Gender, Sex, and Language

We’re in the middle of a culture war, and it’s getting pretty ugly. One frequent battle revolves around “sex” and “gender”. For example: is Caitlyn Jenner a man or a woman? One side of the battle shouts, “Of course he’s a man! He’s just denying reality!” Another side shouts, “Of course she’s a woman! If you insist on calling her a man, you’re just a bigot!” These disagreements have only become louder and more impassioned – especially as more people identify themselves as “trans-gender”, “trans-racial”, “trans-abled”, or even “trans-species”.

From my own examination, I think both sides are mistaken. The war isn’t between “delusion” on one side and “bigotry” on the other. I think it’s about language. In fact, I think by being careful about our language, we can peacefully resolve most of the disagreements.

The Trouble

Imagine the following dialogue between some guy named Joe and his neighbor.

Joe: “I am blue.”

Neighbor: “What? No you aren’t.”

Joe: “Yes I am. I’m telling you I’m blue.”

Neighbor: “Well, it doesn’t matter what you’re telling me. You are certainly not blue.”

Joe: “I think I would know. How can you deny my experience of being blue?”

Neighbor: “If you think you’re experiencing being blue, you are deluded. Just factually speaking, you aren’t blue. It doesn’t really matter what you say.”

Joe: “Well I know that I’m blue, and it makes you kind of an asshole for not accepting what I’m telling you about my internal experience.”

Neighbor: “Your internal experience is wrong. I don’t care if you think I’m an asshole. You aren’t blue.”

Who’s right, and who’s wrong? The answer is, of course, it depends on what they mean by “blue”. If they mean different things, then their disagreement is kind of a waste of time. When Joe says, “I am blue”, he’s referencing his own internal experience of feeling “melancholy” or “down”. When his neighbor says, “You are not blue”, he’s referencing his physical color. His skin color is simply not blue; it doesn’t matter how strongly Joe disagrees. How silly they would feel if they realized they were talking past each other. Joe is certainly not physically blue, but he might certainly be mentally blue.

I think this is the precise error committed by both sides of the “gender” and “sex” debates. They are talking past each other. Each side is right when they use their own definitions. Each side is wrong when they use their opponent’s definition.

So, is Caitlyn Jenner a man or a woman? The answer is clear: it depends on what we mean by “man” and “woman”. If our definitions are imprecise or ambiguous, we’re guaranteed to generate confusion and passionate disagreement.

Two Camps

I see the linguistic divide between two groups: what I call “traditionalists” on one hand, and the “progressives” on the other. Traditionalists think that words should mean what they’ve always meant – the terms “male” and “female”, for example, are used to reference objective biological facts (i.e. genitalia, body composition, and genetics) – that’s the way it’s always been, therefore that’s what the terms should mean.

Progressives, on the other hand, are more flexible. They think that words can – and sometimes should – change meaning. For example, just because “marriage” has been used one way throughout history doesn’t mean that’s a good thing – and in fact, how we define our words can greatly affect people’s life experiences. To the progressive, traditionalists are far too rigid, and they overlook the social consequences of labeling “marriage”, “race”, or “gender” one particular way. Calling somebody “a man” isn’t merely referencing their biology; it’s putting implicit social constraints on that person.

This distinction is central to the disagreement: the difference between objective, external biological facts and subjective, internal psychological feeling. The traditionalists are referencing objective facts when they categorize somebody as “male” or “female”; the progressives are referring to internal feeling. Neither is right or wrong – no different than our example of Joe, who insists he is blue because that’s how he feels.

Facts First

The first step in clearing up the confusion is to lay out a set of facts that all parties would probably agree to. In no particular order:

I. Biological facts are objective. You are what you are. If you are a biological male, merely labeling yourself as “a biological female” does not change objective reality.

II. The categories of “biological male/female” are not binary absolutes. Some people are intersex – meaning their objective biology is neither male nor female.

