A pretty common understanding among feminists and like-minded folk is the notion that there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex is physical anatomy, gender is identity. Part of this divide between the two is that gender is understood to be socially constructed. What I mean by this is that while we might agree that female- and male-bodied people exist biologically, the whole idea of being a man or a woman is something that is imposed and created by society. So, for instance, there is no logical reason why having ovaries should make a person particularly enjoy the colour pink, yet in our (current) society (it hasn’t always been the case) for the most part we see little girls being inundated with pink items and little boys who dare to tread across gender boundaries and touch the colour pink in some way being made fun of or otherwise punished. Here are some other ways we see constructed gender:
Women wear dresses, men are tough, women are emotional, men are handy, women put on make-up to make themselves look beautiful (as society has defined it), men are better with money, etc.
These are stereotypes and certainly do not hold true for many (most?) men and women. Stereotypes are one facet of the social category of gender. Most of us also have gender identities that are deeply rooted and align to differing degrees to the prototypical man or woman (or some other gender identity). With gender being intensely personal and variable, but also social and limiting, ‘gender’ is certainly somewhat elusive. That being said, I hope you can see what I am trying to get at – our understandings of men as one thing and women as another have little to do with sex, that is sexual anatomy, and are also quite clearly socially imposed/constructed/etc. (To be clear, this isn’t to say that gender isn’t real. Just because something is based in our social fabric rather than genetics does not make it less real or easier to step away from. We are social creatures!).
If this sounds familiar to you or rings true, I am now going to throw another idea into the mix. Although the divide between gender and sex has often been understood as social vs. physical, constructed vs. fact many a feminist theorist (Judith Butler for instance) has taken this all a step further and suggested that sex is also socially constructed.
But don’t males have penises and females have clitorises (or vaginas if you want to be a bit more traditional in your comparisons)? How could I possibly argue that we’ve “made up” these bodily differences? That the categories of female and male (and intersex) are social constructions rather than obvious, relevant differences?
Well give me a couple paragraphs to win you over.
Let me tell you a story. I am a cis-woman (‘cis’ means the opposite of trans – I have female anatomy and also identify and present as a woman). Last year, Adamant Eve got involved in a drag king show (drag kings are women who perform as men – the opposite of a drag queen). I didn’t actually participate in the show like some of the other folks on the radio program did, but instead I got dressed up in drag, put on my man persona if you will, and went to enjoy the show. I passed quite well. To the point that when I said hello to each of the many people I knew at the event, most of whom I am good friends with, none of them recognized me and most of them thought I was a creepy guy hitting on them (not my intention!).
Despite this, when I left my home I was a little nervous that I wasn’t ‘fully disguised’. I had a man-walk figured out, and I was sure from the neck down it was impossible to guess I was not exactly what I appeared to be (in our society that means “I appeared to be male-gendered and thus ‘should’ be male-sexed). It was my face I was a little worried about. I thought it still looked ‘feminine’.
Now, let’s break down what that was all about. First off, the reason I was afraid of not passing isbecause there is something bad associated with crossing gender borders. This prejudice is something trans and gender non-conforming folks deal with everyday.
Second, to be precise with my fear, I was concerned that: someone would see my face, determine in some way that the curve of my cheek, the width of my jaw, or some other feature meant that I had female anatomy (which is imagined to include a vagina, clitoris, ovaries, uterus, eggs, breasts, along with XX chromosomes). But had they done just that, looked at my face and decided I came with these things (things, that I’ll remind you, are generally considered to all come packaged together but often don’t), what would they have actually learned?
If gender if constructed, if trans people exist, and if I was presenting as a boy or man (which, for the sake of the argument, could mean that I identify as a boy or a man – a person in my body certainly could), then determining that I have female anatomy certainly doesn’t lead you to any conclusions about who I am. You have not learned I am a woman, because I very well might not be!
Determining that I have female anatomy also does not tell you if I: have had children, am capable of having children, menstruate, like a certain type of sex (as in the activity), etc. In fact, as I mentioned above, determining that I have some female anatomy does not confirm that I have all female anatomy (ex. deciding, because I have a feminine face, that I have a vagina, does not mean that I also have a uterus). Even if you were correct in concluding that I had female sexual anatomy and was in fact able to produce children with some sperm added to the mix… Folks, how many people do I meet in a day for whom that is relevant information? Never mind that I have no interest in reproducing (and don’t engage in reproductive activities), the vast majority of people have no interest in reproducing with me either! (So the answer is – for no people is this relevant information.)
*Some people might also at this point mention that certain characteristics that we group together asphysical sex are at times relevant to medical treatment. So is blood type. Many people don’t know their own blood type (I don’t actually), and we certainly don’t build some of society’s most important categories around them.*
So, if you learn nothing about a person by determining which sexual category they mostly fit into (categories which are imperfect and exclude many many bodies that occur naturally, like intersex people for instance), and learn only information that is rarely relevant by figuring out a bit more about that body after that, then why on earth have we built an entire social system around these biological tendencies? Why is it ‘fact’ that a body with a penis is categorically and importantly different from a body with a clitoris?
What I am getting at with all this is the idea that ‘female’ and ‘male’ are not simply descriptors of two types of bodies, but rather a social lens through which we see bodies. Yes, some people have testicles and others have ovaries (and others have both or neither). But that we pay such close attention to these differences, create categories around them, and view those categories as hugely important is the social construction of this thing we call sex.
One final thought to leave you with (and I apologize to anyone who has a visual-impairment, but I am going to use a scenario that only works if you can see): Think of all the people you know. How many of them could you for sure recall their eye colour? There aren’t very many eye-colours – you could slice them up into three or four or five categories. Eyes are often what you look at when you have a conversation with someone. And yet I guarantee that not only do you likely not put too much weight on the colour of someones eyes, you also might not even remember what that colour is. What if we looked at (visible) sexual differences the same way? Not that we can see most of them (although some secondary sex characteristics are sometimes visible). Just for a moment, think about the difference in how we think about these two things and the attention we pay to them.
This difference is what I mean when I say that sex is also socially constructed.