Gender: What is it good for? (Absolutely Nothing)

by Sonia Zawitkowski

___

Every time I see another “gender bread person” poster, or the thousandth parrot with no prior contemplation and zero actual understanding that “sex is between your legs and gender between your ears,” I become increasingly tempted to nominate inventor of gender, Dr. John Money, as the number one person I would remove from history if I had the chance. (1) Dr. Money died in 2006 but is survived by a legacy that led to the current mainstream feminist (and now even pop-cultural) obsession with gender “as a term for the social construction of masculinity and femininity, as opposed to the biological term sex.” (2)  The Government of Canada describes gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people.” (3)  To most people who use the term deliberately, gender refers to the “psychology of the sexes,” and differences in elements of “aptitude” and “attitude” between men and women. (4)

The widespread and uncritical acceptance of defining ourselves by this concept makes me fear for my sanity. If gender refers to the cultural roles assigned to men and women in our society, or the psychological differences between them, then I have two burning questions: (a) Why are we encouraging everyone to identify primarily with these cultural roles or by these differences? (b) What does gender as a cultural role even refer to in contemporary Western society? I will begin with outlining my issues with (a), then briefly discuss the historical and cultural implications of (b). I will conclude by begging you all to stop using this term.

I should get out of the way that I think many non-academics appear to use the term ‘gender’ in an uncomplicated way— simply as a synonym for ‘biological sex’. I suspect that clarifying this alone would do more to end the never-ending argument between the Steven Crowder-types yelling “there are only two genders” and their opponents who are incredulous that anyone could think there are only two social roles (hint for the confused members of the latter: not everyone is eyeballs-deep in queer theory). I will say that as someone new to graduate studies, it was disconcerting for me to learn that by saying I am a woman, I have actually been identifying not that I belong to a certain reproductive class (as was my intention), but that I was inadvertently signalling the “identity” or gender role that I wished to belong to.

It is not that gender cannot be a useful concept. Since there persists a loose bimodal distribution of characteristics exhibited by men and women, I understand the utility of retaining a concept to describe these differences. Indeed, feminist sociologist Ann Oakley used the concept of gender to cover “all [emphasis mine] the established differences” between men and women. (5) Some of these differences, until recently, were technically neutral, plainly observable, and could uncontroversially be attributed to biological sex, i.e. the differences between our body types and our reproductive capacities. Differences between men and women that are more psychological, like attitudes, preferences, and behaviours, were argued to be socially constructed based on their variance over time and between cultures, leading feminists to conclude that gender is independent of sex. So far, so good.

Where mainstream feminists and queer theorists totally lose me is why we should retain this concept of gender as an identity. The scientific importance that mainstream feminists imbue onto gender is bewildering, given that they also conceptualize it as springing from the ether (sometimes gender norms are traced back to “discourses,” but that’s usually about as concrete as the explanations get). I would argue that while gender is socially constructed and highly variable, it does have at its distant root material origins related to differences in physical ability and reproductive capacity between the sexes, creating a comparative advantage for one sex over the other for certain activities (the most obvious being longer-range foraging and hunting of large game for men; gathering and infant care for women). (6) If so, then gender, particularly in the form of a division of labor, once served a purpose for the benefit of human survival, the efficient allocation of energy, and group cohesion. Radical feminists believe that gender also functioned to oppress women by placing them into a subordinate role, allowing men to control their reproductive labor. In this case too, gender served some purpose, even if an ignoble one.

If gender originated from material, sexual differences, it probably survived for as long as it did because it reinforced societal cohesion and upheld a certain status quo. It was through gender that masculinity was instilled into men to foster their risk-tolerance, making them ready to defend their tribe, or later their nation-state, from external threats. It made it more likely that they would accept being carted off to war and disposed of, or willing to be absent from the home for fifteen-hour days to earn a wage and provide for their family. On the other hand, gender instilled femininity into women, so that while men were off attending to these duties, women would be willing to assume complete responsibility over the domestic sphere, and so that they would be reluctant to demand a wage or even credit for this work. This process socialized women to be agreeable, dependent, and subservient to men so that in turn, men would be satisfied with their own role even when (as it often was for lower class men) it was deeply unpleasant. It has been argued that by clinging to the concept of gender for dear life, mainstream feminists are only hanging onto these traditional expectations. I would add that regardless of their attitudes about it, more dominant sociological and economics forces, like the abandonment of compulsory military service, the surge in two-income households, and technological advances replacing the human role in much of highly gendered labor, have done more than current, mainstream feminism to make these gender expectations pointless.

