I just want to write a big 'thank you' to the people who've responded so candidly to my question. While I realise that I'm not the primary beneficiary of this forum, I'm extremely grateful for the comments. I think they help me as a writer and as a human being. So, my sincere thanks.
I have another question to add to the mix. I'm not sure if it's moral, sociological or political, but it's certainly writerly and here it is...
Why do people whose gender identity is strongly aligned (I mean physical with social and psychological) get so invested in gender rituals?
Some of it can be explained as sexual competition I suppose. Many species have courting-dances; there's no reason to imagine that humanity in general doesn't have such things too.
But some gender rituals clearly aren't to attract mates. Men and women do a lot of gender-bonding, for instance, and we seem to have special rules for bonding across genders. We also have rules that seem to rehearse pecking-orders...
My broad question is: how much do you think we actually need? How much is atavistic? From your personal perspective, how much do you find useful? How much is just a pain to be negotiated? I don't imagine that there's a single answer here. I don't have a single answer myself.
My personal perspective is that I found it all utterly stupid -- until I started working in business. Through my teens and my work as a scientist I thought courtship rituals, chest-beating rituals, seduction rituals idiotic. If you want to make friends, make friends thought I. If you want to tell someone you're attracted to them, just tell them -- so my opinion was much like Polenth's.
But Mara also made an interesting comment: the one about 'self-defence'. Just on puberty I moved states and switched schools. The school I went to was a bit rougher than the school I left, and I found myself instantly in a sea of male hormones. Being smallish at the time I got used as a bit of a hockey-puck in male aggression -- I'm not suggesting that there was a lot of bullying, but there was a lot of roughhouse play to assert masculine supremacy.
Having no idea what to do with it, I simply copied it and did it first, and harder, to the main protagonists. For instance, there was some strange tradition among kids of a particular year to hit each other hard in the arm -- e.g. for a joke that fell flat, or a bit of silliness, or even for a difference of opinion. I had no desire to hit anyone in the arm for any reason, but I did it because doing so made others hit me in the arm less.
So: fake aggression creating self-defence. Of course, in doing so I added to the overall aggression level, and these days I'd do things very differently.
In business a lot of transactions seem to involve seduction, sexual assertion and sexual submission -- even when sex has no place in the transaction. I have no idea why this is, but it seems to be the case. I run a company and try and make my staff feel safe and valued. To my mind gender is part of their personality, but it's not who they are. However, we provide services for other organisations and their workplaces can be a bit of a jungle. On a daily basis we encounter all kinds of sexual aggression -- be it same-gender or intergender. I spend a lot of time with staff helping them negotiate it -- and while it's renowned for women in business to get a lot of it, my experience as an employer is that guys are on the receiving end just as much, from both genders, and have comparable difficulty handling it sometimes.
The other side of it though, is that sex sells. And here I don't just mean bouncing breasts and six-pack abs. For one thing, people can sell through gender-bonding far more easily than without. And cross-gender sales seem to work better when there's flirtation in the wings -- even if the flirtation is recognised by both parties as being utterly unserious. Whether I want it to be or not, it's there. For some strange reason trust seems to be wired into sex and gender-roles.