Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.
To understand gender, it is vital to understand how it comes about. While the etiology of individual gender identities is very much in doubt, the etiology of gender as a framework, as a concept, that is not in doubt: Gender, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is a social construct.
Few feminists would dispute that. However, when I taught courses on gender-related topics to people who already espoused the idea that gender is a social construct, it frequently, even typically, became clear that they didn’t understand the statement at all. So while many might not dispute it, the statement itself is not helping us. Indeed, it appears to be hurting us. So let’s add to the discussion another statement, more commonly disputed among feminists: Sex is a social construct.
There. That should make all the rest easy.
No one reading this will be surprised to hear that both these statements are contested by non-feminists, but if you find yourself more sympathetic to people who react negatively to the latter than the former, then you don’t understand either of the phrases. To say that sex is a social construct is not to say that talking about penises makes penises magically grow, though, sure, that happens sometimes. To say that sex is a social construct is to say that the meaning of the concept “sex” is only determined by our social agreements about its meaning.
There’s nothing in the genome of a Vaunted Internet Personage like PZ Myers or an average Jaime like Crip Dyke that causes us to intend to communicate a certain concept when we string together the sounds “ssss”, “eh”, “kk” and “ssss”. Neither Isis nor Venus, neither Lilith nor Frigg mandates when the word is understood as an act and when as anatomy. Our communicative intentions are not determined by the words that tumble from our mouths. The words are determined by our communicative intentions.
We choose the meanings to take from words and we choose the words we wish to embody our meanings. This is not unique to sex or to gender: this is the nature of language. To say, then, that “gender is a social construct” is nothing more or less than stating “gender is a word in a human language”. Therefore to say that “gender is binary” (or, conversely, to say it isn’t) is a choice we make about how to communicate meaning. The truth of the statement, or not, depends on the definitions we give to “gender”, “is” and “binary”.
While one might wish this act to be as simple as making choices consistent with one’s own intention, it is not.
One person in an audience might hear “binary” to mean “encoded electromagnetically in a manner amenable to being read as either, but not neither and not both, of a pair of symbols. Another in the same audience might hear “binary” to mean “a pair of objects of the same general class in both mass and substance that are gravitationally bound to each other closely enough that any other gravitational influence currently operating on the objects effectively moves the pair as a unit, though it is not inconceivable that over astronomical time another object with sufficient mass might move sufficiently close to move the individual objects in separate directions”.
For some, thank goodness, “binary” might imply a category that may be easily and/or reasonably divided into a pair of concepts that comprehensively compose the larger category but without the slightest overlap between those two concepts. And yet even among these hypothets*1 for whom “gender is (not) binary” is most easily parseable in the manner that most of us think is intended, some will assume a good/bad split must parallel any other subdivision. For these folks, “Manichaean” is a necessary part of the concept “binary”. For others, Manichaeism is not inherent in binarism.
Not knowing which of these thinkers is in an audience, a speaker must make choices about whether or not to use the word “binary” using imperfect information about the meanings other persons will draw from it. Naturally, upon getting feedback that speaker will consider how well “binary” communicated the speaker’s intent the next time the speaker intends to communicate something similar. Will the speaker make a different choice? Possibly. Possibly not. Either way, however, what we’re seeing is this: a process of translating intent into language, observing how others understood that language and whether or not it is reasonable to believe that others’ understandings are consistent with the original intent, then using that evidence in future translations of intent into language.
This is an inherently social process. We are interactively constructing the meanings of words (and thus concepts).
So: stars are real objects that really orbit each other, but binary is a social construct. Vulvae are real body-parts that really do communicate sensations to brains via neurons, but sex is a social construct. Thai food is made up of very real, nutritive substances, and a delicious subset of these are, objectively, the best foods a vegan can eat in southwest Canada, but cuisine is a social construct.
There has been a great deal of confusion ever since gender is a social construct was first elaborated in that form. Part of this comes from the fact that when discussing gender, a great many people do understand that to mean discussing roles, symbols and identities – things that do not have a physical reality. Unfortunately, a focus on the phrase “gender is a social construct” without first understanding precisely what it means to be a social construct, led to deep trouble later when Anne Fausto-Sterling famously articulated the obvious: sex is also a social construct.
To say that sex is a social construct is not to say that we cannot use sex to discuss underlying physical realities. But since in the case of gender there is no underlying physical reality, many people assumed that this was a part of the meaning of social construction: a concept used to discuss something with no underlying physical referent. Since sex has underlying physical referents, some people struggle with applying the phrase.
The problem for these people, however, is the same as the problem of an audience member who understands binary to imply Manichaeism when a speaker asserts that binary does not imply that one part is better than another. To the Manichaean interpreter, how could it not?
And yet, what happens when people who do not interpret social construction to include the condition “no underlying physical referent” (who are, by the way, correct insofar as that the original intent of the term when coined was not to include such a condition) hit that physical referent wall between their communicative intent and an audience member’s understanding? They very frequently simply reiterate
But sex (or gender) is a social construct.
This is an unhelpful response, though I do have some sympathy. It can be very difficult, we should all recognize, to hand out a definition that does not include condition X and then diagnose what has gone wrong with communication when the definition’s recipient does believe your word choice necessarily implies condition X. What, after all, are you to do in that case: specify all the things that are not included in the definition?
While, yes, I’ve given that a go a time or two, I don’t actually recommend it as a general practice. Nonetheless, at this point I think it’s clear that a major stumbling block in understanding between people discussing sex and gender as social constructs and those who strongly disagree is that a good portion of those who disagree really do believe that a social construct cannot have an underlying physical referent. They believe the word choice implies this particular condition X.
