Online Gender Workshop: Detour, Social Construction Ahead edition

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.

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.

Exercise 24:

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:

Introduction and video exercises

Gender Neutral Object exercise.

Gender binarism, gender naïveté,  and confluence.

Definitions of sex and gender and why we use them

Gender Attributions in Practice

Put Your Definitions Where Your Genitals Are

Be Confused, Be Very Confused




  1. colonelzen says

    Sorry, but this is where I get off the feminist train. Where you attempt to use linguistic deconstruction, Hegelian postmodernist games with language to deny and “spin” underlying reality.

    Now I certainly agree that the *huge* majority of assumptions about gendered behavior and normative presumptions are almost entirely social constructs. (And for a variety of reasons, including ethics as the diversity of the material reality almost wholly indefensible). But most mammals, including humans, and the bulk of fauna generally, a substantial portion of all life, in fact does exhibit sexual dimorphism – and related dichotomies, sometimes materially functional. (And again, in humans that differentiation seems much less than in much other fauna … and vastly less than our social matrix imputes, or can be morally justified)

    You don’t get to deny that reality. You don’t get to eradicate any and all words that refer to the real physical differences that predominantly (and again I *do* know that they *are* less pronounced and less deterministic and often nowhere near as clearly determinable as our language and society pretend).

    But to use Pierce’s language, signs are noises or glyphs, and denote abstract types which to enable communication we assert as referencing generalizations of particulars. I don’t care whether you use “sex” or “gender” or “abracadabra” to designate the real physical dimorphism that exists, but it is a real physical fact of the world – the very reality that killed postmodernism – and you cannot change that reality by doublespeak.

    And while it is certainly valuable to correct misconceptions you cannot repudiate everyone everywhere for needing a word to reference the genuine realities (even when their understanding is much overstated) of which they are aware.

    The universe is as it is. Not what your words try to make it.

    — TWZ

    Ah, TWZ/Colonel Zen:
    I was still attempting to calculate the number of evolution points I'd need to summon an eidolon with just the right characteristics to play my all-too-obvious foil. Suddenly, you appear, and me with all my actions!

    Seriously, I'm leaving your comment up here Colonel Zen, solely because it is such a perfect example of certain of the mistakes and misunderstandings I'm attempting to correct. If you comment on this thread again, it will either be a good-faith attempt to engage the exercise - and my standards will be more stringent for you than others, given that you've already had one spectacular failure - or it will be deleted.

    For all others: Feel free to skip the Google search and use Colonel Zen's comment here as your example, should you so choose.

  2. says

    I tried to find the relationship between your comment and the post, colonelzen, and failed to find it, and in fact, it seems you didn’t even bother to read the post.

    And with that…everyone else, please ignore comment #1, and discuss the subject without getting derailed.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Dear colonelzen:

    I’ve got to admit, about six paragraphs into the article, I had just about the same reaction that you did. I thought that the author was just trying to pull a pointless semantic game, and objections similar to yours sprung to my mind.

    However, I resisted the urge to skip the rest of the article and write a heated response. Instead, I kept on reading, and found that Crip Dyke did indeed answer most of my questions, and was not in fact attempting to use semantics to erase the difference between the cultural universe and the physical universe.

    So yeah — RTFA. It’s a good habit. I recommend it.

  4. says

    “Sorry, but this is where I get off the feminist train.”

    That line alone should be a tell that someone is interested in advancing an agenda of their own rather than attempting to make an attempt at meaningful discussion. Just the usage of multi-syllable words implies that a writer is trying to sound smart rather than one who feels the conviction of their ideas.

    I think it’s extremely important to have an understanding that out words and hence the tools with which we reason are just constructs formed by shared experiences. The author of the above quote elucidates this quite artfully by being completely unable to see that Crip Dyke’s essay is about addressing the very confusion he is experiencing.

    I struggle a lot to overcome the ideas and attitudes I have about women, homosexuals, the idea that I’d supposed to be a certain role of man, but I have found nothing so useful as examining the concept of gender being a social construct. Reflexively rebutting this collection of words seems to me an articulation that I do not what to change the Manichean view I have of the world, it’s my grasp on reality. It’s nerve wracking, I admit to stumble over social constructs that you didn’t even realize are such, time after time, but really, is it better to be trapped in a place that requires you to be so ostentatiously confrontational?

  5. dioptre says

    My naive attempt at the exercise,

    Now I certainly agree that the *huge* majority of assumptions about gendered behavior and normative presumptions are almost entirely social constructs. (And for a variety of reasons, including ethics as the diversity of the material reality almost wholly indefensible). But most mammals, including humans, and the bulk of fauna generally, a substantial portion of all life, in fact does exhibit sexual dimorphism

    Colonelzen is drawing a sharp distinction between things that are “entirely social constructs” and things that are “in fact”. All things that are “real” become social constructs once we try to communicate about them. For some things we are able to quickly negotiate a stable construct which doesn’t shift – for example “a hand” – for others the process of negotiation and communication is never fully stable – for example “a leader”. This doesn’t make “a leader” more or less a social construct than “a hand”.

    When Colonelzen says “entirely social construct” I think they are trying to draw a distinction between abstract concepts and real things. This is also at times a useful distinction to make, but it loses the usefulness of social construction to mix the two ideas together.

  6. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Nicely done, dioptre.

    While we’re talking primarily about the social construction of concepts and meanings, there is an additional layer.

    This isn’t to say you didn’t show a good handle on the topic above, just that there’s more I now realize I didn’t tease out. While you’re right that some concepts/meanings are stable, that doesn’t always imply that the word itself and a particular word’s meanings are stable. “Hand” has an unstable meaning not because we lose track of the common referent the vast majority of us carry around (and use to carry other things around), not because the concept of a forelimb-ending grasping part is unstable. No, it has an unstable meaning because the word hand might sometimes be a verb, and even as a noun might sometimes be a collection of cards belonging to a single player in a card game, etc.

    Anyways, good show.

  7. latveriandiplomat says

    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.

    You seem to be arguing here, that people who argue against a gender binary do so because they freight in connotations to “binary” that don’t have to be there. I think this misses the reality.

    There is one, dominant gender binary, imposed by our society, and they are arguing that that binary should be blown to bits. This is not because they bring in some unnecessary Manichean baggage, but because that Manichean aspect is part of that dominant paradigm imposed from above. Society really does give us the message over and over, men are better than women. This gender binary is the one that is part of most of our lives, mostly for the worst for most of us (though some benefit at the expense of others and perhaps even more only think that they do).

    The people who want to talk about why the gender binary is bad are talking about this one. You are free to invent your own, kinder, gentler gender binary, but why should anyone really care? Your binary doesn’t change what careers people are or are not encouraged to pursue, how much of the housework prospective partners will or won’t be likely to perform, or which of the Avengers get action figures and which don’t.

    It’s fine to live the change you want to make, but IMHO, it’s not helpful to assume that people who don’t get where you are coming from don’t have perfectly good reasons to not be too excited about any kind of gender binary. The current, dominant gender binary has thousands of years of oppression with which to call into question the whole notion of gender roles in general and binary roles in particular.

    On a separate point. On thing that’s confusing about treating both biological sex and gender as equally socially constructed. You make the point that a social construction does not have to be purely abstract, but can have a physical referent. But in the case of people advocating gender roles, biological sex always has been the physical referent. Women are weaker/hormonal/frail/gentle etc. etc. because their bodies/brains/hormones etc. are different. This is not my position, I hope that’s clear, but that is the way the “scientific” case for the gender binary has been made–again, talking about the dominant, imposed binary here, not any “hypothetical” binary.

    The people who have made progress against the (imposed) binary have generally not denied that they are women, or that “woman” is a meaningless term. They have pointed out that

    a) the “science” turns out to be bullshit and
    b) I am a woman, but I can also fly a plane, run a marathon, get a science PhD, run a company, be a Governor; in fact here I am doing that very thing you said I could never be able to do

    So, again, I think (and I need to stress here that this is just a not particularly informed opinion) that people who are cool to the “sex is socially constructed” idea are that way because “gender is socially constructed” is a deeply meaningful and powerful and proven and freeing idea for them in a way that what your are advocating has not been shown to be to them yet. It is not because they are dumb, or hostile, or clueless. If you want to convince them otherwise, then I think you should make your case in a more thoughtful way that integrates the concerns and experiences of the people you are trying to convince.

  8. dioptre says

    Crip Dyke,
    I was about to respond that the different meanings of “hand” are just a matter of linguistics, not construction, when I pulled myself up. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? You can never fully separate the words from the concepts from the referents, but equally they are only linked to each other by social agreement. If a person has a hook (or a being has a tentacle) in the place where a hand might be expected, the consensus becomes less stable. This can be influenced by whether we choose to call the hook a “mechanical hand” rather than a hook, and the tentacle a “flexible hand” rather than a tentacle, or whether we still apply the usage “hand me a spanner”, “lend me a hand” to them.

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Yes: It’s clear that the concept we communicate by “hand” when we intend to talk about these five-fingery, distinctly primate-ish, fore-limb enders…that concept is a stable concept. Maybe not perfectly so, but quite stable indeed. And yet, there is a separate layer of confusion added because while that concept currently denoted by “hand” is stable, which concepts are denoted by the word “hand” are not!

    I think we’ve done rather well in exploring that, don’t you think? Maybe someone should give us …

  10. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    You seem to be arguing here that people who argue against a gender binary do so because they freight in connotations to “binary” that don’t have to be there. I think this misses the reality.

    What? No.

    I’m arguing nothing other than that social construction is misunderstood and that one common source of misunderstanding is the importation into the concept “social construction” a condition which may be described as “no underlying physical referent”.

    I use an exploration of “star” and “binary” and what have you merely to elaborate what it means to import an added meaning and how that looks in other contexts so that people grok the process I’m talking about before attempting to apply that knowledge to “social construction”. My concern was that if I went straight to “social construction” baggage around that term would prevent people from understanding the concept of importation (if you like that frame) or a clash of definitions where one definition is more restrictive than another (also a valid way of illuminating the source of these misunderstandings).

    Read what I wrote again: I never say that the people fighting the gender binary do so because they erroneously assume the gender binary is Manichaean.

    The fact is I think that “binary” in the context of linguistic categories (not stars, not electronic/ electromagnetic/ spintronic encoding) does imply parallel good/bad splits, but I think the Manichaean implications are entirely too weak to adequately communicate the horrifyingly judgmental history of sexist gender binaries. Therefore, I frequently describe the gender binary as Manichaean specifically because I believe that there really is a good/bad split going on, and a powerful one.

    Given that, it’s impossible that I simultaneously believe that those who think the gender binary is Manichaean are wrong-headed. If I thought that was wrong-headed, I wouldn’t believe it myself.

    But, really, go back and read what I wrote originally again: I’m not arguing about why people fight against the gender binary. I nowhere argue that at all.

    Moreover, your separate point only reinforces my best guess that you really are confused about what it means to be a social construct and what types of things can be social constructs. You even appear to misunderstand what a “referent” is.

    When you say:

    But in the case of people advocating gender roles, biological sex always has been the physical referent. Women are weaker/hormonal/frail/gentle etc. etc. because their bodies/brains/hormones etc. are different.

    I really get the impression that you’re not familiar with this particular term from linguistics, not familiar at all.

  11. says

    A quote from an asexuality forum:

    But if gender is something that comes from how people strongly feel, then it’s not a social construct because it’s stemming from a person’s feelings.

    I think it could be cleared up by what Crip Dyke already says here:

    To say, then, that “gender is a social construct” is nothing more or less than stating “gender is a word in a human language”.


    Back to Crip Dyke’s blog post:

    But since in the case of gender there is no underlying physical reality,


    roles, symbols and identities – things that do not have a physical reality.

    I’m guessing that by “no underlying physical reality/referent” you mean “mental in some important way”?

    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.

    I don’t get it, this seems to be saying “gender (as a framework, as a concept) comes about because gender is a word”?

  12. colonelzen says

    Delete if you must, but please think.

    Oh, and for forms sake, Exercise 24: Crip Dyke on Pharyngula defining “social construct” into meaninglessness.

    A signal that never changes carries no information. All words (except onomatopoeia) have their meaning assigned by collective interaction over time. This is your ascription of “social construct”.

    But then there is nothing distinctive about “sex” compared to other words. Your derivation of “sex is a social construct” carries no distinguishable information.

    You are *specifically* conflating the social construction of the sign (the ascription of a token to a concept) with the referent being a social construct. But that imputes a falsity.

    Now a huge amount of the “freight” carried along with “sex” is pure cultural agglomeration. But there does remain a valid physical referent within the word sex … and I don’t mean polysemous usages, but the grouping of individuals within a species such that most individuals can be categorized as male or female. Now again I’m aware that the distinction is often not so sharp in individuals as our social usage – and sloppy habits of mind – otherwise posit. But by and large individuals of a species can be so categorized. Unless you think my wife and I should have taken turns birthing our children. That some individuals can birth and others cannot repudiates any *meaningful* use of the phrase “social construct” in regards to “sex”.

    To be sure societies can and have defined male and female in ways that leave many individuals with differences by definition in differing societies. But that there is a fundamental real fundamental dichotomy in the physiology of the sexes – usually but not always – morphologically and bio-functionally evident cannot be denied. No society I’ve heard of has succeeded in making what we could consider males give birth by changing the way they use the noises they make.

    The real problem is that “social construct” is not a pure noise phrase the way asserting “sex” is a “social construct” by virtue of being a word is.
    Nor are words and concepts which are genuinely pure social construct necessarily meaningless. “Liberal” and “conservative” are pure social construct. If there is any material physical referent to those words it is lost in the mist of time by common usage. But the use of those words conveys real information – yes social information – but material and significant about how the speaker interprets the object of those words and in turn is often materially predictive of the speaker’s disposition and conduct towards related matters. Yes the meanings change (drastically) over time – there is no physical referent to stabilize useage! – but that does not rob the words of material meaning at the time, place and personage of their utterance.

    The consequence is that when one uses “social construct” for a word the listener *knows* is not a pure social construct – and she may or may not be aware of the semantic game version of “social construct”, but if reasonably informed she will intuit the semantic “bait and switch” – the listener immediately understands that the actual intent of the phrase “social construct” in such instance is to disqualify the object word or phrase.

    It is common to hear “culture war” bandied hereabouts … and to blame it upon the intransigence of vested interests. But how can a disputant be blamed for intransigence if you disqualify the language necessary to communicate with him?

