Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?

sexgendermaze

(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:

socialconstructionofgender

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.

28 Comments

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28 responses to “Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

  1. Even among those who would say sex and gender are different, I don’t think the difference has any visceral meaning for them. They continue to act as if it was the same. This is an issue that many trans (transgender, transsexual, and other gender nonconforming) people have a unique perspective on. They (me) have had to face the societal idea that sex was real, immutable, and takes precedence over gender. When working with trans people we tend to use the term “sex assigned at birth” to refer to its social construction and the affect it has on people’s lives.

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  2. agreed. there are also important ways to blur this distinction apart from the problematic feminism of MacKinnon (see Wendy Brown’s critique). See Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body, Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, or Linda Nicholson’s “Interpreting Gender” among others.

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  3. JHW

    The deep problem here is that the notion of “biological sex,” casually referenced by the Census Bureau, is actually incoherent in anything like the sense it is ordinarily used. People have sex chromosomes, people have bodily characteristics that are conventionally sex-typed, and people have conceptions of and aspirations for their embodied selves. These do not occur in neat binaries and do not necessarily “match” one another. Instead of talking about a division between “sex” and “gender,” it is more useful, I think, to talk about specific characteristics (gender identity, the capacity to get pregnant, etc.) within the contexts where they are relevant.

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  4. davidc

    I don’t think you need stable theoretically robust categories called ‘biological male’ and ‘biological female’ to retain the sex/gender distinction. Those could just be shorthands representing statistical biological clusters. All you need to say is that sex refers to any set of biological attributes that you “get when you’re born” (that is, what you get before any doctor intervenes) and this is the raw material that transforms into a particular set of social consequences called gender.

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  5. Phil, thanks for extending this dialogue further in the form of a post. The conceptualizations of sex and gender as related, but not interchangeable, aspects of the an individuals’ life reflect matters if historical, social, and political importance.

    For several reasons, I must politely disagree, and reassert the importance of the distinction — at leas to point out that a distinction has been made:

    1) At a minimum, I think it is important to honor and respect the contributions of feminist and trans* activists and scholars who have fought to shed light on the sex/gender distinction. In a way, it’s simply bad science to ignore this work because you don’t view the distinction as important or meaningful.

    2) Creating the distinction between sex and gender is an important moment in (re)creating knowledge. Cisgender women and trans* people have claimed power by naming their experiences, and naming themselves as gendered people, by subverting sex as biological determinism. They do not have the luxury of being reduced to their sex without either being erased (in the case of trans* people) or disempowered (in the case of cisgender women). Please don’t let a single feminist scholar, and a Wikipedia entry, and the Census, and a quick graph of terms used in books on Google sway you to see the sex/gender distinction as unimportant or meaningless.

    3) Finally, both gender and sex are socially constructed. The categories of “female” and “male” are created and maintained by people, not biology. We literally erase intersex people, calling surgery on a newborn baby (to force their bodies to align with one sex or the other) a “social and medical emergency.” More attention to the social construction of sex came about with the controversy of runner Caster Semenya: http://kinseyconfidential.org/women-athletes-success-lead-questions-sex/ and http://nortonbooks.typepad.com/everydaysociology/2009/08/the-social-construction-of-sex-intersex-as-evidence.html. Sex, then, deserves more than a cursory reference as “biology,” because it is an inherently social category, mapped onto biology. In recognizing both sex and gender as social constructs, they still cannot be conflated. Sex deals with the physical body and the social meanings attached to it, while gender deals with the use of the body, clothes, mannerisms, relationships with others.

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    • Thanks for writing, Eric. A few quick responses:

      I wouldn’t say the sex/gender distinction is “unimportant or meaningless.” I describe the “important progress” it generated at the top of the post.

      It’s a blog post, not a research paper. So I used a few examples of things that influenced my thinking, and provided links to them. If you think my approach is too superficial, then I suspect you wouldn’t find many people qualified to express an opinion on this issue.

      That sex and gender are both socially constructed is most of my point. And often when sociologists insist on the sex/gender distinction they undermine that insight.

      I think your final sentence is way too easy. Both sex and gender involve both of those lists of concepts, which is the point of the “sex category” discussion, which represents the continuum or conflation of the issues.

