Sex & Gender: The Irreducible Masculine and Feminine

Electricity, more than any other technological innovation in the history of humankind, changed our perceptual habits: not only by the disruption of our circadian cycle, but by the way in which it allowed us to create products of mass culture and subsequently perfuse our lives with them.  That is: culture has held a prominent role in human life for as long as it has been historically recorded, but the products of culture themselves were usually local, part of the people among whom they existed; and these products, moreover, tended to be somehow attendant upon nature.  Agriculture, animal husbandry, local materials, landmarks, weather, and provincial history shaped the contours of a culture far more than they do today.  While industrialization certainly had a lot to do with this, electricity accelerated industrialized means of production and transportation but also gave rise to radio, film, and television.  Cultural products were disseminated, in consequence, over ever-widening ranges.

Among the many results of this cultural diffusion was the divergence of culture from nature, not just in a theoretical sense—a divergence proposed in the theories of writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau even before the turn of the 18th century—but in the concrete daily lives of the majority.  Increasingly, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the world of human and especially Western culture became “constructed”—that is, having less and less to do with the way the world is on its own, and more and more to do with imagined worlds of specifically-human invention: and this imagination often tending to picture how the world might be if it better suited our present desires.

These illusory worlds often become more real to those who psychologically dwell in them than the physical worlds in which they corporeally exist; and efforts, subsequently, are made to make the physical world—hard as it is to ignore all the time—into something more closely resembling that constructed fantasy world.  Pushed to extremes (as today is common), these illusory worlds become the fixed objects of outright delusion.

Perhaps no such delusion has become more common than the delusory idea that gender is something merely constructed and not in any way “naturally” grounded: that the biological differences are of minimal importance and that most of even the phenotypic divergences—as well as any dimorphic concepts of biological sex—are the results of enculturation.  Thus, proponents of this postgender ideology claim, the still-present dominant paradigm of enculturation—which insists upon important immutable differences between male and female—is a bad one, prohibitive of deeper psychological yearnings seeking expression on a broad spectrum of multiple axes of gender identification.  A societal shift to an enculturation which prescribes no limitations to these expressions and therefore satisfies these deep psychological needs would be, therefore, a change for the better.

This delusion finds its immediate theoretical basis in the radical ideas of the origins of third wave feminism, Foucault, and the general sway of discourse carried out in terms of “power structures” and “patriarchy” – evolved today into the theoretical “framewoke” of the political left that ostensibly stands against all correlation of “normativity” with anything resembling “nature”.  The speculative roots of the delusion go deeper: into the Enlightenment and modern philosophy as a whole, which introduced a presumed ontological chasm between the physical and the mental, and subsequently the natural and the cultural, a chasm which it attempted to bridge from time to time but which it never could—having framed the terms of the problem in such a way that any solution was de facto impossible.

It is in this abstract and theoretical background that we must begin our critique of the social constructivist theory of gender.

Patterns of Falsehood

What do we mean by “sex” and “gender”?[1]  Commonly, the first is used to refer to the biological differentiation: specifically, the presence or absence of X and Y chromosomes and their subsequent hormonal consequences.  The vast majority of persons have either XX (female) or XY (male) pairings, though there are individuals with a wide range of genetic abnormalities resulting in a divergence from the typical dimorphic pattern.  The common genetic differentiation results in typical forms of phenotypic presentation: as, for instance, the presence of a Y chromosome results primarily in the production of increased levels of testosterone which not only produces male genitalia but also influences body hair growth, muscular development, and so on; just as the absence of the Y and presence of a second X likewise influences body development—the growth of female genitalia and eventually breasts, the structure of pelvic bones, and so on.

Recent claims that biological sex does not exist in a “binary” but rather on a “spectrum” are misleading: for male and female each have their own phenotypic spectra, though remain always genotypically differentiated (genetic intersexuality being extremely rare, and phenotypic intersexuality being, while more common, ordinarily the result of some androgenic excess or deficiency relative to the chromosomal ordination) in mutually exclusive categories.  For something to be on a spectrum means that it is an emergent and discrete point upon a continuous line of possibility.  Color, for instance, is a spectrum: red for instance, is the color deemed to be produced by light waves oscillating between 635-700nm.  Thus, the “most” red of reds is produced by light waves oscillating at 667.5nm.  A “less” red of reds would be found at 660nm; less still at 655; and it would almost not be red at all at 636nm—who is to say that is not more orange (590-635nm) than red?  Such a precise delineation is a matter of convention; one could make a good argument that what we mean by “orange” ought to comprise the range of 585-640nm.