Take for example the trajectory of one highly “gendered” aspect of life: the division of labour between men and women. There is much debate over how rigid the sex-segregation of labour was among pre-industrial societies, and whether sex-segregation always went hand-in-hand with a devaluing of women’s work. (7)  Some trace the development of the gendered division of labor into a hierarchy, which valued men’s work over women’s, to “the onset of capitalist methods of production, marked by wage labor, the individual rather than the household wage, and the separation of home and workplace.” (8)  Others argue that capitalism, in the long-term, actually expanded women’s opportunities for self-sufficiency and economic opportunity. While the impact of the capitalist transformation on gender is unsettled, what is more certain is that the shift to capitalism can be associated with an increase in individualism, which allowed for more (at the very least, superficial) gender nonconformity.

The subsequent hyper-individualism that characterizes western society is the root of many social ills, including widespread loneliness and alienation, narcissism, and the collapse of community and the social safety net. The flipside is that an ethos of individualism made it more permissible for individuals to deviate from gender norms (a trade-off that I rarely see acknowledged by mainstream feminists). One can see this difference in how much more well-defined gender roles tend to be in more collectivist societies. Take for example Samoa, (9) Northern Albania, (10) Southeast Asia, (11) and many North American Indigenous peoples. (12) In traditional Micronesian society:

There was a great divide between men’s roles and women’s roles; what work one did, the other would not do, and vice versa. If men fished, women worked on the land. If men put up the house, women might weave the thatch. Women might, in some islands, do certain kinds of fishing, but men would always refrain from doing those same kinds of fishing. Men and women never did the same thing.” (13)

Even though such an arrangement would be unnecessary and unideal to most of us living in a western industrialized, socially liberal, and egalitarian society, mainstream feminists appear to have taken it as inspiration when justifying the discourse surrounding gender and “gender variance” here in the west. This is because oftentimes, societies with well-defined gender roles will allow for the existence of additional genders, e.g. the Hijra in India, (14) the Fa’afafine in Samoa, (15) the Sworn Virgins in Albania. (16)  However, the existence of these rigid gender roles (which mainstream feminists claim they want to dismantle) is what makes possible the movement between roles and the designation of additional roles for those who don’t fit neatly into their gender category. In other words, for a man who doesn’t fulfill his gender role to have his status as a man revoked and to be placed into another gender category can only occur if the conception of what a man is, is so inflexible. (17)  I am baffled by feminists who sneer at discussions of differences between men and women, but who valorize these societies simply because they have more than two roles based on these differences, or there’s the possibility of switching between categories based on these differences.

It becomes clear how unrelatable this framework is to our lives in western society once we apply it directly. Imagine if, when women in the west were fighting for suffrage, or for the ability to become doctors, lawyers, and scientists, they instead demanded to be recognized as some other gender, rather than simply as women wanting access to better economic opportunity and full political equality. It makes even less sense today, where although there exists some horizontal occupational segregation, feminists would be loath to say that a man becoming a nurse was becoming more “womanly.” Should a female astrophysicist, programmer, or football player be designated a man, gender wise? The clumsy application to western culture of the various non-western approaches to gender does not take into account the different purposes that gender serves and what a disaster it would be to import these concepts without the same cultural framework to make sense of them. If gender still served some sort of purpose, and could exist today without devaluing women’s role, then perhaps the concept would be worth saving. However, capitalism has eliminated the social cohesion that could potentially justify a more rigid, non-hierarchical system of gender, while elevating a completely different, much more harmful aspect of gender for us to identify with, namely, the aesthetic one.

