A Martian's View of Gender


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What is Gender?

An Anthropologist From Mars

At Wiscon 20, a feminist science fiction convention, my friend Elise Matthesen did a program item called "Is Gender Real, or a Fetish?" She introduced herself as an alien temporarily stranded on Earth by a faulty starship drive, and asked the audience to explain gender to her.

Elise is good at this. No one got away with an airy generalization or an unexplained abstraction. When someone said that gender was socially constructed, she shot back, "You build 'em at parties?" We had' to use the simplest, most concrete language to get anything through at all.

In the course of an hour, we in the audience said that there are two genders, that there are several, and that there are very many. We explained that you're born with your gender, that you learn it early in life, and that it can change as you get older. We maintained that gender is readily visible to everyone, but also insisted that you never know what gender someone is until you ask.

If we want the aliens to understand us, we're going to have to do better.

Sex vs. Gender

If you alien anthropologists don't mind, I'd like to start by distinguishing gender from sex.

Sex is Biological, Gender is Social

I said in The Angel's Dictionary that sex is biological while gender is socially constructed. But the phrase "socially constructed" has been worn so smooth by overuse that it passes through the brain unprocessed nowadays. Here's what I mean when I say that gender is social:

The economy is much more than producing food and goods and distributing them to eaters and users; family and kinship are not the equivalent of having sex and procreating; morals and religions cannot be equated with the fears and ecstasies of the brain; language goes far beyond the sounds produced by tongue and larynx. No one eats "money" or "credit"....
Similarly, gender cannot be equated with biological and physiological differences between human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses.

Judith Lorber, Paradoxes of Gender

Gender -- like money, the family, and language -- has a material basis, but gives a new meaning to that basis. If a roast beef sandwich and a fruit salad each cost $3, then for the purposes of money, they're the same. Similarly, though people living as men may have great differences in hormonal makeup, genital appearance, or even gonadal sex, they are all men for the purposes of gender. Of course, they still taste different.

For another example of how sex is transformed into gender, pick up any popular account of "brain sex" studies. These studies are forever coming up with differences of 2% or 5% between the performance of men and women at various tests of verbal or spatial ability (some of which, when you come to examine them, turn out to be downright peculiar). Now it is probably true, as Anne Fausto-Sterling points out, that for every study showing such a difference, there is another study languishing unpublished in someone's desk drawer that showed no difference. (Very few people have made their careers by confirming the null hypothesis.) But the remarkable thing is that these unimpressive statistical differences between the sexes are transformed into an essential difference between the genders, so that there is a verbal sex and a mathematical one, and even Maria Mitchell was a member of the non-mathematical one. This is the magic of gender.

Sex Is, Gender Means

There's one problem with thinking of gender as a set of social categories: it scants the individual. Too often, people talk as if gender is imposed entirely from outside. But we humans aren't just passive victims of a social program; we're out there thinking about sex, trying to make sense of it. Gender isn't just a convenient tag that others can use to label us; it's also part of how we understand ourselves.

So here's another way of putting the difference: sex is, while gender means. Sex exists in itself, and is sublimely indifferent to what humans think of it. Gender is all the meanings we assign to sex--and, I would add, to sexuality.

When we talk about gender as a set of social categories, it makes sense to talk about a finite number of genders. When we talk about it in terms of meaning, then there may be an infinite number of genders--since there are as many meanings of sex as there are people who have thought about it. Here we can speak of doing gender, making gender.

Sex is Genetic, Gender is Memetic

There's still something missing. Not every difference between people of different genders is meaningful. Some are arbitrary and go almost unnoticed. So I want to advance a third distinction: sex is produced by genes, while gender is produced by the action of memes upon sex. Though I have some reservations about the concept of memetics, it provides a useful way to understand some of the fine points of gender.

To take a trivial example, Nicholson Baker says that most men he knows apologize for nearly running into you with the exclamation "oop," while women retain the ancestral form "oops." This is the sort of thing that only Nicholson Baker would notice; I certainly don't think that men throughout the U.S. believe that part of what it means to be a man is using the singular "oop" instead of the plural. "Oop" is an opportunistic meme that--like a virus--reproduces by attaching itself to one of our ideas about gender: the idea that men ought to imitate other men while women imitate other women.

I think that many aspects of gender are like this. Gender begins by attaching a meaning to biological sex, but then other meanings attach to those meanings, and memes stick to every available surface: and that is how gender grows, coral upon coral.

Can We Define Gender without Reference to Sex?

Of course, none of these are definitions; they're distinctions. I may have distinguished sex from gender; I may even have given some idea of how gender is produced; but what (the alien anthropologist might ask) is its nature? Can we define its essence? Can we enumerate its parts?

Martine Rothblatt thinks we can. In her book The Apartheid of Sex, she promises "a deconstruction of sexual identity into objective, ungenitally infected elements." This so-called deconstruction is a sort of type psychology:

Fundamentally, sexual identity has been recognized from the beginnings of consciousness to consist of three elements: activeness (or aggression), passiveness (or nurturing), and eroticism (or sex drive).

Any alien anthropologist would be bewildered by this system. Can't a person be active without being aggressive? And how on earth can nurturing be identified with passiveness? To nurture means to feed, or sometimes to educate; ask any chef or teacher how passive zir job is. Also, in a system of three traits supposed to vary independently of each other, how can you have both passivity and aggressiveness? Isn't one the absence of the other?

But let's set these specific objections aside. Restated coherently, Rothblatt's type psychology has three axes: aggressiveness, nurturance, and eroticism.

What, then, makes these three traits special? Why do they, and they alone, make up gender? Rothblatt doesn't say. She simply asserts that they have done so "since the beginning of consciousness." That may be, but I wasn't around at the beginning of consciousness, so someone is going to have to show me now.

I think Rothblatt is saying that these three traits relate to sex--that is, to swiving. At least, when a writer talks about a "sexual identity" that is not "associate[d] with sexual dimorphism," I have to assume she means country matters. So what personality traits have to do with sexuality?

All of them, of course. There isn't a single aspect of my personality that I take off with my clothes. In fact, Rothblatt's list doesn't name even one trait that I think is important to my lubricious identity. Personally, if I were asked for the three personality traits most closely related to sex, I'd probably say creativity, technophilia, and cuddliness. But that's me; other people will have other lists. The point is that Rothblatt wants to make one official list, and if you aren't high in any of the traits on that list, you must be "genderless."

All this in a book subtitled A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender. True, Rothblatt's gender system would let people choose a gender in adulthood, whereas our current system assigns everyone a gender at birth; but choice is not freedom when the terms of the choice are defined against you.

If gender is a set of meanings we assign to sex and sexuality, then three traits aren't enough. A hundred would not be enough. There are as many meanings for sex and sexuality as there are people who have thought about it. No list can ever be exhaustive. And what's more, the list we produce will be incoherent: its elements will have nothing in common with each other, except that someone, somewhere, has associated them with sex.

No wonder the alien anthropologists don't understand us.


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