This is a chapter from my 26-chapter paperback The Best I Can Do, published in 2016 and readily available from Blackwell online or Amazon. Trevor Pateman
Gender formerly known as Sex
I went online recently to check the status of my driving convictions. I was surprised to find at the head of the page which dealt with me the words “Gender: Male”. Well, I have to say I never told them that. I am pretty sure that when I filled in their form however many decades ago I responded to a question which asked me for my “Sex” and that I answered “Male”, which was truthful and true. If they had asked me for my “Gender”, I am not sure I would have known what it was. The idea hadn’t yet been imported. But why was it imported anyway? I have no real idea - I just guess that lots of people were reading the excellent, imported sociology textbook by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and concluded that binary essentialist categories like Sex are Bad - because they imply that things exist which are not socially constructed - but binary non-essentialist, everything-is-a-social-construct categories like Gender are Good. Upper Seconds all round.
Gender is an adjectival rather than a nominal aspect of people’s selves and it is rarely uncomplicated. Few people are as straightforwardly gendered (what is now called “cis-gendered”) as is assumed by the bureaucrats whose imagination did not rise above deleting the word “Sex” and inserting the word “Gender”. But just as few people are completely cis-gendered, few people are completely “trans-gendered”. I doubt that there are many F people in transition to becoming M people who have Jeremy Clarkson as their target role model. As they start approaching that target, I feel they might decide to hang on to a bit of their F side.
We have always been taught that gender is distributed in a bi-polar way: plot people’s gender on a statistical curve and there are big clusters of M people and F people on either side with only a few people in the middle. Over time and in different cultures, this may change. For example, I have read lots of Op Ed pieces telling me that over recent decades in my society boys have found it harder to develop (or been under pressure not to develop) + M masculine characteristics resulting in a “Crisis of Masculinity”. Statistically, that would come out as a change in the shape of the distribution curve, reducing the M cluster on one side and creating a new bulge nearer the middle. In addition, if girls are under less pressure to stick to + F characteristics, then that would also create a bulge nearer the middle and we could then be on the way to what is called a normal curve of distribution (a Bell Curve - it looks like a church bell), with most people being bits of F and bits of M, regardless of sex, and clustering in the middle of the curve. If anything like that does happen, then people will begin to object to the gender binary boxes M and F. Some are indeed beginning to do so.
But when big companies are castigated for not having a “Gender Balance” at top executive level no one would be amused if they adopted the following strategy:
Look, we’re all men I know but, hey, some of us are less masculine than others – more feminine. Yeah? So why don’t we start by scoring people for their masculinity and their femininity? Like, you know, everyone says I am a “Good Listener” which must knock 10 points off my 100% Masculinity index. So why not credit those 10 points to the Female side of our Balance Sheet? That way, we at least make a start on changing the Gender Balance here. Yes, guys?
No, guys. The truth is that your critics are talking anatomy. They don’t like to say so, may even deny it, but anatomy is what they are talking about. Why should anatomy be so important? One reason is that it will remain an extremely powerful profiling tool for some basic things and quite powerful for other things until such time as we move to a normal curve of distribution for gender characteristics. You never need to be screened for prostate cancer if you tick the F box and you never need to be screened for ovarian cancer if you tick the M box. Athletic abilities also can be read off from your M or F profiling, which is why we have Men’s and Women’s events for most Olympic sports and tests to ensure people aren’t cheating ( which they do but that’s another story). And so on, with the usefulness of the profiling declining as we move away from obvious ones like those I have just instanced. But until such time as most people have a significant mix of gender characteristics, it will be possible to profile for lots of things from anatomy alone: having driving convictions for speeding or annual expenditure on clothing, for example. In 2002, 83% of speeding convictions in the UK were picked up by men. In 2011, the Office of National Statistics records women spending £588 on their wardrobe and men £322.
