If you’ve been paying attention to anything in our society lately, you might notice a chasm of dispute about sex, gender, and what it all means. But what is “sex”? What is “gender”? And how did we get here? The path to understanding this isn’t pleasant, and it most certainly will challenge what you think is true.
Sex and gender, for the longest time, was a conflation of terms. Gender has a history starting roughly in the 1300s, described as a “kind, sort, class, a class or kind of persons or things sharing certain traits” from Old French. So how did we go from there to “sex is biological” and “gender is a social construct”?
Anyone who has gone to a university the past 30 years has heard this slogan of the humanities — but is it true? Simone de Beauvoir’s excellent 1949 The Second Sex line that “one is not born but becomes a woman” has been uplifted as the triumph of social constructionist views. It became famous for a reason; it conflicted with what everyone else believed at the time. Beauvoir’s ideas was a slap of cold water to the rationalists who viewed sex and gender as largely being the same thing, simple synonyms.
Beauvoir’s thesis was taken by John Money, a 1960’s sexologist. He is responsible for the terms gender identity, gender roles, and sexual orientation — fragmenting the word “gender” entirely from sex — thus bringing about our modern distinction between sex and gender. The idea that “gender” is a social construct is directly inspired by Money’s work, much to the ignorance of those who espouse his “theories”. What he proposed was disputed and wrestled with in the 70’s and 80’s in the humanities and then reached the height of its academic acceptance in the 90’s with Judith Butler’s declaration that gender is nothing more than “performance” and worth “undoing”. Butler is quoting as literally trying to “undo” the “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life”. In other words — deny what is normal and “deconstruct” it because it would be better for the minority. But what about everyone who is… well… relatively “normative”? What happens to them?
It took awhile for the ideas of the ivory tower to find its way to the common-folk, yet here we are: its commonplace to view sex as “nature” and gender as a “social construct” — though now even sex as “natural” is under dispute. This attempt to reconcile biological reality with social constructivist ideology falls flat upon its face, a reductive simplification that distorts the power of nature — of us as humans. We know fetuses are masculinized, or not, by the testes in the womb from the androgens they produce. We know this process affects gender identity, expression, and even sexuality. We know this because sexologists have been studying it for some time. The Y chromosome of a fetus in the womb of a woman, like an invader in the sacred space of woman, is bathed in androgens, marked as an outsider to her space while occupying a territory within it. Curiously, the more fetuses with Y chromosomes a woman has in future pregnancies, the more likely a man is to be feminine and/or gay, as the woman’s body starts to partially prevent this “masculinization” process.
If gender is the expression of masculinity and femininity within a culture, then even gender is heavily orchestrated by nature. Money, then, was wrong — as was Beauvoir and Butler — because it is nature that is the primal force orchestrating the energy of our sex, gender, and even our preferences. Butler’s attempts to undo anything is like trying to lasso lightning. Thus, it is human nature to be male or female. It is also natural that one is more masculine or feminine than the “norm” comparatively to their sex.
So why is there such a divide between sexologists and the humanities? I believe that divide in understanding is born from the specialization of academic fields. The sciences aren’t talking to the humanities — they both started with a question and chose different routes to answer it: one chose empiricism and the other chose Foucault.
Further, we have several generations of students who were not trained and taught how to arrive at a general truth — an army of relativists advance their theories. For example, something that is “true” always has an exception. Always. There are outliers to every norm or generalization. In my classes, I teach this concept as “rule vs. exception”. It essentially amounts to:
A general truth is the “rule”
Rules often have exceptions
Exceptions do not dismiss the “rule”, they only serve to complicate it.
Some quick, simple examples.
Rule: Water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit
We can say that and it’s true, even though if we walk outside with a bowl of water the water doesn’t freeze even if it’s 30 degrees outside, right? It will freeze only after a certain time and based on the volume of the water. This complexity to the rule, or truth, does not dismiss it — it only complicates it.
Rule: Men are physically stronger than women
I enjoy exploring this one in classes. So many students get annoyed by it, usually for personal reasons and anecdotes that come to mind. Many people say “my sister can beat me up” or “I could beat my boy cousins in an arm wrestle!” But these are all exceptions to the general truth that however you measure it, generally, men are physically stronger than women. Exceptions can be true without dismissing the rule.
Rule: Gay men are more feminine than straight men
To me this is so intrinsically true I don’t understand how anyone would have problems with it. You’re probably thinking of exceptions… as though it would disprove it. But why? What’s wrong with being feminine? Why try to disprove it?
