[DWJ] Sex/gender (was Any number of threads and... something else....)

Ika Willis blake at gaudaprime.co.uk
Fri Apr 20 22:47:12 EDT 2007

Minnow asked:

> > Can it be that the mealy-mouthery of saying "gender" instead of "sex"
> > applies only when distinguishing between the male and the female of
> > the human species?

Yes, of course, unless you are specifically talking about the
production and performance of cultural norms in non-human species,
which very few people ever are. Gayle Rubin wrote an influential essay
called: 'Is Sex To Gender As Nature Is To Culture?' As the terms are
used in the feminist and queer theory, and the humanities more
generally, the answer is pretty much 'yes'. 'Sex' - as Otter has said
- refers usually to a group of 'natural' or biological characteristics
(chromosomes, anatomy, capacity to reproduce, appearance of external
genitalia, hormones) which vary wildly in their combinations across
individuals but are generally bundled into the two rough-and-ready
categories 'male' and 'female' (with variety often being medically
and/or surgically suppressed); 'gender' refers to the cultural norms
according to which a person constructs and performs a feminine,
masculine, or genderqueer self.

The sex/gender distinction was first developed in feminist thought as
a conceptual tool to think about the ways in which particular
behaviours and appearances were 'gendered' masculine or feminine in
any particular culture, although the behaviours were clearly not
linked to a biological or 'natural' sex, since they varied
cross-culturally (think of skirts/trousers, for instance, or
weaving/fishing). Some work was also done on, for example, butch/femme
as a system of lesbian *gender* where the people involved were all of
the same biological *sex*, which also helps to make the usefulness of
the distinction clear, I think.

Here, by the way, I get personally annoyed at the claim that the term
'gender' is a 'mealy-mouthed' substitute, or a 'euphemism' for the
term 'sex': the dictionary is just plain wrong there, and the
feminist/queer history of the term hasn't been researched properly. I
am biologically female - as far as I know my chromosomes, anatomy and
hormonal sex all match up, so I'm triply female, in fact - but that
doesn't mean that when I wear a suit and tie, that suddenly becomes a
'feminine' thing to do: cultural norms are bigger than me, as language
is bigger than any individual user, and they determine the way in
which my gender performance/presentation is read. And insisting on a
continuity between 'sex' and 'gender' has been disastrous for a lot of
queer people, and fatal for some: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in I think
it's *Between Men*, talks about this, arguing that  heterosexism and
homophobia work, in part, by assuming a line of causation between sex,
gender, and desire. Calling gender a 'euphemism' for sex thus undoes a
great deal of the conceptual work of feminism and queer theory which
has arisen out of, and enabled,  queer and anti-sexist politics.

So, the term 'gender' is not a *euphemism* for 'sex', but it has
gradually taken over a lot of the functions that the term 'sex' used
to have. This is partly because of a wish by many feminists,  queer
scholars, and others, to distance ourselves from evolutionary
psychologists who think that all gendered behaviour is produced and
determined by sex-linked biological drives/traits: we emphasize gender
over sex because we emphasize the importance of the *cultural*
production of behaviours and norms over their *biological* origins.
The term 'gender' has also become more and more common because of
Judith Butler's hugely and joyously productive deconstruction of the
difference between sex and gender in *Gender Trouble*, where she
argues that most of the differences we attribute to 'sex' are actually
produced by 'gender' (the cultural associations of 'masculine' and
'feminine' are read back into, and attributed to, the biological by
the people who produce statements about 'sex' - doctors, scientists
and so on). In addition, as Otter has also pointed out, the political
struggles of transgender, transsexual and intersex people have begun
to mean that 'gender' - rather than, or as well as, sex - has a legal,
psychiatric, and medical meaning, so that 'gender' discrimination
rather than (or as well as) 'sex' discrimination is a particularly
politically charged site.

The implications of the etymological relationship between
gender/engender, gender/genre, etc, that Jadwiga pointed out, have
been written about interestingly by Derrida in 'The Law of Genre' and
by Donna Haraway in 'Gender for a Marxist Dictionary', both of which
engage with the conceptual difficulties of translating the English
term 'gender' into, eg, French ('genre') and Spanish (can't remember).

ObDWJ: gender is probably talked about more than sex when it comes to
fictional characters, too, because fictional characters are made of
language, not of biological material, so they don't really have a sex.

ObDWJ2: I've just started rereading the Pinhoe Egg to see what I think
about implied Cat/Marianne (and I'll fish out the quotes about Irene
when I get there, too): I haven't got far enough for a final
judgement, but it looks to me like both Cat and Marianne are butches
and thus not an ideal match.

Love, Ika

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