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A guide to gender identity terms.
"Pronouns are basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation," says Mary Emily O'Hara, a communications officer at GLAAD. "And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity." Kaz Fantone for NPR hide caption
"Pronouns are basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation," says Mary Emily O'Hara, a communications officer at GLAAD. "And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity."
Issues of equality and acceptance of transgender and nonbinary people — along with challenges to their rights — have become a major topic in the headlines. These issues can involve words and ideas and identities that are new to some.
That's why we've put together a glossary of terms relating to gender identity. Our goal is to help people communicate accurately and respectfully with one another.
Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance. Alex Schmider , associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone's correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – "a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that's consistent and true to who they are."
Glossary of gender identity terms
This guide was created with help from GLAAD . We also referenced resources from the National Center for Transgender Equality , the Trans Journalists Association , NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists , Human Rights Campaign , InterAct and the American Psychological Association . This guide is not exhaustive, and is Western and U.S.-centric. Other cultures may use different labels and have other conceptions of gender.
One thing to note: Language changes. Some of the terms now in common usage are different from those used in the past to describe similar ideas, identities and experiences. Some people may continue to use terms that are less commonly used now to describe themselves, and some people may use different terms entirely. What's important is recognizing and respecting people as individuals.
Jump to a term: Sex, gender , gender identity , gender expression , cisgender , transgender , nonbinary , agender , gender-expansive , gender transition , gender dysphoria , sexual orientation , intersex
Jump to Pronouns : questions and answers
Sex refers to a person's biological status and is typically assigned at birth, usually on the basis of external anatomy. Sex is typically categorized as male, female or intersex.
Gender is often defined as a social construct of norms, behaviors and roles that varies between societies and over time. Gender is often categorized as male, female or nonbinary.
Gender identity is one's own internal sense of self and their gender, whether that is man, woman, neither or both. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others.
For most people, gender identity aligns with the sex assigned at birth, the American Psychological Association notes. For transgender people, gender identity differs in varying degrees from the sex assigned at birth.
Gender expression is how a person presents gender outwardly, through behavior, clothing, voice or other perceived characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine or feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture.
Cisgender, or simply cis , is an adjective that describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transgender, or simply trans, is an adjective used to describe someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man, for example, is someone who was listed as female at birth but whose gender identity is male.
Cisgender and transgender have their origins in Latin-derived prefixes of "cis" and "trans" — cis, meaning "on this side of" and trans, meaning "across from" or "on the other side of." Both adjectives are used to describe experiences of someone's gender identity.
Nonbinary is a term that can be used by people who do not describe themselves or their genders as fitting into the categories of man or woman. A range of terms are used to refer to these experiences; nonbinary and genderqueer are among the terms that are sometimes used.
Agender is an adjective that can describe a person who does not identify as any gender.
Gender-expansive is an adjective that can describe someone with a more flexible gender identity than might be associated with a typical gender binary.
Gender transition is a process a person may take to bring themselves and/or their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. It's not just one step. Transitioning can include any, none or all of the following: telling one's friends, family and co-workers; changing one's name and pronouns; updating legal documents; medical interventions such as hormone therapy; or surgical intervention, often called gender confirmation surgery.
Gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one's sex assigned at birth and one's gender identity. Not all trans people experience dysphoria, and those who do may experience it at varying levels of intensity.
Gender dysphoria is a diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Some argue that such a diagnosis inappropriately pathologizes gender incongruence, while others contend that a diagnosis makes it easier for transgender people to access necessary medical treatment.
Sexual orientation refers to the enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or other genders, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight orientations.
People don't need to have had specific sexual experiences to know their own sexual orientation. They need not have had any sexual experience at all. They need not be in a relationship, dating or partnered with anyone for their sexual orientation to be validated. For example, if a bisexual woman is partnered with a man, that does not mean she is not still bisexual.
Sexual orientation is separate from gender identity. As GLAAD notes , "Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a straight woman. A person who transitions from female to male and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a gay man."
Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people with differences in reproductive anatomy, chromosomes or hormones that don't fit typical definitions of male and female.
Intersex can refer to a number of natural variations, some of them laid out by InterAct . Being intersex is not the same as being nonbinary or transgender, which are terms typically related to gender identity.
The Picture Show
Nonbinary photographer documents gender dysphoria through a queer lens, pronouns: questions and answers.
What is the role of pronouns in acknowledging someone's gender identity?
Everyone has pronouns that are used when referring to them – and getting those pronouns right is not exclusively a transgender issue.
"Pronouns are basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation," says Mary Emily O'Hara , a communications officer at GLAAD. "And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity."
"So, for example, using the correct pronouns for trans and nonbinary youth is a way to let them know that you see them, you affirm them, you accept them and to let them know that they're loved during a time when they're really being targeted by so many discriminatory anti-trans state laws and policies," O'Hara says.
"It's really just about letting someone know that you accept their identity. And it's as simple as that."
Getting the words right is about respect and accuracy, says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Kaz Fantone for NPR hide caption
Getting the words right is about respect and accuracy, says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
What's the right way to find out a person's pronouns?
Start by giving your own – for example, "My pronouns are she/her."
"If I was introducing myself to someone, I would say, 'I'm Rodrigo. I use him pronouns. What about you?' " says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen , deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
O'Hara says, "It may feel awkward at first, but eventually it just becomes another one of those get-to-know-you questions."
Should people be asking everyone their pronouns? Or does it depend on the setting?
Knowing each other's pronouns helps you be sure you have accurate information about another person.
How a person appears in terms of gender expression "doesn't indicate anything about what their gender identity is," GLAAD's Schmider says. By sharing pronouns, "you're going to get to know someone a little better."
And while it can be awkward at first, it can quickly become routine.
Heng-Lehtinen notes that the practice of stating one's pronouns at the bottom of an email or during introductions at a meeting can also relieve some headaches for people whose first names are less common or gender ambiguous.
"Sometimes Americans look at a name and are like, 'I have no idea if I'm supposed to say he or she for this name' — not because the person's trans, but just because the name is of a culture that you don't recognize and you genuinely do not know. So having the pronouns listed saves everyone the headache," Heng-Lehtinen says. "It can be really, really quick once you make a habit of it. And I think it saves a lot of embarrassment for everybody."
Might some people be uncomfortable sharing their pronouns in a public setting?
Schmider says for cisgender people, sharing their pronouns is generally pretty easy – so long as they recognize that they have pronouns and know what they are. For others, it could be more difficult to share their pronouns in places where they don't know people.
But there are still benefits in sharing pronouns, he says. "It's an indication that they understand that gender expression does not equal gender identity, that you're not judging people just based on the way they look and making assumptions about their gender beyond what you actually know about them."
How is "they" used as a singular pronoun?
"They" is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when we are talking about someone, and we don't know who they are, O'Hara notes. Using they/them pronouns for someone you do know simply represents "just a little bit of a switch."
"You're just asking someone to not act as if they don't know you, but to remove gendered language from their vocabulary when they're talking about you," O'Hara says.
"I identify as nonbinary myself and I appear feminine. People often assume that my pronouns are she/her. So they will use those. And I'll just gently correct them and say, hey, you know what, my pronouns are they/them just FYI, for future reference or something like that," they say.
O'Hara says their family and friends still struggle with getting the pronouns right — and sometimes O'Hara struggles to remember others' pronouns, too.
"In my community, in the queer community, with a lot of trans and nonbinary people, we all frequently remind each other or remind ourselves. It's a sort of constant mindfulness where you are always catching up a little bit," they say.
"You might know someone for 10 years, and then they let you know their pronouns have changed. It's going to take you a little while to adjust, and that's fine. It's OK to make those mistakes and correct yourself, and it's OK to gently correct someone else."
What if I make a mistake and misgender someone, or use the wrong words?
Simply apologize and move on.
"I think it's perfectly natural to not know the right words to use at first. We're only human. It takes any of us some time to get to know a new concept," Heng-Lehtinen says. "The important thing is to just be interested in continuing to learn. So if you mess up some language, you just say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,' correct yourself and move forward. No need to make it any more complicated than that. Doing that really simple gesture of apologizing quickly and moving on shows the other person that you care. And that makes a really big difference."
Why are pronouns typically given in the format "she/her" or "they/them" rather than just "she" or "they"?
The different iterations reflect that pronouns change based on how they're used in a sentence. And the "he/him" format is actually shorter than the previously common "he/him/his" format.
"People used to say all three and then it got down to two," Heng-Lehtinen laughs. He says staff at his organization was recently wondering if the custom will eventually shorten to just one pronoun. "There's no real rule about it. It's absolutely just been habit," he says.
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But he notes a benefit of using he/him and she/her: He and she rhyme. "If somebody just says he or she, I could very easily mishear that and then still get it wrong."
What does it mean if a person uses the pronouns "he/they" or "she/they"?
"That means that the person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. So either pronoun would be fine — and ideally mix it up, use both. It just means that they use both pronouns that they're listing," Heng-Lehtinen says.
Schmider says it depends on the person: "For some people, they don't mind those pronouns being interchanged for them. And for some people, they are using one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another, dependent on maybe safety or comfortability."
The best approach, Schmider says, is to listen to how people refer to themselves.
Why might someone's name be different than what's listed on their ID?
Heng-Lehtinen notes that there's a perception when a person comes out as transgender, they change their name and that's that. But the reality is a lot more complicated and expensive when it comes to updating your name on government documents.
"It is not the same process as changing your last name when you get married. There is bizarrely a separate set of rules for when you are changing your name in marriage versus changing your name for any other reason. And it's more difficult in the latter," he says.
"When you're transgender, you might not be able to update all of your government IDs, even though you want to," he says. "I've been out for over a decade. I still have not been able to update all of my documents because the policies are so onerous. I've been able to update my driver's license, Social Security card and passport, but I cannot update my birth certificate."
"Just because a transgender person doesn't have their authentic name on their ID doesn't mean it's not the name that they really use every day," he advises. "So just be mindful to refer to people by the name they really use regardless of their driver's license."
