A colleague once expressed to me her dismay that a student in my gender theory class seemed unable to articulate the difference between sex and gender. I found this oddly affirming: this student had rightly picked up on the fact that those two terms do not have fixed meanings in gender theory, and certainly not in the culture at large. Why? Because, in a nutshell, we are deeply confused what it means to be a body, particularly a body who is sexed.
This widespread confusion is reflected in the slippery usage of the terms “sex” and “gender.” Are these interchangeable synonyms? Or, do they reflect a dualistic split between a sexed body and gendered soul? Do they signify the interplay between biology and society in human identity? Depending upon the context, the words sex and gender can evoke any and all of those meanings. We no longer know who we are as sexed beings, and this is mirrored in our language.
Perhaps more importantly, the meanings we hitch to those two words reflect (whether intended or not) specific philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a human person. And these meanings are continuing to shift at an astonishing rate in our historical moment. As a Catholic, I believe that the proper response to any human person is always love, but this does not exempt the idea of human personhood, as currently presented in our culture, from scrutiny. If anything, the command to love the person and guard his or her inviolable dignity necessitates a thoughtful understanding of what it means to be a person. What is needed at this juncture is a hard look at, to borrow Chesterton’s phrase, “the idea of the idea” of gender in our time.
In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues against a simplistic narrative of secularization, wherein science supplants the supernatural, instead tracing this paradigm shift along two axes: the waning of the prior framework’s hold on the social imagination and the development of new alternatives. In a similar way, I am resisting a simple subtraction narrative in order to describe a two-fold revolution in our thinking about sex and gender: first, the erosion of the old framework, in which bodily sex referred to the person as a whole and was characterized by generative roles, and secondly, the emergence of an alternate framework, one centered on the newly expansive—and inherently unstable—concept of gender.
The Eclipse of Sex
Before the middle of the 20th century, gender lived primarily, and discreetly, in the realm of grammar. As a basic word denoting a category, kind, or class, one might find references to “the feminine gender” as a synonym for womankind, but it was more customary to speak of words having gender—as words do in various languages, such as French and Spanish. By and large, however, individuals were categorized in terms of sex, as belonging to either the female sex or the male sex, a belonging readily displayed by the body.
The sole use of the word “sex” to indicate manhood or womanhood reveals a particular understanding of these terms. Sex is seen as something innate, a given, a fact of nature readily recognized at birth, and one encompassing, or constituting, a person’s entire identity. This represents an essentialist understanding of sexed identity. In this view, human beings come into existence in two distinct forms, male and female, and this difference of sex occurs on the level of being itself; it is ontological, intrinsic.
Moreover, this intrinsic sexed identity is not merely about external appearance, but also intimately connected to procreative function—one’s generative potential as a male or female. This understanding of sex stretches back to the beginning of Western thought; we see this in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, for example: a male is the animal that generates in another, and a female is the animal that generates within herself.
How did we arrive to this cultural moment, where bodily sex is no longer considered to be integral to personhood, but is ornamental, malleable, easily altered—a fiction “assigned” at birth? I would like to argue that this new understanding of sex can be traced, in large part, to two related innovations in the mid-20th century: the widespread embrace of contraception, which in turn enabled a newly expansive concept of “gender” to emerge.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact of widespread contraception on our culture, in terms of both thought and practice. Angela Franks has written eloquently about this as a war against fertility. The thread we will pick up here is how contraception reshaped our shared cultural understanding of the meaning of the sexed body. Therefore, the focus will be on what sex has come to mean in our shared cultural imagination, rather than what it inherently means. While contraception enabled women to disrupt the normal functioning of their bodies and reduce the chance of pregnancy, it did not, in fact, erase the reality that woman are the kinds of human beings that can get pregnant, and men are not. So, reality and our imagination are currently at odds.
In the new contraceptive paradigm, the respective reproductive “niche” of man and woman receded into the background. Our procreative capacities became incidental, optional add-ons to manhood and womanhood, rather than an integral aspect—indeed, the defining feature—of those very identities.
Let me pause for a moment to entertain an understandable objection, one I would have once made myself: what about infertile women? How is it acceptable to define men and women by procreative potential, given that not everyone is fertile? The answer to this objection depends upon the meaning of the word “potential.” By “potential,” I mean an inherent capacity that exists regardless whether or not it is ever actualized. Every woman has the potential to generate life within; her entire physiology is organized according to this potential. There are, of course, conditions that prevent that potential from resulting in actual generation—and such instances of infertility can be a profound source of pain, precisely because there is a telos to the body that is being thwarted. We do not say a man is infertile because he is unable to get pregnant—he does not have that innate potential, as a woman does. So even the category of “infertility” gestures back to the distinctive procreative capacities of each sex. Rather than an argument for the opposition, the case of the infertile man or woman proves the point.
