When last we left our intrepid workshoppers, one month ago, we had had a rollicking discussion of definitions of gender, sex, and related terms.
One of the things that came out of that discussion is that when we are each pressed to define exactly what each of us as individuals mean by each person’s specific, personal use of terms like “gender” and “sex” and “transsexual” we not only consistently come up with different definitions, but we also routinely fail to come up with terms that actually cover everything we want to say.
In looking at people overtly performing gender, many of us struggled to find a way to express exactly what we wished to communicate using the terms we had just defined. Worse, in something little discussed as of yet, those people who are assumed to be the best and most skilled of us frequently declined to use gendered pronouns for some performers, but not others.
Why is this the case? If declining to assume an appropriate pronoun for Conchita Wurst is respectful, why not decline to assume an appropriate pronoun for Julie Andrews or Shirley Temple? One of the things we should, in fact, be discussing is the coercive nature of many gendered interactions. Did Shirley Temple choose the clothing or choreography for that scene? Did Temple have more agency in creating a gender (or a gendered image) than Conchita Wurst? At age 3 and 4? Given the legacy nature of Temple’s income and ability to work, what are the implications for Temple’s gender agency at age 40? And if Shirley Temple can’t be assumed to have had a free gender hand, why are we willing to trust an application of a gendered pronoun for Temple more than we trust an application of a gendered pronoun to Wurst?
To help solve some of these problems, it is necessary to have a common language. As revealed in previous exercises, we do not currently have that. We have idiosyncratic usage as created and modified by our successes and failures in conceptualizing and communicating sex and gender concepts. That simply isn’t enough when the times get rough.
I am tempted to say, and in some spaces do, that many definitions or usages of sex and gender and related terms are simply wrong. To the extent that I’m willing to say that about your own definitions of those terms in the previous exercises, I’m only willing to assert that these definitions, which were expressly intended to be multiple where necessary and explain only your own usage, are wrong to the extent that they do not, in fact, explain exactly how you use the words. If you forgot to include an extra definition for another usage, the omission is an error. If you phrased the definition in a way that didn’t comport with your uses in subsequent discussions, that discrepancy is an error.
Of course I encourage each of you to continue to think about how you use gender terms: man, woman, male, female, cis, trans, cis*, trans*, opposite, transsexual, transexual, and more. But in certain spaces it makes sense to create definitions which we can agree to use for simple clarity’s sake. I don’t want to have to look up your nym in previous exercises every time I read you using a gendered term. Also, the definitions here will hopefully cause people to think about how comprehensive and accurate their own previous definitions may be.
Towards that end, I’m putting forward a few definitions, with the expectation that unless otherwise specified your comments will use these words to communicate these meanings and not other meanings when you use them in OGW discussion threads.
None of this is to be tyrannical or definitive, but rather to eliminate confusion so that each of us has a better chance of being understood by others in this space as we tackle questions that simply aren’t answerable without a common language. Consider them operational definitions within the context of an experiment. I may or may not revise them in response to your collective wisdom, but I likely won’t so that we don’t have to check which thread we’re in and juggle multiple definitions in our heads in order to understand each other.
Gender (n): The collection of phenomena referred to below by terms that begin with the word “gender” or, confusingly, by the term “legal sex”. In many specific usages it is intended to refer to only one or some of these, though in the OGW threads it is much preferable to use the more specific terms below so a reader will not have to infer meaning. Gender, being the sum of the below, some of which require culture to exist, can only be properly said to exist among humans, though with more study it may be possible at some future date to find an intelligent non-human animal that can be said to have gender roles and thus gender.
Gender Role: A collection of behaviors and perspectives particularly associated with a group of people with certain common characteristics of anatomical sex, combined with a collection of expectations others have about members’ conformance to those behaviors and perspectives. Note that while association with sexed characteristics is necessary for something to be a gender role (and not, for example, a race) an individual’s membership in a gender role is not necessarily dependent on characteristics of anatomical sex. Gender assignment (see below) exists in part to provide definitive statements of categorization where constellations of sex characteristics are not definitive of themselves. Man (Men) and Woman (Women) are the two primary gender roles of the United States and many other (all?) English-dominant countries. Of all the subcategories here, “gender role” is the most likely to be abbreviated “gender”.
When seeing the word “gender” alone (and used as a noun) without further modification or clarification, consider whether its use might be as “gender role” and not an effort to refer to all these gender related concepts generally/abstractly.
Gender (v.): While “breathing” on its own is associated with people who have certain sex characteristics, it is not more or less expected in comparison to groups of people with other constellations of sex characteristics. It is this differential association of a behavior or perspective with the people of one gender role more than another that is the fundamental meaning of the verb “gender”. Extending from this meaning, when, because of differential associations, a person encourages or expects behaviors or perspectives differently based on gender role, that person is also said to be gendering.
Gendering (n.): An occurrence in which a person genders a person, place, or thing.
