Materialist feminism itself arose out of the division and conflict between the aforementioned radical feminism and Marxist feminism in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It was not the feminisms of Andrea Dworkin and Marilyn Frye, though, that materialist feminists were responding to, but rather the more aptly named ‘cultural feminisms’ of Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and co. They grounded gendered reality in biological differences between so-called sexes (rather than the radical feminist & materialist feminist concept of sex classes). The charge of biological reductionism on the fault of cultural feminism, and the charge of economism and class reductionism on the fault of Marxist feminism in turn produced what could be seen as a synthesis of the two in materialist feminism.
Monique Wittig’s analysis of sex-gender was particularly cogent for her time. Wittig sought to ground sex class distinction in the heterosexual labour contract of society. As such, she analyzed lesbians as non-women in her most famous quote “Lesbians are not women“.
For Wittig, “sex” is not a precultural phenomenon constituted by biological properties, but is inherently connected to heterosexuality; that which constitutes it. She argues that categories inevitably develop relationships, and as a result are subsequently constituted by them:
The sexes, in spite of their constitutive difference, must inevitably develop relationships from category to category. Belonging to the natural order, these relationships cannot be spoken of as social relationships. This thought which impregnates all discourses, including common-sense ones (Adam’s rib or Adam is, Eve is Adam’s rib), is the thought of domination
She argues that “sex” is the category that forms society as heterosexual. It is quite obvious that heterosexuality presumes a “sex” to ground itself; it requires the polar opposition between “male” and “female” to constitute heterosexuality vis a vis the relationality between them. As such, “sex” is not about ontology, not about metaphysics, but is inevitably socially structured:
The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual
The category of sex is the one that rules as “natural” the relation that is at the base of (heterosexual) society and through which half of the population, women, are “heterosexualized” (the making of women is like the making of eunuchs, the breeding of slaves, of animals) and submitted to a heterosexual economy. For the category of sex is the product of a heterosexual society which imposes on women the rigid obligation of the reproduction of the “species,” that is, the reproduction of heterosexual society.
Wittig considers this sex binarism as the “ideology of sex difference”, that which is required for the structural maintenance of heterosexuality at both material, economic and cultural levels:
The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking, on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women. Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. Every system of domination establishes divisions at the material and economic level.
As a result, Wittig believes that sex is itself constituted by oppression, so that a feminist movement has no choice but to abolish sex:
For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society.
Wittig’s argument here is that to presume that sex is the cause of oppression, rather than oppression producing sex, is to naturalize that oppression: to say that there is some pre-cultural “sex” that then causes oppression, which would be an unsatisfactory result for the feminist project, for it would deem anti-oppressive projects impossible.
Even more, her analysis of the ideology of male domination leads her to conclude that it is male domination that produces the idea of “sex” as natural, rather than relationally discursive:
What is this thought which refuses to reverse itself, which never puts into question what primarily constitutes it? This thought is the dominant thought. It is a thought which affirms an “already there” of the sexes, something which is supposed to have come before all thought, before all society. This thought is the thought of those who rule over women.
It is this domination ideology that produces sex as binary, that produces sex as biological, that produces sexual division as natural:
Dominance thus teaches us from all directions:
-that there are before all thinking, all society, “sexes”(two categories of individuals born) with a constitutive difference, a difference that has ontological consequences (the metaphysical approach),
-that there are before all thinking, all social order, “sexes” with a “natural” or “biological” or “hormonal” or “genetic” difference that has sociological consequences (the scientific approach),
-that there is before all thinking, all social order, a “natural division of labor in the family,” a “division of labor [that] was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act” (the Marxist approach).
Christine Delphy is most often considered “the” feminist that founded the strand of materialist feminism. She burst onto the scene with her work “The Main Enemy” as an analysis of women’s oppression. Beyond that, she has developed an intriguing account of sex-gender in her piece Rethinking Sex and Gender.
Delphy finds fault with the unstated presumption that feminist theory has been based on: that sex precedes gender in a way that constitutes the coatrack model—sex is precultural and gender ‘arises’ from it. Delphy considers this wrongheaded:
What should have happened, however, is that recognising the independence of the genders from the sexes should have led us to question whether gender is in fact independent of sex. But this question has not been asked. For most authors, the issue of the relationship between sex and gender is simply ‘what sort of social classification does sex give rise to? Is it strong or weak, equal or unequal?’ What they never ask is why sex should give rise to any sort of social classification. Even the neutral question ‘we have here two variables, two distributions, which coincide totally. How can we explain this covariance?’ does not get considered.
She examines the possibilities for the relationship between sex and gender and concludes that the only logical and empirically supported one is that gender precedes sex, using sex as the “mark of difference” to create and maintain hierarchy:
That gender precedes sex: that sex itself simply marks a social division; that it serves to allow social recognition and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated. That is, that sex is a sign, but that since it does not distinguish just any old thing from anything else, and does not distinguish equivalent things but rather important and unequal things it has historically acquired a symbolic value.
She notes that this construction of sex requires several social acts; that the biological properties that constitute the social marker of sex must be dichotomized and flattened to a single property in order to create a sexual binary:
The marker is not found in a pure state, all ready for use. As Hurtig and Pichevin (1986) have shown, biologists see sex as made up of several indicators which are more or less correlated one with another, and the majority are continuous variables (occurring in varying degrees). So in order for sex to be used as a dichotomous classification, the indicators have to be reduced to just one. And as Hurtig and Pichevin (1985) also say, this reduction ‘is a social act’
Her analysis leads to an inevitable conclusion: that gender must be abolished. It is a logical consequence of the feminist project, a necessary consequence as such:
All feminists reject the sex/gender hierarchy, but very few are ready to admit that the logical consequence of this rejection is a refusal of sex roles, and the disappearance of gender. Feminists seem to want to abolish hierarchy and even sex roles, but not difference itself. They want to abolish the contents but not the container. They all want to keep some elements of gender. Some want to keep more, others less, but at the very least they want to maintain the classification. Very few indeed are happy to contemplate there being simple anatomical sexual differences which are not given any social significance or symbolic value. Suddenly the categories they use for analysis, which elsewhere clearly distinguish those who think difference comes first and hierarchy afterwards from those who think the contents of the divided groups are the product of the hierarchical division, become muzzy, and the divergence between the two schools fades away.
The second bolded section brings us to Delphy’s final point (and will spring us into the next discussion): that hierarchy precedes division. It is not that we divide humans into “males” and “females”, note their properties and then erect a hierarchy of “male” over “female”, it is that hierarchy comes first. This reanalysis, for Delphy, has two important consequences. First, that it is not possible to think of a society where women are “lifted up” to the social role of men, for this implies that all of society can become dominant:
One can no more conceive of a society where everyone is ‘dominant’ than of one where everyone is ‘richer’.
Second, she notes that the feminist project cannot aim for, like some cultural feminists like Mary Daly have advocated for, a society based on “feminine values” or “feminine virtues”; the entire concept of femininity is premised on hierarchy, constructed and constituted by hierarchy:
It is also not possible to imagine the values of a future egalitarian society as being the sum, or a combination, of existing masculine and feminine values, for these values were created in and by hierarchy. So how could they survive the end of hierarchy?
Colette Guillamin is a French sociologist renowned for her work on the relation and construction of race and sex. Her extensive work throughout the late 1900s is collected in an anthology called Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. For the sake of space, I’ll primarily be quoting Danielle Juteau-Lee’s summary-introduction to the anthology, in which she explains Guillamin’s theoretical turns and arguments. Her argument(s) for the construction of race and sex have a common strand.
First, we must question the idea that there is a non-situated “nature” inside of which social categories “pop out” for social appropriation:
Those who talk about the natural specificity of the ‘races’, of the sexes and of other social groups are in fact saying that a specific nature produces social practices. This amounts, as she reminds us, to a substantialism, a pseudo-materialism, a material and not a materialist position; the properties attributed to matter ‘arise not as consequences of the relations which the material form maintains with its universe and its history…but actually as characteristics intrinsically symbolic of matter itself
Guillaumin uses historical analysis to isolate the particular ideological formulations and processes that lead to these type of beliefs, and performs one of her famous “reversals”. It is not because of the “nature” of a social category that the members of that category, and the category itself, are socially appropriated – a “nature” is attributed to social categories (like races and sexes) because they are appropriated. This reversal is important: it is essential to materialist analysis.
Guillaumin emphasizes that the allocation of individuals into racial [and sexual] categories can only occur once they have been socially constituted and naturalized. Once constituted, these categories must be identified; marks, arbitrary marks, will then be chosen. The choice of a signifier follows the establishment of social categories; and, as we will see, it is precisely because there exists a social category that the signifier is operative.
