Last updated on March 23rd, 2021 at 04:25 pm
[This is the third installment in a five-part essay exploring the history of the concept of “gender” in its origins and stages of development. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.—Ed.]
In our previous parts, we observed (in part one) how the word “gender” originally was associated with linguistic phenomena, but how (in part two) the 20th century saw the term taking on new meaning related to humans’ “roles” in their society, eventually being stretched so far that it seemed to overtake biology entirely (through interrogating the “gender roles” of biological realities like motherhood and fatherhood!).
In this part, we will look at how “gender theory” came full circle, as it were, with biology appearing to gain ascendancy once again—but in a very unlikely and problematic way.
Speaking of the most recent innovations in the field of “gender theory,” it would not be an overstatement to say that the latest shift in the theoretical framework has been a full-scale revolution: a tectonic shift that has remade gender theory entirely, from its very foundations. Indeed, an outside observer coming to the thing fresh would hardly recognize the relation of the modern concept to the original theory, because in some ways it looks like the very concept of “gender” has been entirely unmade! Really, however, what we have seen in the past couple decades is the natural consequence of the flaws with the theory in its origins. Owing to hazily defined terms and the lack of clear distinctions, it isn’t really accurate to say that biological sex has risen Pheonix-like from the ashes to reconquer the social role conception of gender. It is truer to say, rather, that “sex” and “gender” each have “put on drag,” dressing like one another until both have become creepy, uncanny chimeras, neither resembling the original concepts. They are ideological Frankenstein twin monsters, mutually cobbled together from bits of one another.
The modern move to re-integrate “gender” and “sex”—the socially-constructed and the biologically-determined realms—into a cohesive unity is not at all hard to demonstrate. Take, for example, a particular chapter from a 2020 book with the laborious title, The Plasticity of Sex: The Molecular Biology and Clinical Features of Genomic Sex, Gender Identity and Sexual Behavior. In the abstract of that chapter (headed “Biological basis of gender identity”), the authors write:
In the past, gender identity was thought to be influenced only by social and familial factors. However, growing evidence has led to a new conception of psychosexual development as a result of genetic, hormonal, and psychosocial influences. Recent studies have shown the possible role and interaction of neuroanatomic, hormonal, and genetic factors. The sexually dimorphic brain is considered the anatomical substrate of psychosexual development, on which genes and gonadal hormones—both during intrauterine and pubertal periods—have a shaping effect.
[Note, incidentally, the reference to “the sexually dimorphic brain”—it will bear recalling in the future.]
Now, let’s remind ourselves, that in its origins, “gender theory” posited the distinction or indeed the (at least conceptual) difference between “sex” and “gender.” In fact, this difference was the very basis on which gender theory was built and developed in its nascent expressions. The term “gender role,” as coined by John Money in 1955, was intended by him to mean, “all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman.” And when it came to accounting for things like transsexualism or what would come to be called “gender identity disorder,” typically these cases were described as instances where gender and sex, because they were distinct, were different in the individual and did not align with one another. But in these later years, we have seen the move to speaking of “gender identities” being really founded upon biological sex, in “anatomical substrate[s]” like the brain, except that “sex” is now something that admits of degrees and is “on a spectrum” rather than a binary reality.
The importance of this shift toward replacing “sex” as the foundation of the theory of gender cannot be overstated. It is a matter of more than mere semantics. It is, instead, the apotheosis and totalizing of “gender” as the paradigmatic root concept at the base not only of sciences like psychology and sociology, but of “harder” sciences as well: fields like biology and endocrinology, for instance—and, increasingly (and ominously), in the fields of law and policy.
While proponents will simply say they are “following the science,” this shift in the very structural basis of gender theory has titanic consequences. It’s hard to argue with “science,” after all; and long have LGBT activists known the power of the argument that a person is “born this way.” Indeed, the paradigm shift toward a biological basis for “non-conforming” “gender identities” is so well-suited to the goals of transgender activists, that one really must wonder which came first. Was it really that the (supposed) scientific evidence led toward this new understanding? Or is it the case that the cultural goals of the pressure groups needed a new framework of justification, and so new “science” was “found” (manufactured) to fit the demand? The question is merited, because this wouldn’t be the first time in which a scientific field became fundamentally politicized and a scientific “consensus” arose that was surprisingly fitted to the foregoing fads of policy makers: consider, for example, the craze of apocalyptic warnings stemming from the first Earth Day in 1970 about “the population bomb” and the imminent doom of organic life on the planet.
Appreciating the novelty and scope of the new craze in “gender theory” about disparate “gender identities” being founded in biology is critical to understanding the rapid changes in what treatment courses are recommended, and for what age groups, and a host of other tremendous questions. Consider: if, as historical “gender theory” posited, “gender” and “sex” were distinct and separate, why would biological interventions be considered justifiable (let alone necessary) in caring for those suffering from problems relating to “gender”? If gender were simply a “social construction,” then why would the physical construction of a pseudo-phallus and other anatomical simulacra, achieved by means of long series (sometimes several dozens) of dangerous surgeries be merited? If “social roles” were the real problem, then why wouldn’t the girl who felt more like a boy simply be advised to shirk the social conventions of “boyhood” and “girlhood” as a manifestation of her “girl power,” rather than be told she actually needs to “become” a boy (as if that were really possible)? The answer, of course, is that these drastic measures are not easily justified within the previous framework of “gender as social construct”. That’s why, for the giddy activists, the framework had to change; and so it did. Accordingly, by collapsing gender and sex into an enmeshed unity through the continued exploitation of the “hermeneutics of confusion,” a panoply a new recourses became not only justifiable for the doctors and special interest groups, but “proper” and “necessary”.
Finally, we should note how very quickly the foundations of the discourse shifted, according to the need of the gender theorist, in order to keep any would-be critics back-footed in the discussion. “Sex reassignment surgery,” for example, very quietly and very speedily, with apparently universal consent, has suddenly become “gender affirmation surgery.” No one batted an eye! Yet, a couple decades ago, this linguistic change would have been seen by academic “gender theorists” as a denial of the very central concept of the theory! Nevermind that even today it remains the case that, despite the new name of “gender affirmation,” the actual surgery is most certainly sexual and biological, as are its consequences. The patient might be rendered perpetually infertile, for instance, and spend his or her whole life dependent upon exogenous hormones for the proper functioning of his or her anatomy. These are not “social constructions,” are they? Furthermore, it is worth noting as well that gender activists will still happily speak of the “social construct” idea, when it is more suited to their whims in the moment. They want, and somehow have managed, to have it both ways. The critic of gender theory must always realize that she is up against a twin ideology, a tag-teaming and mendacious opponent, that can change the parameters of the discussion at any moment to gain the upper hand. That the two ideas are not only distinct but in many ways contradictory of one another does not matter for much in practice: what the declared alliance means in the upshot for the critic is simply falling afoul of a dual charge of being both “anti-science” and “transphobic”! What needs to be done if critics are to advance their cause is to more clearly exploit the internal contradictions within this twin ideology, even to turn the two sides of the monstrous team against one another.
So, biology has not really reasserted itself in the conversation at all. “Gender” has simply won a more complete victory than was ever previously imagined. In our next part, we will consider this matter further, and look at how the new “biological basis” of gender is simply the dressing up of radical gender theory in scientific jargon. And we will show how deeply rooted the contradictions run in this new conception, and how we might expose them.