Gender Structure(s): Things, including intangible things such as stereotypes, whose existence is necessary or helpful to create and maintain gender roles and gender distinctions. Without gender structures such as “gender permanence” (the expectation that gender assignments can not or should not change) or “sexual etiology” (the expectation that sex determines gender, directly or indirectly, unmediated or mediated) or “gender benevolence” (the rationalization that despite gender roles’ inaccuracies and, upon their rare recognition, harms, such roles are defensible as supporting a greater good), gender roles could not exist.
Note that while any one person can belong or not belong to any specific gender role (and even any specific gender role like, “man,” can exist or not within a society) without undermining gender roles per se, the abstracted definition of gender roles and the association of behaviors/perspectives with sex are necessary for gender roles to exist as functional things in a society. When “gender role” is named a “gender structure” it is not meant tautologically, but rather to refer to these abstracted requirements without which gender roles could – by definition – not exist.
Gender Assignment: A socially sanctioned declaration that a person should be officially recognized as belonging to a group of people with a particular gender role. In the US and many other places such official pronouncements are justified based upon determinations of medical sex (see below). The persons entitled to make these declarations are determined socially, though sometimes these determinations are as rigid as to be codified in law and at other times are somewhat less officially described, but in all cases those persons are thought of as having a specialized role that gives official weight to the gender role pronouncement. For the vast majority of persons, gender assignment takes place only once in a lifetime, typically immediately upon or very shortly after birth. A subsequent gender assignment may also be called a gender reassignment. Gender assignment is also a gender structure.
Legal Sex: A legal categorization of persons that is presumed to be according to both gender role and anatomical sex (see below for discussion of sex). In practice this is true for many, but not some. It is possible to have a legal sex different from one’s gender role and different from the gender role within which one identifies (if any). Legal sex in the US, Canada, and most (all?) other English speaking countries uses the language of fe/male rather than wo/man. In some circumstances this can be clarifying, in others, confusing. In rare cases, one’s legal sex can be contextual (the law might consider a person to be male for the purpose of issuing a driver’s license but female for the purposes of incarceration after conviction for a crime or for purposes of eligibility to marry a particular person).
Gender Identity: One’s own perception or description of one’s member-relationships to one’s society’s gender roles. “I am a woman” and “I am not a man” are each equally valid gender identities or, if one prefers, gender identity components. It is not generally used to refer to perceptions or descriptions of one’s member-relationships to foreign or unfamiliar gender roles.
Gender Attribution: One’s own perception or description of another person’s member-relationships to one’s society’s gender roles OR any person’s (including one’s own) member-relationships to foreign or unfamiliar gender roles. Uncertainty and flexibility are primary defining characteristics here. If a person sees a stranger from behind, any categorization of that person within a gender role may be revised upon seeing the same stranger from the front. Cold-weather gear, theatrical costumes, respiratory infections, and simple distance are all factors that can limit access to gendered information that, when those limits are overcome, can admit of new gender attributions without any challenge to gender structures such as society’s expectations of gender’s definitions or accuracies/inaccuracies. Likewise, when estimating a person’s membership in an unfamiliar gender role, limited understanding about the gender role itself means that a revised attribution in no way requires rethinking of gender’s definitions or accuracies/inaccuracies. These are individual judgements that might, at any time, be incorrect without such inaccuracies implicating the fundamental structures of gender itself.
Gender Performance/ Gender Expression: Engaging in behaviors (including communication) intended or likely to affect others’ attributions of one’s own gender. Gender expression is often (though not always) used to mean the subset of gender performance considered authentic to one’s gender identity.
Gender Mores/ Gender Punishments/ Gender Consequences: For many people this overlaps with gender role itself. For quite a few they are even assumed to be exactly the same – isomorphic sets, if you will. But in this workshop, gender mores will be defined cultural rules about gender, not merely rules describing gender roles. Also, this enables drawing a distinction between expectations that may be violated with relative impunity and ones that may not. This is frequently useful because no one comprehensively exhibits all the behaviors and perspectives associated with a gender role. Deviation from norms is necessary to tolerate in order to maintain a system where finite (and low!) numbers of gender roles exist. Nonetheless, some behaviors are simply considered a breaking of rules rather than imperfect conformance to a norm. This fuzzy distinction can be used to help tease gender mores from mere gendered expectations.
Gender mores are enforced through consequences positive and negative. Negative consequences are often a particular focus of gender liberation analysis, and thus “gender punishment(s)” is a useful term even if encompassed within “gender consequences”.
Note that in defining gender mores as rules about gender and not merely gender roles we also capture some behaviors that simply cannot be captured within gender roles. In US and Canadian society, as I’m sure in many others, it is equally forbidden to women and men to say to relative strangers, “As I haven’t seen you in some time, may I ask you if your gender has changed since we last met?” This violates the expectation of gender permanency, and thus may tend to weaken that gender structure. Upholding gender permanency is a gender more, but not a masculine more or feminine more.
Sex (n): The collection of phenomena referred to below by terms that conclude with the word “sex”. In many specific usages it is intended to refer to only one or some of these, though in the OGW threads it is much preferable to use the more specific terms below so a reader will not have to infer meaning.
