[DWJ] Sex/gender

Ika Willis blake at gaudaprime.co.uk
Sun Apr 22 22:10:44 EDT 2007

Minnow wrote:

> I feel that when the question is "what sex are you?" (or "is this baby?" --
> can one have any idea of the probable *gender* of a new-born infant?), as
> in "I am your GP and I need this information so that I know whether your
> belief that you have cancer of the womb is reasonable or loony" or "I am
> your bank manager and it is none of my damn business" or "this is a fairly
> pointless demographic survey to establish the balance of male and female
> among people who have bothered to turn out and vote" or "you are buying a
> CD from our organisation and we are trying to pry into our customers' lives
> in order to build up records in our database", to use "gender" instead of
> "sex" (since the answer is effectively "M/F cross out one or the other") is
> mealy-mouthed silliness, as well as being essentially dishonest.
> If you wrote in "butch" they would be baffled.  Anything longer they would
> almost certainly ignore completely.

(Well, it depends which institutions you're involved with, actually,
as Otter has pointed out.)

> None of these institutions is interested in gender differentiation of any
> meaningful sort, they merely want for whatever reason good or bad to know
> whether the person filling in the form is male or female by the generally
> accepted criteria -- ie whether they have male or female genitalia.

But that just isn't true,  Minnow. None of those people want to know
about your genitalia; they all want to know about whether you're a man
or a woman as defined in a particular culture, and how they should
shape their future interactions with you in accordance with the norms
of gender in that particular culture.

Even the doctor doesn't need to know about your genitalia. She needs
to know whether you have a womb or not, which might often be linked to
the shape of your genitalia but is not necessarily so (eg in the cases
of transwomen, transmen and ciswomen who have had hysterectomies). The
bank manager wants to know whether to refer to you as 'Mr' or 'Mrs';
what pronoun to use for you; what your legal retirement age is; and
whether to send you information on financial planning for maternity
leave or advertisements for investing in cars, trains, and guns.
Demographic surveys are interested in building up a profile of
consumers and/or voters in order to know how to target future
advertising and/or distribution of information - which magazines or
websites to advertise in (Womens Weekly or GQ?), whether to produce
adverts in tones of pink with curly writing or adverts in shades of
blue and grey with sans-serif fonts. None of this, very clearly, has
anything to do with the shape of someone's genitalia: it has to do
with cultural assumptions about male and female behaviour. The fantasy
that genital configuration is the ultimate symbol, cause, and site of
sexual/gender differentiation is, as I said in my last post, precisely
what the sex/gender distinction was invented to combat. Your examples
above are, in fact, all textbook cases of something I referred to in
my last post: insisting on a continuity between sex (defined
genitally) and gender (the culturally defined and enforced binary
which distinguishes 'male' from 'female'). It's the reason why 'sex'
is being used less and less: its relevance (outside of the realm of
conceiving and bearing children, not something that everyone - male or
female - can do or wants to do) is vanishingly small.


> >From which I gather that you share my irritation with its being used thus.

No; no, I don't. (For the record, I don't object to 'allergic' being
used metaphorically either, or 'quantum leap' being used in its
secondary/derived meaning rather than its technical sense, in
non-technical contexts). I mean, I see that you are trying to make a
point about the correct or incorrect use of language, and not, in
fact, about the ways in which attributing gendered qualities to a
biologically and anatomically defined difference in 'sex' has  serious
political and material consequences for many people. But I'm not very
interested in the linguistic quibble;* I'm concerned with the
conceptual confusion which the linguistic innovation was designed to
analyse, and which your last post reinforced rather than ameliorated.

Love, Ika

*in fact it's the downside of this list for me that I have to
routinely delete so much email about apostrophes and  whether
Spenserian usage legitimates contemporary Wiccan usage of the word

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