Many people try to draw a clear distinction between sex and gender, and feel this is a helpful thing to do. This blog will attempt to explain why, for most everyday purposes, the distinction is unhelpful, and not just in relation to trans people.
Let’s start with the basics. The working definitions suggest that sex is biological and gender is socially constructed. So far, so straightforward. One is nature, one is nurture.
Except, as I explained in a previous blog, we are now living in the age of epigenetics and neuroconstructivism, which in laymans terms means that for some time now scientists have rejected the idea that you can separate nature and nurture from each other. We now realise the two things interact and combine to create the people we are. This is uniquely true for humans; the reason we take so long to “grow up” compared to other animals is what also makes us especially adaptable to our environment. Our brains develop as much after birth as before, “downloading” the environmental conditions around us in early life. But how we develop is also dictated by brain formation that happens in the womb and is mediated by hormones.
What does this mean? It means that if you find differences between men’s and women’s brains that doesn’t prove we were “born that way”, but equally it means that sociological factors can influence our very biology.
Knowing this, you can understand why many thinkers are pushing to raise children in a more gender neutral way, especially in the first 7 years of life when their brains are developing. And you can also begin to understand the second wave feminist assertion that after all, biology is destiny, and due to our differing socialisation, men and women are fundamentally different.
Except we’re not. Because scientists like Daphna Joel are discovering that our hormones influence our responses to the environment we are born into in unique ways, leading to brains that are an unpredicatable mosaic of typically-male and typically-female characteristics. Which is what probably accounts for the fact that, even in our heavily gendered society, children still emerge in a rainbow of gender non-conforming ways.
This complex interrelationship between biology and socialisation may account for the natural diversity of gender experience. Rather than just two kinds of people we have a rich variety in how people experience gender – girly girls (both cis and trans), butch women (both cis and trans), agender and androgynous people, femme men (both cis and trans) and manly men (both cis and trans), to crudely cite a few examples from a myriad of possibilities.
So, to recap what we’ve learned so far:
- Gender essentialists say: Men and women are fundamentally different because biology.
- [some] Radical feminists say: Men and women are fundamentally different because socialisation.*
- Science says: Biology and environment interact in such complex ways that each of us is unique, and you can’t really generalise.
But all this is gender, surely, and sex is something else, something we can be much more certain of. Sex is what’s between our legs.
Now at this point, a lot of trans activists, myself included, like to point out how the existence of intersex people complicates the picture when it comes to sex, and how their erasure, often through surgery, is evidence of how we have socially constructed our ideas of sex.
But although I think it is important for trans people to highlight the experiences of intersex people, we do not need to co-opt their struggle to help our own cause. Why? because the registering of “sex” on a birth certificate, even in a world where all chromosomes and genitals were genuinely dyadic without exception, could never be described as a biological process. And therefore legal sex, as recorded on birth certificates and enshrined in pronouns and bathroom doors and “Mr and Mrs” and a million other social forms, is in fact gender, and not sex at all.
In other words, if gender is what we socially construct around biological sex, then all the legal and social paraphernalia has to be gender and not sex. In fact, even the words man and woman, with all their layers of social meaning, must be understood to be socially constructed. Which is why, in a nutshell, you can only record your gender on a form, and not your sex. Because the act of putting it on a form makes it gender, i.e. makes it a social process and gives it social (and legal) significance.
What this means is that we can use the word sex in an unambiguous way for plants, and maybe even animals, but when it comes to human beings our understanding of sex is so cluttered with legal and social understandings that it is inevitably gendered.
What this also means is that you can never abolish gender [ETA- even if you wanted to – I don’t and here’s why] whilst retaining the legal construction and segregation of what we disingenuously call “biological sex”.
And this is why many trans people prefer to be labelled transgender rather than transsexual, because our transitions are a social process related to the consequences of having been legally assigned a gender. For some of us, there is also a physical, medical process that goes alongside this. But we do not want our identities to be medicalised. We do not want to be understood as people solely in terms of how our bodies have been configured or medically changed. We defy the assignment of gender that was given to us at birth, and the social consequences of that assignment.
As a feminist, I believe the recording of gender as a legal status is at the heart of all gender injustice, and should be abolished. Sadly, feminism has been manipulated into believing that gender segregation is “for your own good“. While our nation is ruled by an elite of men who are the product of segregated education, some feminists still argue that women benefit from segregated education. Men use violence and fear and microaggressions to reinforce the “benefit” to women of separatism, and many feminists fall for this. Trans people are casualties in this process, but I argue it benefits only a minority of gender normative men, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Abolishing sex assignment is the only radical answer, but in the mean time let’s not pretend any more that this socially constructed process has anything to do with biology.
*eta – this deliberately mischievous assertion slipped through my editing process. of course radfems worth their salt believe nothing of the sort, but some fringe elements do still believe men’s socialisation creates irreconcilable differences.