    The on the ground reality is that there is sexual dimorphism. And the consequential realities are immediate and important to almost everybody. Again by no means am I derogating those for whom the “binary” distinctions are insufficient or even antagonistic to their needs, but for the bulk of individuals it is a material and necessary conceptualization immediately and intimately affecting the conduct of their lives.

    You cannot define a word out of existence. The concept will continue and another noise will replace it immediately – possibly rapidly accumulating even more toxic baggage than the current word.

    Rather than intellectually dishonest (and wrong) games with words what is needed is to find ways to disassociate cultural overlays on words that hinder and harm from the genuine reference of real physicality which is a socially (and by individuals interacting socially – even singly with other individuals) useful and necessary concept. In other words to keep the reality but lose the judgments.

    You are of course free to disagree on the means of bringing about greater justice and equity for women and those not coincident with historically common gender and sexual role classifications, but I consider postmodernist word games the height of intellectual dishonesty. And I suspect most of those we might wish to influence and educate to the realities and empathic requirements of a just society are more likely to be insulted and turned off by such arrogant buffoonery.

    — TWZ

  13. yaque says

    Just a suggestion:
    “planet” – “dwarf planet” might be a better example of a socially defined binary that sits on top of a physical reality. A lot of people were bummed out by the demotion of Pluto from planethood. I don’t think anybody argues that Pluto, et al isn’t really real. But nobody should be under the illusion that dividing up the solar system into “planets”, “asteroids”, “moons” etc. isn’t wholly social. What emerged from the controversy is that in addition to the taxonomical usefulness to astronomers of the new category of “dwarf planet” there was at least some popular social baggage.

    “Sex” and “gender” are freighted with hugely greater social consequences for real people, a lot negative. They aren’t nearly as “binary” as a lot of people pretend.
    Therefor the importance of this discussion to many real people. Such as “pregnant people” vs “pregnant women”.

    “Hand” is an interesting example. In Hebrew, (and I’ll bet other languages) the equivalent word doesn’t mean precisely the same. “Yad” includes “hand” and “arm”. If someone says that their “yad” was amputated, (okay, yuk) you might ask if it was below or above the elbow.

    The fact that different languages map even physical things differently bolsters the “social construct” argument.

  14. says

    Words, words are just thoughts, ideas, concepts attached to a specific sound or set of sounds (and further, we have symbols that stand for those sounds), enabling us to communicate with one another. That, in and of itself, is pretty damn amazing.

    …aw, crap. I forgot where I was going with that.

  15. mykroft says

    What I get out of all of this is that unless the issue is whether one could successfully host a human embryo, sex should be irrelevant in terms of how we interact. It should be irrelevant when we choose a partner, hire someone, or elect them as President. Because of this irrelevance, one should be able to choose what sex they identify with. It is not something society can impose from the outside.

    That said, it is hard to get away from the physical reality aspect of sex. Our culture is saturated in stereotypes based on one’s physical anatomy, effectively defining what becomes “natural law” to many within the culture. That is by and large our current social construct on what sex is, and from this springs the tendency of some to place those not like them in the “other” category. Not fully human. Not fully capable. Not like me.

    Recognizing that this is a social construct, and therefore malleable, is a good first step in redefining our currently dominant construct.

  16. AMM says

    Well, since no one else (so far) has even attempted to do the assignment, I’ll post my own half-a**ed attempt.

    Back in August, folks over at an on-line TG forum site were discussing the APA’s latest guidelines for treating trans people,, and people took issue with the statement

    gender identity and sexual orientation are “distinct but interrelated constructs.”

    because it was saying (or seemed to say) that gender identity is a social construct.

    I’m still not sure whether Crip Dyke would say that gender identity is a social construct. At some point, her discussion, and the discussion in the comments, went off into a universe of abstractions which lost me (sort of like every paragraph in Judith Butler’s book.)

    Speaking for myself, I see a difference in the “constructedness” of gender and the “constructedness” of gender identity.

    If someone believes they are male, for instance, it’s an observable. Like most observables, it’s something that could change over time. And if society or the person’s life had been different, maybe they would believe something different. But it’s a little like the thing on the end of my arm — it exists, regardless of whether other people want to believe it, or even if the person with the particular gender identiy wants to believe it.

    Gender is more like law (the stuff that courts deal with), or states (countries.) It only exists because most people believe it does and act like it does. It’s kind of like a shared delusion.

    I’m reminded of the DDR (East Germany): one day, people stopped believing in it, and it just vanished as a state. The people were still there, the land was there, the offices and records were there, but there wasn’t a state any more. Officials suddenly weren’t officials any more. The West German government basically had to come in and take over the functions that the vanished East German State used to carry out.

    If people stopped thinking in terms of “male” and “female,” gender would disappear. People would still have the usual distribution of organs, and even with random couplings, enough babies would be born to keep up the population, we just wouldn’t be insisting on categorizing everyone we meet as “male” or “female.” (We’d have to find some other basis, like eye color, for our bigotries.) After all, non-human animals get along just fine without thinking about gender or sex; they just do what they feel like, and that happens to lead to baby animals being born/hatched often enough to keep the species going.

    To me, the latter examples (the Law, the DDR, and gender) are what I would call social constructs. Gender identity (and sexual orientation) less so, even if they might be the result of social constructs. (Like how when someone is executed, their dying isn’t a social construct, but the process which led to their death is.)

  17. kylef says

    If you still think “social construction” = postmodernism, read Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? Clear, concise and balanced discussion of the subject. Different social and cultural contexts create different kinds of people.

  18. says


    If people stopped thinking in terms of “male” and “female,” gender would disappear.

    That was about my only thought, early this morn. From where I sit, the concepts of male/masculine and female/feminine poison fucking everything. Okay, that’s my 1 cent worth of muddle.

  19. says

    I think “gender” is really, really, really a bad example when introducing the term “social construction”. BEcause it’s so easy to see it with gender, right? The pink/blue divide is less than a century old, we can demonstrate how horses turned from being something “inherently attractive” to the sons of nobility into some “inherently attractive” for little girls.
    This makes many people believe that “social construct” means “not real”*.
    But bodies are real. They have vulvae, vaginas, penises, testes, uteri, fallopian tubes, etc. Having learned about social construction with something so flimsy it then becomes hard to see that something as “solid” as sex is one as well.
    My personal example to explain “social construct” is the river Mississippi: There’s nothing inherent in it that makes it “the Mississippi.” It could as well have another name or it could be the river Missouri from the point the two meet. It was humans who gave those two the names and who decided that from their meeting point onward it would be the MIssissippi. That doesn’t mean it’S not a fucking huge amount of water wherey ou can either drown in or be eaten by gators at the end.

    *And then it gets confusing again because quite obviously “the great majority of little girls like pink and adore horses” is real as well.