But even if we argued successfully that “orange” should have its significance expanded, we would have a much harder time—for good reason—arguing that “orange” should comprise from 560-700nm (i.e., the full range of what is now considered yellow-orange-red).  What we mean by “orange” is not the same as what we mean by “yellow” or “red”, and what we mean by “yellow” certainly is not what we mean by “red”.  Even more difficult would be the argument that “orange” should include all the way down to 400nm (the approximate lower limit of light visible to human eyes); “orange” and “red” are the same spectrum as “blue”, but that does not mean that they are the same thing.

Biological sex, however, is a differentiation that does not occur along a continual axis, but is a true dimorphism present from the very moment of conception (as we will see in the next section).

Gender, on the other hand, is used to describe the categorization of persons and their behaviors—historically along sexually-differentiated lines—within social contexts.  For the social constructivist, the connection between gender and sexuality is either purely by convention or almost entirely by convention.  Extreme constructivists hold not only that the notion of two genders is a pure convention, but that even much of the phenotypic presentation of the sexes, which is used as justification for gender dimorphism, is the product of enculturation.  In other words, they argue, for instance, that masculine presentation—being relatively hairier and more muscular—results immediately from higher levels of testosterone but that those higher levels of testosterone are themselves the result of culture.[2]

These beliefs do not spring up ex nihilo, however, but follow a long train of presuppositions lacking intelligent critical evaluation.  For one, it is presumed by most social constructivists that a natural phenomenon, such as biological sex, and a cultural one, such as gender—or in our view, gender expressions—are essentially distinct and coexist in our worldview only because of a cultural imposition.  For another, it is presumed that all knowledge of relations is a fictional knowledge, constituted by the mind which knows, rather than a real knowledge, abducted from encounters of relationality in the world outside the mind.[3]  For a third, it is presumed that the universe has produced an ordered world—including animal species and within those species, biological sexual differentiations—only through a concatenation of unlikely evolutionary accidents.  In consequence, all order is contingent and lacks any true normative weight, being nothing more than the product of dumb forces.

These three suppositions—1) the unbridgeable chasm of nature and culture, 2) nominalism, and 3) cosmological nihilism—dispose their possessors towards an anti-realist, radical-constructivist framework.  One may still, from such a standpoint, believe in the discoveries of idioscopic scientific research and value the results of cenoscopic inquiry,[4] but without a common root for each—the former being a study of cognition-independent nature and the latter a product of cognitively-constructed culture—and whatever moral prescriptions may grow out of such a philosophy cannot find their justification in anything “natural”.  Thus, morality must be by a kind of social contract or convention—or imposition—based upon something irreducible to a cognition-independent reality.

Principal among the bases of the current cognition-dependent moral contract upon which proponents of the postgender ideology insist is the psychological subjectivity of the individuals involved, and within that psychological subjectivity, beliefs about oneself.  Put more succinctly: right and wrong, it is argued, depend upon what one believes about oneself.  Thus, one’s gender, which is believed an issue of culture produced entirely by the mind and without recourse to a natural order, appears as a matter of personal belief rather than anything grounded in a cognition-independent reality, and failure to recognize this is a sin.  Given a culture in which deeply-habituated illusion, grown often into delusion, holds sway over most minds, even sentimental attachments to a realist morality of gender wane-to-disappearance.

Biological Patterns

Idioscopic research into human fetal development has revealed that sexual differentiation begins at the moment of an egg’s fertilization: the sperm cell carries either an X or Y chromosome.  The Y chromosome carries a gene (SRY) which produces a protein (SRY) that initiates the production of multiple proteins which, in turn, cause the undifferentiated gonad medulla to differentiate into testis.  In turn, the testis contains both Leydig cells, which secrete testosterone and dihydrotestosterone that causes development of the mesonephric ducts (into the epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicle) and development of external genitalia, and Sertoli cells, which secrete a hormone (AMH) that causes the regression of the Müllerian (paramesonephric) ducts.

Conversely, in the absence of testosterone and AMH, the mesonephric ducts degenerate and disappear, while the Müllerian ducts develop into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and upper portion of the vagina.

For fetal development to diverge into a morphological (i.e., regarding organs rather than genes) intersex category requires some disruption of the typical or ordinary secretion of one or another hormone, while elevated levels of androgens may cause a genetic and morphological female to have external male characteristics.

