the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Sex is a reproductive category of most species of eukaryote (an organism with complex cells that have nuclei and other internal organelles). Species divided into sexes engage in sexual reproduction, in which offspring are produced from genetic contributions from more than one individual, representing different sexes.* In most animal species, this means that natural reproduction requires both a female and a male of that species. The reproductive sexes are now generally defined by specialists based on the gametes (reproductive cells) the individual produces or would produce. Nearly all humans are born unambiguously either female or male, and the fraction of intersex individuals who truly don’t fit into this biological binary is very small, perhaps just one in thousands. In other words, humans are not, for the most part, “assigned” female or male at birth; they are accurately identified as female or male at birth. As determined by reproductive systems, sex is immutable; technology does not exist to allow an individual born as one sex to produce the gametes of another.
The sexes for the most part also differ in many other ways, known as primary and secondary sex characteristics. Among primary characteristics are the sex organs themselves. Notable among secondary characteristics, for humans (and many other species), males are — on average — larger and stronger than females. (Some females may be larger and stronger than some males, but on average males are larger and stronger.) Surgery, hormone therapy, and cosmetics are used in humans to alter primary and secondary sex characteristics; while this cannot alter biological sex, such treatment is socially treated as a sex change.
Humans have, for most of their existence as a species, survived through hunting and gathering; the human species has existed for around 300,000 years, while agriculture began only about 12,000 years ago. As hunters and gatherers, humans engaged in a division of labor: men hunted, and women gathered. This was not arbitrary; in their adult prime, men are stronger and faster, while women, in such a society, would have been frequently pregnant or nursing in their adult prime. The abilities and skills of warfare are similar to hunting, so men served as a hunter-warrior caste within the early human communities. The influence of physical power on social power gave rise to the common (if not quite universal) patriarchal society that is still partially in operation.
The centrality of biological sex to reproduction and the importance of reproduction for survival of the species reinforced the fundamental social division in human society, so that all current societies distinguish humans by sex. Traditional sex-based social roles are still common, as are the ensuing differences in behavior.
The term ‘gender’ (from Latin GENVS, “kind” or “class”) was originally equivalent to ‘sex’. It has also been used by linguists to discuss grammatical categories of nouns. Indo-European (and thus many of its descendants) had three grammatical genders, described as “feminine”, “masculine”, and “neuter”. Human female individuals were described using feminine nouns, human male individuals using masculine nouns, and often (but not always) human female and male types (for example, “mother” and “father”), and female and male non-human animals, were likewise described using feminine and masculine nouns, respectively. Other nouns, referring to objects and ideas without an inherent sex, retained grammatical genders that could appear arbitrary, being based on earlier non-sex categories.
Within recent decades, a new use of ‘gender’ has been coined, which distinguishes ‘gender’ from ‘sex’, so that ‘gender’ refers to the social categories, of associated roles and behaviors, while ‘sex’ retains its biological meaning. Eventually ‘gender’, in this understanding, came to be viewed strictly in terms of identity; a person’s gender was the social category that person identified with. This was always a minority usage, though, perhaps predictably, its users insisted that the older biological meaning of ‘gender’ was wrong and ignorant, particularly given the users’ overrepresentation among educators and the well-educated.
But more recently, a further revision has emerged, in which the ‘sex’–‘gender’ distinction is collapsed again, based on the claim that biological sex is not real, but is socially constructed just as social gender is, that both exist on a spectrum, and that insistence on biological sex is a form of bigotry, as well as a denial of the most recent science. Therefore, the only acceptable meaning of ‘sex’ is also one of identity.
Sex, however, is not a spectrum; it is not a continuous distribution, where any value within a given range is possible. Rather, it is a bimodal distribution with a small number of discrete additional values. A mode, in any distribution, is the value that appears most often; sex is bimodal because there are two values, female and male, that appear most often, and in fact dominate the distribution.
For the narrow purpose of this discussion, the gender left will be the segment of the present-day cultural and social left that has adopted some form of the emerging orthodoxy on sex and gender issues. Two important terms for the gender left are ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’. Transgender individuals are those who identify with and have chosen to live as the opposite of their biological sex, as determined by traditional roles and behaviors; a central tenet of the gender left as such is unequivocal support for transgender individuals, who are understood by the gender left to be of the opposite sex in all ways, socially and, for the extreme gender left, biologically as well. Non-binary individuals are those who do not identify with either sex category and ask to be excluded from this dichotomy for social purposes. This is a reasonable position, as most sex-based social roles are long outdated, many of them discriminatory, and the various reasons to believe our minds are governed in part by sex should not outweigh the social damage that comes from discrimination. For example, there is evidence that males disproportionately prefer working with abstractions and inanimate objects, while females disproportionately prefer working with people. But these preferences are merely disproportionate, not universal, so the equitable solution would be to treat individuals without respect to sex in this case, give them a free choice, and those of one sex who have the preference shared more by the other sex will not be penalized.
This highlights a significant conflict internal to the gender left. An important historical project of feminists and rationalists has been to deconstruct and eliminate sex and gender stereotypes, to end, where possible, the expectation of and pressure for sex-based roles and behaviors. In this way, feminists and rationalists are aligned with the desires and expectations of the non-binary. But when it comes to transgender issues, the gender left tends instead to reinforce sex and gender stereotypes and welcome sex-based (or gender-based) roles and behaviors. Notably, the feminist/rationalist/non-binary position would be that children should dress as they wish, wear their hair as they wish, and play with whatever toys interest them. But the gender left currently views stereotypical behavior as valid evidence of a gender identity, so that a boy who wants long hair and thinks he must be a girl, or a girl who likes sports and thinks she must be a boy, is affirmed in this belief, rather than told that preferences for hair length or leisure activity are independent of sex. Current evidence suggests that young children who profess to be of the opposite sex are merely responding to an imagined rigidity in social-gender roles and behavior. Older children and adolescents who profess to be of the opposite sex, meanwhile, are mostly responding to same-sex attraction and will end up identifying as gay.
The extreme of the gender left, often extending to the mainstream of the gender left, has forced a choice in certain cases where women have previously sought and achieved recognition of the special challenges faced by (biological) females. For example, women’s and girls’ sports were created to give more females a chance to compete in sports, since sports would otherwise be dominated by males. Biological males, on average, are larger and stronger, beginning with puberty, and attributed largely to higher levels of testosterone. Notably, the post-pubertal differences in skeletal structure are entirely permanent, as are some of the differences in musculature, so that surgery and hormone treatment that take place after puberty and these musculo-skeletal changes do not remove the advantage in sports that biological males have. Thus, allowing transgender women to compete with biological women in sports is contrary to the original purpose of women’s and girls’ sports.
Similarly, the creation of female-only spaces has been done in part as a matter of physical safety; given (on average) the superior size and strength and increased aggressiveness of males, some women have felt a need to protect themselves and other females by excluding males from certain spaces — shelters for battered women, for instance. Maintaining a female-only space in women’s prisons is seen as crucial given the greater vulnerability and limited power and freedom of prisoners in general. Maintaining a female-only space in women’s locker rooms can be dismissed as outdated modesty, but there is no compulsory public nudity and most of society still rejects even voluntary public nudity, and much of that is driven by cross-sex concerns.
The gender left has begun to treat as bigotry any exclusion of transgender individuals from their chosen categories. Within the radical gender left, it is not acceptable to speak as if women have uteruses, since transgender women do not. At the very extreme of the gender left, it is not acceptable to treat male or female anatomy as an element of sexual attraction; sexual orientations can only deal with identities, so that, for example, it is acceptable for those who identify as women to be attracted to others who identify as women, but not to be attracted exclusively to those who were born female.
The revisional thinking on sex and gender is affecting language in two basic (and overlapping) ways: the meaning of gender-specific language, and the application of gender-specific language, including personal prounouns, to individuals.
English, as other human dialects, evolved amid a historical presumption of a sexual binary among humans, and has numerous pairs of words used to describe humans based on sex: ‘female’–‘male’, ‘woman’–‘man’, ‘mother’–‘father’, ‘daughter’–‘son, ‘sister’–‘brother’, ‘wife’–‘husband’, ‘she’–‘he’. Since all humans have traditionally been viewed as either female or male, and continue to be viewed as such by the overwhelming majority of speakers, this linguistic binary is not a problem for most of those users. The ascription of sex to a person when sex is not known, or not relevant, has typically been handled in a patriarchal way: generic humans are presumed to be male.
With the notable exception of ‘mother’ and ‘father’, most sexual word pairs are unnecessary, adding sexual information gratuitously, though obviously in accord with universal human tradition. It fits with the feminist-rationalist project to use generic terms where available, and to create generic terms where not. Many such efforts have succeeded. ‘Chairperson’ may still sound a bit forced, but ‘chair’ does not. ‘Firefighter’ seems to have replaced ‘fireman’ with little fuss.
The gender left wishes to eliminate the sexual component of every single sexual term, replacing it with gender identity, so that it becomes impossible to refer to biological sex. ‘Woman’ is taken to refer to any person who self-identifies as a woman. Analyzing ‘woman’ as “female adult human” yields the same result, since ‘female’ is taken to refer to any person who self-identifies as female. The gender left claims, wrongly, that modern science has debunked the sexual binary as a biological distinction. Given the demands of (and preference for) natural reproduction, and the overwhelming reality of anatomy-based sexual preferences, it seems unlikely that humans will stop thinking in biological terms in the foreseeable future, and thus having a need for such terms; if the original terms are redefined, new, periphrastic terms (such as ‘biological woman’ and ‘natal male’, and their eventual abbreviations) will be used in their stead.
With regard to pronouns, the effects are limited to the third-person singular (traditionally ‘it’–‘she’–‘he’), which is the only person-number with gender-specific forms. There are two issues. The first is the use of gender-specific language for transgender persons. The second issue is the use, and creation, of gender-nonspecific pronouns. There is an emerging consensus within the center and left of the cultural-political spectrum that transgender individuals should be addressed and referred to using the grammatical gender they identify with; this consensus is upheld, on the grounds of social decency, even by some who are dubious about the project or some of its claims. Notably, the linguistic demands of this action are slight; the language for this already exists, and users are only required to stop thinking of transgender individuals as their biological sex and start thinking of them as the other sex/gender.
Non-binary language presents a greater challenge, because, in the form presently promoted by the gender left, it asks English speakers to dramatically change their usage patterns. While English has a gender-neutral pronoun in the third-person singular — ‘it’ — this is rejected on the grounds that ‘it’ is demeaning when applied to humans. In reality, ‘it’ has not been used for individual humans because English speakers have traditionally viewed all humans as either female or male. But the fact that generic humans are usually referred to with masculine terms is some evidence that English speakers have traditionally agreed that ‘it’ is not appropriate for humans. And in fact, English has developed a different third-person singular neuter pronoun: ‘they’. Singular ‘they’ is used, at least in speech and situationally, by most English speakers, for generic humans and even, on occasion, gender-specific humans (“every woman should do what they want”). As an original plural, it is still rejected for formal usage by some, but its adoption for non-binary-identifying individuals is a natural compromise given its historical usage. And indeed, some non-binary-identifying individuals prefer to be referred to as ‘they’. But others prefer to be referred to using novel pronouns, and there are numerous novel pronouns that have been proposed and that at least some individuals prefer. English pronouns have five forms: nominative, oblique, modifying possessive, independent possessive, and reflexive; and they are all irregular, meaning there are no reliable patterns and knowing one form does not allow prediction of the others.
Traditionally, English speakers making the acquaintance of another were required to learn, at a minimum, name and sex; but thinking in sex is normal for animals and most English names have been sex-specific, so the minimum was usually restricted to a name. For the gender left, acquaintance now involves learning a name, a gender identity, and a set of pronouns, which for some individuals are novel and require learning five distinct forms that the new acquaintance may never have heard before. Whether this is reasonable as a demand is a matter of judgement, but it seems unreasonable to expect that it will be successful at the level of Anglophone culture.
* The word ‘sex’, of course, has since become used as a shorthand for ‘sexual intercourse’, which is itself a strained euphemism for ‘fucking’. This newer meaning of ‘sex’ has led to a new, recursive meaning for ‘sexual’, having to do with the erotic, rather than the two reproductive categories.
© O.T. FORD
Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford