Gender Trouble: Gender Feminism and the Blank Slate

“There is no reason to assume that gender also ought to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.”
Judith Butler

While visiting L.A. for Thanksgiving, I spoke to a friend — a women’s studies minor — who told me, a little proudly, about a feminist professor acquaintance from Yale who was raising her child as gender neutral. She was putting her son in dresses and discouraging “gender roles and ideas of being.” When I objected to this treatment and expressed that it troubled me, she responded with: “But as much as she tries, she can’t stop him from playing with trucks and traditionally ‘male’ toys.” Some might consider this as strange behavior from a parent, let alone a professor at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, but, as the adage went, “it’s 2016.”

In 1990, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was released. It’s main hypothesis? That gender is a performance rather than innate; that it is taught through the repetition of actions and engaging in gendered roles. Judith Butler made it clear that the body is not a stable foundation for gender expression and that gender does not necessarily mimic sex. Amongst her wilder claims? That biological sex is also a cultural construction — gender subsumes sex.

Twenty seven years later we have the collateral from this idea, widely accepted in the humanities and pontificated upon in the social sciences (upon which queer theory is built). Tinder, the popular dating app, lets a user choose among 37 genders. Facebook offers 58. A part of our culture has obsessed itself with debating gender fluidity and sexuality. If gender is a performance, then the next step is that it can be influenced by the way you act. Enter Tumblr and concepts like Aerogender:

“A gender which relies highly on their setting and/or atmosphere, which can be composed of a great number of things (ex. who they’re around, their level of comfort, the temperature, the weather, the time of day/year, etc.)”

Lest you think these ideas and discussions about gender exist in the radical fringes of our society, consider the thriving YouTube community of users who claim to be able to shift between genders; the pronoun wars taking place on college campuses (xe, xim, xers, shims; shers, they); Bill C-16 in Canada and Jordan Peterson; Transgender bathrooms; University of Oregon’s decision it might discipline faculty “for suggesting that there are, on average, biological differences in temperament or talents between men and women,” and the thousands of gender studies departments across the Western world.

These concepts are not out of the vogue. They are just starting to gain traction in the mainstream. Papers deploying variations of and building off this hypothesis — that sex and gender are socially constructed — are frequently published in the social sciences and humanities. Judith Butler herself was invited to Yale’s prestigious Tanner Lectures in 2016.

Where have these concepts sprouted from?

The elephant in the room (the one which is tip-toed around because any criticism of it equals misogyny for its ideologues): feminism. While strains of feminism exist which do not make claims about the cultural construction of gender and sex, dominant ideologies within Anglo-American academic feminism do. This idea — that gender and sex are a social construction — was created for a noble purpose. Many Anglo-American Academic Feminists believed (and continue to believe) that it is the distinction between sexes which has led to historical discrimination against women. It is a distinction they wish to move past altogether. But they have held onto this ideology in the face of mounting evidence. Feminists who hold this view, and their divergence from equity feminism, are best explained by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate:

“Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive — power — and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups — in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.”

Gender feminists believe that gender is a social construct and all distinctions between men and women we see in life are simply culturally  and socially constructed — biology plays no part. Ergo all differences in distributions we see between males and females are simply the result of discrimination. If this is the case, they believe we can achieve equality of outcome through quotas, teaching men to be less dominating of women (the articles you might read about “toxic” masculinity), and dismantling the hetero-patriarchy and gender binary. Other than the tyrannical thought of instituting outcome equality, it is basically the idea of biology vs. the blank slate; biological imperative vs. social constructionism; nature vs. nurture. Gender feminists firmly believe that it is all nurture. The consensus in the scientific community is the opposite: Cultural conditioning does play a part, but biologically we are a dimorphic species.

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Professor Judith Butler

Tell a biologist or evolutionary psychologist that gender and sex are a social and cultural construct and you’re sure to receive confused looks, incredulity, and even outright contempt for your stupidity. If men and women are socialized to like certain things and behave in different ways, then why do newborn male and female children, who haven’t yet been influenced by social and cultural factors, show a distinction in what they find interesting? Male infants show a stronger interest in the physical-mechanical-mobile while female infants show a stronger interest in the face (the proxy for “interest” here being the time of fixed gaze). These exhibitors of biological dimorphism also emerge in rhesus monkeys, with toy preference paralleling those of human children.

If men and women are simply socialized by culture to like certain things and behave in different ways, then why do men and women in 55 different countries show clustered patterns in the big five personality traits — with women reporting higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than do men across most nations. You would think if men and women are only socialized to behave in a certain way, the results from this survey would produce wildly variant results. 

These contrasts also extrapolate into adulthood. Now consider how these sex differences impact what interests men and women have when choosing careers and jobs and you get a fairer understanding of phenomena like the “gender wage gap,” more men in STEM fields, and more women in caring, social roles. Sex differences are biological in origin — Butler’s idea of “performance” plays little to no role.

In fact, when social stigmas and roles are removed and populations are the most free — for example the Scandinavian countries — this is where we see the most divergence in what men and women choose to work in. People pursue what they’re adept in. And men and women are naturally adept, on average, in different things. None of this is to say, of course, that women are of more value than men or men are of more value than women. Only that we are different. And that these differences play out in different ways in our populations.

The objection to all this is: “Gender and sex are not the same thing, you bigoted transphobe! Gender is socially constructed and if a person is born a particular sex what’s stopping them from being a different gender?”

Of course there are social expectations like pink being considered a feminine color and blue masculine, or women encouraged to take more domestic roles while males are guided into others. There are cultural norms which encourage men and women to conform to certain behavior. Some individuals want to break free from these norms — more power to them. I suppose I don’t even mind if someone wants to identify as Vibragender (a gender that is usually one stable gender but will occasionally change or fluctuate before stabilizing again), my issue is when you start forcing myself and others to comply to inarticulate beliefs with pronouns and disciplinary action.

Specifically, though, the claim I am addressing is the one that cognitive, psychological, and behavioral differences do not exist between the sexes and are all culturally taught and socially programmed. They are not. Biological sex determines and influences how individuals behave (their gender, if you like). In this way gender and sex are inextricably linked.

Let me hedge: there is a part of our population who do not feel comfortable with the sex they’ve been born into. Data by the Williams Institute found that 0.3 % of Americans identify as transgender and exhibit signs of gender dysphoria. David Schmitt, on Psychology Today, also makes a compelling case that sex/gender should be viewed as “dials not switches,” positing that there are many dimensions on which individuals range — but even his position is rooted in biological realities of the specific individual’s natal developmental conditions, activational effects (such as puberty), and genetic effects.

Socialization plays a little to a small part.

But when confronted with this information, and studies that show non-socialized sex differences in cognition between men and women, social scientists, gender scholars, and gender feminists have a tendency to deny, obfuscate, downplay, and deflect like the most devout of believers. What do they believe in? The blank slate. That we are all born, in Lockean terms, tabulae rasaes. Or, they refer to relativistic ideas about “scientism” and posit that it’s not possible to “objectively” know these things.

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Activists campaigning to “destroy the gender binary”

Interestingly, esteemed publications have jumped into this debate as well. National Geographic released a piece titled “How Today’s Toys May Be Harming Your Daughter.” The article mentioned the gender difference in toy preference but failed to account that sex is the reason for this occurrence. Could it be that girls naturally prefer looking at faces, are better at fine motor skills and manipulating objects, and boys have an aptitude for mental rotation and spatial processing?

National Geographic’s print issue also featured a nine year old transexual girl on its cover, Avery. Nine is too young to make a life-altering decision of such magnitude — especially when, and as sex researcher Deborah W. Soh notes, the relevant literature shows that 61% to 88% of gender dysphoric children desist and grow up to be gay adults. Soh writes:

“… ignoring the science around desistance has serious consequences; it means some transgender children will needlessly undergo biomedical interventions, such as hormone treatments. Even detransitioning from a purely social transition can be a difficult process for a child. In one 2011 study of 25 gender dysphoric children, 11 desisted. Of the desisters, two had socially transitioned and regretted it.”

Soh paints a disturbing picture: one of hardline transgender activists and gender feminists ignoring the science in favor of their ideology. Who suffers? The children they profess to want to help.

