Published: Jan. 2, 2006 By

[1] The average person does not distinguish between “sex” and “gender,” and uses the two terms interchangeably. The same can be said of a significant number of social scientists. For instance, an unsystematic review of one recent issue of Sociological Forum and several recent issues of American Journal of Sociology produced five examples of this conflation of sex and gender (Bonilla-Silva et al., 562; Huffman and Cohen, 912; Lincoln and Allen, 621; Petersen and Saporta, 855; Rutherford, 593). This treatment of “sex” and “gender” as synonymous dismisses, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the considerable conceptual work of gender scholars over the last thirty years and harks back to essentialist as well as determinist notions of sex, conflating, among other things, social roles, psychological dispositions, power differences, norms of grooming and comportment, sexual object choice and reproductive anatomy. Such an understanding thus collapses important intellectual and experiential distinctions; in so doing, it also fails to provide conceptual categories for the experiences of women and men whose sex, gender, and/or sexuality do not “align” in socially normative ways. The instantiation of the conceptual separation of gender from sex was an effort to give language to some of these distinctions, and the subsequent rigorous critical assessment of the term “gender” over the intervening decades has further refined them.

[2] Although it is impossible to make accurate generalizations about the work of all gender scholars, the prevailing trends can be usefully defined and studied. Here I am addressing the vast body of gender scholarship that continues to rely, either implicitly or explicitly, on the conceptual distinction between sex and gender. While my analysis draws predominantly – though not exclusively – on social scientific scholarship, the trends I will outline apply equally to humanistic scholarship that is organized conceptually by the sex/gender distinction.

[3] The last several decades have been defined by active scholarly critique and development of the concept of gender; however, most gender scholars have remained conspicuously silent on the subject of sex. The conceptual shift from a single essentialist category of “sex” to a binary distinction between “sex” and “gender” did not double the number of concepts receiving scholarly attention. In effect, “gender” replaced “sex” as the salient category in “gender scholarship.” Ann Fausto-Sterling describes this refocusing of scholarship when she writes that “feminists did not question the realm of physical sex; it was the psychological and cultural meanings of these differences – gender – that was at issue” (Fausto-Sterling, 3). Gatens offers Chodorow and Dinnerstein as early and paradigmatic examples of what she refers to as the “favoring” of the concept of gender over sex (Gatens, 4); Rubin is another important example. (Note that now the most common name for the discipline, “Gender Studies,” even reveals this shift in focus). In response to this striking silence on the subject of sex amid the flood of scholarship on gender, I argue gender scholars must bring sex into our collective discourse. It is important to emphasize that I am not only advocating for more analysis of the “masculine” or the “feminine” body, or the physical dimensions of masculinity and femininity. I am specifically arguing for a sociological analysis of “male” and “female” bodies.

[4] A small number of gender scholars have argued that sex is socially constructed. Notable examples are Kessler and McKenna, Laqueur, Butler, Martin (1991) and Fausto-Sterling. Their specific contributions as well as the unique limitations of each of their approaches are discussed in the section titled “Bringing the ‘Sex’ Back In.” What is important to note here is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule that sex itself is typically absent from anti-essentialist gender scholarship.

[5] One reason sex itself has been markedly absent from gender scholarship has to do with the meaning assigned to sex under the feminist sex/gender dichotomy. Underlying this conceptual distinction is the idea that sex is a fixed, natural binary, a self-evident fact. This conceptualization of sex, like all conceptual paradigms, has limited our ability to perceive and imagine alternative understandings. As a result, any social processes behind sex and sex attribution have not become a focus of scholarship.

The Modern Sex/Gender Distinction

[6] In an article on intersexuality from the mid 1950s, John Money defined “gender” as “outlook, demeanor, and orientation” and “gender role” as “all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman” (Money, 254 and 258; see also Meyerowitz, 114). However, the idea that sex – maleness and femaleness – has multiple elements including genitals, chromosomes, hormones, gonads, as well as a psychological component (“psychological sex”), was present among doctors and researchers studying intersexuality throughout the 1940s. This notion of “psychological sex” was also later applied to transsexuals (Meyerowitz, 99). In both cases, doctors and scientists used the term to demarcate the social and psychological aspects of being a man or a woman and distinguish them from biological sex (Meyerowitz, 112).

[7] Certainly by the 1950s, and possibly even earlier, for instance in Mead’s research, parallel but only partially analogous ideas were emerging in feminism. In a 1951 essay, Hacker writes that “widening opportunities for women will call forth a growing number of women capable of performing roles formerly reserved for men, but whose acceptance in these new roles may well remain uncertain and problematic” (Hacker, 68). Here Hacker clearly foreshadows the conceptual separation of sex and gender that is to follow and points to the social construction of what she calls “roles.”

[8] With these nascent notions of a social dimension to maleness and femaleness, both doctors and scientists writing about intersexuals and transsexuals and scholars and activists writing about women directly challenged earlier essentialist notions of sex, in which, as Meyerowitz describes it,

sex signified not only female and male, but also traits, attitudes, and behaviors associated with women and men […] The desires and practices known as masculine and feminine seemed to spring from the same biological process that divided female and male. All came bundled together within the broad-ranging concept of “sex.” (Meyerowitz, 3)

By mid-century, in both contexts, this “bundled,” “broad-ranging” concept of sex had begun to unravel and its essentialism as well as the exclusionary functions of its determinism began to be elaborated and critiqued.

[9] Ultimately, in the late 1960s and early 1970s and beyond, feminists borrowed and reworked the language of gender, and it is a concept now most commonly associated with this feminist reworking. What is less commonly known is that the term “gender” as it originally emerged in research on intersexuality and transsexuality had a very different tenor—even if it was equally rooted in a conceptual separation from biological sex. The distinction I want to highlight is particularly prominent in the medical discourse on transsexuality, which will serve as my primary example, but it is equally present – and in fact originated – in discourse on intersexuality.