III. Societies across the globe have constructed expectations for behavior based on biology – men are associated with “masculinity”, and women are associated with “femininity”. We can call those expectations “gender roles”.

IV. Some people do not fit into traditional gender roles; some biological men are very feminine, and some biological women are very masculine. Those individuals often face social condemnation because of this.

V. The categories of “masculine/feminine” are not binary absolutes. Everybody has a blend of masculine and feminine characteristics.

I think nearly everybody would agree with these statements. However, what leads to so much confusion is what particular words people use to reference this difference between the objective and subjective.

Gender, Sex, and Identity

It makes perfect sense to have two words. “Sex” is a biological construction. “Gender” is a social construction. Your sex is objective; your gender is subjective. You are inescapably born into your sex; you are socially boxed into your gender.

The progressives have a point: it doesn’t make sense to force somebody into a gender role just because they were born as a particular sex.

The traditionalists have a point: it’s useful to make distinctions between the sexes for navigating life – biological men and women should probably not use the same locker rooms.

Plus, I think most people would agree with the following: gender roles are accurate approximations of human behavior. It’s true to say that, “Your average woman is more feminine than your average man.” And vice-versa.

Furthermore, masculinity and femininity have their respective strengths and weaknesses. Macho men are better suited for fighting off invading barbarians. Feminine women are better suited for nurturing children. So what’s the problem? As far as I can tell: language.

Take an example of a feminine man. He has objectively male biology – he’s got male genitals, a Y chromosome, high levels of testosterone, and a high muscle-to-fat ratio. But mentally, he has traditionally feminine characteristics – he’s gentle, empathetic, and sensitive. He might say, quite accurately, “I self-identify as a female”, or “My mindset is more feminine than masculine.”

Now, if we’re precise, and specify, “Though I self-identify as a female, that doesn’t mean I am objectively a female”, I don’t think any traditionalist would object. It’s no different than saying, “I am a man who thinks like a woman.”

But here’s the problem: progressives insist on using language in a particular way. They want everybody to be able to say freely and uncontroversially, “I am a female”, regardless of their objective sex. They want the terms “male” and “female” to remain flexible – sometimes it references sex, and sometimes it references gender. This is precisely the problem.

Historically speaking, the terms “male” and “female” have been used to reference objective sex. The terms “masculine” and “feminine” have been used to reference subjective dispositions. Therefore, I think the progressives are fighting a losing battle against language. I understand the reason – they don’t like the additional social constraints that are placed upon people when they are biologically-identified. But I don’t think a helpful solution is to try to change language.

Here’s my honest question that I hope somebody will answer for me, because I do not understand: what is the difference between somebody saying, “I am a man who thinks like a female” and “I am a female”? The former seems uncontroversial, and it explicitly references somebody’s internal mindset. The latter seems to cause the controversy, and it ambiguously references sex or gender. So what is the purpose of insisting on using “male/female” language to talk about masculinity/femininity?

What About the Brain?

A more recent argument from the progressives goes like this: gender comes from the brain structure of the individual. Certain parts of the brain are structured differently whether one is biologically male or biologically female. With trans-gender people, we see a peculiarity: their brain structure more closely resembles the brain structure of the opposite sex. So, men who self-identify as women have brains that look objectively closer to women’s’ brains. This, the argument goes, is what we actually mean when we use male/female language – the physical characteristics of the brain.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all their claims are true about brain structure. That still doesn’t resolve the problem. The conflation between objective and subjective still remains. We simply need to examine our language.

What does it mean to say, “I have a female brain”? Well, we have two answers, depending on what we mean by “female” – the objective “sex” meaning, or the subjective “gender” meaning.

If we’re talking about objective biology, we would say that “I have a female brain” means “Biological women have certain physical traits in their brain. I also have those traits.” But notice: that doesn’t mean “Therefore, I am a women”. Brain structure does not change genitalia, body composition, or genetics – which is what the term “sex” references.

