Constructing Bodies

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.

Previous post

ScienceSunday: Finding the Higgs

Next post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 1.09



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. January 16, 2012 at 11:55 am —

    Ah, yes, Judith Butler. I have to admit up front that I am quite a fan of her work. =)

    So, the differentiation between sex and gender comes to us via Gayle Rubin. In her 1975 essay “The Traffic in Women,” she laid out what she sees as the sex/gender system, with sex being biological and gender being cultural/social. I don’t recall if Butler directly discusses this in Gender Trouble, but in other works of hers she says it’s a great idea but it’s faulty because sex is also socially constructed.

    The way I understand Butler on this is that, since “nature” is a socially/culturally constructed category, sex is as well. Many Western societies construct sex (and gender) as natural, binary categories. As you point out, this is much too nice and neat of an explanation that does not coincide with the reality of things. This is not to say that there are not biological components to sex. It is to say, however, that what biological components we assign to the category “sex” are culturally determined.

    In regards to bodies being constructed, I think this is quite true. You bring up the example of intersex people as an example of how a strict sex binary is false–but the ways in which intersex individuals are treated, the ways their bodies are subjected to medical intervention, is social/cultural. There’s a great book about this called Fixing Sex by Katrina Karkazis. Think about this: what’s the first thing people want to know about a baby? Whether it’s a boy or a girl. What happens when a baby is born with ambiguous genitalia? Depending on when and where, often the doctors decide they must “fix” the sex of the baby to fit it into one of these two binary categories that have been constructed by society. This is socially constructing a body.

    In medical anthropology, we talk about the notion of embodiment. One example of this is the scars and scabs on a heroine addict’s body. These scars and scabs are the embodiment of sociocultural processes–the processes are literally ascribed onto the body. Same with body modification.

    “A body is a body” seems like quite an oversimplification to me when viewed in this light. =)

    I plan on addressing a lot of these topics over at Queereka in my series on cross-cultural queerness. We can look across cultures at the different ways things like sex, gender, and sexuality are expressed and experienced to see just how constructed these things are.

    (I recommend Butler’s book Undoing Gender, by the way. She addresses a lot of the critiques of Gender Trouble and clarifies a lot of stuff).

  2. January 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm —

    I am all for a world where everybody is “gender-blind”, so to speak, but unlike race, sexual orientation etc. sex has one characteristic that makes it not totally ignorable: it determines what you need to reproduce (i.e. at least a sperm-cell vs. at least an egg and an “incubator”) and also whether you are able to reproduce at all. And that is important for a lot of people, isn’t it? I have actually never seen this discussed before and just thought of it some seconds ago. Any thoughts?

Leave a reply