Social Construction of Gender: a detente breached

So, this was another Facebook conversation. A friend of a friend posed the following question (slightly prettified for the blog).

I’m exploring the reasons people have to marry gender, which is really socially construct[ed] mental stuff, to sex, which is biological as you know. The fact that these two are nothing (or not obviously) like [each] other makes [it seem suspicious that] the left are hurrying to marry the two together. Is this politics? Are you aware of any good reasons to think we should bring these two realities together?

Another friend pointed out that the question, as stated, was somewhat oblique to the contemporary conversation about these matters.


I thought it might help to rehearse some of the history of these terms, so I offered the following:

OK, so I think [our mutual acquaintance] is right that you’re getting the signals crossed, but it’s really interesting to see how all this is coming across to you–data is good.

From the days of my childhood until recently, “left” and “right” academics had a sort of detente on sex issues. With the exception of some dedicated Catholics and a few others, most of us were happy to keep “biological sex” in one box, and “socially constructed gender” in another.

Social construction, of course, has to do with the way real things (which, past empiricism, we moderns think we may not really know) are transformed into “things as we know them” by the historical processes that shape our ideologies. In a modest sense, we all know this happens (that’s why we speak of culture); in a more radical sense, we might doubt whether we know any real things at all, and we might try to “deconstruct” things as we know them in order to examine the judgments we and others have made that “construe” things.

Keeping “biology” in one box and “social construction” (or “culture”) in another did keep the peace, so to speak. We could debate the extent to which real things could be known, how evident they were, how we could get through the social construction to them–how much gendered behavior was sexual, how much was social, whether we should value it or neutralize it, etc.

(I emphasize that from a Catholic point of view we were *wrong* to accept that bargain, but until I headed that way I didn’t see a sufficient basis for rejecting it.)

That bargain peaked when many erroneously believed the “gay gene” had been found (no such thing, though there are epigenetic effects that very likely predispose some men to same-sex attraction). Biology of sex was suddenly useful to those trying to normalize homosexual behavior and relationships and to those trying to emphasize the biological fitness of traditional sexual mores.

That mistaken but relatively peaceful consensus has now been pretty radically fractured. The physical evidence for the “born this way” interpretation of homosexuality has proven far weaker than expected, and radical theory has labored to find a way to achieve the same rhetorical effect without the “gay gene” evidence. Other incoherences within radical feminism have produced other fresh theoretical efforts. The need for perpetual “revolution” that must always be construed as “liberation” or “getting rights” has led to still more theoretical efforts.

The most obvious and fascinating clash in this concerns whether sexually male people can be “women” for purposes of radical feminist theory, as you can see in this amazingly incendiary piece of work.

So right now most radical theorists speak in terms of “intersectionality,” that is, where two descriptions of identity lead to anomalies that need explaining. Theory is then deployed ad hoc into those “intersections” in an effort to create a result that–at this point in our politics, a result that serves the purpose of perpetual revolution.

The common form of this is to speak of biological sex as “assigned” at birth–because assignment can be construed as a rhetorical act, a use of power (the doctor’s authority) that affects a discourse (how we talk about sex/gender, “myself as I know myself”). The relation between biology as such and this “assigned” sex is generally disposed of by pointing to rare biological differences as though they invalidated any organs/sex/gender continuity, and also by multiplying subjective descriptions and possible surgical variations in an effort to show that “assigned” sex ignores factors equally or more important than biology.

If biological sex can be construed as “assigned,” then the relatively weak evidence of epigenetic variants that can dispose some men toward same-sex attraction can be construed as evidence that “sexual orientation” is (now will the heads spin) both so fundamental to human identity that it is equivalent to “born this way” *AND* so constantly “fluid” that any strong feeling that persists must be accepted as definitive, even if it changes repeatedly.

And we’re not done, because one’s “assigned” sex and “fluid” orientation still have to function relative to culture–to the social construction of gender that we started out with. This is called “expression” of sexual identity, and is viewed as radically subjective, provided one can express it in a way the currently dominant ideology finds acceptable (i.e., Catholic men, you’re just plain wrong no matter what).

Now, I hope that in presenting this I have already suggested how many kinds of wrong-headed the whole thing was, and how much worse it has become.

As Catholics, we believe that while cultural roles and expressions may vary, the sex/gender distinction is basically mistaken. Gender develops from and continues to be significantly related to biological sex, and attempts to divide them have proved medically, psychologically, and socially harmful (we should have known better). While a very weak form of the sex/gender distinction may be useful in distinguishing some cultural mores from real norms, it is usually better just to speak of “sexual difference” and remember that it can have a wide variety of expressions–none of which can make it wise or right to innovate against the basic realities of human bodies, male and female, or the natural and divine law that governs their relations.

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  1. Pingback: Another “Way In” to Analogy – Inkandescence

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