But no one talks or thinks this way anymore, except for a few Catholic oddballs. We live and move and have our affairs in a contraceptive paradigm, where the visible sexual markers of our bodies no longer gesture toward new life, but rather signal the prospect of sterile pleasure. That has become the meaning of the body in our time, as exemplified by the work of Michel Foucault, the godfather of contemporary gender theory. As Angela Franks aptly writes, for Foucault:
Sex is about bodies and pleasures. Because fertility doesn’t matter anymore, it does not matter whether the bodies are male or female; they are all just raw material for anonymous couplings. This is the depersonalized view of the body that reigns in the . . . age of contraception.
I want to extend Franks’ analysis here to underscore a further ramification. Because bodily sex has been divorced from procreative potential, reduced to appearance and pleasure-making, the prospect of changing one’s sex has become feasible. If “man” and “woman” are defined in terms of generative potentiality, it is simply impossible to change sex. A scalpel can sterilize; it can permanently impede procreative potential, but a scalpel cannot endow the procreative potential of the other sex. Elaborate surgical and hormonal interventions can alter the appearance of the body and mimic sex markers—and that is enough for us now, because that is what bodily sex has become. A surgeon can make a vagina out of a wound, because the vagina is no longer seen as the door to a womb.
The Rise of Gender
In the 1950’s, the phrase “gender role” entered the scene, thanks to its coinage by psychologist John Money. Money, whose work is still controversial, to put it mildly, was one of the first prominent advocates of a tabula rasa view of the human person. Sex, he argued, did not have an intrinsic connection to the roles allotted to men and women in society, so he imported the term “gender” from linguistics to describe those things we associate with each sex that are, in his view, a product of culture rather than biology. The use of gender as distinct from sex rose to prominence in the 1970’s as feminists embraced the term to analyze and deconstruct cultural notions of manhood and womanhood.
John Money’s understanding of gender as entirely socially constructed proved to be a catastrophic failure. His most famous patient, David Reamer, who was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision, subsequently rejected this assigned gender and ultimately took his own life. But this tragedy took decades to play out, and by then the concept of gender as a social construct was thoroughly entrenched in feminist theory and the social sciences.
This newly conceived idea of “gender” became a site of resistance to essentialism, which was viewed in resolutely negative terms. The oft-quoted line from Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” illustrates this conceptual break. Because essentialism—the assertion that women are inherently an altogether different kind of human being than men—has regularly been used throughout history as a weapon against women, an essentialist understanding of sex was rejected outright by most feminist theorists. Supplanting the earlier paradigm, which reduced all differences between men and women to a natural category of “sex,” a new paradigm emerged to distinguish between sex as a basic, biological reality and gender as a collection of socially constructed norms and ideals that are associated with each sex and mistakenly read as natural.
On the one hand, the introduction of the term “gender” facilitated an important move beyond reductive, and often misogynistic, definitions of what it means to be a woman. Arguments appealing to “natural” weaknesses or deficiencies in women as a species were used to justify denying certain legal rights. Differences between the sexes were often understood as differences in value and translated into rigid, sex-specific roles, creating a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority in favor of men. The underlying arguments, in very basic terms, might be put these ways:
Premise 1: Men and women are essentially or ontologically different
Premise 2: Every difference represents a difference in value
Conclusion: Men are essentially superior to women
Premise 1: Men and women are essentially or ontologically different
Premise 2: These differences can be more or less summarized in a list of traits that characterize each sex (e.g., women are inherently more nurturing and emotional, while men are inherently more rational and authoritative)
Conclusion: The differences between men and women are clearly defined and necessitate distinct, sex-specific roles in the home and society
In an attempt to overturn those conclusions of female inferiority and rigid sex roles, feminists rejected the first premise of each argument, and began using gender as a conceptual tool to dislodge the idea that men and women are two essentially different kinds of human beings.
At first glance, the distinction between sex and gender in this initial feminist usage seems straightforward: sex is a basic fact referring to one’s biology (femaleness or maleness), and gender refers to the collection of cultural meanings ascribed to each sex. Upon further examination, however, it becomes difficult to understand where the demarcation between the two actually lies. Take the notion that women are more nurturing, for example. Is this ideal a product of biology or culture?
The underlying problem, of course, is that human biology is responsive to culture, and vice versa. We are products of an ongoing, intricate, and ultimately mysterious interplay between nature and nurture. Neatly distinguishing between sex and gender, then, oversimplifies this irreducible complexity of human beings.
One can easily understand, however, why gender was adopted as a helpful tool in advocating for women’s rights. This added some much-needed nuance to the age-old “woman question,” enabling feminists to argue that some sex-specific norms spring from culture than nature, and therefore cultural changes were necessary to give women access to higher education, for example, or the right to vote. Without the term or concept of “gender” to enable a distinction between biological and cultural norms, the term “sex” tended to collapse both of these to the level of nature, interpreting any perceived differences between the sexes to be inborn, determined by nature. What we now consider to be products of culture, such as Victorian understandings of women as physically and emotionally frail, were seen as natural, and therefore inevitable, features of the female sex.
But there is an important question lying dormant here, within this new paradigm: how does introducing gender as a lens through which we understand ourselves subtly alter our conception of the human person? We humans like to think in dichotomies, pairs of opposites that are caught in a dialectical relation. As gender entered the theoretical scene, it became the dominant force, gaining ground in terms of malleability and influence, while sex retracted in its sphere of influence, becoming a discrete set of markers on an objectified body that carries little or no intrinsic meaning.