For Guillaumin, the way that the signifier comes to operate and the temporality and direction of causality between the social category and its signifiers are very important things to note. That there exist average differences between social categories on social, biological, or other traits does not itself naturalize social groups, it is a particular socio-historical process that naturalizes the groups by turning traits into signifiers:
No one denies the existence of somatic, biological (in the case of the sexes) and phenotypical differences between human beings. Nor does anyone deny that skin colour exists and cannot be removed. But choice of a signifier does not happen haphazardly. The fact that skin colour [and sexual anatomy] and not eye colour, shape of ears or length of feet are usually used as signifiers in our society is explainable; it results from the conjunctural association between an economic relationship and physical attributes.
She reverses the typical theorized relationship again:
Another reversal is effected here by Guillaumin, between the signifier and the position occupied in a given system; it is not because your skin is black that you were enslaved, that you became a slave, but because you were a slave that you became black or more precisely that colour becomes significant.
Guillaumin’s specific theoretical current of feminism can be distinguished from its historical influencing antecedents: radical feminism and Marxist feminism.
Radical feminism emphasizes the fundamental opposition between men and women, the central oppression of women qua women. All men, irrespective of class or ‘race’, benefit, though in different ways, from a system of domination where women are economically, politically, legally and culturally subordinated to men. Radical feminists recognize the existence of ‘sex’-gender relations that are socially constructed mainly within the family, and suggest different interpretations as to their basis
Walby points out that, for Marxists, gender inequality
derives from capitalism and is not to be constituted as an independent
system of patriarchy, since men’s domination over women is a byproduct of capital’s domination over labour. Marxist feminism usually limited its materialism to the economic and the economic to relations constitutive of capitalist social classes, i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; consequently it usually located gender in the ideological instance and affirmed that gender inequality derived from capitalism and benefited capitalist
Her work is of the utmost importance and is a fantastic start for any feminist theorization on sex, so I recommend reading the introduction here.
Stevi Jackson is renowned for her recent revival of materialist feminism with her in-depth analyses of gender, sexuality and the networks between them in her extensive sociological work on the topic. Her 2001 article ‘Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary‘ revisits Christine Delphy’s aforementioned essay and reminisces over the history of the relation between Marxist feminism and materialist feminism. She summarily explains her view:
At the level of social structure gender is a hierarchical relation, constitutive of social men and social women, sustained through divisions of labour and other means, notably the heterosexual marriage contract. Here, gender intersects with institutionalised heterosexuality, bolstered by law, the state, and social convention. The institution of heterosexuality is inherently gendered; it rests upon the assumed normality of specific forms of social and sexual relations between women and men. Gender is also constructed at the level of meaning, through the cultural distinction between women and men, the unspoken and taken-for granted means by which we embody and recognise each other as women or as men as well as the more overt norms of appropriate femininity and masculinity. Sexuality is socially constructed at the level of meaning through its constitution as the object of discourse and through the specific discourses on the sexual in circulation at any historical moment; these discourses serve to define what is sexual, to differentiate the “perverse” from the “normal” and to delimit appropriately masculine and feminine forms of sexuality. However, meaning is also deployed within and emergent from social interaction, and hence finds its expression at yet another level—that of our everyday social practices, through which each of us negotiates and makes sense of our own gendered and sexual lives. Here, too, gender and sexuality are constantly in the process of being constructed and reconstructed, enacted and reenacted, within specific social contexts and relationships. Gender and sexuality are thus socially constructed by what embodied individuals actually do. Finally, sexuality and gender are socially constructed at the level of subjectivity, through complex social and cultural process by which we acquire sexual and gendered desires and identities.
This intervention here has come to me time and time again throughout my reading of the debates over sex and gender: fundamentally there are disconnects between the people who isolate their analysis to one portion of the network of gender concepts.
In a 2017 article with her often-coauthor Sue Scott, she explains her opinions on the “trans issue” by recounting the history of sociological analysis of gender:
The concept of gender has developed via a number of perspectives (Jackson and Scott 2000). Early research on intersex and ‘transexualism’ provided a basis for de-coupling sociocultural gender from biological ‘sex’ and ultimately for questioning the binary itself. A significant piece of sociological work on this issue was Garfinkel’s 1967 essay on Agnes, which made it possible to explore more fully gender as social rather than natural.
They point out that in contrast to many, sociological perspectives don’t presume a particular model of gender and then exclude trans people on that basis, but use the existence of trans people as a foundation for a critique:
In academic circles, however, it is widely assumed that those whose bodies do not match this dichotomous classification, or who cross gender boundaries or who bend or blend definitions of gender, have something to teach us about the ways in which gender is constructed and its significance within contemporary society and culture. This issue has been approached from a number of different feminist sociological perspectives and the importance of thinking about how the binary itself works has been crucial to most of them.
Jackson and Scott repeat the mainstream feminist view that womanhood is not constituted by biology, a single characteristic or a cluster of them, but is embodied culturally and socially:
The notion of who is a ‘real’ woman is at the heart of the recent controversies. It is important not to define womanhood as biological though it clearly is embodied and embodied differently by cis and trans women, not least because the later often undergo complex medical procedures. We should not deny trans women their status as women on the basis of biology. Appealing to the body as a site of authentic womanhood not only risks a slide into essentialism, thus undermining the radical promise of the concept of gender, but also risks homogenizing (cis) women who do not all experience their bodies in the same way.
Emphasizing the feminist result that womanhood is a social construct, they offer a poignant critique of the idea of ‘real womanhood’:
We would suggest that arguing about who is as ‘real’ woman is to look at the issue from the wrong end. If we take gender seriously, think about it sociologically, then no one is a ‘real’ woman – there is no such thing as ‘real’ womanhood, because it is in itself a social construct. Moreover there is a huge variation in what it means to be male or female and in the lived experience of such. Nonetheless, there is a difference between staying with the gender assigned at birth and changing that gender. So what difference does this biographical difference make?
This article is specifically for the purpose of describing the various positions that individuals take, or could take, on sex, gender and the relationship between them. I am not endorsing any particular position in here (as I’m undecided between a number of these), but I cannot avoid some level of bias, which I hope that I have minimized by sharing this article for feedback.
Obviously, these are tough binaries to erect. They are not the most coherent, and there are numerous positions that fall between or outside of each of the binaries. I don’t intend this article to be an exhaustive list of all the theories of sex and gender that exist; just a quick exposition of the most common positions in each category, specifically for the purpose of using these distinctions of helping us understanding ongoing disputes.
Even more, there are numerous distinctions in the feminist analytical philosophy literature that could be expounded upon here, but these distinctions are largely irrelevant to the broad positions that individuals in the public sphere take.
If you’ve ever walked into or happened upon a discussion on the meaning of “woman”, “gender” or “sex”, especially on the internet, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s a debate over how trans people ought to be considered. Beyond the semantic (which, of course, is not unimportant) disputes over whether trans men are men / trans women are women, there are deep theoretical divides over the referents and meanings of the words throughout the debate. Since there is a lot of very theory-specific terminology, I thought it might be useful to sketch out some taxonomies for the positions within this dispute.
Gender, of course, is one of the concepts under the most contest. This contest over the meaning of gender and the members of gender categories has extended into many other domains, so it’s best to start here.
Gender obviously does not refer simply to one particular concept; there are a number of related surrounding concepts (all linked through polysemy). Note that the definitions I give below are not the only definitions and should not be taken as final. They are simply the definitions that I’ve reconstructed from large amounts of discourse and reading on this topic; there are, of course, numerous other definitions one could offer up.
Gender norms are taken to be the social norms that society dictates members of a particular gender (or sex on some construals) ought to exhibit.
Gender stereotypes are the stereotypes (group generalizations from a subset of individuals to the group as a whole) that society takes to be emblematic of a gender/sex category as a whole.
Gender identity is taken to be a psychological disposition that an individual obtains and expresses outwardly with statements of their self-identity.
Gender expression (also described as gender attribution by Kate Bornstein) is taken to be the clothing, hair, makeup, behaviors and other ‘surface-level’ bodily features that are socially taken to signify membership or disidentification with a particular gender/sex. This relation is understood as culturally mediated.
Gender roles are taken to mean particular social roles (that is a social position in which members of that position have social obligations) that are regulated by variable cultural institutions and that members of a particular gender/sex are ‘directed toward’.
Gender assignment is taken to be the signification of an individual as a member of a particular gender kind; in most instances male/man or female/woman.
Biological gender, in Kate Bornstein’s terms, is constituted by a number of biological properties ranging from body type, chromosomes, hormones, genitals, reproductive characteristics, breasts, body hair, etc. She denotes this as biological gender rather than sex simply because she refuses to give biology primacy over social identity.
Gender simpliciter is variously taken to mean any of the above, but within specific feminist theoretical currents, it is taken to mean ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as constructed norms violently imposed onto men (or males) & women (or females) respectively.