  20. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    CripDyke is not ignoring or defining away the realities of sexual biology. They are accounted for. It still doesn’t make the concept of sex anything other than a social construct, because it’s a linguistic tool to communicate about a subject.
    By the way, your implication that there are fundamental differences among between human beings because some can birth and others cannot and that this somehow correlates to something fixed or even, as you seem to be implying, objectively true, is terribly flawed. Yes, there are more or less, on average, certain identifiable traits that loosely fall into two main categories. There’s also a shittone of variation that goes largely unrecognised. The point is that when we use words, we give them meaning, and when we talk about sex, we are creating a construct that carries a specific, but not fixed, meaning. We can modify the construct to adapt to the reality that sex doesn’t actually fit into two discrete categories, it only appears to, from a distance, squinting and if you have very bad eyesight. Your perception of sex in humans is clouded by the concept of sex that has been carved into your brain by the society you live in. A concept that’s the product of a long history of societal constructs.
    When we look at the real reality of sex, accounting for all the actual variations that actually, for reals, exist, even among those that for most people fit perfectly whithin the “binary model” it doesn’t make sense to maintain a simplistic and terribly flawed concept of sex that’s limiting, unrealistic and therefore harmful to many. We get to modify our concept of sex to better fit what we observe in reality, to account for all the diversity and the almost infinite variations. Just as there isn’t one single concept of what a human is, there can’t be a single concept of what a certain sex is. It’s fine to use simplified approaches in certain contexts and as long as this is acknowledged, for ease of communication, or whatever, that’s what language is for, but it’s not fine to then claim that those highly simplified, flawed, unreal approaches represent actual reality and that they are the standards by which reality must be meassured. Words are there to serve us, not the other way around.

  21. colonelzen says


    Thank you for trying to understand the problem.

    Crip Dyke et al are confusing two different things. Social construction of the sign (aka word) – what noise goes with what concept, and social construction of the concept.

    There is no question about the former – that humans have different and incompatible languages is a priori evidence of such.

    The latter is not so for the core of the concept. The issue is the aggregation of judgmental an normative cruft which is socially appended to it.

    By saying “social construct” for what is not at core so, a listener is immediately struck with the impression that it is an explicit attempt to take the *concept* off the table.

    But disqualification is not a correct usage of the term “social construct” either. As my liberal and conservative examples show, that a concept in its semantic content IS a social construct doesn’t disqualify it from informational merit.

    So there’s no purpose I see in saying “sex is a social construct” and it is, no pun intended, constructively wrong.

    If we want (and at least I do) to highlight the material semantic content from the often unproductive associations presumed as “baggage”, then IMO the right way to go about it is to illuminate how those associations are often incorrect – and frequently harmful.

    Trying to “fence the (linguistic in this case) commons” is a claim to nobility that your discursive opponents are unlikely to grant without a civil war. Thus these word games are frequently as much causitive of “culture war” as an unwillingness to cede privileges the vested interests have historically enjoyed.

    — TWZ

    — TWZ

  22. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I don’t get it, this seems to be saying “gender (as a framework, as a concept) comes about because gender is a word”?

    No. An idea/concept comes first before it is put into language. But in the process of putting it into language, when it leaves the brain of the first person and reaches other brains, it is socially communicated and socially modified. The fact that gender is a word is irrefutable evidence that the idea/category of gender has, in fact, been communicated between minds in the past.

    The social construction of the concept is performed through language. The invention of the concept may or may not occur within a language, but might be said to occur within a single brain. If it occurs within language, however, even if it occurs within a single brain, it might still have been socially constructed because sub-ideas might have been brought piecemeal to the “inventor” through social interaction. As I’ll say again below, the fact that an idea/concept/category has never left a human mind is not proof it is not socially constructed, but an idea/concept/category that has been shared widely enough between human minds to earn its own word has necessarily been through a social process.


    Crip Dyke et al are confusing two different things. Social construction of the sign (aka word) – what noise goes with what concept, and social construction of the concept.

    No. I’m not confusing those things, colonelzen, but it is true that some here are.

    All “ideas and categories that can be expressed in language” are social constructs – the category, the idea. Now, the word itself is also a social construct, true. I discussed that with dioptre.

    But it is possible to have an idea or concept that is not expressible in language. If it is not expressible in language, it will not be communicated between people. It stays solely in the brain of one person. If the idea/concept stays in the brain of one person, it might still be socially modified (for instance, by someone talking to you, someone rubbing on a body part of yours, etc.) even though the outsiders don’t know anything about this idea/concept because of their effects on the one having the idea/doing the categorizing.

    Therefore the language test doesn’t capture all socially constructed things, but it does effectively rule out all things not socially constructed.

    brianpansky, does this help you with your confusion about why I was using the language criterion? I don’t say something is socially constructed because it is a word (or, you seem to have missed, a phrase or a sentence or a book). It’s socially constructed because social processes shaped its meaning. The irrefutable evidence that is meaning is shaped socially includes the fact that gender is a concept expressed in language. But that’s not ***why*** I say that something is socially constructed.

    is dead on when she says that gender is a bad example to use to explain social construction, which is, yes, part of my critique: we must teach social construction before we teach what implications social construction has (if any) for understanding gender and/or fighting sexism.

    In gender, we have something where the idea, concept or category is itself the referent – like quantum chromodynamics’ referent is an idea, concept or category. But the referent of “voter” might be a category (a non-physical referent) but might be a person (a physical referent). While the referent of “me” is always a person, and thus “me” always has a physical referent.

  23. colonelzen says

    All “ideas and categories that can be expressed in language” are social constructs – the category, the idea.

    Are you a Berkelian or Platonic idealist?

    You only get to assert that an idea or category in our individual heads that references an objectively distinguishable operationally identifiable reality is a “social construct” if you can demonstrate how our individual phenomenality and unconscious brain activity is socially shared, The word and its contextual usage *is* the social sharing unless you can demonstrate some communal telepathy an underlying “mental” reality.

    Me, I’m materialist to my rotten core. There are *things* out there … and we can choose to reference them with noises. (All that’s happening in here is some noisy electro-chemistry) The selection of noises is social construction. The thing referenced is not. Likewise though abstractions can be made tenuous, there are real material operational tests that can be applied to those material things by which to establish abstract categorization. Material reality and functional abstraction *can* be objectively established. Yes we are choosing the criteria of the functional abstraction, but it does not refute the operational distinction of the categories established by epistemically concrete means.

    Certainly it is true that in any sample set of complex characteristics many individual elements may not be not be easily designated into the broad categories distinguished in general by the designated sorting operation. But the existence of outliers does not refute the material reality of the existence and material distinguishability of the categories.

    So it is with sex. The greater bulk of individuals in the human population have double X or XY chromosome pairs. There certainly are individuals who for some reason or other wound up constituted differently – and there are certainly cases where the underlying chromosomal and genetics are not of a piece with our expectations of morphology and behavior based upon generalizations of individuals who do match the physically identifiable categories.

    (And I’ll happily admit that the categories existed before the biologic basis of their distinction was understood; that merely re-enforces the notion of the phenotype being an expression of a deeper reality. In other words doing your “social construct” argument as much harm as good).

    What is wrong then is not that the word “sex” is a social consruct – it isn’t. Again there is no distinction, ergo no meaning, in asserting that the ascription of the noise (or glyph) to conceptualizations is “social construct”. And it is wrong to assert that there is only social construct to the referent.

    To say “social construct” because the normative pre- and pro-scriptive associations are attached to common usages of the word is mis-communicative. It is not the word itself – nor our desire and need for such word – but in fact the social context of its use. I can speak of sex and sex related matters in a biological or medical context and be in fact referring only to the physiological concomitants of the materially distinguished categories. The word itself is not the problem. It’s when it is used in an ascription of generalities to individuals – to say “the weaker sex” – for example that it is clearly misused.

    The problem is one of misuse of generalization which is a frequent fallout of religious discourse. Essentiallism. The notion that generalizations capture an ideal or essence of what *should* be.

