Sex and gender: avoiding definitions while increasing knowledge

Posted on April 24, 2010

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Students uniformly want me to define sex and gender at the very beginning of the course. Having just returned from the annual archaeology meetings, I spent considerable time suffering as people did just that: sex, I heard repeatedly, is the biological identity (male or female, some speakers helpfully specified); gender, the same speakers would say, was the specific cultural ways of understanding sex.

Wikipedia agrees, although the entry acknowledges that biological sex includes a third possibility, “intersex”. Wikipedia assures us “there is nothing natural about gender, which is actually a social construct which varies between cultures and changes through time”.

Famously, Judith Butler in Gender Trouble would agree that there is nothing natural about gender– but that the same should be said of sex. Neither sex nor gender can be taken as a pre-cultural grounding of the identity of a human subject, which is what the standard archaeological view of the natural given of sex and the cultural construct of gender assumes. I use sex/gender to signify this indissoluble mingling, in which the idea that gender exists produces the impression that sex exists separately, even though both exist as cultural concepts.

What this allows me to do is to begin, not with some sort of biological certainty, but with the question, what are the culturally specific ways of discriminating among human bodies that are said to be natural sexes? How is sex construed: as categorical distinctions; as a spectrum; as one (as Thomas Laqueuer argues was once the European understanding); as two; as three, four, or more?

Mari Mikkola summarizes the issue as follows:

One possible way to understand ‘woman’ … is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. More recently this distinction has come under sustained attack and many view it nowadays with (at least some) suspicion.

Mikkola, Mari, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/feminism-gender/&gt;.