Sometimes, the word ‘gender’ is used as a synonym for sex. Sometimes it’s used to mean something else. One of the major difficulties in talking about these issues is that people use the word in several different ways, sometimes even within the same sentence. This difficulty persists even after it’s been pointed out, which leads to frequent arguments, often useless.
I’m going to discuss the radfem view of gender, but with a slight deviation — at least, from the way the concept is often explained by radfems. On this view, ‘sex’ is not the same as ‘gender’, though the two are related.
The typical radfem way of putting this is to say that sex is a real, biological thing, while gender is a social construct designed to enforce one arbitrary set of behavioural patterns upon female humans, and another set upon males.
Additionally, they say this ‘gender system’ sets up a hierarchy such that female humans are unfairly disadvantaged compared to males; though both sexes may be oppressed by the system, female humans get the worst of it. Therefore, they would like to abolish this ‘gender system’.
(Note on terminology: I’m going to refer to adult female humans as ‘women’ from now on; or ‘girls’ if I mean the juvenile form. Adult male humans will be called ‘men’, and the juvenile form ‘boys’. This reflects common usage.)
When we talk about gender we often use the word ‘masculine’ to refer to behaviour patterns and characteristics typically associated with men (and to some extent boys). The word ‘feminine’ refers to the equivalent for women and girls.
Gender is related to sex, but it’s different.
This is where I deviate slightly: I don’t think gender is entirely a social construct. I’d like to differentiate between different ‘levels’ of gender; along the way, I’ll discuss other ways the word ‘gender’ is often used, especially by non-radfems. Again, I’ll try to base all this on science and nature.
First of all, we have the kind of ‘gender’ based solely on sexual dimorphism. Since male and female humans have different secondary sex characteristics, female-associated characteristics can be considered feminine, and male ones masculine. Since these characteristics differ among individuals, these individuals can be thought of varying in masculinity and femininity; this is true for both sexes.
Sometimes this is the ‘gender’ people are thinking of when they say ‘gender is a spectrum’. Sometimes they’re talking about this, combined with behaviour. (Sometimes they don’t know what they’re talking about, and you have to figure it out for yourself. This makes conversation tricky.)
Second, if gender means ‘sexual dimorphism in behaviour’ then we can see it clearly in the animal kingdom. Most obviously (and trivially) the dimorphism is directly related to reproduction — eg. when mating, bulls mount cows and not vice-versa.
There are other examples less clearly related to reproduction. Consider a pride of lions. The female lions do most of the hunting; the male lions defend the pride from intruders (often other male lions).
This behavioural dimorphism can be related to physical differences between male and female lions — ie. secondary sex characteristics. Males are bigger, and their manes cause them to overheat easily. So they’re not good at hunting, but are great at fighting and chasing away intruding male lions. This suggests the physical dimorphism co-evolves with the behavioural dimorphism.
But it’s easy to imagine a situation where the behaviours and physical characteristics are reversed; it’s not obvious that these specific differences are necessary for reproduction.
Lions are social creatures, so it’s possible that this is a sort of gender system, enforced by the pride, and not something innate. But the correlation between form and function here suggests that this kind of ‘gender’ is at least not entirely a social construct.
Another example would be orangutans. These guys also show both physical and behavioural dimorphism, and you can make the equivalent argument with them as for lions.
Orangutans are primates, very closely related to humans. They have naturally ‘gendered’ behaviour. In orangutans the father plays (almost) no role in raising young. However, if a baby female orangutan is kidnapped from her mother, then, if she has children of her own, she often will not know how to raise them, and her babies will die. This suggests that in orangutans, mothering skills are at least in part culturally acquired. This is true even though mothering skills are extremely important for orangutan reproduction.
The same is true for humans, and other primates also. Primate behaviour is extremely complex, and heavily mediated by social factors. ‘Natural’ sexual dimorphism in behaviour almost certainly exists in all primates. But primates are so behaviourally flexible it’s hard to tell what is natural from what is learned.
So, is it fair to call this ‘natural’ sexual dimorphism in behaviour ‘gender’? It’s not what the radfems mean by the word ‘gender’, that’s for sure.
Some radfems accept that men and women typically have sexually dimorphic behaviour, and that some of this dimorphism is likely innate. What they mean by ‘gender’ (the thing they want to get rid of) is precisely the artificial system by which unnecessary behavioural dimorphism is imposed on individual humans, based on their sex-class, and irrespective of an individual’s natural inclinations.
