What is the gender binary?

The gender binary is the dominant idea that gender comes in only two rigid forms, males that are masculine and females that are feminine. Gender stereotypes about femininity and masculinity create pressure to stay in a gender box. People can stay in the box by acting according to the dominant mainstream idea of what it means to be male or female. The femininity box includes being submissive, timid, dependent, and weak. In the masculinity box there is pressure to be strong and to never ask for help or express feelings. While men are often granted safety for “staying in the box” of masculinity, women experience a lack of safety both for “staying in the box” of femininity, and for pushing outside of it. Sexual violence can be directed towards trans and non-binary people assigned female at birth as a way of trying to force them back into “the woman box”.

Effects on women and girls

Women are constantly objectified and sexualized. They are expected to be sexually experienced, sexually available, and exist for the pleasure of men. At the same time, women are shamed and scrutinized for their sexual expression and behaviours. Women are expected to be submissive to men, and experience violence both for saying “no” and for saying “yes” to sex.

Women who live up to expectations of femininity are often assumed to be less competent in the workplace, and are spoken over, interrupted, or not taken seriously. Alternatively, women who speak their mind and show confidence and leadership can be labelled as “bossy,” “bitchy,” or “demanding.” Women are often less likely to be granted a promotion, and they earn less (known as the “wage gap”). Also, due to gender stereotypes depicting women as nurturing and caring, women tend to do more unpaid work such as cleaning, raising children and taking care of elderly parents.

For people assigned female who do not adhere to femininity, they may receive violence in the form of homophobic or transphobic verbal/physical/emotional violence (regardless of whether they identify as queer or trans).

Men and boys are affected too

Men and boys face pressure to stay inside the box of masculinity and these expectations can have a great impact on development, mental health and relationships.

Social norms suggesting men should be providers, and not be sensitive, domestic or parental create a cycle in which men are often granted less time off of work to develop family relationships. The expectation that men should be straight and should only build relationships in the pursuit of sex leads to challenges in developing close and meaningful friendships with women. The constant threat of homophobia leads to challenges for men in developing close and affectionate friendships with other men.

When men do experience abuse such as family violence, there can be more barriers to accessing support. This can be because help, such as family violence shelters for men, are often less available or that men have learned it is not ok to reach out for support. Men are expected to always want sex, so there is less acknowledgement and support available for men who experience sexual violence.

People who are assigned male that explore and express femininity – such as expressing emotions, choosing activities or jobs that are traditionally feminine, having a feminine aesthetic, or if they are gay/queer/trans – are under constant threat of violence.

Non-binary people are impacted

Stereotypes exist about transgender and gender diverse people too and they are disproportionately targeted for both interpersonal and systemic violence.

Those who were assigned male at birth and express and identify with femininity (trans women/trans feminine people, and specifically those of colour) account for the majority of violence experienced by trans and non-binary people.

Physically androgynous trans and non-binary people and those who do not “pass” as feminine or masculine (whether by choice or circumstance) also experience violence because their existence is outside of the gender binary. “Difference” is often seen as threatening. As a result, transgender and non-binary people experience not only interpersonal violence, but systemic violence which contributes to:

  • Being denied both permanent and emergency housing
  • Being denied needed mental health services, and medical care
  • Higher rates of school drop-out due to unsupportive environments
  • Higher rates of alcohol and substance use and addiction
  • Being turned down for jobs, or being fired after coming out as trans
  • Higher rates of sexual violence with a lack of dignified support services