      You might like (or not), my long post on Caster Semenya: https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/returning-to-semenyas-return/

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  6. Person

    My inclination to continue to use “sex” stems in part from a desire to remind people that it isn’t a “bad word” to utter in public.

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  7. I think I read your post in the same way Eric did — perhaps we’re takeing the title too literally. You’re not arguing that we don’t need the distinction, right? I’ll grant that both sex and gender are “social,” but I still find the distinction indispensable, perhaps because of the research settings in which I work. For example, people who identify as male (sex) are regularly bullied or sexually harassed because of their expressions of gender — which often have nothing to do with their sex (or their sexuality, for that matter). In such cases, it sometimes makes sense to specify interactions between the “sex” they report on a survey and how they do “gender.” Of course, such concepts are stubbornly resistant to operationalization. But without separate conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality, it would be far, far more difficult to explain the social processes involved in studies like this: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/McLaughlin_Uggen_Blackstone_ASR_12.pdf

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    • Thanks for linking the paper, Chris, which is excellent. And for the comment. And it’s good to discuss a concrete example. Feel free to take my questions as rhetorical; non-response won’t be taken as agreement…)

      Thinking aloud, and prepared to be wrong, here’s my thought:

      I’m not sure you actually need this distinction in that study. When you say a man is sexually harassed because of how he expresses his gender, that’s you imposing the term, treating sex as fixed and gender as variable. Although you see sex and gender as both social, in the analysis sex is fixed and gender is variable according to the femininity score. So, that’s the nature/culture distinction, isn’t it?

      In the paper, the question is about self-perceived femininity:

      “a direct measure of participants’
      perceived femininity provides an
      important starting point for distinguishing sex
      and gender in our analyses. To measure
      gender identity and performance, we use
      responses to the question, ‘How feminine
      would you say you are?'”

      I don’t know whether that distinguishes sex from gender, or provides an additional measure of sex/gender, or sex category. I think if you said it was a measure of how he expresses his sex, or sex category, the meaning would not be substantially changed. (If a male scored over a certain threshold on that question, would you call him a woman, if he didn’t?)

      To further get myself in trouble: When you ask about self-perceived femininity, are you sure the answer nothing to do with his sex? When you ask a man how feminine he is, could the answer partly reflect his perceptions of things like his body type, voice, etc.? I don’t know how I would answer that question, but I think I would be implicitly comparing myself to people who seem like really manly men — bigger, stronger, deeper voices (or other traits unmentionable). Maybe someone else would be thinking of qualities like nurturing, a certain kind of emotional character, or whatever. I just don’t see the pure separation of sex and gender in that question.

      I also noticed the paper uses both “female supervisor(s)” and “women supervisor(s),” apparently arbitrarily. It’s tricky!

      (Annals of operationalization: Remember Dick Udry’s “adult gendered behavior” index, which included everything from “facial attractiveness” to occupational status — with the excellent explanation: “low score is feminine.” http://www.jstor.org/stable/2657466)

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  8. bjrisman

    I rarely disagree with you, but here I do, and strongly. You are absolutely correct, and i think it now uncontroversial to accept that sex is socially constructed, and not a binary. There are a variety of biological markers used to assign sex, and they aren’t always in agreement. And what the assignment of sex means is entirely social. But to allow that to collapse into gender is to ignore the real pain it causes people assigned to female category that they are expected to conform to feminine (e.g. nurturance at the personality level, caretaking for others, lacking leadership stills etc.) gender norms, and male assigned people to conform to masculine norms (e.g. never cry, can’t wear lace, toughness). And in my current research with genderqueer and trans youth, sometimes people choose their sex, but still don’t want to be confined to the gender norms that are attached to it.
    This is a blog, and I don’t have time to write more now, but thanks for raising the issue, i have now something new that I know i must address in the book i’m currently writing, I think our societal move from sex to gender on forms is a profoundly conservative one, masking as progressive. It presumes that female identified people (by ascribed at birth or chosen) somehow are feminine gendered, and male identified people (whether ascribed at birth or chosen) are masculine… That’s what feminism has been, or should be, fighting against…

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    • Barbara: Thank you very much. I tried to word the piece to say I’m no longer motivated or able to defend the sex/gender distinction — specifically not saying I’m committed to abolishing the distinction. The main problem I’m trying to avoid is treating sex categories socially as unquestioned, and as unquestionably binary, which is often how the sex/gender distinction comes out, as in, “people who are biologically male can have masculine or feminine gender.” In society no one’s gender is completely unmoored from their biology, because gender does not just exist internally but in social interaction. Gender varies, and sex varies, and the two are always linked socially.