[10] The concept of gender emerged in research on transsexuality in the context of debates in the medical community in the United States about whether or not to perform sexual reassignment surgeries, which had been performed in Europe since the 1920s (Meyerowitz, 16-21). Through the concept of gender, transsexuals and their supporters in the scientific and medical communities articulated a narrative that both legitimated sexual reassignment surgeries and made the experiences of transsexuals make sense. They argued that one of the important distinctions between biological sex and gender was that while the former was open to intervention, the latter was entirely immutable. Some scientists viewed this immutable gendered psyche as the result of hidden physical conditions, such as genetic or endocrine status, while others viewed gender as fundamentally environmental (Meyerowitz, 113), and still others argued for a mix of biological and social learning factors (117-118). Regardless of the hypothesized source of gender, however, once gender was established, all viewed the body’s sex as fundamentally more malleable. One of the most pre-eminent specialists on transsexuality, Harry Benjamin, for instance, characterized gender’s obduracy as follows: it is “so deeply engrained” that changing it is impossible and, instead, bodily sex had to be changed (Benjamin, 113; see also Meyerowitz, 112, 114, 119, 120). Related debates about the appropriateness and timing of surgical interventions in intersexuality relied on comparable notions of sex as less fixed than gender.

[11] Benjamin’s claim that gender is fixed while sex is malleable closely reflected transsexuals’ accounts of their own experiences and desires. Barbara Ann Richards, for instance, who in 1941 petitioned the Superior Court of California for a change of name, describes her experience of sex and gender in an article entitled “Edward Changes Name to Barbara” in the Los Angeles Herald Express, published on October 10, 1941: she desired to change her “outer body” to match what she called her “inner necessities” (see also Meyerowitz, 40). Similarly, one transsexual I interviewed in 2003 put is as follows: “One’s sex can be changed to conform to one’s gender, but never vice versa.” Stated simply, the sex/gender distinction among transsexuals and those who treated and studied them (as well as intersexuals) was based on a belief that changing the mind, the sense of self, is impossible. Changing the body, on the other hand, is comparatively easy.

[12] It is noteworthy that this understanding of sex contains an explicit rejection of biological determinism. Biology is decidedly not destiny in this view, as biology is seen as malleable. Given this fundamental challenge to biological determinism, one would expect this definition of sex to be maintained when the terminology began to circulate in the feminist movement. Yet in many ways nothing could be further from the truth.

[13] When second wave feminists borrowed the sex/gender distinction, it was for their own purposes, which included a shift in its original signification. I use the term “second wave” – even though it remains a matter of debate whether the notion of first and second (and third) waves is a useful or accurate way of understanding the history of feminism – because I believe that, as Nicholson has put it, “something happened in the 1960s in ways of thinking about gender that continues to shape public and private life” (Nicholson 1997, 1). In my usage, the “second wave” of feminism began in the 1960s and continued at least until the 1990s.

[14] Whereas transsexuals argued that, because their gender was both immutable and at odds with their sex, they required sexual reassignment (a change that was possible), the second wave feminists who used the term “gender” had different goals. In fact, ironically, many feminists used the exact same terminology to make precisely the opposite claim, namely that it was gender that could and needed to be changed, not sex. Although men’s and women’s anatomy may be naturally and undeniably different, they argued, these differences are not the cause of the social and psychological differences between men and women (gender), which are actually largely caused by social norms and institutions—and thus can and should be transformed. If transsexuals and their doctors can be characterized as wanting to leave gender alone and change sex, feminists sought just the reverse, to change gender and leave sex out of it.

[15] Looked at one way, while scholarship on intersexuality and transsexuality clearly set the stage for later feminist scholarship on the distinction between sex and gender, it is entirely appropriate that feminists did not wholly accept the original sex/gender distinction. Scientists working on transsexuality (and sometimes transsexuals themselves) did not necessarily share feminists’ political goals, and in fact often held very restrictive, traditional beliefs about gender (Meyerowitz, 128). Further, these early definitions of gender were highly psychological and individualized, ignoring dimensions of gender that would come to be central to the feminist use of the term, for instance power differences or the idea of gender as a broad social structure embedded in social institutions. From a feminist perspective, then, it was necessary to move beyond such conventional, individualized notions of gender; but in the process, the idea that sex can be seen as malleable and non-binary was also abandoned – even though it was not inherently antithetical to feminist positions, and actually contained an implicit argument against biological determinism. In fact, the shift to a view of sex as a fixed natural binary that attended the feminist resignification of the sex/gender distinction has since become a problem – both conceptually and politically – for feminist definitions of gender.

[16] The revised feminist understanding of the sex/gender distinction remains the dominant model for a significant proportion of gender scholarship today. The notion that sex is more malleable than gender that was at the heart of transsexuals’ claims has been long since abandoned in favor of the feminist reformulation which positioned gender as socially constructed – and thus open to change – and sex as a fixed natural dichotomy. This should not be taken to suggest that there have been no developments in the last thirty years in gender scholarship conceptualized based on the sex/gender distinction, however. One way to understand the innovations that have occurred is that they have focused primarily on refining and elaborating theories of the social construction of gender; scholarship has focused far less on the meaning and implications of the conceptual distinction between sex and gender and still less on sex itself. Fausto-Sterling explains that “feminists did not question the realm of physical sex; it was the psychological and cultural meanings of these differences – gender – that was at issue” (Fausto-Sterling, 3). “In the 1970s and 1980s,” Meyerowitz attests, most feminists “accepted the categories of female and male as self-evident” (Meyerowitz, 263), and this assumption for the most part persists today.