If we’re talking about subjective gender, then we would say, “I have a female brain” means “Men and women tend to think and act in different ways, and they tend to value different things. The general patterns of male thinking/acting/valuing we call ‘masculine’, and the female patterns we call ‘feminine’. My internal experience is more closely aligned with female, or ‘feminine’, patterns.” No problem.

If we keep these strong lines between “How I am objectively”, and “How I feel subjectively”, I think the confusion and disagreements go away. Also note: differences in brain structure should be expected to correlate with differences in thought patterns. Brain and mind are strongly linked. But somebody’s brain structure does not determine their “sex”. It might determine their gender – how they self-identify or view themselves in society – but not their objective biological features.

What about the stickler, who says, “’Gender’ is exactly identical with brain structure. The terms ‘male/female’ reference specific, objective parts of the brain.”

This, too, is a losing battle. First of all, it’s another fight against language. The terms “male” and “female” have never been used to reference parts of somebody’s brain. Second, it overlooks the whole reason we make a distinction between “sex” and “gender” – namely, to reference one’s own internal experience versus outside biology. Which runs into the third problem: trans-gendered individuals! Those people who are biologically male, whose brain-structure is male, and yet self-identify as female. If “gender” is “brain-structure”, then these people are an impossibility.

Of course, the confusion resolves itself again when you differentiate between “subjective gender” and “objective biology”. With this distinction, the biological male who has a male brain-structure, yet self-identifies as a female does not represent any conceptual challenge. There’s no confusion. Transgendered people simply identify more closely with the opposite sex’s gender.

Tolerance and Ignorance

Once we’ve clarified our language, we can start addressing the social concerns of the traditionalists and progressives. There’s a huge difference between, “What is the metaphysical status of a transgendered person?” versus, “How should people view or treat transgendered people in society?”

Here’s my resolution to any tension:

I. You are how you are.

II. Other people are how they are.

III. People should be how they are.

That’s another way of saying, “People are different. Who cares?” Life is too short to worry about the relationship between your neighbor’s genitals and his self-identification.

In fact, by clarifying our language surrounding sex and gender, I think we can more accurately identify two groups of people: bigots and crusaders. The bigots are people who have a serious problem with “feminine men” or “masculine women”. They think biology and gender should be forced together. Social gender roles exist for a reason, and if you break them, that’s problematic behavior to the bigot.

Crusaders are those who insist on waging a war against language. “Anybody can call themselves anything, and that’s what they are!” They often add, “And if you disagree, you’re a bigot!” Crusaders are especially popular on college campuses. They are focused on protecting people’s feelings – often to the point of explicit denials of reality. They aren’t willing to make the distinction between “objective facts” and “subjective feelings”, because they think it’s offensive to claim that “somebody can be wrong about their identity.”

From my experiences, I think the bigots and crusaders are in the minority. If we’re precise about our terminology, I don’t think most people would care about trans-genderism, and I think they’d agree that “it’s unacceptable to force people into boxes based on their biology.” Gender roles might be helpful in society, but they shouldn’t be absolute.

Furthermore, it’s true that labels are not impartial. They come with baggage – immediate associations that people make based on your label. In all but the strictest of circumstances, calling somebody “a man” implies more than just biology. “Masculinity” is inherently tied to “being a man.”  So, if a biological man doesn’t like the additional baggage of being called “a man”, and prefers the assumptions tied to being called “a woman”, then it seems reasonable to be polite and call him a woman.

If “Bradley” would prefer to be called “Chelsea” – because he prefers the social connotations of being female – then we should call him “Chelsea.” And if he’d prefer that we start referencing him as “she”, then I just don’t see the harm in it. Again, as long as we’re precise about what our words mean, and as long as we differentiate between “objective reality” and “subjective feeling”.

After all of this, it’s clearer than ever: language is a tricky and dangerous thing. If we care about critical thinking and precision, we must deeply examine our language – how words work, what they mean, and how they relate to reality. What may appear as a heated debate between “delusional progressives” on one side and “bigoted traditionalists” on the other might actually come down to a disagreement about language.