The Stuff in Between (some thoughts on sex and gender)

Something every new feminist, I think, has to contend with at some point is the question of gender, and what it really is. My own understanding of this question has gone through quite a few evolutions over the years I’ve been interested in feminism and its theory and practice. This post is a bit of a reflection on my own changing understanding of sex and gender and the relationship of the two – nothing cohesive, just some of my own musings over the years.

The first revelation came quite easily, at some point in high school, the idea that sex and gender are not actually the same thing. It’s the most basic realisation of gender studies, social science, anthropology and most humanities fields, and since I picked up on it, it’s felt so commonplace and obvious I have to roll my eyes when my intro to anthropology lecturer spends a whole lecture on it, only to continue to get it wrong throughout.

A little later came the social construction of gender, the performance theories of gender, the idea that gender doesn’t exist in itself but only in relation to external stuff, for lack of a better word. There can be such freedom attached to that idea, not only the personal bits and pieces, the you-mean-I-don’t-have-to-wear heels-to-be-a-woman? stuff, but also the broader freedom of people to identify outside of binary gender constructs and re-write them in ways that make sense to them.

But there are issues with this way of thinking too, as I see every time an argument breaks out in a queer or feminist space on essential vs constructed gender. If gender is purely a construct, then it’s easy to argue (as someone in the aforementioned argument always does) that gendered oppression or discrimination doesn’t exist, that women don’t feel pressure to be skinny and attractive, that people who do identify as binary men or women are just fooling themselves. (And yes, I’ve seen all of these in real life). Take it too far in one direction, and people end up arguing that gender doesn’t actually exist, as if it’s just an illusion pulled over our eyes that we can shake off at any moment.

The conclusion that I’ve personally drawn is that people don’t often think about the fact that even if gender is a completely imaginary construct, it still has real-life manifestations. Sure, in an ideal world the constructedness of gender might mean that gender is absolutely irrelevant. But our world isn’t an ideal world. Ideas about gender still hold tremendous sway in our society, influencing our self-perception, our roles, the amount of money we earn at work. We can’t just say gender doesn’t exist when it still clearly impacts on the way broader society still functions. None of us, however confident of our own identity, exists in a vacuum where other people’s ideas about gender don’t affect us.

And then recently, especially since beginning to work on historical gender research, my views on gender have changed again. I’m finding that I can no longer think of sex and gender as inherently separate categories – it’s too simplistic, especially in relation to ancient Roman society – to think of sex purely as biological and gender as purely socio-cultural. So much of gender does, in the end, have some sort of base in biology, be it larger or smaller. It’s all well and good to talk about transgressive gender performances in the Roman world, but those performances were transgressive precisely because they were contrary to accepted ideas about male and female bodies and the behaviour and qualities those bodies intrinsically have.

So my own going understanding, of gender and sex and the relationship between them, is at the moment that gender is the stuff that happens in the space between the body/biology and the society/culture it is located in. The stuff can have quite a bit of variation across different societies, and there’s no inherent shape it will take. But it always involves both the biological and the social, working together or against each other in wariness of each other, whatever the circumstance may be. Granted, it’s not the neatest definition of gender, but it makes sense to me. At least until the next shift in understanding comes along.


6 thoughts on “The Stuff in Between (some thoughts on sex and gender)

  1. Bit late here, but thanks for this interesting approach.
    Actually, as people are usually assigned gender at birth by body type, there seems to me no way sex and gender are totally unrelated. Even if they are only related or equated in most people’s heads (as “construct” would imply), this does have real-life consequences.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject; it’s one I too am definitely interested in. I just wanted to say, though, that I felt like trans/nonbinary people weren’t really being acknowledged here. This sentence especially: “those performances were transgressive precisely because they were contrary to accepted ideas about male and female bodies and the behaviour and qualities those bodies intrinsically have.” The idea that a body is definitely either male or female and that by virtue of being one of those it has intrinsic qualities that, it sounds like you’re saying, are conventionally feminine qualities for an assigned-female body and conventionally masculine qualities for an assigned-male body, is one I don’t agree with and one that erases trans/nonbinary/intersex people. However, maybe that isn’t what you meant to say and I’m just reading it wrong, but I wanted to let you know that that is the reading I took.

    1. Hey blue, thanks for dropping by. I was thinking about non-binary identities while I wrote this post, but didn’t want to go into it in detail in this case. If you have any suggestions for things to tweak to make it more inclusive though, by all means go ahead!

      The sentence you pointed out in particular actually refers to ideas of gender in ancient Rome specifically, rather than the modern day. The Romans did a bit of messing around with gender expectations, but (from my own research) did have very essentialised ideas about what your body meant your identity/role/behaviour inherently was. I definitely agree that in the modern day, that doesn’t work!

