Source: Margaret Harper Mc Carthy via thepublicdiscourse.com
Originally appeared in The Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton NJ, and is reprinted with permission.
The contemporary distinction between sex and gender downgrades human beings to “biological” males or females with detached “identities.” We should reject this, and insist instead that sexual difference is a fundamental component of personality, one of its modes of being.
With all the pushback against awarding a man a gold in the Women’s 500 Free, and against the new executive order that would ensure more such “victories,” one senses a springtime of common sense. But when one hears the objection—that it isn’t right for a “biological male” to enter (then win) a women’s swimming event—one wonders. What other kind of male is there? A spiritual one? That is, of course, exactly what “gender” strives to manufacture: a spiritual sex, arbitrarily related to our bodies in a way that may or may not “align” with them. To the extent that we allow such a fictitious sex to take up space in our thoughts and words, we are still in the mental haze of winter.
The Roots of “Gender Identity”
Before the 1950s when psychologists like John Money began experimenting on children with congenital disorders of sexual development, the terms “sex” and “gender” were synonymous. In fact, so much was “gender” not the disembodied counterpart to “sex,” its etymological roots gave us words like “generation,” “engender,” and “progeny.” Generation, of course, is made possible by sex, the word for which refers to the “division” within a species between male and female individuals.
But beginning with Money, the idea of a spiritual sex distinct from the actual sex of the child was officially hatched, when he suggested that a “gender identity” could be impressed upon a child with the proper upbringing. But that meant that sex itself had to be redefined. Sex had to become merely “biological sex.” “Gender” was the tool for the mastery of sex. By downgrading sex, it made “sex” available to whatever “assignment” the will would give it.
In truth, some feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Mead had laid the groundwork for the distinction between sex and gender. Both were interested in social influences on the sexes and both were convinced that the grown man and (especially) the grown woman were little more than products of a culture that had imposed “social roles” and “expectations” on them (“gender”). Without denying the real and unnatural violence that certain “expectations” can inflict—the practices of genital mutilation and foot-binding come to mind—Mead and Beauvoir were thinking from within the paradigm of the nature–nurture dualism, set forth first by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his “state of nature” theory, then applied to the sexes by John Stuart Mill.
According to this dualism, “roles” and “expectations” of society were understood to be alienating, a departure from “nature.” They were thus, by their very nature, suspect. To educate children, then, was to confine them to the dreaded “stereotypes,” at the center of which was motherhood, no less. Moreover, so comprehensive was the “alienation,” that any investigation of real nature was off limits, since there was nothing that remained uncontaminated by social influences (as Mill said). In any event, the “nature” in question was nothing more than what Beauvoir called “biological data” in the first place, so whatever was left to discover was already irrelevant.
While Mead and Beauvoir never thought a girl could be “expected” to be a boy, Money did. And in his case, he thought that the “expectation” was positive, not alienating, since by his time there was little left to “biological sex.”
“Gender” coming from society is of course bad, whereas “gender” coming from oneself is good, since in that case one is one’s own master.
More recently, too, the provenance of “gender” has expanded. In addition to coming from society, it can come from within, from one’s feelings (“gender core”) or one’s choices (“self-identification”). “Gender” coming from society is of course bad, whereas “gender” coming from oneself is good, since in that case one is one’s own master. In any event, everyone now agrees that “gender” is something else. Now there is “sex” and “gender.”
The Impossible Distinction
There are, of course legitimate distinctions within the realm of the sexual, as within the realm of life, generally. But the “sex and gender” distinction has nothing to do with them. Indeed, it exists to undermine them.
There is the distinction between a nascent organism and a mature one, according to which the more intelligent an organism is, the more it needs education (“nurture”) from its society. Social dependence is the greatest for the rational animal. That dependence is inscribed in the very biology of the human child who requires an extra year in what the Swiss biologist Adolf Portmann refers to as the “social womb” of the family to attain the freedom of movement its mammalian peers have on their first day. Were the human child to be deprived of the “social womb,” he would neither learn to walk upright nor speak, two of the most quintessentially human (therefore, also biological) activities.
But just as the phenomena of uprightness and speech cannot be abstracted from nurture, neither can sexual difference. Accordingly, it is in the very nature of boys and girls to need the family, teachers, and the culture and customs of society to become men and women. Nurture, in other words, is the necessary implication of the kind of sexually differentiated individual the human being is: a deeply social and rational one. It is impossible to think of it as something essentially extrinsic to what is otherwise an asocial individual, and his or her (merely) “biological sex.” But in the “sex–gender” distinction, this is exactly the case.
There is also the distinction between being an individual man or woman and his or her rational and free (personal) self-possession and self-communication in society (“expression”). Being rational animals, men and women live out their lives, not just instinctively, but freely and socially. And in our doing so, there is no clear-cut division between “merely biological” acts and personal and social ones. Begetting, conceiving, and nursing children are just as personal and social as the activities of homemaking and educating children are biological. Being human acts, the biological, social, and personal are found undivided in each of them.
In short, it is the one human organism that both is and then acts. It is impossible, in other words, to think of a living acting “I,” as a disembodied “identity” separable from, indeed overriding, the reality of his or her sexual difference, to become something else rather than more fully what he or she already is. It is impossible to think that a man could “become” and “identify,” or “express” himself, as a “woman,”—or to think that it is a “stereotype” that a man “must” describe himself as a man. But in the “sex and gender” distinction, this is exactly what is meant.
Some critics of gender ideology, however, still think the “sex and gender” distinction can be salvaged. The former term would refer to the bodily (biological) reality. The latter would refer to “social roles,” namely how the biological reality is lived out or “expressed” from one culture to the next, variously. There is no reason to deny the obvious distinction between the reality of being sexually distinct (a boy or a girl, a man or a woman) and the variety of ways in which that is lived out; but there is something more basic than cultural variety. Human beings need cultural formation to live themselves, and become what they are.
If we begin there, and not first with cultural variety, we allow ourselves to speak positively about the necessary role culture plays in bringing a boy or a girl to maturity as a man or a woman, respectively. We extricate ourselves from the agenda that inspired the search for cultural variety in the first place, namely, to show how cultural “expectations” are imposed extrinsically and arbitrarily (“stereotypes”). We release ourselves from the taboo against doing what every other culture has done heretofore, namely to educate girls and boys in how to behave, dress, and act in ways that foster their eventual union and common life together. That, of course, can go wrong in many ways, but it will always go wrong if the education of the sexes begins by denying the human significance of them, by downgrading them to “biological males or females.”
Perhaps the problem comes with the current preference for the use of “biological” over “natural.” One can, of course, use “biological” in the most robust sense, referring to the whole living organism. If I see an upright body, I see a human being. If I see a pregnant upright body, I see a woman. However, with the claim that Lia Thomas is a “biological male” there is an implicit reservation about—perhaps acceptance of—his being a “female” in some other way (while still keeping “her” out of the sacred arena of women’s sports).
In fact, when we use the modifier “biological” for “sex” it is next to impossible to designate the whole human organism, namely, the boy or the girl, who needs to become a man or a woman, respectively. Despite good intentions, one digs oneself deeper into the hole that Money and others began to dig, precisely on the grounds of a “biology” abstracted from its own “identity,” the very biology that can now be mutilated and altered—to make a boy, for example, swim more slowly, like a girl.
Decades ago, Karol Wojtyła expressed a reservation about such use of “biological,” and instead proposed the more comprehensive term, “nature:”
The expression “order of nature” cannot be confused or identified with the expression “biological order,” as the latter, even though also signifying the order of nature, denotes it only inasmuch as it is accessible for the empirical-descriptive methods of natural sciences.
Similarly, in 2004 the Catholic Church affirmed that sexual difference “cannot be reduced to a pure and insignificant biological fact” because it is properly understood as “a fundamental component of personality, one of its modes of being.”
Fundamentally, the “sex and gender” distinction cannot but further deepen the dualisms it was invented to create—between nature and nurture and biology and identity. We should reject this binary and insist instead on the use of a single term like term “sexual difference.” This single term would include distinctions, while not sacrificing the unity between them. It would be much like the word act, which is then further distinguished as “first act” and “second act.” As it happens, that is the very distinction we are talking about, namely, between the birth of a boy or girl and his or her becoming a man or a woman.
MARGARET HARPER MC CARTHY
Margaret Harper McCarthy is an Associate Professor of Theological Anthropology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. She is the Editor of Humanum Review.
Header image: Male & Female Icons via thepublicdiscourse.com