Your definition of gender should include reality

Content Notice: Yet more clueless cissexist codswallop.

Author Rebecca Reilly-Cooper penned an article called, “Gender is not a spectrum,” with the tag line, “The idea that ‘gender is a spectrum’ is supposed to set us free. But it is both illogical and politically troubling.”

In this article, Reilly-Cooper partakes in a number of common mistakes made by cis people when they attempt to discuss gender variance. Let’s untwist the pretzel that is her argument (spoiler alert: it’s a circle).

Saran wrap your screens, you may vomit.

What is gender?

Please, cis person, please instruct me.

In everyday conversation, the word ‘gender’ is a synonym for what would more accurately be referred to as ‘sex’. Perhaps due to a vague squeamishness about uttering a word that also describes sexual intercourse, the word ‘gender’ is now euphemistically used to refer to the biological fact of whether a person is female or male, saving us all the mild embarrassment of having to invoke, however indirectly, the bodily organs and processes that this bifurcation entails.

Do not represent the concept of bio sex as “fact” unless you are about to refute the accuracy of that statement.

For the umpteenth mother fucking time I swear to dog I am so tired of having to repeat this: Human sex determination is not binary. It is, in fact, thousands of “facts.”

In addition I’ll note, sex squeamishness is specifically an American phenomenon. If we can stop assuming what happens in America describes the entire world, that’d be great.

The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter.


But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.

Okay we’re pinging like 2/10 on my TERFdar, because when cis people start talking biology when the topic is gender, it’s usually to justify associating trans folk with something they’re not. I’m side-eyeing the socialization piece. Men and women are socialized in Da Rules of both binary genders*; fathers are perfectly capable of teaching their daughters arbitrary shit about modesty and chastity just as mothers can tell their sons to “man up.”

At least, that is the role that the word gender traditionally performed in feminist theory. It used to be a basic, fundamental feminist idea that while sex referred to what is biological, and so perhaps in some sense ‘natural’, gender referred to what is socially constructed. On this view, which for simplicity we can call the radical feminist view, gender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.

Well gee, when you define gender as oppressive, of course your argument follows that gender is oppressive. Allow me to demonstrate the weakness of this particular rhetorical technique:

On this view, which for simplicity we can call the radical feminist view, apple pie refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.

Of course, it’s now trivially easy for me to argue that apple pie is oppressive–I just defined it as a set of “imposed norms” and “morally arbitrary.” #AbolishApplePie. Thing is, the argument by definition is so weak because it is simple to present a use of the word you’re discussing that is contrary to the way it is used in the argument. It’s like strapping dynamite to the foundation of the house you’re building and handing your opponent a match.

That’s strike one.

One would refute my example by pointing out that no, apple pie has nothing to do with patterns of oppression in certain classes of people (and not others). But the same tack can be taken with the above definition of gender. Yes, the phenomenon of people being held accountable to behaviours and actions that are morally neutral exists, but so too does there exist people who are comfortable with their identity groups whilst also being uncomfortable with arbitrary moral imposition. Gender to mean “I voluntarily associate with this social category” is also a valid use of the word.

You’re reading one person who uses it that way. I like the identity category “woman,” but not necessarily the baggage that comes with it.

Your model of gender needs to include how all people conceive of gender, or else it doesn’t adequately reflect reality. Gender = arbitrary moral imposition fails this test. There are no shortage of feminists who voluntarily associate with the identity category of “woman” whilst pushing back against the expectations that come with the category. Hell, that would describe most of the women on this network.

So yes, component of gender involves external, indefensible expectations thrust upon a person unreasonably, but it is not the only component of gender, and your premise does not reflect reality in this state of denial. The reality based community is consequently unimpressed.

Understood like this, it’s not difficult to see what is objectionable and oppressive about gender, since it constrains the potential of both male and female people alike, and asserts the superiority of males over females.

Except that understanding gender as proposed by Reilly-Cooper means denying the existence of those who simultaneously exist comfortably with gender identity groups whilst resisting the imposition of arbitrary morals based on those identities.

