Thoughts on Sex and Gender

by Daniel A. Kaufman


I am beginning to suspect that gender cuts no ontological ice – that genders are not things, as sexes are – and that the concept of gender identity is the problem rather than the solution in our current struggles over gender and sex.  Please note that these are only sketches of ideas.  The issues are too complicated to do more in an essay like this, and regardless, my views on the matter are hardly settled.  Essentially, I am thinking out loud and inviting others to do the same.  I also should be clear that I have no personal stake in the issue, and that my interest has been piqued by several significant dimensions of the public discussion on sex and gender: the implications for language; the consequences with respect to how social identities are determined; the connection with civil rights; and the dispute between some gender-identity activists and certain sectors of the feminist and gay activist populations, which has become vitriolic and is contributing to the ongoing fracturing of the liberal consensus, which bodes ill for all of us.

Sex and Gender

When we speak of someone’s sex we are speaking of their reproductive complement, down to the chromosomal level.  In human beings there are two sexes – male and female – that correspond to the two elements required for reproduction: sperm and ovum.  There is also a tiny percentage of the population in which chromosomal sex and phenotypic sex are inconsistent or in which phenotypic sex cannot be identified one way or the other, but this exceedingly rare condition (less than one half of one percent of the population) does not in any way contradict the claim that the human species, as a whole, is sexually binary, relying for its existence on reproduction effected by two distinct sexes, in contrast with species whose reproduction is, say, asexual. (1)

Gender is uncharacterizable without reference to sex, but also is distinct from it. Traditionally, the two sexes have been associated with discrete sets of socio-cultural roles, manners, dress, affects, and the like, in a way that has been simultaneously normative and subordinating of the female.  This is the gendered dimension of human life and has been one of the central targets of feminist activism going back to the 19th century.

Beyond sexual liberation, feminism has been about contesting and overturning traditional gender expression/presentation norms

First and foremost, feminism has been about the liberation of women, as a sex:  the right to vote, receive formal education, own property, leave a marriage, enter the professions, and so on.

Feminism’s second most significant task has been to challenge the socio-cultural profile imposed on women; to contest and overturn the distinctive and subordinate gender expression and presentation with which women have been saddled: how they dress and speak and act, what their interests and enthusiasms and hobbies are, etc.

I remember, as a child, being given Marlo Thomas’s 1972 album, Free to Be You and Me, the purpose of which was to articulate both of these critiques in a way accessible to children.  (2) It had a profound effect on me – the album is masterfully written and performed – and is something I still listen to and derive tremendous pleasure from.  (I even gave it to my wife as a gift, back when we were dating.) Many of the core ideas are summarized in the short piece performed by Dick Cavett, “My Dog is a Plumber”:

My dog is a plumber

He must be a boy

Although I must tell you

That his favorite toy

Is a little play stove

With pans and with pots,

Which he really must like

Cause he plays with it lots.

So perhaps he’s a girl,

Which kind of makes sense

Since he can’t throw a ball

And he can’t climb a fence.

But neither can dad

And I know he’s a man

And mom is a woman

And she drives a van.

Maybe the problem

Is in trying to tell

What someone is

By what he does well.

The concept of gender identity arguably is regressive

Contemporary gender-identity activism maintains that beyond our male/female sex identities, we also have a gender identity that is articulated by way of our gender expression and presentation. Often it goes further than this and subordinates our sexual identity to our gender identity or even ignores sexual identity altogether, in favor of gender identity.  The terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as used in ordinary language, are alleged to denote our gender identifies rather than our sex, which is what makes it possible for activists to claim that people who are chromosomally and phenotypically male are in fact, women, because their gender expression and presentation are those traditionally associated with the female sex and that people who are chromosomally and phenotypically female are, in fact, men, because their gender expression and presentation are those traditionally associated with the male sex.

There is a significant irony involved (surely unintended) in the articulation of gender identity by way of gender expression and presentation, given the relationship these bear to traditionalist gender socio-cultural norms.  Indeed, doing so goes directly against the principle articulated so charmingly in “My Dog is a Plumber,” in that it suggests we should “tell what someone is by what he does well.”  Remember that the idea behind the classical feminist critique of gender was not just that women shouldn’t be forced into roles and modes of presentation traditionally associated with their sex, but that women should not be identified with those roles; that being a woman should not be defined in terms of dresses and makeup and pink and light blue colors and housework and soap operas; that being a woman is being biologically female and that all the rest – how we dress, what we like, what we do, how we act – should be at the discretion of the individual. And yet, contemporary gender identity theory tells us that a Caitlyn Jenner, despite being chromosomally and phenotypically male, is in fact a woman, because she identifies as one by way of clothes, makeup, hairstyle, and manners of behavior and speech, all of which conform to the gender roles and tropes traditionally associated with the female sex.  This is the sense in which gender identity is arguably regressive and reactionary and is the reason why the gender-identity movement has found itself in conflict with certain sectors of the feminist and gay rights activist communities.

