Do Women and Men Have 'Sexed' Brains?

The brain and the mind are fascinating for feminism, given that oppression has been normalised by referencing to the brain. This article attempts to accumulate knowledge generated by the field of neurofeminism, and searches for an association between doing feminism and the sciences.

Sexual identity is not owned but constructed through heteronormative power norms which point towards how any sexual orientation is neither innate nor stable, and hence, cannot be regarded as an immutable identity (Butler 1990). 

Can gender be unlearned? A fundamental question of current feminist critiques is that Western–influenced feminists have made gender a universal categorisation in itself, as if the gender hierarchy has been always present (Oyewumi 2002). Nivedita Menon further argues that gender is a creation of Western modernity executed through colonialism (Menon 2012). Additional work by Menon, Anne Fausto-Sterling and other feminists has challenged the universality of gender, and thus, there is a need to analyse the current philosophy of neural and cognitive sciences, to unveil the mystery of identities.

Understanding Neurofeminism 

Based on a biocultural perspective, neurofeminism highlights the inseparable entanglements between the development of biological matter and social influences (Schmitz and Höppner 2014). I refer to Donna Haraway’s essays to understand neurofeminism: there is nothing about being female that naturally binds women together into a unified category. There is not even such a state as “being” female; this in itself is a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. A cyborg, as Haraway argues, does not require a stable, essentialist identity; feminists should thus consider creating coalitions based on “affinity” instead of identity. Using a term coined by the theorist Chela Sandoval, Haraway writes that “oppositional consciousness” is comparable with cyborg politics, because rather than identity it stresses on how affinity comes as a result of “otherness, difference, and specificity” (Haraway 1985). 

Menachem Mazabow, in defining neuro-epistemology as “the frame for scientific inquiry into the nature and status of knowledge in neuro-sciences” creates a framework for neurofeminist analyses that challenges the ontology of the neurosciences and the cognitive sciences (Mazabow, et al 2004). Mazabow questions the philosophy of science in her principles of neuro-epistemological analyses, and mentions that although science intends to be objective, it inevitably cannot be detached from its ontology. Science is guided by assumptions that exist in the context of both the mental and the personal. She also assumes a Marxist stand based on the fact that science is a capitalist space guided by notions of utility and value. She also questions the notion of “truth” and the scientific method as being inherently and systematically oppressive.

To understand where I position myself in neurofeminist arguments, I must define two broad classical feminist positions: liberal and radical. Liberal feminism conceives freedom as personal autonomy—living a life of one's own choosing—and political autonomy as being a co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Liberal feminists hold that the exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions that are insufficiently present in women's lives, or on those social arrangements which often fail to respect women's personal autonomy and other elements of women's flourishing. They also hold that women's needs and interests are insufficiently reflected in the basic conditions under which they live, and that those conditions lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in the processes of democratic self-determination (Baehr 2013). Liberal feminists look at neuroscientific studies as ‘sexed’—trying to differentiate (and arguably prove) the notions of a “male” and “female” brain. 

The radical feminist perspective approaches the same question through a different nodal problematisation: radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (as in liberal feminism) or class conflict (as in anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, and Marxist feminism). Because neurofeminist arguments are gender-centric, an understanding of the radical feminist outlook may help in understanding the context of these arguments (and also the necessity of the same). Radical feminists, as pointed out by Menon, believe in appreciating subtle differences, and allow space for non-hierarchies to develop (Menon 2012). 

Through rigorous data analysis of functional magnetic resource imaging (fMRI) data, neuroscientists argue upon how the methodology of data gaining is gendered in itself. Fausto-Sterling (2000) points out that scientific research in itself propagates that sexed differences are not just social but also physiological, and in this case neurological. I add that gendered differences are not found but made, by impregnating perceptual beliefs into empirical–rationalist research. Extending Fausto-Sterling’s problematisation, I propose that we also learn to disembody sex/gender and categorise identities into binaries, just like Fausto-Sterling had herself proposed a five-sex model of sexuality (Fausto-Sterling 1993), which breaks down the standard binary model of gender. 

Locating the “Male” and “Female” Brain

Recently published neuroscientific papers use disparate methods to engage with questions on sex and sexuality. Using FMRI, Pletzer et al. (2010) demonstrate that women taking hormonal contraceptives showed significantly larger prefrontal cortices, amongst other regions of the brain, compared to women not using contraceptives. Neuroeconomist Eisenegger and colleagues (2010) indicate that the faith in a specific effect of testosterone, rather than in testosterone’s biological action itself made research participants believe that they were acting in a “male way.” Neuropsychologists Ponseti et al (2006) have proposed that although homosexual and heterosexual women and men have identical brain processes of sexual arousal, statistical analysis of the brain’s response to sexual stimuli could yield the participants’ sexual orientation (Ponseti et al 2009).

If we queer our gaze we begin to see that in the contemporary neurosciences, there is some gender trouble going on (Dussauge and Kaiser 2012). Second Wave Feminism has aggressively countered the repeated use of biological descriptions of the human. Biologists Bagemihl and Roughgarden in 1999 and 2004 respectively, have autocritically noted the deterministic tendency which attempts to explain and justify everything outside the heterosexual norm. Queer scholarship needs to engage more deeply with neuroscientific scholarship, because, at stake are not only the political consequences of the naturalisation of gender and sexuality norms, but also the scientific character of knowledge production in biological sciences (Dussauge and Kaiser 2012). 

Current neuroscience research speaks of how sex/gender is “in” the brain and not “of” the brain. Socio-medical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young (2010) has conducted an extensive review of the published evidence for the “brain organization theory,” the model according to which prenatal-hormonal levels categorically sex the human brain before birth as female or male, respectively. In this model, the sexed brain that people are born with directs their behaviour throughout life—including sexual behaviour and preference—along two main scripts, female and male. According to Jordan-Young, not only does the available evidence reject the brain organisation theory but as a whole, the huge range of neuroscientific results actually disproves this theory. To explain this discrepancy between what neuroscientific studies claim to prove and what they actually support, Jordan-Young invokes, among other problems, methodological inconsistencies including sweeping, changing, stereotypical, and often implicit definitions of gender and sexuality (Dussauge and Kaiser 2012).  Shaywitz (1995), is a commonly cited example, who has been well critiqued by Mikkel Wallentin in 2008 for losing on some primary questions and putting forth a biased research narrative (Wallentin 2009). One reason that has been attributed for research flying around that shows these differences is a publication bias Studies showing differences are more likely to be published. Deboleena Roy argues from a more radical feminist approach that this bias stems from an unnuanced understanding of what these differences are, and illustrates the necessity of a feminist interjection to such studies which promote putative inferences through constructed (but not performed) research (Roy 2012).

It is important to remember historical issues which make the queer interjection to neurosciences necessary: for example, the practice of lobotomy on non-heterosexual individuals in 1940, or the quest for the “gay brain” in the 1970s (Colville 2016). Labelling somewhere has been used by scientists—and neuroscientists in particular—to feel comforted with a projected ease of understanding—“if I can call it something, I have understood it.” 

Positioning and Further Scopes 

We need to assess our biases to understand if we can find the resultants of our hypothesising in the brain. The knowledge-gaining procedures need to be redefined, and we need to find out more ways to theorise and produce knowledge, which has been the hub of discussion in feminist neurosciences. 
Arguments from the neurofeminist field generally project to scientists an anxiety as a result of militant criticism, and variable distancing, which results in unnuanced defence from both sides and an unresolved agitation. To shed this anxiety off is to transgress in one way, the other way is to continue the engagement. Further research can develop scholarly nuance on various other issues located in the political contexts of neural and cognitive sciences, and must be pursued academically with rigorous activist input. 

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