This view of the nature of gender sits uneasily with those who experience gender as in some sense internal and innate, rather than as entirely socially constructed and externally imposed. Such people not only dispute that gender is entirely constructed, but also reject the radical feminist analysis that it is inherently hierarchical with two positions. On this view, which for ease I will call the queer feminist view of gender, what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.

Okay so, in the first sentence, Reilly-Cooper acknowledges that their understanding of gender has been met with resistance, but instead of actually discussing how that resistance is incorrect in any way, they simply plow on through to label their opponent “Queer feminists.”



By claiming “such people” (which people? citation please) dispute that gender is entirely constructed, you have set up your own argument to refute. It’s not a very strong argument either, since I demonstrated how the previous rhetorical technique could be applied to discuss the oppressive effects of apple pie.

At any rate, as a self-identified intersectional feminist who happens to be one “such person:” I dispute that gender is entirely socially constructed, because that is one hell of a fucking claim to make and you have a lot of blanks to fill and not a lot of great psychology with which to fill it. That’s not an automatic endorsement for “obviously it’s 100% bio!” because that is also an extraordinary claim with a noticeably large gap where limited knowledge exists. The correct skeptic’s stance on this issue is: “The evidence is inconclusive at present.”

The second half of the assertion is blatantly false: Once again, Reilly-Cooper is arguing against a phantom, so they can claim whatever the fuck they want about their opponent. In this case, I am one “such person,” and I happen to agree that gender is hierarchical. I do not reject the existence of patriarchy or the influence of sexism on the station of women in society. I reject that it’s the only influence on women, being intersectional, but I absolutely acknowledge gender hierarchy despite being a, quote, “Queer feminist.”

That’s strike two.

So between argument by definition and a strawman fallacy, we’re at two strikes, and I’m close to packing up. Let’s move on shall we?

Many proponents

How many? Which proponents? Who specifically? Citation needed.

of the queer view

Which Reilly-Cooper themselves defined, and poorly at that. Any external citations to corroborate your definition?

of gender describe their own gender identity as ‘non-binary’, and present this in opposition to the vast majority of people whose gender identity is presumed to be binary. On the face of it, there seems to be an immediate tension between the claim that gender is not a binary but a spectrum, and the claim that only a small proportion of individuals can be described as having a non-binary gender identity.

Clearly Reilly-Cooper has never encountered the idea that the centre of a spectrum does not have to be the largest of the spectrum. After all, visible light is only a tiny fraction of the broader light spectrum–are we to dismiss our eyes because of this?

What follows from this view is not that we need to tear down the pink and the blue boxes; rather, we simply need to recognise that there are many more boxes than just these two.

Gee, I’d confirm who argues this, BUT THERE’S NO CITATION.

If gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition?

She’s so close.

If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.

To avoid this, the proponent of the spectrum model must in fact be assuming that gender is both a binary and a spectrum. It is entirely possible for a property to be described in both continuous and binary ways. One example is height: clearly height is a continuum, and individuals can fall anywhere along that continuum; but we also have the binary labels Tall and Short. Might gender operate in a similar way?

Okay this isn’t a logical fallacy per se, so much as a rhetorical faux pas: Never phrase your argument as a yes/no question, because I can easily answer “no.”

Which, by the way, is precisely how I am going to answer “Might gender operate in a similar way?”


Now, it’s difficult to actually engage with Reilly-Cooper, because we’re once again arguing with a fucking phantom (WHERE ARE YOUR CITATIONS?!) so I can’t exactly fact check whatever the fuck their “opponent” is saying. Nonetheless, the reason gender coexists as binary and spectrum is precisely because there are some people who’ve self-conceptualized as strictly men or women and some people who’ve self-conceptualized as neither or both in varying degrees. We’re not observing objective phenomenon where one model can be demonstrated and another falsified; we are attempting to encapsulate the experiences of diverse individuals who unfortunately don’t graph as politely as atoms do.

Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.

Why, yes, that is how cissexists define gender. I hope you don’t plan on using this definition of gender to support your argument.

I would be happy with this implication, because despite possessing female biology and calling myself a woman, I do not consider myself a two-dimensional gender stereotype. I am not an ideal manifestation of the essence of womanhood, and so I am non-binary. Just like everybody else. However, those who describe themselves as non-binary are unlikely to be satisfied with this conclusion, as their identity as ‘non-binary person’ depends upon the existence of a much larger group of so-called binary ‘cisgender’ people, people who are incapable of being outside the arbitrary masculine/feminine genders dictated by society.

