In this blog post, I will analyze Judith Butler’s treatise, Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions, and Fausto Sterling’s essay, Should There Be Only Two Sexes? in order to answer the question as to whether sex is socially constructed.
First, I will look at gender and conclude that it is malleable and then explain the reasons why sex is similar to gender in performance and expression but different in that the biological component is not entirely open to society’s influence as much as gender is.
In her essay, Butler questions whether there is a foundation for gender identity and whether it is separate in any form from society. A perfect template for femininity does not exist, the social constructivists claim.
What would it be?
And if this ideal only exists in consciousness and not in the material world then why should we give credence to it? If it really does exist in nature or genealogy or history then would that be enough to accept it? We would have to imply an ought from an is and markedly there are problems with such conclusions.
Butler: Is Gender Socially Constructed?
Butler is attempting to expose an underlying mendacity in her essay, mainly the implicit hierarchies in Cartesian dualism that evoke similar hierarchies in gender (104). These implicit hierarchies are marked by rhetoric that is reminiscent of the dehumanizing Nazi slurs toward Jews by being called unclean, uncivilized, and “polluted” (107). Butler discusses the internalized laws that are evoked in order to regulate cleanliness, in the tradition of Foucault, who claimed in the case of prisoners that the prohibitive nature of laws would shape their “essence, style, and necessity” (109). In a similar sense, then, femininity is also performative (110). Thus, the only necessary conclusion is that it can be manipulated.
The question I want to further explore is whether these conclusions are conducive toward the claim that sexuality is merely socially regulated and does not have any biological component to them. In recent decades, with the rise of B. F. Skinner’s social determinism, people have begun arguing that most ideological structures that exist in relation to sex are influenced by an overarching patriarchy whose purpose it is to subjugate women and trans individuals. And although I am very sensitive to the injustices that minorities face, especially unsaid and subconscious ones, I am also hesitant to readily accept claims.
That is not to imply that there is no evidence for social constructivist claims when it comes to gender or sex. As I mentioned above, there are good reasons to think that gender is socially constructed. The question that is not entirely clear, however, is whether biological sex is correspondingly adaptable and whether we must take that stance in order to provide basic human rights to trans or intersex individuals.
In a sense, everything is structured by society. We are as Aristotle said,
It is very hard for us to separate ourselves from our surroundings:
- Serotonin influences how many of us act socially.
- We are rewarded in thinking a particular way and socially punished for not performing in that way especially when it comes to gender performance.
- The list can go on and on.
Many have, thus, rightly criticized the way men have created a hegemony in society against women.
We can think about the freedoms that men have surrounding child-care and how society’s expectation is on the woman to take care of infants. It is true that in early infancy, there are biological necessities that the infant requires from their mother but that is not primarily why the stigma for women in childcare exists still to this day, arguably.
By noticing that there are certain activities that we classify as being more masculine or more feminine, we can notice the precariousness of their position in culture. If it is more feminine to wear dresses, then when women wear pants, they would be more masculine.
That is, of course, absurd.
Women in most regions of the globe are allowed to wear pants and put this silly notion into question. Assuming that men are less masculine for wearing dresses reeks of the same simplistic reasoning. It would perhaps be better to say that wearing dresses is a fashion trend that society associates with women because women are primarily the ones that historically wore them.
Unfortunately, society often does not allow for this careful allocation of words.
It would be better to think of masculinity and femininity as existing on scales with no ideal or archetypal form being present, thus being arbitrarily determined. If a man can be, on this scale, closer to femininity than he is to the arbitrary true ideal, then he can, arguably, be feminine in any sense of the word that we choose for it. Gender, Butler similarly argues, can be manipulated with notable especially in drag. To Butler, this “mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of true gender identity” (111).
What is of interest to Butler is the cultural binary necessity that the West and most other worldviews around the world presuppose. What if, however, this categorization is simply a result of a faulty evolutionary mechanism that stresses patternicity, the cognitive function to form categories as a simplifying computing model, rather than to form careful thinkers that are able to cognitively accept the existence of more than two sexes? Butler is correct in stating that this dichotomy exists in culture.
We find ourselves at a point in society where many are being exposed to the complexities of our neurophysiology, which will hopefully result in more sympathy for those that do not identify with their biological sex. Perhaps, however, the “expressive model of gender” is an evolutionarily useful cognitive tool that helps create categories. For obvious reasons, that is not sufficient in justifying that position. The naturalistic fallacy is easy to spot and expose with these forms of arguments.
By accepting that genders have no ideal form or archetype to hold up to we are still not disposing of the distinctions between the biological sexes. Girls are stillborn as girls, boys are stillborn as boys, and intersex persons are stillborn as intersex persons. As was mentioned above, the expressive nature of gender is susceptible to interpretation and outside influence. It would seem like a stretch in logic, however, to suggest that sex itself is constructed simply because patternicity has required faulty heterosexual thinkers to create simple categories to distinguish between mates and non-mates.
Is Sex Socially Constructed?
