Feb 17, 2014

What gender is and what gender isn’t


Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing with trucks. It is the additional assertion that doll-playing people who play with trucks are deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people have stronger libidos than other people; it is the assertion that the people with low libidos owe people with high libidos satisfaction of their desires. It is furthermore an assertion that low-libido people who display high libido are deviant and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction and also violence. In this way it creates a hierarchy between low-libido people and high-libido people, and a power imbalance that allows high-libido people to use violence in their relations with low-libido people.

Gender is not a straightforward assertion that some people are always the doctor and other people are always the nurse; it also asserts that nurses are less valuable than doctors. It furthermore asserts that nurse-people who want to be doctors should nevertheless be economically under-compensated compared to doctor-people doctors, and that doctor-people who want to be nurses are economically over-compensated compared to nurse-people nurses. In this way it creates a hierarchy of economic injustice and maintains it through the non-arbitrary distribution of financial rewards.

Doll-playing people with high libidos who train to be doctors are highly likely to be considered deviant, to have been subject to violence, and to be on the losing end of a non-arbitrarily unjust distribution of financial rewards.

I will give you a minute to think about what we tend to call to these libidinous doll-playing doctors.


You may have noticed that I said “gender” and not “gender oppression”. Gender creates hierarchies with unjust power differentials; it is oppression. People are not oppressed “on the basis of gender”, they are oppressed by  gender. Gender, like class, has two relative positions, whatever Mark Zuckerberg tells you: up and down. Powerful and exploited. Fully human and non-person.

You will notice that at no point in this little disquisition have I referred to the genitalia of the truck-player-libido-doctor class. Or to anybody’s genitalia, for that matter.

That’s because genitalia have nothing to do with it. The phenomenon whereby people are sorted into groups, characteristics are said to apply to those groups, and then people to whom those characteristics do not apply are laid in a Procrustean bed of social sanction is in no way, shape, form or meaning biologically embedded. It is arbitrary.

Let me give you a different example[1].  It’s a pretty good example because it shows how a system of domination went from arbitrary to non-arbitrary, and the benefits to the dominators that could be had from that.

In the ancient past, (and in some places at present) any person could become a slave. Greeks enslaved Greeks, Romans enslaved both fellow Romans and Gauls, Germans, Britons and Egyptians (to name a few); the Barbary Corsairs raided European shores for slaves and exported some millions of Europeans for slavery in Africa and the Middle East. British plantation owners bought their fellow countrymen who had been sold into slavery by their government after being convicted of a crime.

But at some point during the economic development of what would later become the Southern United States, this changed. For the first time in history, enslavedness ran along colour-coded lines. People with (certain kinds of) dark skin were seen as automatically slaves. This create the paradoxical situation that did for Solomon Northrup: that he was legally a free man in one state but, based on nothing but the colour of his skin, legally a slave in the other. It had nothing to do with him as such; it was arbitrary as regards the individual, but non-arbitrary as regards the group, or class. Slavery became encoded in the racial identities attached to people from African descent and stopped being an emergent factor contingent on war or economic upheaval.

A common hypothesis for why slavery turned from being random to being racially based is class warfare. White and black people resisted the economic and political oppression they suffered together, as in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The policy of placing one arbitrarily in a superior position to the other split their resistance and refocused solidarity along ethnic instead of economic lines. Landowning capitalists: 1, poor revolutionaries of all colours: 0, black people: oy vey.

There is nothing, nor was there ever anything, nor could anything ever have been hypothesised to exist, that makes people with black skin more slave-like or slave-prone or slave-worthy than white people. It was and remains one of the profoundest injustices ever committed by man against fellow man[2] for the sake of protecting entrenched economic interests.

Nevertheless, the colour of people’s skin (as well as other associated physical characteristics of course) was the ostensible basis on which the dichotomous nature of free vs. slave was imposed. Nothing, I repeat, nothing whatsoever inherent to the blackness of black people could possibly have caused white slave owners to so oppress them; nevertheless, it was the colour of their skin that served as the pretext for dehumanising and exploiting them.


In a similar vein, nothing whatsoever about women’s bodies can justify the historic and ongoing economic, sexual, epistemological, religious and political exploitation, oppression and injustice inflicted on us as a class.

And yet it is nevertheless the case that our biology – our bodies, arbitrary features of our physiology that could in no way be said to be relevant to our political, sexual, intellectual, religious or economic ambitions and activities – that were and continue to be used as the ostensible pretext for so oppressing us.

To say that biological sex is at the root of women’s oppression is to state an easily verifiable historical fact. Go back as far as Aristotle or the Jewish Bible, and women are described as inferior, fallible, unclean or subhuman based on nothing other than our ability to gestate and lactate. The connections are clear, unambiguous and unashamed, and they have by no means retreated into a distant and irrelevant past; they underlie and underpin the continued segregation of women as a class into a gender – a genre, or type, in the original French – that plays with dolls, has a lower libido, and is better suited for a low paid nurse.

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact. The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other. However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.

Sex exists[3]. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a - relatively minor - entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

[1] I know. You find it “incredibly problematic” that I would use racism as an example because the “overwhelming majority” of radical feminists are “white and middle class”. The fact that that’s how you read people who don’t trumpet their racial or class identity for you to see, because they oppose identity politics, is in no way an indication of your own internalised biases about the sorts of people who go in for radical analysis, but a totes factual reflection of the demographic of a group you disapprove of. This makes complete sense. Have a nice day.

[2] Notwithstanding the women slaveowners of the South, I use the term advisedly.

[3] Oh yeah, there's a paragraph missing, right? The one where I assure the reader that I bear trans women no ill will and am fully committed to their legal emancipation and bodily security? Well, if you think you’ve a right to demand such a paragraph, I have one thing to say to you: fuck you. If you think that simply admitting that women exist is, absent some explanatory waffle, a form of hate speech by omission, please go away and never darken my blog again. You are too stupid and mean-spirited to be allowed access to the English alphabet.


  1. Tried to comment to say this was awesome so hope I'm not doubling up my comments. Really made me think - and I don't know why I should have to be told some of this stuff, but I found myself going, right, of course, a number of times.

    1. I am so glad! I really think there is this basic area of un-clarity at the bottom of how we conceptualise the sex/gender relationship, & I was trying to tease it out without sounding like I'm teaching grandma to suck eggs. Glad it worked for you!

      PS Nope, no double comment.

  2. Wow. That took some effort to visualise, like a teetering Jenga tower of giant glass-ice lattices, but it's beautifully constructed. Made my brain hurt.

    1. What an absolutely wonderful way of describing it. Can I have that on a t-shirt please? :)

      PS Sorry about the brain hurt.

  3. I'm guessing that this is in response to Facebook's new gender listing, as 'Woman / Female' does not seem to be there; but then neither is, 'Man / Male.'
    Neither have been theorised out of existence, they are both represented by the 'Cisfemale / Cismale,' categories, which declare your gender to be as your biological sex.
    If the lack of 'woman' from the Facebook list is an obscene act of woman hatred by Mark Zuckerberg, then he obviously feels the same way about men.
    And if that is the case, why give the choices of pronoun, Her, Him, and Their, for those who share?
    Woman / Female is a biological sex, but not necessarily a gender, which is the same for men / male.
    The alpha modes of either side of the biological divide have always persecuted those born between; the historical second class citizenship of women is a different matter. In fact your comments:

    'And yet it is nevertheless the case that our biology – our bodies, arbitrary features of our physiology that could in no way be said to be relevant to our political, sexual, intellectual, religious or economic ambitions and activities – that were and continue to be used as the ostensible pretext for so oppressing us.To say that biological sex is at the root of women’s oppression is to state an easily verifiable historical fact.'

    Could almost be applied to gay men, at least women were not imprisoned or chemically altered because they were women. Which is not to denigrate your end point in any way, but there are many genders recognised today, ask any gay woman or man, any trans sexual. ​The marrying of gender and biological sex is confusing your argument, well at least for me, and does the dolls and truck thing really hold up now?
    Lots of little boys play with dolls, true they are usually monsters of some ​​kind, symbols of power and violence, whereas little girls are given dolls to mother, ​and then later ​unnaturally proportioned ​dolls to ​​emulate​; why not address the training we unconsciously give our children from the cradle as it were​; until that's sorted out we'll never have equality

    1. I'm afraid you're mistaken; I was not responding to to FB & did not have them uppermost in my mind. So I can't really make sense of the rest of your comment.

      But at high level, what I would say is that the problem is not so much that we teach children different roles based on sex; the problem is that we tell half of them that their roles are better, more important, wider in scope etc., while at the same time locking both sets of children into said roles. We are dividing little children into classes, one superior to the other. It's not the gender roles themselves in other words, but the value we ascribe to different roles based on whether they are considered feminine or masculine that is the problem.

    2. Really, you could not understand the comment about the historic and continuing persecution of gay men?
      And if Facebook's recent action regarding gender designation was not uppermost in your mind, why mention Mark Zuckerberg and what his company tells us about how many gender classifications there are or are not. Is it a
      coincidence that Facebook's action on Saturday and this blog are only two days apart?
      I understood your article, even from down here, and I liked the slavery / race analogy, but your over use of gender, as something other than most people understand the concept detracted from your point. If you want to convince those on less high ground, write simpler lines. The intellectuals will never change the status quo, and the more you talk down to the rest, the less your chances of doing so are.

    3. Yes, it is a coincidence. Now will you let it go, or are you going to go full Glenn Beck & prove to me with a whiteboard why what I told you about my own writing process, which I have privileged access to and you do no, was a lie?

    4. ..is he kidding us about women never being imprisoned or chemically altered because they were women? what planet is he on? FGM, invasive reproductive control, males who dominate womens healthcare systems and delegitimise midwifery by relentlessly pathologising childbearing for personal profit, responsibility for chemical birth control and blame for its failure...and brutal practices that no man has ever suffered, inflicted solely on women because they are women. heres an entrée.... http://www.thejournal.ie/symphysiotomy-uncat-1356352-Nov2014/

  4. The comparison with racism is not very accurate. The biological differences between males and females are much more significant than the biological differences between races. Aside from some medical issues that effect tiny minorities (i.e. higher prevalence of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, different reactions to some medications) the inherent biological differences between the races are so trivial as to be meaningless. However the biological differences between males and females are much more significant and affect almost all males and females. Females are the class that can be impregnated and males are the class that can impregnate. Unlike racial differences, the biological differences between males and females have unavoidable real world effects, unless technology can be used to overcome them, a la Firestone. Female oppression is much more closely tied to biology than racial oppression is, and the oppression of women is much more universal than racial oppression. The association of gender and genitals is not arbitrary; gender oppression is based on biological reproductive roles. This is not to say that biology is destiny but that any analysis of gender that ignores biology is going to be seriously flawed. Saying that gender is arbitrary limits the effectiveness of the feminist argument since in order to have an adequate analysis of gender it's necessary to see it in the context of biological reproduction. Saying that gender is arbitrary and has nothing to do with genitals is incorrect and cedes ground to the pomo anti-feminists.
    Also, your description of American slavery is a bit off. It was never 100% race based - there were black slave owners as well. There were even black slave owners who fought on the side of the Confederacy to defend their right to own slaves.

    1. I was making an analogy; it was not my intention for it to be perfect, but illustrative.

      As for "unavoidable real world effects", some of them are, though most are not. Either it is entirely unclear to me how they result in the gender dynamics we see in the world today. It's ll very well to say "women get pregnant", but how does that make them less good as fighter pilots? I think it comes dangerously close to accepting the frame of the misogynists to say "oh yeah we have some insurmountable physiological differences that inevitably lead to the gender roles we see today". It's not inevitable. There is no causal relationship between the ability to reproduce and a subordinate socio-economic cultural role. The link is made by the oppressors, it's not inherent to the difference in body construction.

    2. It's vital for feminists to have an accurate analysis in order to take effective action. Anti-feminists are going to lie about feminists and misrepresent feminist work regardless of what feminists write, so feminists shouldn't pander to them proactively. When you treat 'masculinity' and 'femininity' as natural, rather than as systems of male dominance and female submission that are the products of a patriarchal system, it weakens the analysis. To say that the feminine is valued less than the masculine because of sexism is a very shallow approach. Femininity is the constructed subservience of females. Inferiority is fundamental to femininity. Superficial analysis will lead to superficial and ineffective choices that continue male dominance.

  5. 'A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine.'

    Very true, and what is puzzling is that so many women who call themselves feminists seem so keen to enforce the idea that there is no such thing as 'woman' and that biologically female people do not exist as a meaningful class.

    I think this is indicative of a desire to transcend misogyny: by defining women out of existence, the 'source' of misogyny is no longer there, at least in theory – we are all now free to choose our gender and live our lives as we wish! That this (intensely anti-female) idea appeals to so many women is due, as you say, to the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression, but I think it also demonstrates the insidious influence of post-modernism on feminism – the belief that we can change fundamental structures of power by changing the way we think and talk about them. When, of course, all that happens is we lose the ability to name them.

    This is part of the broader post-modernist backlash against material analyses of oppression, which was brilliantly dissected by Karla Mantilla in an essay for Off Our Backs. It's still the best take-down of post-modernism I've ever read - and it comes from a radfem, naturally ;-)


  6. Thank you for this splendid post! Makes perfect sense.

  7. Over and over while working in IT I've had my competence 'explained' by saying I'm 'one of the lads'. Dressing in a.feminine way I see the estimation of my skill level revised down, by both strangers and colleagues. One job left me so determined to escape it that I started thinking I might be Trans. What I mostly am is bloody furious.

  8. An interesting read that I think I'm generally in agreement with. The one point I don't agree with, or maybe that I just don't get, is your very first one that gender is in itself oppressive. As far as I can see, gender is simply a taxonomy. People may choose to use gender to render one group subservient to another, but I don't see why you can't have a notion of gender without this subservience.

    If I identify one person that plays with trucks, has a high libido and is a doctor and I assign them to group A, and find another person that plays with dolls, has a low libido and is a nurse and I assign them to group B, then I don't see how that act alone is making any value judgements. If I decide that people who play with trucks are better in some sense than those who play with dolls, that people who have a high libido are better than those have a low libido, etc. and consequently that As are better than Bs then that could develop into oppression. However, I don't see how assigning people to either group A or group B is in itself oppressive. At no point in saying I will divide people into those who play with trucks and those who play with dolls need I necessarily be making a judgement about which is inferior.

    It's possible that I'm either missing the point or being a pedant :)

  9. I really think you'd like Feminist Julia Serrano's work. She pretty much says what you say only in terms that don't deny trans women thier identities :p . Sorry but both Gender and Sex are constructs the only real sex organ is between your ears.

    1. Julia Serrano is a man.

    2. Waaah, twansphobe!!! Waaahhh!

    3. "the only real sex organ is between your ears"

      Yeah...because we're all Zeus and someone has to split our head open with an axe for babies to come out. Also semen is released through saliva while kissing. Or something. Keep drinking that koolaid.

  10. Forgoing any elaboration on trans women, I think you covered them just fine by your word choice: "trans" is a verb, "woman" is a noun, trans women are a variety of women, all varieties of women exist.

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  12. 1) "Well, if you think you’ve a right to demand such a paragraph, I have one thing to say to you: fuck you." Yes, actually, I do think it's necessary to show that your feminism is inclusive of trans women. Cis feminists have a long history of constructing their rhetoric in ways that explicitly exclude and level violence against trans women. I'm guessing from lack of evidence otherwise that you're cis - I as a trans person have a right to be skeptical of any gender theory that doesn't explicitly make room for trans women.

    2) Saying that sex is a social construct isn't saying that it's not real or doesn't have power. Money is a social construct. National boundaries are a social construct. They still kill people.

    3) There is a lot of really great theorizing along the same lines you have - that gender is an inherently oppressive hierarchy that economically exploits women - being done by trans women. Incorporating transmisogyny into this type of analysis gives an even clearer picture as to how gender exploits women (all women, cis and trans), it's done a lot to my worldview and I definitely recommend looking into it.