The David Reimer and John Money case also comes to mind. John Money was the father of gender theory who introduced terms like “gender role” and “gender identity.” David Reimer was part of a pair of twins. His penis was lost in a botched circumcision which is where Money stepped in and suggested gender re-assignment — because in his view gender was only a learned identity. Long story short, David Reimer had a troubled childhood, eventually transitioned back to a man, and then killed himself. This is not to say that Avery’s case is not legitimate. But stories such as the Reimer case should serve as a tale of caution of forcing ideologies onto children.

Where I would posit that this is a political affliction rather than a real condition is with individuals who claim to transition from Caelegender one day to Genderwitched the next. I’m sure transsexual individuals exist on both sides of the political aisle while individuals who shifts from Trigender to Hydrogender (a gender which shares qualities with water) or claim to be Otherkin (people who identify as dragons, lions, wolves, etc.) are only found on the political Left.

But those who believe in the blank slate are everywhere — and working to promote the idea that it’s only nurture which impacts us. To them, if we’re born blank slates, then the next step is: what we’re attracted to is a social and cultural construction as well. Michael Shermer wrote an article for Scientific American in which he exposed right-wing attempts to hint at homosexuality being a choice as opposed to an innate attraction. From this mindset is where you get abominations like gay therapy camps — which advocate that you can simply “teach” homosexual men and women to find the other sex attractive.

My friend, who is a gay man, also informed me about the criticism he receives because he’s attracted to masculine men over feminine ones. He forwarded me an article in which its author, as well as accusing gay men who are attracted to masculine men of exhibiting “internalized homophobia and misogyny,” revealed the social constructionist and gender feminist — nurture over nature — mindset that is so popular with young writers these days (Think Huffpo, Salon, Jezebel, Everyday Feminism, Bustle, MTV, etc.). The author stated:

“We are all products of the societies that we live in, and so are our ways of thinking — even what we find to be attractive. We are all imperfect in this way. But we must constantly question the systems of power in our lives.”

These writers pathologize our sexuality through the lens of social constructionism and fail to account for the biological markers human beings look for when seeking healthy mates. If we really are a blank slate and what I’m attracted to is taught by society and culture, blank-slaters would have to entertain the idea that the only reason I find Elsa Hosk more attractive than Lena Dunham is because I’ve been socialized to feel that way.

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Lena Dunham & Elsa Hosk

I hope even they would see that as a laughable leap.

In part, I don’t blame these writers for their views. They are being brainwashed by some university and college departments and certain media outlets in the Western world to believe that gender and sex are social constructs. If you buy into that concept, then you buy into a series of cascading and even more ludicrous notions.

While we rightly condemn and laugh at the right-wing creationists who seek to teach our children debunked ideas like the world was created in six days or that human beings and dinosaurs lived alongside each other, why do we turn a blind eye to these science denying ideologues when they have free rein to indoctrinate our children in universities and institutes of higher learning?

I think a few reasons:

There is a genuine worry that the existence of differences and distinctions between sexes and races could be used to justify maltreatment, denigration, and “social darwinism.” Jerry Coyne succinctly summarizes this view:

“These claims [that there are no differences between sexes and races] are based not on biological data, but on ideological fears of the Left: if we admit of such differences, it could foster racism and sexism.  Thus, any group differences we do observe, whether they reside in psychology, physiology, or morphology, are to be explained on first principle as resulting from culture rather than genes.”

This might be true. But it might also be true that uncovering these differences does not compel us to make moral judgements or ascribe policy based on these results. Learning the minute contrasts that characterize humans could actually be helpful in looking for certain medical conditions in different populations, or applying divergent methods of treatment for men and women. Perhaps this fear also comes from a time when LGBTQ+ citizens had little to no rights and protections — but the moral panic I’m witnessing over these issues is out of proportion. For a political side so concerned with living in a post-truth world, it seems the truth of biology is being overpowered by ideology.

The second is that any opposition is akin to victimization. If you claim the idea of gender and sex being a social construction is false and incoherent, you are tarnished with the brand of bigot, homophobe, and transphobe. Colin Jost found this out when he joked on Saturday Night Live about the 37 genders Tinder offered. Jost was quickly accused of being transphobic and condemned in a series of left-wing publications. This instance is demonstrative of a worrying trend taking place which equates words with violence.

This whole “my gender is a social construct and what I feel inside” movement shows we are increasingly valuing what we feel as true over what is true to the best of our knowledge. We, as a culture, are placing mini-narratives above and beyond the concept of a meta-narrative. Worse, whenever anyone pushes back against a mini-narrative the knee-jerk reaction is to clutch at victimhood, persecution, and oppression.

