Friday, October 7, 2011

A Clarifying Note for Committed Essentialists Regarding Discussions About Gender and Identity

Not a single person or group involved in discussions about sex, gender, and identity contests the incontestable fact that there is both a biological and a social difference between women and men. The only question is whether, and to what extent, the former ought to determine the latter. Or to put it differently: Given that the former does shape and determine the latter in various ways, and has in all societies everywhere throughout history, should it in a normative way -- today, in our society -- or are there factors to consider related to context, time, place, polity, religion, etc.? And to whatever extent that it (possibly) should, ought it to bracket or peremptorily define societal role, personal value, and/or social opportunity?

Even the most committed of essentialists cannot rule out these questions, if for no other reason than the equally incontestable fact that modern patriarchalists and complementarians allow and even encourage certain social roles, forms of life, and cultural participation (for both women and men) that were considered unthinkable just a century ago. The discussion, therefore, is a legitimate one, and has not been answered once and for all time, and is, so to speak, discursively up for grabs.


  1. Hi Brad,

    I love your blog. Just wanted to make a specific point here, there are many, many gender theorists who deny "that there is both a biological and a social difference between women and men." That is simply the constructivist position - we're all just people, and the labels are made up to control.

    I'm not one of them myself, but it is a credible position, and many trans and intersex activists hold to it.

  2. Hi Karl,

    Thanks for the comment. I'm aware of the claims of constructivists, but I still think what I said applies. I'm not aware of anyone disputing that "male" and "female" identify certain biological or physiological factors -- chromosomes, procreative equipment, etc. That's the minimal "difference" I meant by "biological."

    And by "social," there again I was making a descriptive rather than prescriptive claim: clearly, societies do culturally construct differences between women and men -- this is the very critique from constructivists! -- the question is to what extent, if any, that should be so. Even the most radical of constructivists still has to participate discursively in this conversation, if only to say, "That is a social construction. Here, instead, is how we should do it."

    Hope that makes things clearer, at least in terms of what I'm claiming.

  3. OK, but I have a friend norrie, who is neither male nor female. Zhe has medical documents demonstrating this, and has recently won the right to have X instead of M or F on hir passport.

    There are thousands of people like norrie. Such people make the statement "there are males and females" problematic. What exactly is the difference? Chromosomes? The shape of the body? Psychological identification? The ability to procreate? The legal documents? These categories overlap, but they do not always match up in people, and in every case, there are people who are either both or neither.

  4. Karl,

    I understand now -- I thought you had something different in mind. Norrie's situation is important, and I don't mean to elide it in my post. I think the question then is whether "exception" is a legitimate and non-coercive category in cases like that, or if it is rhetorically exclusive, even oppressive, given the framing of my post. I'll have to reflect more on it; thanks for raising the challenge.