Biological sex: [More formal] a category, typically male, female, hermaphrodite, or asexual, defined by production of gametes (sperm/atozoa, ova, both, neither). [Less formal] a category, typically male, female, hermaphrodite, or asexual, defined by the presence of tissues and/or organs normally used in the production of gametes (sperm/atozoa, ova, both, neither) whether or not such production actually takes place (as in sexually immature individuals).
Anatomical sex: A category, typically female, male, hermaphrodite, or asexual, defined by having the body shape and structure necessary for any behaviors or mechanical acts incident to reproduction. This category can only exist in species with (di-/poly-)morphism according to biological sex or when comparing/contrasting to other taxa. Categorization is performed according to whether or not the body shape and structure of an individual is consistent with that necessary to take part in succcessful reproduction for producers of ova, sperm, both, or neither, respectively.
Chromosomal sex: A category, typically male, female, intersex(ed/ual), hermaphrodite, or asexual, defined by the presence of a particular chromosomal pattern normally found almost exclusively among produces of sperm, ova, both or neither, respectively.
Genetic sex: A category, typically male, female, intersex(ed/ual), hermaphrodite, or asexual, based on all genetic information, including but not limited to chromosomal sex. For instance, a human with XY, or male, chromosomal sex may have an allele leading to androgen insensitivity syndrome. Such a person might be described (where the specific distinctions are necessary) as chromosomally male but genetically intersex.
Medical sex: A category unique to humans, though related to the less formal use of biological sex. The categories are typically female and male, though in a growing number of contexts intersex is considered an acceptable and legitimate categorization of medical sex. Despite this last fact, the existence of medical sex as a phenomenon largely arises out of an effort to force female and male to function as a comprehensive pair of categories that are nonetheless mutually exclusive. Medical sex is an ad hoc categorization based on whatever aspects of biological, anatomical, and chromosomal sex seem most salient to an expert medical arbiter. The process of assigning medical sex can be relatively quick and thoughtless, as when external anatomical sex seems obviously male or female to a medical expert attending a birth. The lack of a clear and easy assignment of medical sex has been described by doctors as a “psychosocial emergency” only resolved when a child is given a place within either the male or female medical sex that is expected to be permanent. A temporary placement within a medical sex is oxymoronic in practice.
The definitions above are my own, but draw on many sources. Though my thinking has progressed since first reading it 24 years ago, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach by Kessler and McKenna was the most important in my own thinking about how gender might be usefully subdivided to make more productive possible.
We’ll discuss other discuss other definitions soon, but here lets simply try to get a handle on sex and gender as they are intended to be used within this space.
As always, please do all the exercises, including the report, before reading others’ comments. ====================
Exercise 15: Reread all the terms defined above (though not the definitions) just to remind yourself of how many different concepts have been discussed here in an effort to meet the minimal requirements of mutually intelligible conversations about the nature and function of gender itself. Think about which of these distinctions are entirely new to you. Think about which distinctions you have made yourself, even if not using these specific terms or definitions. Make a quick list for yourself of the most foreign/unfamiliar uses or terms. This will serve as a handy guide later. If stuck for a good way to phrase an observation or thought, look at these least familiar terms to see if any of them provide a way to express something you’ve had previous (or are having current) trouble expressing. Finally, think about where you are having trouble using or understanding my definitions and what you would need to make any problematic definition useful to you. Would it need to be changed because the problem is inherent to the definition? Or would the definition benefit from more clarity, perhaps from some examples, but not need to have its nature changed?
Exercise 16: Take note of a few things that aren’t included in the definitions above. For instance, in other contexts a useful definition of gender might be one I originally created as a definition of race* (mutatis mutandis, for you latin freaks):
An attempt, often consisting as much of artifice as of ignorance, to justify intragroup power and valuation differences, the public/private dichotomy, and economic disparity based on apparent, but insignificant to the discussion, biological differences to which symbolic meaning is attached. The biological differences chosen are selected for their visibility as well as for how easily the desired meaning can be attached.
Think about why we might not wish to define gender that way here. What kinds of spaces would benefit from the introduction of (and/or adherence to) such a definition of gender (or race).
Exercise 17: 5th Report. The definitions here are intended to be written for clarity. That does not mean that they read clearly to you. In the last part of exercise 15 you thought about flaws in these definitions. Tell others what you noticed, how you might change the definition if it were up to you, and where you feel your understanding falls short (regardless of whether the fault lies in my writing or somewhere else). Are there things lacking from the definitions intended to be used here that you would include? Exercise 16 can be useful here as a beginning point for discussing how and why we define terms as we do and the ways in which the definitions above the exercises are both useful and limited.
*My definition of race from which this definition of gender is derived was this: An attempt, often consisting as much of artifice as of ignorance, to justify in group/out group divisions, power relationships, and economic disparity based on apparent, but insignificant to the discussion, biological differences to which symbolic meaning is attached. The biological differences chosen are selected for their visibility as well as for how easily the desired meaning can be attached.