Definitions and the Unbearable Entitlement of Cis People

A consistent demand of so-called “gender critical” feminists has been to posit that a definition for “woman”. “How can trans women be women?” they ask. At first, one might consider this an eminently reasonable demand. If woman is to mean somethingobviously, then it must have a definition. If we don’t, well, how are we to fight the oppression of women? And those evil transactivists have refused, positively refusedto provide a definition, or at least a coherent definition. 

There are several layers to the actual question at hand. First, the question of whether a definition is even necessary. For me, I see two plausible answers. The first is that while it may seem intuitive that a definition is necessary to actually liberate women, it may be more deleterious to the cause to actually fix the subject. This is one of Judith Butler’s main points in Gender Trouble – it actually starts the book off! I’ll now quote quippets of the first section at length

Recently, this prevailing conception of the relation between feminist theory and politics has come under challenge from within feminist
discourse.The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable
or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of “the subject” as the ultimate candidate for representation or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women


If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation
of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of
representational politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to
facilitate its emancipation.This becomes politically problematic if that
system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine. In such cases, an uncritical appeal to such a system for the
emancipation of “women” will be clearly self-defeating.

The political assumption that there must be a universal basis for
feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist
cross-culturally, often accompanies the notion that the oppression of
women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination

My suggestion is that the presumed universality and unity of the
subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of the
representational discourse in which it functions. Indeed, the premature
insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the
category. These domains of exclusion reveal the coercive and regulatory
consequences of that construction, even when the construction has
been elaborated for emancipatory purposes

Indeed, the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from “women” whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics.The suggestion that feminism can seek wider representation for a subject that it itself constructs has the ironic consequence that feminist goals risk failure by refusing to take account of the constitutive powers of their own representational claims. This problem is not ameliorated through an appeal to the category of women for merely “strategic” purposes, for strategies always have meanings that exceed the purposes for which they are intended.

In the course of this effort to question “women” as the subject of feminism, the unproblematic invocation of that category may prove to preclude the possibility of feminism as a representational politics. What sense does it make to extend representation to subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject? What relations of domination and exclusion are inadvertently sustained when representation becomes the sole focus of politics? The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation. Perhaps, paradoxically, “representation” will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of “women” is nowhere presumed.

Butler’s argument here is multifaceted and could serve as the subject of entire essays and even a class, but the gist of her point is that the destabilization of the concept of woman threatens to force us to reconceptualize the relationship between “women” and feminism as a political project itself. If we recognize that “woman” does not exist independently of a sociohistorical process, then what does it say that feminism is a “movement for women”? Moreover, how can feminism claim to “speak for women” or “represent women” if the progenitors of feminism as a particular social movement come predominantly from a particular background, geographic location and social class – does it make sense to say that “feminism” can be found in pre-modern China? If feminism no longer requires the type of proclaimed universality critiqued in “Under Western Eyes“, then what does the alleged universality of womanhood or a single subject “woman” do for feminism either?

A similar line of questioning the necessity of such a feminist politic can be found in Richey (n.d.), who, following Haslanger (2000), identifies a normativity problem for definitions of gender terms, but sees it as fatal to the project in and of itself. 

The second answer to our first question that I find myself considering is that some sort of ‘definition’ could be employed, but that it be processual, dynamic, and denying of fixity. There are several ways of doing this, and I’ll examine a few in this post. 

One alternative to the typical way of thinking about defining womanhood is to see womanhood as continuously reconstituted – who is a woman is not fixed and changes from moment to moment based on factors like perlocutionary utterances. Deleuze begins such an analysis with his concept of “becoming-woman” (Dawson 2008), which makes heavy usage of Deleuze and Guittari’s thick and idiosyncratic analyses, concepts and modes of thought, while Butler’s expansion upon Austin’s theory of speech acts has been considered foundational to the field of queer theory (Butler 1988).

Consider the example of sports teams. When you are playing baseball with a group of friends and need to divide that group in half to create two teams, what are the definitions of “Team 1” and “Team 2”? Clearly, at least for the critics of self-ID definitions, we can’t define “Team 1” as “anyone who joins Team 1” or “the group of individuals who were assigned to Team 1”. But in virtue of what are members of Team 1 … members of Team 1? When we’re playing baseball, we can quite clearly distinguish members of Team 1 from members of Team 2. And this membership isn’t fixed or static – it can change. If there were initially 10 people on each team, but 2 people from Team 1 have to leave for an appointment, they are often no longer members of Team 1, and now teamless. To even the odds, you might even move someone from Team 2 to Team 1 – they changed teams. There are a number of things we might appeal to here: recursive definitions, social knowledge and performative reconstitution. 