It was inevitable that gender identity activism would clash with feminist and gay activism

Beyond reaffirming and entrenching traditional gender roles and tropes, the focus on gender identity has a number of implications that have run the movement headlong into some of the core concerns of feminists and gay rights activists and especially the older ones, whose politics developed prior to the current omnipresence of the concept of gender identity. (3) To take just two examples:

  • Women’s colleges and other women’s-only spaces were created precisely because of women’s distinctive experiences as a sex, and because of the subordination and discrimination they suffered by virtue of that sex. But if being a woman is entirely a matter of one’s gender-identification, then someone who was born male, who may have lived the bulk of his life as a male, and who consequently had none of those distinctive experiences and suffered none of those distinctive varieties of subordination and discrimination and who now identifies as a woman should be admitted to these women’s-only institutions and spaces.  The point is not simply theoretical, as gender-identity activists have pressed for trans-women to be admitted to these institutions and spaces and have accused those who have resisted this of being transphobic.  Many of these institutions have acceded to the pressure, and whether women’s-only institutions and spaces will continue to exist in the future looks increasingly unlikely.
  • If ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are gender identities, rather than sex identities, then each category is sexually heterogeneous, including people with male and female sex organs. This has given rise not only to a group of people who identify as “lesbian,” despite having male genitalia, but to some gender-identity activists accusing homosexuals who refuse to have sex with trans-women or trans-men of being transphobic.  Some gay and lesbian activists have shot back that they are homosexuals, not homogenderals, and the argument, predictably, has turned ugly, with accusations and slurs being hurled from one side to the other, all of which has been detrimental to both communities; the sort of conflict in which there are only losers and no winners. (4)

Gender Identity is Ontologically Profligate

Because gender identity is articulated in terms of expression and presentation, it admits of an indefinite number of variations, with the result being an apparently never-ending proliferation of gender identities.  New York State officially recognizes the existence of 31 genders. (5) Facebook recognizes 71. (6)  But it’s hard to see how any specific number could ever be determined, given the way gender identity is defined.  Indeed, some of the commonly listed gender identities are themselves umbrella terms, containing within them an unspecified number of gender identities (e.g. ‘Aporagender’), while others are defined so similarly as to raise the question of whether they represent a real point of individuation in gender-identity categories (e.g. ‘genderqueer and ‘gender-fluid’).

If gender identities are intended as ontological categories, than this sort of profligacy and “ontological blur” constitute a serious problem, for the reasons Quine articulates in “On What There Is?” (See his discussion of the possible bald and possible fat men in the doorway.) (7) If they are not meant to indicate genuine ontological categories, then it is hard to see why they should not be taken as shorthand for the myriad variations in gender expression/presentation that we encounter in the human population.

We should drop the concept of gender identity and stick with biological sex and gender expression/presentation. Our focus should be on sexual equality and toleration of gender expression and presentation in all their myriad forms

I close with an outline of a proposal as to how to think about these issues that in my view would not only serve the welfare of everyone involved, but would diminish if not eliminate entirely the bloody fight that is dividing segments of the civil rights community and more broadly, the liberal consensus.

  • We retain the ontology of biological sex, which is important not just for purposes of medical research and services, but for the proper characterization of sexual identity and sexual orientation, which are crucial to providing adequate civil protections in the law for women and for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
  • We acknowledge that the sexes have had associated with them traditional socio-cultural roles and tropes that have been used to subordinate and oppress women. We recognize that in fact, people express and present themselves under innumerable, myriad combinations of these socio-cultural roles and tropes and that this is of great significance to us.
  • We affirm and reaffirm our commitment to classical liberal values, which entail that people be allowed to express and present themselves in any gendered way they like, so long as they are not harming others in doing so, not just as a matter of public mores, but as a matter of law. It should be illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their gender expression/presentation.
  • We drop the concept of gender identity, because it is ontologically suspect, demonstrably divisive, and because it is unnecessary for the purposes of protecting gender-alternative people, something to which we should all be committed.


(1) Leonard Sax, “How Common is Intersex? A Response to Anne Fausto-Sterling,” Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 39, No. 3 (August 2002).