In the past, under a rigid gender system, even if the extent of women’s subjugation is up for debate, what is more certain is that their role was unique and “socially necessary.” (18)  I’m thinking of a time where there were fewer machines to pick up the slack for domestic work, which had to be done manually. In gatherer-hunter societies, the vast majority of calories that humans ingested came from the food that women gathered. (19) And who can downplay the importance of the ability to create new life? Make no mistake, that women have access to more occupational choice now is unequivocally a good thing. I am not in any way trying to romanticize the bad old days. However, in light of the evaporation of the gendered division of labor and rigid roles that were once integral to the functioning of pre-industrial society, retention of the concept of gender leaves absolutely nothing substantive for women to hold onto as women to incorporate into their identity. What do we associate with womanhood nowadays? Women are still the only sex that can become pregnant and create life, but mainstream feminists reject such “biological essentialism.” (Men can get pregnant too, now!) (20)  Furthermore, there is significant overlap between men’s and women’s work, while traditionally female work has been devalued, outsourced, and technologized. The one element that remains organically highly gendered in contemporary western society is the realm of beauty standards. All that’s left is superficial aesthetic differences, where women are strongly associated with dresses and makeup, skin care, selfies, and other such feminine beauty rituals. This behaviour is so highly gendered that male people who engage in it have recently been identifying as women (or at least out of manhood en masse. (21) Mainstream feminists have inadvertently defined womanhood solely by superficial aesthetic preferences and consumer products. I believe this could at least partly explain the startling explosion in young girls wishing to identify out of being a girl. (22)  I don’t blame them for rejecting their gender if this is all that’s left of it.

Overall, western capitalism has rendered a sharp division of labor without purpose (it lingers, but I’d be hard pressed to find someone who think it’s sensible to define our genders based on the occupations we choose). Furthermore, the resulting individualism has removed the need for gender to foster group cohesion and cooperation, while industrialization and technological advances mean that we no longer rely on gender for immediate survival. Finally, our society purports to be progressive and egalitarian, meaning gender is no longer needed to oppress women. Gender — as in, the behavioural differences between men and women — is almost entirely performative and aesthetic now. To identify ourselves based primarily on this performance/aesthetic is a neoliberal nightmare come true (and exactly the type that queer theorists claim they want to avoid). It feels like Critical Theory 101 to point out that this only serves the interests of the Beauty Industrial Complex. I’m sure Sephora execs have been salivating to extend the marketing of physical insecurities to the other half of the population.

So what are the benefits of continuing to think in terms of gender rather than sex? I can think of none, besides making it easier for westerners to talk about their clothing choices, hairstyles, and social media preferences as though they were matters of social justice. It would be a vast improvement to acknowledge sex and dispose of gender, unless you’re the type of person whose ideas of sex are so inextricably tied to gender stereotypes that you assume I’m talking about the latter when I describe the former. Besides the fact that utilizing the concept of gender as an identity makes no sense, the mainstream left’s celebration of gender is strange given how uncomfortable they are about concepts that could conceivably be used by their political opponents. While any mention of biological differences makes their eyes twitch, the concept of gender, i.e. defining our entire existence by the sex stereotypes we wish to emulate, is a gift to social conservatives. Why are ovaries and vas deferens more controversial and dangerous than “gender” which has always only existed to restrict us?

As promised, I’m concluding this essay by imploring readers to stop using the term ‘gender.’ If you use it interchangeably with sex, go ahead. If you’re from a culture where gender is actually meaningful as a role, then that may be a different story. But if you live in the west like me, and you’re the type of person who thinks carefully about the language you use, because you believe it matters, then consider not encouraging others to identify with a nonsensical concept that at its most coherent simply describes the sexist expectations put upon us. Lastly, consider the message we’re sending to kids when we tell them they all have a gender identity when all that’s left of gender is a superficial appearance-focused conception that is highly marketable. Who does it benefit?

Sonia Zawitkowski has her BA in Economics and is currently a graduate student in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Guelph. Her interests include armchair philosophy, economics, psychology, and making mainstream feminism less shitty.

Notes

(1) Goldie, Terry, “The Man Who Invented Gender,” UBC Press, 2014, https://www.ubcpress.ca/asset/9338/1/9780774827928.pdf

(2) Ibid.

(3) http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/48642.html

(4) Delphy, Christine. “Rethinking sex and gender.” In Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 1-9. Pergamon, 1993.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Bradley, Harriet. “Men’s work, women’s work: A sociological history of the sexual division of labour in employment.” (1989): 29.

(7) Ibid., p. 124.

(8) Ibid., p. 33.