Perhaps it is a dead end to seek an intensional definition that attempts to list the factors common to women than to create ways of identifying people who are women – does it not count as a definition when one is able to identify those individuals who are women? If we go back to the typically mocked and allegedly circular “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman”, what is the issue with the definition beyond its circularity? We are able to identify individuals who are women on this definition – they identify as women. I know I am not a woman – I do not identify as a woman. I know my brother is not a woman as he does not either. Similarly, I know my mother is because she does identify as a woman. 

Yet another solution to the ‘problem’ [1] can be grown from the seeds Tomas Bogardus sows in his polemic. In his discussion of potential ways of read Katherine Jenkins’ definition:

Someone is a woman if and only if she takes (a sufficient number of) norms about women to be relevant to herself, i.e. to be about herself


Bogardus considers the possibility that her definition has two meanings of woman. The first sense is the word in question, what she is defining – the concept on the left side of the “word equation”. The second sense is what he attempts to inquire as to its meaning – exactly what does that mean? He considers several options: that the “woman” in the definiens is the “traditional sense”, which implies that trans women can only be women in virtue of making a mistake. The second is to insert her definition as the meaning of woman in the definiens, introducing an alleged vicious circularity. He considers several others, like using Haslanger’s original ameliorative definition or becoming quietists about the meaning. To combine Bogardus’ way of specifying differing meanings of a concept to avoid circularity with the processual thinking outlined above, we can begin the construction of a non-problematic definition. 

If we define womanhood recursively, by indexing acts of “womaning”, the process of becoming a woman, we can avoid circularity, and trans-exclusivity. For example, let’s consider the traditional pro-trans definition:

A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman

If we accept Bogardus’ charge that this is circular, and viciously so, to keep the “womans” the same in both uses, then we have to come up with another meaning for the second one. If we consider a recursive definition, then:

A \text{woman}_{\text{n+1}}\text{ is anyone who identifies as a }\text{woman}_{\text{n}}

It may seem a bit confusing, and I admit this is a very rough sketch. But let’s consider a few examples. If we consider a trans woman (let’s call her A) at the moment she first realizes she considers herself a woman – at that moment, she is supposed to become a woman for trans-inclusive feminists. The moment before she does so, “woman” does not include her, but the moment after, it does. So the best way of resolving this is to say that at the moment of A’s first identification, she is identifying with the collective of individuals who were all women before her realization (let’s call this \text{woman}_{0}. Because of that identification [3], the concept of womanhood is “updated” and then includes her – \text{woman}_{1}=\text{woman}_{0}\cup A. The next person to realize their womanhood then identifies (at the moment of this identification) with the “new” concept of woman, \text{woman}_{1}. [4]

Bogardus’ loop is thus broken – the concept in the definiens is not the same as the concept being defined, and it doesn’t seem to be trans-exclusive in any way. 

Certainly this may introduce problems of its own. For example: on this concept of womanhood, are trans women women prior to their first moment of identification? It may seem like the easy answer is no, but I have not done the groundwork to read my own words carefully enough! Regardless, it seems that such an issue could easily be rectified by including ethical considerations in our decisions to apply gender terms (Dembroff 2019). 

There are also some temporal issues to consider here. One might want to stay truer to the dynamism avowed above and claim that A is identifying as \text{woman}_1 at the moment of her identification and that her act of identification ‘updates’ womanhood. But then we get stuck back in the circularity – our definition would be, for example:

A \text{woman}_{1}\text{ is anyone who identifies as a }\text{woman}_{1}

I think this may be a fault of the English language and the way that we conceptualize changes in time. In programming, it is quite easy to update categories or lists. In R, one can extend a vector by combining them:

list <- c(list, addition)

One will note that list is used both in the “definition” (list is being reassigned here) and the definiens (it’s what is being combined with “addition”). Different programming languages handle this sort of reference differently – but these differences are what make each language distinct. 

So perhaps it is coherent to say that one can reconstitute womanhood by identifying as a woman – that the very act of identification modifies womanhood, but that the subject of identification is itself already the modified womanhood. Perhaps what might seem like a problematic circularity ends up being the result of a flaw of natural language. 

To return to the baseball team analogy, let’s consider the three proposed solutions presented earlier. Number one was recursive definitions: Team 1 is defined in terms of the previous members plus the new addition. Number two was social knowledge – perhaps we know who the members of Team 1 are … Number three was performative reconstitution: the very act of a coach saying “Team 1” to a prospective player reshapes the boundaries of “Team 1”. 

