This January I’m working on a project about gender and religion, and this last week I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. It’s been making me think about all sorts of assumptions that we hold and while I haven’t sorted out all my thoughts on the matter, I thought I’d just throw out some of the ideas to you folks so that you don’t have to wade through her less than clear prose. Also, I’m curious to see what the thoughts of other skeptical folks are on questions of gender, signification, and culture.
Particularly today, I’m wondering about the difference between sex and gender. In most sociology/women’s studies/etc. circles we hear that gender is culturally constructed. It’s how you view yourself mentally, the cultural and social aspects of being male or female. In contrast, sex is viewed as the biological: your body is male or female. Most people accept this dichotomy as useful and true. Butler however asserts that sex is also a cultural construction. Bodies as we see and know them are created through the cultural assumptions and identities that are available.
When I first read that sentence I have to admit I thought it was bull honky. A body is a body. No matter how we view it, there are physical and biological differences between a male and a female body, so how is it that male and female are culturally constructed on a biological level. And while I’m not sure if I have quite understood exactly what Butler means, I have come to some of my own conclusions, the largest of which is that society decides which characteristics become identity characteristics. Society has decided that the most important defining characteristics of a body are genitals and chromosomes. It could have chosen a different identity principle: athletic ability, size, color of hair. Instead of immediately identifying someone as male or female, we could have had a different category that encompassed completely different aspects of the body. This means that society does play a large role in deciding what it means to be male or female even on a biological level and in creating those categories.
To further confuse the matter, the differences between male and female aren’t even as clear cut as we might think. Most people view gender as a strict binary: you’re one or the other. However approximately 1% of the population are intersex, meaning they do not fall strictly into one category or the other. This may mean they have irregular genitalia, genitalia from both genders, or a chromosomal structure other than XY or XX. These facts certainly call into question the idea that bodies are inherently male or female: clearly there are many that are not, and it is society that tells us we need to think of them as either male or female.
While I’m still not certain whether or not I believe that sex is entirely socially constructed, I am grateful to Butler for asking me to question my assumptions. At the very least, I am now more wary of what people view as natural or certain. I’m also curious to hear all of your thoughts about this, especially those of you who may have read Gender Trouble or who know some gender theory. Talk to me in comments.