(9) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pacific-samoa-gender/samoas-third-gender-delicately-balances-sex-and-religion-idUSKCN1UQ036

(10) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/10/AR2007081002158.html?noredirect=on

(11) https://www.borgenmagazine.com/gender-discrimination-southeast-asia/

(12)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_roles_among_the_indigenous_peoples_of_North_America

(13) http://www.micsem.org/pubs/conferences/frames/womtradfr.htm

(14) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/style/india-third-gender-hijras-transgender.html

(15) https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/samoa/articles/fa-afafines-the-third-gender/

(16) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/10/AR2007081002158.html?noredirect=on

(17) https://culturallyboundgender.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/toward-an-end-to-appropriation-of-indigenous-two-spirit-people-in-trans-politics-the-relationship-between-third-gender-roles-and-patriarchy/

(18) Bradley, Harriet. “Men’s work, women’s work: A sociological history of the sexual division of labour in employment.” (1989): 28

(19) Ibid., p. 29

(20) https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/trans-dads-tell-doctors-you-can-be-man-have-baby-n1006906

(21) https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/06/11/jonathan-van-ness-queer-eye-comes-out-nonbinary/

(22) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/08/number-children-referred-gender-identity-clinics-has-quadrupled/

24 Comments »

  1. Gender Specific Activity:

    Driving past perfectly viable parking spaces in the car park to get to some special (occult) spot further away from the shops.

    A regular desire to get away from the other sex and not think about them.

    Collecting and sorting fasteners (screws, bolts, nuts, nails) into jam jars in that place of manly refuge – the shed; where great thoughts come unbidden.

    .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always pleased to read that violent crime carried out by women is slowly increasing in prevalence, though they have yet to reach parity. One of my favourite books – Joann Russ’s The Female Man – looks forward to a female Genghis Khan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think this is a lovely essay, clear, expressive and persuasive. And yet I entertain some residual doubts. I suppose that is because I tend to use the words gender and sex as synonyms. The problem is the way that language mutates and I fear you are fighting a losing battle. Recently I had to fill in a form and it had blocks titled Sex: Male | Female(the form was clearly out of date!)). I scribbled underneath the Female block Yes, please! We all chuckled at this lame, adolescent humour. But it illustrated something, that the joke had occurred to me showed that the word ‘sex’ had morphed into primarily denoting the act and not the biological status.

    These shifts in meaning and emphasis occur all the time in all fields as language responds to and reflects society. And so, while I have a lot of sympathy for your thesis, I fear it is doomed.

    Like

  4. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this. I could use some help. Would you agree to the following?

    (1) In order for it to be so much as intelligible that a biological male self-identify as a woman, there has to be some kind of stereotype of woman-ness circulating around our culture.

    (2) That stereotype of woman-ness likely arose out of historical circumstances in which a division of labor was advantageous.

    (3) But, too, unfortunately, that stereotype of woman-ness likely arose out of historical circumstances in which biological females were unduly controlled by biological males, so its very content (it’s a representation, after all) is oppressive.

    (4) The existence of that stereotype of woman-ness, which marks women as those who are likely to perform or participate in certain “feminine beauty rituals,” plays right into the hands of neoliberal capitalism, since it is an opportunity to sell more stuff to more people.

    (5) So if a biological male succeeds in self-identifying as a woman, that male is perhaps unwittingly reinforcing the ill-begotten stereotype and strengthening the grip of neoliberal capitalism.

    Have I represented your points correctly? Am I missing any other high points?

    Like

  5. Sonia,
    Actually, until I read your article, I had never heard of John Money. My commitment to the sex/ gender distinction derives from Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949). Structuring her argument after Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel’s “Master-Slave dialectic” (Phenomenology of Spirit), Beauvoir argues that females as woman have not yet been able to realize their self-hood autonomously, but remain Other to male/masculine Subjectivity. Hegel had developed the Master-Slave dialectic partially as comment of the arrival of Christianity in Rome and the ultimate reversal of history leading to the domination of Christianity over Rome. This was under the assumption of the time – which remained up to quite recently, that the primary appeal of Christianity in Rome was to the slaves. (We now have evidence that Christianity appealed primarily to the middle class.) At any rate, the point is that the Master understands his power and the efficacy of using others in the pursuit of wealth and well-being, thus increasing the sense of dependency on others for collective survival, but it is a one-sided relationship after all. On the other hand, the slave – having been fully defined by the Master – nonetheless realizes this dependency on others as an absolute good, and through critical relationship with the Master, at last achieves real Subjectivity. For Beauvoir, women had not yet engaged such a critical relationship with men, and thus development of full subjectivity remained stifled by definition of woman by a masculine hegemony.

