Neither Androgyny nor Stereotypes: Sex Differences and the Difference They Make
52 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2020
Date Written: March 6, 2020
Recent debates about gender identity and the various waves of feminism and new feminisms have clouded many people’s understanding of sex and of gender. Whether it be proposals from feminists that equate equality with sameness, and thus argue, for example, that it should be illegal to be a “stay-at-home mom,” or claims by transgender activists that a boy could be trapped in the body of a girl, many people today lack a clear understanding of the concept of biological sex, how it develops and is determined, and the difference that sex differences make.
This article argues that sex is a biological reality, conceptualized and identified based on an organism’s organization with respect to sexual reproduction. In human beings, this organization begins to form as a result of the chromosomes we inherit from our parents, as well as the reproductive organs, systems, genitalia, and hormones that develop as a consequence. As there are two reproductive systems, there are two sexes. This primary sexual differentiation in turn gives rise to secondary bodily differences—in terms of height, weight, organ development, musculature, and even psychology. These are not essential differences, but differences in distributional patterns. And as a result, it should not be surprising if on average and for the most part boys and girls, men and women, display different interests, inclinations, and preferences.
But these on-average differences, while they should be recognized and accounted for, should not be taken as normative. Differences between men and women should not be denied (androgyny) but nor should mere differences alone be imposed as if prescriptive (stereotypes). Instead, cultures need to cultivate the differences that make a difference in the ways that people—men and women—pursue certain goods and thus in the formation of certain social practices. And so, this article argues that gender is how cultures give expression to sexual differences.
Feminism originally sought to liberate women from a restrictive understanding of gender and free them to be themselves, but elements of it turned into a movement that went beyond giving women the same equality of opportunity and liberty as men, instead seeking to erase the differences between the sexes. Our culture has gone from the error of exaggerated and rigid sex stereotypes to the opposite error of denying that there are any important differences between the sexes. From that error comes a culture of androgyny and gender confusion. The radical feminist aim of erasing all differences between men and women might seem contrary to the transgender insistence that the inner sense of a distinctly male or female gender identity cannot be altered by therapy, though beneath it all is a delinking of gender from our biological nature.
Between stereotypes on the one hand and androgyny on the other, the virtuous mean is a view of gender that reveals meaningful sex differences and communicates the difference they make—a view that takes sex differences seriously while upholding the fundamental equality of the sexes as complements to one another. It acknowledges what sex differences mean for marriage and family, friendship and education. Our sexual embodiment is precisely what makes marriage possible, and a host of social practices, including how we nurture boys and girls, are shaped with the good of marriage in view. On average, boys and girls, and men and women have different needs and inclinations, so our law and culture should not take the male way of being human as the norm. This means that women should not be forced to live, work, and compete as if they were men. Society should accept that men and women may, on the whole, have different preferences and freely make different choices.
We need to recover a sound understanding of gender and of why it’s important for our society to respect the fundamental differences between male and female. We need to cultivate a mature and nuanced view of gender so that children understand that there are various ways to be real boys and real girls—that we don’t all have to conform to a stereotype. But this does not require adopting the view that gender norms are entirely artificial, mere “social constructs.”
Sex is a bodily, biological reality, and gender is how we give social expression to that reality. Gender properly understood is a social manifestation of human nature, springing forth from biological realities, though shaped by rational and moral choice. Human beings are creatures of nature and of culture, but a healthy culture does not attempt to erase our nature as male- or female-embodied beings. Instead, it promotes the integrity of persons, in part by cultivating manifestations of sex differences that correspond to biological facts. It supports gender expressions that reveal and communicate our sexual nature.
Gender is socially shaped, but it is not a mere social construct. It originates in biology, but in turn it directs our bodily nature to higher human goods. A sound understanding of gender clarifies the important differences between the sexes and guides our distinctly male or female qualities toward our well-being. A concept of gender that denies or distorts these differences, on the other hand, hinders human flourishing.
And so, this article proceeds by exploring the concept of biological sex, its biological formation in a primary and secondary sense, and disorders of sexual development and how to understand them. It then turns to gender theory and feminism, mistaken understandings of gender that either deny (androgyny) or distort (stereotypes) the differences that make a difference, and how our sexual embodiment should influence our communal pursuit of human goods.
Keywords: Sex, gender, gender identity, social construct, human flourishing, common good, feminism, transgender
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