NPR's Danielle Nett contributed to this report.
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Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation
Sexual identity and sexual orientation are independent components of a person’s sexual identity. These dimensions are most often in harmony with each other and with an individual’s genital sex, although not always. The present review discusses the relationship of sexual identity and sexual orientation to prenatal factors that act to shape the development of the brain and the expression of sexual behaviours in animals and humans. One major influence discussed relates to organisational effects that the early hormone environment exerts on both gender identity and sexual orientation. Evidence that gender identity and sexual orientation are masculinised by prenatal exposure to testosterone and feminised in it absence is drawn from basic research in animals, correlations of biometric indices of androgen exposure and studies of clinical conditions associated with disorders in sexual development. There are, however, important exceptions to this theory that have yet to be resolved. Family and twin studies indicate that genes play a role, although no specific candidate genes have been identified. Evidence that relates to the number of older brothers implicates maternal immune responses as a contributing factor for male sexual orientation. It remains speculative how these influences might relate to each other and interact with postnatal socialisation. Nonetheless, despite the many challenges to research in this area, existing empirical evidence makes it clear that there is a significant biological contribution to the development of an individual’s sexual identity and sexual orientation.
1 |. INTRODUCTION
Gender identity and sexual orientation are fundamental independent characteristics of an individual’s sexual identity. 1 Gender identity refers to a person’s innermost concept of self as male, female or something else and can be the same or different from one’s physical sex. 2 Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes. 3 Both gender identity and sexual orientation are characterised by obvious sex differences. Most genetic females identify as such and are attracted to males (ie, androphilic) and most genetic males identify as males and are attracted to females (ie, gynophilic). The existence of these dramatic sex differences suggest that gonadal hormones, particularly testosterone, might be involved, given that testosterone plays an important role in the development of most, behavioural sex differences in other species. Here, a review is provided of the evidence that testosterone influences human gender identity and sexual orientation. The review begins by summarising the available information on sex hormones and brain development in other species that forms the underpinnings of the hypothesis suggesting that these human behaviours are programmed by the prenatal hormone environment, and it will also consider contributions from genes. This is followed by a critical evaluation of the evidence in humans and relevant animal models that relates sexual identity and sexual orientation to the influences that genes and hormones have over brain development.
2 |. HORMONES, GENES AND SEXUAL DIFFERENTIATION OF THE BRAIN AND BEHAVIOUR
The empirical basis for hypothesising that gonadal hormones influence gender identity and sexual orientation is based on animal experiments involving manipulations of hormones during prenatal and early neonatal development. It is accepted dogma that testes develop from the embryonic gonad under the influence of a cascade of genes that begins with the expression of the sex-determining gene SRY on the Y chromosome. 4 , 5 Before this time, the embryonic gonad is “indifferent”, meaning that it has the potential to develop into either a testis or an ovary. Likewise, the early embryo has 2 systems of ducts associated with urogenital differentiation, Wolffian and Müllerian ducts, which are capable of developing into the male and female tubular reproductive tracts, respectively. Once the testes develop, they begin producing 2 hormones, testosterone and anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH). In rats, this occurs around day 16–17 of gestation, whereas, in humans, it occurs at about 7–8 weeks of gestation. 6 Testosterone and one of its derivatives, dihydrotestosterone, induce the differentiation of other organs in the male reproductive system, whereas AMH causes the degeneration of the Müllerian ducts. Female ovaries develop under the influence of a competing set of genes that are influenced by expression of DAX1 on the X chromosome and act antagonistically to SRY. The female reproductive tract in the embryo develops in the absence of androgens and later matures under the influence hormones produced by the ovary, in particular oestradiol.
Analogous processes occur during early development for sexual differentiation of the mammalian brain and behaviour. According to the classical or organisational theory, 7 , 8 prenatal and neonatal exposure to testosterone causes male-typical development (masculinisation), whereas female-typical development (feminisation) occurs in the relative absence of testosterone. Masculinisation involves permanent neural changes induced by steroid hormones and differs from the more transient activational effects observed after puberty. These effects typically occur during a brief critical period in development when the brain is most sensitive to testosterone or its metabolite oestradiol. In rats, the formation of oestradiol in the brain by aromatisation of circulating testosterone is the most important mechanism for the masculinisation of the brain; 9 however, as shown below, testosterone probably acts directly without conversion to oestradiol to influence human gender identity and sexual orientation. The times when testosterone triggers brain sexual differentiation in different species correspond to periods when testosterone is most elevated in males compared to females. In rodents and other altricial species, this occurs largely during the first 5 days after birth, whereas, in humans, the elevation in testosterone occurs between months 2 and 6 of pregnancy and then again from 1 to 3 months postnatally. 6 During these times, testosterone levels in the circulation are much higher in males than in females. These foetal and neonatal peaks of testosterone, together with functional steroid receptor activity, are considered to program the male brain both phenotypically and neurologically. In animal models, programming or organising actions are linked to direct effects on the various aspects of neural development that influence cell survival, neuronal connectivity and neurochemical specification. 10 Many of these effects occur well after the initial hormone exposure and have recently been linked to epigenetic mechanisms. 11
The regional brain differences that result from the interaction between hormones and developing brain cells are assumed to be the major basis of sex differences in a wide spectrum of adult behaviours, such as sexual behaviour, aggression and cognition, as well as gender identity and sexual orientation. Factors that interfere with the interactions between hormones and the developing brain systems during gestation may permanently influence later behaviour. Studies in sheep and primates have clearly demonstrated that sexual differentiation of the genitals takes places earlier in development and is separate from sexual differentiation of the brain and behaviour. 12 , 13 In humans, the genitals differentiate in the first trimester of pregnancy, whereas brain differentiation is considered to start in the second trimester. Usually, the processes are coordinated and the sex of the genitals and brain correspond. However, it is hypothetically possible that, in rare cases, these events could be influenced independently of each other and result in people who identify with a gender different from their physical sex. A similar reasoning has been invoked to explain the role of prenatal hormones on sexual orientation.
Although the role of gonadal steroids in the sexual differentiation of reproductive brain function and behaviour is undeniable, males and females also carry a different complement of genes encoded on their sex chromosomes that also influence sexual differentiation of the brain. 14 – 16 As will be discussed, family and twin studies suggest that there is a genetic component to gender identity and sexual orientation at least in some individuals. However, the nature of any genetic predisposition is unknown. The genetic component could be coding directly for these traits or, alternatively, could influence hormonal mechanisms by determining levels of hormones, receptors or enzymes. Genetic factors and hormones could also make separate yet complementary or antagonistic contributions. It should be noted that, although the early hormone environment appears to influence gender identity and sexual orientation, hormone levels in adulthood do not. There are no reports indicating that androgen levels differ as a function of gender identity or sexual orientation or that treatment with exogenous hormones alters these traits in either sex.
3 |. GENDER IDENTITY
The establishment of gender identity is a complex phenomenon and the diversity of gender expression argues against a simple or unitary explanation. For this reason, the extent to which it is determined by social vs biological (ie, genes and hormones) factors continues to be debated vigorously. 17 The biological basis of gender identity cannot be modelled in animals and is best studied in people who identify with a gender that is different from the sex of their genitals, in particular transsexual people. Several extensive reviews by Dick Swaab and coworkers elaborate the current evidence for an array of prenatal factors that influence gender identity, including genes and hormones. 18 – 20
3.1 |. Genes
Evidence of a genetic contribution to transsexuality is very limited. 21 There are few reports of family and twin studies of transsexuals but none offer clear support for the involvement of genetic factors. 22 – 24 Polymorphisms in sex hormone-related genes for synthetic enzymes and receptors have been studied based on the assumption that these may be involved in gender identity development. An increased incidence of an A2 allele polymorphism for CYP17A1 (ie, 17ɑ-hydroxylase/17, 20 lyase, the enzyme catalysing testosterone synthesis) was found in female-to-male (FtM) but not in male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals. 25 No associations were found between a 5ɑ-reductase (ie, the enzyme converting testosterone to the more potent dihydrotestosterone) gene polymorphism in either MtF or FtM transsexuals. 26 There are also conflicting reports of associations between polymorphisms in the androgen receptor, oestrogen receptor β and CYP19 (ie, aromatase, the enzymes catalysing oestradiol synthesis). 27 – 29 A recent study using deep sequencing detected three low allele frequency gene mutants (i.e., FBXO38 [chr5:147774428; T>G], SMOC2 [chr6:169051385; A>G] and TDRP [chr8:442616; A>G]) between monozygotic twins discordant for gender dysphoria. 30 Further investigations including functional analysis and epidemiological analysis are needed to confirm the significance of the mutations found in this study. Overall, these genetic studies are inconclusive and a role for genes in gender identity remains unsettled.
3.2 |. Hormones
The evidence that prenatal hormones affect the development of gender identity is stronger but far from proven. One indication that exposure to prenatal testosterone has permanent effects on gender identity comes from the unfortunate case of David Reimer. 31 As an infant, Reimer underwent a faulty circumcision and was surgically reassigned, given hormone treatments and raised as a girl. He was never happy living as a girl and, years later, when he found out what happened to him, he transitioned to living as a man. However, for at least the first 8 months of life, this child was reared as a boy and it is not possible to know what impact rearing had on his dissatisfaction with a female sex assignment. 1 Other clinical studies have reported that male gender identity emerges in some XY children born with poorly formed or ambiguous genitals as a result of cloacal exstrophy, 5ɑ-reductase or 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency and raised as girls from birth. 32 , 33 All of these individuals were exposed to testosterone prenatally emphasising a potential role for androgens in gender development and raising doubts that children are psychosexually neutral at birth. 20 On the other hand, XY individuals born with an androgen receptor mutation causing complete androgen insensitivity are phenotypically female, identify as female and are most often androphilic, indicating that androgens act directly on the brain without the need for aromatisation to oestradiol. 34
3.3 |. Neuroanatomy
Further evidence that the organisational hormone theory applies to development of gender identity comes from observations that structural and functional brain characteristics are more similar between transgender people and control subjects with the same gender identity than between individuals sharing their biological sex. This includes local differences in the number of neurones and volume of subcortical nuclei such as the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, 35 , 36 numbers of kisspeptin and neurokinin B neurones in the infundibulum, 37 , 38 structural differences of gray 39 , 40 and white matter microstructure, 41 – 43 neural responses to sexually-relevant odours 44 , 45 and visuospatial functioning. 46 However, in some cases, the interpretation of these studies is complicated by hormone treatments, small sample sizes and a failure to disentangle correlates of sexual orientation from gender identity. 47 The fact that these differences extend beyond brain areas and circuits classically associated with sexual and endocrine functions raises the possibility that transsexuality is also associated with changes in cerebral networks involved in self-perception.
