Activisms and Biomedical Narratives on Gender and Sexuality

Reception: February 5, 2023

Acceptance: February 8, 2023

Since the category of gender was installed as an analytical category for social research with the now classic essay by Joan Scott (1996), social research consolidated the distinction between gender and sex, which for many years remained a natural and stable essence. Over time, feminist and post-structuralist theories made the category more complex. Sex has been problematized and ceased to be considered only a biological phenomenon, giving way to the discussion on sexuality and making the body visible as the space where meaning-producing relationships materialize (Bárcenas and Delgado-Molina, 2021).

To the extent that the ways of understanding sex and gender have diversified, positions have also emerged which, articulated in diverse activisms that use scientific discourse in general and biomedical narratives in particular - to legitimize their opposition to legislative transformations related to gender and sexuality - have promoted specific moral projects. These include religious, Catholic and evangelical activisms, conservative movements that do not identify themselves as religious but as a political position and, more recently, trans-exclusionary feminisms.

These moral entrepreneurs articulate a debate that mobilizes new symbolic repertoires in the public sphere, with which justifications, legitimations and frameworks of meaning are constructed around bodies, as the main space for the inscription of the debate and its limits.

Focusing on women's and people's rights lgtbiqa+, we have invited three specialists in Mexico and Spain to discuss, based on their research experiences, how they have observed the changes, both from a theoretical/disciplinary and empirical point of view.

I would like to open with your perspective on the body: Why has the body historically been this space of dispute between rights, moral projects and biomedical discourses?

Bodies have been since the origin of humanity a space of political dispute. In today's societies we are very mental and tend to forget that the body is the basis of work, of territory, of war, of the reproduction of the social group and, therefore, is the basis of wealth and power. As a consequence, human societies moralize bodies, their appearances and their uses, turning them into spaces for the expression of collective values and interests, and placing the individual body at the service of something other than its own will or need. Very often, this alienating moralization is done by invoking superior instances such as God or sacred texts (in religions), or Science (in medicine), or even Justice and the law (in law), instances that are considered sources of morality and truth above the particular individuals who exercise or suffer the power of some people over others.

This alienating moralization of the body through the collective has many historical expressions on all continents. For example, the Polish right and extreme right have used nationalist sentiment against feminist collectives and lgbtq+ with some electoral success, presenting sexual and reproductive rights as a form of national treason, and claiming that these are foreign ideologies that want to destroy the nation through, precisely, individual freedom in the use of bodies.1

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Historically, bodies have been spaces of dispute in order to comply with a sexual and gender order; however, those that break the rules and expectations of a duty to be anchored in the normalized social, moral and biomedical imaginary are observed and regulated, particularly those that break the rules and expectations of a duty to be anchored in the normalized social, moral and biomedical imaginary. In principle, medical knowledge has been based on a body (male) that has been primarily associated with a specific identity (white and heterosexual). This model body of science is, to a large extent, also a model for religion, where any body, but mainly any person who does not comply with the moral bases and roles associated with what we nowadays call gender stereotypes (masculinity/femininity with everything in between) can be subjected to normalization exercises in a corrective sense, overlooking their most fundamental rights in favor of the defense of a binary, heterosexual and reproduction-based sex-generic matrix.

Hence, the non-hegemonic, non-binary female (or feminized) body and identities are those that have constantly been thought of as anomalies, as abject bodies and as bodies and identities that need to be put on the right track. Some strategies to achieve this goal link biomedical discourses and knowledge with certain gender norms and stereotypes, associated, in turn, with a moral and religious order that seeks to demonize, pathologize and build from taboo, stigma and silencing all expressions of diversity and dissidence through the imposition of binary and often stereotypical biomedical, social and religious models, which potentially or openly violate human rights and sexual and reproductive rights of individuals.

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Throughout history, various social actors have disputed, and continue to dispute, a place of authority in the definition of social mechanisms (norms, values, discourses) around the body. Culture, the State, religion and science are the main actors that operate these mechanisms, sometimes as allies and sometimes as opponents in a competition for hegemony over the use and control of the body. The body is clearly a battlefield because it is the main tool we have to construct the human and the social. It is from the body that we exist as a species and interact with other species, and it is through the body that we seek who we are as a species. The cognitive tools of the body help us in the understanding of how we function, of the sensitive experience in the world around us.