    “Attentive to this current state of affairs, and to the phenomenology of the body, Beauvoir sets two prerequisites for liberation. First, women must be socialized to engage the world. Second, they must be allowed to discover the unique ways that their embodiment engages the world. In short, the myth of woman must be dismantled. So long as it prevails, economic and political advances will fall short of the goal of liberation. Speaking in reference to sexual difference, Beauvoir notes that disabling the myth of woman is not a recipe for an androgynous future. Given the realities of embodiment, there will be sexual differences. Unlike today, however, these differences will not be used to justify the difference between a Subject and his inessential Other.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/#SecSexWomOth

    Both biological sex and sexual desire are allowed as given and inevitable, but seriously complicated as a set of possible relationships in which gender plays an important part. The concept of gender is thus left intentionally ambiguous, as a choice rather than an imperative (or, in current jargon, “identity”), and there are benefits and loss whatever choice is made.

    The Second Sex had one unfortunate historical effect, in that it allowed Lacan to take certain ideas from it and fly off with them into the ozone of extreme abstraction. But beyond the major impact the book had on feminism both in Europe and America (despite the fact that the English translation was something of a hack job), it also introduced distinctions that have proven useful, the distortions of which, over time, have led to muddled thinking, such as we see in this line from Judith Butler: “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.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_and_gender_distinction Since I’m unfamiliar with Butler, and get this from Wikipedia, I can’t vouchsafe that it isn’t taken out of context. One can certainly imagine arguments leading up to it, and arguments it can be used to justify. But if biology is taken out of consideration of sex, and we disregard physical pleasures impelling desires, regardless of what or whom those desires fix upon, then we are left with a spiritualist essentialism, no matter how concrete the political situations criticized, no matter how sharp or clever the critique. The materialism of your argument, which is persuasive (but not fully convincing) would actually prove immaterial. Which is why I’m by no means equating your argument with Butler’s, I don’t think your moving in that direction at all. However, that is a direction we can slip into, should we simply abandon the sex/ gender distinction as you suggest.

    I confess I haven’t followed theory in these matters much the past thirty years; most academic theory exists in its own somewhat precocious discursive universe. But I have found the sex/ gender distinction useful, especially in rebuttal to the right-wing version of Butler’s point, eg., that held by the like of Phyllis Schlafly, such as that god having determined the nature of female, had determined the gender of woman, so that the role of woman is determined by the sex of female.

    We have more choices these matters than we wish to admit, far fewer in others than we would like to have. .

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Sonia

    Very well said! The main point, as I see it, is that men and women are equals in their moral and rational capacities, even if they differ to some extent in various other ways.

    I speak as someone who spent about ten years as a gender-role-bending father-at-home with three small kids — and survived to tell the tale.

    Alan

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am baffled by feminists who sneer at discussions of differences between men and women, but who valorize these societies simply because they have more than two roles based on these differences, or there’s the possibility of switching between categories based on these differences.

    However, in light of the evaporation of the gendered division of labor and rigid roles that were once integral to the functioning of pre-industrial society, retention of the concept of gender leaves absolutely nothing substantive for women to hold onto as women to incorporate into their identity.

    I think you are making a subtle but important argument.

    1) there are substantive sex related differences that have important, material outcomes. For example, only men supply semen, only women conceive and bear children. Men’s greater muscle mass makes them more suited for certain roles, etc.

    2) but gender related differences, independent of sex are merely labels that have no substantive or material outcomes.

    3) therefore the use of gender based labels is redundant, unnecessary and makes no useful distinctions.

    4) consequently we should not be using gender based labels.

    5) finally you conclude therefore that “the fact that utilizing the concept of gender as an identity makes no sense,

    6) you go on to say “Gender — as in, the behavioural differences between men and women — is almost entirely performative and aesthetic now. To identify ourselves based primarily on this performance/aesthetic is a neoliberal nightmare come true

    I agree with you completely up to this point and I think you have made a vital point.

    But herein lies the problem. We have entered the age of the pretentious, posturing, preening pastiche person who flexibly chooses, modifies and discards identities for purely performative reasons.(sorry, I could not resist all that alliteration). It is the natural endpoint of hyper-individualism and was forecast by Anthony Giddens. Hyper-individualism is the natural outcome of two things, flourishing media and flourishing capitalism. Capitalism supplies a surfeit of choices and markets them as means of enhancing identity. The media glamorise the choices, stimulating the appetite for the output of capitalism, making adopted identities both real and desirable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Capitalism supplies a surfeit of choices and markets them as means of enhancing identity. The media glamorize the choices, stimulating the appetite for the output of capitalism, making adopted identities both real and desirable.”

