Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?
(This post includes research from my excellent graduate assistant, Lucia Lykke.)
Recently I was corrected by another sociologist: “Phil – ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to one’s sex, not gender.”
Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.
Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:
It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.
Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:
The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.
In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:
The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:
Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.
Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):
Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.
From another perspective, Joan Fujimura argued for mixing more social into that biological scheme:
My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.
… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.
For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.
In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.
The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”
But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).
So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.
This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.