[17] The gender side of the sex-gender dichotomy has been subject to considerable scholarly scrutiny, and as a result our understanding of gender has become significantly more nuanced, incorporating crucial information about different dimensions of the social construction of gender, including power, institutions, interaction, and difference. (See, for instance: Lopata and Thorne; Gerson and Peiss; Connell; West and Zimmerman; Acker; West and Fenstermaker.) The criticisms concerning difference have been particularly strong and influential. Gender as a concept has been thoroughly and correctly criticized for its initial (and, arguably, defining) lack of attention to other axes of difference that might significantly interact with and alter gender, for instance race, class, sexuality, or nationality. (Some well known examples are The Cohambee River Collective, Lorde, Spelman, Butler [1990, 1993], and Mohanty.) Martin reflects on these criticisms that gender scholarship is guilty of what she calls “false generalization” from a largely white, middle-class, Western sample, and argues that gender scholarship has improved: “Not only were we generalizing from too homogenous a sample; we also were assuming that those who are alike in some respects are alike in all. No one can say, however, that having found out how wrong we were, we have been impenitent” (Martin 1994, 646).

[18] In the context of such extensive conceptual attention to gender, the lack of scholarship on its conceptual “other” is particularly conspicuous. With a few notable exceptions, social construction has not been effectively extended to sex and the conceptual dichotomization of sex and gender remains a leading paradigm for gender scholarship. This broad acceptance of the sex/gender dichotomy is not without reason, however.

The Logic of the Feminist Sex/Gender Distinction

[19] There are undoubtedly many reasons why the sex/gender distinction endures and notions of natural binary sex remain largely unproblematized. I highlight two key factors here: First, the separation of sex and gender was an important conceptual and political tool in the feminist movement, logically (if shortsightedly) leading to a reluctance to dismantle it. An alternate version of this argument is the idea voiced by some feminists that they are intellectually and politically opposed to extending social construction to sex because they perceive deconstructing the category “female” as destroying the basis for feminism. A second reason that sex remains unproblematized is that fear of essentialism and determinism have translated into fear of talking about sex which has, in turn, grown into a more pervasive “biophobia.”

[20] The conceptual separation of sex and gender and the subsequent focusing of scholarship on gender rather than sex played a central role in the feminist movement. Particularly in the historical context of the Parsonian notions of gender that dominated in the 1950s and 60s, which claimed that different social roles for males and females were both rooted in biology and important for the maintenance of societal equilibrium, the feminist sex/gender distinction and the attendant shift away from biology were vital interventions. They allowed feminists to make the critical argument that while biological differences might be inevitable, social differences and inequality are socially constructed and thus potentially changeable (Ortner; Rubin; see also Fausto-Sterling, 3-4). As the conceptual framework for this argument, the separation of sex and gender played an important role in allowing women greater social mobility and provided conceptual support for demands for equality. Logically, then, arguing against the conceptual separation of sex and gender could be perceived as antithetical to some of the goals of feminism.

[21] This reluctance to question the sex/gender distinction because of its utility for the feminist movement has also taken the form of a specific resistance to challenging the sex categories. Nicholson characterizes this position as asking the following questions: “if we do not possess some common criteria providing meaning to the wordwoman, how can we generate a politics around this term? Does not feminist politics require that the category woman have some determinate meaning?” (Nicholson 1994, 100-102). Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams similarly describe reservations about deconstructing the sex categories as rooted in “concerns about cutting the ground from underneath feminism” (Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 7). Especially in the wake of charges, mentioned earlier, that there is little coherence to gender as different nationalities, sexualities, races and classes experience it, sex – the “self-evident” female body all women appear to share in spite of these social differences – has, for some, seemed an obvious basis for feminism. Hark explains this sentiment as follows: “differences between women […] would only be embraced on the basis that these differences would not upset the fundamental basis of feminism” (Hark, 90-91). As one dissenter put it, “I will not let any deconstructionist talk me out of my corporeality” (Duden, 26 [as translated and cited in Hark, 96]).

[22] Such outright rejections of questioning the self-evidence of the sex categories are particularly prevalent in early radical feminist writings (Raymond; Daly). Heyes suggests that a good example of contemporary manifestations of radical feminist ideas, particularly the insistence that sex is self-evident and should not be questioned, is the long-standing policy of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival to admit only “women-born-women” and not male-to-female transsexuals (Heyes, 1099 n10). Ironically, precisely because of the unwavering commitment to the idea that biological sex is fixed and innate, unalterable even through surgical reassignment, this and other similar policies – such as those of all-female colleges where female-to-male, but not male-to-female, transsexuals are allowed to matriculate – lead to situations where people who identify as male are allowed into all-female spaces while people who identify as female are excluded. Other authors who articulate, whether they ultimately affirm it or not, the potential threat that a focus on deconstructing sex represents for feminism include: Scholes; Spelman, 15; Bordo, 151; Martin (1994), 637; Young (1994), 717; Gatens, 9-10; Stacey, 1193.

[23] Paradoxically, along with the perceived threat posed by deconstructing the sex categories, which is a threat of de-emphasizing sex differences, many have also seen it as threatening to feminism to emphasize sex differences too strongly. The female body and its differences from the male body have historically been stressed primarily in order to serve as the grounds for naturalizing social differences between men and women. Bringing sex back into the realm of scholarly scrutiny is thus tainted with fears of essentialism and its potential slide into determinism. Lee and Sasser-Coen comment on this fear of essentialism in their book about menarche,Blood Stories:

A prevailing fear among feminist scholars has been that, by studying uniquely female processes such as menstruation, one might indirectly perpetuate the essentialist ideology which defines women as sex objects and reproducers, which sees women as being at the mercy of their biology. (Lee and Sasser-Coen, 6)

Similarly, Bailey argues that fear of essentialism has resulted in pregnancy being undertheorized by feminists (Bailey, 111). Fuss summarizes the source of this fear well: “Feminists,” she explains, “have been ‘burned’ in the past by those wishing to characterize women by an appeal to their essence, which, since Aristotle on, has been perceived as ‘naturally’ inferior” (Fuss, 39).