      This. Yes. Just . . . yes.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. An interesting essay that made me think harder about gender. At the same time, I was a little confused. Sonia begs us to stop using the term gender, but also says it can still be a useful concept, and then later says that it’s really gender ‘identity’ that is the problem. Anyway, I think it’s a good essay and raises important ‘burning’ questions.

    Canadians like Sonia and I are probably more familiar with John Money who figures prominently in the famous 1960s medical case of David Reimer, a boy in Winnipeg, Manitoba who was diagnosed with phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin of the penis cannot retract, inhibiting regular urination. Reimer underwent an unusual procedure of circumcision involving cauterization, which went rather badly, rendering his penis dysfunctional. (David Reimer incidentally had a twin brother, whose similar case of phimosis healed naturally on its own). Reimer’s parents consulted with various doctors and eventually sought the help of John Money working at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money had recently achieved some notoriety for his theories on gender identity and had just begun advocating sex reassignment surgery for cases of intersex, which he also did for David Reimer even though David was born with normal male genitalia. After Reimer’s reconstructive female surgery, Money encouraged Reimer’s parents to raise him as a girl—the idea being that gender was malleable and that David would adapt to his new “equipment” and to his socialization, and would learn to lead a normal life as a female. Following Money’s advice, including some horrific and highly unethical social experimentation, Money and Reimer’s parents persisted in raising and conditioning David as a girl. This process not only ultimately failed (David chose to transition back to male at age 15) but also proved to be unbearable for David, who suffered from severe depression and ended up committing suicide in 2004 at 38. John Money passed away two years later, and his legacy has been hotly debated ever since.

    John Money coined the terms ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender role’ and was interested in going beyond dichotomies such as masculine/feminine, and felt ‘gender’ could capture some broader essential feature that could not be reduced to the mere physical. Towards the end of his career, he talked of the ‘bodymind’ in an attempt to convey moving beyond the whole nature vs nurture debate between innate and acquired, physical vs psychological, and body vs mind.

    Although most people happily and normally fall into a bimodal distribution and don’t even think about their gender very much, a small number of people in their early teens can begin to feel something is ‘amiss’ or wrong in their socialization as a boy or girl. To them, there is a mismatch between the way they feel and behave, and the way they are expected to feel and behave, everything from the toys they play with, the games they play, to the clothes they wear, their interests, attitudes, and affinity for the opposite or same sex, etc. The feeling that there is something wrong that grows out of the friction between what they feel and the surrounding conventional norms becomes so strong that they end up despondent.

    This leads me to my own burning question: If gender is a social construct (and I assume only a social construct?) why is it that when people suffer from gender dysphoria and feel compelled to transition to a different gender/sex and become transsexuals, they always explain it as kind of some inner primordial urge that they cannot help but feel deep inside themselves? In other words, they define their own feeling of ‘gender’ in more or less biological terms. This is strange for something that is supposed to be merely a socially constructed malleable and fluid cultural role.

    If we take transgender people seriously at their word, then ‘gender’ (or whatever you want to call it) would seem to be some inner somatic feeling that inhabits this interstitial ‘bodymind’ realm that John Money postulated. One would think that if it were simply a matter of social construction and cultural convention, then people would easily adapt to whatever their assigned gender was. But as with cases like David Reimer illustrates, this is obviously not true, and something else is going on. There seems to be a deep, almost but not quite biological sense of who we are on the spectrum of masculine/feminine, which if messed with via a mismatch between inner and outer, can produce profoundly negative effects. Either people who are transgender are lying to us about how they felt and what motivated them to transition, or perhaps they are mentally ill, or else there really is some kind of inner compass of gender authenticity that we all develop and don’t notice unless something goes wrong.

    I don’t know if ‘there is anything that it is like to be masculine or feminine’, like a quale (to borrow from Philosophy of Mind) but if we call this something ‘gender identity’ then I do think it has a place in our discourse.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “If gender is a social construct (and I assume only a social construct?)”