The concept of gender, then, has ultimately served to pry a wedge between body and identity. Whereas sex once simply referred to a bodily given, a fact of nature, here the power of the body to constitute identity is diminished. “Woman” no longer refers simply to one’s sex, but rather to one’s gender, which has become an amorphous cultural construction that has a tenuous relationship to bodily sex. Once this distance between bodily sex and identity was enabled via gender, it did not take long—merely a few decades—for gender to shift meanings once again, becoming entirely disconnected from sex, which has paved the way for an even more fragmented and unstable understanding of personhood. Because gender is no longer anchored in maleness or femaleness, it is endlessly malleable; it is a concept that can be continually altered and redeployed, and we are witnessing in real time the wild proliferation of its meaning.
The various pop narratives about gender often speak as if gender is something real, even as the concept itself resists the slightest hint of realism. Some examples: Gender is a spectrum; Gender is fluid; Gender is innate; Gender is in the brain; Gender is a construct. While the emphatic rhetoric suggests that the truth of gender is at last being unveiled, it is increasingly difficult to settle on a definition of gender at all, because there are multiple and often contradictory definitions on offer.
Let us take a brief and non-exhaustive tour:
- There is the decidedly “un-woke” definition that sees gender as a simple synonym for biological sex. This is the view of the uninitiated man-on-the-street, who checks the “M” box on a form without dwelling on the question.
- Then there is the second-wave feminist definition that defines gender as the social and cultural accoutrements of each sex. Once cutting-edge, this definition is becoming outmoded, although still prevalent among feminists of a certain age. and the APA.
- A further iteration is the now-classic one offered by Judith Butler, godmother of contemporary gender theory. Butler argues, at least in her earlier works, that gender is an unconscious and socially-compelled performance, a series of acts and behaviors that create the illusion of an essential identity of “man” and “woman.” In this view, gender is entirely a social construct, a complex fiction that we inherit and then repeatedly re-enact.
- And one can find yet another definition in the standard transgender narrative—gender as the sex of the soul, the innate manhood or womanhood that may or may not “align” with the sex of the body. In this understanding, gender is decidedly not a mere construct, but is rather a pre-social reality—the inner truth against which the body must be measured.
- Even more recently we have the cute and overly-complicated understanding of gender popularized by the “gender unicorn” and “genderbread person” memes (the latter of which has already undergone four separate revisions). In this model, personal identity is collated from a menu of attributes, each of which runs along a spectrum. Gender identity, à la the transgender definition above, is located in the mind; gender expression, a trickle-down version of Butlerian performativity, refers to one’s external appearance and acts; sex, which is “assigned” rather than recognized at birth, is confined between the legs. Rounding out the list is “attraction,” which is further parsed into two subcategories: physical and emotional.
This is the terrain of “gender” in our time: impossible to map, bewildering to navigate. Gender has come to mean whatever we want it to mean, and thus it means many things at once. And yet this unstable, incoherent concept has supplanted bodily sex as the ground of manhood and womanhood—leading to an increasingly fragmented and disincarnate understanding of human identity. To invoke Chesterton once more, we don’t know what we are doing, because we don’t know what we are undoing.
There is a profound irony here. Through the vehicle of feminist theory, the concept of gender displaced manhood and womanhood from bodily sex. And now, unmoored from the body altogether, gender is defined by the very cultural stereotypes that feminism sought to undo. In other words, when a girl recognizes that she does not fit the stereotypes of girlhood, she is invited to question her sex rather than the stereotype.
This gestures toward a way forward: we must “reincarnate” gender somehow, reattach gender to its generative, etymological root (gens). Anchoring gender identity in the sexed body not only reaffirms the dignity of the body and the goodness of sexual complementarity—it also arguably expands the confines of “man” and “woman” to lived instantiations beyond stereotypes. A boy who loves art and pretend play, and despises sports, is nonetheless a boy.
St. John Paul II’s unique understanding of the terms “masculinity” and “femininity” could be helpful here. He uses these terms exclusively in reference to males and females respectively. Masculinity is simply the way of being a man in the world, and is thus uniquely inflected by each individual personality. Thus, when my husband, Michael, is caring for our children and cooking dinner, these are masculine acts, because they are being performed by a male human being. Similarly, my femininity is exhibited as much in my assertiveness during a staff meeting as when I am breastfeeding—because it is the person who is gendered, not the act or trait. This embodied, personalist understanding of masculinity and femininity reaffirms the meaning of the sexed body, without collapsing cultural stereotypes into natural categories.
In the midst of linguistic and conceptual disarray, we must make an incarnational move. An authentically Catholic account of gender must be rooted in the body—the sexed body that is allowed to speak the sacred, silent language of life-giving complementarity, union and fecundity, self-gift and receptivity, lover and beloved.
Editorial Note: Abigail Favale is a Life and Dignity Writing Fellow with the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity & Life Initiatives. Life and Dignity Writing Fellows are leading experts who contribute regularly to Church Life Journal on pro-life and human dignity issues.