If we agree that sex is socially constructed, we would have to argue that the uterus is a social construct. That is, however, difficult. It can not be a social construct since the uterus has not been designed by society but rather by biology in order to advance life.
The fact that society finds it curious as to why women would not want to bear children is a social construct. The way society shames women that choose not to partake in child-bearing is something we should point out the flaws in.
As culture and society advance and individuals become more equipped at spotting the problems with binary thinking, we may expect many more to accept that men can have manicures, women armpit hair, and perhaps even that women can perform the scandalous act of sitting with their legs wide open, as men are permitted to. It is a completely different thing, however, to argue that the biological physiology of girls is a social construct. Instead, one can argue, that society puts expectations on girls to act in specific ways which are adaptable.
Sterling: Is Sex Socially Constructed?
Sterling takes a more empirical stance toward considering gender and sex and points out how ineffective and damaging genital mutilation surgeries are to the patients in later life which is arguably the deciding factor in determining their legitimacy. Sterling is therefore opposed to the “two-sex system” and argues that it forces “ambiguous” bodies to fit into categories that are ultimately damaging (80). The problems with early genital mutilation are endless, as listed by Sterling, they cause “extensive scarring, … multiple surgeries, and often obliterate the possibility of orgasm” (80).
Requiring multiple surgeries, however, does not disqualify the utility of such surgeries. If we are arguing against the utility, then perhaps the factor of physical scarring should not be considered. Many surgeries leave scarring. The question is whether they cause unnecessary emotional or physical pain in life which, again, should be the primary deciding factor against genital mutilation surgeries.
Sterling argues that these surgeries are meaningless and envisions “a new ethic of medical treatment” where ambiguous sexual identities thrive (101). In Sterling’s “utopia,” intersex individuals would only have to worry about the health ramifications that are associated with intersex development, mainly salt imbalance because of adrenal malfunction, higher frequencies of gonadal tumors, and hernias (101). Surgeries would thus only be required if life is at stake or if the individual in question has chosen to reconsider their association with a particular sex.
Sex in Anomalous Cases
Anomalies in nature also pose serious questions to whether we can trust the two-sex system. Sterling points out that in the Dominican Republic and among the Sambia that reside in Papua, New Guinea, there are recurring occurrences where a genetic mutation causes children with XY chromosomes to form either a “tiny penis” or clitoris, undescended testes, and a divided scrotum (109). They are often mistaken for girls, but upon reaching adolescence they start exhibiting typically male features, such as facial hair and extensive muscle growth (109).
Both the Dominican Republic and New Guinea have recognized this anomaly in nature and have created distinct categories to define them. Sterling hopes for the day when concepts of masculinity and femininity will be similarly elaborated upon and subsequently made irrelevant because of the impossibility to distinguish them from one another (101).
Does That Suggest Sex is Socially Constructed?
We can accept the fact that the binary system is flawed and still not accept the claim that sex is a social construct. We need not endorse typical depictions of sex to describe who we are because the feature of sex is secondary to the mental underpinnings that comprise us.
The transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, for example, claims that we should remove all sex identification from driver’s licenses and passports (111). I am not completely aware of the utility of having one’s biological sex on identification documents and so I have no reason to disagree with this sentiment. In agreeing, however, I am not claiming that sex is a social construct but rather that some find themselves in a body that they do not identify with and feel the need to change their sex to find mental peace. There may be irregularities in sex and different ways of expressing sex and thus it would be more reasonable and ethical to dispose of binary concepts of sex in many instances — rejecting them as realities is, nonetheless, different. Genes are heritable and that means that one’s predisposition toward a different genetic makeup can be justifiable. It is with this knowledge that we can justify taxation, create a just penal system, and have sympathy for those that do not identify with their sex. We do not need to accept the claim that all biological sex is a social construct to accept that more than two sexes exist.
The Implications of Interpreting Sex as a Social Construct
If sex was a social construct, we would have to pose serious reconsiderations to science and question climate activists, hinging on scientific evidence, as much as we would question whether cheetahs are the fastest mammals on earth and whether Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead and perform miracles while among us. Science is by no means perfect. It is susceptible to error, revision, and refutation, as the notorious philosopher of science, Karl Popper, pointed out. That is, however, exactly why we should value it.
Science is not dogma. And thus, if claims against trans individuals are soaked in dogmatic rhetoric that refuses correction, we should abandon them and stress the importance of careful unbiased thinking in assessing empirical observations.
I have analyzed Butler and Sterling in relation to the question as to whether gender and sex are socially constructed. I have come to the conclusion that gender is surely under society’s domain of influence. For sex, however, I have argued that the expressive and performative nature can be safely assumed to be constructed, but the biological component need not be discarded.
We should rather accept complex definitions rather than simple ones in assuming sex and stress that it is very likely that the world is more complicated then we have previously assumed. The misconception, as we have seen above, is that accepting biological sex excludes the space for other categories.
With advancements in science and literature, these will be replaced by more credible categories — where gender hierarchies are abandoned and performance in sex is seen as an expression of a completely reasonable and justifiable state of mind.
Butler, Judith. “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions” from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge 1990.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books 2000.
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