Academic journal article Genders

Unintended Consequences of the Feminist Sex/gender Distinction

Academic journal article Genders

Unintended Consequences of the Feminist Sex/gender Distinction

Article excerpt

[1] The average person does not distinguish between "sex" and "gender," and uses the two terms interchangeably. The same can be said of a significant number of social scientists. For instance, an unsystematic review of one recent issue of Sociological Forum and several recent issues of American Journal of Sociology produced five examples of this conflation of sex and gender (Bonilla-Silva et al., 562; Huffman and Cohen, 912; Lincoln and Allen, 621; Petersen and Saporta, 855; Rutherford, 593). This treatment of "sex" and "gender" as synonymous dismisses, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the considerable conceptual work of gender scholars over the last thirty years and harks back to essentialist as well as determinist notions of sex, conflating, among other things, social roles, psychological dispositions, power differences, norms of grooming and comportment, sexual object choice and reproductive anatomy. Such an understanding thus collapses important intellectual and experiential distinctions; in so doing, it also fails to provide conceptual categories for the experiences of women and men whose sex, gender, and/or sexuality do not "align" in socially normative ways. The instantiation of the conceptual separation of gender from sex was an effort to give language to some of these distinctions, and the subsequent rigorous critical assessment of the term "gender" over the intervening decades has further refined them.

[2] Although it is impossible to make accurate generalizations about the work of all gender scholars, the prevailing trends can be usefully defined and studied. Here I am addressing the vast body of gender scholarship that continues to rely, either implicitly or explicitly, on the conceptual distinction between sex and gender. While my analysis draws predominantly--though not exclusively--on social scientific scholarship, the trends I will outline apply equally to humanistic scholarship that is organized conceptually by the sex/gender distinction.

[3] The last several decades have been defined by active scholarly critique and development of the concept of gender; however, most gender scholars have remained conspicuously silent on the subject of sex. The conceptual shift from a single essentialist category of "sex" to a binary distinction between "sex" and "gender" did not double the number of concepts receiving scholarly attention. In effect, "gender" replaced "sex" as the salient category in "gender scholarship." Ann Fausto-Sterling describes this refocusing of scholarship when she writes that "feminists did not question the realm of physical sex; it was the psychological and cultural meanings of these differences--gender--that was at issue" (Fausto-Sterling, 3). Gatens offers Chodorow and Dinnerstein as early and paradigmatic examples of what she refers to as the "favoring" of the concept of gender over sex (Gatens, 4); Rubin is another important example. (Note that now the most common name for the discipline, "Gender Studies," even reveals this shift in focus). In response to this striking silence on the subject of sex amid the flood of scholarship on gender, I argue gender scholars must bring sex into our collective discourse. It is important to emphasize that I am not only advocating for more analysis of the "masculine" or the "feminine" body, or the physical dimensions of masculinity and femininity. I am specifically arguing for a sociological analysis of "male" and "female" bodies.

[4] A small number of gender scholars have argued that sex is socially constructed. Notable examples are Kessler and McKenna, Laqueur, Butler, Martin (1991) and Fausto-Sterling. Their specific contributions as well as the unique limitations of each of their approaches are discussed in the section titled "Bringing the 'Sex' Back In." What is important to note here is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule that sex itself is typically absent from anti-essentialist gender scholarship.

[5] One reason sex itself has been markedly absent from gender scholarship has to do with the meaning assigned to sex under the feminist sex/gender dichotomy. …

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