Sex and Gender, Not The Same Thing
I have a friend that I went to school with that cannot comprehend the separation of sex and gender. I have tried to explain on numerous occasions. If I did not possess such a solid core of self-esteem, I may blame it on my inability to communicate effectively. Thus, every conversation ends with her saying something like “I am the one that cleans the house because I was born to be the one that cleans the house” and with me banging my head on the wall.
Following will be excerpts from Judith Butler’s article, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Now I know, or believe I heard it somewhere that Butler is considered a POMO. If so, that should not dismiss some of her more salient points on sex being separate from gender. Or perhaps she wrote this article before she became all POMOish (if she is POMOish). If you find my commentary some what lazy, it is because it is. I will tell you why, brace yourself to hear something cruel, vulgar, and mercenary. I simply refuse to write serious posts on academic type topics unless I am being paid. Yes, you heard right. To me, it is work. I understand that for many people, especially people who have been tracked academically their whole lives, it does not feel like work, but for me it feels like work. I compare it to something as trivial as using my personal cell phone for my job. Not going to happen. If the company I am working for is not going to pay for my cell phone, they don’t get to call me on it. However, my opinions and stories come freely and never feel like a chore, so, I am quite generous in those areas.
Nevertheless, to me Butler’s article does a great job in demonstrating how gender and sex are separate. Granted, the excerpts I am about to quote are mostly her quoting other people, but, still the point is made. Well, it is in my opinion anyway. After reading this article some years ago, I have never since had an issue seeing the difference between sex and gender. And yes, I too, hate when a form asks me what gender I am. I usually cross it out and write an S or the word Sex in its place.
“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”
Feminist theory has often been critical of naturalistic explanations of sex and sexuality that assume that the meaning of women’s social existence can be derived from some fact of their physiology. In distinguishing sex from gender, feminist theorists have disputed causal explanations that assume that sex dictates or necessitates certain social meanings for women’s experience. Phenomenological theories of human embodiment have also been concerned to distinguish between the various physiological and biological causalities that structure bodily existence and the meanings that embodied existence assumes in the context of lived experience. In Merleau-Ponty’s reflections in The Phenomenolgy of Perception on “the body in its sexual being,” he takes issue with such accounts of bodily experience and claims that the body is “an historical idea” rather than “a natural species.”2 Significantly, it is this claim that Simone de Beauvoir cites in The Second Sex when she sets the stage for her claim that “woman,” and by extension, any gender, is an historical situation rather than a natural fact.3
When de Beauvoir claims that “woman” is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman,” to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project. The notion of a “project,” however, suggests the originating force of a radical will, and because gender is a project which has cultural survival as its end, the term “strategy” better suggests the situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs. Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished. Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.
In what senses, then, is gender an act? As anthropologist Victor Turner suggests in his studies of ritual social drama, social action requires a performance which is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.9 When this conception of social performance is applied to gender, it is clear that although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by becoming stylized into gendered modes, this “action” is immediately public as well. There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public nature is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame. Understood in pedagogical terms, the performance renders social laws explicit.