One motivation for even abandoning the static, discrete definitions (Aristolean definitions as Baker (2008) points out) is that they do not comport very well with our intuitions and actual linguistic experience. Cognitive scientists have moved beyond the simplistic ways of defining concepts that involve an allegedly comprehensive list of necessary and sufficient conditions, exceptions, checking boundary cases, etc. Alternative ways of instantiating concepts (Murphy 2002) and designing social inquiry (Ragin 2008) allow us to escape analytic philosophy hellhole while retaining use of our social concepts

Perhaps instead of Aristolean definitions, we could proffer some sort of family resemblance concept (Nicholson 1994), or a “fuzzy model” (Tauchert 2002; c.f. Joaquin & Biana 2019). The options are limitless. 

[1] The idea that the inclusion of trans women in our concepts of womanhood is a “problem” in need of solving should be critiqued, as my friend Leah does so eloquently here

[2] I should first note that I think Bogardus’ reconstruction of Jenkins’ definition to be grossly misrepresentation, erring on the border of libel. 

[3] We should be more specific by what we mean by identification. It is less that identification means equation than it is a form of social expression in and of itself. To identify with a group is to join a social community, to claim membership in that community to express a desire. Personally, I am a critic of identity itself (Brubaker & Cooper 2000; Butler 1999; Moran 2014), so I don’t defend this account except provisionally.

[4] A commenter on this post mentioned that this account may rest on the assumption that all women will identify with \text{woman_n}, which is not going to be a part of reality. They more likely will identify with a subset of the women that they consider to be true women. This reply can be accounted for by considering a two-step reply – first we introduce the idea of the collective (Haraway 1985; Marion-Young 1994) and then connect it to our account of identification. If we posit that the collective we’re talking about needn’t be directly identified with, but connected to the perlocutionary act of identification via paradigm cases, then we can allow disparate individual concepts of womanhood to be connected to the abstract social womanhood collective despite the variability in each idiosyncratic concept’s extension. 


(Cis)sexing the body to transfigure the monster

The image in the header is from a trans-inclusive body-positive underwear modeling shoot. The modeling industry is exploitative and the inclusion of the picture here is intended not as an endorsement of its practices or creation, but to construct a polemic.

CW: Exorsexism, transmisia, dyadism, racism.

Discussion of the body is very common in transcourse [1]. The body has become a site of contention, not because of the dispute over features of the body, but because:

the notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a universal signified

Foucault (1979)

This assemblage of features and characteristics into a single causal feature has sowed the seeds of a politic – a politics centered around the primacy of this so-called ‘biological sex’. This politics finds itself in grounds like “Sex Not Gender“, the “LGB Alliance“, and “Woman’s Place UK“. These groups posit that “biological sex” is a uniform causal attribute that affects not only our phenotypic characteristics, but our position in society, in almost a deterministic way. It is because Angel Carlick was female that she was murdered, rather than anything else, to these groups. Aubrey Dameron, on the other hand, has become missing thrice. First, her life was stolen by the colonial genocide the AmeriKKKan state allows to continue, second by her erasure in AmeriKKKan activism to fight against the ongoing genocide, and third by the the white British groups who erase trans women in their quest for women’s liberation. Aubrey Dameron went missing because she is a woman – because she is an indigenous trans woman.

Image result for Aubrey Dameron"

Aubrey Dameron

The politics of the body has a long history, in queer, feminist, trans and radical activism. Feminists have sought to problematize the way that the body is philosophized (Prokhovnik 1999), employed in political discourse (Phipps 2014), conceptualized in science (Oudshoorn 1994; Wilson 2004), and regulated by society and the state (Bordo 1993). Trans, queer and intersex theorists have sought to polemicize against the binarism in mainstream body talk (Carpenter 2018; Lane 2009; Preciado 2014), while others attempt to introduce a discussion of race into sexual difference research (Bloodsworth-Lugo 2007) and radicals seek to abandon static biological thought and instead move towards processual biology (Dupre & Nicholson 2018; Rose 2005). That it has become an active site of contest in transcourse should not be seen as surprising, but as expected given the history of feminist debates over the body and its relationship to society.

One active area of research for feminist theorists is how our bodies become seen as irrevocably “male” or “female”. It is not a necessity that our phenotypic characteristics be organized into pair of complex conglomerations of traits labeled (in the English language) “male” and “female” (Dupre 1986), nor is it a necessity that we define these agglomerations such that they are static or fixed (Heyes 2006). By analyzing the way in which intersex bodies “become” male or female, or how this contingent categorization changes over time, feminists have deconstructed the idea that sex must be binary as a matter of the facts about our bodies (Heller 2019). Indeed, feminists question the idea that our bodies are sexed at all (LaBrada n.d.), outside of the sexing that is necessary for bodies to become intelligible at all (Salih 2002). So to “sex the body” is the manner in which bodies become known as sexed, whether this is through the culturally constituted gender matrix (Butler 1990), or through the medical regulation of bodies (Dreger 2000).

