Before I knew much of anything about the world or myself, I knew I was a boy. Dressed in blue and constantly being called a “cute little boy,” the idea of my gender was among the first things socially cemented into my mind. It was also among the first things the world knew about me, as it was one of the answers an ultrasound seemed preoccupied with. Once born, it was the first question people asked about me: “is it a boy or a girl?”
Honestly, I never understood what all the intrigue was about. There was about a 50-50 chance I’d be a boy or girl, and frankly, I could care less what I was, so long as I got the chance to live.
What does my gender really matter? Certainly the differences approach superficial until puberty, as it’s social conventions that inform you of what to like and dislike relative to your gender as a child. But then like magic, things get a little hairy after puberty, and the distinction between genders seems to broaden and impound the unavoidable physical differences.
Despite these differences and though my wife is a female, and I’m only sexually attracted to women, I try not to divide our relationship up based on gender lines. But having had gender lines and expectations strongly cemented it’s hard to get around the differences, and to even understand the other side. For instance, do I know what menstruation is like? I sound like a pain, but I can only go off of what I’m told. Do I know how it feels to have a biological clock ticking down along side my career options, as is the case for my wife? No, however, I wish I did so that I could better understand her dilemma. I try to understand it though, as much as I can understand anything that I can’t actually experience.
Since I don’t know what it’s actually like to live life as a woman, I’m left to rely on communication, and listening to the first hand accounts of others. But communication is often such a dubious tool. The problem is, it’s the only tool we have, and it’s often loaded and built around social expectations.
At a very young age I learned that there are certain things boys have that girls don’t, and places in the world I was forbidden to go, like the girl’s change room. I understood that I was expected to play sports, and felt obliged to do so for many years. I stood up when I urinated, which despite one of my sister’s best efforts, was always easier to accomplish for me than for her. I had action figures, and felt bad when I played with Barbies, even though Barbies were then the only resource I had at my disposal to learn about the mechanics of sex (however inaccurate their representations).
In fact, it seemed all boy’s toys were for imagination and adventure, while girls got Easy Bake Ovens, and toy kitchens. It’s as if, in our childhood play, boys were taught that it was unnecessary to practice real-life scenarios, like cooking eggs, because it was assumed the girls in the world would handle it once we grew up. I noticed the distinction, but never really fully understood why it existed. How hard would it be for a boy to cross over and play with a toy cash register (something I’ve used lots in my adult life)? Or even more unlikely, how easy would it be for a girl to refuse such toys, and opt to live in a boy’s world of sports and adventure? Many parents may feel that promoting such habits is unhealthy because it breaks with social norms , however this is where a lot of the (non-biological) differences lay.
It was when I first had Barbie and Ken get into a brawl behind their trailer that I understood just how divided the genders really are. When I played with my Ninja Turtles, it was OK to force the toys into an endless string of fights, smashing them together and tossing them about the room. However, when I got Barbie and Ken into the same kind of fight, suddenly I felt as though there was something a little more immoral about my play. Barbie would kick Ken in the balls, and he’d try to bite her breast.
Without thinking about it, it seemed natural; they were in a fight and it was no holds barred. But I couldn’t deny that in some way it felt different. I cannot say where this distinction came from, whether it was implanted in me through television, by my parents or if the feeling was just naturally there, but something about those feelings felt inaccurate. What was it that made the situations feel so different, despite the only perceivable difference being that in one case the fight involved different genders?
Then, while watching an episode of The Care Bears, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The Ninja Turtles don’t have sex with each other, Ken and Barbie do. Ken and Barbie even have a baby from time to time — was this the difference?
For many years my dad, my sister and I often play fought (or really fought when my dad wasn’t around), yet the play fights ended as puberty occurred. Strange, I thought — real strange — because I’m growing hair in new places, suddenly it’s a new world, suddenly the rules of my conduct have changed. To hit my sister in any way would suddenly be viewed as a crime against an entire gender.
The major problem for me was that play-fights were among my favorite childhood pastimes. It was a way to be physically active and close to my family member without seeming weak and emotional. Those were the times I felt closest to my mostly distant father, and got along best with my sister. It felt pure and good, until I hit puberty, until my desire for sex and control over my life became more pronounced. The part that always confused me though, was that I always desired putting my penis inside of girls, even before I knew what sex was, so how was my being older, but wanting the same thing, really any different? The only difference I could recognize was that I was becoming stronger, and my body was better equipped for sex, and, of course, that society was able to recognize that I was at an age when such desires were expected in me.
Strange, I thought — really strange. Somehow sexual maturity changes the nature of play in as profound a way as play is usually promoted based on gender.
Now we leap into the present tense. My wife is the same size as me, close to the same weight and nearly as tall as me. Due to my disability she is stronger than me on many days, but by and large we are physical equals. Yet when I talk about play fighting with her to others, it’s instantly assumed I’m talking about sex allegorically. Like two adults cannot play without the play being sex-centric. It’s not about sex though; it’s about exploring all possible ways to express affection with the person I care most about. Is this wrong? When one of us getss accidentally hurt, is it suddenly abuse? No, I don’t think so. But I fear regularly that if such an event arises, and I was the one who hurt her, I’d be seen as abusive by society, though my intentions were only affectionate. Getting hurt a little is part of the risks of playing such a game, yet I always fear talking about it because people will view us as having an unhealthy relationship, solely based on our genders and the way in which we play.
To me though, most adults lose their sense of play. It’s as if once you’re an adult, play is either with those of the same gender and based solely on competition, or it’s motivated and based around sex. This is perhaps part of the reason why so many people have a problem with homosexuality in the army and within sports, because it turns all the perceived boundaries of adult play on its head by mixing competition and sex. But this is foolish, for it doesn’t seem to me that play needs to be connected to sex. Sometimes play is just play, even between adults.
Out of the many gender issues that require attention, I believe that the stereotypical social perceptions of adult play needs to be addressed. It seems to me that a lot of what is and is not considered acceptable in adult play is based around what we were told when we are young. Boys fight and play with boys and do boyish things, and girls fight and can play with girls and do girlish things. It’s when young boys and girls play together (a situation I found myself in often), or do things not normally associated with their gender, that society seems to treat the rules of play differently. This needs to change, and though I know progress is being made, children should use play to learn who they are, not what they are “supposed” to be. Social roles are being blown wide open, but we can only come so far if we don’t change the rules of play.
It all comes down to the mindsets that conjure phrases like “Boys will be boys,” and “She’s just a girl.” Though there are unavoidable physical differences, play has contributed to making those differences more profound than they need to be. Playtime has made it so that gender boundaries are more rule-based than set in reality. Really the only truism that can be applied to any group so broadly, without causing damage and setting unfair boundaries, is “People will be people.”