Gender Realism vs Nominalism
One of the traditional divisions within analytical feminist philosophy-feminist metaphysics and feminist philosophy of gender-is the distinction between “realists” about gender and “nominalists” about gender. These terms have different meanings in other fields of philosophy, and of course in online discourse, so I’ll give a brief overview.
Gender realism is the thesis that there is a single “womanness” that unites all women; there is a single “essence” that each woman obtains and can be identified by. This position is also known as “gender essentialism” (which has distinct meanings in other aspects of the debate, as well) and “neo-gender realism”. Advocates of this position are typically motivated by a profound political motivation for uniting the category of womanhood for feminist purposes; the common adage goes along the lines of ‘one needs to be able to identify women in order to advocate/fight for them’.
Modern advocates of this position within philosophy are: Mari Mikkola, Charlotte Witt, Sally Haslanger.
Gender nominalism is the position that there is not a single essence or attribute that unites “womanhood” as a single category. There are several motivations for this position, but the reason it has become a near consensus view within feminist philosophy is because of the “essentialism critique”; that to posit a single attribute that unites women is to essentialize the construct, as well as exclude paradigmatic examples of women.
Modern advocates of this position within philosophy are: Elizabeth Spelman, Natalie Stoljar
Internalism vs Externalism
One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate is misunderstanding between parties over what they (and the other party) believes the term ‘woman’ to refer to. I believe there are about three main positions within this dispute, but first: a taxonomy.
Robin Dembroff’s recent article on the philosophy of “genderqueer” identified a particular divide within the literature: internalism vs externalism. They used this division to help demarcate the different ways one can define gender kinds, as well as to perform a critique of the current options.
Internalism here was taken to mean that an “internal feature” of a person individuates them as a member of a particular gender kind (woman, man, genderqueer), whereas externalism means that an external feature of a person individuates them as a member of a particular gender kind.
Some of the individuals that advocate for an internalist approach to gender terms are: Katherine Jenkins, Jennifer Saul, and Jennifer McKitrick. Some examples of these are described below in the individuating properties section, under “internal psychological dispositions”
Some of the philosophers that advocate for an externalist approach to gender terms are: Sally Haslanger and Ásta Sveinsdóttir. Some of the examples of such definitions are described below in the individuating properties section, under “external social properties”.
As described above, the position typically denoted as “realism” within the philosophy of gender is one taken to state that genders have “essences”; a single property that unites all members of that gender kind and can be used to identify them. It’s also commonly referred to as “essentialism”, for there is one property/trait that unites the members of the gender kind.
Note that there are other understandings of essentialism that are more broad: include more positions. This is the understanding that I’ve seen most consistently throughout philosophical literature.
There are four types of essentialisms here: biological, metaphysical, social and psychological.
Biological essentialism (often described as biologism) is the thesis that a single biological property individuates women/men. This is typically taken by laypeople to be genitalia, chromosomes or gonads. This can be expressed as the formulation, for example:
Agent A is a woman iff A has XX chromosomes.
In the case of cluster accounts, consider the claim:
Agent A is a female iff they obtain a sufficient number of female biological attributes.
Then, the position:
Agent A is a woman iff they are a female
is an essentialist one.
And accounts such as:
Agent A is a woman iff they have an endogenously produced female reproductive form
also appeal to a qualified, but still essentialist, core property P.
Correspondingly, metaphysical essentialism entails that:
Agent A is a woman iff A has a womanly soul.
Social essentialism, for example, can mean:
Agent A is a woman iff A stands in a relation of sexual subordination to men
And finally psychological essentialism could be either (non-exhaustively) of these two theses:
Agent A is a woman iff A has a feminine gender identity
Agent A is a woman iff A exhibits feminine gender properties
Note, the last position is not strictly essentialist in the sense denoted above, as it does not directly posit an “essence” necessary for womanhood, but rather a vague set of “feminine gender properties”. This can easily be modified as such:
Take “a feminine person” to denote someone whose gender properties mark them as more feminine than not. Then:
Agent A is a woman iff A is a feminine person.
Note that I’m not aware of anyone within feminist philosophy who holds any of these positions (bar the social essentialism one), so these are solely examples.
Beyond the division carved out in the last section, there are disputes over what properties people can obtain that distinguish them as a “woman” vs a “man” vs another gender.
Here, I see three main categories/groups of positions on this topic: those who think biological properties individuate gender kinds, those who thinks external social properties individuate gender kinds, and those who believe that internal psychological dispositions individuate gender kinds. In short, these are the biological, social and psychological approaches to gender.
Those who believe gender is biological hold that there are certain biological properties that one must have in order to be considered a woman or a man. These are typically surrounding features like chromosomes, genitalia, gonads, gametes and other so-called ‘sex characteristics’. I am not currently aware of any philosophers within analytic philosophy who hold this position. Linda Nicholson has alternatively termed this position “biological foundationalism”: she considers it as a position very close to, but subtly distinct from biological determinism.
Agent A is a woman iff A has at least 2 of the following properties:
1) XX chromosomes
2) A vagina
3) A uterus
Agent A is a woman iff A closely resembles in terms of biological properties the paradigmatic case of womanhood W.
Those who hold that gender is constituted by social properties believe that being in a particular social position constitutes one as a “man”, “woman” or other. This can mean being subordinated based on perceived features of an individual, a relational meaning in terms of particular social institutions, and other related social properties. Some of the philosophers that hold these positions are those described above; Sally Haslanger, Monique Wittig, etc.
Agent A is a woman iff A is subordinated on the basis of A’s perceived physiological features that socially connotes A as a member of a particular sex
Agent A is a woman iff A is subordinated on the basis of their relationship to the institution of heterosexuality.
And finally, those who hold that gender is constituted by internal psychological features. These theorists are profoundly aware of the problems with biological and social accounts of having misspecified extensions, and wish to provide an account that avoids these problems. As such, they typically appeal to psychological properties such as dispositions and relationalities between the individual and society.
Agent A is a woman iff A’s internal ‘map’ is formed to guide someone classed as a woman through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of woman in the class sense
Where ‘woman in the class sense’ refers to one of the subordination definitions above.
Agent A is a woman iff A considers gender norms P, Q, etc, that are culturally associated with ‘womanhood’ as applicable to them.
There are, of course, a number of alternative positions available.
Structuralist vs Anti-Structuralist
Yet another distinction made within the literature over gender refers to the how philosophers think that certain gender kinds are constituted. This is referred to by Matthew Cull as the “structuralist” vs “anti-structuralist” distinction. When philosophers talk about gender, they typically do so in two ways.
Analytic philosophers tend to give hyperspecified definitions that can be used exactly to denote who is and is not a member of a gender kind. This is the ‘structuralist position’, as it entails that the ‘logical structure’ of gender can be specified. Structuralists about gender believe that there is a specific way genders are constituted and defined that allows for easy extension; gender is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance, gender is a resemblance class, that gender is constituted by a homeostatic cluster of properties. Prominent structuralists about gender are: Natalie Stoljar, Cressida Heyes.
On the other hand, anti-structuralists about gender deny that there exists a logical structure of gender (either at all, or that if it exists, we cannot access it). They claim that we are able to say something about the mechanisms that construct or constitute gender/are constructed & constituted by gender-social outcomes, regulatory norms, etc-but that the actual individuating properties that allow us to declare that “A is a woman” in some way, don’t actually exist, are inaccessible or that specifying them would be socially harmful. This is not to say that “women” do not exist, or that feminism is a hopeless endeavour, but is a specific claim about the impossibility of locating/identifying the makeup of gender itself, instead analyzing its effects. Prominent anti-structuralists include Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, and Weston Richey also seems to lean toward this position.
Eliminativism, Reformism and Preservationism
Another debate about “gender” is over whether we ought (in the moral sense) to eliminate, or abolish it. Gender, or some forms thereof, is seen by the vast majority of feminists as undesirable in many ways, whether for its defining characteristics, its harmful outcomes, or the social structures it generates.
Here it is important to revisit a distinction made earlier: the billions of partitions of gender into little tiny aspects with different purposes in feminist theory; gender roles, gender norms, gender stereotypes, gender expression, etc.
Obviously any feminist worth their salt is going to want to abolish, or at the very least loosen, some of those. I can’t think of a feminist that I know that doesn’t want to abolish/loosen gender roles, norms and stereotypes. I know I am an ardent advocate of the position that gender roles, norms and stereotypes should be absolutely abolished in every sense of the word (more on this later), but some feminists I know are more ‘defeatist’/’pragmatist’ in that they think normal cognitive processes will generate associations between particular sex-genders and social-psychological-behavioral attributes, but wish to make it so that these associations are less normative, rigid and ‘natural’. This position is known as reformism.
These feminists-the ones who want to ‘reform’ but retain forms of gender-can be termed ‘gender reformists’, while those like me who wish to abolish gender can be termed ‘gender eliminativists’, and reactionaries that are fine with the current state of affairs can be termed ‘gender preservationists’. It is obvious that one can be an eliminativist about one type of gender (as in the taxonomy above), but not another. One can wish to abolish gender roles and gender stereotypes, but preserve gender identity and gender norms as unfortunately inevitable in some way.