Exploring "how" and "in what way" these systems of knowledge understand the male and female body in different times and societies can give us important clues to identify the moral and discursive arguments in that dispute. Among the various approaches to this topic, I am interested in the relationship between religion and science as knowledge systems that are distinct, but not mutually exclusive for individuals. At this intersection, I propose to focus on what I consider key when analyzing disputes around the body: the question of visibility.

I am referring to physical or aesthetic aspects (including objects) that are attributed to the masculine, the feminine, ethnicities, age groups and sex-affective minorities. Likewise, there is an "invisible" dimension of the body that also governs the visible: bio-psycho-physiological aspects ranging from hormonal and metabolic activities of the body, the organs, the brain, to consciousness and feelings, imagination and ideas. Governing the visible body, whether by dogmas or through rituals, has direct implications on the invisible body.

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How is the biomedical discourse around bodies and identities articulated with other discourses and moral projects?

The fact that biomedicine has become the hegemonic knowledge about bodies has placed its knowledge, practices and institutions in the midst of all kinds of moral disputes. In contemporary bioethics, some areas of reflection and conflict (gender, reproduction, sexuality, end of life) represent particularly well the intertwining of biomedical discourses and religious beliefs, with doctrinal expressions such as "culture of life" and "culture of death", or discussions on assisted reproduction, life support, or on access to health services, especially for women and persons lgbtiq+.

Two fields in which these Christian articulations have been most strongly expressed are education and intellectual diversity. Christian activists are trying to impose a confessional view of bodies and identities in schools, sometimes with campaigns of international impact such as the CitizenGo/HazteOir transphobic bus campaign, or through hashtags such as #withmychildrennotemetas, through which any form of sexual and reproductive health education is attacked. Interestingly, in this space there is an explicit conflict between biomedical discourses on sexuality, understood as secular discourses, and religious discourses on sexuality, which seek to prohibit sex education for minors.

Furthermore, I believe that the articulation of the biomedical discourse on bodies with other discourses has a peculiar and interesting space of expression in the new forms of spirituality, particularly in those that present a non-conventional conception of the body, such as those based on Dharmic religions, Chinese medicine or Ayurveda. It will be interesting in the future to see how these alternatives, together with local traditional medicines, develop.

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In my perspective it is articulated mainly from conflict, from the demand for fundamental rights and from the defense of a particular moral order in sexual and gender terms; these three elements have a sometimes very thin dividing line, in which, of course, each one is associated with particular issues, discussions and positions. Thinking specifically about the issue of abortion, for example, the uses of biomedical discourse and genomic medicine have been used by conservative groups and health personnel to argue the affront to the human rights of the unborn. This has led to resistance and the emergence of a secular movement, but more corresponding to a strategic secularism, which defends the right to life as a fundamental right and above the human, sexual and reproductive rights of women and people who gestate without wishing to do so. But, on the other hand, it is precisely the biomedical perspective that is also used by pro-choice narratives to argue why it is necessary to guarantee abortion care and the right to abortion. In this sense, the biomedical discourse becomes narrative and counter-narrative by having a political scope, to the extent of being one of the cornerstones of movements such as the green tide or the so-called pro-life (or anti-rights, depending on the position of the writer) movements present in our countries and regions today.

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The female body occupies a central place in the battlefield around the body articulated by religious and scientific arguments, mainly when it is attributed, by capacity or duty, the role of reproduction or procreation. From the notion of procreation, we identify a series of actions and social roles that establish behavioral patterns of the feminine that have maternity as one of the central axes of the family.

And it is precisely on the concept of family that religious activism and conservative and progressive political ideologies dispute space. While it is true that, in the Spanish context, religion had a hegemonic role in the definition of family and gender roles, science and biomedical technologies have changed this panorama. I am referring here to assisted reproduction techniques, stem-cell research and pregnancy termination. These biomedical practices are again and again the subject of debate in different positions of the political-ideological spectrum, religious and non-religious, that seek in biology and medicine arguments that frame the political force of the body, especially the female body.

But the female body is not alone in its place of discursive dispute. It is important to remember that historical disputes over rights, moral constructions and biomedical discourses also cross ethno-racializing dimensions. Following the female body-reproduction and family axis, the racial dimension found in religious discourses has justified colonial atrocities in the name of racial standards and the classification of healthy or fertile bodies.

A similar rhetoric is directed at affective-sexual diversity, or persons lgbtiqwith respect to the place of their bodies. In fact, it is common to think of these bodies as part of a single entity, a single movement, hiding their diversity from the visible and the invisible. The biomedical discourses have been until the end of the last century, the nineties, defining bodies lgbtiq as pathological or dysfunctional, and reinforcing the binary sex/gender system, on par with religions that often use deterministic biomedical discourses to establish gender roles.

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What actors and/or moral entrepreneurs do you identify as key in the use of biomedical discourses around bodies and their counter-discourses?

In the Spanish context, the debates on bodies have mainly revolved around the question of gender, reproduction and sexuality, and in these fields there have been several personal and institutional actors who have been key in the introduction of a scientistic discourse in the movement against sexual and reproductive rights. A very popular figure in these movements has been the psychiatrist and conservative activist Aquilino Polaino, who for decades has used psychiatry as an instrument of legitimization of the rejection of voluntary interruption of pregnancy, same-sex marriage or the health of trans people, by claiming that people in these situations suffer or will suffer in the future from various psychiatric pathologies derived from it.

Another key institution in the use of the biomedical discourse around the bodies of women and individuals lgbtiq+ has been the Clinic of the University of Navarra, created by the founder of Opus Dei. This institution hosted the first meeting in Spain on "gender ideology" and its researchers and teachers have been very proactive through publications and papers in scientific journals and conferences.

The Catholic mobilization against sexual and reproductive rights is causing a major hospital problem in Spain, because in many hospitals conservative health personnel exercise conscientious objection in such an aggressive way that there are several regions of the country where it is not possible to perform a voluntary interruption of pregnancy (and other treatments), despite the fact that the public health system offers it. Some of the Christian discourses against sexual rights have also been used by a part of feminism against the rights of trans people.

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I identify at least five central actors that acquire importance in terms of their respective conjunctures when talking about the body, as it often involves linking it to gender and sexuality:

First of all, the churches, since they have been very resistant to give space to sex-gender diversity (although with increasing exceptions) and to the questioning of the gender order.

On the other hand, we have health professionals, including mental health professionals; in this case, they are the ones who create, reproduce and mobilize biomedical discourses as part of the norm, which they also associate either with well-being or with pathologization, an example of which is what is known as conscientious objection.

A further actor is society itself and the way in which it has naturalized a moral and gender order from an apparently secular perspective, which views moral rules with religious roots as natural or socially expected norms, such as motherhood, compulsory heterosexuality and compliance with gender stereotypes associated with the sex assigned at birth.

In fourth place are the sexual and gender dissidences, which are the populations and people who have been most affected by the practices and narratives that seek to regulate bodies and sexuality, but who have built an active resistance (organized or not) as a political positioning, anchored in the defense and exercise of their rights in a broad sense, and finally, there are the feminist activisms in all their expressions.

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We note that science currently has a privileged position in the public perception within the Spanish State, science frames practices and public policies, but tends to be present in the social debate as a vehicle for disputes between political and religious actors.

In this context, the emergence of populist and extreme right-wing political parties that go hand in hand with an agenda that is sometimes anti-feminist, sometimes anti-gender, or that articulates both positions, is also noteworthy. These parties and related activisms seek alliances in biomedical discourses, increasingly promoting positions anchored in biological determinism on social issues. This includes, for example, the use of quasi-scientific arguments that speculate that "traditional" gender roles or sexuality are in fact underpinned by the concept of biological sex and are the product of evolution.

Alongside this trend, some religious leaders and institutions have paradoxically appropriated evolutionary scientific explanations by expressing their positions based on obsolete biological determinisms regarding biological sex and gender roles. Such a position runs counter to the current scientific consensus in modern genetics, which is not based on a model of genetic determinism and instead recognizes the complexity of genetic influences and the nuanced interaction between genes and the environment throughout the development of life.

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At what political moment are we at with respect to the articulations between biomedical narratives, moral projects and the body? On what aspects do you think we should focus our attention for the future?

I think we are in a very volatile moment because the covid-19 pandemic has affected the legitimacy of biomedicine. The management of the crisis has shown at the same time insecurities and authoritarianism on the part of biomedical institutions, which have been highly criticized and disobeyed, especially by the same Christian extreme right that uses the biomedical discourse to defend its positions regarding women's bodies and people. lgbtiq+. Until some time has passed we may not be able to get a sense of the extent of this crisis of legitimacy, but it is my opinion that this episode will have some future consequence on the way biomedicine is recognized as an authoritative discourse on the body, especially when it comes to the body as a space of contested moral projects.