    The reality is that objective categorization of a sample set does not require exclusivity over all members of the set and that there is no normative value in the mean.

    That women as a group average smaller and with less physical strength is not a valid rationalization for “the weaker sex” because there certainly are individual women who are larger and stronger than individual men. Likewise the existence of an underlying real physical basis for sexual indentification does not imply that men “should” be stronger or women “should” be weaker. And it does not imply that all humans “should” be XX or XY. It doesn’t even imply that only women “should” be capable of birth; that’s simply the physiological reality encountered in the vast majority of cases.

    So once again, unless you don’t believe in materialism and think the whole world is “social construct” – an idea (mostly!) subsumed under “idealism” and (mostly!) in direct conflict with materialism, to call a word, “sex”, in this case which does have objectively establishable referents for its core meaning, a “social construct” because of its socially contextual usages is wrong.

    I generally favor maximum possible opportunity for everyone. That we have sloppy intellectual habits of treating categorcal means as normative and creating (too often externally invisible and systemic) barriers to opportunities based upon such assumptions is something I feel should be opposed as much and wherever possible.

    But replacing one piece of intellectual sloppiness with another is, I think, unlikely to be successful.

    — TWZ

  24. Caroline says

    “Gender is not a social construct. It is biological, and no amount of feminism or social justice nonsense is going to change that.”

    I got that quote from debate. org on the question of whether or not gender is a social construct.

    I think it is a mistake because the person quoted is not taking into consideration that biological sex is also a social construct. Also another person said it WAS a social construct because it is something you choose. I don’t feel that is accurate because I don’t think we are able to choose these things until much later than our assignments at birth so if our assignment does not feel correct for us we can then maybe choose if we have all the things necessary for that, but mostly I think sex/gender assignment happens at birth and more folks than not get lucky and match or feel comfortable with their sex/gender assignment.

    I don’t feel I did this correctly for some reason but I did give it my best .

  25. AMM says

    Well, as so often here, I am stumped by the discussion. It reminds me of Richard Feynmann’s description of a philosophy class discussing “essential object.” It’s an abstract discussion supposedly related to concrete issues, but, as far as I can tell, irrelevant to them, or at least irrelevant to anything I care about.

    For me, as a trans person still trying to come to terms with the whole mess, the question of whether gender is a social construct and what that means have a concrete impact on my life. Most people in the society I live in (USA) believe that gender — the split of humanity into “male” and “female” — is given by biology, i.e., not a social construction, and thus those of us who feel that that supposedly biology-given gender doesn’t fit us are simply deluded. Then there are those who believe that gender is entirely a social construction and thus merely an agreed-upon delusion, so those of us who are trans are simply buying into a delusion; if we could rid ourselves of the delusion of gender, our transness would go away; i.e., they also believe our trans-ness is a delusion. Both camps see trans people as people who are stubbornly insisting on being stupid just to annoy the more enlightened — we only do it to annoy / because we know it teases. (Also cf. Ophelia Benson & trans women.)

    But for us, that which makes us trans is something beyond or beneath words and social constructions. For some of us, rejecting the social construction (“gender”) that we were assigned and taking on, as much as possible, society’s construction of the “other gender” (either by modifying our bodies or modifying our social position or both) allows us to feel at home in our selves; “binary trans” is the usual term for them. For others, neither social construction works, or at least not all the time. That’s about all we can really say for sure.

    Crip Dyke’s mentioning words and socially agreed-on meanings (and referents?) is apropos to us: one problem we trans people face is that there isn’t a common language for what we trans people experience. Just about every way of describing our experiences seems to resonate for a minority and not for a majority, and I don’t know to what extent it is because our experiences are different and to what extent it’s because we interpret the language differently. (And if we seem to agree, does that mean we really understand one another’s experiences?)

    We live in a cis-normative society whose language and thought has no place for non-cis experiences. It has developed a language which (mostly) allows cis people to understand one another’s experiences (or at least have the illusion of understanding.) Trans people are forced to use a language which has no words or concepts for what we experience. Indeed, no matter what words we use, we end up using language that seems to deny or argue against our existence. It’s a little like trying to farm a field when all you have is machine guns.

  26. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @colonelzen, #24:

    But the existence of outliers does not refute the material reality of the existence and material distinguishability of the categories.

    You clearly either did not read or did not understand the discussion of brown dwarfs and the discussion of AT&T in the original example.

    Long comments are not unwelcome. Being wrong isn’t unwelcome. However, I was already very cautious of permitting you to continue in this discussion because of your insistence that you are at war. The combination of your hostility, your unwillingness and/or inability to digest the information presented, and the length of your comments all taken together create a situation I am not willing to allow to continue.

    The peaches you have entrusted to me are well and thoroughly thawed. Any further comments from you in this thread will be deleted. The comments you’ve already posted will remain.

  27. Jake Harban says

    OK, I’ve been trying to follow along but this one just isn’t working. (Maybe I should try again when I have more sleep and more spoons.)

    I think the point I was supposed to get out of this is that language is an awkward and imperfect means of communicating which means that concepts are often conflated— the physical fact of having a penis is treated as being functionally identical to being aggressive, avoiding pink, liking cars, and a million or a billion completely unrelated things simply because there are no words to refer to one without carrying the baggage of all the other. While not having language to refer to a concept doesn’t prevent us from understanding it (contrary to what Sapir and/or Whorf might have thought), being unable to communicate that concept to others makes it slow to take hold in the population at large.

    Because we have no language to refer to either sex or gender except that which conflates the two, explanations of the difference are often misunderstood and saying that gender is a social construct doesn’t really clarify anything.

    Mind you, as I understood the term, “social construct” referred to anything that exists only to the extent that society believes it does and acts on this belief. As such, gender is a social construct; outside of the core mechanics of reproduction, differences between men and women exist only to the extent that society imposes them based on the belief that they’re natural/inevitable/already present, like how “women are bad at STEM” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because people acting on that belief exclude women from STEM, thus preventing them from becoming good at it.

    That in mind, I’m not sure I buy the idea that the concept of a social construct is only mentioned with respect to gender. Race is also a social construct; it only exists to the extent that society believes people belong to different “races” and treats them differently as a result. Nations are also social constructs; “The United States,” as a political entity, only exists to the extent that people believe it does and act according to that belief by enforcing laws selectively based on specific (but arbitrary) geographic lines. However, sex is not a social construct; that I am unable to become pregnant is a biological fact that cannot be changed by collective belief and the actions based thereon. That the word “sex” refers to specific things is a social construct, but only in a minor and trivial way; calling attention to this fact doesn’t seem to be meaningful to issues of sex/gender except as an intro to the conflated language problem I mentioned above.

  28. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I struggled with how to respond to colonelzen’s #22. However, before I was able to post what I wished, colonelzen posted #24. Though I won’t permit any future comments form colonelzen, I do still think it’s important to discuss some of what colonelzen brought up so that it doesn’t confuse others. It’s unfortunate that this has to happen in an environment where colonelzen’s productive responses, whatever they might be, cannot share the same thread. Nonetheless the unproductive responses and hostility have consistently made difficult or impossible to find a productive contribution from colonelzen’s own writing, and the time when that writing had value even as an example has passed.

    I originally wrote most of the below with the intent that colonelzen take ongoing part in the conversation. I’ve edited it somewhat since the decision to bar future contributions:

    I’m going to quote a few bits to respond to, ones that I think will be most productive to address from a bystander’s perspective. Because I don’t wish to type out “colonelzen” over and over, I’ll use CZ below instead.

    [Social construction of the concept] is not so for the core of the concept. The issue is the aggregation of judgmental an normative cruft which is socially appended to it.

    How do you decide what is the core of the concept and what is “socially appended to it”? Does anyone believe that they, personally – or perhaps CZ, personally – with no input from any others, makes that decision for all of humankind? When one makes that unilateral decision, does one do so in ignorance of every bit of wisdom that originated in other human minds?

    Even if CZ happened to be correct that there are sub-concepts that are rolled into larger concepts and that the process of rolling them together is a social one, but the sub-concepts exist in the ether without a social mind to conceptualize them … if the sex concept is currently a concept made up of rolled together subconstructs, then even under that frame, when CZ asserts:

    there’s no purpose I see in saying “sex is a social construct” and it is, no pun intended, constructively wrong.

    the first half is a personal preference unrelated to the general effort of people here to clarify the meaning of “social construct” and the second half is, according to CZ’s own standards, absolutely, positively wrong, so long as any subconcepts not “core” to sex are nonetheless attached to sex. Since there are many subconcepts attached together, and CZ even admits not only that these exist but that they matter enough CZ would like to detach them from the “core” (whatever that may be), it is reasonable to wonder whether CZ is thinking out eventual typed responses or if all these responses are still as reflexive as CZ’s 1st comment.

    Though CZ asserts others are confused, particularly between concept and word, the best explanation for a great many of CZ’s errors seems to be that CZ is confusing concept and referent. There is a concept of “penis”. This concept is socially constructed. This concept is communicated using the word “penis”. AND YET, there is a 3rd item to consider – the referent. The referent might be, in some cases, the mere concept of penises or penises in the abstract, but the very fact that I have to articulate “the mere concept of penises” to get my point across tells us that the referent in a sentence is more likely to be an actual, physical penis or penises.

    Thus there is word, concept, AND referent. With gender, the referent is a concept. This makes it easier to confuse concept and referent. CZ has apparently confused these terribly and, notwithstanding correction, persisted in that confusion. With sex – or, more specifically if you like, “womb” – the referent is typically not a concept, but a material thing.

    I make it clear that there are concepts and referents and words. With CZ’s clumsy lingo about “core concepts” (without defining what makes something “core” and thus uselessly chumming the linguistic waters in mere hope that some meaning will eventually show up) and CZ’s strong distinction between the concept of gender and the concept of sex, CZ communicates an ignorance of the distinction between concept and referent.

    This becomes particularly clear when one examines your statement:

    [Crip Dyke is] *specifically* conflating the social construction of the sign (the ascription of a token to a concept) with the referent being a social construct. But that imputes a falsity.

    No, not at all. There is a word for “sex” a concept of “what sex is” and there are physical referents referred to using “sex”, such physical referents including actual vaginas and vas deferens. The word “sex” is socially constructed. The concept of “what sex is” is socially constructed. And yet, there still remain physical objects that are sometimes the referents of “sex”. A material referent is not socially constructed. It is. Materially.

    The entire post above is specifically explaining that the referent is different than the concept and that having a physical referent is irrelevant to whether or not the concept is socially constructed. That CZ still believes that concept = referent and that a physical referent implies an inability for a concept to be socially constructed would be disheartening if CZ’s comment #1 hadn’t made it plain that CZ was never particularly interested in actually reading and understanding the original post before engaging in criticism.

    [CZ’s inability to parse the distinction between concept and referent was also quite clearly communicated in the Berkelian or Platonist? question, but the reasons why that question makes it plain CZ doesn’t understand the difference between concept and referent would take too long to explain to a general audience.]

    While CZ’s most important errors, I think, are sufficiently handled, I still wish to comment on certain other aspects of CZ’s writing. The best take off point for this is my interpretation of CZ’s motivation.

    I see these two passages at the heart of what is motivating CZ’s posts.


    By saying “social construct” for what is not at core so, a listener is immediately struck with the impression that it is an explicit attempt to take the *concept* off the table.

    Except, even according to CZ, a concept that is not “at core so” is nonetheless a social construct because social processes have constructed a larger concept than the core. Thus to say “sex is a social construct” is absolutely correct according to CZ’s own statements.

    CZ objects, then, to people being publicly correct about an issue. Why is that? Because of the second of these two statements:

    Trying to “fence the (linguistic in this case) commons” is a claim to nobility that your discursive opponents are unlikely to grant without a civil war. Thus these word games are frequently as much causitive of “culture war” as an unwillingness to cede privileges the vested interests have historically enjoyed.

    Ah. So the reason CZ objects to people being publicly correct about social construction is because CZ dislikes the motivations that CZ ascribes to the people who are correct about the social construction of concepts. CZ appears to dislike the uses of “social construction,” and so in CZ’s “civil war” CZ even denies that, yes, the observations of social construction are correct. So the denial of the fact is because that is easier (or more desirable) than dealing with the implications.

    This is as stupid as a creationist denying scientific evidence of evolution because of a desire to avoid the consequences. Some creationists are smart enough to say, “well, yes, the evidence is correct, but since my god can poof things into existence, I deny that it has any relevant implications in this larger battle over here.” Right now, CZ is giving every evidence that CZ is just shy of that much intelligence.

    But worse, that second statement is the horrifying fulfillment of CZ’s nominative destiny. CZ believes that people are attempting to “fence the linguistic commons” AND that doing so is a play for “nobility”. The obvious interpretation given the feudalistic metaphor is that the proponents wish to be knights or barons with linguistic fiefdoms, taxing the very people who put their words into production, which is what creates the words’ value in the first place. My, that would be unfair.

    But given the unfortunate truth that I believe CZ can’t actually sustain a metaphor for the length of an entire predicate, and given that the metaphor chosen would create more confusion than sense if intended to inform the understanding of the entire sentence, the reasonable conclusion can only be that nobility is here used in the sense of moral elevation. And so how does CZ respond to the desire of others to high moral status? With the invocation of war.

    There are very clearly many issues of moral relevance in education, in feminism, even in linguistics. But CZ doesn’t wish to engage in them. CZ would rather declare facts to be false than to concede the facts and deal with the implications. How does CZ then ultimately reach a state of peace, undistracted by undesirable thoughts? Why, the colonel declares war, of course. All’s fair now: CZ need not engage with questions of morality. Instead, CZ can, with an empty mind, peacefully attack the enemy.

    Very zen, colonel.

  29. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thanks, Jake Harban. I appreciate your effort.

    Some people, including you, appear to be struggling with some parts of what I’ve said. I’m going to make another effort.

    In that effort, let me veer from the language I’ve previously used. There are technical reasons, reasons related to the fields that actually teach social construction, to use idea, category, and concept.

    I’ve veered somewhat away from the language I would use in field-specific contexts, but not far from it. Now let me travel further, in a way that opens me up to being wrong on specific technical points, but that hopefully makes things more understandable to you and to others.

    Let’s start with words instead of starting with concepts. Let’s also define referent, since there isn’t a good lay-term that’s remotely comparable.

    So, here is wiktionary on referents:

    referent ‎(plural referents)

    (semantics) The specific entity in the world that a word or phrase identifies or denotes.
    That which is referenced.