Put otherwise, sexual differentiation results from a highly complex process in which many things can go awry.  Some of these are minor, such as slightly elevated levels of testosterone in women, of estrogen in men, mild femininity or masculinity in appearance; while others are major, such as having both sets of genitalia.  Nevertheless, major aberrations are statistically quite rare.  The biological pattern for each sex is, all things considered, quite regular.

Is there an order present in these biological patterns of differentiation?  All but the most obtuse would have to say yes.  There is a clear complementarity between the two sexes, at least as regards primary sexual characteristics and reproduction.  Some secondary sexual characteristics—specifically, overall male body size and musculature, female breasts and hips—suggest a more dynamic and contingent complementarity.  Thus, if we set aside the question of overall cosmic order, relevant and important differences between the sexes remain, not only in some imagined “state of nature”, but even in the most advanced cultural setting.  That is, not only is there a genotypic differentiation present in every cell of the body, but there are phenotypic differentiations which follow as a natural consequence of these genotypic differentiations.  Because the matter through which the phenotype develops, however, is variable and subject to fault—because it is a kind of “analog” to the “digital” genetic code—there are spectra of phenotypes: which spectra are nevertheless discontinuous from one another.

In other words, someone genetically masculine (XY) may be more or less phenotypically masculine, just as someone genetically feminine may be more or less phenotypically feminine.  Those on the lesser end of each spectrum may superficially resemble one another; which is to say, there is an overlap in the Venn diagram of presentation, if we view it from above; but if we view it from the side, we realize the discs of each circle do not touch (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Discontinous despite overlap.

Does it make sense to elide these differences?  The social constructivists say “yes”, as they imagine a world in which physical labor and activity generally decreases in importance, in which sexual pleasure is entirely separated from reproduction and increasingly conducted through artificially-mediated means, while mental operation takes an increasing precedence in our day-to-day lives.  But in this fantasy lurks a presupposition: namely, that our mental activity occurs independently of our biological constitution or stands at least in principle as insignificantly affected by it.  This ideal of contingently-embodied self comes as a consequence of the nominalist presupposition; for the nominalist takes every idea to be generated by the mind perhaps by drawing upon experience, but not drawing from experience; the idea is a construct of the mind only subsequently imposed upon the cognition-independent realities we experience, as a necessary epiphenomenal means of addressing them.

Cultural Patterns

The more pressing question—I won’t say “important”, for it is reliant upon the former—however, is that of social and cultural sexual differentiation: i.e., what today often goes by the name “gender”.  This differentiation has long followed the basic biological distinction: men, being stronger and faster, have generally taken more physically demanding tasks upon themselves, particularly those that require labor outside of the home; while women, being more attuned to providing comfort, have generally taken care of the home.  The introduction of women to the workplace has seen these trends continue; indeed, in more highly-specialized labor forces, particularly in those countries where gender equality has been made a priority, care-giving occupations are still overwhelmingly dominated by women, while manual labor and engineering-related occupations are populated primarily by men.[5]

“Is this gendered social division nothing more than the result of enculturation?  Or is this result primarily the product of biology?”  These are not the questions to ask: for they presuppose a framework of division, of irreconcilable difference between nature and culture.  It is of the nature of human beings to have a cultural development; for we are not only social, but being imbued with intellectual capacity, turn the relationships of that society into enduring social structures that seek improvement of our quality of life.  In other words, our society “grows”, not by mere biological force but through deliberate acts of cultivation.

This cultural development, however, cannot rightly be separated from the physical and biological realities from which it comes.  The ideal of the contingently-embodied self—that we are essentially something separate in principle albeit not in fact from our physical existence (be this a trapped angel-like spirit or a neurologically-supervenient “consciousness”)—ignores the species-specifically sensitive origin of our cognitive procedure.  That is, our intellectual capacities are not an evolutionary aberration from the lesser cognitive faculties found in other animals, but an exponential development enabling actions fundamentally different in kind yet having the same origin: sensation.  That we operate on our sensations, moreover, is a matter of perception; indeed, what we think of as “sensations” more often than not are really “perceptions”.  “To perceive” entails not only passive reception, but, more importantly, active interpretation.

Much of our individual development within a culture stems from these perceptions.  This includes our notions of gender: by very early ages, children perceptually distinguish things as “masculine” and “feminine”—not merely inanimate objects (such as toys, which are overwhelmingly preferred in typical gendered patterns as early as 9 months)[6] or cultural trappings, but also faces, voices, and even body shapes.[7]

It has long been the contention of feminist and gender-studies theorists that the divisions into masculine and feminine genders, as distinct social roles, are largely if not entirely the result of cultural imposition.  But both scientific study and philosophical reflection seem, in fact, to reveal the opposite; rather, it is only a conscious and deliberate cultural imposition that could foist the notion upon us that the sexes do not naturally unfold into a dimorphic gender pattern.  There is something very telling in this attempt to deny the naturality of gendered dimorphism, and the suggestion that a more androgynous culture would be more fitting to our natures: namely, that even those most ardent to destroy the concept of “nature” would rather have it on “their” side; and there is something outright insidious about the present willingness to suppress the innate orientations received from nature—which, in a vicious circle, often requires the denial of nature or, at the very least, of any connection between nature and culture.

Thus, increasingly, we are presented with a narrative wherein expressions that are distinctly “masculine” are branded “toxic”, while more traditional expressions of “femininity” are shown as the consequence of oppression, and any election of them as a brainless subservience to patriarchy—the traditional woman as gender-traitor—and so on.  The more radical theorists behind this struggle over how gender is portrayed make no effort to obscure their intentions, but only the reasons behind those intentions.[8]  At work, therefore, is an impressive rhetorical shell-game: a Marxist-inspired attempt to use sophisticated language not to understand the truth, or reveal it, but to change what others believe, so that one gets what one wants: license to pursue pleasure.[9]  That is, behind all the lingo and the pretense at theoretical complexity, lurking behind all the sophisticated language, lies the desire to follow deeply-seated desires that are deviant from the norm; thus, the motive to destroy the belief in norms and the willingness to adopt the aforementioned beliefs of an unbridgeable chasm between nature and culture (or an outright denial of nature altogether), nominalism, and cosmological nihilism—beliefs which support the motive.

Magritte’s Lovers

That is not to say the adherents of postgender ideology do not really believe in the separation of culture and nature, or that all “natures” as known are fictions of the mind, or that the cosmos is inherently devoid of purposiveness until we or other living creatures impose a purpose on it; they do.  That these beliefs cohere with their own tendencies towards a pursuit of pleasure, however, is not a mere coincidence.  Nor is it a coincidence that there is a consistent campaign—not necessarily coordinated, but often deliberately organized—to fill our channels of entertainment and news media with portrayals of postgenderist ideology (albeit often in a more palatable form than that envisioned by the radicals) as the progressive norm in contrast to the shown-as-oppressive, regressive traditional view.  Combined with the presupposition of these three worldview-determining beliefs, the postgenderist ideology strives to shift all our thinking towards its point of view.[10]

Summarily, the cultural patterns of gender are as malleable as our perceptual and intellectual habits—not as malleable as the postgenderists argue, but malleable nonetheless.

Patterns of Complementarity

This malleability may be misinterpreted as suggesting that these cultural patterns are in fact arbitrary.  To the contrary: this requires that we handle our cultural developments with the utmost care.  Part of the difficulty we have had in exercising that care has been that we have allowed the wrong question to be asked first.  That is, we have allowed the focus to be, “Do the genders, as social expressions of biological sexual differentiation, have a similar difference?”  Rather, we ought to ask, “Should the genders differ, and why?”  That is: should there be different social and cultural expressions based upon biological sexual differentiation?

Those who would answer “no” seem to be lost in a delusion: a delusion that there is or ought to be unequivocal egalitarian equality between the sexes, and that any inequality—of any kind whatsoever, in any regard—is an injustice.  It echoes the genuine injustice of “separate but equal” racially-segregated educations; but in a false key.  For there is no compelling evidence that different races have any innate differences, however varied their historically-inherited cultures and subsequent genetically-produced inclinations might be.[11]  Contrariwise, there is compelling evidence, in almost mindboggling abundance, that the different sexes do have innate differences: not just that one is hairier and more muscular, but more aggressive, competitive, oriented towards problem solving, building, and providing, while the other is softer, more nurturing, cooperative, oriented towards caring, maintaining, and curating.  We call developments based upon these traits “gender patterns”, each of which has its own spectrum.

There is—much like with phenotypic presentation—a certain overlap between the spectra of the two gender patterns; given certain technological improvements that have in fact equalized abilities that are naturally unequal (making labor and employment more neutral), there is considerably more overlap (albeit contingently) in gender patterns today than in phenotypic presentation.   Some might think that we can and therefore should push these technological improvements to the point that not only gendered patterns but also biological patterns are effaced; that we should pursue a genderless egalitarian society.

Should we?  Granting that we could (which remains to be seen), what do we lose by such erasure?  Diversity: not as a political platform byword signifying a superficial quantitative plurality, but real, true diversity can be a wonderful thing—through diversity a greater good that could never be captured by a single thing is better expressed.  One of the clearest indications of incoherence nevertheless often heard in political discourse (and a good indication of an uncritical mind) is the simultaneous demand of increased equality and diversity: since it is a metaphysical impossibility that two things which are diverse from one another be equal, precisely in the regard that they differ.  But the regards in which the sexes differ are not a difference of “wholly superior” and “wholly inferior”.  Far from it: the strengths and weaknesses, rather, are complementary.[12]  Should we encourage gender patterns which mute this complementarity—resulting in bland, neutral, tepid expressions of both sex—or should we, rather, encourage gender patterns which encourage it?

[1] While much could be learned by investigating the history of “gender” and “sex”—the latter specifically as pertaining to the biological differentiation of male from female—I will stick to a discussion of the present common meanings of the terms.

[2] There is an actual argument to be made for this: but only insofar as “culture” may influence reproductive patterns and therefore over the course of thousands of generations have an evolutionary effect.  Moreover, one falls into a “chicken or egg” scenario, as the biology is always presupposed to any cultural pattern; that hairy, muscular men would be not only more likely to survive harsh weather conditions, but that they would also have some sort of advantage in reproduction presupposes the existence of hairy, muscular men.

[3] That is, nominalism.

[4] See here for an explanation of “idioscopy” and “cenoscopy”.

[5] Often termed the “gender-equality paradox”.

[6] Todd, Barry, Thommessen, 2016: “Preferences for ‘Gender‐typed’ Toys in Boys and Girls Aged 9 to 32 Months”, Infant and Child Development, 26.3 (May/June 2017): This is only the latest study of which I know; many others have preceded it with the same results.

[7] There is less scientific consensus on precisely when such distinctions begin to form, but most seem agreed that gendered facial and voice recognition occurs before 12 months.

[8] See, for instance, the collection edited by Michael Warner, 1993: Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, or his 1999: The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life.  The former includes essays with title such as, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” (by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick)—where we find the author stating (p.78), “Conceptualizing an unalterably homosexual body seems to offer resistance to the social-engineering momentum apparently built into every one of the human sciences of the West, and that resistance can reassure profoundly.  At the same time, however, in the postmodern era it is becoming increasingly problematical to assume that grounding an identity in biology or ‘essential nature’ is a stable way of insulating it from societal interference. If anything, the gestalt of assumptions that undergird nature/nurture debates may be in process of direct reversal”; and “Tremble, Hetero Swine!” (by Cindy Patton)—which is marginally tongue in cheek, but includes, in its conclusion, the following (p.175): “reinterpreting identities as strategic systems with pragmatic purposes and unintended effects may make it easier to forge new strategies (with or without ‘identities’), and certainly make easier alliances between styles of queer practice.”

[9] Part of the shell-game at work here aims at inducing frustration in those opposed to their theories: so that one might lash out against them with “hurtful” words or even actions.  As Kate Manne argues in her 2017: Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, in chapter 7, setting oneself up to be a victim and consequently calling attention to victimization can be (though not necessarily) a way to re-shape narratives (p.248): “Sometimes, to foster solidarity, as Regina Rini has argued.  And sometimes, to make oneself the center of a narrative that one has had an active role in (re)shaping, which may compete with dominant and default versions thereof, I’ve argued.  One thereby has an opportunity—possibly a unique one—as a subordinate group member to reveal what it is natural to call one’s point of view on the matter, one’s side of the story, in relation to dominant parties.”

[10] Which is not to say that the opposite, traditional point of view has not tried the same, or is not trying the same today (only, less successfully).

[11] That is: the reproductive and educational practices of a culture may result in genetic dispositions to a better problem-solving skillset of intelligence or to an improved physical acumen, but these may change drastically within a few generations; contrariwise, no apparent cultural practices aside from, possibly, extreme manipulation, will change XX and XY chromosome pairings, nor their subsequent hormonal effects.

[12] Some might object, “why not have someone who has all the strengths and none of the weaknesses?”  This is nonsense; what is a strength in the right context is a weakness in the wrong, just as black is the appropriate clothing when white is the exact opposite.  One could no more have all the strengths than one could be elated in depression, a squared circle, or any other such contradiction.

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