The title track alone is worth the price of entry.  I get emotional every time I hear it.

(3) One of the stronger accounts of the collision of gender-identity activism with classical feminism, from the feminist perspective.










27 responses to “Thoughts on Sex and Gender”

  1. s. wallerstein

    I’m not at all up-date with current concepts of gender identity, and in general, I agree with what you say above, except when you come to the idea of dropping the concept of gender identity.

    As I said, I don’t follow current debates on the subject and will not argue with what you say about them.

    Let’s me just explain my own personal experience. I’ve never felt particularly masculine nor feminine. I didn’t like sports as a child nor did I have any interest in traditional female pursuits such as sewing or cooking or holding babies.

    I liked to read as a child and I still do and I never saw that as particularly masculine since both my mother and father were big readers, perhaps my mother more than my father.

    Anyway, I don’t identify as a man or a woman. I really don’t see myself as either or as someone in-between. I realize that others see me as a man. I use normal masculine clothing and my sexual partners have almost always, with a few exceptions, been of the opposite sex or gender. I don’t identify with normal macho pursuits and my friends are both men and women.

    If you ask me how I identity myself, I’d use non-gendered terms like “intellectual”, “introverted”, “critical”, “leftwing libertarian”, etc. I don’t have Facebook, so I’ve never investigated how many genders they recognize, but in any case, I don’t see why I need to recognize Facebook as an authority for how I live my life.

    In my experience the feminist concept of gender has been very liberating insofar as it validates what I’ve always felt since I was a child, that gender is socially constructed and that it’s ok not to be either a traditional macho male or the opposite. I realize that nothing that you say above implies that I should not go on living as I do now, with the same consciousness of being “genderless”, but I just felt like getting my two cents (probably now two dollars due to inflation)
    in. By the way, I enjoyed your conversation with Crispin Sartwell on this same topic and in general, I find your dialogues with Sartwell to be illuminating.

  2. I remember a Usenet discussion — maybe 20 years ago — where somebody pointed out that “sex” is a biological term, while “gender” is a grammatical term.

    Things seem to have changed a lot since then, particularly in the usage of “gender”.

    For myself, I’m not sure that I understand it all. I sometimes wonder how much of it is a fad. However, I take a simple approach. I just follow that old principle of “love thy neighbor”. What I find really puzzling, is that Christians have so much difficulty following what I have long taken to be a core Christian principle.

  3. I really like this and completely agree.

  4. “There is a significant irony involved … in the articulation of gender identity by way of gender expression and presentation, given the relationship these bear to traditionalist gender socio-cultural norms. Indeed, doing so goes directly against the principle articulated so charmingly in “My Dog is a Plumber”…”

    Yes indeed.

    There’s no doubt that the way things have developed is unfortunate in a number of respects. Much of it also plays into the perception on the part of people looking on from outside (be they Americans who see these disputes as being quite alien to their own concerns, or foreigners) that something has gone badly wrong here both in terms of (once-respected) institutions and the broader culture.

  5. Dan,
    As you know, back in December, I approached similar issues from a somewhat different direction, but ended up with similar results. Gender-identity essentialism has real problems, and adherence to it can cause real conflicts that are not really necessary.

  6. I know WHAT I am and I know WHO I am; and so does every person I know, without exception.

    What I am is a simple and easily identified matter.

    Who I am is a complex matter, formed by family, friends, education, decades of experience, curiosity and mature reflection. It is a multi-dimensional construct that has at its core the Japanese concept of Ikigai. Gender or sex have little to do with this. Just as my enjoyment of a fine meal does not define who I am, so too, my enjoyment of sex does not define who I am.

    Who someone is, that is their identity, is a complex thing that evolves through childhood into adulthood and through adulthood. It is a deep, multidimensional construct that reflects their level of maturity, their place in society and their contributions to society.

    Reducing this to gender is a dreadful simplification that exhibits low maturity and an unhealthy fixation on certain aspects of their biology. Perhaps this characterisation describes what is happening to society.

  7. I said that reducing this to gender is a dreadful simplification that exhibits low maturity. Perhaps it is a sign of stunted maturity. All children go through this stage of fixation and then emerge from it into a wider world of assuming responsibilities. That is until now and it seems that society is so permanently fixated on this manifestation of its biology that it is unable to make the transition, and thus remains stunted.

  8. It all sounds good to me. I have never understood the concept “A man in a woman’s body” because being in a man’s body is the only criterion by which I call myself a man.

  9. Bunsen Burner

    Incredibly sensible. No way it will catch on in the current climate.

  10. s. wallerstein


    You put it very well.