The French postmodernists are probably laughing at us from their graves.

Judith Butler, a postmodernist herself, says in an interview with Big Think that her ideas have been quite controversial. While she’s only a part of this bigger puzzle — comprised of gender feminists, social science and humanities scholars, science denialists, gender studies, women’s studies, etc. — I would go further and say that her ideas have been downright wrong, idiotic, and have promoted dangerous obscurantism in our society.

The blank slate myth still thrives and persists.

Additional Sources

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

20 thoughts on “Gender Trouble: Gender Feminism and the Blank Slate

  1. 1) [“When culture makes the difference between male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine what is trying is that their individuals deal better with the energies and tensions usually associated to these basic types of bodies. ”]
    “Helping people deal with their “energies and tensions” may be an effect of binary gender; I’m not sure if this is what you meant, but you made it sound as though this is reason why we have binary gender, which can’t be right. We have two genders because it’s a simple way to categorize things.”

    Every human being has to deal with internal body tensions. These tensions are related to hormones (for example, testosterone), brain configuration and electric impulses, etc, that differ in a broad manner related to what culture call sex and gender.

    We have a binary gender because cultures, throughout history, in a mixed conscious and unconscious manner, maybe sometimes through tries and errors, usually have reached to that distinction. Why? We may think that if all, or most human societies, use that distinction it is because it is more useful than other distinctions, like to use eight sex and ten genders, for example. Or 37, like Tinder, or 56, like Facebook. Actually, if we (or Tinder, or Facebook) want to be fair, and exact, we should have one sex and one gender for each human being. Because bodies, energies, desires are always different. They maybe similar, but they are never the same. That means billions of sexes and genders. It’s absurd.

    2) “Now, if we want gender to help people deal with the reality of their bodies, I fail to see that loosening the binary would hurt. If my friend wants to be called “they”, how is that supposed to make it harder for me (or any other cis-man) to identify as “he”?”

    Anyone can speak the way they want. You may say “they”, “he”, “Orr4d5” or “56*4_ts”. Personally, I don’t care. If you live in a society, there may be some ways of speaking that are more useful than others. That is the question.

    When you see that human societies, in very different places, have used primarily he and she or something similar, you think that this has been useful. May be now is not useful anymore, maybe it is per se wrong. Is it good to test different ways? Absolutely yes. But also to be careful. Because, given the facts, for me it seems more likely that these categorization.

    Maybe this should be tried in certain communities, and see how it works. Respect should be paid to anyone. But pretending that an experiment is the right thing for the whole society when that experiment has been made just from some years ago, and actually I think it is failing, it means that to try to impose that as a truth is wrong. At least, for me. For example, I think it is very dangerous to make these kind of experiments with children, as someone said in a previous comment. I wouldn’t do them, even if it is interesting for culture. Why? Because you are dealing with another human being. Do the experiments with yourself.

    3) [“Besides, to make a strong cultural distinction between these 2 sexes (one with sperm, the other becomes mother) tries to promote reproduction, that is, the survival of the homo sapiens sapiens.”]
    “This is pure speculation. It’s plausible, maybe, but is there any no evidence to suggest you’re wrong or right?”

    Societies with stronger cultural sexual difference markers usually have higher fertility or birth rates. I think this is also what history teaches us. All human societies have make that difference. And I think this is due to the fact that survival was always threatened (poor medicine, high mortality, wars, natural disasters,…) Why? Because human beings are mostly born so far from a certain specific interaction between two groups of bodies.

    That means that if a certain culture promotes:
    – the difference between those 2 kind of bodies (heterosexuality) (respecting others);
    – the difference to have that certain interaction (which cultures throughout the world have tagged usually as active and passive) (respecting others);
    – the desire to have interaction in that way (respecting others);
    – as well as the cultural promoted desire to have children, to raise a family, etc. (respecting others)
    that culture, that society, will have a higher fertility rate than one that promotes fluidity of genders and sexes, or homosexuality, or other ways of sexual interaction or desires.