      As for the post in general, my assumption throughout is that if you look at gender as the stuff between body and society, then that creates room for non-binary identifications as well – the ‘stuff’ doesn’t always have to conform to expectations, after all. But perhaps my own view of gender as a cis person will always be a bit different to a non-binary person’s by way of experience. Thoughts?

      1. Thanks for the response; I was wondering if you meant that sentence to just refer to the Romans’ beliefs (and now that I look at it again, the “accepted ideas” part does make that pretty clear). But I guess just talking about one’s body playing a role in gender makes me a bit uneasy. Bodies definitely do play a role in how others’ perceive one’s gender, but someone who was assigned female at birth and appears very typically feminine could be a trans man or any sort of nonbinary person. Their gender wouldn’t be dependent on their body, and undergoing HRT or surgery wouldn’t necessarily change their own sense of their gender.

        But we might just be using different terms here. I guess I’m thinking of gender as “one’s internal sense of whether they’re male, female, both, neither, etc.”, but maybe that’s specifically gender identity?

        Anyway, what it comes down to is that the idea of telling someone “your body influences your gender whether you like it or not” is just troubling to me, but that might not even be what you’re saying, and/or maybe that actually is true (depending on the definition of gender). Again, thanks for taking the time to respond to me. I’m still working on figuring all this stuff out myself.

    2. blue: Try reading it as “accepted ideas about male and female bodies and [about] the behaviour and qualities those bodies intrinsically have”…

  3. That question of “what even is gender” I think is one question that I really think is a pretty core important question for thw whole gender studies/feminism/social justice crowd. In my experience in gender studies/feminism, I hear a lot of mantras like “gender is different than sex” and “gender is different from gender roles” or “gender is different than pronoun use”, but that always leaves me wondering, well, if that’s what gender is not….then what about what it is?

    I also find this extremely relevent as a sort of “gender apathetic” person – I really have nothing that I think of independently as a “gender identity”. I have the physical sex characteristics I was born with (uterus, vagina, etc.) and the social roles I take on, (using women’s bathrooms, she pronouns), but nothing independent of that that I could place as an inherent “gender”. So when other people talk about things like ‘true’ genders apart from gender roles or sex, I have no idea what they mean.

    The way I personally like to think of gender is that there are sort of three contributing parts to what we call gender: sex, role, and identity:

    Sex is the physical sex characteristics that individuals may have, like having a uterus or a penis or XX or XY or estrogen or testosterone. Cultural norms typically group sex characteristics into two (or sometimes more) main classes. For example, in most western societies, vagina + xx + estrogen = female, penis + xy + testosterone = male (and anyone who is in between just gets lumped into whichever category is closest)

    Roles, on the other hand, are social role divisions in society – what pronouns are used for you, what restricted social structures can you access, what duties are you expected to take on. For example, women are called “she” and become ‘wives’ and can attend women’s colleges and are associated with nurturing duties; men are called “he” and become “husbands” and can join the Navy seals and are associated with physical labor, etc.

    Now, generally speaking, “gender” on a social level refers to the mappings between these two concepts – that, for ex, a woman is someone with female sex characteristics and a female social role.

    Gender identity on an individual level seems to often be about what connections you personally map onto yourself, which could be based on a connection to a certain sex characteristic, social role, or a bit of both. I think gender identity can vary so much because for some people, sex characteristics might be the biggest factor in their gender, but for someone else, social role might be the biggest factor.

    So like, for some trans people, the problem is that the sex characteristics they map onto themselves are not the ones they currently have, so for these people surgery might be the end goal. For other trans people, the problem might be more the fact that they map a social role onto themselves that doesn’t match how they are treated, so for them pronouns and what bathrooms to use might be a bigger issue. For some this is both.

    I think the same goes for cis and questioning people as well – their sense of “gender” can be based on sex, role, or both. For example, for me, my “gender” is based on the fact that I have female sex characteristics, and I take on the female social role just because it’s the one associated with those sex characteristics, so it’s convenient. So for example, if I were to wake up with another sex characteristic set, my gender identity would probably change too. But many other cis people feel very differently, that it’s not about what physical characteristics you have but all about what labels and pronouns you like (which are social roles). And some trans people have similar difference in opinion. So I think that in addition to a difference in gender experience between those whose role and sex align (cis vs trans), there’s maybe also a divide between those more influenced by roles vs. sex (which has no terminology yet).

    I have no idea whether that’s even useful for anyone else, but it’s a model that’s worked well for me to figure things out.

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