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'

Sweeting, H. , Maycock, M. W., Walker, L. and Hunt, K. (2017) 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'. Sociology of Health and Illness, 39(3), pp. 380-396. (doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12490) (PMID:27859354) (PMCID:PMC5363354)

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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.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Hunt, Professor Kathryn and Hunter, Miss Laura and Maycock, Dr Matthew and Sweeting, Dr Helen
Authors: Sweeting, H., Maycock, M. W., Walker, L., and Hunt, K.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing > MRC/CSO SPHSU
Journal Name:Sociology of Health and Illness
ISSN (Online):1467-9566
Published Online:16 November 2016
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2016 The Authors
First Published:First published in Sociology of Health and Illness 39(3):380-396
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
656581Gender and HealthKathryn HuntMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/3IHW - MRC/CSO SPHU
727641SPHSU Core Renewal: Setting and Health Improvement Research ProgrammeKathryn HuntMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/12IHW - MRC/CSO SPHU