This module is a resource for lecturers


What is sex? What is gender? What is intersectionality? Why should we care?


In their ground-breaking article "Doing Gender" published in 1987, West and Zimmerman wrote:

"In Western societies, the accepted cultural perspective on gender views women and men as naturally and unequivocally defined categories of being (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 116-18) with distinctive psychological and behavioural propensities that can be predicted from their reproductive functions. (…) The structural arrangements of a society are presumed to be responsive to these differences. (…) Reducing gender to a fixed set of psychological traits or to a unitary "variable" precludes serious consideration of the ways it is used to structure distinct domains of social experience" (127-128).

What West and Zimmerman argued back then along with many other gender scholars who have followed since, is that people are not born with a specific gender that is in line with their sex. Sex refers to the anatomical and physiological characteristics which differentiate between men and women. Gender is instead learned and performed through social interactions. Expressions like 'be a man' or 'act lady-like' reveal the social construction (see definition in glossary ) of gender. Men and women are expected to abide to specific yet gendered social practices and expectations. Gender is "a socially organized achievement" (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 129). We expect and demand boys to show "manly" traits, or for girls to dress or act "like ladies." Not doing so has social implications.

In line with these views, the United Nations consider "gender" as referring to "the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context-, culture- and time-specific as well as changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context. In most societies, there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities" (UN OSAGI, 2001).

Gender and criminology scholars have also identified that these gendered expectations may lead people to participate or engage in certain behaviours - for men, for example, to act violently or tough; for women, to take on roles as care-takers. In general, gender is simply seen as a natural, inherent or unquestionable fact that is also rooted in our biology. Many societies take the differences between men and women for granted and see them as constants that do not change or evolve. Some societies, however, have different approaches to gender, further demonstrating its socially constructed nature. Some Native people in North America, for example, have used the term "Two Spirit" to acknowledge the existence of multiple gender identities and expressions. The term does not refer to a specific definition of gender or sexual orientation (see definition in glossary ). It is instead an umbrella term that brings together the specific names, roles and traditions Native people have for their own two-spirit people. For the Navajo people, for example, two-spirit men and women carry both a male and female spirit within them and are blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both - they are the perfect embodiment of two genders in one person (Enos, 2017). In other communities, gender fluidity is completely tolerated, if not celebrated and gender equality is considered part of the standard social norms. For instance, in the small indigenous territory of Guna Yala - an archipelago off Panama's eastern coast also known as San Blas -, boys may choose to become Omeggid, literally 'like a woman', where they act and work like other females in the community. This 'third gender' is a completely normal phenomenon on the islands, and while female transitions to male are extremely rare, they are equally accepted (Gerulaityte, 2018). Similarly, in the Istmo de Tehuantepec region in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, three genders exist: female, male and muxes. A muxe is any person who was born a man but does not act masculine and they are not only respected but also an important part of the community. This third classification has been acknowledged and celebrated since pre-Hispanic times and some legends narrate that they fell out from the pocket of Vicente Ferrer, the patron saint of Juchitán de Zaragoza (a small town in this region that celebrate the "Vela de Las Intrepidas" - Vigil of the Intrepids -, the annual celebration of muxes each November), as he passed through town, which, according to locals, means they were born under a lucky star (Synowiec, 2018).

Why do we mention these examples? Some scholars have argued that to understand men and women's experiences and impact on society we must move from focusing on [sexual] difference to focusing on relations, on the claim that "gender is after all, a matter of the social relations within which individuals and groups act (…)" (Connell, 2004: 11). To put it informally, gender is not a mere natural, inborn trait, but rather one that is learned and performed. Furthermore, the ways we perform gender can also be connected to our personal experiences as people who have endured long standing, multiple, intersectional forms of discrimination.

Kimberly Crenshaw, an African American legal scholar, coined the term "intersectionality" in her seminal article "Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color" (1989) to theorize the ways in which individuals may be subjected to multiple and compounding forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) that are interconnected. According to Crenshaw, these cannot be examined separately from one another (for more in-depth reading on intersectionality, see Module 9 on Gender Dimensions of Ethics of the Module Series on Integrity and Ethics). Since the term allows to combine different, intersecting experiences, it is an important and often used concept in criminology. Intersectionality allows us to focus on the areas in which multiple, intersecting forms of inequality affect people who have historically been disadvantaged and allows to bring into the discussion on crime their experiences and perspectives (Castiello Jones, Misra, McCurley, 2013). Crenshaw conceived the term aware of the need, articulated by other African American women, "to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race" (Adewunmi, 2014). In other words, intersectionality describes the overlapping and interconnecting social identities that often affect and inform how we move within society (being female and poor and migrant; being male, foreign and disabled, etc.). Intersecting identities are not mutually exclusive, but rather work together to construct how one is perceived in society. Crenshaw proposed that our identities need to be considered simultaneously so to reflect and analyse how power hierarchies shape our experiences (Cooper, 2016).

Why talk about intersectionality in a Module on gender and organized crime? Around the world, the number of men and women in detention for their involvement in drug trafficking activities has increased exponentially (UNODC (c), 2018). This phenomenon, however, cannot be explained only by looking at the gender of those incarcerated. In many countries, men and women from indigenous communities or ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the detention system. But many of them are from countries that endured colonial traditions that created social hierarchies and contributed to making those communities more vulnerable. Intersectionality brings forth the role gender, ethnicity/race and other factors play in people's dealings in front of the law. It also shows us how the stereotypes we often construct regarding men and women, who also are from other races, nationalities or who are part of other social and/or economic class, have an impact and shape their encounters with the law. For example, using intersectionality we can provide improved explanations of the increasing number of women serving time in prison, including for low-level drug dealing offences. Some criminologists, and most media coverage, attribute the trend to women's relationships with men. Intersectionality allows us to provide a more nuanced explanation. Women are less likely than men to be able to afford fines or to pay the surety required for bail, as generally speaking, women earn less than men and have unequal access to educational and/or employment opportunities. Consequently, they may also be less likely to be eligible for consideration for non-custodial sanctions and measures if their economic and social vulnerability are assessed as risk factors (UNODC (c), 2018). While this is clearly a generalization, the same trends hold true also for women in organized criminal groups.

Women in organized criminal groups, however, tend not only to be poorer or less educated. They are also more likely to be immigrant, indigenous, disabled, and elderly (WOLA et al, 2013). Furthermore, organized criminal markets tend to be highly gendered - that is, roles and tasks tend to be assigned primarily along gender lines. This also translates into most positions of power or control being held by men. Women are more likely to perform some of the lowest paid, riskier and peripheral tasks in organized crime. This often means that they are more visible to the police and therefore more likely to be detained. Furthermore, excluded from the circles of power, women are also less likely to have knowledge or intelligence that would allow them to negotiate lesser sentences or less strict terms (WOLA et al, 2013).

It is important to remember that intersectionality is not only about gender. It is about how multiple systems interlock to create and perpetuate inequality. For example, many indigenous, aboriginal or native people charged with crimes may be unable to communicate in languages different than their own; this may limit their ability to get a fair trial. Unprecedented numbers of people are moving as migrants, at times becoming entangled in criminal activities as a way to survive. The inaccessibility to quality interpreters or to justice mechanisms that recognize these structural challenges people face translate into a lack of access to justice (WOLA et al, 2013). In sum, intersectionality can help us see how men as well as women are impacted by multiple and layered forms of discrimination; it helps us provide more nuanced understandings of the reasons and contexts behind crime. Not considering these multiple factors and layered forms of discrimination exacerbates people's vulnerabilities.

Next: Why do we know so little about gender in organized crime?
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