  11. Gender Identity is an invented concept to soften the impact of realization. Parenting with understanding is the greatest impact to strengthen the concept of who you really are.

  12. s. wallerstein

    I find it ironic that trans activists are accusing gays who refuse to have sex with trans people as “transphobic”. I always thought that the rationale behind the gay rights movement (which I support in general) is that gays and lesbians have a right to have sex with those whom they choose and not be criminalized or treated as mentally ill or as sinners.

    Now, however, it seems that some activists believe that gay people (or anyone else) are obliged to have sex with a certain group of people, in this case trans people, out of some sort of moral duty. That is exactly the same sort of puritanical reasoning that was used in the 1950’s to condemn gay people for their sexual preference and to insist that
    they had a moral duty to marry someone of the opposite sex.

    We move in circles, it seems.

  13. 1970scholar

    This is van excellent essay. It adds philosophic rigor to one one of the hottest button topics, one ordinarily and habitually mired in dogmatism, reductionist partisanship and special pleading. You bring the philosophic virtues of clarity, of getting down veto basics, definitions and understanding. I hope it takes off and is noticed for this contribution to the debate.

  14. b000p

    Absolute quality parsing of a difficult subject I’ve been struggling to articulate both internally to myself and externally to others within my broader friends group/community for a few years now. It’s rigorous, thoughtful and HUMAN perspectives like this that have kept me enjoying your site and your podcast over on Thank you for this.

  15. […] Kaufman recently made some cogent points about the paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of today’…. I won’t try to sum up his view or even articulate my own in a rigorous way. In fact, my […]

  16. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Dan, a very useful clarification. Philosophy is a practically valuable skill. I liked the connection to Quine.

    The New York City document is incredible. Prompted by it, I conclude that my gender identity/expression is monohetman (and an oldish, somewhat burnt-out specimen of the type, I’m sorry to say).

    It remains an interesting problem to link sex and gender to personhood. As I see it, sex is to gender expression as personhood is to personality and character. Except of course, sex is binary and personhood is unitary.

    In response to labnut, I think my WHAT is not a what but a WHO, in the form of an ‘I’. A social ‘I’, that is. I am an I in ‘I’-contact with other ‘I’s. Persons is what we (men and women, girls and boys, and babies) basically are. It is much more basic than sexual identity, even when that identity is stripped of its variable and diverse gender expressions.


  17. Labnut

    Gender or sex have little to do with this. Just as my enjoyment of a fine meal does not define who I am, so too, my enjoyment of sex does not define who I am.

    OK but maybe you didn’t grow up with society defining you as a crimina, deserving of 14 years of jail, ln the basis of your enjoyment of sex.

  18. Robin,
    OK but maybe you didn’t grow up with society defining you as a crimina, deserving of 14 years of jail, ln the basis of your enjoyment of sex.

    That is unfortunate but one’s sexual predilections should not defining of who you are. Who you are is, in the most part, defined by your emotional and intellectual developmental path. Healthy development of the personality takes one past the obsessive fascination with our genitals that we experience at puberty. That is because we are(or should be) a purposive, productive and creative social species that has learnt to regulate its sexual passions.

  19. Labnut

    Healthy development of the personality takes one past the obsessive fascination with our genitals that we experience at puberty.

    Our task was to develop society past its obsessive fascination with our genitals

    We have made a lot of progress in this respect, but right now there is a special enquiry in Australia where politicians are deciding in secret how best to enshrine in law the right of people to discriminate against us on the basis of their obsessive fascination with our genitals.

    One day we will convince society that our genitals are just not that fascinating, but we have a way to go yet.

  20. Robin,
    the right of people to discriminate against us on the basis of their obsessive fascination with our genitals

    I guess that applies to the umpires who certainly were fascinated by the scandalous way your fast bowlers tampered with their “balls” during during the recent Australia-South Africa cricket test in Cape Town(oh boy, did we trounce you guys!). Your top players have had their cricketing careers ended for “scratching” in public, something I was taught by my mother never ever to do. 🙂

  21. Labnut,

    And I got to see the never before seen spectacle of Australian sports fans barracking for South Africa against Australia. Strange times.