Unfortunately, we have people who think that exceptions indeed dismiss rules, and this heavily informs our current debate and tension surrounding sex and gender. When one group takes an exception and challenges those who connect with the “rule” — conflict will abound! Mammals have two sexes — male and female. This stems from the biological reality of the ovum and the sperm — the biological reality of procreation. Female, then, is the imitation of the ovum while male is that to the sperm. Men, being male, produce sperm and females, being women, produce ovum — that is the rule. There is no partial-sperm or partial-ovum — sex, therefore, is binary. Because we, humans, are mammals, we have two sexes as imitations of that which produces ovum and sperm: man and woman. Nature commands this of us, wanting us to procreate and reproduce — infiltrating our individuality with this biological imperative. But what about the exceptions, though?
Intersex people, those who through genetic mutation or other ailments, only serve to complicate the truth by being an exception to it. In other words, we don’t stop believing that there are men and women because people with intersexed conditions exist. They are the exception to that truth, in the same way we don’t stop stating the truth that “humans have ten fingers” when there are a number of people who don’t, we do not stop saying there are two sexes. I will admit, however, that once an exception becomes prolific or a significant statistical, measurable phenomena — we really have to challenge what might be “true”.
Sexology and biology shows us that our sex, as a rule, heavily determines our “gender” and “sexuality”. For example, men are masculine. Men are straight. These are general truths. Me being relatively feminine and gay are exceptions to that rule. These are not radical statements — though modern discourse would have us think so. A “feminine” man, it is shown, most likely had less androgen-exposure in the womb for a variety of reasons — and the same for intersexed people and gay people. Our sciences are literally disproving, or in the very least intensely challenging, the mainstream academic narrative that “gender is a social construct” and not enough people are talking about it.
Most people hear the idea that “gender” is heavily determined by hormones and biology and have a lot to say about that. The data shows us, though, that what constitutes gender may depend on the culture, but the interest in gravitating towards that is biological. Human cultural influences on what is considered masculine and feminine is certainly amorphous, fluid, and changing through time and history. But men gravitating towards what happens to be masculine doesn’t. How does Butler hope to “undo” that?
That’s the rule.
Any exceptions you come up with to counter that doesn’t dismiss it. It only complicates it.
And that’s okay. At some point, we have to admit that there are general truths about sex and be open minded enough to allow exceptions but also allow truth. If “gender” just meant the manifestations of masculinity and femininity, I don’t think we would have near as much tension surrounding this topic in our culture. Yet — instead — we have a large number of groups wanting to throw out the idea of “sex” entirely, using exceptions to dismiss the rule.
But that will never work. It will only seek to further divide us in ideology and truth because people have an intimate connection to what is generally true just as much as those with an intimate connection to what is unique or not-the-norm.
What would work, though, is if we come to an understanding of what is generally true and have an honest conversation about the exceptions that exist to complicate what is true. Further, we must prevent prejudice, advantaging, or disadvantaging others from equal opportunity and treatment under the law for being a rule or an exception.
For example, while women are certainly physically weaker than men, should women be denied the opportunity to compete for careers that requires strength? No — because she might be the exception and be able to do whatever is needed to competently perform in that career.
What I write is further complicated and made perhaps controversial if I include topics relating to gender identity. I would only add gender dysphoria, a mental “disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), is a serious concern that can be only better treated with an understanding of sex, biology, but also our current cultural trends. More people need to know that transitioning one’s identity to “sex” is a way to treat gender dysphoria, an intimate decision between an individual and their healthcare team.
So what’s left? What do we need to figure out? Several important questions lay before us: why are young girls significantly, disproportionately so interested in androgyny and rejection of their “sex” at the intense development age of adolescence and up until their 20’s compared to young boys? What has happened to make femininity so unappealing or what could be happening hormonally and developmentally to make androgyny or masculinity so appealing? Could the recent spike in trans-identifying girls be related to some aspect of rejecting femininity? Why? Does it matter? Can we just blame Judith Butler and call it a day?
If we know that embryonic exposure to androgens plays a significant role in sexuality and how someone embraces their masculinity / femininity — is it ethical to manipulate that?
We have a lot of things to figure out as a culture, for both our present and our future. But we will never be able to if we cannot even determine what is true.
Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender
Dr. Debrah Soh’s The End of Gender