“Gender” theory has gained currency not because of its key contributions to sociology, human psychology, and biology. It has taken off because people like the theory; it comforts them. Most of all, it conforms to a number of deep-seated prejudices about the tabula rasa nature of the human mind . . . a wholly implausible view that shores up common prejudices that, in turn, undergird modern (read; post-modern) social life.
But that is not the whole of the matter.
Trendy gender theory allows folks to avoid using the word “sex.” That is gender’s real attraction, for the word embarrasses by its crude biology and paradigmatic images. By the familiar slovenliness of human discourse, “sex” does not, any more, stand for one of the major ways that life keeps on going, separating into male and female organisms with their corresponding and quite distinct gametes. Because “sexual” is most commonly paired with “intercourse” and “discrimination,” the word and its forms discomforts tender minds. So, the most common uses for “gender” these days flout the basic theory that promotes it, simply switching the word in . . . as a replacement for “sex.”
The most absurd example of this, in my personal experience, came to my attention while visiting a medical clinic. My doctor’s office has a form, which I must fill out annually. It asks me to select my “gender.” But my gender (according to “gender” theory) is in no way my doctor’s business. My sex is. He is a biological technician, and needs to know, in record, what my sex is.
Had he needed, for some bizarre reason, to know my “gender,” then why give “M” and “F” as the multiple choice options? That, according to theory, is itself an insult. “There are more than two genders! Die, CIS-scum!”
So I scratch out “gender” and scrawl in
Most of modern usage treats biology as a palimpsest over which to scrawl whiney evasions and badgering farragoes.
But then, the idea may never have been to develop a coherent theory of sexuality. Coherence is the enemy of postmodernism. There is no “contradiction” a postmodern “critical theorist” will not aim to encompass and babble about at length.
Now, remember: the basic idea behind “gender” was to show that sex roles are or can be fluid and somewhat arbitrary, “socially constructed” as postmodern theory likes to put it. Sex is the biology, the story goes; gender is the social construct.
But po-mo partisans appear unwilling to stop there. They try, before even scientifically considering alternative views of the very thesis they trotted out at the outset, to attack the biological nature as well. Starting out distinguishing biological reality from the construction, by human agency and culture, of sex roles, they end up erasing the bedrock reality.
As one such daring theorizer put it, “I have no interest in denying the reality of sex or of sexual dimorphism as an evolutionary process. But I want to show on the basis of historical evidence that almost everything one wants to say about sex — however sex is understood — already has in it a claim about gender. Sex, in both the one-sex and the two-sex worlds, is situational; it is explicable only within the context of battles over gender and power.”
This sort of nonsense defeats itself. It actually undermines the initial case for making the “breakthrough” distinction between sex and gender.
But that hardly matters because, for cultural reasons, the case for or against post-modern sex theory does not (and never has) rested on its intellectual coherence.
It rests on prudery and bullying.
The abuse of the word “gender” to cover “sex” is merely a new form of sexual squeamishness, for which we make fun of the Victorians (limbs for legs, restraint from ever mentioning “private parts,” etc.).
And like the Victorian bashfulness and shame, the new squeamishness is inherently political — if most often micropolitical, operating on the level of manners. This new ideology is designed to shame some, while elevating its practitioners (the moral scolds, the Ms. Grundies) to the level of self-righteous prophets, inerrant and unimpeachable.
But since they cannot help but misuse their own terminology according to their own sets of definitions, they prove themselves mere bullies.
My suggestion? Abandon the theory. Always use “sex” where the word makes sense, and shame those who fear the word for reasons that they (apparently) do not wish made known.
We live in a putative post-shame age. Make those who misuse “gender” see that they are merely playing yet another iteration of the shame game.