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Undoubtedly, we are in an extremely complex scenario because we are not talking about discourses, populations or movements that are alien to us. We are all traversed by different inequalities where our gender, our reproductive decisions, our sexual identity, our way of naming ourselves, is subjected to social, religious, gender regulation, which has the potential to isolate us and limit the exercise of our most fundamental rights, such as the right to a name in the case of trans people; the right to information on sexuality when talking about comprehensive sexual education, or access to quality medical services when we talk about sexual and reproductive health. I think that as analysts and social scientists we have the task of understanding these phenomena in their current configuration, observing how they occur, how they operate, but above all how they affect people; also being critical and observing from where we build this knowledge in terms of politics and ethical positioning. Talking about the body, about moral projects and biomedical discourses that surround them puts us in a field where life, rights and political practice are interwoven in a very complex way and in a vital sense.

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Researchers Mar Griera, Cecilia Delgado-Molina and I have conducted a review of media and parliamentary minutes to analyze the relationship between science and religion in Spain. Gender and sexuality were some of the central themes that emerged, especially with the notion of "gender ideology". I believe that this result points to some key issues about the political moment we are in.

The voices (religious, political, intellectual) that oppose progressive laws and policies seek to disqualify them by alluding to ideological projects and notions such as cultural Marxism, communism, the loss of Christian values or the essence of Spanish culture. Therefore, "gender ideology" (including sexuality) appears as the result of an inductive reasoning that helps to make sense of the various evidences that threaten the ontological security of the ideal body.

In that regard, recent public debates indicate that the Church and religious activists have identified allies among psychiatrists, feminist groups and political figures who help challenge or defend arguments about feminism, gender equality, transgender rights and same-sex relationships.

As diversity and inclusion policies advance in society, political identities around sexuality and gender seem to be more "diluted".

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Bárcenas Barajas, Karina y Cecilia Delgado-Molina (coords.) (2021). Religión, género y sexualidad: itinerarios de investigación desde América Latina. México: iis-unam.

Cornejo-Valle, Mónica y Jennifer Ramme (2022). “‘We Don’t Want Rainbow Terror’: Religious and Far-Right Sexual Politics in Poland and Spain”, en C. Möser, J. Ramme y J. Takács (eds.). Paradoxical Right-Wing Sexual Politics in Europe. Global Queer Politics. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scott, Joan Wallach (1996). “El género: una categoría útil para el análisis histórico”, en El género: la construcción social de la diferencia sexual, compilado por Marta Lamas, 265-302. México: pueg-unam/Miguel Ángel Porrúa.

Mónica Cornejo-Valle holds a PhD in Anthropology and teaches Anthropology of Religions at the Complutense University of Madrid. She has received the National Award for Cultural Research from the Spanish Ministry of Culture (2007). She is director of the Anthropology, Diversity and Coexistence Research Group (ginadyc) and has worked mainly on religious diversity from the point of view of the Anthropology of Religions.

Maria del Rosario Ramirez Morales D. in Anthropological Sciences from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa. She was a guest researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (ciesas), Unidad Occidente, and is currently a research professor attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Guadalajara. Her research topics revolve around spiritual practices and non-institutional religious beliefs, particularly in the case of young people and women in urban contexts, as well as the link between gender, body and spirituality. She has collaborated in national and international research projects; she is the author of the book Women in a circle: spirituality and feminine corporeality and co-author of articles, book chapters and opinion columns in independent media. She is a member of the National System of Researchers, level iand of the academic council of the Network of Researchers of the Religious Phenomenon in Mexico.

Rafael Cazarin D. in Sociology from the University of the Basque Country (Spain), with training in ethnographic research and interdisciplinary qualitative research techniques. He has been a visiting researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham. He has participated in research with international cooperation and civil society organizations in Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, Togo and Congo (rdc). In recognition of his work, Rafael was awarded the Ivan Varga Prize for the New Generation of Sociologists at the 2018 World Congress of the International Sociological Association. Currently, Rafael is a contract researcher for the Juan de la Cierva program of the Spanish Ministry of Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His research seeks to intersectionally analyze religious actors as catalysts of social and political mobilizations, particularly in contexts where secular and religious beliefs intersect or oppose each other.

Cecilia Delgado-Molina D. in Political and Social Sciences with a major in Sociology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).unam). She has done research stays in Argentina, Germany and the United States. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher (2020-2023) at the Sociology of Religion Research Group (isor) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where she coordinates the project "Biomedical narratives on gender and sexuality in religious contexts: the case of digital activism in Mexico and Spain", funded by the International Research Network for the Study of Science & Belief in Society.


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EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.