A draft of a paper addressing the extension of the concept of gender to more general cultural phenomena.
Gender is a culturally defined role in society. But it isn’t just any role. For instance, a firefighter isn’t a different gender than a doctor. Gender is related to, but distinct from, sex. Now, of course any word can take on any meaning. But there is a good reason why “gender” should not be used to refer to sex. First, the experts do not currently use it in such a way. Second, what is referred to by the current usage of the term “gender” is a very real cultural phenomenon, and one that merits study. To align the definition of “gender” to being identical to that of sex, it makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the cultural phenomenon, while simultaneously creating a redundancy in the English language. We do not need another word for “sex.”
So “gender” and “sex” should not be thought of as the same. Now I will explain how they are different, yet related. I have been a fan of the idea that “culture is biology, modulated by environment.” So is gender the modulate—product of modulation—of sex, and sex alone? I don’t think so. Let’s consider the following terms: boy, girl, man, woman. Boy vs man and girl vs woman are age related distinctions. Boy and man vs girl and woman are sex related distinctions.
So we have four different roles in society, based on both age and sex. We can think of these as two genders divided further by two age groups, or we could think of them as four separate genders. Is there any benefit to this? Yes. Both age and sex are biological attributes which impact the role that a person can play in society. They are also attributes that almost every single person has, even if there is some fluidity in sex expression. In addition, gender roles often relate to the acceptability of intimate relationships in society.
To consider the similarity between age based distinctions and sex based distinctions, consider that in America, intimate relationships between individuals who are 18 or older and those who are younger than 18 are generally prohibited. However, this is not universal. Ancient Greece is one example where pederasty was not only common, but promoted. However, pederasty only occurred between what we would consider a preadolescent male and an adolescent one, yet relationships between two adult males were uncommon, and indeed shunned. If we use this system, ancient Greece had five gender roles: a preadolescent male, a preadolescent female, an adolescent male, an adult female, and an adult male.
One last point that I want to make on the topic of the definition of gender is that the connection between sex and age, when viewing gender, is not arbitrary. Age has a direct influence on sex based characteristics. As we age, secondary sex traits emerge. So the two biological traits: sex and age, are very closely related and that is why gender is influenced by both.
This idea could be extended even further. Age and sex are the key biological factors that determine intimacy relationships, but other biological traits have cultural modulates. Probably one of the most divisive cultural modulates of biological traits is race. While modern society tends to reject the cultural modulate, it is important to identify the existence of the concept of race, if it exists in a culture. Politically charged or not, we must be able to study it. At this point we have two classes of “kinds.” We have intimacy kind and racial kind. Gender and genus are two words which mean “kind”, but which are in common use. However, the Greek for “kind” is eidos (plural eidoi), and does not seem to be used in English. I therefore suggest that kinds, defined by culturally identifiable biological variables, be called eidoi. Gender, as we use the term today, would then be intimacy eidoi.
Origins of Same Sex Prohibitions
Let’s consider another aspect of gender, and the problems resulting from the conflation of sex and gender. In modern society, sex and gender tend to align. But that was not the case in the ancient world. In Greece, and in Rome, gender was related to the role taken during sexual intercourse. A man was someone who took the dominant role during sex, while a woman was the “receiver.” A person who was penetrated by a male would not be considered a man. Since only men could be citizens, prohibitions banning an adult citizen from being the “receiver.”
Now let’s take a look at the prohibitions in the old testament. The confusion between gender roles and sex roles is part of the reason why the old testament has been mistranslated. The important points are the use of the Hebrew words “zakar” and “ish” and the euphemism “lie down” The word “zakar” refers to males, while the word “ish” refers to men. 18:22 reads “V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hi” or “and with a male, thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is an abomination.” while 20:13 reads “V’ish asher yishkav et-zachar mishk’vei ishah to’evah asu shneihem mot yumatu d’meihem bam” or “and a man who will lie down with a male in a woman’s bed, both of them have made an abomination. Dying they will be put to death; their blood is on them.” While lie down is accepted as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, there is a question of who is doing what to whom. Walsh 2001 argues that the usage specifically involves penetration and specifically, being the receiver. Therefore, both 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit a man from being on the receiving end of sexual intercourse with a male. This interpretation would make the prohibition consistent with other prohibitions of sexual relations involving two males, in the ancient world. It is not a prohibition against homosexual relationships, but specifically against a man (an eligible Israelite citizen) taking a role in sex, which conflicts with his gender role and which would put his citizenship in jeopardy.
As further evidence, consider the word “to-evah” which is often translated as “abomination.” This article does a fair job of addressing the meaning of the term. It does not mean “abomination” so much as it means “culturally forbidden.” This makes sense, if the prohibition was to ensure the maintenance of gender constructs and citizenship roles among the Israelites.
The issue seems to be that over time, as gender roles changed and aligned with sex, the true meaning of the prohibition was lost, and instead of reading Leviticus for what it was, it became a prohibition against homosexual relationships. But there is no reason why this has to be the case. Even if someone is religious and follow the bible, the religious text never forbids homosexual relationships. And because we no longer base citizenship based on sex or gender, there is no reason for a prohibition to exist at all. Similarly, those who attack religion for its homophobia, realize such homophobia is not a product of religion, but is rather a product of the lack of understanding of the distinction between gender and sex.
Diminishing Importance of Gender
The common view, among anthropologists, about gender in America, is that alternative genders are becoming more common, or at least more recognized. I disagree. Rather than an increase in genders, I think we are seeing the breakdown of gender altogether.
Gender is essentially a cultural role, reinforced by biological sex, but distinct from it. In our evolutionary history, and even up until the latest technological revolution, sex based characteristics resulted in categorical differences in roles that most females and males played in society. But physical body type is much less important given that most jobs today are not physically demanding. Having children is less important, and many people choose never to have kids.
This directly relates to a major invention in medical technology: birth control. Before birth control, females were beholden to the childbearing process. They could not control when they became pregnant, except through total abstinence. Therefore, it is not surprising that a cultural role emerged involving “homemaking” where one gender was focused on providing for childcare. This was a major reason for division of labor, and that was a modulate of the sexual dimorphism in the child raising process. With birth control, females can now more easily choose if and when to have children and so the gender specific role of the “homemaker” is starting to deteriorate.
We probably won’t see a complete elimination of gender, if only because there will always be differences between the biological sexes. It took millions of years of evolution to reach the current sexual dimorphism. It won’t simply disappear within a couple of generations. But recognizable cultural roles, which are modulates of sex, are at the very least weakening.
“The problem of Identification”
Another issue is “the problem of identification.” A lot of people say that they identify as either a man or a woman. What does that mean? It’s nonsensical. Gender is a culturally defined role. If you fit the characteristics of that role, then you are that role, whether you identify as something else or not. If I truly believed that I was the President of the United States, and identified as such, would that make me the President? No; because I do not fit the characteristics of that cultural role. What if I wore dresses, had long hair, enjoyed romantic movies, was attracted to men, enjoyed baking, stayed at home and raised children, and so on, then I would totally satisfy what is defined as “woman.” Of course, the roles are already changing, and not every characteristic has to be met, so the example is an extreme case, but clearly, by definition of culture and “woman” that is what I would be, whether I identified as a woman or not.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the phrase “I identify as” is used so much is that there is a lack of recognition. If a male, with the characteristics stated above, states that ze (gender neutral pronoun of choice) is a woman, many will reject the claim, even more than the number who would reject the claim that ze “identifies as a woman.” If even only slightly more, the latter claim is better tolerated. It shouldn’t be. The first claim would absolutely be correct, regardless of whether said person “identifies” as a woman.
Because race is a form of eidos, whether someone belongs to a given race is not absolutely determined by the person’s biology. Just as gender tends to be aligned with sex, race tends to be aligned with certain biological traits. That that is as far as it goes. This case is exemplified by Rachel Dolezal. While Rachel claims to be “black,” and she works for the NAACP, Dolezal’s parents are “white.” And when this came to the attention of the media and the public, there was a significant amount of backlash. However, is there anything wrong with Dolezal claiming that she is “black?”