  22. 1970scholar

    I wanted to add yet one more comment on this essay, which the more I think about it, is the right way to think about current debates on gender and/or sex and Feminism. What Kaufman has accomplished here is a profound work of specifically POLITICAL philosophy, in my formulation, That is, he is interested in turning down the temperature on the extreme partisanship and constant (cold thus far, thankfully) warfare on one side or the other and insisting that we need to find solutions that already accommodate a plurality of expressions of selfhood. In doing so he has reached back into the liberal tradition and suggesting that the strength of such a tradition is that it does NOT pronounce upon what the good is, which it seems both Right and Left are so busy doing. Rather than wanting to pronounce on a single good Kaufman is, in essence, saying we know people will disagree on many expressions of selfhood but violation of the harm principle and ethics overall should be our goal, not rallying on this or that side over contentious issues.

  23. Animal Symbolicum

    Professor Kaufman, I’m hoping you can clarify something. Background: My research has required that I reflect on and attempt to give a characterization of the relationship between (a) the expression of something and (b) the something that is expressed.

    You say, “Because gender identity is articulated in terms of expression and presentation, it admits of an indefinite number of variations . . . .” My questions are about that “because.”

    First, do you mean the “because” to govern the clause “gender identity is articulated in terms of expression or presentation,” or do you mean it to govern the clause “gender identity is [a kind of] expression or presentation?” In the former case, it’s /the way we articulate/ that explains why gender identity admits of an indefinite number of variations; in the latter case, its’ /the fact that gender identity is an expression/ that explains why it admits of an indefinite number of variations. Or is this, on your view, a distinction without a difference?

    Second, according to your answer to the first question, could you say more about the picture you have of expression or presentation, the picture that would make that explanatory claim true? And is that view one that sees an expression as lacking the ontological bona fides had by what it’s an expression of?

  24. Sex is biological, and there are essentially two. Traditionally, certain manners of dress, speech, affect, socio-cultural-economic role, etc. were associated with the sexes. The sexes thereby became gendered.

    There are people today that want to claim that combinations of these genderings constitute identities in their own right. Indeed, some are pressing that these should take precedence over our sex identities. (Some even say that we should replace sex identity with gender identity.)

    My claim is that this notion of gender identity is mistaken, a bad idea, and unnecessary. Mistaken, because its ontological profligacy suggests that it is not really ontological; a bad idea, because it arguably is regressive and certainly is divisive; and unnecessary, because we can make very strong arguments for the civil rights of everyone, including those of alternate gender expression/presentation, without it.

  25. Animal Symbolicum

    Thanks for your reply, Professor Kaufman. It seems I misunderstood your application of the concept of expression. I originally took you to mean that the various gender identities are (culturally shaped) expressions of the two sexes; but your view is probably better put by saying that the various gender identities are (culturally shaped) expressions of OUR (CULTURALLY SHAPED) ATTITUDES TOWARD the two sexes. The difference is that on the first understanding, the expressing relationship obtains between the various gender identities and the sexes, whereas on the second, the expressing relationship obtains between the various gender identities and our attitudes, takes, views, perspectives, outlooks, and so on.

    One way of putting the gender identity theorist’s mistake, then, might be this: He’s forgetting that our (expressions of) attitudes toward the two sexes are (expressions of) attitudes toward THE TWO SEXES. He’s privileging our attitudes toward something at the expense of the something we have attitudes toward.

  26. The author advocates that we (1) retain the ontology of biological sex, (2) recognize that people express themselves under various socio-cultural roles, and (4) drop the concept of gender identity. He makes a normative claim (3): “It should be illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their gender expression/presentation.” Hurray for that! But the devil is in the details.

    Consider “bathroom bill” legislation that prohibits a person of one biological sex from using a bathroom designated for the other sex. Such legislation certainly retains the ontology of biological sex, doesn’t it? But it appears to discriminate against transgender people, those who choose to present themselves as a gender other than their biological sex. If you are a biological male who chooses to present yourself as female, it would make you uncomfortable to have to use the men’s bathroom. So there is a conflict between principles (1) and (3).

    And such legislation also discriminates against cisgender people, those who choose to present themselves as a gender the same as their biological sex! If you are a biological female who chooses to present yourself as male and you go into a bathroom for women, I expect you would startle and perhaps offend the women in there, particularly if they don’t know who you are. If you go into a bathroom for men, you would startle no one, and offend only those who already know your biological sex. Again, there is a conflict between (1) and (3).

    The key is to determine the circumstances under which people should be treated as their biological sex or (if there is a difference) their chosen gender identity. My guess is that in the short term it would be less harmful to allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender than to restrict them to the bathroom of their biological gender. In the long term, let’s just do away with gendered bathrooms altogether and let everybody use whatever they want. But that would require a rather substantial reorientation of social attitudes.

  27. There is no conflict whatsoever. And I wrote about this already, some time ago.

    Sensible bathroom rules have nothing to do with whether we take gender ontologically.