4 |. SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the opposite sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. 48 However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of 3 categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), homosexual (having emotional, romantic or sexual attractions to members of one’s own sex) and bisexual (having emotional, romantic or sexual attractions to both men and women). Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. There is no scientifically convincing research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (ie, reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. 3 The origin of sexual orientation is far from being understood, although there is no proof that it is affected by social factors after birth. On the other hand, a large amount of empirical data suggests that genes and hormones are important regulators of sexual orientation. 49 – 51 Useful animal models and experimental paradigms in animals have helped frame questions and propose hypotheses relevant to human sexual orientation.
4.1 |. Animal studies
Sexual partner preference is one of the most sexually dimorphic behaviours observed in animals and humans. Typically, males choose to mate with females and females choose to mate with males. Sexual partner preferences can be studied in animals by using sexual partner preference tests and recording the amount of time spent alone or interacting with the same or opposite sex stimulus animal. Although imperfect, tests of sexual partner preference or mate choice in animals have been used to model human sexual orientation. As reviewed comprehensively by Adkins-Regan 52 and Henley et al, 53 studies demonstrate that perinatal sex steroids have a large impact on organising mate choice in several species of animals, including birds, mice, rats, hamsters, ferrets and pigs. In particular, perinatal exposure to testosterone or its metabolite oestradiol programs male-typical (ie, gynophilic) partner preferences and neonatal deprivation of testosterone attenuates the preference that adult males show typically. In the absence of high concentrations of sex steroid levels or receptor-mediated activity during development, a female-typical (ie, androphilic) sexual preference for male sex partners develops.
Sexually dimorphic neural groups in the medial preoptic area of rats and ferrets have been associated with sexual partner preferences. In male rats, a positive correlation was demonstrated between the volume of the sexual dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area (SDN) and the animal’s preference for a receptive female, 54 although this was not replicated in a recent study. 55 Furthermore, in both rats and ferrets, destruction of the SDN caused males to show either neutral or androphilic preferences. 56
Naturally occurring same-sex interactions involving genital arousal have been reported in hundreds of animal species; however, they often appear to be motivated by purposes other than sex and may serve to facilitate other social goals. 57 , 58 Exclusive and enduring same-sex orientation is, however, extremely rare among animals and has only been documented conclusively and studied systematically in certain breeds of domestic sheep. 59 , 60 Approximately 6% to 8% of Western-breed domestic rams choose to exclusively court and mount other rams, but never ewes, when given a choice. No social factors, such as the general practice of rearing in same sex groups or an animal’s dominance rank, were found to affect sexual partner preferences in rams. Consistent with the organisational theory of sexual differentiation, sheep have an ovine sexually dimorphic preoptic nucleus (oSDN) that is larger and contains more neurones in female-oriented (gynophilic) rams than in male-oriented rams (androphilic) and ewes (androphilic). 61 Thus, morphological features of the oSDN correlate with a sheep’s sexual partner preference. The oSDN already exists and is larger in males than in females before sheep are born, suggesting that it could play a causal role in behaviour. 62 The oSDN differentiates under the influence of prenatal testosterone after the male genitals develop, but is unaffected by hormone treatment in adulthood. 63 Appropriately timed experimental exposure of female lamb foetuses to testosterone can alter oSDN size independently of genetic and phenotypic sex. 13 However, males appear to be resistant to suppression of the action of androgen during gestation because the foetal hypothalamic-pituitary-axis is active in the second trimester (term pregnancy approximately 150 days) and mitigates against changes in circulating testosterone that could disrupt brain masculinisation. 64 These data suggest that, in sheep, brain sexual differentiation is initiated during gestation by central mechanisms acting through gonadotrophin-releasing hormone neurones to stimulate and maintain the foetal testicular testosterone synthesis needed to masculinise the oSDN and behaviour. More research is required to understand the parameters of oSDN development and to causally relate its function to sexual partner preferences in sheep. Nonetheless, when considered together, the body of animal research strongly indicates that male-typical partner preferences are controlled at least in part by the neural groups in the preoptic area that differentiate under the influence of pre- and perinatal sex steroids.
4.2 |. Human studies
4.2.1 |. genes.
Evidence from family and twin studies suggests that there is a moderate genetic component to sexual orientation. 50 One recent study estimated that approximately 40% of the variance in sexual orientation in men is controlled by genes, whereas, in women, the estimate is approximately 20%. 65 In 1993, Hamer et al 66 published the first genetic linkage study that suggested a specific stretch of the X chromosome called Xq28 holds a gene or genes that predispose a man to being homosexual. These results were consistent with the observations that, when there is male homosexuality in a family, there is a greater probability of homosexual males on the mother’s side of the family than on the father’s side. The study was criticised for containing only 38 pairs of gay brothers and the original finding was not replicated by an independent group. 67 Larger genome-wide scans support an association with Xq28 and also found associations with chromosome 7 and 8, 68 , 69 although this has also been disputed. 70 Scientists at the personal genomics company 23andme performed the only genome-wide association study of sexual orientation that looked within the general population. 71 The results were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Human Genetics in 2012, although they have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Although no genetic loci reaching genome-wide significance for homosexuality among men or women, the genetic marker closest to significance was located in the same region of chromosome 8 in men as that implicated in linkage studies. Other molecular genetic evidence suggests that epigenetic factors could influence male sexual orientation, although this has yet to be demonstrated. 72 , 73
4.2.2 |. Hormones
The leading biological theory of sexual orientation in humans, as in animals, draws on the application of the organisational theory of sexual differentiation. However, this theory cannot be directly tested because it is not ethical to experimentally administer hormones to pregnant women and test their effect on the sexual orientation of their children. Naturally occurring and iatrogenic disorders of sex development that involve dramatic alterations in hormone action or exposure lend some support to a role for prenatal hormones, although these cases are extremely rare and often difficult to interpret. 74 Despite these limitations, two clinical conditions are presented briefly that lend some support for the organisational theory. More comprehensive presentations of the clinical evidence on this topic can be found in several excellent reviews. 74 – 76
Women born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) and exposed to abnormally high levels of androgens in utero show masculinised genitals, play behaviour and aggression. 74 , 77 They also are less likely to be exclusively heterosexual and report more same-sex activity than unaffected women, which suggests that typical female sexual development is disrupted. Although it appears plausible that these behavioural traits are mediated through effects of elevated androgens on the brain, it is also possible that the sexuality of CAH women may have also been impacted by the physical and psychological consequences of living with genital anomalies or more nuanced effects of socialisation. 78 There is also evidence for prenatal androgen effects on sexual orientation in XY individuals born with cloacal exstrophy. It was reported originally that a significant number of these individuals eventually adopt a male gender identity even though they had been surgically reassigned and raised as girls. Follow-up studies found that almost all of them were attracted to females (i.e. gynophilic). 33 , 50 The outcomes reported for both of these conditions are consistent with the idea that prenatal testosterone programs male-typical sexual orientation in adults. However, effects on sexual orientation were not observed across the board in all individuals with these conditions, indicating that hormones cannot be the only factor involved.
4.2.3 |. Neuroanatomy
Additional evidence that supports a prenatal organisational theory of sexual orientation is derived from the study of anatomical and physiological traits that are known to be sexually dimorphic in humans and are shown to be similar between individuals sharing the same sexual attraction. Neuroanatomical differences based on sexual orientation in human males have been found. LeVay 79 reported that the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH3) in homosexual men is smaller than in heterosexual men and has a similar size in homosexual men and women. Based on its position and cytoarchitecture, INAH3 resembles the sheep oSDN, which has similar differences in volume and cell density correlated with sexual partner preference. This similarity suggests that a relevant neural circuit is conserved between species. A recent review and meta-analysis of neuroimaging data from human subjects with diverse sexual interests during sexual stimulation also support the conclusion that elements of the anterior and preoptic area of the hypothalamus is part of a core neural circuit for sexual preferences. 80
Other neural and somatic biomarkers of prenatal androgen exposure have also been investigated. McFadden 81 reported that functional properties of the inner ear, measured as otoacoustic emissions (OAEs), and of the auditory brain circuits, measured as auditory evoked potentials (AEPs), differ between the sexes and between heterosexual and homosexual individuals. OAEs and AEPs are usually stronger in heterosexual women than in heterosexual men and are masculinised in lesbians, consistent with the prenatal hormone theory. However, OAEs were not different in homosexual males and AEPs appear to be hyper-masculinised. The second digit to fourth digit (2D:4D) ratio, which is the length of the second digit (index finger) relative to that of the fourth digit (ring finger), is another measure that has been used as a proxy for prenatal androgen exposure. The 2D:4D ratio is generally smaller in men than in women, 82 , 83 although the validity of this measure as a marker influenced by only prenatal androgen exposure has been questioned. 84 Nonetheless, numerous studies have reported that the 2D:4D ratio is also on average smaller in lesbians than in hetero-sexual women, a finding that has been extensively replicated 85 and suggests the testosterone plays a role in female sexual orientation. Similar to OAEs, digit ratios do not appear to be feminised in homosexual men and, similar to AEPs, may even be hyper-masculinised. The lack of evidence for reduced androgen exposure in homosexual men (based on OAEs, AEPs and digit ratios) led Breedlove 85 to speculate that there may be as yet undiscovered brain-specific reductions in androgen responses in male foetuses that grow up to be homosexual. No variations in the human androgen receptor or the aromatase gene were found that relate to variations in sexual orientation. 86 , 87 However, Balthazart and Court 88 provided suggestions for other genes located in the Xq28 region of the X-chromosome that should be explored and it remains possible that expression levels of steroid hormone response pathway genes could be regulated epigenetically (11).
4.2.4 |. Maternal immune response
Homosexual men have, on average, a greater number of older brothers than do heterosexual men, a well-known finding that has been called the fraternal birth order (FBO) effect. 89 Accordingly, the incidence of homosexuality increases by approximately 33% with each older brother. 90 The FBO effect has been confirmed many times, including by independent investigators and in non-Western sample populations. The leading hypothesis to explain this phenomenon posits that some mothers develop antibodies against a Y-linked factor important for male brain development, and that the response increases incrementally with each male gestation leading, in turn, to the alteration of brain structures underlying sexual orientation in later-born boys. In support of the immune hypothesis, Bogaert et al 91 demonstrated recently that mothers of homosexual sons, particularly those with older brothers, have higher antibody titers to neurolignin 4 (NLGN4Y), an extracellular protein involved in synaptic functioning and presumed to play a role in foetal brain development.
5 |. CONCLUSIONS
The data summarised in the present review suggest that both gender identity and sexual orientation are significantly influenced by events occurring during the early developmental period when the brain is differentiating under the influence of gonadal steroid hormones, genes and maternal factors. However, our current understanding of these factors is far from complete and the results are not always consistent. Animal studies form both the theoretical underpinnings of the prenatal hormone hypothesis and provide causal evidence for the effect of prenatal hormones on sexual orientation as modelled by tests of sexual partner preferences, although they do not translate to gender identity.
Sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place before sexual differentiation of the brain, making it possible that they are not always congruent. Structural and functional differences of hypothalamic nuclei and other brain areas differ in relation to sexual identity and sexual orientation, indicating that these traits develop independently. This may be a result of differing hormone sensitivities and/or separate critical periods, although this remains to be explored. Most findings are consistent with a predisposing influence of hormones or genes, rather than a determining influence. For example, only some people exposed to atypical hormone environments prenatally show altered gender identity or sexual orientation, whereas many do not. Family and twin studies indicate that genes play a role, but no specific candidate genes have been identified. Evidence that relates to the number of older brothers implicates maternal immune responses as a contributing factor for male sexual orientation. All of these mechanisms rely on correlations and our current understanding suffers from many limitations in the data, such as a reliance on retrospective clinical studies of individuals with rare conditions, small study populations sizes, biases in recruiting subjects, too much reliance on studies of male homosexuals, and the assumption that sexuality is easily categorised and binary. Moreover, none of the biological factors identified so far can explain all of the variances in sexual identity or orientation, nor is it known whether or how these factors may interact. Despite these limitations, the existing empirical evidence makes it clear that there is a significant biological contribution to the development of an individual’s sexual identity and sexual orientation.
I thank Charles Estill, Robert Shapiro and Fred Stormshak for their thoughtful comments on this review. This work was supported by NIH R01OD011047.
This work was supported by NIH R01OD011047 (CER)
CONFLICT OF INTERESTS
The author declares that there are no conflicts of interest.
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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender
Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.
1.1 Biological determinism
1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.
Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.
A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.
Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).
In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.
Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).
In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).
So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)
2. Gender as socially constructed
One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.
Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]
According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.
Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.
Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.
Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.
Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.
So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.
3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction
3.1 is gender uniform.
The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.
One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).
Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]
For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).
Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).
Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.
This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar  for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)
Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.
Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.
Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).
In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.
These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.
Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.
The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.
For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.
Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.
Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)
Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.
To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.
Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).
More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):
Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.
With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):
Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”
This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.
In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:
If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)
(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).
For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)
For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.
However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).
Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.
Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.
Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).
Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.
Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.
- It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
- One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
- AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
- AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
- AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
- AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.
Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.
Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.
4. Women as a group
The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?
Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.
Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.
4.1 Gender nominalism
Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .
Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).
Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).
Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).
Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).
The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.
4.2 Neo-gender realism
In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:
S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)
These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.
Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.
Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,
any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)
But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola  too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).
Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):
Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).
According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:
The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)
In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.
Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).
Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)
In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.
Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.
Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]
Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.
It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.
Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is
a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)
By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.
Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.
Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:
Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)
The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be
the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)
Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.
Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight
we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)
That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.
Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:
a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)
Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.
Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:
For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)
Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.
As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.
This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.
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All humans are born with biological characteristics of sex , either male, female, or intersex. Gender, however, is a social construct and generally based on the norms, behaviors, and societal roles expected of individuals based primarily on their sex. Gender identity describes a person’s self-perceived gender, which could be male, female, or otherwise. In recent years, expanding the public understanding of gender has freed many to feel more comfortable in their own skin and live as the people they believe themselves to be. People whose gender identity corresponds to their biological sex may be referred to as cisgender. Transgender people have a gender identity that does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth. And people whose gender identity feels neither masculine nor feminine may identify as non-binary, while those who feel no gender identity may refer to themselves as "agender."
- The Range of Modern Gender Identity
- The Challenges of Gender in Daily Life
There has likely never been a time in human history when all individuals felt that they were either strictly male or strictly female. But while different cultures at different times have been more or less open and accepting of different gender identities, many more people today may be comfortable expressing their identity and living their lives as members of the gender to which they believe they belong than ever before. Still, according to research by the World Health Organization and others, transgender , nonbinary, and other non-cisgender individuals face widespread discrimination in the workforce, in public life, and in the healthcare system. And in cultures that deny the existence of transgender or non-binary individuals altogether, or deny rights to such people, those who do not identify with the gender binary may be forced to live in secrecy or be threatened with violence.
There is no definitive answer to this question. Along with cis males and cis females are trans men and trans women, transgender, nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, and agender individuals, among many other possible definitions. Facebook offers users dozens of potential gender identities to select for their profiles, while other experts suggest that there may be 100 genders or more and different cultures may use different identifications for one gender or another. The key, advocates suggest, is not pinning down a definitive list of gender possibilities but to be accepting of each individual’s declared gender.
Many people are comfortable as masculine or feminine, also known as the gender binary . When people who do not identify as male or female follow “traditional” masculine or feminine behaviors and routines anyway, because of reluctance or fear of declaring their true gender identity, they could be said to be practicing gender conformity . Despite a generally greater openness to other genders today, the public world is still generally geared toward the gender binary. Ironically, though, many elements of what are now seen as distinctly male or female behaviors were once quite different. For example, not so long ago, men wore wigs and heels and favored the color pink, all now considered stereotypically feminine. Understanding how fluid our binary expectations have actually been over time could lead to greater acceptance of alternative gender roles today.
People can become aware of their gender identity at any time. Some become conscious of their identity in childhood , and may be aware from a young age of not conforming with the gender to which they were assigned at birth. This feeling of discomfort or distress while trying to live within the gender binary is often referred to as gender dysphoria . Such feelings of gender dissonance can develop into depression or even suicidal ideation until one can find gender resonance , often after encountering others with the same gender identity and with whom they can identify. But non-cisgender individuals may still struggle with their identities if their family, their peers, or their community is not supportive of identities along the gender spectrum.
A young person revealing to their parent or parents that they are nonbinary, transgender, or genderqueer may be experiencing significant anxiety , even if they believe their parents could be supportive. Parents who can remain calm during their discussions, focus on listening, trust their child’s instincts, and remember that what’s happening is more about their child’s mental health than about their own can offer tremendous relief and support to their child. Afterward, parents can research gender differences on their own, find support, and stand up for their child in their extended family and, if necessary, their community.
People who identify as genderqueer may place themselves on the spectrum of gender identity between male and female. Neither transgender nor seeking to transition, they may see themselves as neutrally gendered, and adopting gender less pronouns like “they.” While deeply uncomfortable being associated with a binary gender, they may experience gender fluidity, moving closer to male or female at different times. Other terms that genderqueer people may adopt include third-gender, demigender, bigender, neutrois, androgyne, or pangender. Some research suggests that more people who identify as genderqueer were born female.
Describing gender as a social construct is neither a casual nor an ideological phrasing. Many people might be happier and less anxious if they could go through life without having to worry about whether their gender was affecting other people’s perceptions of them or their ability to pursue their goals , or without feeling doubts about whether they were living up to the expectations placed on them because of their sexual characteristics. Unfortunately, socially-constructed concepts of gender can hinder people in all of these ways.
Cisgender men may struggle to live up to notions of machismo taught to them from a young age and pervasive in the media they consume even if doing so is really just an awkward act of pretending. Cisgender women may worry that sexism may limit their opportunities, or that the pursuit of their goals will lead others to see them as less feminine and somehow less worthy, especially if they do not dress or maintain their appearance in the ways others expect them to. Transgender people may feel profoundly disconnected from their true selves. And while those who have transitioned, or who are openly nonbinary or genderqueer, may feel more like themselves, it often comes at the cost of discrimination from those clinging to socially-constructed notions about who men and women are really supposed to be.
They often do. According to the Mental State of the World report, transgender people report significantly lower mental well-being than cisgender males or females, and surveys by the Trevor Project suggest that nearly half of trans or nonbinary youth had experienced suicidal ideation in the previous year. Other research has found that while rates of depression are higher in nonbinary communities, the risk is mitigated by family support (but surprisingly, less so by identification with an active trans community), and, for those who are transitioning, by starting, completing, and living longer with the results of interventions that lead to higher body satisfaction.
Yes, according to research, and it may be even more deeply held than many people imagine. A computer-based study of people’s attitudes toward humanity in general found that most people associated human concepts, such as the term “person” with men more than with women, reflecting what researchers called an “androcentric” bias with ramifications for bias in the economy, medical care, and even safety: Until recently, more car safety features were tested on dummies representing the size of males, for example. This bias is much more pronounced in men than women, the research found, but exists across society.
It may be, although the idea has generated a great deal of controversy. In 2019, the American Psychological Association issues guidelines for psychologists working with men and boys stating that “traditional masculinity —marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression —is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.” While it has been shown that a “macho” orientation can lead to less flexibility and poorer relationships, among other concerns, it does not always serve men poorly. The feeling that one must strive to meet that ideal, however, or “masculinity-contingent self-worth” can lead not only to personal struggles to embrace one’s true self but also to a higher tendency to discriminate against those perceived to violate gender norms.
A female or female-identifying partner's sex life can be fragile and easily extinguished—ironically, by the very selfless behaviors that often make her most loveable.
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One of the most important things we can offer a young person is attunement. To attune to a child is to say, “I see you, and I am a witness to your life.”
Women who need or want to work may soon face strict limits on the right to abortion.
The qualities women want in a man aren't so different now from what they were decades ago; however, women today are much more up front in saying what they don't what in a man.
What happens when faculty do not feel free to teach freely about gender, race, and sexuality? Do they resign? Do they change their curriculum? What happens to student's education?
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Biological Theories of Gender
Saul Mcleod, PhD
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester
Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
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What is the biological basis of being male or female?
Sex chromosomes primarily determine the biological basis of being male or female. In humans, males have one X and one Y chromosome (XY), while females have two X chromosomes (XX).
This chromosomal difference leads to the development of different sexual organs in the womb: XY leads to testes, and XX leads to ovaries.
Hormones produced by these organs (mainly testosterone for XY, and estrogen and progesterone for XX) drive the development of secondary sexual characteristics like body shape, voice pitch, and body hair during puberty.
Sex vs Gender
People often get confused between the terms sex and gender . Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. For example, chromosomes (female XX, male XY), reproductive organs (ovaries, testes), hormones (oestrogen, testosterone).
Gender refers to the cultural differences expected (by society / culture) of men and women according to their sex. A person’s sex does not change from birth, but their gender can.
In the past people tend to have very clear ideas about what was appropriate to each sex and anyone behaving differently was regarded as deviant.
Today we accept a lot more diversity and see gender as a continuum (i.e. scale ) rather than two categories. So men are free to show their “feminine side” and women are free to show their “masculine traits”.
The biological approach suggests there is no distinction between sex & gender, thus biological sex creates gendered behavior. Gender is determined by two biological factors: hormones and chromosomes.
Hormones are chemical substances secreted by glands throughout the body and carried in the bloodstream. The same sex hormones occur in both men and women, but differ in amounts and in the effect that they have upon different parts of the body.
Testosterone is a sex hormone, which is more present in males than females, and affects development and behavior both before and after birth.
Testosterone, when released in the womb, causes the development of male sex organs (at 7 weeks) and acts upon the hypothalamus which results in the masculinization of the brain.
Testosterone can typically cause male behaviors such as aggression, competitiveness, Visuospatial abilities, higher sexual drive etc. An area of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain called the sexually dimorphic nucleus is much larger in male than in females.
At the same time testosterone acts on the developing brain. The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right. In all humans the left side of the brain is more specialized for language skills and the right for non-verbal and spatial skills.
Shaywitz et al (1995) used MRI scans to examine brain whilst men and women carried out language tasks and found that women used both hemispheres, left only used by men.
It appears that in males, brain hemispheres work more independently than in females, and testosterone influences this brain lateralization .
The effects of testosterone have been confirmed in animal studies.
Quadango et al. (1977) found that female monkeys who were deliberately exposed to testosterone during prenatal development later engaged in more rough and tumble play than other females.
Young (1966) changed the sexual behavior of both male and female rats by manipulating the amount of male and female hormones that the rats received during their early development.
They displayed “reversed” sexual behavior and the effects were unchangeable. A number of non-reproductive behaviors in rats are also effected by testosterone exposure around birth. These included exploratory behavior, aggression and play.
Young believed that the exposure had changed the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) in the brain, as male rats had a larger SDN than females. The results have proven to be highly replicable.
Because this study was conducted in a lab it has low ecological validity. For example, in the lab hormones are injected in one single high dose. Whereas in real life, hormones tend to be released by the body in pulses, in a graduated fashion. Therefore, the results might not be generalizable outside of the lab, to a more naturalistic setting.
This study also raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals in research.
Ultimately psychologists must ask themselves whether in their research the ends justify the means. By this we mean that all research using human or non-human animals must be considered in terms of the value of the results when compared to the cost (both moral and financial) of carrying out the work. The main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.
We should be cautious when extrapolating the results of animal research to a human population. This is because the physiologies (e.g. brains) of humans and animals species are not identical. Also, the social and cultural variables within a human population are more complex when compared to social interactions between rats.
The consequence of this means the external validity of the research is uncertain. However, a study by Hines (1982) suggests it might be possible to generalize the results to humans.
Hines (1982) studied female babies born to mothers who had been given injections of male hormones during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage. They were found to be more aggressive than normal female children. Hines concluded that the extra testosterone in the womb had affected later behavior.
The normal human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. A chromosome is a long thin structure containing thousands of genes, which are biochemical units of heredity and govern the development of every human being.
Each pair of chromosomes controls different aspects of development, and biological sex is determined by the 23rd chromosome pair. Chromosomes physically resemble the letters X and Y.
- Females = XX
SRY Gene (Sex-determining Region Y gene)
At about 6 weeks, the SRY gene on the Y chromosome causes the gonads (sex organs) of the embryo to develop as testes.
If the embryo has no Y chromosome, it will not have the SRY gene, without the SRY gene, the gonads will develop as ovaries.
Sometimes the SRY gene is missing from the Y chromosome, or doesn’t activate. The foetus grows, is born, and lives as a little girl, and later as a woman, but her chromosomes are XY. Such people are, usually, clearly women to themselves and everyone else.
Koopman et al. (1991) found that mice that were genetically female developed into male mice if the SRY gene was implanted.
One of the most controversial uses of this discovery was as a means for gender verification at the Olympic Games, under a system implemented by the International Olympic Committee in 1992. Athletes with a SRY gene were not permitted to participate as females.
Individuals with atypical chromosomes develop differently than individuals with typical chromosomes – socially, physically and cognitively.
Studying people with Turner’s syndrome and Klinefelter’s syndrome might help our understanding of gender because by studying people with atypical sex chromosomes and comparing their development with that of people with typical sex chromosomes, psychologists are able to establish which types of behavior are genetic (e.g. determined by chromosomes).
Turner’s syndrome (XO) occurs when females develop with only one X chromosome on chromosome 23 (1 in 5000 chance).
The absence of the second X chromosome results in a child with a female external appearance but whose ovaries have failed to develop.
The physical characteristics of individuals with Turner’s syndrome include lack of maturation at puberty and webbing of the neck.
In addition to physical differences, there are differences in cognitive skills and behavior compared with typical chromosome patterns.
The affected individuals have higher than average verbal ability but lower than average spatial ability, visual memory and mathematical skills. They also have difficulty in social adjustment at school and generally have poor relationships with their peers.
Klinefelter’s syndrome (XXY) affects 1 in every 750 males. In addition to having a Y chromosome, these men also have an additional X on the 23rd chromosome, leading to the arrangement XXY.
Physically they appear male, though the effect of the additional X chromosome causes less body hair and under-developed genitals. The syndrome becomes noticeable in childhood, as the boy has poor language skills. At three years of age, the child may still not talk. At school, their poor language skills affect reading ability.
When they are babies, their temperament is described as passive and co-operative. This calmness and shyness remains with them throughout their lives.
This suggests that level of aggression have a biological rather than environmental component.
Evolutionary Explanations of Gender
As the evolutionary approach is a biological one, it suggests that aspects of human behavior have been coded by our genes because they were or are adaptive.
A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago.
The evolutionary approach argues that gender role division appears as an adaptation to the challenges faced by the ancestral humans in the EEA (the environment of evolutionary adaptation).
The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.
The two sexes developed different strategies to ensure their survival and reproductive success. This explains why men and women differ psychologically: They tend to occupy different social roles.
To support the evolutionary perspective, the division of labour was shown to be an advantage. 10,000 years ago there was division of labour between males and females. Men were the hunter gathers, breadwinners, while the mother was at home acting as the ‘angel of the house’ and looking after the children.
Hunting for food required speed, agility, good visual perception. So men developed this skill.
If a women was to hunt, this would reduce the group’s reproductive success, as the woman was the one who was pregnant or producing milk. Although, the women could contribute to the important business of growing food, making clothing and shelter and so on.
This enhances reproductive success but it also important in avoiding starvation – an additional adaptive advantage.
Deterministic approach which implies that men and women have little choice or control over their behaviors: women are natural ‘nurturers’ and men are naturally aggressive and competitive.
The consequence are that in modern society equal opportunities policies are doomed to fail as men are ‘naturally’ more competitive, risk taking and likely to progress up the career ladder.
Biosocial Approach to Gender
The biosocial approach (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972) is an interactionist approach where by nature and nurture both play a role in gender development.
John Money’s (1972) theory was that once a biological male or female is born, social labeling and differential treatment of boys and girls interact with biological factors to steer development. This theory was an attempt to integrate the influences of nature and nurture.
Gender role preferences determined by a series of critical events:
Prenatal : exposure to hormones on the womb (determined by chromosomes). It states that biology caused by genetics, XY for a boy and XX for a girl will give them a physical sex.
Postnatal : Parents and others label and react towards a child on the basis of his or her genitals.
- Parents and other people label and begin to react to the child based on his or her genitals. It is when their sex has been labelled through external genitals, they gender development will begin.
- The social labeling of a baby as a boy or girl leads to different treatment which produce the childs sense of gender identity.
- Western Societies view gender as having two categories, masculine and feminine, and see man and women as different species.
The way they are treated socially in combination with their biological sex will determine the child’s gender.
The approach assumes that gender identity is neutral before the age of 3, and can be changed, e.g. a biological boy raised as a girl will develop the gender identity of a girl. This is known as the theory of neutrality.
Rubin et al., 1974, interviewed 30 parents and asked them to use adjective pairs to describe their babies. Although there were no measurable differences in size between the babies, parents consistently described boy babies as better coordinated, stronger and more alert than daughters. This shows that parents label their babies.
Feder, H. H., Phoenix, C. H., & Young, W. C. (1966). Suppression of feminine behavior by administration of testosterone propionate to neonatal rats. Journal of Endocrinology, 34(1 ), 131-132.
Hines, M. (1982). Prenatal gonadal hormones and sex differences in human behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 92(1) , 56.
Koopman, P., Gubbay, J., Vivian, N., Goodfellow, P., & Lovell-Badge, R. (1991). Male development of chromosomally female mice transgenic for Sry. Nature, 351(6322) , 117-121.
Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.
Quadagno, D. M., Briscoe, R., & Quadagno, J. S. (1977). Effect of perinatal gonadal hormones on selected nonsexual behavior patterns: a critical assessment of the nonhuman and human literature. Psychological Bulletin, 84(1 ), 62.
Shaywitz, B. A., Shaywltz, S. E., Pugh, K. R., Constable, R. T., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R. K., … & Gore, J. C. (1995). Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language .
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An Overview of Gender Constancy
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.
Claudia Chaves, MD, is board-certified in cerebrovascular disease and neurology with a subspecialty certification in vascular neurology.
Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.
Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou
Definition of Gender Constancy
- Kohlberg's Theory of Gender Development
Research Evidence of Gender Constancy
Other theories of gender development.
In its simplest terms, gender constancy refers to the theory that children develop a sense of gender over time and eventually come to understand that their biological sex is fixed and permanent.
This theory originates from the work of American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. As simple as the theory sounds, it's not a simple concept in the least — which is why research on gender development continues to this day.
It is important to note that when the theory of fender constancy was developed, it was a different time in history. The theory does not reflect current social norms surrounding gender far. For example, the theory does not account for individuals who identify as transgender , nonbinary, or gender fluid.
As you read about this theory and its different components, keep in mind that it is based on Piaget's work on cognitive development. Thus, it does not take into account any research, theory, or social transitions that have happened in the 50+ years since.
The concept of gender constancy refers to a cognitive stage of development at which children come to understand that their gender (meaning their biological sex) is fixed and cannot change over time.
This theory was proposed by Kohlberg and had its roots in the cognitive development theory of French psychologist Jean Piaget . It was first proposed in 1966, when Kohlberg argued the most important part of the development of gender identity development was this cognitive development of the child.
While the gender constancy theory states that biological sex is fixed and cannot change over time, we now know that there should be a broader interpretation of sex and gender that was once theorized. In addition, children should always be taught that self-acceptance is most important.
Kohlberg's Theory of Gender Development
To understand Kohlberg's theory, it is first important to understand the concept of a " schema " in terms of cognitive development. A schema is a conceptual pattern held in the mind through which children make sense of the world, and in this case, their gender.
A gender schema model proposes that children develop their gender identity through internal motivation to conform to what society expects based on their biological sex. However, Kohlberg argued that this motivation was first dependent on the child passing through a number of stages of cognitive development.
While the gender schema model proposes that children have an internal motivation to conform, it's important to note that with changing gender norms and changing expectations of society, internal motivation may also shift. Regardless, children should never be forced to conform to a gender role that makes them uncomfortable.
This pattern of cognitive development was seen to take place between the ages of two and seven years old, during which time children grow to understand that their sex cannot be changed.
Once children reach this stage of development, Kohlberg argued that they would be motivated to watch how they were expected to behave and act in accordance with that gender role.
In this way, Kohlberg maintained that children would not develop an understanding of gender roles until they had learned that sex remains constant throughout life.
Stage 1: Gender labeling (by age 3)
In the gender labeling stage, children can say whether they are a girl or boy as well as the gender of other people. However, they do not understand that this is a characteristic that can't change over time, like the length of someone's hair or the clothes that they are wearing.
Stage 2: Gender stability (by age 5)
In the gender stability stage, children start to realize that boys will grow up to be dads and girls grow up to be moms, etc. However, they still don't understand that gender can't be changed by changes in appearance or choice of activities.
Stage 3: Gender constancy (by age 7)
By about age 6 or 7, children begin to understand that sex is permanent across situations and over time. Once they develop this understanding, they begin to act as members of their sex.
In this way, Kohlberg argued that the most important aspect of gender development is not biological instincts or cultural norms; rather, it is a child's cognitive understanding of the social world around them.
In other words, it's not about a child feeling motivated by rewards to act in a certain way according to what is expected of them being a boy or girl.
Instead, their gender identity development depends on their sense of being male or female, which grows in stages that match their cognitive development. And, these stages closely parallel the theory of Piaget regarding children's cognitive development.
Research evidence to support the theory of the development of gender constancy proposed by Kohlberg is mixed.
- Some early researchers (from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) argued that children as young as age two naturally show gender-biased behavior such as selecting certain toys or playing with other girls or boys.
- Some argue that parental reinforcement of gender-consistent behaviors is also critically important to a child developing gender identity.
- Some studies show that even infants can discriminate between male versus female faces and voices.
- Some argue that gender constancy is actually the most immature form of gender conception.
In one related study, Slaby and Frey (1975) examined children's understanding of gender using a Gender Concept Interview. They surveyed 55 two through five-year-olds and asked 14 questions and counter questions.
Examples of the questions are below, each representing different stages of Kohlberg's theory:
- Is this a girl or a boy? (showing a photo)
- Are you a boy or a girl?
- When you were a baby, were you a girl or a boy?
- When you grow up, will you be a mommy or a daddy?
- If you wore girl's clothes, would you be a girl?
- Could you be a boy if you wanted?
Then, the researchers showed the children a film and measured how much they paid attention to the male or female character. What they found was that children with stronger gender constancy were more likely to pay attention to the same-sex role model. This provides support for Kohlberg's theory.
Kohlberg theorized that the development of gender roles depends on a child grasping the concept that their sex remains fixed.
However, others have argued that human development is a much more complex process that depends on a variety of factors interacting with each other. Most notably, Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura argued that development was a result of an interaction of behavior, the person, and the environment.
From this perspective, for example, a child who receives negative feedback about wearing a dress as a boy would begin to develop an understanding of gender roles. In other words, how you are socialized as a child gives you information about how to go out into the world as a girl or boy. This might be influenced by the clothes your parents buy for you, the decor in your room, the toys you play with, and the activities that you are encouraged to take part in.
If you are rewarded for acting in a way in accordance with your gender role, then you would be motivated to act in accordance with gender stereotypes.
This external feedback would eventually become internalized such that you would feel better about yourself when acting in accordance with gender stereotypes. As you grow older, internal self-regulation would grow more important.
Note again that this is an older theory based on a time when gender roles were less fluid.
At the same time, other theorists agree that cognition is important to some degree.
For example, Martin and Halverson (1981) provided a new theory of gender typing, in which they proposed that stereotypes emerge as a way of processing a large amount of information. In other words, as a little boy or girl, the world can be confusing. So, it's easier to start categorizing things based on gender. They argue that stereotypes are kind of like road maps on how to handle interactions with new people.
Martin and Halverson argued that children are quite rigid in using these stereotypes, but as they grow older, they become more flexible.
Although gender identity development continues to be studied to this day, the original concept proposed by Kohlberg has received mixed support. It is only with continued effort to understand the development of gender identity in children that we can properly understand this phenomenon. In addition, with our shifting understanding of biological sex and gender, it is likely that theories such as these will continue to evolve.
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By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.
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- Original Article
- Published: 15 November 2023
Examining the Role of Childhood Experiences in Gender Identity and Expression: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Using Social Learning Theory
- Steph Dodgers 1 ,
- Sebastian Cordoba ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1996-1058 2 &
- Jennifer Coe 1
Gender Issues ( 2023 ) Cite this article
This qualitative study examines the role of childhood experiences and memories in shaping individuals’ gender identities, expressions, and life trajectories. Whilst some research has examined the role of gender stereotypes in people's life trajectories, no research has focused on people's retrospective accounts of their gender socialisation about their current understanding of (their own) gender. We conducted eight semi-structured interviews with 20–30-year-olds living in the UK to do this. We employed interpretative phenomenological analysis to analyse our data, which enabled us to investigate participants’ memories of their gender socialisations, observations, and internalisations in childhood and their interpretation of these experiences. Using insights from social learning theory, this study provides further insights into the processes of observations, internalisations, and subsequent challenges to gender based on their retrospective accounts. We show the impact of hegemonic gender stereotypes in the participants' life trajectories and hobbies (mainly sports), showing the limitations created by the gender binary system. Notably, the present findings support social learning theory, as it shows how the internalisation of gender can be challenged by new forms of gender resocialisation, including the promotion of gender equity in sports, the possibilities of gender expressions and identities beyond the binary, and the free articulation and expression of these concerns in society. By showing how gender internalisations can be malleable, this research provides practical recommendations for tackling unnecessary gender divisions in childhood settings.
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Dodgers, S., Cordoba, S. & Coe, J. Examining the Role of Childhood Experiences in Gender Identity and Expression: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Using Social Learning Theory. Gend. Issues (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-023-09314-4
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The trouble with ‘gender ideology’
The first time I was in a room where I was knowingly in the minority as a cisgender person, my mind went places it had never been before. I was with Luisa Derouen, a Dominican sister who has ministered for decades with transgender people—a ministry that she once had to carry out in secret . I was reporting on her work for a magazine article. I sat with her at a table for a support group one evening in Tuscon, Ariz., where those present shared their struggles with family members, ID cards, bathrooms and health. I left shaken.
In that room, my own sense of gender felt unstable in ways it never had before. Was I really so sure I was a man, deep down? Adolescent memories and anxieties came back. I tried to stabilize myself, to tell myself reassuring certainties. What I felt was a version of what has been convulsing through American society in recent years, as more people have had to come to terms with the existence of more gender-diverse forms of life.
Unlike most people with that sort of confusion, however, I had Sister Luisa with me. She always started with love. She listened and asked questions and sang prayers beautifully to people when they needed comfort. This was what I saw her do with her trans friends, and the fact that I happened to be a reporter did not prevent her from also ministering to me. She preached the Gospel, basically. Before any scary and confusing thing, God’s voice tells us: B e not afraid, for I am with you .
Many of the people with whom Sister Luisa works have struggled with gender for decades. I got over my shakenness in a few days. But I came out a better man for having felt it. I could not take who I am for granted. I saw a glimpse, in Sister Luisa’s friends’ lives and mine, of how firmly God can love us when nothing else is certain. Among them I started learning to experience gender as a gift that is not simple or obvious to receive, as a force in this universe with more going on in it than I had imagined.
The theory and practice of masculinity appear to be in a period of crisis. This feeling has become red meat for politicians who decry a “war on men.” According to the likes of politicians like Senator Josh Hawley (a Republican from Missouri) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (a Republican from Georgia), mainstream culture wants nothing more than for men to hate ourselves for our supposed privilege, to abandon male strength and virtue so as to smooth the path toward communism. Among liberals, the researcher Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution issues wonkish warnings, with policy remedies, regarding declines in male educational and economic attainment. Historic gains for women have brought not only declines in relative achievement for men but also the basic question of what men are for altogether.
The most acute manifestations of anxieties about gender have emerged around the blurring and crossing of gender lines. A few years ago, transgender people suffered from lack of public awareness; today, trans people using bathrooms and playing sports—and young trans people in particular—have become subject to vicious culture warring.
On this matter, Pope Francis has bucked his usual reputation for tolerance and for showing kindness toward queer and gender-nonconforming people. (In July, for instance, he reminded a trans Italian that “God loves us as we are.”) Throughout his papacy he has habitually denounced “gender ideology,” the belief that gender could be other than fixed and binary— male and female, he created them . The pope recently referred to gender ideology as “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations” in the world today. Despite his personal kindness toward them, transgender people are unmistakably avatars of this threat.
The source of danger, for the pope, lies in losing the unique callings of men as men and women as women in a blur of indistinction. He fears that gender ideology lures people into treating gender as a human creation rather than a divine gift. He offers Christian faith as a path from confusion to clarity, from vagueness to our specific vocations as gendered beings.
When I read those passages in the pope’s writings and speeches, however, I do not hear clarity. Instead, his comments bring to mind a friend who gave me permission to work on being a man, in my mid-20s. This friend taught me that being a man is something one can learn and get better at, even if you already are one, even if you think you are not great at being one yet. His name is Quince Mountain, and he is transgender. You might have seen his appearance on the reality show “Naked and Afraid” or heard about the Internet-famous dogsled team he runs with his wife, the writer and musher Blair Braverman. He was the one who first introduced me to Sister Luisa.
Quince has thought more about gender than just about anyone I have met before, because he had to, because the gender that felt most real to him was different from what others saw. The world tried to beat that difference out of him, and bullies beat him hard for not being a certain kind of girl. He joined the Army, and that beat him hard, too. Afterward he studied radical gender theorists in college. But he also signed up for Christian “conversion therapy” camps, intended to help gay men live straight lives, because they offered a kind of training in a certain masculinity that he wanted to experience. Despite the harm those places could do, they were also where people would help each other carefully, intentionally, to come into being men. His clarity about his identity had cost him—physically, psychologically, spiritually—in ways I have never experienced.
I did not have to suffer as he did because of my gender. Despite some basic teasing for being insufficiently athletic or confident, I never questioned that I was a boy and then eventually a man. But I did not think much about what either of those words meant, either. I went through the expected coming-of-age rituals, like graduating from high school and leaving home, but most were gender neutral by default.
A mature gendered life requires a sufficiently mature theory and practice of gender.
It was only years later that I got to learn with Quince—in hours and hours of conversations, on long highway trips and by the fireplace in the house he built—about what it means to be a good man and, once we both eventually married, a good husband. He gave me the outlines of a language to measure myself by as a man, like developing “competence” and finding “ministries” where one can be useful. When he took me skeet shooting in the backyard of a roadside bar, or A.T.V. driving through muddy trails, it was an intentional crafting of gender together. We played a lot of pool, and the last time I visited him he gave my son his first pool lesson in one of those roadside bars. Because Quince had experienced gender as more than simple and obvious in his own life, he helped me see my gendered self more fully.
That is why the denunciations of so-called gender ideology have never sat right with me. People like Quince, for whom gender was not straightforward, have lessons to teach the rest of us. In order to better understand the gift of gender, we need to pay attention to when it is most challenging, not just when it seems deceptively clear. A person who has been homeless knows, in ways others do not, the value of a home and a roof. The easy distinctions we learn as children—good and bad, right and wrong, us and them—are rarely sufficient for the complexities of adult life. A mature gendered life requires, one might say, a sufficiently mature theory and practice of gender.
This is not a gender ideology. An ideology is an idol that keeps us from perceiving reality beyond what is already in our heads. Maturity means that we can see past our ideologies, as well as our fears, in order to be open to whatever revelation may be unfolding among us.
The Making of a Cudgel
What is gender ideology, actually? It is, first of all, pejorative. The term arose in the 1980s and ’90s, primarily among Catholic thinkers. They wanted to warn about emerging ideas that questioned a strict, male-female gender binary based on genital configuration. According to a recent Heritage Foundation report on the topic, gender ideology is “a spectrum of beliefs that practically deny the significance of bodily sex for personal identity.” The 2015 report from the Synod of Bishops on the Family (later quoted approvingly by Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love”) described gender ideology as a teaching in which “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, which can also change over time.”
The supposed gender ideologists do not use that term to describe themselves. Nor do they necessarily hold the alleged beliefs. Quince, for one, never perceived his masculinity as a choice; he says he would have chosen to be a woman if he felt he could.
The ur-text for academic gender theorists, Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble , regards gender-associated behaviors as cultivated through social performance and cultural context. This is at least as true as the fact that, a century ago, American culture considered pink a color for little boys and regarded women as incompetent for public life. Butler and others go on to argue that gender is something that people understand and co-construct through culture, not a fixed absolute.
To say something is a social construction, however, is not to say it is arbitrary, imaginary or unimportant. Race is a social construction—to a far greater extent than gender—but it is self-deceiving to claim that one can be blind to it. While marriage is a gift from God, it takes many different forms in different societies. This is because elements of marriage are social constructions, too. If it did not involve social constructions, we would not feel the need to define its meaning carefully, devise rituals around it or provide extra support for those who undertake it. Through these performances, we participate in a mystery that we only dimly understand. As with gender, some norms of marriage change with time and place. Others stay remarkably constant, though it is not always easy to predict what those will be.
To better understand the gift of gender, we need to pay attention to when it is most challenging.
Both pop psychology and ancient spirituality agree that a mature life involves coming to terms with the ambiguities of gendered life. Men are counseled to discover their inner femininity, and women to embrace dimensions of masculinity. Male priests lead the church that tradition regards as feminine; women are not exempt from the call to imitate the life of the male-bodied Christ. Even while social norms organize gender according to specific associations and roles, those same norms are usually porous in places. They have to be. Nobody’s full humanity fits squarely in the box of a single gender.
In contrast to the allegations of gender ideology, theorists like Dr. Butler do not disentangle gender entirely from physical characteristics. Dr. Butler argued that the social constructions of gender and sex are deeply intertwined. People who undertake gender-related medical interventions, such as hormone treatments and surgeries, accept the accompanying risks precisely because they understand their gender identity as tied to their bodies. They experience the life-and-death importance of gender and sex, while many of us simply take it for granted. Those who seek medical interventions to affirm their perceived gender hardly “deny the significance of bodily sex for personal identity,” as the Heritage Foundation put it.
In light of the ideas and activities it is meant to represent, the talk about gender ideology starts to seem like a denunciation without a referent. Many are complaining about it, but it is hard to find anyone who actually believes or defends it.
Catholic teaching has more precise concerns about certain increasingly widespread practices related to queer experience. For instance, the dominant Catholic understanding of natural law binds physical sex to gender and treats both as determined for each person by God in either-or fashion. Hormone treatments, as well as the rarer surgical interventions, can seem in that light like “playing God”—changing something not meant to be within human power. In March 2023, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that prohibits Catholic health care institutions from participating in interventions that “transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex.”
These conclusions indeed follow from long-held premises. The precepts of natural law emanate from ancient observations about how the world works, further informed by centuries of science. Why would all of that change in just the last few decades, as queer experience has become more visible in certain societies? And why should we risk harming a body that God has made? It can be painful to watch a friend or family member experience changes to their bodies with uncertain side effects, seeking relief from an invisible ailment. I have felt this myself with Quince and other friends. The bishops err on the side of caution.
The queer lives I have had the chance to encounter, however, ring out of tune with the bishops’ logic. Rather than trying to violate a “natural order,” these people often see themselves as trying to live in a deeper relationship to it. They experience gender as given, too, just not in the way tradition expects.
Sexuality is easy for nobody good.
Further, the bishops’ statement notes that sacrificing parts of a body to heal the whole is a kind of medicine Catholic teaching accepts; for many of those who undertake gender-related therapies, it feels like a matter of survival. The mental health risks and staggering suicide rates among queer people are part of why many doctors support medical interventions that affect a person’s gender presentation. The dangers that people face, according to these doctors, can justify the risks they may choose to take when undertaking physical interventions. But the risks are real, and medical opinion about the benefits continue to evolve .
If so-called gender ideologists like Dr. Butler are right, the options before us are not fixed and static any more than our society is. Just as social constructions shape the meaning of gender, the exclusion and suffering that many queer people experience results from social constructions, too, and society can change.
From Ideology to Politics
For longer than I should have, I dismissed discourses about gender ideology from the pope and other famous Catholics as a misunderstanding that more pastoral experience would resolve. But the gender ideology meme has only continued to spread. It has migrated from a slogan in church circles into mainstream politics. The governor of Florida and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, for instance, has combined two memetic bugaboos in castigating “woke gender ideology.” He backs the talk up with laws that have instilled fear in Florida’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, effectively criminalizing certain explorations of gender identity and physician-guided therapies. This kind of legislation is now spreading rapidly across the United States. The laws especially target education and medical interventions among queer young people, who already face alarmingly high risks of suicide and other self-harm.
Gender ideology has also become a popular smear used by authoritarians worldwide. When Judith Butler co-organized a 2017 conference on democracy in Brazil, far-right protesters used the term while burning an effigy of her . A pope who emphasizes a pastoral approach to complex social issues should want to prevent his language from aiding a regime of terror.
If gender ideology were not an empty signifier and a political sledgehammer, I would want to see more of it—or rather, to see more courage to develop a mature theory and practice of gender among Catholics. Our world’s understanding of gender is in flux. Much of that flux is welcome, even if it comes with excesses. (Change always does.) Ending the monopoly of men over public life has enabled us all to benefit from incalculably more God-given creativity, intellect and heart. Greater public recognition of sexual assault has not only exposed perpetrators; it has promulgated a needed vocabulary for respect and consent. Enabling more L.G.B.T.Q. people to live out of the closet has saved lives and curtailed commonplace harassment.
The long memories of old traditions will persist in new ways.
Surely there are aspects of today’s gender explorations that, in decades to come, will be widely understood as quaint, ridiculous or morally wrong. The long memories of old traditions will persist in new ways. But we can never predict exactly how. Pretending there is nothing to be learned about the gift of gender is a dangerous kind of insecurity, one that will bring suffering and limit what we can learn. Easy clarity is not the way, in the long run, to live with our uncertainties.
‘At Odds With Everything’
Christianity itself once seemed to involve a kind of gender ideology. It certainly isn’t that gender ideology—the destruction of all distinctions, the infinite choice—but it looked to some outsiders like something similar when it first appeared. Many early women saints, like St. Agnes and St. Barbara, came into their glory by refusing to carry out the gender performances expected of them in their time and place. One of the institutional innovations of early Christianity, monasticism, established and protected spaces for behavior outside of dominant norms.
There is no easy equivalence between the monastic movement and contemporary queer experience. But both bear the urge to radically rethink what gender and sexuality demand of us.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries fled their cities to conduct holy experiments in the wilderness. Men, rather than fulfilling their obligations to public life, could hide in a cell or hermitage. Women could safely refuse the expectations of reproductive and domestic labors. They mortified their bodies to exercise and test their faith. In their hot pursuit of God alone, the worldly limits of gendered life began to melt away.
Theodora of Alexandria, for instance, escaped to the desert in male clothes and lived among monks. Once another of the Mothers, Sarah of the Desert, was approached by two monks who came to harass her for being a woman. She told them, “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.”
Some might be tempted to hear Sarah as expressing the gender dysphoria that trans people today describe. The words seem interchangeable—physical characteristics belie internal sensations. But Judith Butler-style gender theory and more conservative readers would respond similarly: You are taking it out of context. Her conception of womanhood, in a culture with a specific hierarchy of gender roles, carried different meanings than it might have to modern ears. Yet the resonance is hard to shake. What Sarah experienced is part of the same Christian outlook as a woman striving to imitate the male Christ or a man who belongs to a feminine church.
It can look like Christianity nowadays has made gender into an ideology, to the point of being an idol.
The scholar and activist bell hooks once insisted on defining “queer” not merely in terms of “who you’re having sex with” or what pronoun one prefers. Queerness, she said, is “the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” The same could be said of the flight to the desert, following a divine calling. For St. Augustine of Hippo, becoming Christian meant becoming “a question to myself.”
Seen from the desert of Sarah and the self of Dr. hooks, it can look like Christianity nowadays has made gender into an ideology, to the point of being an idol. We treat as eternal a particular set of associations about what men and women are. We forget what early Christians knew—that the prevailing wisdom about gender is full of cultural constructions fashioned by human performances.
God made male and female, yes. But God made day and night, too, as well as dawn and dusk. It can be day in one part of the world, or in one part of the solar system, and night in another. The stars are not merely a decoration on our world, they were its cauldron. When we learn more about them, the immensity of God’s creativity becomes so much greater. Discovering the story of human evolution invites us to rethink our understanding of Eden and of Adam and Eve’s relationship with other living things. God did a lot in the early chapters of Genesis that has turned out to be more complicated than the ancient Hebrews realized. Still, the awe they felt for the Creator is no less true. The stories they told have become true in new ways.
“As with the six days, so too with the two genders,” writes the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. “A small door opens up, one of many that are possible, where the development of doctrine becomes thinkable.”
I do not mean to suggest that every possible kind of gender identity does justice to God’s hopes for us, or that we should accept the latest concoctions of particular subcultures as divine revelation. There could be a danger of idolatry in treating relatively recent norms around pronouns as absolutes, as if they will exist for all time. Surely some of the changes activists are demanding will someday seem silly, just as some traditionalist fears will prove unfounded. But I think the God of love wants us to love even when the waves of change are choppy. That means granting people the basic dignity of treating them how they wish to be treated, of calling them what they ask to be called. When you accompany people like that, the battle lines of the culture wars start falling apart. There is space between utterly rejecting all gender ambiguity and uncritically accepting everything about it.
Quince once told me during his transition process, for instance, that he was not doing it for the people in his rural, conservative town, where everyone knew him. When we would go to the bars there, he would sit with the guys and talk about guy things. He was a volunteer ambulance driver in town and tamed wild horses. His physical transition, he said, was more about getting by in the liberal cities, the places that pride themselves on being so accepting. Walking around a city means a day full of anonymous interactions and other people’s judgments based on one’s appearance.
The God of love wants us to love even when the waves of change are choppy.
Many stories of queer experience I have heard over the years began with a rigid religious upbringing—Quince’s included. Gender is taught as a single, stifling template about how to look and behave. I wonder whether some people would be less inclined to experience themselves as somehow nonconforming if there were a wider range of paths they could find for being a man or a woman. Perhaps risky medical interventions would seem less necessary if religious cultures attached less baggage to the appearance of one’s body or one’s conformity to a gendered ideal.
Over centuries, the escapades among the desert’s holy fools turned into more formal holy orders, with clearer protocols for conduct and values, approved by authority. Among the different paths they found to the same God, orders developed their own ways of performing gender, their own styles of masculinity and femininity. St. Catherine of Siena invited women to a different kind of womanhood than St. Theresa of Calcutta did. St. Francis of Assisi was a different kind of man than St. Ignatius Loyola, and they attracted different kinds of young men to their orders. While religious orders expect a lifelong commitment from their members, a midlife Jesuit still can turn more Franciscan in retirement. We laypeople can flit among these archetypes more freely—I heard a call to the contemplative Trappists as a teenager but have adopted a more worldly diocesan-type spirituality in my late 30s.
Orders developed their own social constructions, so to speak—of gender and much else. To the degree that they have been able to renew themselves over time, they have avoided letting themselves calcify into ideologies. But that development took time. I hope, for the sake of the people in my life struggling with gender, that they can find orders, too—mentors and communities that can guide them and feed their restless cravings for coherence. I hope the church can offer those things for people today, as Sister Luisa has for the people she serves. I hope we can say, with those who feel “at odds with everything,” that there is truth in what they are feeling, and we will search for it together. When our God became human, he seemed at odds with everything too.
Sexuality is easy for nobody good. We all need guidance and role models and rituals. We all lose our way somewhere, especially when we are young and at the mercy of ferocious chemistry. This is why mature cultures develop rituals for coming of age, for passing through uncertainty and finding a role in the community. Many of us have lost those rituals. But one thing the church has long been good at is holding many kinds of paths for her people at once, places where they can live, struggle and grow.
A Patient Church
St. John Paul II was a socially conservative pope who set out to challenge the sexual revolution. But he did not do it with just a “no.” In 129 lectures known as the Theology of the Body, he offered a positive, mystical, creative vision of humanity and sexuality. Because they did not just repudiate, those lectures are still widely used in marriage preparation, for instance. They give people something to aspire toward, to focus on, to long for. One can agree with the ideas in them or not, but in any case the ambition is admirable. When the tradition faces a challenge, do not imagine you can scold it out of existence. Take it as an opportunity to deepen the tradition.
We are an old church, and we must be a patient one.
We are an old church, and we must be a patient one. We cannot predict where the present dances with gender will land, what pronouns we will be using a decade or two from now, or what labels will make bathrooms appropriately welcoming. Catholics should offer our best understanding of our tradition, but also seek to advance that tradition in light of new experience. I hope for a church that is curious before it is judge-y, that sits at table with someone and hears their story before rushing to say “sin no more.” I wish that when fellow Catholics spoke about gender ideology, they were not simply making an excuse to dismiss whole categories of people and experiences but instead opening up spaces for discernment. The flux of gender today can be a chance to rediscover rituals for coming of age and reviving orders that can offer forgotten ways of life. The tradition can help us find new rituals and new orders, spaces in which to discover a more mature theory and practice of gender, one that receives the gift of gender more fully.
The trouble is, not everyone can afford the patience that work will require. Right now, Catholic ideas and Catholic leaders are being used to turn people into political pawns, ratcheting up the culture wars at the expense of people trying to find their way in the world. The backlash underway is needless and it is deadly, and language like gender ideology is aiding and abetting it. For now, we are playing into our worst, most censorious stereotypes, denouncing what we still only dimly understand. While the church is patient, it must also serve people who cannot wait a few centuries to be listened to and loved.
Like so much else in the universe God made, we are only beginning to discover who we are as gendered beings. We might regard feelings of dysphoria as an opportunity for empathy across the lines that most of us do not cross—a kind of spiritual insight, but one that needs focusing and discipline. We could offer retreats and vocations that enable people to explore more deeply who they are—within the guardrails of the faith and tradition, but without claiming to know where the way should always lead. We could discover many yeses for every no. The theory and practice of gender we need is not another cudgel for the culture wars but a curiosity about what God is trying to show us.
Nathan Schneider, a contributing writer for America , is a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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