Notes on the Sex/Gender Distinction

This is one of my short response papers (called "problematics"--each one is organized around a particular issue in feminist theory). I still heart Gayle Rubin. :-)

Before the 1970s, it was understood by most theorists that one's biological sex determined what one's gender was. During this time, feminist theorists began to question the biological determinism implicit in the causal relationship between biological sex and gender by theorizing a distinction between sex and gender. Theorists also recognized the importance of theorizing sexuality as integrated with sex and gender. In the history of the sex/gender distinction and sexuality, we see disagreements regarding the logical and temporal priority of one over the other two and the extent to which sexuality is a stand-alone system, independent of or only marginally intersecting with sex and gender. In this brief essay, I will trace the genealogy of the sex/gender(/sexuality) distinction, pointing out the theoretical affordances and drawbacks presented by three representative essays spanning thirty years of thought on the distinction.

A need for structure was still present in the 1970s and, at the time, overgeneralization across cultures was not a concern. In 1975, Gayle Rubin published the landmark essay "The Traffic in Women." In it, Rubin identifies a universal "sex/gender system" by first pointing out the shortcomings of using Marxist theory to explain women's oppression. Rubin turns to Lévi-Strauss' theory of kinship for a structural template, as sex, gender, and sexuality figure into kinship, and to Freud for a theory of the subject, which accounts for the way the system is reproduced in children's development. She does this in order to claim that the distinction between biological sex and gender is systematized; in other words, the norms are naturalized so much that the formation of gender identity within the system is nearly seamless. Instead of the "natural," intuitive seamlessness of the relationship between sex and gender, Rubin argues that in every society, a system is in place, a specific mechanism that converts sex to gender. She does not intend for the sex/gender system to be understood as a synonym for patriarchy; rather, she argues that it is "a neutral term which refers to the domain and indicates that oppression is not inevitable in that domain, but is the product of the specific social relations which organize it" (p. 539). Sexuality, in the sex/gender system, is a by-product of system-produced gender. Rubin aptly points out that if heterosexuality were so "natural," there would be no need for a cultural imperative to be heterosexual. She says that "[g]ender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire be directed toward the other sex" (p. 546), but qualifies that statement by saying that the sex/gender system does not merely produce heterosexuality, but in many cases, specific forms of heterosexuality. Her theory provided a considerable windfall for feminist theory. Rubin, in effect, exposed the system that mystified sex and gender, "providing feminist theory with a distinct and powerful way to ward off simple biological determinism" (Wiegman, p. 114).

Nine years later, Rubin published "Thinking Sex," in which she distances herself from her prior position in "The Traffic in Women." Rubin is responding to arguments made by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin that the sex/gender system can be subsumed under sexuality, particularly the eroticization in patriarchy of masculine domination and feminine subordination which is expressed in pornography. MacKinnon and Dworkin, with their anti-pornography stances, have unwittingly aligned themselves with the prohibitive rhetoric of right-wing conservatives surrounding sexuality, and Rubin wishes to free sexuality, to make it autonomous from feminist theory. Rubin argues for a separate theory of sexuality as a stand-alone system that cannot be reduced to biological sex and/or gender roles. She does this by using Foucault's History of Sexuality, in which he claims that a sexual system has emerged out of kinship systems and that desires, and new forms of sexuality, "are constituted in the course of historically specific social practices" (p. 76). Sexual oppression, Rubin says, cuts across other kinds of oppression and privilege. For example, a wealthy white man can still be sexually oppressed, and the recognition of sexual oppression adds another layer of oppression onto the "multilayered, simultaneous" oppressions noted by the Combahee River Collective. In "Thinking Sex," Rubin says that in "The Traffic in Women," she assumed that "gender and desire [sexuality] were systematically intertwined" and did not take into consideration a distinction between "lust" and gender. In my reading of these two essays, I see Rubin as keeping some aspects of her analysis in "The Traffic in Women" and rethinking others. In other words, the biological sex/gender distinction is still intact, but sexuality is not always a by-product of system-produced gender: "Gender affects the operation of the sexual[ity] system, and the sexual[ity] system has had gender-specific manifestations. But although sex[uality] and gender are related, they are not the same thing, and they form two distinct areas of social practice" (p. 308). Sexuality is not "derived from gender," as many feminist theorists have thought, Rubin says. The windfall from “Thinking Sex” is the calling into question of "the feminist imperative to link gender and sexuality that had been a consistent call in lesbian feminist discourses since the early 1960s" (Wiegman, p. 120). However, the shortcomings are numerous, the most salient one being the complete removal of feminist considerations of oppression in sexual practices, particularly in cross-generational partnerships and sex work.

Judith Butler in "Against Proper Objects" points out that the problems associated with the sex/gender distinction are part of a larger problem in feminist theory to walk the line between the biological and the cultural, to not dismiss (biological) sexual difference but, at the same time, to not place too much emphasis on it, lest feminists buy into biological determinism. Butler argues that biological sex, or sexual difference, gender, and sexuality should not be distinguished too much from each other, especially not to the point that each is turned into a "proper object" of a particular discipline of study, e.g. biological sex and gender (which Butler still sees as conflated much of the time) are the proper objects of feminist theory, and sexual practices and sexuality are the proper objects of lesbian and gay studies. They should be distinguishable, but studied in conjunction; for example, Butler argues that "while it would be a mistake to argue that kinship relations [associated with biological sex and gender] uniformly govern the regulation of sexuality, it would be equally mistaken to claim their radical separability" (p. 14). Studying sexuality autonomously all but prevents feminist critical intervention in sexual practices. Butler writes, "Politically, the costs are too great to choose between feminism, on the one hand, and radical sexual theory, on the other" (p. 15). Butler calls for a productive tension among sex, gender, and sexuality that can create a rich theoretical symbiosis for feminist and lesbian and gay inquiry: She calls "for feminism to offer a critique of gender hierarchy that might be incorporated into a radical theory of sex, and for radical sexual theory to challenge and enrich feminism" (p. 15).1

The sex/gender/sexuality distinctions, systems, and arguments of one element's priority over the others will likely never be settled. These essays provide a complex history of these distinctions and excellent representations of the distinctions' evolution. They have given me much to think about in my own work. (Note: Butler has argued elsewhere that the heterosexual matrix is to a large extent a determinant of biological sex, but as I did not see this argument in "Against Proper Objects," I did not include it in my discussion.)


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Why does Butler call herself a feminist?

Or does she? Find out on What is sex segregation? on:

notes on my invisibility

i usually feel funny doing this - it seems...intrusive - oh well, i came to you page from city pages' babelogue where you are listed as blog of the day and followed my interest to this article "Notes on the Sex/Gender Distinction"

I am not sure of what to say but.... as a transsexual woman after reading your article i felt... invisible - i guess that is better than how i usually feel when reading feminist articles on gender, that is, offended, insulted and invalidated - but not this time i'm happy to say

its confusing to me why, in that one area where i would think that people such as myself would be most visible, we are notably absent - the elephant in the room no one talks about - this strikes me as very odd - odder still is the insistance that society 'converts sex to gender' - we now know that this is simply not true - gender, or more accurately gender identity, is set very early, if not in the womb - it *could* have turned out differently and people in the seventies simply had no way of knowing, but its pretty hard to dismiss now

there are some other things i don't understand - i don't understand why separating sex from gender removes 'feminist considerations of oppression in sexual practices' - it makes no sense to me as oppression is a political act and feminism has always been about the power differential between men and women - this same concern pops up in the next paragraph - i don't get the importance of academic turf battles - presenting a valid argument should come first no?

anyway.. i hope you know i am just giving my opinion - it seems to be what this 'blog' thing is about, and you and i have different ideas about this subject or at least i *think* we do, i could be wrong i suppose - i hope i havn't mis-represented you in any way - thanks for the interesting read


Re: notes on my invisibility

Hey, Brenda, thanks for reading and commenting. As I said in the post, this was a reading response for a feminist theory course I took, and I was encountering "Thinking Sex" and "Against Proper Objects" for the first time. I was trying to get the arguments summarized and synthesized.

"Converts sex to gender" is an unfortunate choice of words on my part -- too facile. This reading response is a better representation of my understanding of Butler, but I still have a lot to learn, and I'm sorry for making you feel invisible.

You said: "i don't get the importance of academic turf battles - presenting a valid argument should come first no?"

Yes. I think Butler was trying to look at it in an epistemological sense -- arguing against a specific referent or object of study ("women," "sexuality," specific identitarian categories), but the institutional realities can't be ignored. Your question made me wonder how many valid arguments are out there that, for failure to be grounded in a specific discipline or area of academic turf, go unpublished.

all apoligies

No, you didn't make me feel invisible, I was just reacting to old crap that was triggered by your article. I am sorry about that, I am responsible for my feelings, not you.

Truth is, I have never read much feminist/gender studies lit because I have been too afraid to. I am very aware, or perhaps it is only a perception, that there are many people in that movement who react very strongly and negativly to my very existance. It has only been quite recently that NOW recognized us and allowed us to be members *as women*.

So its pretty hard to identify with, or give much of my energy to a philosophy, political movement, whatever, that doesn't want me. But that's my crap, not yours and it was unfair of me to dump it on you.

I think I'll stick around some, at least until I can get my own site going. I am working on a graphics centered site. I'm an artist and I'd like to put up some of my traditional and CG art. I'll keep you posted if you like.


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