wanted it or not....

In my unconscious mind I was trying to deny what was happening to me, because I wanted my breasts to disappear and I wished I could have a penis. But what was most confusing was that in my consciousness I wanted to be a woman as well, and I actually liked being one.

...In my nineteenth year of confusion I joined the dating club. I was caring for my boyfriends in a sense as a sister would care for her older brother. I never really wanted to become physically involved, but was forced to due to peer group pressure. A friendship was what I actually craved and longed for. None of my boyfriends could understand this sort of attitude and neither could I. The more I wanted to act the way that was expected of me, for example, being in love and being affectionate, I just couldn't...

Around my peers I had to act most of the time to conform to them... At the age of twenty I decided to go into denial and blocked out all my true hidden feelings of wanting to be a man. I started to look at myself through different eyes and what surprised me was that I actually liked it. Dating guys became a prime factor in my life again.

The incident that made my [dreams] of womanhood crash to pieces, was the day I got raped by my boyfriend. As a woman I felt inadequate and useless against his male dominant power and strength. I was devastated and hurt, cursing my sexual identity...Anger and frustration overwhelmed me and I developed a lower self-image, due to the fact that I lost my virginity with the incident.

I felt betrayed and robbed of my womanhood, because the minute I started to accept it, the very next minute it had been snatched away.

...People are always asking me when I'm going to get married. The one part of my human being is yearning for intimacy and security, but the other part detests the idea. My whole being is in contradiction with my sexual identity.

Concluding thoughts

The paper has highlighted the destructive impact of the dominant gender-sex discourse which defines, constrains and regulates the development of masculinity and femininity in patriarchal, heterosexist society. I have shared some stories which are not often heard, particularly in the South African context, which are silenced by both the status quo and feminist critics of patriarchal, heterosexist society. I believe it is stories like these which, in being told, may unsettle and disturb the gender order. They may "prompt us to imagine how identities and social relations might be remapped..." (Martin, 1992, p.96). The complexity and diversity of women and men's gendered and sexual experiences need to be acknowledged within an understanding of the social construction of gender and sexuality, within an acceptance of the fluid, arbitrary and imaginary basis of sexual difference. Deconstructing the gender order and refusing to pathologise a diversity of gender/sexual positions and desires need to take place, not only in theory but also in social practices and discourses.


I am indebted to the students who so generously shared their experiences with me in their assignments.


Bonnin, D., (1995) National Report on Women's Studies in South Africa. Unpublished Report, University of Natal, Durban.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Crooks, R. & Baur, K. (1996). Our sexuality: Sixth Edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

De Lauretis, T. (1984). Alice doesn't: Feminism, semiotics, cinema. London & Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality. New York: Pantheon. (First published in French 1976)

Fouche, F. (1993). Nigerian Conference Revisited. Agenda, 16, 39-41.

Funani, L. (1992). Nigerian Conference Revisited. Agenda, 15, 63-68.

Gouws, A. (1993). An Angry Divide. Agenda, 19, 67-70.

Holland-Muter, S. (1995). Opening Pandora's box: reflections on 'whiteness' in the South African women's movement. Agenda, 25, 55-62.

Kitzinger, C. & Wilkinson, S. (1993). Theorizing Heterosexuality. In S. Wilkinson & C. Kitzinger (eds) Heterosexuality: A feminism and psychology reader. London: Sage.

Letlaka-Rennert, K. (1991). Impressions: Conference on 'Women and Gender in Southern Africa. Agenda, 9, 22-23.

Lund, F. (1991). Impressions: Conference on 'Women and Gender in Southern African, Agenda, 9, 20.

Martin, B. (1992). Sexual practice and changing lesbian identities. In M.Barrett & A.Phillip (eds), Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Cambridge: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishers.

Mitchell, J. (1975). Psychoanalysis and feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richardson, D. (1996). Heterosexuality and social theory. In D. Richardson (ed.) Theorising Heterosexuality. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Robinson, J.(1994). White Women Researching/Representing Others: From Anti-apartheid to Postcolonialism? In G. Rose & A. Blunt (eds), Sexual/Textual Colonisations. London: Guildford.

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (ed.) Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. London: Pandora.

Seedat, M. (1990). Programmes, trends and silences in South African psychology. In L. Nicholas & S. Cooper (eds), Psychology and Apartheid. Johannesburg: Vision/Madiba Press.

Seedat, M. (1992), Topics, trends and silences in South African Psychology 1948-1988. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of the Western Cape.

Serote, P. (1992). Issues of 'race' and Power Expressed During Gender Conferences in South Africa. Agenda, 14, 22-24.

Shefer, T., Duncan, N., Van Niekerk, A. & de la Rey, C. (in press) Challenging authorship and authority in psychology: a publishing initiative. Psychology in Society.

Smart, C. (1996). Collusion, collaboration and confession: on moving beyond the heterosexuality debate. In D. Richardson (ed), Theorising heterosexuality. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Spender, D. (1980). Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sunde, J. & Bozalek, V. (1993). (Re)searching Difference. Agenda, 19, 29-36.

Thompson, E. (1992). Mad Women in the Tropics. Agenda, 5, 61-62.

Vance, C. S. (1984). Pleasure and danger: Toward a politics of sexuality. In C. S. Vance (ed.), Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Weeks, J. (1985). Sexuality and its discontents. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Weeks, J. (1990). Sex, politics and society (2nd edition). London: Longman.

West, C. & Zimmerman, D.H. (1992). Doing Gender. In J.S.Bohan (ed.), Seldom seen, rarely heard: Women's Place in Psychology. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Tamara Shefer is a lecturer in psychology at the University of the Western Cape, where she teaches predominantly social/community and developmental psychology and the philosophy of science. She has a long interest and involvement in gender issues and other forms of power inequality. She is presently carrying out doctoral research on the negotiation of heterosexuality and gendered subjectivity.

1. It should be remembered that the majority of students are writing in their second or third language. As such there might be places where I misread their intentions due to language difficulties and issues of translation. I have chosen to change grammar where it interferes with clarity as I assume students would not have made such mistakes were they writing in their home language.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -