Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 6, August 2001

Engendering Sameness

Christine Helliwell

  1. One of the primary characteristics of the western sex-gender model is that it is a discourse of difference. By this I mean that westerners conceptualise sex-gender in terms of a fundamental difference or distinction between two human types, a distinction which then underlies every aspect of human existence. This stress on dimorphism pervades the academic study of both gender and sexuality, including in the natural sciences. As Emily Martin has pointed out, it is often assumed that the division into two fundamental types can be observed at the level of the cell, with biologists commonly speaking of the egg as passive and immobile and the sperm as active and aggressive even though recent research indicates that these descriptions are erroneous and that they have led biologists to misunderstand the fertilisation process.[1] The cultural distinction between homo-sexuality and hetero-sexuality – with the pathologisation of the former and the normalisation of the latter – is a part of this discourse. Any attempt to question this discourse therefore has serious implications not only for feminist and other kinds of work on gender, but also for research on sexuality, including queer studies.
  2. Western understandings of gender difference (including those found among feminist scholars) have almost invariably started from the presumption of an underlying dimorphism: a presocial biological (bodily) difference between men and women ('male' and 'female') which is then somehow acted on by society to produce gender. In particular, the possession of either male genitals or female genitals is understood by most westerners to be the primary marker not only of gender identity but also of the presocial difference upon which the construction of gender takes place. Most feminist models of gender, while wishing to draw attention to the socially constructed character of difference, have nevertheless assumed – however reluctantly – that gender ultimately relates 'back' to sex, that is, to the fundamental dimorphism that produces the differences between 'male' and 'female' bodies, to which are then assigned a social significance by 'culture' or 'society'. Yet, this assumption – not of the existence of differences between the two, but of a single underlying difference – has to be seen as problematic, in light of not only feminist challenges to the notion that 'sex' is given and therefore universal,[2] but also historical research suggesting that dimorphic 'sexing' of bodies is a relatively recent phenomenon in West European history.[3] In fact, Judith Butler has argued (following Foucault) that the western emphasis on sexual difference is a product of the heterosexualisation of desire within western societies over the past few centuries, which 'requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between "feminine" and "masculine", where these are understood as expressive attributes of "male" and "female"'.[4] This results in what she calls the 'heterosexual matrix' as a fundamental characteristic of western societies: the division of humankind into two distinct – and in many respects opposed – types of body (and hence types of person). With sexuality linked to procreation, men's and women's bodies came to be medicalised, with genitals seen as significant of the (different) roles men and women are understood to play in the procreative process.
  3. I want to offer here a further contribution to these kinds of challenges by suggesting not only that there is cross-cultural diversity in the understanding of gender – which is a familiar enough point – but also that the assumption of fundamental difference between male and female is not a human universal; there are communities lacking the heterosexual matrix in which man/male and woman/female are not polarised in this way. In other words, western beliefs in the 'sexed' character of bodies are not 'natural' in basis, but rather are a component of specifically western gendering and sexual regimes. In addition, I want to reiterate the old anthropological point that for many non-western peoples sex-gender is not understood primarily in terms of bodies – and particularly of genitals – as it is in western discourses where, as a result of the heterosexualisation process including the linking of sexuality and procreation, the possession of a vulva or a penis is generally taken as the ultimate arbiter of one's sex/gender (the prevalence of transsexualism within western societies notwithstanding). If we persist in reading sex-gender everywhere as being primarily to do with bodily, read genital (that is, with sexual) difference, we will fail to come to terms with the operation of both gender and sexuality in many non-western contexts (as well as in many western ones).[5] In order to illustrate some of these points in this paper, I shall explore the way sex-gender operates in Gerai, a small Dayak community in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan Barat (Indonesian Borneo), where I carried out more than eighteen months anthropological fieldwork between March 1985 and January 1987.[6]
  4. Shelly Errington has pointed out that a feature of many of the societies of insular Southeast Asia (of which Gerai is one) is a stress on sameness, even identity, between men and women, in contrast to the western stress on difference between the passive 'feminine' object and the active, aggressive 'masculine' subject.[7] Gerai understandings of gender fit Errington's model very well. In Gerai, men and women are not understood as fundamentally different types of person: there is no sense of a dichotomized 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. Rather, men and women are seen to have the same kinds of capacities and proclivities, but with respect to some of these men are seen as 'more so' and with respect to others women are seen as 'more so.' Men are said to be braver and more knowledgeable about local law (adat), while women are said to be more persistent and more enduring. All of these qualities are valued. The Gerai notion of 'men's' and 'women's' work does not constitute a rigid division of labor: both men and women say that theoretically women can perform all of the work routinely carried out by men, and men can perform all of the work routinely carried out by women. However, men are much better at men's work than women are, and women are much better at women's work than men are. What we have here is a stress on identity between men and women at the expense of radical difference.
  5. This stress on identity between men and women extends into Gerai bodily and sexual discourses. A number of people (both men and women) assured me that men sometimes menstruate and, in addition, menstrual blood is not understood to be polluting, in contrast to the way it is seen in many societies that stress difference between men and women more strongly. While pregnancy and childbirth are spoken of as 'women's work,' many Gerai people claim that under certain circumstances men are also able to carry out this work – but, they say, women are 'better' at it and so normally undertake it. In line with this claim, I collected a Gerai myth concerning a lazy woman who was reluctant to take on the work of pregnancy and childbirth. Her husband instead made for himself a lidded container out of bark, wood and rattan ('like a betelnut container'), which he attached around his waist beneath his loincloth, and in which he carried the growing foetus until it was ready to be born. On one occasion when I was watching a group of Gerai men cut up a boar, one, remembering an earlier conversation about the capacity of men to give birth, pointed to a growth in the boar's body cavity, and said with much disapproving shaking of the head: 'Look at this. He wants to carry his child. He's stupid.' In addition, several times I saw fathers push their nipples into the mouths of young children to quieten them; while none of these claimed to be able to produce milk, people nevertheless claimed that some men in the community were able to lactate, a phenomenon also attested to in myth. Men and women are talked of as producing the same genital fluid, and this is linked in complex ways to the capacity of both to menstruate. All of these examples demonstrate the community's stress on bodily identity between men and women.
  6. Furthermore, in Gerai men's and women's sexual organs are explicitly conceptualized as the same. This sexual identity became particularly clear when I asked several people who had been to school (and hence were used to putting pencil to paper) to draw men's and women's respective organs for me: in all cases, the basic structure and form of each were the same. One informant, endeavouring to convince me of this sameness, likened both to wooden and bark containers for holding valuables (these vary in size, but have the same basic conical shape, narrower at the base and wider at the top). In all of these discussions, it was reiterated that the major difference between men's and women's organs is their location: inside the body (women) and outside the body (men). In fact, when I pressed people on this point, they invariably explained that it makes no sense to distinguish between men's and women's genitalia themselves; rather it is location which distinguishes between a penis and a vulva.
  7. 'Heterosexuality' constitutes the normative sexual activity in the community and, indeed, I was able to obtain very little information about homosexual practices during my time there. In line with the stress on sameness, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman in Gerai is understood as an equal coming together of fluids, pleasures and life force. The same stress also underlies beliefs about conception. Gerai people believe that repeated acts of intercourse between the same two people are necessary for conception, since this 'prepares' the womb for pregnancy. The foetus is deemed to be created through the mingling of equal quantities of fluids and forces from both partners. Again, what is seen as important here is not the fusion of two different types of bodies ('male' and 'female') as in western understandings; rather, Gerai people say, it is the similarity between the two bodies that allows procreation to occur. As someone put it to me bluntly: 'If they were not the same, how could the fluids blend? It's like coconut oil and water: they can't mix!'
  8. What needs to be stressed here is that both heterosexual intercourse and conception are viewed as involving a mingling of similar bodily fluids, forces and so on, rather than as the penetration of one body by another with a parallel propulsion of substances from one (male) body only into the other, very different (female) one. Nor is there anything in Gerai understandings that equates with the western notion of conception as involving an 'aggressive' active male cell (the sperm) seeking out and penetrating a passive, immobile female cell (the egg).[8] What Gerai accounts of both sexual intercourse and conception stress are tropes of identity, mingling, balance and reciprocity. In this context it is worth noting that many Gerai people were puzzled by the idea of gender-specific 'medicine' to prevent contraception – such as the injectable or oral contraceptives promoted by state-run health clinics in the area. Many believed that, given that both partners play the same role in conception, it should not matter whether husband or wife received such 'medicine' (and indeed, I knew of cases where husbands had taken oral contraceptives meant for their wives). This suggests that such contraceptive regimes also serve (like the practice of rape) to reinscribe 'sex' difference between men and women.[9]
  9. When I asked why, if conception is predicated on the mingling of two similar bodies, two men or two women could not also come together to create a child, the response was that a man and a woman 'fit' with one another [sedang]. But while there is some sense of physical compatibility being suggested here, Gerai people were adamant that what is much more important in constituting 'fit' is the role of each individual's 'life force' [semongan'], and its intimate connection to particular forms of work. The semongan' is the spiritual essence or force which animates the person, which gives the person his or her individual life. Without his or her semongan', a human being cannot live (this is true of all other elements in the universe as well), and thus when a person dies, the semongan' is understood to have left the body and journeyed away. In turn, an individual's semongan' is centrally linked to the kind of work which he or she routinely performs – particularly during the rice-cultivation cycle, which is understood as the source of life itself in Gerai.
  10. While Gerai people stress sameness over difference between men and women, they do, nevertheless, see them as being different in one important respect: their life forces are, they say, 'oriented' differently ('they face different ways,' it was explained to me). This different orientation means that women are 'better' at certain kinds of work and men are 'better' at other kinds of work – particularly with respect to ricefield work. Gerai people conceive of the work of clearing the large trees for a new ricefield as the definitive man's work, and regard the work of selecting and storing the rice seed for the following year's planting – which is correlated in fundamental ways with the process of giving birth – as the definitive woman's work. Because women are perceived to lack appropriate skills with respect to the first, and men are perceived to lack appropriate skills with respect to the second, Gerai people say that to be viable a household must contain both adult males and adult females. And since a 'comfortable life' is marked by success in production not only of rice but also of children, the truly viable household must contain at least one conjugal pair. The work of both husband and wife is seen as necessary for the adequate nurturance of the child and its successful rearing to adulthood (both of which depend on the successful cultivation of rice). Two women or two men would not be able to provide adequately for the child since they would not be able to produce consistently successful rice harvests; while such a household might be able to select seed, clear a ricefield, and so grow rice in some rudimentary fashion, its lack of expertise at one of these tasks would render it perennially poor and its children perennially unhealthy, Gerai people say. For this reason, households with adults of only one gender are greatly pitied by Gerai people, and single parents seek to marry or remarry as quickly as they can.
  11. It is the mingling of the respective life forces of a man and a woman, then – linked, as they are, to the work skills of each – which primarily enables conception to occur. It is this, Gerai people say, which allows the child's semongan' [life force] to come into being. Mingling of the parental bodily fluids, in turn, creates the child's bodily substance; but this substance must be animated in some prior sense by a life force, or the child will die.
  12. Gender difference in Gerai, then, is not predicated on the character of one's body, and especially of one's genitalia, as in many western contexts. Rather, it is understood as constituted in the differential capacity to perform certain kinds of work, a capacity assigned long before one's bodily being takes shape. In this respect it is important to note that Gerai ontology rests on a belief in predestination, in things being as they should.[10] In this understanding, any individual's semongan' is linked in multifarious and unknowable ways to the cosmic order, to the 'life' of the universe as a whole. Thus the new foetus is predestined to become someone 'fitted' to carry out either men's work (particularly certain stages of the rice-production process: burning and, especially, felling the large trees for a new ricefield) or women's work (particularly selection and storage of the rice seed and bearing children) as part of the maintenance of a universal balance. Bodies with the appropriate characteristics – internal or external genitalia, presence or absence of breasts, and so on – then develop in line with this prior destiny. At first sight this may not seem enormously different from western conceptions of gender, but the difference is in fact profound: while, for Westerners, genitalia, as significant of one's role in the procreative process, are absolutely fundamental in determining one's identity, in Gerai the work that one performs is seen as fundamental, and genitalia, along with other bodily characteristics, are relegated to a kind of secondary, derivative function.
  13. Gerai understandings of gender were made quite clear through circumstances surrounding my own gender classification while in the community. Gerai people remained very uncertain about my gender for some time after I arrived in the community, because (as they later told me) 'I did not ... walk like a woman, with arms held out from the body and hips slightly swaying; I was 'brave,' trekking from village to village through the jungle on my own; I had bony kneecaps; I did not know how to tie a sarong in the appropriate way for women; I could not distinguish different varieties of rice from one another; I did not wear earrings; I had short hair; I was tall'.[11] This was despite the fact that people in the community knew from my first few days with them both that I had breasts (this was obvious from bathing in the river when the sarong which I wore clung to my body) and that I had a vulva rather than a penis and testicles (this was obvious from my trips to defecate or urinate in the small stream used for that purpose, when literally dozens of people would line the banks to observe whether I performed these functions differently from them). As someone said to me at a later point, 'Yes, I saw that you had a vulva, but I thought that western men might be different.'
  14. My eventual more definitive classification as a woman occurred largely fortuitously. My initial research topic led me to seek information about rice, particularly about the different strains, how they are cultivated and what they are used for. As I learned to distinguish types of rice and their uses, I became more and more of a woman (as I realised later), since this knowledge is understood by Gerai people as foundational to femininity. However, my gender identity remained deeply ambiguous, mainly because I never managed to achieve anything approaching the level of knowledge concerning rice seed selection held by even a girl-child in Gerai.
  15. In fact, Gerai people talk of two kinds of work as defining a woman: the selection and storage of rice seed and the bearing of children.[12] But the first of these is viewed as prior, logically as well as chronologically. People are quite clear that in the womb either 'someone who can cut down the large trees for a ricefield is made, or someone who can select and store rice.' When I asked if it was not more important whether or not someone could bear a child, it was pointed out to me that many women do not bear children (there is a high rate of infertility in the community), but all women have the knowledge to select and store rice seed. In fact, at the level of the rice group the two activities of 'growing' rice and 'growing' children are inseparable: a rice group produces rice in order to raise healthy children and it produces children in order that they can in turn produce the rice which will sustain the group once their parents are old and frail.[13] For this reason, any Gerai couple unable to give birth to a child of their own will adopt one, usually from a group related by kinship. The two activities of 'growing' rice and 'growing' children are constantly talked about together, and the same imagery is used to describe the development of a woman's pregnancy and the development of rice grains on the plant. Indeed, the process of pregnancy and birth is seen as intimately connected to the process of rice selection and storage. As one woman explained to me, 'It is because we know how to hold the seed in the storage baskets that we are able to hold it in our wombs.' But just as the cultivation of rice is seen as in some sense prior to the cultivation of children, so it is said that 'knowledge about childbirth comes from knowledge about rice seed.'
  16. Gerai, then, lacks the stress on bodily – and especially genital – dimorphism between male and female that is fundamental to most western accounts of gender and of sexuality. Indeed, the reproductive organs themselves are not seen as 'sexed' in Gerai. In a sense it is problematic even to use the English categories 'woman' and 'man' when writing of this community, since these terms are saturated with assumptions concerning the priority of biological (read, bodily) difference. In the Gerai context, it would be more accurate to deal with the categories of, on the one hand, 'those responsible for rice selection and storage' and, on the other, 'those responsible for cutting down the large trees to make a ricefield.' In addition, there is no discursive space in Gerai for the polarisation of an active, aggressive, penetrating male sexual organ (and sexuality) and a passive, vulnerable, female one.
  17. In summary then, while the normative sexual practice in Gerai is 'heterosexual' (men with women), it is not accompanied by a heterosexual regulatory regime in the sense meant by Foucault in his discussion of the creation of sex as part of the heterosexualization of desire in the West, nor is it part of what Butler terms the heterosexual matrix.[14] The notion of 'heterosexualization' as used by these thinkers refers to far more than the simple establishment of sexual relations between men and women as the normative ideal; it denotes the entire governmental regime that accompanies this normative ideal in western contexts. Gerai stresses sameness between men and women more than difference, and such difference as occurs is based on the kinds of work that people perform. Although this process certainly naturalizes a division between certain kinds of tasks – and the capacity to perform those tasks effectively – clearly, it does not involve sex or sexed bodies in the way that westerners normally understand those terms: as a naturalized difference between bodies (located primarily in the genitals) that translates into two profoundly different types of person. As a result, there is also no polarisation of different kinds of sexualities: neither a male-female polarity nor a 'same-sex'-'different-sex' (homo-hetero) one. My strong sense is that for Gerai people, whether one has a penis or a vulva – and, indeed, whether a potential sexual partner is of the same or of a different 'sex' to oneself – is largely unimportant in the constitution of sexual desire. What is important in this regard is the kind of work that one performs. Gerai is by no means unusual in the importance that it attaches to work in the creation of sex-gender difference. In this region alone there are a number of other peoples (for example, the Wana of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the Ilongot of Luzon in the Philippines) for whom difference between men and women is seen as primarily a matter of the different work that each performs.[15] Similarly, Harriet Whitehead points out, in a celebrated paper, that work is central to the constitution of gender and sexuality in Native American societies.[16] We forget this widespread relationship between sex-gender and work – mistakenly assuming that gender and sexuality are everywhere primarily to do with the 'sexed' character of bodies – at our peril.
  18. The implications of this for western analyses of gender and sexuality in both western and nonwestern settings are profound. I have written elsewhere, for instance, on how the western belief in a pre-social, biological and therefore universal sex-gender dimorphism has led feminist (and other) scholars mistakenly to assume that rape is a human universal.[17] In addition, as scholars such as Ann Stoler have pointed out, the process of heterosexualisation in the West has gone hand-in-hand with that of colonialism.[18] As a result, in contemporary western settings sexual othering is inextricably entangled with racial othering (another area in which assumptions of underlying difference play a fundamental role), as evidenced by the highly racialised character of rape in many western contexts. Consequently, in universalising our heterosexual matrix we risk perpetuating not simply the othering of women and of 'deviant' sexualities (both always other within the heterosexual matrix), but also of non-western peoples.


    [1] Emily Martin, 'The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,' in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (1991): 485-501. For an excellent account of the ways (often latent) conceptions of men and women as having opposed characteristics are entrenched in the history of western philosophical thought see Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: 'Male' and 'Female' in western Philosophy, London: Methuen, 1984.

    [2] See especially Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge,1990, and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

    [3] See Randolph Trumbach, 'Gender and the Homosexual Role in Modern western Culture: the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries Compared,' in Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? ed. Dennis Altman, Amsterdam: An Dekker/Schorer: London: GMP, 1989, pp. 149-69, and 'London's Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture,' in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt, New York: Zone, 1993, pp. 111-36; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Bodies and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1990; Theo van der Meer, 'Sodomy and the Pursuit of a Third Sex in the Early Modern Period,' in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt, New York: Zone, 1993, pp. 137-212.

    [4] Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 17; see Laqueur, Making Sex for a historical account of this process.

    [5] My point here parallels one made recently by Kulick in theorising the Brazilian 'third sex' or travesti category. See Don Kulick, 'The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes,' in American Anthropologist 99 (1997): 574-85.

    [6] The fieldwork was funded by an Australian National University PhD scholarship and carried out under the sponsorship of Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia. At the time that I was conducting my research a number of phenomena were beginning to impact on the community (including the arrival of a Malaysian timber company to log the jungle around Gerai, the arrival of Protestant fundamentalist missionaries and the increasing tendency of families to send their children to attend secondary school in a large coastal town several days' journey away) – these had the potential to effect massive changes in the areas of life discussed here.

    Much of the ethnographic material outlined in this paper is taken from, and discussed at greater length in, a previously published article. See Christine Helliwell, '"It's Only a Penis": Rape, Feminism and Difference,' in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25 (2000): 789-816. For more detail both on the research itself, and on social relations in Gerai more generally, see Christine Helliwell, 'Never Stand Alone': A Study of Borneo Sociality, Phillips, Maine: Borneo Research Council, 2001.

    [7] Shelly Errington, 'Recasting Sex, Gender and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview,' in Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 35, 39. The Wana of Sulawesi, as described by Jane Atkinson, provide an excellent example of a society that emphasises sameness. See Jane Atkinson, 'How Gender Makes a Difference in Wana Society,' in Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 59-93.

    [8] See Martin, 'The Egg and the Sperm.'

    [9] See also Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 104-20.

    [10] See Christine Helliwell, 'Autonomy as Natural Equality: Inequality in "Egalitarian" Societies,' Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1 (1995): 359-75, and 'Never Stand Alone.'

    [11] Christine Helliwell, 'Women in Asia: Anthropology and the Study of Women,' in Asia's Cultural Mosaic, ed. Grant Evans, Singapore: Prentice-Hall, 1993, p. 260.

    [12] In Gerai, pregnancy and birth are seen not as semi-mystical 'natural' processes, as they are for many westerners, but simply as forms of work, linked very closely to the work of rice production.

    [13] See Helliwell, 'Never Stand Alone.'

    [14] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978; Butler, Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter.

    [15] On the Wana, see Atkinson, 'How Gender Makes a Difference in Wana Society.' On the Ilongot, see Michelle Rosaldo, Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    [16] Harriet Whitehead, 'The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America,' in Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality, ed. Sherry. B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 80-115.

    [17] Helliwell, '"It's Only a Penis".'

    [18] Ann Laura Stoler, 'Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Gender, Race, and Morality in Colonial Asia,' in Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, ed. Micaela di Leonardo, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 51-180, and Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue6/helliwell.html.

HTML last modified: 7 March 1147 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright