Friday, September 09, 2005

Sex vs. Gender

Men and women are different in deep biological ways which endure.
Male and Female are sexes.


Men and women are different in shallow cultural ways which change readily.
Masculine and Feminine are genders.

“Sex vs. gender” is a good shorthand for this deep debate.

Most people through most cultures and eras thought and still think men and women are different sexes.

A small but strategic minority in developed societies in the past generation thought and still think that men and women are different genders.

The gender view has been dominant among the educated elite in developed societies for a generation. The gender view dominated in part because it had superior arguments and evidence, and in part because the people who promoted the gender view had enough political power to bring grief to those who argued against it. The gender view was, for a time and in a class, politically correct.

A new generation of thinkers is rising to challenge the gender view and promote the sex view. The arguments and research of the sex view have been good and getting better. The arguments and research of the gender view are more tired and strained than they used to be.

Where does this leave the gruntled center? Whichever view you think is ultimately true, we can agree that men and women, as a group, tend to think, value, and act in somewhat different ways in our society.

Beyond this center lie two unacceptable extremes.

There are some people who argue that men and women are so deeply and permanently different that they are practically different species. This idea contradicts the theory that most people have that human beings have essentially the same kind of human nature.

There are some people who argue that men and women are really the same now in the way they think, talk, value social relations, value competition, approach marriage, go about raising children, and in every other way. They argue that the differences that we think we see are really due to a sexist ideology in our heads. This idea contradicts the experience that most people have, especially the experience of married parents.

So, for the foreseeable future, men and women – and boys and girls – are and will be different. Our everyday interactions and our public policy should accept this as a fact and work with it, not deny it or try to socially engineer it away.


Anonymous said...

I have always thought that the arguments about sex and gender said more about the political than the academic commitments of those on either side of the debate.

In terms of the academic disagreement, it seems to me that those committed to the biological (sex) argument manifest a great amount of faith in the epistemological validity of sociology as a scientific endeavor modelled on the natural sciences, while those who emphasize gender reject the applicability of the natural scientific model, choosing instead to focus on the historical character of human practices.

As for the political commitments of the two positions, these days it appears that the social scientists are generally more 'conservative' and the historicists are more 'liberal'. However, I don't think that these particular political alignments necessarily follow from the academic alignments. For example, I'm quite skeptical about the relevance of the methodology of natural science to the understanding of human activity and quite sympathetic to the idea that much of what we do is the result of human choices which condition and are conditioned by other human choices, both past and present. However, the fact that sex/gender roles are in some sense constructed does not mean that they are either the result of a rational plan (demonic, benign, or otherwise), or that they are amenable to some utopian/egalitarian re-engineering project. Human differences (racial, sexual, national) don't have to be 'natural', i.e. genetic, in order to be real, compelling, and resistent to facile manipulation.

Gruntled said...

I agree almost wholly with your argument.

I think, though, that when men and women have a baby and are working together to care for an infant, they are at the moment in the life cycle when they are most shaped by biology. Sex is most relevant to gender where married couple and baby meet.

I think, too, that individual men and women have a huge range of possible choices of how to act, which go well beyond the norms of their genders. It is empirically the case, though, that in a whole population, men tend to choose masculine ways of acting, and women tend to choose feminine ones. These choices could, in principle, be different. In some areas -- cohabitation before marriage, for example -- we have seen a social revolution in men's and women's behavior. In the main, though, gender stays close to sex at the core of social reproduction. I think that is likely to be true for the forseeable future.