[24] At least in part as a result of this fear of essentialism, much anti-essentialist gender scholarship has become more broadly biophobic – avoiding not only sex itself, but the physical body as a whole. As Fuss puts it, “most anti-essentialists […] are hesitant to discuss the body at all for fear of sounding essentializing” (Fuss, 50). In “academic postmodernism,” Bordo concurs, “it has become highly unfashionable […] to talk about the grip of culture on the body” (Bordo, 260). Similarly, Prosser describes a “mechanical antiessentialism” or “automatic antibiologism” at work (Prosser, 15). Spelman uses the term “somatophobia” (pp. 126-132) to refer to fear and avoidance of the body in feminism. Spelman’s main criticism of “somatophobia” concerns the reproduction of whiteness as an unmarked category that results from disembodiment as well as the reproduction of the historical masculinist philosophical devaluation of the body and its association with the devaluation of women. My use of the term “biophobia” overlaps significantly with this usage, but I want to emphasize a slightly different set of concerns related to fear and avoidance of the body in feminism; namely, fear of acknowledging and analyzing biology for fear of drawing attention to anatomical sex differences, which are assumed to be fixed and purely biological. (For complementary discussions of this elision of the body, see also: Haraway; Chanter, 1238).

[25] In short, no matter which way it is characterized, sex is perceived as threatening to feminism. If the immutability of sex differences is emphasized, it could suggest an unwanted alliance with biological determinist perspectives, which could jeopardize feminist claims about the social construction of gender. If sex difference is too thoroughly challenged, however, it threatens feminism in another way, by potentially deconstructing its entire foundation. This conflict in feminism runs parallel to debates between queer theorists, on the one hand, and lesbians and gays who object to the category-imploding impulse of the former as characterized by Gamson. Gamson frames this clash between what he calls “category defenders” and the “category strippers” (Gamson, 328) as one of the “central dilemmas of collective identity.” I quote his cogent characterization at length:

A sense of collective identification – that this is us, that we are each other – is personally and politically critical: it is an anchor, offering the comforts and resources of family and, at least in this political system, a foundation from which to organize and wage political battles. Identity requires stable, recognizable social categories. […] At the same time, though, it is exactly through the fixed, dichotomous categorization into apparently distinct species of gay and straight (and male and female) that anti-gay, anti-bisexual, and anti-transgender oppression is perpetuated. Even as the categories that mark us as different are necessary for claiming rights and benefits, making them unworkable provides its own protections […] From this angle,muddying the categories rather than shoring them up, pointing out their instability and fluidity along with their social roots, is the key to liberation. The political advantages of scrambling the code are always in competition with those of keeping it clear. (Gamson, 327-328)

Feminism is clearly not immune to the dilemma Gamson presents. It is in response to the political and identificatory need for coherent, stable categories Gamson articulates that some feminists have objected to the idea that sex is socially constructed. Yet holding onto sex categories, as Gamson suggests, invites the reproduction of oppression and requires us to maintain untenable conceptual distinctions.

[26] One proposed answer to this set of dilemmas is the idea of “strategic essentialism,” a term introduced by Spivak to argue that there are times when it is both advantageous and necessary for women to operate provisionally as though the categories sex and gender are sound. Strategic essentialism allows feminists to temporarily accept an essentialist position about women specifically for the purpose of social action. Strategic essentialism can thus be understood as a way to account for the concerns of both the boundary “strippers” and “defenders.” This self-conscious essentializing is designed to allow feminism to function politically and identity to function personally without relinquishing the idea that the category “woman” is a fictional unity.

[27] However, the category that strategic essentialism is most concerned with is gender, not sex. The “strategy” and “provisionality” of the essentialism advocated refers largely to a strategic homogenization of women’s and men’s social experiences—in other words, their gender. This strand of theory grew directly out of the critique of gender suggesting that whiteness, middle-class status, heterosexuality, and western cultural values were operating as unmarked norms in the definition of gender. The “strategy” in question, then, is the self-conscious temporary bracketing of these critiques. Strategic essentialism refers only secondarily, if at all, to challenges to notions of natural binary sex. One potential exception to this characterization that comes to mind is Butler (1993, 118-119), but it remains an unanswered question whether Butler is actually talking about material sex or whether she remains largely in the realm of gender. Furthermore, the impulse of strategic essentialism remains partially rooted in the idea that challenges to the coherence of sex and gender are to be feared and, if such deconstructive challenges are undertaken, they can be separated from the “practical” needs of both feminism and personal identity.

Body Trouble: The Unintended Consequences of the Feminist Sex/Gender Distinction

[28] As we have seen, no matter how sex is characterized, it seems to present a problem for feminism. Fears about emphasizing sex differences compete with fears about de-emphasizing sex differences too much. Perhaps due to this vexed relationship to sex, scholars sympathetic to the logic of the sex/gender distinction often avoid analyzing sex altogether. However, avoiding sex is a strategy itself attended by a number of troubling conceptual and political implications.

[29] Concerns about the sex/gender distinction and the avoidance of sex in gender scholarship are not new. Kessler and McKenna raised some of the most important limitations of this perspective in Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, published in 1978. They comment, for example, that when we study gender as socially constructed and separate from sex and avoid talking about sex, certain critically important questions do not get asked; for instance, how do we get classified as male or female in the first place? This attribution is necessary for interaction and meaning to happen, and the process is, as they put it, “deceptively easy” and “empirical work in the area of gender has taken this process for granted” (Kessler and McKenna, viii). In this comment, Kessler and McKenna raise a very important implication of avoiding sex I would like to highlight: The process of sex attribution and sex itself are implicitly understood as obvious and self-explanatory. Sex is, in fact, not seen as a process at all, but as a self-evident fact.

[30] Over twenty-five years later, the important criticisms that Kessler and McKenna articulated have still not been adequately addressed. Despite their compelling argument for such studies, the process behind sex attribution has not become a focus of scholarship. The self-evidence of sex continues to pervade both the popular consciousness and much scholarly work. Gender scholars did not heed strongly enough Kessler and McKenna’s critically important warning: “Unless and until gender, in all its manifestations including the physical, is seen as a social construction, action that will radically change our incorrigible propositions cannot occur” (Kessler and McKenna, 164). The remainder of this paper should be read as a sustained reflection on this specific criticism of the sex/gender distinction. As long as we perceive sex as a self-evident natural binary, sex will remain a lodestone in our thinking, and we will be unable to challenge our “incorrigible propositions.”

[31] More recently, a number of other scholars have also elaborated on the limits of the sex/gender distinction and the conceptual distortion it performs (Connell; Martin [1991]; Butler [1991, 1993]; Gatens; Moi; Fausto-Sterling; Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams). Because I focus rather narrowly on the definition/treatment of sex in gender scholarship, there are many interesting criticisms of the sex/gender dichotomy I leave out here. For example, I do not include the argument that the sex/gender distinction reproduces a whole set of problematic philosophical distinctions deriving from the Cartesian body/mind dualism (Gatens, 7-8; Moi, 26-27). Many of the binary oppositions that have grown out of Descartes’ formulation have developed a gendered meaning. The most obvious example is nature:culture::female:male. The association of women with nature and men with culture was historically drawn upon in order to restrict women’s cultural pursuits and limit them to the domestic sphere as “natural mothers” (Ortner). When we use the sex/gender distinction, we implicitly reproduce these gendered associations as well as Descartes’ devaluation of the body.

[32] A useful starting point for a critical analysis of the treatment of sex in gender scholarship is to think of the sex/gender distinction as a “paradigm” in Kuhn’s sense of the word. A paradigm is a mental model that dictates meaning and perception for its adherents, specifying “not only what sorts of entities the universe does contain, but also, by implication, those that it does not” (Kuhn, 7; see also pp. 24, 192-196). The idea that the sex/gender distinction can be productively conceptualized as a paradigm is similar to Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams’ suggestion that the sex/gender distinction be thought of as the “sex gender problematic” following Althusser’s idea of a problematic as something that constrains thought, that regulates (Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 2). When the sex/gender distinction is understood as a paradigm or a problematic, the important question to ask becomes, what is the conceptual distinction teaching us, or compelling us, to perceive and understand about sex and gender?

[33] The feminist sex/gender distinction is rooted in an acceptance of natural binary sex difference, which, as Kessler and McKenna pointed out, is usually viewed as “self evident.” Generally speaking, the “self-evidence” of sex difference is then tempered by minimizing its significance, arguing that while sex differences do exist, they are unimportant. “The predominant feminist vision,” Meyerowitz explains, “downplayed biological sex differences” (Meyerowitz, 263; see also, Meyerowitz, 261 and Fausto-Sterling, 3). Rubin, for example, writes that her dream is “an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin, 204). Although the sentiment of Rubin’s well-known statement is not entirely without appeal, note the way that it positions sex as both fixed and irrelevant. When viewed as a paradigm, then, one primary thing that the sex/gender distinction teaches is that the physical does not matter (which is why it can be downplayed and deemphasized), yet it is fixed. Both are thorny assertions.

[34] For one thing, the idea that the physical does not matter does not ring true to the experience of gender, which is always at least in part embodied. The physical elements of gender matter in that they are central to our experience. The body cannot be dismissed or evacuated from gender. Bartky, for instance, supplies a detailed exploration of some of the physical manifestations of gender. She argues that recognizably male and female bodies are constructed through three types of practices, “those that aim to produce a body of a certain size and general configuration, those that bring forth from this body a specific repertoire of gestures, postures, and movements, and those that are directed toward the display of this body as an ornamented surface” (Bartky, 64). Bartky specifically discusses the social creation of physical gender differences in walking, eye contact, smiling, touching, stance, skin, and hair, among other things. She refers to the sum total of these physical social practices as “the social construction of the feminine body” (Bartky, 75). Other gender scholars have also written about the social construction of the gendered body, and emphasized the importance of scholarly attention to the body. Drawing on phenomenology and existentialism, Moi and Young (2005) have approached the question of feminine embodiment via the concept of the “lived body” – the body-in-situation – emphasizing the interplay between the body and the social environment. For instance, in her essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” Young uses concepts drawn from de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty to theorize feminine body comportment, motility and spatiality. Similarly, Connell uses the notion of a “theory of practice” (Connell, 61) to argue that the body is practically transformed in the social structure of gender, and this transformation is not just symbolic but has actual physical effects (Connell, 87). I will refer to this loose body of work as scholarship ongendering the body.

[35] However, as we have seen, most anti-essentialist gender scholars, unlike Bartky, Young, Moi and Connell, do not extend social construction to the physical. Rather, as Nicholson argues, there is an ironic tendency among anti-essentialist scholars to take a “coat rack” view of the body. Such a view portrays

the physiological self as the “given” upon which specific characteristics are ‘superimposed’ […] Here the body is viewed as a type of rack upon which differing cultural artifacts, specifically those of personality and behavior, are thrown or superimposed (Nicholson 1994, 81).

She calls this view “biological foundationalism” (82), which is not exactly determinist, but does retain biological distinctions: “givens of biology” that different cultures respond to in order to create gender in specific ways.

[36] More or less reiterating Kessler and McKenna’s earlier claim that “gender in all its manifestationsincluding the physical” must be analyzed as socially constructed (Kessler and McKenna, 164), Nicholson concludes that, rather than retaining “givens of biology,” we must explicitly include the body in the realm of social construction:

We need to understand social variations in the male/female distinctions as related to differences that go ‘all the way down,’ that is, as tied not just to the limited phenomena many of us associate with gender (i.e., to cultural stereotypes of personality and behavior) but also to culturally various understandings of the body and to what it means to be a woman or a man. In this alternative view the body does not disappear from feminist theory. Rather, it becomes a variable rather than a constant. (Nicholson, 83)

The last two sentences of this passage are particularly useful in that they remind us not only that the body is largely absent from anti-essentialist feminist theory, but also that the view of the body as fixed is at the root of that absence. Theorizing the body as a variable, as Nicholson suggests, could remedy both problems and lead to a productive anti-essentialist materialism.

[37] To a significant extent, scholarship on gendering the body is an exception to Nicholson’s characterization. These scholars do not present the body as a “coat rack,” nor do they ignore or dismiss the physical. They analyze the body itself as a social construction. The study of gendering the body is thus useful in challenging the two main problematic assumptions underlying the sex/gender distinction identified earlier. Most directly, it challenges the notion that the physical does not matter in gender, demonstrating that practices that create masculine and feminine bodies are central to gender. More indirectly, the study of gendering the body can also serve as a challenge to the idea that the physical is fixed, in that its focus is on ways that social practices create physical distinctions between male and female bodies.

[38] This view of the malleability of the physical, however, is not extended to sex. While scholarship on gendering the body effectively challenges the idea that gender is not physical, and extends social construction to the body, its extension of social construction does not include sex. Sex remains a limit beyond which social construction cannot go. In the terminology offered by Birdwhistell, accounts of gendering the body focus on the “tertiary” sex characteristics, which Birdwhistell describes as “social-behavioral in form” (Birdwhistell, 42), and even extend to some of the “secondary” sex characteristics, which are anatomical, but are not sex itself. However, they are not concerned with “primary” sex characteristics. Stated another way, if the body is a “variable” in such accounts, as Nicholson suggests it should be, its variability has clearly defined limits. It does not, in Nicholson’s terms, “go all the way down,” but only part way down. For instance, Bartky characterizes herself as analyzing “the machinery that turns a female body into a feminine one” (Bartky, 78). The distinction Bartky makes between a female body and a feminine body suggests that she remains firmly rooted in the sex/gender distinction, only partially integrating the physical into social construction, and partially retaining the notion that the physical is fixed, or given—at least when the physical is sex itself. Bartky’s text is reflective of a larger tendency for research on gendering the body (the social formation of masculine and feminine bodies) to retain a view of maleand female bodies as naturally different. In other words, scholars who analyze the physical manifestations of gender tend not to extend their analysis “all the way down” to sex. (For illustrations of this point, see: Connell, 83, 179, 191; Gatens, 8, 9, 10, 130; Moi, 112, 114; Young 2005, 32-36, 99).

[39] Understanding sex as anything other than a natural binary is admittedly difficult, even for those of us who have devoted a lot of thought to the social processes that form male and female bodies. Challenges to our ideas about sex are experienced as significant disruptions to “obvious” and “taken for granted” realities in ways that challenges to gender are not. To capture this resistance, Connell has referred to sex as “a limit beyond which thought cannot go” (Connell, 66). Or, as Kessler and McKenna so evocatively put it, the belief in fixed natural binary sex is an “incorrigible proposition” (Kessler and McKenna, 164). The “incorrigibility” of our ideas about sex is consistent with findings in social psychology about cognitive processing biases, such as “expectation effects” (Jones, 82 and 84) and “confirmatory hypothesis testing” (Taylor et al., 56-57), which often lead us to reject or ignore information that challenges the available categories. Information that confirms the received meaning of a category is selectively sought out, more easily noticed and processed faster than information inconsistent with it. Thus, one reason notions of fixed natural binary sex are “incorrigible” is that, without realizing it, we selectively seek out information that confirms that naturalness and immutability and ignore information that would suggest otherwise.

[40] Another way to think about this notion of an “incorrigible proposition” or “a limit beyond which thought cannot go” is to think of the concept of “sex” as operating as a “moving target” in order to maintain its meaning as fixed. For example, hormones and reproductive capacity are commonly believed to be two central elements of sex, yet when they are shown to be non-dichotomous (in the case of hormones), or changing over time (reproductive capacity), they do not change the definition of sex as fixed. The definition of sex thus shifts and slides: When something can be shown to be social, malleable, or non-binary it is evacuated from “sex itself.” This understanding of sex is governed by a clear case of circular reasoning: By definition, sex is fixed and natural, so anything that is social or is not fixed is by definition not sex.

[41] This mental framework of natural binary sex difference also manifests itself politically. Because the existence of an underlying physical binary is embraced under the sex-gender paradigm, no matter how much it is “downplayed,” this leaves available binary biology for use in renewed attacks on feminist concepts of gender on the grounds of biological difference. As Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams put it, this underlying notion of sex as unquestionable is what “gives ‘gender’ a large part of its obduracy in our minds and our social lives” (Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 5). The feminist sex/gender distinction, then, has unintended consequences: It ironically provides a fertile ground for the continuous rebirth of determinism. “In ceding the territory of physical sex,” Fausto-Sterling writes, “feminists left themselves open to continued attack on the grounds of biological difference. Indeed, feminism has encountered massive resistance from the domains of biology, medicine and significant components of social science” (Fausto-Sterling, 4). For contemporary examples of reliance on notions of natural binary sex difference to attack feminist concepts of the social construction of gender in sociology, see Lueptow et al. and Udry. In the media, one of a great number of potential examples of the same basic phenomenon is a segment from The Brian Lehrer Show in which his guest, Steven Rhoads, argued that testosterone inhibits nurturing in men (Rhoads; see also: Cordileone; Rosenthal). If our belief in naturally binary biology is not disrupted, these kinds of arguments will retain persuasive power, as they tap into our very deeply ingrained sense of sex as a biological given. If we can disrupt our taken-for-granted view of sex and the body as naturally binary, however, such arguments will be stripped of their force.