So, here, we should denote what it means to be an eliminativist, preservationist or reformist about something:
A position P is eliminativist about gender type T iff P entails the elimination/abolition of gender type T.
A position P is preservationist about gender type T iff P entails the preservation of gender type T as substantially similar to the way that it exists in our current world.
A position P is reformist about gender type T iff P entails the modification/reformation of gender type T from the way it exists in our current world to a state in which it does not generate social ills
So to be eliminativist about gender roles and reformist about gender identity is perfectly compatible, at least theoretically.
Philosophers who are eliminativists in some sense are Monique Wittig, Sally Haslanger, Eloy LaBrada, while philosophers such as Mari Mikkola, Katherine Jenkins and Cressida Heyes are reformists/preservationists in some sense.
Extensionalism vs Intensionalism
One difference between some ‘camps’ in the gender debate is how one comes to formulate their concept of gender, and the consequences of the extension (that is: who it does or does not apply to) of the gender term.
Some philosophers wish to use ‘woman’ to refer to everyone that is socially considered a woman or ought to be, at least in some contexts. This approach starts from a prespecified group of women, and then works backwards to analyze the constitution of womanhood. I’ll call this approach the intensionalist approach, as it begins with the extension to identify the intension. In this camp, I would put Katherine Jenkins, Talia Mae Bettcher, Jennifer McKitrick, Weston Richey and Robin Dembroff.
Other philosophers start with a prespecified meaning of womanhood; often derived from pre-existing social/linguistics meanings or theoretical concerns, and then considers who their concept of womanhood ‘applies to’; the extension. I call this camp the extensionalists for that reason. In this camp, I’ve identified Monique Wittig and Sally Haslanger.
‘Woman’ As A Gender Term?
Another dispute is over the referent of the term ‘woman’. Some believe that to be a woman means to be ‘an adult human female’, as some dictionaries specify. Others, mostly feminists, hold that to be a woman means to have some social, psychological or other properties, as described above. As Mari Mikkola puts it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors”.
I’ll refer to the first position, that ‘woman = adult human female’ where ‘female’ is understood as biological sex, as ‘woman as sex’, while I’ll refer to the second position, that ‘woman = some social position/role’, as ‘woman as gender’.
As I noted above, most feminists hold that “woman” is a social role, like the aforementioned Mari Mikkola, as well as Sally Haslanger and Ásta Sveinsdóttir. I’m not aware of any academic feminist philosophers who hold to the ‘woman as sex’ position, but it’s a position that I’ve commonly encountered online as a form of naive appeals to the dictionary.
Here we can finally introduce the concept of ‘sex’, to which the dispute over gender has increasingly extended.
Sex is somewhat less controversial in that it is more agreed that ‘sex’ has something to do with biological properties, but even this view has been contested. The typical ‘dictionary’/’biology class’ notion of sex that one is introduced to is the view that ‘sex’ is composed of a set of related ‘sex traits’ divided into two categories: primary sex characteristics and secondary sex characteristics.
Primary sex characteristics are typically taken to include (exhaustively): genitalia, chromosomes, gonads [and other reproductive organs], gamete production and hormones.
Secondary sex characteristics are typically taken to include (non-exhaustively): breasts, body fat composition, absence/presence of facial/body hair, voice, etc.
I won’t go into any more detail here about the composition, constitution and construction of the sex concept (this is the topic for another article) other than to say that many authors like Marie-Claude Hurtig and Marie-France Pichevin argue that because biologists, sexologists and anatomists see ‘sex’ as composed of a number of traits (described above) that can be ‘mismatched’ & themselves don’t fit perfectly into binaries, that the process by which sex becomes binary (i.e. the reduction of those traits to a single one) is itself a social act.
Gender and/vs/or Sex
Now that we’ve mapped out all of the terminology in these debates, we should discuss the relationship between gender and sex & the varying positions taken on this question.
One position that I consider naive is the one that holds that ‘sex’ refers to reproductive form (of some kind) and that gender (as masculinity and femininity) is then imposed (typically structurally violently) onto the presupposed body (like a coat [gender] onto the coat-rack [sex]). This was the view of authors like Anne Oakley (until the 90s), Gayle Rubin (on some readings), and Sally Haslanger.
Another position holds that gender itself is a system of domination and that ‘sex’ is a post hoc justification for this system of domination; physiology comes to mark individuals in order for the distinction between members of ‘sexes’ to become salient, so that domination can occur. Proponents believe that rather than sex preceding gender such that gender can be ‘laid upon’ sex (as in the coat-rack model), gender itself precedes and constructs sex. Authors in this vein include Monique Wittig, Nicole-Claude Mathieu, Christine Delphy and Colette Guillaumin.
Another position makes use of the extensive distinction between the different ‘parts and parcels’ of gender delineated above to specify the relation between each ‘part’ with sex & one another. Gender roles are understood as being historically contingent social institutions based on physiological sex, whereas gender norms and stereotypes become embedded into cultural phenomena and consciousness following the association of specific behavioral and psychological traits with a particular sex. Gender assignment [sometimes used equivalently with sex assignment] is used to understand the cross-cultural variation in the ways that gender categories operate; particularly in the ethnographic and anthropological literature. Gender expression is understood as the signification of various associations of clothing, bodily organizations, etc with gender classes that is then embodied into gender norms. This model is detailed and seems to undergird (along with slight variations) large bodies of sociological, anthropological, historical and activist literature on gender.
Gender has alternatively been understood as the cultural schemata that regulate bodies into sexed categories (termed sexes in the case of biology); whether of behavior, biology, or so on. This position has been taken by Jennifer Germon, Suzanne J. Kessler, Wendy McKenna, and Joan Scott, but is very closely related to the position demarcated above.
Increasingly popular following various critiques in the 80s and 90s is the decision to ‘deflate’ gender and sex into a single construct. The gender/sex distinction is seen as a contingent relic of a particular historical mode of thought; an outgrowth of Western metaphysics that highlights mind/body, culture/nature, social/biological, nurture/nature distinctions as the center of analysis itself. Feminists who reject these distinctions see the necessary consequence as the deflation of the sex-gender distinction and the amalgamation of the terms into ‘sex-gender’, ‘gender-sex’, ‘sex/gender’, etc. This position has been increasingly taken by feminist scientists like Rebecca Jordan-Young, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Sari van Anders, as well as philosophers like Shelly Ortner, Raia Prokhonvik, Toril Moi, and even further by feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Moira Gatens.
How The Sex Binary Is Articulated
There are a few positions that feminists take with respect to whether the concept we call ‘sex’ is to be considered a binary by nature, that it’s constituted by nonbinary biology socially forced into binary paradigms, or if it’s a social concept in and of itself that is signified by biological signs. One can isolate two trends in these tripartite taxonomy; authors who believe sex is naturally binary vs authors who believe it is naturally nonbinary, and authors who take sex as biologically grounded vs authors who believe sex is socially constructed. This is not closely delineated in the tripartite description given below, but can be reconstructed.
The first position aligns with that of the general populace; there are ‘two sexes’, correspondingly to two reproductive forms, two gametes, two genitalia, etc. This binary is considered to have ‘errors’ or ‘deviations’ that are embodied by various developmental ‘disorders’, which do not reflect on the binary nature of ‘sex’ itself. I’m not aware of any feminist theoreticians who currently hold a position analogous to this, at least not explicitly.
The second position holds that while ‘sex’ may be a biological concept with specific biological constituents, it would be irresponsible and socially harmful to ‘carve nature at its joints’, that is, to force sex to become a binary by some philosophical treatise or game. Biology is understood as prediscursive, but the categories into which biology is ‘carved’ is understood as inherently culturally inflected. This position is perhaps best represented by Anne Fausto-Sterling, as well as authors like Georgiann David and other authors who work on intersex. In the feminist tradition, it is also represented (in a more complicated way) by Ásta Sveinsdóttir.
The third position holds that the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is at best complicated, and at worst incoherent. Gender is typically understood to precede sex so that binary organizations of gender construct binary organizations of sex. Sex is varyingly understood as constituted by social positions (institutionally and structurally), an effect of social matrices that regulate sexed activity, etc, of which biology is post factum used to identify individuals for social oppression. This position is most commonly held by a number of feminists in the materialist feminist tradition (originally in France) like Monique Wittig, Colette Guillaumin and Christine Delphy.
Another position that I have yet to read and understand comprehensively is put forth in “Gender: Genealogy of an Idea” by Jennifer Germon.