      I don’t see gender as a purely social construct, and I have the impression that overall few people do but I may be mistaken. I also don’t get the impression that most transsexuals think it is (it might even be a small minority), and I don’t know the proportions but I was surprised to hear that some feminist like Jane Clare Jones do see it as a purely social construct (see Dan’s excellent interview with her), and that most gender critical feminists do too if my understanding of a recent ‘Institute of Arts and Ideas’ post, mentioned in Dan’s recent essay ‘Philosophy’s Aspirant Tin-Pot Dictators’, is accurate.

      Like

  9. Joe,
    why is it that when people suffer from gender dysphoria and feel compelled to transition to a different gender/sex and become transsexuals, they always explain it as kind of some inner primordial urge that they cannot help but feel deep inside themselves?

    There are a great many personality disorders and they are deeply felt conditions. One cannot argue from the strength of the feeling to its reality.

    For example, one closely related personality disorder is Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

    BDD is a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.

    People with BDD can dislike any part of their body, although they often find fault with their hair, skin, nose, chest, or stomach. In reality, a perceived defect may be only a slight imperfection or nonexistent. But for someone with BDD, the flaw is significant and prominent, often causing severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.

    People with BDD suffer from obsessions about their appearance that can last for hours or up to an entire day. BDD obsessions may be focused on musculature (i.e. fixation on muscle mass or definition). Hard to resist or control, these obsessions make it difficult for people with BDD to focus on anything but their imperfections. This can lead to low self-esteem, avoidance of social situations, and problems at work or school

    This feeling they possess is powerful and real. One cannot deny they feel this way. For them it is intensely real. But it is a personality disorder. We cannot know for sure because we cannot directly examine the workings of the mind but we must seriously consider the possibility that gender dysphoria is a personality disorder related to Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This suggestion will provoke howls of protest because we have reified matters of sexuality to be beyond question.

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    • Peter, I recommend you read Deirdre McCloskey’s “Crossing”. See here: http://deirdremccloskey.com/gender/index.php

      Also Jan Morris, “Conundrum”. “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.”

      These are two highly intelligent, well balanced, thoroughly admirable people. I can see no “personality disorder” in them.

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        • I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone that! But Morris is a highly articulate person, and that is how she remembered what he felt.

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          • Yes, I read the relevant sections. I don’t understand why you are so impressed. I didn’t see anything there that could even serve as a reply to the points I made in “Feeling Like a Man.”

            Can you imagine if we told someone with body dysmorphia, who thought he ought only to have one arm, that he was “born in the wrong body” and then proceed to amputate an arm for him?

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          • Alan,
            But Morris is a highly articulate person, and that is how she remembered what he felt.

            Intelligent, articulate people suffer equally from personality disorders.

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          • I’m not entering into any argument, since I know very close to nothing about the subject. All I’m offering is the tiny bit I do know, which I get from Morris and McCloskey. For all I know, your arguments may be conclusive.

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    • Peter, my question was posed innocently and in good faith. I wasn’t coming down on one side or the other. I was simply highlighting the incongruity between all the talk of gender being socially constructed and the way transgender people actually describe their own experience. ‘If’ gender were merely a social construct, you wouldn’t get that impression from the way most transgender people usually relate their own feelings of discovery…in very non-socially constructed-like terms. I also added: they may be lying, or mentally ill (i.e.personality disorder). I don’t know. I am not even willing to commit to the idea it is a personality disorder. We currently don’t call homosexuality any kind of “disorder”, and so gender dysphoria may be like sexual orientation in that regard.

      BDD seems to be unlike gender dysphoria in that it is ephemeral, obsessive, and involves focusing on a specific physical body part, not an overall feeling of masculinity/femininity. So I don’t think the analogy is apt.

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  10. I can see and sympathize with a lot of the author’s frustrations and I agree with her points on the possible usefulness of the term gender. And while the meaning of the word itself is evolving, some of the ways of seeing it may be in tension or simply incompatible.

    In that context, I like the way the ‘gender bread person’ relates various concepts: including (an optional) gender identity, one part of gender expression and experience, and one part, I assume, of a person’s greater identity.

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  11. We have been down this route before, discussing it from different aspects. As I have said before:

    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.

    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.

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  12. Who I am is core to my sense of being. What I am certainly contributes to the sense of who I am. But this is merely a surface manifestation. The depth and the substance of who I am is much, much more than this surface manifestation.