    And here are examples with explanation:

    Historically, there was only one person called George Washington, the first president of the United States. He can be referred to in a text in many ways, such as

    the president
    Mr. Washington
    he, or even
    my friend.

    Even though there are many ways to talk about him, there is only one referent in the referential realm.

    and, finally, wikipedia:

    in the sentence Mary saw me, the referent of the word Mary is the particular person called Mary who is being spoken of, while the referent of the word me is the person uttering the sentence.

    Two expressions which have the same referent are said to be co-referential. In the sentence John had his dog with him, for instance, the noun John and the pronoun him are co-referential, since they both refer to the same person (John).

    Okay, now let’s try again with one piece of this stuff, but swapping in definition for idea, category, and concept.

    Words are socially constructed, yes. Obviously the fact that different human languages exist with different words for the same referents is sufficient to prove this. Even CZ got this much right. I can say “elle” or “she” to refer to my partner, and either one might work, but whether it’s successful is dependent on social understanding of “elle” or “she”.

    But more than just the word is socially constructed. The definition is socially constructed as well. An umbrella is a real object. “An umbrella” has a physical referent. But “umbrella” (note the lack of “an”) is defined socially. It’s not merely that we pick the word socially. We also socially define it. If an umbrella exists to block rain, we have one definition of “umbrella”. If it exists to block weather, we have another definition of “umbrella”. We can shift this definition around socially without changing the actual word at all. Since the definition changes without umbrellas around the world magically polymorphing, we know that the definition is also independent of the referent. The definition shift also shifts the set of all possible referents (parasols become potential umbrellas – which sure as hell makes sense for “umbrella” but which makes much less sense for “parapluie”), but the referents themselves to not change, only our categorization of them.

    So we have word, a definition and a referent.

    knowing this we can say, Penis is a social construct but a penis is never a social construct.

    Thus we can say, Sex is socially constructed, but Jaime’s sex is not.*

    Ultimately this is fundamentally parallel to saying, The definition of sex is socially constructed, but Jaime’s genitals are not.

    There is a very good reason why people say “sex is socially constructed” rather than “your sex is socially constructed”. Get it?

    If you can then swap in idea, category, and concept whenever I’ve used definition above, then you’ll be very close to understanding what I was originally saying. The differences will be small enough as to be unimportant for this particular context.
    * This gets a little clumsier when the referent of “Jaime’s sex” is, say, a governmental category rather than a body part or parts – in those cases it might actually be correct to say Jaime’s sex is socially constructed, but the fact that this might sometimes be correct, depending on referent, does not mean that we can, meaningfully say, Sex is socially constructed, but Jaime’s sex is not whenever “Jaime’s sex” has a physical referent.

  30. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    AMM and Caroline, thank you for your contributions.

    Caroline, does reading my #30 help at all?

  31. Caroline says

    Crip Dyke,
    Yes, thank you for taking the time to write it. I am having tooth pain and hope to feel well enough to re-read again tomorrow. I want to be able to sum up a bit to make sure I am following you.

  32. colonelzen says

    CZ posted a message to me here. It has been deleted from the thread, though I have a copy and will read it and digest it since at the briefest of brief first glances it did seem an attempt to further dialog.

    Nonetheless, it was not a dialog about the original topic, and it came after I said further posts would be deleted. My actions here are consistent with these facts.

    -Crip Dyke.

  33. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Brian Pansky, #34:

    Absolutely happy to be helpful.

  34. says


    Thank you for trying to understand the problem.

    You’re quite condescending, aren’t you?

    Crip Dyke et al are confusing two different things. Social construction of the sign (aka word) – what noise goes with what concept, and social construction of the concept.

    There is no question about the former – that humans have different and incompatible languages is a priori evidence of such.

    The latter is not so for the core of the concept. The issue is the aggregation of judgmental an normative cruft which is socially appended to it.

    The concepts are just as socially constructed as signs. Not only do multiple languages show there’S no relationship between concept and sound pattern, they also prove that the concepts are created differently in different languages. It’s not as if we share he concepts and just apply different sounds.
    An example?
    Pumpkin. Now to me pumpkin is Kürbis. Only that most of what to English speakers is squash is also Kürbis, but not ALL of what you call squash is pumpkin, some are also variations of courgettes. So when I think “Kürbis” I think of different things than English speakers think of when they say “pumpkin”. Both, the concept of “pumpkin” and “Kürbis” is socially constructed within the respective linguistic communities. None of this negates the reality of many different but biologically related plants.
    And we haven’t even started on connotations…

  35. Caroline says

    Crip Dyke,
    I am glad I waited until today to re-read this post. I think I did have a grasp on what you were saying and then that became muddled with #1. I was able to re-read your responses and I really needed the clarity of your last few. The examples helped so much and showed me how my own gender was constructed first through birth assignment as a girl, then changed to boy with the the word tom in front of it and then changed again to women, at the onset of menses. Throughout all of that I had a uterus and that was never up for debate.
    It has been much harder for me to explain my experience than it has been to embrace and enjoy myself. I am still closeted to most people I know because, for one, I did not know how to explain myself.

    I seem to need a lot of examples when it come to these topics that are new to me, so thanks also to Giliell for her examples as well.

    I feel less confused. Does my example using myself make sense?

  36. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Caroline, #37:

    Sure, using yourself as an example makes perfect sense to me. I think most people discussing social construction would say that girl, tomboy, and woman were constructed, and your identity fell inside those constructs at different times rather than that your personal identity was socially constructed.

    But your identity is a concept – it’s a concept about you held by yourself. You arrived at that concept through social interaction. Girl was assigned to you, but it didn’t become an identity in the sense we’re talking until you took it on yourself. As soon as you started calling yourself a girl, then you had the identity girl. Before that others identified you as a girl, but you didn’t have an internal identity as one.

    The fact that in this first case the development of identity would have been through uncritical acceptance (normal for young children) doesn’t mean it wasn’t social. Tomboy was something you would have actively considered and eventually taken on in part based on how people described the concept tomboy and how people seemed to de/value tomboy and actual tomboys. I don’t know how you came to identify with woman, but whether you welcomed the identity and were eager for its connotations of adulthood or whether you had issues with it and grudgingly accepted it or whatever, you still wouldn’t have identified yourself as a woman without hearing/reading the word as used by others many, many times.

    From this we can say that at least some psychological identities of individuals are socially constructed, and I can fully agree with your assessment that your identities were socially constructed. Nonetheless, there’s an element of social construction we haven’t particularly dwelled upon – collective social agreement – that’s part of the concept of social construction. Society doesn’t have to agree on your identities for them to be your identities. While a process of social construction goes on in helping you create your identities, the identities constructed don’t depend on continuous social support (at least in the form of consent, sometimes in other forms) after their creation.

    For this reason, it’s more proper to say “the category of identity called tomboy is socially constructed” than it is to say, “my identity as a tomboy is socially constructed”.

    The latter – which is what you did – is not wrong. However, in some contexts where the narrower definition is used, at least some people would say it shows that you’re missing an understanding of one important element.

    And, again, I didn’t stress that element above, so it’s no surprise you didn’t stress it here – that’s my fault as an educator. But I didn’t stress it because it is only sometimes relevant. There are many discussions of social construction that use the looser definition that lacks the component of ongoing social consent. In any of those discussions your statements above in comment #37 would be perfectly appropriate and perfectly apt.

    i only bring it up now because I was talking above primarily about the social construction of categories, and you’re talking about social construction of your membership in a particular category. I thought other people might be confused by that even though, as I said, I was not and found your examples referencing yourself to be perfectly clear.

  37. Caroline says

    Crip Dyke,
    Oh, thanks so much, I grok slowly but I grok. The part where society does not
    have to agree with my identities for them to be my identities was a difficulty
    for me. I see how it did take my agreement especially in that I chose
    to try to fit in and that the ways I did were socially constructed
    ideas or categories around womanhood. Pointing out the difference between
    socially constructed categories and the social construction of my membership
    ership in those categories helped a lot. I tried to send this from my mail but it failed so sorry for the formatting from cut and paste.

  38. brucegee1962 says

    Here’s my brief response to colonelzen:

    If you just read the first half of the OP, you might be forgiven for thinking that, like many feminists, Crip Dyke was using semantics to make a point about gender.

    However, if you’d read the entire article carefully, you would have realized that, in fact, she was using a gender to make a point about semantics. Which means you missed that point entirely.

  39. robertstrong says

    Can you give an example of something that in a society would not be a social construct?

  40. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    ideas, concepts and categories are social constructs. Can you give me an example of a thing that is not an idea, concept or category?

    Really this is about making a distinction between the concept of a thing (read: definition of a thing, if “concept” is giving you trouble) and the thing itself.

    So, skyscraper as a concept is socially constructed. 9 story buildings seem very tall compared to my little body, but in the nearest big metropolis to where I live (which would be Vancouver, British Columbia), people don’t call 9 story buildings “skyscrapers”. There’s a social agreement that skyscrapers are taller than that, even if the social agreement isn’t quite as specific on what is/isn’t a skyscraper as it is specific on what is/isn’t AT&T.

    Nonetheless there really do exist tall buildings and those tall buildings are not social constructs in the sense we are discussing here.

    does that help at all, robertstrong?

  41. robertstrong says

    I think so. What I am wondering if there is anything that wouldn’t / couldn’t / shouldn’t be considered at some level a social construct in a society. So, the term sex as is often used to denote the type of generic genitalia in public discourse vs. when filling out a form in the doctor’s office (I recognize this example could go a whole new direction though I hope not) is little different than your skyscraper example. What I see as tricky is using a term such as sex and having a conversation about it without first calling out whether the discussion is about the “concept of a thing” vs. “the thing itself”.

  42. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Well, I think the people who advocate public education on the social construction of sex would probably say that there’s a reason why they say,

    Sex is socially constructed

    and not

    Crip Dyke’s sex is socially constructed

    The first is clearly using language that implies abstraction. The second is clearly using language that implies discussion of a particular physical referent (or referents). So I think that they would say that they are doing what you suggest, though I am in agreement with the spirit of your critique: given the well-known confusion over the issue, there are good reasons that they should be doing more to stress that the discussion relates to ideas, concepts and categories not the physical referents.

    In sympathy with the people who do argue for more public education on the social construction of sex (and gender), however, I will say that I don’t think that the confusion originates with them. The ideas were articulated clearly at the outset, but students with imperfect understanding talk to other students who understand things even less, or people who really don’t care about honestly engaging find a piece of writing, and bam! A straw-version of their advocacy is instantly released into the wild. It’s not necessarily fair that it’s on them to address it. But as a practical matter, they the ones who wish to do the education, so they must do the pedagogical work of constructing a lesson/course/workshop/program plan that gets people from where they actually are – whether that’s a place of ignorance or a place of misinformation – to where they need to be to understand the material.

    So I don’t feel like dissing them for a doing a bad job of educating if the only evidence I have is that misinformation is rife – misinformation is rife on lots of subjects, that doesn’t automatically mean that it’s the people who are professional educators on the topics are teaching poorly. But I’m tired of having to dispel myths about a theory which isn’t a tool I even find particularly useful particularly often. However it got released into the wild, it wasn’t from me. The people who do educate on this topic could do a lot more to separate social construction as a concept from gender, but I simply don’t see people doing what I’ve done here: stop trying to justify that gender (or sex) is a social construct and just explain what the hell is meant by “social construct”. It feels, therefore, like having a partner who is always leaving a wet towel on the floor, and getting exasperated enough at its continual stink that I pick it up. I’m willing to do it because of the consequences of leaving it there. But I sure as heck wish that the people most responsible had taken care of it themselves.

  43. robertstrong says

    Crip Dyke, thank you very much for your response. From my point of view there has been so much emphasis on sex as a thing and it is so ingrained in everyone’s thinking that I imagine from my own personal experiences that it is difficult (understatement of the year) to even get people to think of sex, etc. as a social construct. Using the same word when referencing something as a concept of a thing vs. a thing doesn’t help but that’s where we are. I appreciate your patience, well thought out statements, and your advocacy.

  44. kalirren says

    So I confess I had a very gut-level resistance to the notion that “sex” is socially (and not just linguistically) constructed, and found myself asking myself, “Well, why the heck would you do that?” And so I will take this impulse of mine as the starting point for my working through the exercise.

    Why might it be a mistake “to resist the social construction of sex”? What’s wrong with all of society using a biological definition of sex? (more specifically, of sex classification, as opposed to sex acts? Etymologically, the right word would be “gender,” just like the word “genre” is used in French, but that’s been taken.)

    Here’s the high-school biology definition.
    Does this ape produce eggs? yes? Then it’s female. If she has a womb, she might even bear offspring – but even that’s a separate function with modern technology.
    Does this ape produce sperm? yes? Then it’s male. Some of those sperm might even be fertile, har har.

    That’s a purely biological definition based on the reproductive function(s) of the body. The fact that children may inherit wealth from their parents and may support them in old age is a very strong reason for people to use a social construction of sex that privileges the concept of reproductive function when communicating with each other.

    But that’s just one context. Another context might give me at least as good a reason to entertain a different social construction of sex, and I will see if I can think of one;

    and indeed I can! for example, secondary sexual characteristics can make your sexual physiology relevant even if you’re not fertile. That would be important for medical purposes, for life insurance, for choral purposes…

    Okay, but that definition is normative, in that it presupposes a shared set of life history circumstances (e.g not just having testes, but also having had normal, functional ones all my life that came active at the normal point in teenage.) Does there exist a social context for which a non-normative definition of sex is useful?

    …I’m actually having a really difficult time thinking of one. Help? I’m trying to find a social context in which someone has an a priori interest in differentiating on the basis of genitalia for their biological function.

    Mongolian songs about stealing all the ewes from rival tribes and leaving them all the rams come to mind. The next thing that comes to mind is purchasing sheeps’ testicles at the butcher’s. Numbers 31. All these are instances of animals (and humans) being treated as livestock. Basic demographics; again, humans as animals, not people.

    As I write, I’m thinking that the high-school biology definitions of “female” and male” are not normative, and are less socially useful because of it. I’m inclined to conclude that society constructs and uses normative definitions of sex to talk about the experiences that people supposedly share, or will never share, because of their biological sex.

  45. Daniel Dunér says

    So it turns out “social construct” doesn’t mean what I thought it did.

    But now I feel like I’m missing a term for things that are “solely socially constructed without any concrete referent” or maybe “only exist because people act like they do”. I thought that was what was being said about nations, organizations, gender, race, languages and protocols.

    So is there a term for that or something similar? And Is it a reasonable thing to say about the things in that list?