Radical Feminist Conceptualizations of Sex-Gender

Radical Feminism

Catherine MacKinnon

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.

and further:

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

and finally:

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 contemporaries’ 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 Hatingthen 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.