Arguing that gender is a social construct has long been a feminist concern. However, in its most simplistic form, it relies on mind-body dualism and presumes a blank state on which the mind is formed. Instead we should recognise that the mind is fundamentally connected to the body, but also that the sexed body is as much a social construct as anything else argues Louise Richardson-Self.
One of the most significant conceptual distinctions for feminist activism has been the sex/gender distinction.
On the basis of such a distinction, feminists have argued that most characteristics, traits, and tendencies we typically ascribe to men and women are not actually consequences of sex—the physical characteristics of the reproductive body—but rather they are learned via socialisation—that is, they are attributes of a gendered identity.
This meant that the usual justifications for women’s subordination to men—that they were too emotional for politics, better suited to the nurturing of children, etc.—could no longer hold water. If women were not by nature subordinate to men, then there was no good reason to keep them out of power, to exclude them from the public sphere, to treat them as inferior, and so forth.
The usual justifications for women’s subordination to men—that they were too emotional for politics, better suited to the nurturing of children, etc.—could no longer hold water.
However, not all feminists accept the sex/gender distinction. Rather, they do not accept the premises which support this dichotomy. Underscoring it is a problematic ontology, a certain mind/body dualism. This ontology presumes the existence of a physical, material body that houses but is distinct from the mind, which starts out as a neutral “blank slate”.
They find this dualist view unconvincing and prefer, instead, an alternative view. Roughly, the alternative is this:
Humans are ‘embodied subjects — beings whose capacities for thought and feeling are intimately bound up with the kinds of bodies we have and the things these bodies can do.’
Since there are no ‘neutral’ bodies—they come in all kinds: differently abled, with different functional capacities, with different aesthetics—and if there is no mind/body distinction, this means there are no ‘neutral’ subjects, no blank slates. Every person’s identity—who they are—is inextricable from their physical being.
Now, superficially, this ontology looks very unaccommodating to trans and non-binary people. It seems to completely invalidate their identities. It seems to say to them “You are not really who you think you are; you are your body”. Trans and non-binary people (and allies) may reject this alternative ontology on those grounds.
And it may be the case that people who deny the metaphysical possibility trans and non-binary existence would quickly adopt this alternative ontology. It seems to affirm that men and women are naturally different, and that this difference is biological.
However, both camps misunderstand the nuance of this alternative ontology. We are not reduced to two choices, either (a) accept that the differences between men and women are straightforwardly natural (biological essentialism), or (b) maintain that the differences between men and women are purely normative, as though our physical embodiment were totally arbitrary (I’ll call it ‘basic social constructionism’).
Here is the alternative (c): we accept that living through different bodies entails qualitatively different experiences of being, and we also accept that there is no inherent meaning adhering to body features, capacities, and aesthetics — that is, our embodied differences do not necessarily inhere a socially salient identity.
The social salience of an identity—even an identity which seems to track natural biological kinds—is always contingent. Kathleen Lennon summarises this point nicely in the following quote:
The view that biological properties have some effect on human thought…does not, by itself, lead to the claim that any particular categories are inevitable, or to the view that categories causally influenced by biology are themselves biological categories.
Our embodied differences do not necessarily inhere a socially salient identity.
In other words, who we are is fundamentally connected to our corporeality (insofar as being a subject just is to be an embodied consciousness), but that does not mean that our corporeal differences are laden with some inherent meaning and fall into natural kinds.
Any interpretation of the human body—whether it be an interpretation of ability, function, capacity, or aesthetic—is always mediated through human systems of meaning (called ‘social imaginaries’). We cannot make claims to the true meaning or ‘nature’ of the human body, because there is no ‘outside’ these normative systems of meaning from which we could conduct an objective investigation.
The argument, then, is that corporeality is an inescapably influential part of who we come to be, but the meaning of aspects of our corporeality is contingent. And it is we who decide what human categories there are and where the boundaries of those groups lie.
This is true even of ‘sex,’ which is wrongly treated as a natural biological kind by basic social constructionism and biological essentialism alike.
It is not insignificant that the sex/gender distinction first arose in research theorising intersex infants and their social development at a time when surgeries were performed on those infants’ genitals to correct their ‘birth defect’. Understanding intersex bodies as defective bodies is a normative evaluation, one that maintains the view “first, that sexual anatomy has a proper mode of differentiation that, second, constitutes a complete or finished form of sexual dimorphism,” in David Rubin’s words.
I contend that this social practice proves that sex, and not only gender, is a social construct too. (Call this ‘sophisticated social constructionism’.)
“Our bodies are too complex to provide clear-cut answers about sexual difference. The more we look for a simple physical basis for ‘sex,’ the more it becomes clear that ‘sex’ is not a purely physical category. What bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender.”
Hence, this ontology does not support biological essentialism because it outright rejects that nature clearly produces distinct identity-based groups.
But what does this mean for trans and non-binary folk? Is this ontology compatible with their claim to have no gender, a shifting gender identity, or another gender than what they were assigned at birth (an assignment that was based on their genital configuration)?
I believe it is compatible. This ontology does require us to acknowledge that embodied differences entail qualitatively distinct experiences from those who are otherwise embodied. But this is hardly controversial. It is perfectly obvious that my experience of being a woman is qualitatively distinct in some ways from a transgender woman’s or non-binary AFAB’s (assigned female at birth) experience of my same social milieu.
But this does not mean that trans women aren’t ‘really’ women, or that non-binary folk aren’t ‘really’ non-binary. After all, it is also perfectly obvious that even among women there are qualitatively distinct experiences of womanhood in the same social milieu.
It is also perfectly obvious that even among women there are qualitatively distinct experiences of womanhood in the same social milieu.
The question of what it is like to experience the world through a particular sort of body at a particular moment in history is separable from the question of which identity-based groups one belongs to. The point is that it is not ‘nature’ which decides the latter, but our systems of social meaning. Importantly, these systems are dynamic, not static; they shift as certain traits, functions, and aesthetics become more or less salient in one’s historically contextualised milieu.
Sophisticated social constructionism provides a much more complicated ontology of sex, gender, and their relation. But it is one which avoids the pitfalls for feminism that come with biological essentialism, it can affirm the identities of trans and non-binary folk, and it maintains that embodied differences (which are always laden with social meaning) are constitutive of our subjectivity and thus remain important springboards for social justice movements.