[42] In brief, a belief that sex is a fixed natural binary implicitly underlies the feminist sex/gender distinction. This view of sex both leads to cognitive distortion and invites backlash against feminism. Avoiding sex as a strategy does not work: Until we actively bring sex itself into the discourse on social construction, we cannot alter our “incorrigible propositions” and the belief that sex is naturally binary will continue to act as a lodestone in our thinking.

[43] Ignoring the “problem” of sex in gender scholarship thus accomplishes only one thing: It forces us to enter into a state of “meta-denial” about sex (Zerubavel). Natural, binary sex is like a giant pink elephant in the house of gender scholarship, and not only do we have to deny that it is there, and that everyone can see it and wonders about whether it can really be irrelevant, but we also have to deny the fact that we are denying it, or risk admitting that sex presents a problem for feminism and gender scholarship more broadly. “In other words, the very act of avoiding the elephant is itself such an elephant” (Zerubavel, 53). The only way to move beyond this impasse is to break the silence, to address sex directly and to analyze it as socially constructed.

Figure 1: Summary – Mutability of Sex and Gender

  Person in the street / essentialist view Transsexuals and experts on transsexuality Feminist sex/gender distinction Moving beyond the sex/gender distinction
Sex Immutable Mutable Immutable Mutable
Gender Immutable Mutable Mutable

Bringing the “Sex” Back In

[44] Those gender scholars who have already begun demonstrating the social construction of sex have approached the project in at least four different ways: 1. Subsuming sex into gender and arguing for the temporal and causal primacy of gender as a category; 2. Pointing out the exceptions to binary sex; 3. Arguing, as transsexuals have, that it is possible to physically alter sex; 4. Demonstrating that gender norms influence the science on sex differences.

[45] Butler’s well-known statement that sex is always already gender (Butler 1990, 7) is paradigmatic of the strand of theory that argues that gender is the source of the sex categories and our experience of sexed subjectivity. In Butler’s argument, there is no “naturally” sexed subject who preexists the performance of gender. The sexed body that is assumed to be behind the expression of gender is “performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler 1990, 25). This stream of scholarship characterizes sex as the product of the social and psychological discourse of gender and, as such, either implicitly or explicitly suggests that sex can be eliminated as a category; it is more accurate to call everything gender. Kessler and McKenna, for instance, do not use the term “sex,” instead referring to everything as “gender” (see also, Laqueur).

[46] While a description of the construction of sex – the materiality of the body – is precisely the type of theoretical work that is needed, accounts that assert the primacy of gender as a category can often eliminate a discussion of the physical entirely and, as a result, perhaps unintentionally imply that the physical is not important (Chanter, 1238). Other critics of the inadequate treatment of the body in scholarship that takes gender as its focus include: Connell, 74; Gatens, 4; Moi, 30; Young 2005, 4-12. (However, as mentioned earlier, while these scholars are critical of the elision of the body, they tend to limit their discussion to the gendered body and retain sex as a fixed natural binary).

[47] Butler’s attempts to theorize the social construction of sex are commendable for their complexity and attention to social norms and the psychological mechanisms by which they operate to form our experience of ourselves as having a fixed sex. Unfortunately, as she herself confesses (Butler 2004, 198; see also Butler 1993, ix), her analysis rarely actually takes the physical body as its explicit focus, generally slipping past the physical into other realms. The way she accounts for sex as “gender all along” accordingly ends up feeling more like a description of mind than body (Prosser, 41). In this way, Butler’s work is paradigmatic of a larger tendency for the body to slip from view in strong constructionist theory. Ironically, even while explicitly rejecting the sex/gender distinction, then, such accounts frequently seem to reproduce two of its conceptual consequences, the idea that the physical is unimportant and the absence of an analysis of the physical.

[48] Other scholars have approached the project of illustrating the constructedness of the sex categories in ways that focus more directly on the material body itself. One such approach involves focusing on the exceptions to the strict binary categorization. For instance, Fausto-Sterling relies heavily on evidence from intersexuality to argue that for every biological “indicator” of sex difference, including genitals, gonads, hormones, chromosomes, and brain structures, what nature seems to provide us with is some form of a continuum rather than two discrete categories. She argues that “since intersexuals quite literally embody both sexes, they weaken claims about sexual difference” (Fausto-Sterling, 8; see also Preves). These scholars emphasize that bodies that fall somewhere in the continuum between male and female are natural, even if statistically unusual; nature provides variety beyond male and female and it is only cultural norms and institutions, such as the state and medicine, that erase the center of the continuum.

[49] Another example of arguments about the constructedness of sex that fall into the category of relying on exceptions is the ideas about the malleability of sex voiced by transsexuals and those who study them as described earlier. In many cases, the logic underlying these arguments can be roughly characterized as “sex should be viewed as socially constructed because transsexuals socially construct theirs” or “transsexuals experience their sex as more changeable than their gender.” Such statements directly challenge the deeply ingrained belief that sex is a uniquely rigid and permanent aspect of our physical selves. Other aspects of human anatomy are experienced as changing over time (for instance hair color) and open to intervention (for instance body mass), whereas sex is seen as entirely immutable – even in the face of evidence that central elements of sex, for instance reproductive capacity, do in fact change over time, as part of the aging process.