Back to masculinity and femininity. ‘Masculinity’ refers to behaviours and physical characteristics considered typical of men. ‘Femininity’ is the equivalent for women. Radfems say it’s okay for both men and women to deviate from these patterns; some may be ‘natural’, but none should be enforced. But natural or not, the patterns of masculinity and femininity exist in society, and can be observed. Science is based on reality, not utopia.
Sometimes, when people say ‘gender’, what they really mean is something called ‘gender identity’.
What is gender identity?
For this part, I’m going to use Wikipedia, and follow the links to look up any terms whose meaning in this context I’m unsure of.
Gender identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with a person’s assigned sex at birth or can differ from it. Gender expression typically reflects a person’s gender identity, but this is not always the case. While a person may express behaviors, attitudes, and appearances consistent with a particular gender role, such expression may not necessarily reflect their gender identity. The term gender identity was originally coined by Robert J. Stoller in 1964.
(Stoller invented this concept in order to explain transsexualism — which is closely related to transgenderism.)
So, according to this, ’gender identity’ is not necessarily correlated with a person’s behaviour, attitudes or appearances, nor gender roles.
What are ‘gender roles’?
A gender role, also known as a sex role, is a social role encompassing a range of behaviors and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on that person’s biological or perceived sex.
So gender roles are, in essence, sex-based stereotypes or norms of behaviour and attitude. But we’re told that ‘gender identity’ has nothing to do this; instead, it is a ‘personal sense of one’s own gender’.
What, in this context, is gender?
Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex (i.e., the state of being male, female, or an intersex variation), sex-based social structures (i.e., gender roles), or gender identity.
According to this, ‘gender’ is a range of characteristics having to do with ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
In this context, what are masculinity and femininity?
Masculinity (also called manhood or manliness) is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men. Although masculinity is socially constructed, some research indicates that some behaviors considered masculine are biologically influenced.
Femininity (also called womanliness or girlishness) is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with women and girls. Although femininity is socially constructed, some research indicates that some behaviors considered feminine are biologically influenced.
What are boys and men, and what are women and girls?
A boy is a young male human. The term is usually used for a child or an adolescent. When a male human reaches adulthood, he is described as a man.
A girl is a young female human, usually a child or an adolescent. When she becomes an adult, she is described as a woman.
Finally, what are male and female?
A male (♂) organism is the physiological sex that produces sperm. Each spermatozoon can fuse with a larger female gamete, or ovum, in the process of fertilization.
Female (symbol: ♀) is the sex of an organism, or a part of an organism, that produces non-mobile ova (egg cells)
So gender identity is a personal sense of how one’s own range of characteristics relate to a set of attributes, behaviours, and roles associated with either male humans, or female humans.
Some of these attributes and behaviours are biologically influenced. The rest are due to the existence of ‘gender roles’ — otherwise known as ‘sex-based stereotypes’.
So far, these ideas are compatible with the (slightly deviant) radfem view of sex and gender described earlier. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us; there is a long history of intellectual cross-pollination between sexology and feminism, as explored in this paper:
As we discovered, ‘gender identity’ is not necessarily correlated with ‘gender roles’, nor other sex-based characteristics. Therefore:
Gender Identity is a Feeling
Gender identity is a ‘personal sense’ — a feeling — about how one’s own characteristics relate to sex-based stereotypes and characteristics. That feeling need not correspond with the reality of how well one actually fits those stereotypes and characteristics; it is a matter of perception. When a person feels that they do not fit, they may describe themselves as transgender.
So, transgender people may feel ‘masculine’ despite being female and fitting in with ‘feminine’ stereotypes and characteristics. Or they may feel ‘feminine’ even though their body is male and they fit well with ’masculine’ stereotypes and characteristics.
Those who believe in ‘gender identity’ often say that what makes an individual a woman (or a man) is not their sex, but their ‘gender identity’. Often they go further, and say that ‘sex’ is a social construct; that the idea there are only two sexes is arbitrary and does not reflect biological reality. They believe that — regardless of sex — the category ‘woman’ should include all people who claim that identity; likewise for the category ‘man’.