AAAAAAND STRIKE THREE! All in the same sentence Reilly-Cooper admitted she was assigned female at birth, and even admits she identifies as a woman, but calls to question the legitimacy of the term cisgender. Conclusion? Reilly-Cooper is the poster girl for motivated reasoning, twisting her argument into a pretzel until The Point is buried somewhere in the dough to avoid acknowledging at any cost the legitimacy of trans identities whilst explicitly claiming gender for herself.

And she’s a fucking academic. Fingers crossed she’s still an undergrad and gets a clue before she joins the ranks of fake goths.

As for aeon: Fuck you guys.


Your required reading material: “Social Construct” Does Not Imply “Not Real”:

The main mistake made is the conflation of gender identity, gender expression, and gender role. Typically when people talk about gender as though it were a coercive institution, they’re often talking about gender roles, even if they aren’t able or willing to identify it as such. They talk about expectations unfairly thrust upon a person because of who they are, they talk about unfair treatment and how their merits are under or overplayed because of unreasonable assumptions, they talk about how society organizes around conceptual categories in which one category is valued more than the other.

That’s a gender role, folks. It is external. It has no regard for your personal preferences. It is a subjective cultural phenomenon where you are given certain expectations, sometimes privileges, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. As a consequentialist, I feel the expectations placed upon a person should have everything to do with their actions and nothing to do with who they are, so I oppose gender roles as one such system that arbitrarily creates unnecessary rules.

-Shiv, Queer feminist, probably not made of straw.

*This is perhaps discussed in the greatest detail I’ve ever seen in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a thorough takedown of neurosexism and biological essentialism in gender. Chapter 20 discusses the concept of socialization, and there are other mentions throughout the rest of the work. The concept of “male” or “female” socialization is quite specious when both parties receive Da Rules for the other party–indeed, Da Rules are partly enforced across the categories. Fine argues that there is no distinct boundary between teaching boys to speak up and teaching girls to be silent, as these lessons feed into one another.


  1. AMM says

    I’ve seen the distinction made between “gender role” and “gender expression,” but it feels like a fuzzy one to me. Is wearing a dress a gender “role” or “expression”? Is locker room horseplay a male role or male expression? Is the sort of “dominance play” behavior I see all the time in virtually all interactions in male-dominated groups a role or expression or what? Is wanting to play football with your buddies in the back yard after Thanksgiving dinner a role or an expression? I know that I caught hell as a child for failing to do whatever it was that boys were supposed to do, and it included all of the above and more. (Well, not the dresses, for lack of opportunity, and I would probably have been too scared to anyway.) I got called “queer” or worse for most of my childhood, and it seemed to be that it was because I wasn’t acting the way boys were supposed to act and didn’t like the things boys were supposed to like, and most of it could be described as a role or as expression. I just know I couldn’t do any different, so I guess it was an expression of who I was.

    I do experience “gender” as an oppressive social construct. And my definition of “gender” is not all that different from Reilly-Cooper’s: to me, it’s a social system which divides humanity up into two distinct groups and assigns characteristics and expectations based on that division. It covers both roles and expresssion. It also goes the other way: conformance to the roles and expression is how people determine which group you belong to/get assigned to. (Identity is simply assumed to go along for the ride.) That’s “gender” as I experienced it and it’s what I rebelled against (in my head, at least) from early childhood on. I’m sure if you are (mostly) comfortable with what society assigns to your assigned gender, it doesn’t feel coercive. Note that feminism has greatly expanded what society considers acceptable for women and provides moral support to women who want to go beyond even those expanded borders, whereas men (to my disgust) mostly don’t want to change what is acceptable for men, no matter how much it chafes. If anything, they’ve been making the male role/expression even more tightly policed. But most guys, no matter how much they may complain about the expectations, would rather die than fail to measure up to them, I’d include “doesn’t like their gender expectations but would rather die than not meet them” in the category “cis.”