Nothing more needs to be true for such profiling to be possible than the fact that societies set out to gender their new members – children – differentially according to their sex and that to, some considerable degree, they usually succeed. Parents and teachers (not to mention makers of children’s toys and clothes) are huge enthusiasts for making sure that their M and F children are introduced to the right gender boxes – hundreds of them - from very early in their lives. In some respects, it was less oppressively so forty years ago than it is now when everything is Pink or Blue, Girl or Boy. It wasn’t quite so then. We can wish it otherwise and we can work to make it otherwise. That thought is only intelligible if you accept the basic distinction between Sex and Gender and don’t conflate the two as has now been done on my driving licence.
Of course, the distinction between Sex and Gender has been known about for a very, very long time though sometimes I read things which tell me that someone discovered it last week. In England, the most intellectually serious daily newspaper is The Financial Times. On 28 November 2015, India Ross interviewed Jill Soloway, creator of the American TV series Transparent which has a transgender theme (I haven’t seen it – no TV). They talk about gender issues and at the end Soloway says:
People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the revolution over the next five years
India Ross adds:
I suggest that, even today, that’s a fairly radical thing to say. She agrees …
I paused. When, if ever, has this “radical thing” not been recognised as true – and even platitudinously true?
Think, for example, of “cissy” and “tomboy”. A cissy was a boy who displayed feminine tastes and traits, deemed unacceptable. A tomboy was a girl who displayed masculine tastes and traits, though sometimes these were treated more indulgently than cissy traits. To go back just sixty years, think of To Kill a Mockingbird which – among other things – belongs to a genre of tomboy novels. Go back a bit farther and you get to Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868 – 69).
Both ”cissy” and “tomboy” imply a fundamental distinction between sex and gender. Both recognise that sex and gender can be mismatched in a person. Neither supposes that cis-gendering (the neat matching of sex and gender) is inevitable, though as judgemental terms, they assume that cis-gendering is desirable. So maybe the revolution is simply to remove the judgemental aspect. No one will get called out as a cissy or laughed at as a tomboy. They will just be accepted. But didn’t that also happen in the past?
Caring has been marked + Feminine in my culture and for a very long time. Let’s go back a hundred years. In wars, like the unbelievably stupid and destructive First World War, there were male officers who distinguished themselves by caring for their men in terrible circumstances. This was regarded as admirable, not cissy.
Bravery has been marked + Masculine in my culture, also for a very long time. But go back to 1838 and read the story of Grace Darling, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who assisted her father in the rescue of nine survivors from a shipwrecked steamer. This 23 year-old woman got marked + for Bravery (in fact, + + +). But no one dismissed her as a tomboy and several men who had never met her wrote seeking her hand in marriage. No one called her out for rowing the boat.
It is simply not true that the sex / gender distinction has ever been unclear to anyone, except perhaps to those who have been made to read Judith Butler’s obscurantist Gender Trouble (1990). It is also - perhaps surprisingly - untrue that society has been consistently and remorselessly unwilling to recognise, accept, and even occasionally applaud, transgender characteristics as in the two examples instanced above.
Of course, its tolerance has never been whole-hearted and probably never consistent. But a flicker of tolerance can often be found. If we can nurture that flicker into something stronger, that will be a very good thing. But to do so it is both historically incorrect and politically unproductive to claim that we have just this last week invented something which will take us out of the Dark Ages once and for all. Lots of people like to be pioneers (maybe it’s a + M thing); but most of the time, someone else got there already.
Curiously, the only situation in which Jill Soloway’s claim makes sense is one where most people remain strongly cis-gendered, bunched at either end of the statistical curve but where a few (special?) people are allowed to jump over the binary divide and join the other camp. That doesn’t sound to me much like the social progress envisioned by mainstream feminists back in the 1970s who thought it was the fact of binary bunching itself which should be challenged. Feminists back then wanted most women to be more assertive and most men more caring, so that gendering became less Either – Or, more bunched in the middle, less a war between the Pinks and the Blues.