Recent transmisic invocations of “material reality”, “female bod[ies]”, etc are all part of a cissexist and exorsexist attempt to (cis)sex the body – to make it so that the body is inherently cis, deterministically either male or female. No ambiguities, no change, no processes, just a single pair of states: male or female. One is “born male” or “born female”, and this is the underlying causal factor that determines ones physiological traits, determines one position in society, and consequently, whether one ought to be considered a woman or a man and whether one is permitted to speak on certain issues. Hush up trans women, you’ve gotten too uppity with your talk of “rights” – you aren’t allowed to have thoughts on feminism, on the definition of womanhood, on their own experiences! You’re delusional, mistaken. You’ve been indoctrinated into the “trans cult”, where you’ve then become its willing member.

For this movement, we must not only “sex the body” (Fausto-Sterling 2000), but cissex the body as well. The body becomes cis through proclamations like “trans women are biologically male“, as if “male” is something solely biological, rather than generated and generative. The body becomes cis because ovaries are framed as “female”, as trans embodiment becomes logically and politically impossible (Billard 2019). Transition becomes “mutilation“, intersex bodies become “disordered” and sex becomes a permanent, immutable property of an individual (see Lavin 1987). By sexing the body, transmisics cissex the body.

In that same process, they achieve their primary goal, which is to “transfigure the monster”. By this I mean that transmisics are not passionate about spouting “biological reality” and tweeting “trans women are biological males” because they have a deeply held ontological belief about the composition of the body or a particular position in the philosophy of science. They say these things, come to believe these things, to turn trans people into freaks (see Lisa Millbank’s amazing post). The trans body becomes monstrous, a Frankenstein of medical experimentation (Raymond 1994), the active subject of bioethical travesties (Hausman 1995), a disfigured mistake. Our bodies are politically subjected to excessive inquiry, but it is not only trans bodies that are poked and prodded on the internet, but cis and intersex ones too [2]. The (trans) body is (trans)figured into a monster.


The trans body becomes stuck oscillating between two different states. Either present oneself as hyperfeminine to ensure that you ‘pass’, else our hands, skull shape, brow ridges, the way we walk, arms and shoulders ‘give us away’ (Billard 2019), or we must resign ourselves to be feminine men (but not too feminine, lest 0.5% of the population be the causal force preventing gender norms from disappearing). The trans body has come under biopolitical control, from the airport, the prison, the jail, in the ‘maternity‘ ward to the General Register Office, even after death. When transmisics speak of “true sex”, “biological sex” in an attempt to slander trans people, they are exercising the biopower they have accrued.

Sex, sex, sex, sex (yeah)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (la-la-la)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (yeah)

Lest we be unclear in that trans people do not engage in this same sort of body politics. Fatphobia is ever present in queer communities, as is hierarchy based on the racialization of the body. Gatekeepers attempt to force people into transitioning based on their concepts of what transness entails and requires. “True Tr*nnies” hold that trans people who don’t get/want SRS are not “true trans” people and/or that trans women aren’t “true” women until they have a vagina [3].

“Sex” is not merely a neutral aspect of scientific inquiry or “biological reality”, as some right-wingers argue in an tepid attempt to defend the sex binary. It is a political tool used for violence. When the discourse of a “true sex” (Lavin 1987) is brought to the surface, it can easily be revealed that it is the basis for transfemicides and the ongoing gendercide (Bettcher 2007). Trans people deceive the world about our “true sex”, what is really contained within our cells, our chromosomes, their actual meaning. We have lied to the world by looking one way, but being another. This alleged deception extends even when the other participant in an engagement is willing, to the point where conspiracy theories about womb farms arise.

Sex is not neutral. Sex itself is violent. Sex is the violent imposition of ontological categories onto bodies, stamping us to particular social formations. Sex is sexualization, the preparation of bodies for violation [4], the preparation of bodies for heterosexuality  [5], for the reproduction of society [6], and the reproduction of people themselves [7]. Sex is violence.

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

Wittig (1976)

[1] Transcourse here is a portmanteau meant to describe the online (be it Reddit, Twitter or Tumblr) discourse about trans people.

[2] See also here, here, here, here, and here. As well as here, here, and here.

[3] And similarly that trans men aren’t “true” men until they have a penis.

[4] Credit goes to conversations with Twitter user @9BillionTigers for this line of thought.

[5] For an analogous argument, see MacKinnon (1989).

[6] See Guillaumin (1995).

[7] For the best work outlining this argument, see Wittig (1976), (1980).


Materialist Feminist Conceptualizations of Sex-Gender

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

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

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

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

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?


Mapping the Gender Debate


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.

Partitioning Gender

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.

Individuating Properties

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
4) Ovaries

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 male, 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 female.

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
York: Routledge.

Briggs, R. and George, B.R. (manuscript). “Science Fiction Double Feature:
Trans Liberation on Twin Earth.”

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 IdentityErgo5(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