We often hear that “gender is socially constructed.” What does that mean? Is it true?
The popular idea that gender is socially constructed might be summed up as follows:
There is a difference between “sex” and “gender.” Sex is “biological” while gender is “psychological,” “social,” or “cultural.” A person’s gender can be different from a person’s sex. Gender is thus “socially constructed” in the sense that, unlike biological sex, gender is a product of society. If society determines what is masculine or feminine, then society can change what is considered masculine, feminine, or anything in between. No one needs to be locked into fixed gender categories. Any individual is free to identify their gender as they see fit.
Although it is important, the concept of gender is an imprecise one. Depending on how it is used, the concept of gender can be illuminating, clarifying, confusing, contradictory, or downright incoherent. To illustrate, let us begin by examining some typical definitions of the concepts of sex, gender, and gender identity.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sex as “a person’s biological status ... typically categorized as male, female, or intersex (i.e., atypical combinations of features that usually distinguish male from female.” It defines gender as “the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.”
Gender identity refers to:
[a] person’s deeply-felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender non-conforming, boygirl, ladyboy) which may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.
On the surface, these definitions appear quite reasonable. However, they mask a series of deep contradictions that tend to occur when people talk about gender as a social construction. If we are going to be able to have constructive conversations about gender and society, it is important to unmask these contradictions. Here are but a few:
Gender cannot simultaneously be socially constructed and inherent to the individual.
In the APA definition, sex refers to the biological reproductive apparatus, while gender refers to cultural expectations and norms. Drawing on this distinction, when people say that gender is socially constructed, they tend to assert that sex is independent of gender.
However, if gender is an arbitrary creation of society, how is it possible for gender identity to be an “internal” and “inherent” sense of self? It is not possible for gender to simultaneously be an arbitrary product of culture and an inherent experience of the individual. If gender comes from the culture, how can it also be an inherent property of the individual person?
Gender identity cannot be simultaneously self-chosen and the product of socialization.
The idea that gender is socially constructed is often taken to mean that gender identities are the product of socialization. This statement stands in contradiction to the idea that gender identities arise from the process of self-identification—that it is the individual who decides upon gender identity.
What is the source of one’s gender identity? Is it an experience that resides within the self? If so, then it cannot be a mere result of socialization. If one’s sense of gender is merely socialized, what role does the person play in self-identification? If there is no personal basis for identifying one’s gender, gender identification would itself become an arbitrary process.
Gender identity cannot simultaneously be invisible and socially verifiable.
If, as the APA definition maintains, gender identity is something that is not necessarily visible to others, how can we ever verify a person’s claim to a given gender identity? A social identity is not the kind of thing that can be determined by a solitary self. Social identities are verified and validated in social relations. If this were not the case, we would be compelled to accept any identity claim made by any individual exclusively on the basis of self-assertion alone.
This is not how the construction of identity works. In order to gain credibility with others (and to the self), any identity claim must be accompanied by some sort of public expression that can be shared with others. This is not to say that people cannot and do not identify themselves in terms of prevailing gender categories; it only means that societies do not accept identity claims on the basis of self-identification alone. Identity claims are created and validated in social exchanges where people express their identities not simply in words, but also in deeds and actions.
Gender cannot be both independent of sex and defined with reference to sex.
The APA defines gender identity as one’s sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender. To say that one’s experience of self may not comport with one’s assigned sex is to make a distinction between sex and gender. However, the capacity to discriminate sex from gender does not make one independent of the other.
Terms like male, female, boy, girl, man, and woman have their historical origins in social roles that have been organized with reference to sex. The meanings of boy and girl, masculine, feminine, and androgyny, while not fixed by sex, are nonetheless defined with reference to sex. It follows to the extent that sex-linked biological processes contribute to the development of psychological differences between people; those psychological processes play a role in the social meanings that define gender.
The human experience is not divided into separate biological and socially constructed parts.
The problem with the popular concept that “sex is biological” and “gender is cultural” is the idea that sex and gender reflect independent aspects of the person. However, there are no separable biological and cultural aspects of a person.
Acting and experiencing do not have separate biological and cultural components. Biology and culture influence each other; they make each other up. For example, the act of writing is a historically and culturally constructed process; however, it is made possible by the biology of the opposable thumb. In all things, biology and culture make each other up. The same is true for the relation between biology and culture as they relate to the construction of gender.
The mere difference between gender and sex doesn't mean that one replaces the other.
Sex is the biological apparatus. The construction of gender identity is a psychological process. (It is also a biological process; all psychological processes are biological processes—but not all biological processes are psychological processes.)
So, we have two categories here—not one. To identify myself in terms of a particular gender category does not take away my sex. One is not simply one's sex—but then again, one is not simply one's gender identity either. If sex and gender are different, then one doesn't replace the other. Self-identification is but one form of identification. It doesn't replace identification by other means.
People are confused and divided in political discussions about sex and gender. Much of the debate over gender is ideological in nature. Some fear that if gender is not “socially constructed,” the political goals of gender equality will lose traction and credibility. Others argue that saying that gender is “socially constructed” is to deny the contributions of biological “nature.” Neither ideological extreme is supported by psychological research.
Are there psychological differences between and among sexes (or genders)? Phrased in this way, these are not interesting questions. It makes no sense to ask about the “psychological nature” of males, females, intersex individuals, or of individuals who identify themselves in terms of prevailing gender categories. That is because there is no “nature” that is independent of social context; there is no social organization that is independent of biology.
Persons are not fixed beings with fixed natures. If we want to understand persons, we must look at them as individuals who develop over time as products of complex relations between their biology and their cultures.