How to Think About Gender

Distinguish sex from gender.

Posted Jul 27, 2018

Thinking about gender gets confused by the lack of clear terminology. We need a word for whether a person is biologically a boy or a girl; I like the word sex for that. We need a word for behaviors that get labelled masculine or feminine or typically boyish or girlish, and I like the word gender for that. (We also need a word for whether you feel or think you are a boy or girl, but that’s not what this post is about.) Talk about sex gets confused because that’s also the word we use for eroticism, probably conflated by the fact that reproduction is typically sexual in both senses of the word. It’s not going to happen, but as a thought exercise, it would be useful to reserve sex for biological sex and erotic could be used for sexy.

Your sex has all sorts of implications on your life, way more than is necessary. Your sex determines which half of the population you might be able to sexually reproduce with by commingling genes (at least until someone invents another way) and whether your doctor should explain prostate screening or pap smears. Most of your life, though, is spent doing things where your sex is irrelevant, and it seems liberating to learn how to do crossword puzzles and watch movies and participate in conversations without always being a man doing it or a woman doing it but just you doing it.

Many people balk upon first hearing this idea: “But I am always a man [or a woman].” I suppose; but you are also always a son or daughter, always a bag of water and carbon, always an obstacle to light, and always a Red Sox fan. It’s only with sex and, for some, religion or some other role like Marine, that we have been so pervasively conditioned according to its implications that we think of ourselves as always inhabiting that aspect of ourselves. Much confusion about sex and gender can be resolved by noting that most of the time, you are not a woman asleep or a man drinking coffee—unless your sleep posture or coffee preferences have become gendered (prescribed by your culture according to your sex). If you were taught that boys but not girls sleep naked, then you might indeed be a woman while asleep; if you were taught that men but not women drink their coffee black, then you might indeed be a man while drinking coffee. The more you can free yourself from these arbitrary requirements to be one sex or the other when they are irrelevant, the less disappointed you are likely to be with yourself. Still, once you have been sexed (put in a situation where your biological sex comes into play), sex is binary.

Judith Butler teaches us that gender is a performance. Behaviorally, gender refers to the repertoire of behaviors that is maintained by differential reinforcement on account of sex. When a behavior is reinforced or punished or ignored because of the sex of the person doing it, that behavior is gendered. I blogged here about what I call “gender pathology,” meaning the psychological problems that arise when gender does not match a person’s abilities or preferences, such as the requirement in some subcultures that boys relinquish tenderness or that girls relinquish ambition. Masculinity, then, refers to behaviors expected and accepted in males and not in females in the local culture, while femininity refers to behaviors expected and accepted in females and not in males.

While sex is essentially binary, gender is never binary. Absolutely no one is entirely masculine or feminine, regardless of the particular culture. (This is largely because the strength of punished behaviors, as I blogged about here, doesn’t diminish and only hides, so boys’ femininity and girls’ masculinity, however defined, stay with them and seek outlets when they are taught with punishment.) Local cultures vary in the extent to which they insist on performances of pervasive masculinity or femininity. Local cultures also vary in their definitions of masculinity and femininity. When people say that gender is not binary, they are often conflating sex and gender. What they often mean is that they think that masculinity is not entirely male and femininity is not entirely female. But then, having stated that gender is not binary, they often segue into saying that sex is not binary either. It's true that sex is not binary in the sense that a very small percentage of intersex people are biologically neither male nor female (or both), but that’s not what they mean. [Let me add that “a very small percentage of intersex individuals,” negligible for this discussion, amounts to perhaps half a million Americans, so they are far from negligible when it comes to health care and civil rights.] What they typically mean is that their biological sex doesn’t define them, but there is no need to say so once we have distinguished sex from gender. Thus, biological sex is essentially binary (with some rare intersex exceptions); gender is never binary, because everyone has traits their cultures reject because of the person’s sex. The more pervasively your local culture defines sex roles, the more gender-conscious your behavior will be, and the more important will be, and aware you will be of, your sex.

Boys who prefer dolls to trucks are, in many local cultures, not masculine in their choice of toys, but biologically they are still boys. Girls who prefer pants to dresses are, in many local cultures, not feminine in their choice of clothes, but biologically they are still girls. Parents, as with every other kind of behavior, have to find the line between helping children fit in with their culture and fostering their individuality. You can raise your kids to speak only Esperanto, preparing them for and committing them to a world in which everyone can speak to one another, but they’ll probably be better off in the long run learning a local language. Children are well-served by broadening the sense of what a boy can be and what a girl can be, so they can inhabit their bodies with a sense of ownership, but to cross gender expectations purposely may not be good for kids (see Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue”). The reason I dislike listing your preferred pronouns after your signature, as many academics now do, is because it implicitly reifies the gender expectations of she and he, whereas I want pronouns to refer only to biological sex and not to behavior; chromosomes are permanent and gender is fluid, so it’s a categorization that can’t constrain (not to be confused with the expectations about the category that surely do constrain). Ideally, our grammar will evolve to a point where we use a singular they to refer to a person unless they are in one of those fairly rare situations where their sex matters, and then we would use he or she. “They are  a good engineer. They live in the Valley and they hate horror movies. Oh? You want to date her?” But we’re not there yet. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, we don’t get to choose the meaning of our words, and they currently sounds evasive or smug rather than un-sexed. They is beginning to sound fine, though, when referring to an abstract person, as in the sentence, "A therapist who is constantly aware of their patient's sex may be doing them a disservice."