      I think if we went back in history and started again maybe we could decide to call the whole thing sex, and then study the complex interactions of social and biological at work within it. It’s seems too arbitrary to me to partition some elements to sex and some to gender as if they’re “really” separable.

      So I’m not on a crusade to end the sex/gender distinction, just can’t find the lines so clearly. I can’t wait to read your book, as I’m sure it will help!

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  9. Avis Cohen

    This is a intriguing discussion on a topic that as an old radical feminist and neuroscientist I have actively avoided largely because the biology that would inform it is awfully “soft”. The experiments have until very recently been the product of a scientist who knew what they wanted to prove and somehow did…. I was unwilling to believe any results until a new generation free of the old prejudices was driving them and the genetics more sophisticated. Today the genetics is finally getting close to something one can almost believe and the experiments are getting closer to being believable. So soon we will have something approximating … not conclusions but more interesting data at least. It will certainly not solve the nature/culture debate but contribute at least some information to such a conversation.

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  10. etseq

    I think things get confusing when concepts like social construction are used without precision – are you talking strong or weak SC? I doubt anyone outside of a small segment of critical theorists really gives strong SC much credence these days.

    I think the disagreement lies with how you theorize the role of the material or biological and the impact culture has on shaping the expression of these instincts. The problem I have with alot of the sociological theories of sex and sexuality is that they are stuck in the paradigm “social roles” pioneered by Weeks, Plummer and Macintosh which completely discounts any natural or inherent drives or instincts and is just as culturally deterministic as hardcore genetic existentialists. These theories also come out of the study of deviancy and discounted any real individual autonomy – homosexuals were like criminals in that society viewed them as deviant and once categorized as such they internalized this deviancy which caused them to act deviantly, etc.

    The fact that some early feminists and gay liberationists were influence this theory along with marxist historical dialectical teleology, especially “false consciousness” which they re-purposed by substituting sex/gender and sexuality for class is understandable for the time period. Those movements emerged out of a time period where radicalism was more salient but as happens to all social movements, radicalism only gets you so far. Weeks is completely upfront about this so its not like anyone is redbaiting but it explains some of the odd assumptions that discount any inherent human nature. Alot of the early history of sexuality is really more sociology than theory – Foucault. Halperin, Katz. etc.

    Obviously society constructs attitudes and beliefs about sex, gender and sexuality but society cannot construct reality itself. Some theorists seem to forget that “construction” is a more of a metaphor by endowing it with some sort of non-material mystical causal power, which is oddly similar to religious appeal to supernatural causation and mind/body dualism.

    It’s really discouraging that a significant portion of sociology still has this ideological refusal to deny any role biology plays in gender much less sex. However, at least when it comes to sexuality, it seems american sociologists are not as wedded to social theories as one might expect. See http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs12108-006-1015-7.pdf I

    I don’t think anything is gained by ignoring what the harder sciences have to say about matters that sociology has traditionally claimed as its own territory. Otherwise, it just sounds like the Science Wars from the 90s all over again…

    PS – When straight lefty sociologists and critical theorists criticize gay people who claim they are born gay because they are wedded to some theory that discounts the lived reality of a large group of people, it really comes off badly – http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/02/21/are-we-born-gay-and-if-we-were-how-would-we-know/

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  11. This is an interesting discussion and quite timely. I follow and read Gay News every day, and have been since the start of the Prop 8 Trial in January 2010. Every.Single.Day I spend at least 3 hours a day reading gay news, I don’t watch much TV.

    Why this conversation is so interesting to me is because Gender is Breaking Bad with the Gay Haters right now. Let me show you. This week-end in Paris France there was a big Gay Slamming Summit put on by the French Haters, Le Manif Pour Tous. They claim attendance of 1,000. They had a huge line up of speakers and many plenary sessions over 2 Days. They were Tweeting Out on the Hashtags #UELMPT . If you go to twitter and search the word Gender and add in the search bar #UELMPT [Gender #UELMPT] you will see 91 Tweets returned.