But ‘gender identity’ is not limited to just ‘woman’ or ‘man’; among transgender people, there are a vast number of ‘non-binary’ gender identities, such as ‘hemigirl’, ‘demiboy’, ‘bigender’, ‘agender’, ‘genderfluid’, ‘genderflux’ and many more. In fact, ‘gender identity’ can be anything at all — it can be a worm, or even the moon! Believers demand we take all such claims at face value; if a person claims to be the moon, who are we to argue? Gender identity, in their view, should take priority not only over sex, but over reality itself.
I won’t be discussing ‘non-binary’ identities any further.
Gender identity is a feeling. Transgender people are said to have a ‘mismatch’ between this feeling and their actual sex. This mismatch has to do with their perceptions of how well they adhere to internalised sex-based stereotypes — to their own ideas of what men and women should be.
This mismatch can cause great discomfort for some — but not all — transgender people. This discomfort, when it occurs, is known as ‘gender dysphoria’.
What is the cause of the mismatch?
One idea is that ‘gender identity’ is innate, fixed at birth. Trans people, then, are born with this mismatch. There are various theories about how this might happen — but the question is not settled.
Another idea is that ‘gender identity’ is something that develops during childhood, and becomes ‘fixed’ at an early age.
Freud, Jung, and Stoller
Although they did not use the term ‘gender identity’, this was basically Freud and Jung’s view. Freud had a theory about what he called ‘psychosexual development’, consisting of five stages. What we now call ‘gender identity’, according to this theory, is formed during the so-called ‘phallic stage’, in which the child develops an awareness of their sexed body, and begins to think of themselves either as boy or girl.
It is in this third infantile development stage that children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents; they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring each other and their genitals, and so learn the physical (sexual) differences between “male” and “female” and the gender differences between “boy” and “girl”. In the phallic stage, a boy’s decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus complex, his son–father competition for possession of mother. This psychological complex derives from the 5th-century BC Greek mythologic character Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father, Laius, and sexually possessed his mother, Jocasta. Analogously, in the phallic stage, a girl’s decisive psychosexual experience is the Electra complex, her daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of father.
Robert J. Stoller himself was a proponent of this Freudian view. He was the one who invented the term ‘gender identity’ in the first place, to help explain transsexualism.
Drawing on his extensive research with transsexuals and new advances in the science of sex, Stoller advances his belief in “Primary Femininity,” the initial orientation of both biological tissue and psychological identification toward feminine development. This early, non-conflictual phase contributes to a feminine core gender identity in both boys and girls unless a masculine force is present to interrupt the symbiotic relationship with the mother.
Stoller identifies three components in the formation of core gender identity, an innate and immutable sense of maleness or femaleness usually consolidated by the second year of life:
– Biological and hormonal influences;
– Sex assignment at birth and
– Environmental and psychological influences with effects similar to imprinting.
Stoller asserts that threats to core gender identity are like threats to sense of self and result in the defenses known as the perversions.
In his most notable contribution, Perversion (1975), Stoller attempts to illuminate the dynamics of sexual perversion and normalize it. Stoller suggests that perversion inevitably entails an expression of unconscious aggression in the form of revenge against a person who, in early years, made some form of threat to the child’s core gender identity, either in the form of overt trauma or through the frustrations of the Oedipal conflict.
In Sexual Excitement (1979), Stoller finds the same perverse dynamics at work in all sexual excitement on a continuum from overt aggression to subtle fantasy. In focusing on the unconscious fantasy, and not the behavior, Stoller provides a way of analyzing the mental dynamics of sexuality, what he terms “erotics,” while simultaneously de-emphasizing the pathology of any particular form of behavior. Stoller does not consider homosexuality as a monolithic behavior but rather as a range of sexual styles as diverse as heterosexuality.
So for Stoller, a mismatched ‘gender identity’ (which underlies transgenderism, and is the root cause of what we now call ‘gender dysphoria’) was inextricably linked with both trauma and sexuality, particularly the kind of sexuality he called ‘perversion’. This is quite different from the modern view, in which it is considered offensive to label transgender people as ‘perverts’, to link their condition with trauma, or to suggest it is somehow rooted in their sexuality. (Freud is out of fashion these days, though Jung is making a comeback.)
