Do Otters Have Gender?

Subject: Do Otters Have Gender?
Date: Thu 06 Aug 1998 - 18:12:59 BST

Do otters have gender? To me, that's an interesting question.

There is no doubt that otters have a sex. There are male otters and female
otters, otherwise, there wouldn't be any baby otters.

Otters have sex roles, too, at least around mating and pup-reading. There are
mommy otters and daddy otters, each with roles. There may even be other roles
that ae defined by sex in an otter clan, as there are in other mammals, but
not being much of an expert in aquatic mammals, I would be hard pressed to
know what they might be.

So otters have sex, and sex roles. But do they have gender?

I don't think so. I believe that gender is a communication of role and status
that assumes symbols of gender. No otter worries about what lipstick is in
fashion, or is asked to go to a weekend workshop on "Making better
relationships." Otter females don't read otter women's magazine, and no other
females make snippy remarks about their clothing. Otter males don't follow
otter sports teams, wearing caps and jackets with logos on them to signify
their identity. There is no complex code of symbols to inform of class or
race of otters, for that matter.

If you take a human woman and move her from one community to another, she may
well have to learn not only a new set of relationships but also a new set of
symbols and behavior. If you take an otter female and move her, she will need
to learn new relationships, but I bet that otter life would be pretty much the
same in terms of symbols and types of behavior.

To me, sex and sex roles are coded somehow, in a way we don't quite yet
understand. I'm sure that otters do learn from each other, passing on
behaviors, but their language is not symbolic and abstract. They get their
otterness, and some how that essential coding gets played out.

But gender, on the other hand, is constructed. That's why stockings and wigs
were considered masculine in the 18th century and feminine in the 20th.
Gender is a system of communication about roles and possibilities that we use
between humans to connect with each other. Animals who don't communicate
symbolicaly don't have gender.

The big question that all of us wrestle with, though, is "Where do sex roles
stop and where does gender begin?" Some people go one way and claim it's all
coded sex roles, that sex and gender are the same thing. Others go the other
way and claim that sex roles are irelevant, that it's all gender an all

Ah, nature or nurture, and the big experiment that humans can't perform --
what happens when you don't nurture children? Can you determine their
essence, what is coded into them that way? It turns out that you can't,
because humans are social animals, and that early socialization, as abritary
and constructed as it is is crucial for humans to develop. For humans, the
social is natural.

Do otters, or any non-human mammals for that matter, have gender? Sex and sex
roles, sure, but without symbolic communication, I don't think gender is

(who originally wanted to use beavers as the example species but shied away
from the double entendre.)


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