Talk of gender and sexuality is everywhere. Terms that once seemed clear are being challenged, and anybody who wants to engage with the issues involved soon discovers an uncharted minefield to negotiate – the link between biological sexual identity and gender is questioned; the traditional meaning of marriage no longer holds sway; a new community, identified by a series of letters updated from time to time to incorporate varieties of sexual identity, has come into existence; how men and women should properly act towards each other is facing new kinds of scrutiny; feminists are fighting new battles.
Gender and sexuality lie at the heart of personal identity and of what it means to be human. Sexual difference and the notions of masculinity and femininity are fundamental to the way we think about ourselves, and they shape social interaction at every level. Exploring what gender and sexuality mean is necessary and challenging, both for individuals and society.
Justice and equality under the law are the right of every person in any decent society. The principle of equal rights for all has not always been accepted, but even where it has, there has not often been agreement over what it means. It cannot simply mean that everyone is treated the same, as the needs of people differ widely.
What equality means varies over time, according to changing historical circumstances, and differs between cultures. We should not judge people living in other places and times with the standards we accept for ourselves. In our own time, some aspects of equality are clearer than others, and often enshrined in law, even if they are not always upheld in practice. A large majority of people would accept that equal work should be matched by equal pay, that men and women have an equal right to own property and vote, to pursue a career and to have one’s testimony accepted in court. What equality means in other respects may be more difficult to resolve, such as the division of property or the custody of children when a marriage breaks down, the right to marry or enter a civil partnership, the right to anonymity when allegations of rape or sexual abuse are made or the career implications of extended maternity leave.
Equal treatment for all is predominantly a matter of law, but there are also other areas of uncertainty, especially relating to children and young people. If gender and sexuality are flexible and not necessarily tied to biology, how should this be reflected in the way children are treated and taught? When is the boundary between flirting and bullying crossed? How can we protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse?
There are many examples of people – girls and boys, women and men, straight and homosexuals – being exploited and oppressed in obviously unjust ways, and we all have a duty to speak out against such things. Anomalies and differences in treatment exist in every society, and we all share responsibility for identifying when they are no longer culturally acceptable and become disrespectful, unfair or unjust, and changing our behaviour accordingly.
It helps to be guided by some principles as we engage with all this, such as the following:
- A reliable ideological or spiritual basis for regarding all people as having equal value is essential. For me, that value is rooted in the being and love of God.
- Treating people equally does not mean treating everyone in the same way. People have different needs and these should be taken into account when deciding what equality means.
- What gender means is bound to be shaped by culture, but separating it altogether from biological sexual identity is bound to be a difficult and possibly dangerous process for individuals involved.
- However meaningful other forms of sexual activity may be for the individuals involved, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is uniquely significant.
- Financial reward is important, but is not a measure of a person’s value.
- Questions of gender and sexuality can only be answered by men and women working together. It is impossible to achieving justice and equality for women without reference to justice and equality for men as well.
Peter Shepherd (18 January 2018)