Is Gender A Social Construct? A Deeper Dive
In this debate, we are often actually talking past each other.
Today, I want to go deeper into the debate over whether gender is a social construct. As my regular audience would know, I am very firm about my belief that gender is not a social construct. However, I think one thing we should all acknowledge is that, in this debate, we are often actually talking past each other.
For example, those who say that gender is a social construct tend to focus on things like gender stereotypes, rigid gender roles and social expectations, and I can definitely agree that these are social constructs that limit the freedom of individuals. I certainly have nothing against attempts to liberate us from these shackles.
On the other hand, when people like myself talk about gender being biological, we tend to refer to things like gender identity, natural inclinations in the way we relate to people, especially in romantic relationships, and bodily dysphoria in trans people. Based on objective observation, these things are extremely unlikely to be due to social construction. Many trans individuals (including myself) are firm in our gender identity from a young age, before we even understand social gender relations. Bodily gender dysphoria is also clearly not due to any external social construct. Furthermore, the way individuals relate in romantic relationships is likely a part of their sexual orientation, which we generally agree is inborn and not a social construct. It is also very likely to have a neurological or biological basis, based on evolutionary logic. Those who insist that gender is a social construct tend not to pay much attention to these things.
As some have pointed out, if we clarify what we mean exactly when we refer to ‘gender’, the scope of the conflict between the two sides of the debate is definitely much reduced. And I agree that clarifying definitions and using more precise language would go a long way towards ‘resolving’ the debate. However, in the purest form of the social constructionist view, as advocated by many radical feminists, all of ‘gender’, i.e. all differences between men and women that are not physically observable, is socially constructed. This doctrine leaves absolutely no room at all for the aforementioned biological concept of gender. Indeed, the gender critical feminist attitude towards trans people is rooted in this doctrine. Under this doctrine, trans people must be invalid, because there aren’t any possible reasons for an innate gender identity that does not match the physical. Therefore, this radical, absolute version of social constructionism is totally incompatible with any biological concept of gender, and also doesn’t leave any room for a biological account of trans people.
Of course, not everyone who leans towards seeing gender as a social construct sees it in this absolute way. I guess there’s a strong parallel with the nature vs nurture debate. In that debate, I usually lean strongly towards nature, but I guess most of us could agree that it’s not 100% nature or 100% nurture, but somewhere in between. Similarly, I guess most of us could agree that gender, referring to the total picture of the differences between men and women that are not physical, is at least not totally socially constructed. As long as we can agree on this, there is still plenty of common ground, and plenty of room for a biological model to explain trans identity.
Finally, I wish to explore an argument I sometimes encounter in this debate: that gender is, ‘by definition’, a social construct, and to argue against it is stupid or something like that. Some parts of academia have actually come to define gender as a social construct. The problem I have with this is, it’s all a matter of language to some extent. You can’t ‘define’ reality, like you can’t define the Earth to be flat, for example. But you can always define language.
By ‘defining’ gender as a social construct, you would essentially be limiting the concept of gender to the social expectations and stereotypes stuff, and leaving out most things relevant to trans people, for example. If I were conversing with someone from a field of study that defined gender this way, and we were discussing work from that field of study, I guess we could use the word this way, in this particular context. However, we would still need to be mindful that the way ‘gender’ is used in this context would not cover the whole range of what ‘gender’ means in the wider world, and would certainly not cover the way ‘gender’ is understood in the biological concept of trans identity, for example.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.