Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nice summary of sex/gender distinction

The following is adapted from Alison Stone's excellent An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy. I thought it was a particularly succinct and clear account of the matters discussed below.

Accept for the moment that there is some biologically specifiable notion of "sex", although we note this notion of "sex" would not be binary, but clustered or continuous. Gender, in contrast, would be precisely that set of "social expectations and norms governing what behaviors and traits are appropriate for male and female individuals."

These social expectations, or norms, "are conveyed to individuals by other people and by being embodied in institutions and in cultural artifacts, such as films and novels. Institutions are humanly created organizations that shape social life, such as the state, law, the family, the health service [haha... not in the USA! -t] and the media. These expectations or norms specify which behaviors are masculine and which are feminine. People and institutions enforce expectations by applying rewards and punishments. For example, if girls are expected to be deferential, then they will be punished or receive negative responses when they behave assertively".

Stone continues: "Masculinity and femininity are social position or roles. According to sociologists, a role is a position within society (e.g. the position of teacher, the position of parent). Each role is defined by a set of norms about how those occupying this role should behave. Each role is defined in relation to other roles: what is expected of teachers depends on what is expected of pupils and vice versa."

Importantly, "individuals are not only expected to perform the actions appropriate to their gender, they are also expected to identify, or understand, themselves as members of that gender."

We may expand upon this provisional definition of gender as follows. Gender "consists of (1) norms which are embodied in social practices and which regulate masculine and feminine behavior, (2) the habitual ways of acting that people acquire because of those norms, and (3) the bodily features that people acquire because of these ways of acting."

The claims above may seem obvious and innocent to many of us, but they are material for forming some pretty radical political inferences.

Stone also explores prominent criticisms of the sex/gender distinction from, for example, Butler and Gatens, but concludes that a suitably revised version of the concept of sex is defensible. (Compare with Butler, who argues that any claim about sex necessarily entails a claim about gender). The conception that Stone has in mind is one that is thin (rather than expansive and deterministic), continuous (rather than discrete, binary), and one that picks out clusters of biological features of bodies because those very features reinforce one another biologically. Here conception thus avoids the sexist error of subsuming bodily features under a purportedly discrete "sex" on the basis of social expectations (rather than biology). Anyway- I'm not going to dwell on these interesting debates (although, incidentally, I'm disposed to agree with Stone) at the moment- I just wanted to share a bit from this excellent introduction to feminist philosophy.


dnw said...

Right, here I side with Butler. The distinction between sex and gender turns out to be none at all. How we refer to a given "sex" is produced by structures of language and power: who gets to determine what "sex" is? Is it anatomical/chromosomal/hormonal? What is the history of how this binary was created? So sex is not a neutral surface, the "nature" to gender's "culture," but rather a cultural construction as well.
So if sex is itself gendered, then gender means something different; it creates the linguistic-political matrix that establishes the binary of sexes and also establishes sexual nature as prediscursive.

t said...

I think you're asking the right questions about the politics and history of the extant concept of "sex". But I don't think the question "who gets to determine what "sex" is?" has no answer. Surely, this is the right question to ask. But this question masks another: is it the case that all of the concerns of science, as such, are necessarily ideological and "discursively constituted" all the way down? My answer would be no. The problem isn't with science, as such, but with what's become of it and how it has been systematically distorted throughout history. I side here with the sociological/political critique leveled by the Frankfurt School toward science/rationalization in advanced industrial societies; as opposed to the metaphysical critique leveled by post-structuralists that leads us to a linguistic-idealist position.

dnw said...

Point taken, but it seems we need a more sophisticated way to make sense of the interrelation between the two terms than the nature vs. culture dichotomy. I agree that science is not merely a cultural-ideological tool. Taken to this extreme, we should be tolerant of other cultures which use dream hoops and folk songs to cure AIDS, because to impose the culturally contingent discourse of western medicine is oppressive. Clearly there is something wrong with that picture. Nonetheless, I would challenge your positing of a pure “science as such” versus its particular cultural and ideological constructions. The choice is not between a science which is discursive and ideological all the way down, and a pure, ideological-free science that we must unconditionally obey. Yes, science attempts articulate a Real which eludes our discursive formulations, but this process is always bound up in cultural institutions, and more importantly, language, since the signifiers themselves are unstable. It is not an either/or.

But do you mean that science is the answer to the question of who gets to determine sex? Stone’s claim that sexes have “clusters of biological features” seems vague to me. Is it some sort of empirical test that anyone can conduct, and through what means? Just by looking? What if there’s a case in which you can’t tell by looking? Lacan’s formulation of sexual difference avoids the post-structuralist metaphysical critique by rejecting both a simple binary and a purely biological or scientific explanation. So the feminine signifies a symbolic lack which creates sexual difference at the level of the (phallic) signifier. In this sense, the masculine subject is individuated by the founding prohibitions, the Symbolic law, the law of the Father. I don’t think this makes for any less of a political reading, since the unconscious is public insofar as it is structured as a language. So sexed nature is not biological, nor explicitly ideological, but rather constructed at the level of the symbolic’s interaction with (separation from) the Real.

t said...

I think we're in agreement. Sexed nature is not science.

A disanalogy here with race might help explain what I'm trying to say. Race, I would argue, is an entirely social/political concept, which has no biological basis whatsoever. Of course, we could talk about such superficial biological features as human phenotype (e.g. skin color, hair type, etc.)... but there is no scientific/biological reason to try to combine them all into a putative "race" at all (but there are, of course, political reasons to do so if one's aim is to defend existing inequalities). Race, while it attempts to refer to some real biological features of human beings, is not itself a biological category. It is a political concept that conjoins otherwise unrelated phenotypic features (and often cultural or behavioral features as well).

Sex, it seems to me, is somewhat different. Obviously, what's called "sex" is susceptible to the same critique as the criticism of race above. But it seems to me that there are biological differences, although they are basically very thin and matters of degree, that do warrant some biological notion of sex that is, albeit, very different from the one in circulation at present. Such a conception wouldn't be a reason to imply certain social relations, explain behaviors, etc. It would, as I say, be rather thin. We need to be able to say something about why one set of humans menstruates and reproduces the species, whereas another does not. This does not imply sexual binarism, however. Nor does it imply anything like an essentially "masculine" or "feminine" nature ("masculine" is an inescapably social and political concept that does not have a precise biological referent at all).

Let me say, though, that I'm not fanatical about this. I don't think that there are strong political reasons to insist on "sex". On the contrary, though I think such a claim is false, it may be more politically advantageous to claim that sex (not just gender) is political and social all the way down. Certainly we should be open to whatever means of smashing compulsory heterosexuality available to us. But as a matter of fact, I do think there is a thin, continuous conception of sex that maps onto related, interdependent physiological processes (e.g. the relationship between certain organs, hormones, etc.).

dnw said...

It’s possible we agree, but we’re approaching it from different angles. Biology is not the locus of my critique of the gender/sex distinction, so while I agree that neither “masculine” nor “feminine” has a biological referent, I do believe these terms have determinate, essential meanings. To take up post-structuralist critiques of Lacan’s theory of female “masquerading,” there is no pre-discursive, ontological status of gender relations that can be posited temporally independent of the Law, since the Law is made intelligible only through the pre-supposition of sexual difference. The masculine articulates its positive non-existence, or the identity formation in which it’s instantiated through the negation of the feminine, which plays this role of the “mask” via its paradoxical possession of the Phallus. So the authentic feminine is itself a masquerade, or as Stephen Heath calls it, “the dissimulation of a fundamental masculinity.” So one way to rethink the concepts of masculine and feminine (Butler’s suggestion), is that they are based in unresolved homosexual desires. The refusal of homosexuality results in the construction of essential sexual natures which reciprocally institute their oppposites through exclusion. Others would argue that feminity is based on the exclusion of the masculine, of the excluded Signified from a phallogocentric language. In either case, the division is an effect of the Law, rather than some sort of pre-discursive reality. The feminine can’t be outside language. So I think we agree that there are biological differences between men and women, but this can be resolved in a more empirical, less rigorous way, and this isn’t the REAL of sexual difference. This difference does have important political impact regarding homosexuality, female sexuality, “post-genital politics,” and whether performative subversion is even possible. I.e. if everything is structured according to the dominant phallic discourse, how is a properly female pleasure/desire possible?