Public challenge and endorsement of sex category ambiguity in online debate: ‘The sooner people stop thinking that gender is a matter of choice the better’

Helen Sweeting, Matthew William Maycock, Laura Walker, Kate Hunt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
138 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

Despite academic feminist debate over several decades, the binary nature of sex as a (perhaps the) primary social classification is often taken for granted, as is the assumption that individuals can be unproblematically assigned a biological sex at birth. This article presents analysis of online debate on the BBC news website in November 2013, comprising 864 readers' responses to an article entitled ‘Germany allows ‘indeterminate’ gender at birth’. It explores how discourse reflecting Western essentialist beliefs about people having one sex or ‘the other’ is maintained in debates conducted in this online public space. Comments were coded thematically and are presented under five sub‐headings: overall evaluation of the German law; discussing and disputing statistics and ‘facts’; binary categorisations; religion and politics; and ‘conversations’ and threads. Although for many the mapping of binary sex onto gender was unquestionable, this view was strongly disputed by commentators who questioned the meanings of ‘natural’ and ‘normal’, raised the possibility of removing societal binary male‐female distinctions or saw maleness–femaleness as a continuum. While recognising that online commentators are anonymous and can control their self‐presentation, this animated discussion suggests that social classifications as male or female, even if questioned, remain fundamental in public debate in the early 21st century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)380-396
JournalSociology of Health & Illness
Volume39
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016

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