The modern view of ‘gender identity’ is more closely aligned with the ideas of John Money:
Money made the concept of gender a broader, more inclusive concept than one of masculine / feminine. For him, gender included not only one’s status as a man or a woman, but was also a matter of personal recognition, social assignment, or legal determination; not only on the basis of one’s genitalia but also on the basis of somatic and behavioral criteria that go beyond genital differences.
Money was a controversial figure:
During his professional life, Money was respected as an expert on sexual behavior, especially known for his views that gender was learned rather than innate. However, it was later revealed that his most famous case of David Reimer was fundamentally flawed. In 1966, a botched circumcision left eight-month-old Reimer without a penis. Money persuaded the baby’s parents that sex reassignment surgery would be in Reimer’s best interest. At the age of 22 months, Reimer[’s …] testicles were surgically removed. He was reassigned to be raised as female and given the name Brenda. Money further recommended hormone treatment, to which the parents agreed. Money then recommended a surgical procedure to create an artificial vagina, which the parents refused. Money published a number of papers reporting the reassignment as successful.
During subsequent appointments with Reimer and Reimer’s twin brother Brian, Money forced the two to rehearse sexual acts, with David playing the bottom role as his brother “[pressed] his crotch against” David’s buttocks. Money also forced the two children to strip for “genital inspections”, occasionally taking photos. Money justified these acts by claiming that “childhood ‘sexual rehearsal play'” was important for a “healthy adult gender identity”.
For several years, Money reported on Reimer’s progress as the “John/Joan case”, describing apparently successful female gender development and using this case to support the feasibility of sex reassignment and surgical reconstruction even in non-intersex cases. Notes by a former student at Money’s laboratory state that, during the yearly follow-up visits, Reimer’s parents routinely lied to staff about the success of the procedure. Reimer’s twin brother, Brian, later developed schizophrenia.
David Reimer’s case came to international attention in 1997 when he told his story to Milton Diamond, an academic sexologist, who persuaded Reimer to allow him to report the outcome in order to dissuade physicians from treating other infants similarly. Soon after, Reimer went public with his story[…]
[Contrary] to Money’s reports—when living as Brenda, Reimer did not identify as a girl. He was ostracized and bullied by peers (who dubbed him “cavewoman”), and neither frilly dresses, nor female hormones made him feel female.
On July 1, 2002, Brian was found dead from an overdose of antidepressants. On May 4, 2004, after suffering years of severe depression, financial instability, and marital troubles, David committed suicide[…]. Reimer’s parents have stated that Money’s methodology was responsible for the deaths of both of their sons.
Money argued that media response to the exposé was due to right-wing media bias and “the antifeminist movement.” He said his detractors believed “masculinity and femininity are built into the genes so women should get back to the mattress and the kitchen”.
You can read more about the Reimer case here:
It appears that Money was more committed to supposed ‘left-wing’ political views than he was to reality; surely a great inspiration for today’s finest scientific minds.
So does the Reimer case provide evidence that, contrary to Money’s theories, ‘gender identity’ is innate? Perhaps David Reimer’s psychological difficulties stemmed from the fact that his ‘gender identity’ happened to be that of a boy, and socialisation could not change this? If only David’s innate ‘gender identity’ had been that of a girl, the experiment might have been a success — or at least, not a disaster. This is the modern view.
But there is a simpler explanation: perhaps ‘gender identity’ is not separate from sex, but is simply the conscious awareness of it? On this view, David was a boy not by virtue of his ‘gender identity’, but because he was male. Then his troubles likely stemmed from the removal of his genitals; the lies he was told to cover it up; a false belief that he was a girl; his sexual abuse at the hands of Dr. Money; childhood bullying due to extensive deviation from feminine stereotypes; and finally, the revelation that he was not a girl, but a boy who’d been raised as a girl as an experiment conceived by Dr. Money, his abuser, following the removal of David’s genitals. Could the result of all this trauma result in something like ‘gender dysphoria’?
Would an artificial vagina really have solved David’s problems? Or, for that matter, a real flesh-and-blood penis? We will never know.
Then what about transgender people? If ‘gender identity’ is not separate from sex, then — absent negligent genital surgery — how could the two come to be mismatched? And if they did, how would surgery help?
There are several ideas about how a mismatched ’gender identity’ might develop and lead to dysphoria. Many of these ideas, like Stoller’s, are related to sexuality.