Gender: Social Construct or Biological Fact?
MOVING THROUGH CONFLICT
TO BUILD A HUMANE SOCIETY
In this article, we discuss the meaning of the word gender and how it has evolved over time to become both a helpful and divisive term. We appeal to each camp in this three-way war and offer suggestions to chart a way towards proactive conversations and humane solutions.
“A broken bone can heal, but the wound a word opens can fester forever” (Jessamyn West).
“Good words are worth much, and cost little” (George Herbert).
Fiery debates are all the rage at the moment, but that’s probably true of debates since the dawn of time—when the first humans argued over the merits of fire. That said, there is plenty of inflamed rage currently around the issue of gender and all its implications.
What’s at stake? The big picture is equality of rights for all. A more humane society. A worthy picture. A noble dream. Yet, if we continue raging, important issues are at risk of going up in smoke.
So, here’s how the fracas unfolds:
Camp B proclaims with gospel-certainty: “Gender is a social construct. It’s so obvious.” Dumbfounded at the statement, Camp A retorts with equal conviction, “Gender is biological. It’s a fact!”
Incensed at the claim, Camp B states their point in ever louder and bolder tones. Enraged, Camp A refuses to budge and returns fire with amplified gusto. Escalation.
A conversation can go no further if one camp is fundamentally right and the other camp fundamentally wrong, since the latter must be dumb and not worth listening to. All that’s left to do in such cases is burn the other down … and add fuel to the ever-polarising nature of modern society.
It’s an understatement to say that the two camps are talking at cross-purposes, but the irony is that, in most cases, both camps are right.
How can that be?
In such cases, both camps are defining gender differently. In a nutshell, Camp A is using ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘biological sex’ while Camp B is not.
The Origin & Evolution of Words
Since the late fourteenth century, the word ‘sex’1 referred to the state of being either male or female, a distinction that science has proved goes beyond genitalia … to genital ducts, gametes, gonads, and genes, the latter which is stored in 23 pairs of chromosomes—including the most fundamental distinction of all: XX and XY chromosomes.
By (as early as!) the fifteenth century, the word ‘gender’, technically meaning “kind, type or sort”2, became a synonym for ‘sex’ as it avoided the connotation of copulation. Said bluntly, ‘gender’ meant “sex and I don’t mean intercourse”.
From the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, advocates of women’s rights started using the word ‘gender’ to refer to the social distinctions between male and female, specifically the distinctions based on social expectation or construction3. This usage has become mainstream today.
Camp B is defining ‘gender’ by this more modern usage while Camp A is referring to the original meaning of the word.
Yet the conversation is tainted by other factors, too.
- In non-human animal research, ‘gender’ continues to be commonly used to refer to the biological sex of an animal.
- In academia, the two words are still used synonymously, but ‘gender’ is seemingly preferred for three reasons: “desires to signal sympathy with feminist goals, to use a more academic term, or to avoid the connotation of copulation.”4
- In legal cases around the issue of alleged discrimination, the word ‘sex’ is usually preferred as it clearly makes biology the determining factor. In contrast, ‘gender’ can refer to socially constructed norms that are more open to interpretation and dispute.5
In other words, experts studying the animal kingdom use the terms synonymously and academics do so too but to a lesser degree. It remains a convenient synonym for biological sex and it’s used as such in everyday language more frequently than people realise. However, when our legal system finds it necessary to differentiate between the words, it shows we’re talking about an important distinction.
Bottom line? The word ‘gender’ means something different to different people (and indeed, in different contexts), and it’s easy to talk past each other until the definition mismatch is clarified.
Can We Agree?
Based on popular usage, we can generally say that ‘sex’ refers to the biological differences between male and female while ‘gender’ refers to the social distinctions between male and female.
The World Health Organization makes this exact contrast:
“…‘sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women…”
“…‘gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”6
Although a little pedantic, the phrases ‘biological sex’ and ‘gender expectations’ might be helpful in clarifying matters in conversation.
Enter Camp C!
Can we agree? Not yet.
Just when we thought progress was in the making, things heat up a little. As it turns out, there aren’t two camps involved … but a third.
Seemingly so recent that some of our dictionaries can’t keep up, a third Camp uses the term ‘gender’ in yet another way.
To Camp C, ‘gender’ refers to one’s personal sense of identity. Interestingly, this idea also had its academic roots in the 1950s, but it has only entered mainstream conversation in the last two decades7.
Camp C’s variation of the term is critical to understand if we hope to engage in a meaningful three-way conversation. Contrasting it with the first two variations is one way to grasp it.
While Camp A treats ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as synonyms, Camp B separates the terms to ensure we understand the shaping influence of both biology and society upon an individual. For Camp B, ‘gender’ means a social construct imposed on people because of their biological sex. It’s essentially used to convey a negative idea.
However, Camp C now uses it positively to refer to their self-affirmed choice of identity, which is linked innately to the coding of one’s brain—we’re back to biology! Camp B’s ‘gender’ has nothing to do with biology, but Camp C’s certainly does (even though there is a strong agenda within a section of Camp C that attempt to deny biology altogether).