[50] The problem with scholarship based on the evidence of exceptions, however, is that when it comes to the work of making naturally binary biological difference “anthropologically strange,” it can be constrained in its influence by its own design. It becomes possible to dismiss such challenges to binary sex as based on a small minority with “birth defects” and/or “psychological disorders.” Surely, the logic goes, the vast majority of people are actually naturally dichotomously distributed.

[51] This tendency to dismiss the evidence of exceptions is also institutionalized in social science and science in general, which are based on aggregate patterns, not exceptions. As a result, in these domains, claims based on exceptions may be particularly strongly resisted (Debby Carr, personal communication). Yet it is important to question what is lost by focusing primarily on aggregate patterns. In ignoring the cases that do not conform to dominant patterns, this way of thinking effectively erases differences, eliminating “extreme values” and the continuum that technically exists between any two categories. It is also interesting to consider how many exceptions are required for the falsification of an aggregate pattern. There is a technical statistical answer to that question, but should we rely on the statistical answer conceptually, or in terms of our daily lives? Are there ever cases where one exception should be regarded as falsifying a pattern? What about 1.7% of cases? Is that ever enough to introduce doubt into our categories? That is one estimate of the number of intersexuals (Fausto-Sterling, 51).

[52] Further, historically, some of the most innovative and influential scholarship has relied on the data of exceptions. Durkheim identified the protective function of social integration through analyzing cases ofexceptionally high or low social solidarity. Likewise, much of Freud’s scholarship offers theories of “normal” psychological development derived from the observation of “pathological” cases. To take a more contemporary example, Queer Theory makes “the centrality of marginality” a central theoretical premise (Epstein). As Kuhn argues, sometimes exceptions are actually important anomalies, the seeds of revolutionary thinking and discovery. Ultimately, it is these anomalies that – when attended and studied – lead to scientific discovery and periods of revolutionary science and paradigm shift (Kuhn, 52).

[53] Finally, the fourth strategy scholars have employed to argue sex is socially constructed is demonstrating that cultural norms about gender differences have infiltrated scientific research on biological sex differences. Fausto-Sterling, for example, analyzes biological definitions of sex and determines that “what bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender” (Fausto-Sterling, 3). Similarly, Martin demonstrates that there are gender stereotypes “hidden within the scientific language of biology” (Martin 1991, 486). Specifically, Martin uncovers remarkable parallels between stereotypical notions of gender difference and the character of the egg and the sperm as portrayed in biology textbooks. Laqueur also analyzes scientific representations of sex and concludes that normative ideas about gender roles influence how scientists see and interpret nature (Laqueur, 10).

[54] The importance of such studies cannot be denied, yet there may be a limit to their disruption of our quotidian experience of the facticity of binary sex. Even as we intellectually accept that scientific definitions of sex are gendered social products, we do not stop seeing people as either male or female. There is a disconnect between this knowledge about the social construction of sex in scientific scholarship and our unwavering dedication to the notion of natural binary sex in our daily lives. To unsettle our routine belief in sex requires scholarship aimed more directly at challenging our daily experiences. As long as we continue to unproblematically perceive those around us and ourselves as either male or female, the social construction of sex remains an “incorrigible proposition” (Kessler and McKenna, 164).

[55] As we have seen, scholars have approached the question of the social construction of sex from several different directions, but it is far from fully fleshed out as a scholarly idea, and further still from destabilizing taken-for-granted views of sex in everyday life. To extend and strengthen the project of disrupting the “self-evidence” of natural binary sex begun by each of these scholars requires pursuing research projects that respond to their limitations. Such projects must develop an anti-essentialist materialism, attentive to the fleshy materiality of bodies while analyzing that materiality as socially constructed. Unlike approaches that collapse sex into gender, they must not slide past the physical, but address the social construction of sex specifically and directly. Ideally, future research will also not rely mainly on exceptional cases such as intersexuality and transsexuality but will explicitly focus on demonstrating everyone’s sex as socially constructed. Finally, such research will also focus more on everyday experiences that are widely shared rather than specialized areas of social life, such as scientific research, that can be mentally compartmentalized and thus fail to go far enough to disrupt our quotidian sense of sex.

[56] Furthermore, what none of these approaches adequately articulates, and what is sorely needed if gender scholars are to analyze sex productively, is an alternate conceptual paradigm for understanding the anatomical and social/cultural components of what we currently call sex and gender. The sex/gender distinction has dictated what kinds of scholarly questions it makes sense to ask, and those questions are all implicitly predicated on the idea that, as a fixed biological given, there is nothing sociologically interesting to study about sex. Moi makes a similar argument:

Although they want to radically change our understanding of sex and gender, they retain these concepts as starting points for their theories of subjectivity, identity, and bodily sexual difference. With respect to sex and gender poststructuralists are reformist rather than revolutionary. (Moi, 4; see also, 30-31)

It is not enough to simply broaden the circle of scholarly focus so that we do not limit our analysis to the gender half of the sex/gender dichotomy, but examine the sex half as well while retaining its definition as a fixed natural binary. It is also not enough to simply (re)collapse the categories sex and gender, but this time making everything gender rather than sex, which risks dematerializing both sex and gender. To understand sex differently requires an alternate conceptual framework that does not presume that sex is self-evident, that does not hold the social and the physical apart, but also does not evacuate, idealize or elide the physical.


This paper was previously presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in a session organized by Lisa Brush, who offered constructive feedback. Thanks also to Arlene Stein, Debby Carr, Judith Gerson and the reviewers at GENDERS. Special thanks to Eviatar Zerubavel for repeated careful readings.

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