We don’t have a confusing mess that can only be sorted by a Crip-Dyke-length definition. We have one problem of which we should be (by now) fully aware. Given that, it’s terribly frustrating to see even professional educators take on sex [or gender] is a social construct independently of all ideas and categories that can be put into language are social constructs.
Encountering frustrating resistance from an audience after failing to articulate properly the underlying idea of social construction, people asserting gender [or sex] is a social construct often attempt to prove social construction. Those attempts almost invariably end badly:
You don’t think gender is a social construct? Well how about this: is a man born without testes actually a man? Huh?
:Le Sigh: This is just as wrong-headed as (though more offensive than):
You don’t think star is a social construct? Well how about this: is a brown dwarf actually a star? Huh?
Just as “social construct” doesn’t mandate the lack of a physical referent, neither does it mandate that one’s definition is bad or ambiguous. AT&T has a definition that is specific, non-ambiguous, and quite good in the sense that very few people will interpret you to be talking about something other than AT&T when you say AT&T. And yet, it’s impossible that AT&T as a term with meaning was arrived at without social interaction constructing the meaning.
And so the educators who mean to take on the project of communicating this important and hopeful idea:
We make gender’s meanings. That implies we have the power to remake gender’s meanings to bring to an end anything about our understandings of gender that leads to the harm of any one of us
ultimately confuse the public into thinking that social construction is about all kinds of things that it isn’t.
Worse, since in the attempt to “prove” gender is a social construct we used examples specific to gender (all of which, necessarily due to the nature of gender, were built on an understanding of gender that has no underlying physical referent), when we attempt to “prove” sex is a social construct we use examples that are very different and seem materially different to our students/audiences.
Even more worser, any attempt to “prove” gender is a social construct must take seriously the arguments that gender might not be a social construct. Just as the appropriate response to Christopher Walter Monckton’s arguments denying climate change is to laugh them off, just as the appropriate response to a request for debate coming from Kent Hovind is to laugh it off, the appropriate response to a denial that gender is a social construct is to laugh off that denial.
Now, if you’re responsible for educating on the topic of social construction and the form of the denial evidences ignorance about the nature of social construction itself, you should feel compelled to address that ignorance. Once your audience or students understand the nature of social construction, however, and know what you mean by gender, at that point “proving” gender is a social construct is worse than a waste of time. Skipping the education on social construction itself to move right on to a proof that can’t possibly be effective given that your audience & students don’t understand what it is you’re trying to prove? Wrongheaded and a waste of time.
And, of course, by failing to talk about social construction generally before talking about the social construction of gender and/or sex, we continually give the impression that social construction is some process unique to sex and/or gender: after all, we don’t talk about the social construction of the color blue, do we?*2
Why do we have these problems in communicating ideas about social construction? Well, my own personal hypothesis is binary:
- First, by discussing social construction originally in the context of gender alone, the properties of gender and of social construction were confused and, today, the people teaching these topics are themselves unclear on what social construction is and is not, and that it applies to all ideas and categories that can be expressed in language – the creation of a language is itself a social act.
- Second, social construction and performativity have been confused. Judith Butler is often taken to be the English-language main proponent of understanding gender as a social construction. Butler is also correctly understood to be the main English-language proponent of understanding gender as an example of performativity. In lower-level university courses, social construction and performativity are often taught only in relation to Butler’s writings, and often taught from the same reading during the same class. Some people love Butler’s work and read it deeply, but for many more of us social construction of gender is a phrase used as if it is already understood except for a brief exploration that occurs at the same time as a brief exploration of performativity. Butler, performativity, and social construction are too tightly linked in university courses today for any of them to be understood as well as they should be.
- Third, classroom carelessness about the use of sex and gender (meaning, the use in a classroom context by educators in ways that are inconsistent with the definitions provided in the same class or course) is quite common. When educators themselves are none-too-careful about their language, lessons that might otherwise be absorbed are sometimes missed as students are distracted by questions about which sex-gender-thingy is being discussed on a moment by moment basis.*3
We can ask for better teaching on this topic in the future, but that’s for another workshop. For now let’s simply do some thinking on the topic of social construction to help us prepare for next steps: clearing away the debris of past rhetorical disasters to get a clear view of what foundations our social construction insights have laid.
Do some googling and find a place where someone discusses the social construction of sex and/or gender but seems, in your view, to be either misunderstanding social construction or to be repeating a mistake I’ve critiqued above (the mistake of an educator who deploys ideas of social construction and the mistake of someone resisting the idea of social construction are equally useful choices).
Quote the smallest passage necessary to demonstrate the misunderstanding or mistake and then explain why you believe the use you’ve found is, in fact, a misunderstanding or mistake. Don’t try to put this into unfamiliar language: if your explanation makes sense to you, that’s what’s most important. I (or others) might ask for clarification but asking to better understand you is not itself a critique.
As with other Online Gender Workshop posts, free-flowing discussion is welcome after you’ve made a good faith attempt to do the exercise. Without a good faith attempt at the exercise first, your comment will almost certainly be deleted.
*1: hypothet = The person (or one of the persons) in a hypothetical; an individual member of the hypothetical population of a hypothetical world. Note that this is not a common enough use to have made it into general dictionaries, but it’s the only use of the word that I employ. If you’re from Louisiana and think that “hypothet” is just short for “hypothetical”, you have clearly inherited some bad genes and the objective meaning of “hypothet” has been corrupted for you.
*2: But we could. For instance, why, precisely, do we call those deer “teal”?
*3: If you feel I’ve misused binary here, please feel free to sign up for a gene therapy trial, eh?
Previous Online Gender Workshop exercises can be found in these posts: