Social Constructs and Biological Differences

Feminism has been thrown into turmoil by the challenges raised by the third wave.  One particular area of challenge to traditional feminist thinking is the rethinking of gender particularly in the light of the increased visibility of trans*, and the theoretical backing given to it by Judith Butler as probably the best known advocate of the deconstruction of gender and sex.

In an earlier post, I looked at the distinctions that the feminist movement in Barcelona make of “women, lesbians and trans*” which comprise the movement and examined some of the different ways in which women have been defined.  Leaving aside arguments over the term “woman” and who owns such a term, it is worth looking at the distinctions between the the definitions in terms of what are actually objective realities, and what are social constructs that people have an an element of choice over whether they conform.  In a seperate post, I looked at how the patriachy oppresses groups of “unmen” in a variety of different ways.

There are four major elements to the distinctions which are made between people which divides them into the class of “man” or “woman”

Gender: the public identification of someone as “man” or “woman”

Sexuality: who people choose to have sexual relations with

Bio-sex: chromosomal identification which assigns those with XX chromosomes to “woman” and those with XY to “man”.

Reproductive capacity: whether someone has the capacity to gestate other humans.

To be fully identified as a “man” – it is expected that you will conform to male gender norms, have sexual relations with women, have XX chromosomes and produce spermatoza.  To be fully identified as a “woman” – it is expected that you will conform to female gender norms, have sexual relations with men, have XX chromosomes and produce egg cells and be capable of hosting a foetus.  The first two of these are social constructions, but the latter are objective biological realities

Gender is  a social construct, it is the presentation that people give which demarkates them as having a female or male gender and are called in popular discourse, “man” or “woman” according to this presentation.  That gendering then determines others expectations and how they are treated.  Although it is generally easier to present as one or the other, and people are socialised from birth into a gender which they do not choose, more often than not they conform to their assigned gender and the social expectations which go with it to a greater or lesser degree.  There is no objective reason why one gender should be assigned to one person and another gender to another, and there is an element of choice in gender presentation, which allows people to change gender either temporarily or permanently.

Similarly sexuality is a social construct     Although it is expected that men will have sexual relations with women, and women with men, there is no objective reason why this should be the case.  Adrienne Rich pointed out that it is expected that women will have relations with men, and urged them to experiement with sexual relations with women to explore whether such relationships would give them greater fulfillment in the context of a patriarchial society, bypassing the gendered obligations which are socially associated with entering into relationships with men.

Both gender and sexuality are imposed from society – there is in reality no gender of “man” nor of “woman”;  no sexuality of “heterosexual” or “homosexual”.    These are made up divisions which allow for differential treatment of one set of people by another.  On the other hand there are real and genuine differences between people which are not social constructs but which determine lived reality.  These differences cannot be overcome merely by social change or reclassification, for they are objective and determine differences in the objective reality that people live in

Despite the research into bio-sex which indicates that there is no distinct test for whether someone is male or female (the two sexes that people are assigned at birth and which tends to dominate their gendering), there is an identifiable difference between people in relation to their reproductive capacities.  Most people have no clue what their exact chromosomal make up is, their sex identification (ie that of male or female) is assigned to them on the basis of their secondary sexual characteristics and indeed although chromosomal make up is highly correlated to reproductive capacity, the correlation is not perfect.

Regardless there is a distinction between humans which governs their reproductive capacity – some humans are capable of gestating others.  That capacity to gestate others, makes for a different life experience.  While not all humans who have the capacity to have these life experiences do so, most who have the capacity do experience at least some significant events which come with that capacity – including menarche, menustration, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.

Although the distinction of gender – and consequent discrimination – can be erased by the erasure of gender as a social construct, something which many second wave feminists and trans activists as well as third wave feminists see as a political goal, overcoming biological reality is not something which can simply be socialised away.  However you define the distinction, it is a biological reality that some people can and do gestate other people, and that some people do not.

If we assume that we can obtain the post-gender, post-sexuality society that many see as a goal in achieving liberation, the question remains over the fundamental biological distinction of reproductive capacity.  For that is where the social constructs of gender and sexuality both come into play – although some men and lesbians may have the capacity to gestate, their gender and sexual identity marks them out as those who are not expected to.  Were there to be no gendering – no way of communicating expectation of gestation; and no sexual identity – no way of communicating expection of sexual activity likely to lead to reproduction, although that may overcome many of the social aspects of discrimination, the biological reality of gestation and its offshoots would remain.

While the destruction of gender and sexual identity is a lofty aim, these are social manifestations of a fundamental biological distinction, which cannot simply be erased and wished out of existence.  No matter how problematic it may be to draw a clear line between those who have this capacity and those who do not, the distinction is there, it is real and it is the fundamental basis for other forms of oppression based on gender and sexual identity.  To decry it as a social construct is to ignore the lived reality of those who live with the effects of having the capacity to gestate and others who are assumed to do so.


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