    I can’t speak to gender identity, since I don’t have one. For whatever reason, I never grew to identify with the gender I was assigned and I only saw it as yet another oppressive and impossible set of expectations that society was trying to saddle me with, but the other available one seemed even more impossible. I am transitioning to female, but for me it is simply that I can no longer stand being seen as and treated as a man and “female” is the only easily understood alternative. I’m working on a female presentation mostly so I won’t be mistaken for male, though some of it is cool enough that I’d want to do it anyway. I’m still having trouble with the idea of calling myself a woman.

    I do agree with you about gender spectrum. Her comments about non-binary don’t make any sense to me. I don’t get what her point is. “Non-binary” simply means “not fitting into one of the two binary categories.” It’s like “colors that aren’t red or blue.” You can’t talk about a “non-binary” identity or expression or what as if it were a well-defined thing, it’s just a catch-all designation for whatever isn’t a male identity or a female identity. Everyone agrees that “red” and “blue” exist, but I think everyone agrees that color is a spectrum.

  2. Siobhan says


    I’m honestly confused as to what you’re saying. Not the part where you opt out of gender or why you’re changing your gender expression. But I enter full on fight-or-flight mode when I see someone coming to the defence of “abolish all gender” arguments. Even by your own post you are contradictory, because you’ve acknowledged: 1) a sincerely held identity; and 2) that your grief is partly caused by external, morally arbitrary expectations in spite of #1. Surely the cause of oppression in that formula is those external forces and not the mere possession of an identity, as would be implied with a blanket “gender is coercive” statement. Unless you can explain how sincerely held identities are oppressive forces in and of themselves, I’m going to continue specifying “gender roles ” when I talk about gendered oppression.

  3. AMM says

    I get the impression you’re conflating the social construct “gender system” with “gender idenity.” I see them as quite different.

    For instance, the USA is a social construct (it is a socially agreed-upon reality.) It is not an identity. The heartfelt “I am an American!” feeling is an identity, and while it is inspired by the social construct USA, it is that person’s own and does not require anybody else to go along with it. In the same way, my friend Robert’s gender identity “male” was based upon the gender system’s concept “male,” even though society didn’t agree with it in any way shape or form. (He’s AFAB.) It is what he felt fit him best, and there’s not much society could do about it except make him keep it to himself.

    I have no problem with people having whatever gender identity they choose. I have no problem with people adopting a gender expression/role that comes from the current gender system, if they choose. Actually, I think it you can have a lot of fun with the stuff in the current gender system.

    What I object to is that the “gender system” as currently understood by most people and as I have experienced it is coercive. You don’t get to opt out and you don’t even get to choose whether you’ll be in category “M” or “F”. You mostly don’t get to choose what baggage gets hung on you for being in the category you’re assigned to. (Movements like feminism are trying to change that last thing, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it is not only harder, but a lot more complicated than anybody expected.) My guess is that a non-coercive “gender system” would look far more different from what we have now than anyone expects.

    tl;dr: I don’t argue “abolish all gender,” I argue “abolish the coercive and compulsory aspects of the gender system.”

    As for me having a “sincerely held identity,” I actually do, but it has nothing to do with gender. (I have a “techie identity” and “social justice sympathizer identity.”) Gender is simply irrelevant to who I feel the essential “me” is. It’s like perfective and imperfective verbs in Russian — something I have to deal with when I speak Russian, but otherwise irrelevant to me. That’s what I mean by “I have no gender identity.” Social justice and making things work are far more essential to who I am. I don’t have a sincerely held gender identity.

  4. rietpluim says

    Excellent post, and compliments for the pithiness of the title. I’m going to use it every time someone argues that everywhere you look, there are men an women (implying that every deviation* may be dismissed).

    * Does “deviation” have negative connotations in English? If it does, what would be a better word?

  5. Siobhan says

    @rietpluim: Variance or diversity are sometimes preferable. Academics usually claim that terms like deviation or non-conformity do not imply moral values, but laymen tend to use those terms negatively. So it kind of depends on audience, but variance or diversity seems to be generally safe.

  6. rietpluim says

    @Siobhan – Okay, thanks. Now I’m trying to translate the title into Dutch as pithy as the original.