    The French school system is National and they are implementing right now, school just started, a new curriculum on Gay & Transgender people. Many people at the Gay Slamming Summit tweeted out the quote of one of the speakers, “Our Children are not guinea pigs.” What the French Hate Leaders are doing is something new. Since the beginning of the Gay Hate movement in France, they always framed their fight as needing to protect the children of gay parents. It was more or less save the children from having Gay parents (you can thank Regnerus for this).

    It was not until Robert Oscar Lopez went to France and was a speaker at one of their anti gay protests that there was any mention at all in their movement on transsexuals. ROL went back to California and translated into French some scary Gender Theory article. He has a blog that I keep my eye on, so I saw him publish that, and right after that the French Haters start going on and on about Gender Theory. In fact they probably have that ROL translated article on their blog if I cared to look.

    NOW the script has changed, before it was protect the children from having gay parents, now it is Protect OUR CHILDREN from being exposed to transsexuals and gender theory. See how the script changed? Now the rally cry is about protection OUR Children, which is very motivating to parents, to make parents fear for their own children.

    Flip over to USA, within just the last month the American Hate Groups are now writing about and pushing Gender Theory as being dangerous and you need to protect your children. As a matter of fact for the very FIRST Time the National Organization for Marriage wrote a blog article on Gender, they wrote that this week. The first time.

    In conclusion going forward prepare to see many discussions about Gender and specifically transgender from the Gay Haters. Initially I thought this new tactic of attacking gender was because they saw the T. In LGBT as a weak link, less socially accepted. But after sitting on the #UELMPT Hashtags this week-end I realize that instead, the tactic is a Fear tactic to straight parents, Protect Your Children from this dangerous theory of Gender. There were 91 tweets on this and on our side of the pond, NOM, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association are all writing about Gender Theory. Heads up ya’ll.

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  12. etseq

    Judith Butler is a famous (or infamous depending on your view of science) queer theorist that made a big splash back in the 90s applying post-structuralism to sex and gender. She is a very polarizing figure – people usually either love her or loathe her – due not only to her theoretical work but also to her politics (she is very committed to Palestinian liberation and the Boycott and Divestment Movement against Israel). She was hailed as brilliant by many but also criticized for being concerned with meaningless obscurantist theory. She was lampooned with the “Bad Writing Award” of 1998 by the Journal Philosophy and Literature and savaged by Martha Nussbaum in a New Republic article entitled “The Professor of Parody” http://www.akad.se/Nussbaum.pdf

    I’m not the best person to explain post-structuralism being a boring old fashioned positivist but her theory of performative gender was very important when postmodernism was riding high in the 90s – not so sure how her work has held up since then. As you can tell, I have my reservations about her work but she certainly inspired many devoted followers.

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  13. Leah

    Reblogged this on The Lobster Dance and commented:
    One of first things I learned in my very first gender studies class was the distinction between sex and gender. I feel like it was useful at the time, but that the narratives about biology vs culture have changed in the last 10 years. For example, if we assume that sex is purely biological, where does that leave trans and intersex people? If you feel strongly that you are male or female, it’s not just choosing pink or blue and that’s it–there are so many ways to do gender (boi, hard femme, soft butch, androgyne) that the personal performance of what society expects vs what we want to do begins to make the assignment of fashions, mannerisms and interests seem ridiculous. Enjoying contact sports might be “aggressive” or “athletic” but there’s no reason to assign those attributes to a gender, and, ultimately, to praise what society deems masculine and ridicule what society deems feminine. And if gender expression is dangerously conflated with ideas of biological sex, wouldn’t using self-identity for gender help dismantle the biological-cultural complex? It seems very simple and yet very radical, and I am really interested in seeing how this new idea develops in sociology.

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  17. Sam

    Interesting article, I agree there is a greater interplay of factors between sex and gender than just the two ideas being separate but related ideas. However, it is helpful when dealing with the less forward thinking. By delineating that identify, expression and biology are not all the same thing, it allows for an easier conception of why and how someone can be radically different than what a more conservatively minded person would assume with just “sex” or “gender”. There is an excellent ‘gender bread person’ chart that articulates and illustrates these ideas perfectly.

    http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/

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