Is there any wonder we’re talking past each other!
Initially, many felt that feminists stole the word ‘gender’ in the 1970s. Now, many feminists feel robbed of the word, too.
Holding Things Lightly
In light of all this, it’s tempting to make an argument for abandoning the word altogether. At the very least, not holding onto it so tightly would be helpful.
As pedantic as it may be, using qualifying terms, like the following, might also prove valuable:
- Biological sex, referring specifically to sexes, male and female.
- Gender expectations, which alludes to gender conditioning and a culture’s perception of masculinity and femininity.
- Gender identity, which includes discussions around gender orientation and gender expression.
And thus, we can perhaps say:
- Biological sex is not a social construction.
- Gender expectations are a social construction.
- Gender identity is not a social construction but is, in fact, a subset of biological sex.
Seeking a Way Forward
To recap, all three camps make sense within their own conversational circles but in coming together, they talk at cross-purposes. Until we venture outside our own social echo chamber and recognise the varied ways people use the term ‘gender’, a constructive, collective conversation is impossible.
Camp A would do well to accept the use of the modern variations since words evolve over time. Always have, always will. There’s simply no point in denying the academic efforts made by so many over the past 50-70 years, especially when our legal system finds it prudent to do so. Camp A might find value in suggesting a new, better term for “sex and I don’t mean intercourse” or simply use the phrase ‘biological sex’ or the word ‘sexes’ instead to make sure they’re understood.
Camp B would do well to acknowledge that they use ‘gender’ in a more modern way and clarify that they’re not denying biological sex. Using creative ways to emphasise the negative aspects of social conditioning would certainly be helpful. They might also appreciate Camp C’s need for a term on which to stand, as indeed they once did. In other words, like Camp A, they may need to hold the term more loosely.
Camp C would do well to appreciate the efforts of Camp B and respect the biological distinction of male and female to which most human beings identify—even as they seek reciprocity of respect in return and the freedom to identify beyond the binary framework.
Armed with painful lessons of the past, both Camp A and Camp B should seek to be supportive of and compassionate to Camp C, even though, admittedly, the discussions required are not without their challenges.
Above all, let’s keep the prize in mind: equality of rights for all. Female. Male. And those outside the binary dimorphism. Yes, a more humane society is the goal. For this noble vision, a reasonable, rational conversation is paramount.
Now, of course, anyone who has witnessed or participated in a debate around sex and gender will know that all that’s been said to this point gives all three camps a huge slice of the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately, there are extremists in each camp that seem bent on keeping the discourse irrational and incendiary.
For this reason, let’s consider a plea to each camp.
A Plea to Each Camp
Of course, there are extremists in Camp A who deny any hint of gender construction. There are extremists in Camp B who deny the differences between women and men. And there are extremists in Camp C who are bent on denying biological sex itself. These extreme types only serve to inflame the matter.
It behoves the level-headed, reasonable people in Camp A, B and C to engage in the discussion in a respectful and constructive manner from the basis of understanding the various definitions. The goal? To foster understanding and compassion, and to seek answers and solutions for the prize of a more humane society. Doing so will also flush out the extremists and their agendas, exposing their self-centred and nefarious purposes.
An Appeal to Camp A
If you identify with Camp A, you may well be reacting to Camp B and C extreme types. You may feel the need to defend the validity of biological sex and the differences between male and female against those who seem anxious to tear both apart.
You may even fear that ideologically driven Camp B and C extremists are set on whole-scale social engineering. And you may feel compelled to protect the good and wholesome facets of our society, those things we have inherited from our forebears that make this generation the most prosperous in human history. You may also feel the need to advocate for free speech in a world that has taken political correctness to excessive levels.
An Appeal to Camp B
If you identify with Camp B, you may well be reacting to systemic inequality and societal injustice, specifically that which keeps women from enjoying the same rights and opportunities that men enjoy. The ignorance of those who defend the status quo irritates you and you get mad when they wilfully deny any hint of bias or inequality. You may also feel compelled to fight for those oppressed and see yourself as an advocate on their behalf.
An Appeal to Camp C
If you identify with Camp C, you may well be reacting to systemic prejudice and societal ignorance, specifically that which makes it extremely hard for those suffering through gender dysphoria to process their personal struggle in safe and humanising ways. The widespread ignorance of those who remain blind to this struggle and the lack of respect and support available to those suffering makes you both frustrated and angry.
You may also feel overwhelmed by compassion for those experiencing gender dysphoria and adopt the stance as an advocator on their behalf. Or you may well be battling dysphoria yourself and be in valid need of acceptance and understanding.
Thoughts & Practises: Seeking Humane Solutions
Below you’ll find a number of helpful thoughts for navigating through the war-torn landscape of countless heated debates and innumerable inflamed arguments.
It is by no means an exhaustive list and you’ll find some points more relevant to you than others. In fact, some of the points are specifically applicable to each of the three Camps. As the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t fit, at least you might better understand the path others tread.
Each practice is preceded by a humane action, as a better future is only possible in the context of humane attitudes and commonsense solutions. Then click on the Explanation tab for more information.
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