The Question of Constructionism
One of the biggest, perhaps, ‘buzzwords’ we’ve seen in the discourse is that of ‘constructionism’ and ‘realism’. These are typically counterposed to one another, such that a constructionist believes that ‘sex’ (or some other concept) doesn’t actually exist in reality, while realists think that it does. This is a mistaken understanding of both ‘realism’, constructionism and the positions that people are taking in these debates.
Constructionism in most fields of philosophy is understood as the position that a certain concept, object, belief, etc is mind-dependent in some way, such that the concept, object, belief, etc exists contingent on a single or group of people’s attitudes, beliefs and/or dispositions. A clearer and more detailed exposition of what philosophers mean when they call something a construct can be found in Ian Haacking’s The Social Construction of What? and Sally Haslanger’s various articles and books (see Resisting Reality, Gender and Social Construction: Who? What? When Where? How? and her recent and very relevant book chapter The Sex/Gender Distinction and the Social Construction of Reality and the taxonomy given in her article Ontology and Social Construction). In any case, constructionists about sex typically believe that sex is constructed in one of two ways (although there are others): 1) by the medical refiguration of genitalia and bodies of intersex individuals, forcing bodies to conform to a binary norm, and 2) as the outcome of a heterosexualist society in which maleness and femaleness are inherently connected to a dominant oppressive apparatus of heterosexuality.
It is important to note here that to claim that something is constructed remains agnostic about what is constructed out of; it is possible that the constituents of a particular concept are genetic, biological, etc, but that the particular way in which the constituents compose the concept or the fact that they do at all, is a cultural result.
Some advocates for (some variant of) constructionism about sex are: Monique Wittig, Judith Butler and Ásta Sveinsdóttir.
Realism in most fields of philosophy entails the claim that the existence of a particular concept is mind-independent. For instance, moral realism is the claim that moral facts exist independently of anyone’s beliefs, attitudes or dispositions. Realism about sex would entail that ‘males’ and ‘females’ are transhistorical categories that have and will exist so long as the criterion for instantiating them are satisfied (that is typically some set of biological properties).
There don’t seem to be any clear exponents of realism about sex in the feminist, social ontology or sociology literatures, but realism about sex seems to undergird a number of the sex/gender distinctions put forth, which are held by quite a number of feminists.
Now, for the actual meat of the conversation: trans people. This debate is first and foremost about what sex-genders trans people ought to be considered as; whether trans women ought to be considered “men” or “women”, trans men as “women” or “men”, and so on. There are really three configurations to this discussion:
1) Trans women are women, trans men are men, trans women are female, trans men are female.
There are a number of ways that people reach these conclusions, either by collapsing the sex-gender distinction (see above), by particular construals of “female” (perhaps exclusive of some trans women, but not all).
2) Trans women are women, but male. Trans men are men, but male.
On this view, there is typically a distinction between sex and gender; “woman” is a gender term, while “male” is a sex term. Trans women are of the “woman” gender, but of the “male” sex. Advocates typically ground these positions in the “woman as social role/position” belief described above.
3) Trans women are men and male, trans men are women and female.
This position is usually advocated by those who hold to the non-feminist position combining “woman=adult human female” and the position that womanhood/femaleness are grounded in biological properties.
These distinctions are not clearly made within the literature, but it seems that any one of the three is compatible with just about any combination of the aforementioned views, so it is nominally up in the air as to what position vis a vis 1 or 2 particular pro-trans feminist authors are holding.
References and Further Reading
Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. New
Cull, Matthew (2016). Anti-Essentialism about Gender: Realist, Constructionist, or Error Theoretical?
Dembroff, Robin (2018). Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind. Manuscript.
Gaten, Moira, (1983), ‘A Critique of the Sex/gender Distinction’, in Allen, J. and Patton, P. (eds), Beyond Marxism? Interventions After Marx, NSW: Intervention Publishers.
George, B.R. 2016. What even is gender? Manuscript, CMU.
Haslanger, Sally. (2012). Resisting reality: Social construction and social critique. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heyes, Cressida J. 2000. Line drawings: Defining women through feminist practice. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.
Jenkins, K. (2016). Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman. Ethics 126(2): 394-421.
Jenkins, Katharine (2018). Toward an Account of Gender Identity. Ergo, 5(27), 713–744.
LaBrada, Eloy F., (2017). Debating Gender Eliminativism in Feminist Metaphysics (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Alberta.
Prokhovnik, R. (1999). Rational woman: A feminist critique of dichotomy. New York: Routledge
Spelman, Elizabeth, (1988). Inessential woman. Boston: Beacon Press
Stoljar, Natalie, (2011). Different women: Gender and the realism-nominalism debate. In Feminist metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt. New York: Springer.
Sveinsdóttir, Á. K. (2011). “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender”. In
Feminist Metaphysics: Explorations in the Ontology of Sex, Gender and
the Self, Charlotte Witt (ed.). Springer.
Wittig, M. (1992). “One Is Not Born a Woman”. In The Straight Mind and
Other Essays. Beacon Press
If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably realized that I’m not one of those people who likes to go around stating unproblematically that transness is “inborn” or due to “nature”. If you’ve ever read my Twitter account, this becomes even more clear that I dislike ‘innate-ness’ explanations.
So when there’s a person going around reddit posting some “masterpost” of how trans identity is biological, it’s sure to arouse some suspicion in me. In my previous post, I addressed the political, scientific and sociological aspects of “brainsex” within trans politics. But the “neuro”-origin myths about being trans are not the only ones that exist: There are also the hormonal ones & the genetic ones. “Biotroofs” are present in all sorts of manners, trying to inscribe identity, lived experience & group differences to various aspects of the body.
Not One, But Two?
One of the most common appeals is to mythical “genes”. Milton Diamond’s paper (forgive the constant misgendering) is especially famous for this, as he examined trans identity among twins. The problem with his study is that not only did he calculate heritability coefficients by using the MZ (monozygotic – identical twins) and DZ (dizygotic – fraternal twins) data that he collected, but he uses a scientific methodology that has been torn to pieces.
For those not acquainted with twin studies, they are a methodology originally created by Francis Galton to ‘determine’ the relative contributions of ‘genetics’ and ‘environment’ to his measures of intelligence. Essentially, they compare the similarity among MZ twins (their concordance rate) and their similarity among DZ twins (their concordance rate) and use that to estimate the genetic contribution. The typical model for this study involves the analysis of variances. Variance, V, of the population is presumed to be a combination of the variances in genes & environments; V=G+E. The way to calculate “G” and “E” was like this: we assume that the variances of twin phenotypes is simply the addition of genes and environment. Monozygotic twins, by virtue of sharing all their genes, had their correlation . Dizygotic twins had the equation because they shared only half of their genes. Solving the set of simultaneously equations yields , so .
This is the original model that psychologists and eugenicists used in the early 1900s, but it has since been the subject of numerous critiques and some advancements. Notably, it has been noted that the “environment” is typically divided into two parts: shared environment (anything that makes twins more similar) and non-shared environment (anything that makes twins less similar). Researchers have also noted the interaction of genes and environment: a gene that “codes” for a particular phenotype may only do so in the presence of an environmental influence. This is typically denoted by GxE and has been the subject of a burgeoning literature, alongside statistical problems. It has been centered within the discussion of the controversial MAOA gene, allegedly* demonstrating that the gene only affects mental health outcomes in the presence of abusive environments.
While twin studies have been one of the most-used paradigms within the ‘heritability study’ scheme because they claim to be able to partition genes and environment, they have been subject to extensive critiques due to their inability to adequately control for confounds, as well as their uselessness in isolating the specific origins of a particular phenotype. Contrary to popular belief, the effects of genes and environment are not separable. As Lickliter so succinctly describes the heritability study methods, it is a fallacy of partitioning. Or as my friend always puts it “development doesn’t work that way“.
Beyond the conceptual disputes over what a heritability statistic means, there are some relevant biases that twin studies face. Most notably is known as the “equal environment assumption”. The equal environment assumption (or EEA) states that MZ twins and DZ twins share equal correlations in environment (i.e. that the environment will be no more similar for MZ twins than DZ twins). We have substantial reasons to believe that this is untrue, however. As a 2001 paper pointed out, one can potentially explain the entire difference in concordance rates between monozygotic twins and dizygotic twins by environmental similarity.
If we again review Diamond’s ‘transsexual twin’ study, we can note a few things. First: that he strangely refused to calculate the heritability statistic (from the naive traditional twin model), which from his Table 3, would be for ‘males’ and for ‘females’, from the bibliographic search. From Table 4, the survey search demonstrates for ‘males’, for ‘females’. And from Table 5, the overall aggregated data implies for ‘males’ and . Interestingly, when we go to calculate the “shared environment” contribution to the phenotype, we get a model violation: , which for ‘males’ is and for ‘females’ is . The ACE model described above does not permit for negative contributions, meaning that the computation of the statistic is meaningless. Regardless, if we calculate the ‘non-shared portion’ () we get for ‘males’ and for ‘females’. This would seemingly imply a very large non-shared environment contribution to the trait, but alas the statistic is meaningless. But as many recognize (note that this primer is uncritical of twins reared apart studies that have numerous problems), finding a negative estimate for would imply that either the EEA (equal environments assumption) or NNE (no non-additive effects) are false.
