Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Sex or gender? (Part 2)

After I neatly separated the two terms in my last post (‘Sex or gender?’), I have been doing some more reading. And the more I read the less straightforward my separation seems to be!

For example, as Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet argue in Language and Gender, ‘there is no obvious point at which sex leaves off and gender begins, partly because there is no single objective biological criterion for male or female sex’ (10). The authors elaborate as follows, ‘the selection among ... criteria for sex assignment is based very much on cultural beliefs about what actually makes someone male or female’ (10). Consequently, our understanding of ‘sex’ seems to be shaped by culture as well as biology.

Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s thinking is based on Judith Butler’s inquiry into sex/gender in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler questions the understanding of ‘sex’ in purely biological terms, ‘[a]re the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?’ (9), she asks. In fact, Butler believes that ‘gender’ might to some extent create ‘sex’. She states, ‘gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture’ (10). ‘Sex’ then is far from a mere biological category; culture seems to produce bodies as much as behaviours.

So should we use ‘gender’ inclusively, that is, to refer to both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’?

I am not so sure. For one, the issue of confusion remains: does a speaker intend to refer to ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, or both? Does the listener understand this reference? Secondly, inclusive usage might again conflate ‘culture’ and ‘biology’ – which is exactly what thinkers have been trying to move away from through the separation of terms and concepts.

In effect, neither ‘sex’ nor ‘gender’ alone seem adequate for our purposes. So could a compound like ‘sex/gender’ resolve the issue? It does seem a little complicated, especially in conjunction with ‘language’, i.e. ‘sex/gender and language’. On the other hand, it certainly highlights the terms’ interrelation. What do you think?

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Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: London: Routledge, 2007.

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