    That does not mean that these cultures that promote heterosexuality have to forbid or diminish the rights of other kind of bodies or genders, other ways of sexual interaction, etc. But that culture/society has to assure somehow ―through its texts, especially the ones that deal with desires, like myths, religions or arts― that, males and females (again, a construct) make sex in a certain way (penetration, ejaculation, active/passive position), at least a significant percentage of times. Otherwise, fertility, births, will go down.

    I believe nowadays we are still coasting on the strong cultural sexual differences our societies had not long ago. We have been brought up in societies that promotes 2 sexes, 2 genders, etc. But, as all this has been constructed, we may lose it, and, with it, we will have lower fertility rates, which means basically not survival of these societies, at least by themselves.

    4) “And why is promoting reproduction supposed to be a good thing? Low birth rates are not a current threat: even if binary gender does promote reproduction, this is a “solution” to a non-problem. If anything, the world is over-populated; we probably should reduce birth rates.”

    If a society does not reproduce itself, it will disappear, it will become extinct. Low birth rates are a current threat directly and indirectly. Directly: actually, when a certain group of animals, a pride of lions, for example are not reproducing, you may think that they have some kind of illness. I agree that planet Earth risks overpopulation, and that it should be studied how to face that risk.

    But nevertheless, I still think that right now very low birth rates in many societies are not due to that, because actually those societies are “importing” population from countries with higher birth rates. Having said this, I also think that the cause of lower fertility/birth rates, the “illness”, it is not only due to categorization, though I do think it may have a strong correlation with it. Why? Because categorization is usually related to the articulation of desire of the individuals of a society. And desire is related to having or not having sex, children, relations that promote fertility,….

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html
    A picture is not important; what should be seen is the tendency.

    5) “Some people feel that strict, binary gender harms their ability to deal with their bodies’ energy and tensions. For these people, binary gender is not helping. So, we have clear evidence that loosening the gender binary will help some people. What evidence do we have that this might harm anyone? Your arguments supporting a strict binary are speculative at best.”

    All bodies (with tensions, energies,…) are different. That means that if you want to be exact and fair, there will be as many genders and sexes as human beings. You won’t be able to recognize yourself strictly in any category. We are all different. I think that binary has proven to be a very good approach to categorization of bodies and body energies in order for societies to survive. It is not by chance that it has been used in all or most of societies. And this does not mean not to respect or to apply laws against bodies/genders/desires that differ from binary (which, as I say, none of them are the same).

    Culture, civilization, means discontent. Not only regarding sex and gender categorization. But any other kind of categorization. Isn’t it better to learn to deal with some miscategorization, with some unhappiness, using categories that, as well as being operational, serve to the whole society, especially sex and gender, which, as I think, are conditioning survival, instead of creating a sex and gender for each one, that is not operational?

    I think that that kind of attempt, though interesting, it is proving to be risky for our Western culture. Also because other cultures are not making that mistake. I also think that this is the result of a tendency to erase father figure (God, from a materialistic point of view, God is dead), patriarchy ―Nietzsche didn’t say “God does not exist”, but “God is dead”, which means that he was alive, but he died. This leads to the eruption of mother nature goddesses, tendency to matriarchy.

    It is the struggle between Nature (reality as it is: chaotic, meaningless, not made for humans or any other thing on Earth, it just is), versus Culture (the attempt to make sense, to categorize, and, thus simplify reality trying to make it meaningful, to make sense for human individual and social lives, so that we feel that our lives are worthy to live). Since the Enlightment ―Sade/Rousseau/Nietzsche/Foucault/etc―, Nature has been privileged. We are now facing the results. Which is good. But we have to face them. Because they may be threatening.

    6) “If we want gender to help people deal with their bodies, shouldn’t we respect the wishes of those who live more comfortably outside the binary?”

    If we want to use gender and sex categories to deal with body energies, tensions, and desires, and there are two pretty good similar type of bodies, shared by the majority of the individuals of a society,
    and they are related to species reproduction, and, thus, survival,
    and this binary categorization has been tested and used principally by all known human societies,
    isn’t it better that this culture and society promotes that 2 sexes and genders,
    instead of trying to impose a, in fact, eventually, billions of sexes and genders, which is not only absurd but plainly delirious, a symptom of a psychotic social tendency (and psychotics usually don’t have children)?

    (I apologize for maybe not being able to be more synthetic. This is a complex matter, answers are attempts to deal with it, and English is not my native language)

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