Second: there is another assumption that is almost certain to be violated: random selection & attrition, that is, ascertainment bias. When ‘gathering’ the twin data, especially for such rare identities like being trans, there is a gigantic problem with how data is collected. Because trans people are so rare, the methods that researchers use to identify them are already a huge issue in regular trans research, but in twin research, this problem is compounded: many times. Because twins that are both trans are much more noteworthy (and perhaps, because of the shared identity, the twins could have maintained a closer relationship during adulthood), it is certain that twins that are both trans (i.e. concordant) are more likely to be found by researchers & respond to surveys. This violation of ascertainment bias has been shown to upwardly bias estimates of heritability. Even more, the lack of zygosity testing (i.e. that more similar twins are more likely to consider themselves MZ when they are in actuality DZ) and the circular assumption of zygosity from narratives (i.e. presuming that similarity is a result of genetics and then concluded as such) are two more mechanisms by which the correlations of monozygotic twins are overestimated and dizygotic twins are underestimated.
And, of course, this circles right back to the underlying incoherence of the twin model. Development doesn’t work that way! Peter Taylor has demonstrated at length how underlying developmental heterogeneity invalidates the assumptions of heritability studies, while a review of the research in criminology has sparked a call for their abandonment. What is clear is that the research into the ‘genes’ of trans identity is inherently complex, politically fraught & not going to come to an end any time soon.
It’s Still In The Genes!
Despite the launch of attacks upon twin study methods I’ve alluded to, a careful reader might note that there have been reports of ‘transsexual genes‘ in the news, perhaps rebuking my critical analysis of the twins that Diamond has presented. A closer look, however, will note that it’s part of another failed tool from the hereditarian toolkit: the “candidate gene”. After decades of ‘heritability studies’ purportedly demonstrated that every trait in existence was, in part, genetic, the wave of genomics ushered in a new era of psychologist, geneticist and behavioral scientist alike, all hoping to ‘find the genes’. Their methodology was to identify a ‘locus’ involved in a particular body process. For depression, it was the 5-HTTLPR gene. For various personality traits, it was the DRD4 gene. For aggression, researchers presumed that MAOA gene may be involved. The entire ‘candidate gene’ shtick was nothing but a house of cards, with a recent psychiatric study making waves within genetics communities and the general public alike. Similar null results have been shown for the MAOA gene, and a review of the entire candidate gene literature found nothing but inconsistency and internal contradictions. The minuscule sample sizes (leading to both random and systematic error) for testing effects along with researcher degrees of freedom, p-hacking and publication bias have produced a research environment where non-existent genetic effects have been able to be touted as having large influences.
The paper in question is not much better. Along with the small sample size (N=112, 258), the association detected was only barely significantly at p=0.04. Right under the 0.05 margin. You’ll note that once classified into subgroups of ‘long’ and ‘short’, the difference between the cis & trans groups is entirely insignificant:
The AR genotype, being X-linked, is hemizygous, and thus the comparison undertaken was between short and long genotypes. An independent samples t-test revealed no significant association for the AR gene when sub-classified (p > .05).
I noticed that they had an outlier: a trans individual with 36 CAG repeats, so I did a quick and dirty recomputation without. Following the methodology in the studies I will discuss afterwards, I didn’t calculate the base pairs (as this could artificially inflate significance and because I have yet to hear back from the authors on how to calculate these figures & even more, the following literature doesn’t do so), but rather just the number of repeats (note that this is a rough reconstruction from their Figure 1A).
I performed a basic one-tailed Student’s t-test for the sake of ease and got a t-value of 1.31906 and a p-value of .094307. Thus, the number of repeats between the groups was not significant. My suspicion is that the difference found was an artifact of converting the number of repeats into the number of base pairs. See Appendix B for input data & more information about the calculation.
Fascinatingly, there are not only one, but two subsequent papers disconfirming the link. A 2014 paper in Spain tested all of the purported candidate genes (ERβ, AR, and CYP19A1) in the largest sample size yet (N=915) and found no relationship. The study found marginal significance for repeat length and the CYP19A1 gene, finally completing the “significant” result for the trio. But as all previous and subsequent research has not found any association, it is certainly a spurious result. A 2009 study also tested the purported candidate genes for both trans men and trans women with relatively high sample sizes & failed to replicate the AR & ERβ results from previous research. They also found no associations for any of the testosterone/estrogen-related genes they tested (increasing the total number of candidate genes from previous research). We should also note that other studies purporting to link CAG repeats to reproductive/sex-related phenotypes have come up with contradictions and publication bias. I think this qualifies as a robust falsification of the hypothetical aetiology, at least until the gene people break out GWA and start making more bullshit developmentally-ignorant associations.
From Phrenology to Fingerology
Next-up in the never-ending train of purported biological influences on trans identity are the fingers. One might question the relevance of one’s digits to the seemingly neurologically grounded (at least according to the trans-essentialists!) trans identity, but researchers have ‘shown’ (to use the word lightly since this thesis has been challenged numerous times and the relationship to various gender attributes rarely replicates) that the ratio of one’s second finger to their fourth finger is associated with the prenatal level of testosterone, at least purportedly. This result has been thrown up as “evidence” that trans people’s identities are determinisically caused by prenatal hormone exposure, despite the data being so mixed. Let’s take a look.
After a 2017 study (which was both of little value and performed by a doctor that is known to be harmful to trans people) tested the widely reported, sometimes replicated and sometimes not, relationship between 2D:4D and trans identity, there was a comment on the paper. One was from a set of researchers I trust highly, who performed a meta-analysis on the disparate literature on the topic. They found that trans women had 2D:4D ratios that were significantly more “feminized” in their right-hand, while the difference in the left-hand was not significant (although it’s p-value was marginally above the significance level). Trans men did not have “masculinized” ratios on either of their hands (although the g effect sizes were trending in the ‘correct’ direction). Despite the claims of other papers, it did not seem that measurement method affected the results in the meta-analysis. The heterogeneity among studies, then, seems to result from sampling characteristics (perhaps things like ascertainment bias). Most notably, the results indicated that even in the case that the small positive among trans women’s right-hand was not driven by things like developmental heterogeneity (a correlation produced by the fact that the link between 2D:4D and prenatal androgen exposure is weak in the first place), publication bias, ascertainment bias or other sampling biases, this still indicates an overlap of somewhere from 92-98%. If we frame this in terms of diagnostic accuracy, it would only give 51.7-55.3%, only marginally above the random guess of 50%.
I can already hear people wondering that if I don’t think that transness is biologically inborn, then where do I think that transness arises from? To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very interesting or politically relevant question. Because trans identity is historically and socially contingent and the irrelevance of a ‘biological’/’genetic’ grounding to a trans-affirmative politics, whether or not transness (as formulated by medical gatekeepers) is ‘biological’ just seems like a non-sequitur to every issue facing trans people. As Canguilhem has demonstrated in The Normal and the Pathological, to investigate the cause of something is to pathologize it by casting it as abnormal and need of investigation. Why is it that we have never searched for the cause of cisgenderism, of heterosexuality, of gender-normative behavior? It is precisely because these are norms, the ideal upon which non-cisheteronormative individuals are compared to: to create difference.
Despite the many affirmations that biological explanations are favorable to trans (and LGBQA) people, it’s unclear why this form of biologism would convince anyone. As any cursory engagement with philosophy would tell us, one cannot derive an ought (a moral/normative/ethical/evaluative statement) from a set of is statements (descriptive/empirical statements) alone. Due to this fact, it is quite easy for an anti-trans individual to reject any narrative affirming trans people based solely on vacuous appeals to biological and psychiatric authority (which, of course, ends up reinscribing transmisic oppression). All they have to do is point out that any purported biological influences are not inconsistent with the right-wing’s favorite “mental illness model” (warning: transmisia & homomisia). They could also just deny that a biological grounding of the ever-illusory ‘gender identity’ has any bearing on their privileging of ‘sex’ based on ontological or normative grounds. This realization that a trans-affirmationist politics cannot be based solely on empirical results helps us question the relevance of these findings overall: if the efficacy of the research in debates inevitably reduces to an ontological, ethical and metaphysical debate, why not just start there in the first place?
Now that I’ve avoided presenting my model of gender identity long enough, I’ll release the pressure. For a long time, I just ignored any ‘model’ of gender identity since I didn’t (and still really don’t) believe it’s a coherent, unitary or separable construct. Despite my persistent concerns, it may be better to adopt a tenuous model: one that can be deployed only for those who are insistent that we have to have some idea of where gender identity comes from. One of my favorite authors is Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist, feminist & gender studies scholar (she is also known as a leading expert on the development of gender identity!). She is most renowned for her oft-cited book Sexing the Body. In her 2008 work, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, she analyzes the evidence as to what biological factors are associated with gender identity development. She concludes that chromosomes, gonads, reproductive organs, genitalia, prenatal & pubertal hormones do not have much, if any, evidence for a causal influence on gender identity. After reviewing the psychological literature on gender identity formation in early childhood (as well as the literature on intersex individuals), she concludes that gender identity is the result of a complex developmental process involving early postnatal gendered experiences and individual embodiment. I highly recommend reading the entire chapter (chapter 5: Am I A Boy Or A Girl? —The Emergence of Gender Identity). Since I follow her on Twitter, I noticed when she published a new article this year titled: Gender/Sex, Sexual Orientation, and Identity Are in the Body: How Did They Get There? Most of the article is focused on applying a phenomenological perspective to gender/sex, sexual orientation and identity, and in doing so, she develops a more thorough theory of embodied development: how sex/gender and sexual orientation arise and become a part of the body.
Because the focus of this article was on the alleged biological causes of trans identity, I didn’t focus on several other of the points that the reddit user drewiepoodle that sparked this ‘anti-genetics’ (to quote some famous hereditarian redditors) tirade made in their copypasta.
First up is the monkey myth:
A growing body of research is showing how biology influences gender expression, sexual orientation and gender identity — characteristics that can also fall outside of strict, socially defined categories. Toy-preference tests, a popular gauge of gender expression, have long shown that cis boys and cis girls will typically gravitate to toys that are stereotypically associated with their gender (cars and guns for boys, for instance, or plush toys for girls). While one might argue that this could be the by-product of a child’s environment — parental influence at play or an internalization of societal norms — Melissa Hines, a former UCLA researcher and current professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge, in England, has shown otherwise. In 2008, she demonstrated that monkeys showed the same sex-based toy preferences as humans — absent societal influence.
The “monkey studies” have been weaponized against the “gender feminists” (to borrow Christina Hoff Sommers’ term) who point out the pivotal role of socialization and gender roles in the development and expression of gendered preferences for various social features. Here the user is referencing Melissa Hines (who is, funnily enough, a critic of the brain organization thesis in many ways) and her team’s study on vervet monkeys. The study tested whether male or female vervet monkeys would have sex-typed preferences for toys, presumably because monkeys are free from social influence. They tested 6 toys, 2 ‘masculine’ (police car & ball), 2 ‘neutral’ (picture book & stuffed dog) and 2 ‘feminine’ (doll & cooking pan). Interesting, the toy of a ‘ball’ has previously been classified a ‘neutral’ toy in previously studies testing sex differentiation in toy preferences. Overall, male monkeys spent the most time with the dog (neutral) and equal amounts of time with the ball, police car (masculine) and cooking pan (feminine). The female monkeys spent the most time with the cooking pan (feminine), dog (neutral), then doll (feminine) and then less time with the police car and ball (masculine). While there was an overall statistical difference between male and female monkeys in their choices of ‘masculine’ vs ‘feminine’ toys, it doesn’t exactly explain why there were such heterogeneous results: why neutral toys dominated and why there were ‘cross-sex’ results for some toys. This is only compounded by looking at the other monkey study on toys, which is reviewed in Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain (pages 194-195), Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm (pages 234-236), and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (pages 123-129).
Not only do the actual results raise questions about what the actual preferences among monkeys is, it raises questions about monkeys themselves. People often assume that, no, animals don’t have complex social structure. The assumption is that since an animal exhibits a sex difference, the corresponding sex difference in humans is not only natural, but intractable. (Un)fortunately, this is a naive way of looking at development. Just like humans, many primate species have complex social structures with varying hierarchies. It might be anathema to some, but it has been shown that primates and other animals alike have forms of social learning, what some term “socialization”. Some research has even indicated that primates have a form of gender roles and perhaps even gender identity. This research has come alongside with a review of our anthropological concepts of culture and the realization that primates (and other animals!) indeed do have what can be termed ‘culture’. Because there are varying developmental experiences and trajectories among male and female primates, the fact that a difference emerged (however self-contradictory) is not evidence for an innate sex difference, it hints towards a complex developmental origin. In fact, a friend of mine has noted that the only thing that these ‘monkey studies’ can show is the particular troop dynamics.
Next up, a few lessons to anyone (including the subject of my critique) who may read this. Behavioral traits are, if genetic at all, polygenic, meaning originating from numerous genes. In fact, nearly all traits are polygenic, with the exception with a minuscule number of allele substitutions which produce strong changes in phenotype (sickle cell disease, for example). The claim that:
We have no idea what the details are (a gene, multiple genes, etc?) but we have pretty strong data that it’s something durable and biological.
indicates an underlying misunderstanding of the way that not only scientific research (and norms) work, but of how developmental genetics works. If there are going to be any genes that influence trans identity, it isn’t going to be a gene or multiple genes, it’s going to be numerous. Estimates of polygenicity (a numerical quantification of how many genes are involved in the development of a phenotype) for traits such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia have estimated numbers of genes into the thousands, simply for a single trait. And again, to the extent that genes are purported to exist, they are very likely to be mediated, moderated and interact with environmental factors.
Of the final extraneous points I wanted to make is the discussion of intersex people & their gender identities;
Also, the attempts by the medical establishment to surgically change body parts of intersex children based on what seemed easiest surgically was not always in line with the person’s actual gender. The thinking back then(and even today) was that gender identity was not biological. When the data was carefully collected, a majority of kids treated this way have a gender identity at odds with their surgically created body parts and upbringing(socialized as male/female). This is proof that we cannot change the gender identity someone already has innately.
Rebecca Jordan-Young has reviewed the literature (in the aforementioned book Brain Storm) on a variety of research progammes investigating sex differences in various traits, mostly related to the purported causal link between hormones (testosterone, estrogen), brain development and the aforementioned social traits. One of those programmes of research has focused on the development of gender identity in intersex individuals. She has thoroughly demonstrated that the typical consensus that intersex individuals will ‘revert’ to their ‘biological gender identity’ is not back-up by the data (this still doesn’t mean we ought to mutilate intersex children).
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Because I was lazy and my computer doesn’t like to install software these days, I just used an online t-test calculator.
For Treatment 1, I input: 16, 16, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 25, 26, 26, 26, 26, 26, 27, 28, 28, 28, 28, 28, 36, 36
And for Treatment 2, I input: 12, 13, 14, 14, 15, 16, 16, 16, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 25, 26, 26, 26, 26, 27, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32
Note that these don’t actually reflect the actual numbers of the sample as these were reconstructed from frequency data. Because I didn’t want to go through the mess of multiplying the frequencies by the sample sizes for the trans & control groups, I just essentially ‘normalized’ the Ns to ~100 (the actual sizes were both slightly above 100 because of errors in estimating the frequency from the graph).
MacKinnon rejected the sex/gender distinction, referring to Ortner’s critique Is Male to Female as Nature Is to Culture?:
Much has been made of a supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 8 (Fall 1982). I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.
In her view, it isn’t precultural bodies that produce gendered distinctions via some mechanism of reproductive roles or bodily features. While important in determining the phylogeny of the regulatory apparatus of sexuality, they are instead postcultural justifications for the system of sexuality that produces sexual difference itself. By individuals’ roles in sexual intercourse (taking from Dworkin’s Intercourse), MacKinnon elaborates the way that it is social concepts of sexuality that themselves produce female subjects:
To make a theory feminist, it is not enough that it be authored by a biological female, nor that it describe female sexuality as different from (if equal to) male sexuality, or as if sexuality in women ineluctably exists in some realm beyond, beneath, above,
behind-in any event, fundamentally untouched and unmoved by an unequal social order. A theory of sexuality becomes feminist methodologically, meaning feminist in the post-marxist sense, to the extent it treats sexuality as a social construct of male power: defined by men, forced on women, and constitutive of the meaning of gender.
Sexuality, in feminist light, is not a discrete sphere of interaction or feeling or sensation or behavior in which preexisting social divisions may or may not be played out. It is a pervasive dimension of social life, one that permeates the whole, a dimension along which gender occurs and through which gender is socially constituted; it is a dimension along which other social divisions, like race and class, partly play themselves out
This approach identifies not just a sexuality that is shaped under conditions of gender inequality but reveals this sexuality itself to be the dynamic of the inequality of the sexes. It is to argue that the excitement at reduction of a person to a thing, to less than a human being, as socially defined, is its fundamental motive force. It is to argue that sexual difference is a function of sexual dominance. It is to argue a sexual theory of the distribution of social power by gender, in which this sexuality that is sexuality is substantially what makes the gender division be what it is, which is male dominant, wherever it is, which is nearly everywhere.
In the same way that (cis) women’s sexualities are regulated, trans (women’s) sexualities are rendered unintelligible, either by casting any sexual feelings as some form of ‘autogynephilia’ or by reducing sexual expression to ‘male sexuality’. Even more, MacKinnon’s analysis of the pornography industry can be extended with an analysis of the regulatory discourses that produce the transsexual subject. In porn, the oft-recognized fetishization that ‘consumers’ have for the trans body itself is reminiscent of the way that black bodies and disabled bodies are considered within the pornographic sphere. Within MacKinnon’s framework, it would be ludicrous to ignore the harm done to trans subjectivity by trans pornography as an act of violence, exactly why she specifically included transsexuals as a class of individuals able to bring a class-action lawsuit against pornographers for the harm done against them as a sex class.
Dworkin, in contrast, took a much more traditional analytical route in analyzing sexual difference. In her magnum opus Woman Hating, Dworkin analyzed the way sexual difference as a continuum is reduced to a cultural dichotomy between male and female. She incorporated the psycho-sociological analyses of Money’s six aspects of sex (genetic, hormonal, gonadal, internal, external and psychosexual), her contemporary’s developments in the analysis of intersex bodies and the crosscultural ways sexual differences are represented to present sexual difference not as opposition, but as a spectrum upon which individuals vary in their location. For her, the idea of polarized ‘men’ and ‘women’ were simply caricatured fictions by which androgynous individuality is transformed into oppressive norms:
The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. Culture as we know it legislates those fictive roles as normalcy.
While one might interpret this as simply the ‘gender role’ vs ‘sex’ disjunction feminists have made over the years, Dworkin suggests something much more radical. She argues that gender roles arises from the idea of sex as binary & fixed so that feminists are required to challenge this ideal:
There are, after all, men and women. They are different, demonstrably so. We are each of one sex or the other. If there are two discrete biological sexes, then it is not hard to argue that there are two discrete modes of human behavior, sex-related, sex-determined. One might argue for a liberalization of sex-based roles, but one cannot justifiably argue for their total redefinition
But just like feminist scientists in the 21st century, Dworkin draws upon a compendium of research demonstrating the opposite: that sex as a binary is a fiction:
… research … provide[s] basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female, ” “man” and “woman, ” are used only because as yet there are no others.
We can presume then that there is a great deal about human sexuality to be discovered, and that our notion of two discrete biological sexes cannot remain intact. We can presume then that we will discover cross-sexed phenomena in proportion to our ability to see them. In addition, we can account for the relative rarity of hermaphrodites in the general population, for the consistency o f male-female somatotypes that we do find, and for the relative rarity of cross-sexed characteristics in the general population (though they occur with more frequency than we are now willing to imagine) by recognizing that there is a process of cultural selection which, for people, supersedes natural selection in
importance. Cultural selection, as opposed to natural selection, does not necessarily serve to improve the species or to ensure survival. It does necessarily serve to uphold cultural norms and to ensure that deviant somatotypes and cross-sexed characteristics are systematically bred out of the population.
I highly recommend read the entire chapter Sexuality in Woman Hating, then comparing it to Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body and then comparing those to Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow.
Continuing upon Dworkin’s cogent analysis, John Stoltenberg (himself Dworkin’s lifelong partner) analyzed the fiction of ‘sex’ and the multisexed nature of humanity in his book Refusing to Be a Man. Stoltenberg was moved by Dworkin’s analysis of sex-gender, and elaborated upon the specifics of the ideology of male sexuality & the male sex itself. For Stoltenberg, the male sex is an ideologically constructed fiction used to maintain dominance of men over women (sex classes):
The idea of the male sex is like the idea of an Aryan race. The Nazis believed in the idea of an Aryan race—they believed that the Aryan race really exists, physically, in nature—and they put a great deal of effort into making it real. The Nazis believed that from the blond hair and blue eyes occurring naturally in the human species, they could construe the existence of a separate race—a distinct category of human beings that was unambiguously rooted in the natural order of things. But traits do not a race make; traits only make traits
His distinction between bodily features, which may be precultural [or perhaps the body is itself constructed as Butler suggests], and the categories that traits are socially transformed into grounds his analysis of sex as an oppressive dichotomy:
Penises and ejaculate and prostate glands occur in nature, but the notion that these anatomical traits comprise a sex—a discrete class, separate and distinct, metaphysically divisible from some other sex, the “other sex” —is simply that: a notion, an idea. The penises exist; the male sex does not. The male sex is socially constructed. It is a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism. Apart from the global inferiorization and subordination of those who are defined as “nonmale,” the idea of personal membership in the male sex class would have no recognizable meaning. It would make no sense. No one could be a member of it and no one would think they should be a member of it. There would be no male sex to belong to. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be penises and ejaculate and prostate glands and such. It simply means that the center of our selfhood would not be required to reside inside an utterly fictitious category—a category that only seems real to the extent that those outside it are put down
He shares MacKinnon’s view that it is not sexuality that is gendered but that sexuality produces gender.
Marilyn Frye’s analysis of sex classes was far and few in her work, but perhaps her most relevant discussion of sex-gender was in her work Sexism. Frye takes perhaps the more traditional view of sex-gender in that sex is made culturally relevant via social processes that themselves constitute patriarchy. She discusses the instances where male dominance is produced in a sexless, genderless sphere of existence as a means of elucidating how reality itself becomes sexed/gendered. But as for Dworkin and Stoltenberg, sexual reality is not dichotomous nor sharp and opposing: it is instead variation ‘along the physical dimensions we think of as associated with maleness and femaleness’:
The pressure on each of us to guess or determine the sex of everybody else both generates and is exhibited in a great pressure on each of us to inform everybody all the time of our sex. For, if you strip humans of most of their cultural trappings, it is not always easy to tell without close inspection which are female, which are male. The tangible and visible physical differences between the sexes are not particularly sharp or numerous. Individual variation along the physical dimensions we think of as associated with maleness and femaleness are great, and the differences between the sexes could easily be obscured by bodily decoration, hair removal and the like.
Frye analyzes the way that we are obligated to announce and assert our sex(es) in a way that itself constitutes sexual dimorphism, in contrast to the ‘biological spectrum between two not-so-sharply defined poles’. The exemplaries of this analysis are intersex individuals, whose biological reality does not fit into the regulatory ideals that define sexual reality. Social processes reinforce preexisting differential averages to (re)produce, exaggerate and dichotomize sexual difference like genital reformation, dietary and exercise regimens and so on:
The intense demand for marking and for asserting what sex each person is adds up to a strenuous requirement that there be two distinct and sharply dimorphic sexes. But, in reality, there are not. There are people who fit on a biological spectrum between two not-so-sharply defined poles. In about 5 percent of live births, possibly more, the babies are in some degree not perfect exemplars of male and female. There are individuals with chromosomal patterns other than XX and XY and individuals whose external genitalia at birth exhibit some degree of ambiguity. There are people who are chromosomally “normal” who are the far ends of normal spectra of secondary sex characteristics-height, musculature, hairiness, body density, distribution of fat, breast size, etc.-whose overall appearance fits the norm of people whose chromosomal sex is the opposite of theirs.
These variations not withstanding, persons (mainly men, of course) with the power to do so actually construct a world in which men are men and women are women and there is nothing in between and nothing ambiguous; they do it by chemically and/or surgically altering people whose bodies are indeterminate or ambiguous with respect to sex. Newborns with “imperfectly formed” genitals are immediately “corrected” by chemical or surgical means, children and adolescents are given hormone “therapies” if their bodies seem not to be developing according to what physicians and others declare to be the norm for what has been declared to be that individual’s sex. Persons with authority recommend and supply cosmetics and cosmetic regimens, diets, exercises, and all manner clothing to revise or disguise the too-hairy lip, the too-large breast, the too-slender stature, the too-large feet, the too-great or too-slight stature. Individuals whose bodies do not fit the picture of exactly two sharply dimorphic sexes are often quite willing to be altered or veiled for the obvious reason that the world punishes them severely for their failure to be the “facts” which would verify the doctrine of two sexes. The demand that the world be a world in which there are exactly two sexes is inexorable, and we are all compelled to answer to it empathetically, unconditionally, repetitiously and unambiguously.
For Frye, the fact that we do not mistake men for women and vice versa (very often at least!) is not because of naturally inborn and biological distinctions, but because of cultural processes that demand ambiguous individuals (perhaps Dworkin’s androgyny) not only signal their ‘true’ sex with cultural markers like clothing, jewelry and hairstyles, but physically alter, modify and mutilate their bodies in accordance with these sexual ideals. Feminism is thought of as a project to blur sexual difference, to break down that of which sexed ontology, sexed reality is even thought of. The liberal feminist’s reactionary defense of a dimorphically sexed society, for Frye, is not grounded in any theoretical or conceptual devotion, but rather in the very physical and ‘behavioral patterns’ that produce sexual difference.