    We create who we are through a long process that begins in adolescence and continues through adulthood. In the process we discover value and worth. We receive affirmation and respect. Most importantly, through this means we make useful contributions to society that sustains it. Thus our lives have meaning. And our lives flourish.

    There are several frameworks that describe this process and Aristotle’s description of eudaimonia is the best known one in Western society. The Chinese describe their understanding in Confucianism while the Japanese describe it as Ikigai. EJ will give a good account of it from a Buddhist perspective. I relate most to Ikigai so I will briefly describe it.

    Ikigai may be thought of as the Japanese rough equivalent to Eudaimonia. It has been variously described as
    – “purpose in action”
    – “a term that embodies happiness in living”
    – “essentially the reason you get up in the morning”

    They think of it as being the intersection between four things:
    1) the things you value
    2) the things you love doing
    3) the things you are good at doing
    4) the things the world needs.

    What lies at their intersection is what gives you an especial sense of valued purpose. Their combination is a kind of synergy that ignites and illumines life. It lights up and directs your life in a way that is uniquely rewarding for yourself.

    The Romans described it as having a glowing spirit. This glowing spirit is what illumines and energises society.

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  13. Having read my last comment you might well ask what this has to do with the gender debate. The answer, in my opinion, is that the gender debate is all about what we are. It represents an arrested stage of development that has halted at the age of puberty when young adolescents discover their genitals. My comment is intended to illustrate that healthy development moves beyond this discovery to the process of developing who we are. This process of developing who we are is what defines us and defines society. This is healthy, but to stay trapped in the stage of defining what we are is diseased, especially when done in defiance of biology..

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  14. The line here about “personality disorders” is specious. We went though all this regarding homosexualiy:

    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20354

    “The diagnosis of Gender Incongruence of Childhood also serves to alert health professionals that a transgender identity in childhood often does not develop seamlessly into an adult transgender identity. Available research instead indicates that the majority of children diagnosed with DSM‐IV Gender identity disorder of childhood, which was not as strict in its requirements as those proposed for ICD‐11, grow up to be cisgender (non‐transgender) adults with a homosexual orientation”.

    In the case of homosexuality, it is clear that there is not a correlation with other psychiatric conditions, after social stigma has been removed, and is likely to be te case for “gender incongruence”. This is not the case for conditions such as body dysmorphia, where high levels of both impulsivity and compulsivity are found, and are closer to anorexia nervosa.

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  15. Joe Smith writes “I don’t know if ‘there is anything that it is like to be masculine or feminine’… but if we call this something ‘gender identity’ then I do think it has a place in our discourse.”

    That may be an entirely discourse. Sonia’s discourse is about defining men and women so nobody feels left out. This other discourse consists essentially not of definitions but of generalizations. Necessarily some men and women will feel these generalizations don’t apply to them but, let’s face it, since in my case these generalizations came out of my experiences of dating and being married I’m not likely to have come across those women in such a context. While these generalizations may not apply universally, for perhaps the majority of the population heterosexual dating and marriage remain an important context within which to consider differences between men and women. Lack of universality is a condition to be tolerated in this other discourse.

    My generalizations include that where men identify primarily with their hands, women identify primarily with their skin. In both cases, that extension itself becomes extended, a man’s hands into tools and machines, a woman’s skin into makeup, her clothes, her physical surroundings, her circle of friends, and dependents such as pets. A man is usually more concerned with what things are made of, a woman with how her senses report them–women have more olfactory buds than men and can distinguish more shades of color, particularly reds. Women are pleased with gifts having visual or olfactory values, men with opportunities to employ tools to solve problems.

    Men and women are seduced differently. A man carries in his genitals an extra brain, which acts pretty independently of his reason or will, and he is easily and reliably seduced by touch there. Seduction of a women more usually involves winning entry through each extension of skin around her, first her circle of friends, then the furnishings she likes around her, then her clothes, finally her skin itself.

    A man typically sees himself as a brain and hands. He cares little for what clothing lies between them. I keep a list of links to where to order my clothes online and simply post re-orders periodically. A woman typically see herself as a skin she presents to the world, every part of which is important in mediating her identity with the rest of the world. A chain of health clubs for women is called “Curves” clearly in reference to as common feature of women’s bodies, with which they identify.

    I hope that, despite essays like Sonia’s arguing for or against angry feminist definitions of identity, generalizations such as I’ve given here won’t lightly be dismissed.

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