In a world of aggressive wars of territorial annexation by autocratic powers, pandemics, threats of nuclear annihilation, anthropogenic climate change, crimes against humanity, and widespread poverty and inequality, modern pundits and scholars in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy to issues of gender and sexual identity. For present purposes, I do not take issue with the geopolitical and moral prioritisation that such preoccupation would seem to imply, though one certainly could and perhaps should.
However, if we are to expend so much effort on this topic, we should at least be clear and rigorous in how we think about it. In what follows, I will avoid taking a position on exactly which approach to these issues—or which “answers” to the puzzles of gender identity—I find compelling. I will, however, try to spell out a typology of identity “paradigms,” each of which represents a competing way to think about what gender and sexual identity are, how they arise, and what their conceptual limitations and implications seem to be. This effort at conceptual clarification is intended to help us more intelligibly navigate a discourse environment that has in recent years become worryingly polarised, conceptually muddy, and more prone to vicious invective than open-mindedness, genuine toleration of divergent opinion, clarity, and honesty.
There are at least four basic ways of thinking about sex and gender. In practice, many people conflate these four paradigms, or draw upon them in undisciplined and confusing “mix-and-match” sorts of ways. But each is very different.
1. Traditional view
In this conception, “sex” is thought to result from human biology and occur in a bimodal (“male” versus “female”) distribution, except for very specific and extremely rare genetic and phenotypic anomalies. In this conception, “gender” isn’t quite the same thing as sex, since the roles, responsibilities, and privileges associated with being of one sex or the other are, at least to some extent, socially constructed and may therefore vary from one culture or context to the next. Nevertheless, gender identities and roles are assumed in some significant way to track biological sex and have some roots therein.
While there may be some flexibility associated with gender in terms of self-identity or in how one is treated by others, identity in terms of sex is treated as an objective fact dictated by the sexual dimorphism of the human species. And because this is considered an objective fact, if you deny it, you are seen as either a fool or a knave. (Specifically, this view sees you as a “denier,” whose unreasoned politics have turned you against what science has made abundantly clear.) In this view, an adult person with a penis and XY chromosomes who “presents” according to traditional stereotypes about gender attributes associated with being a woman, and uses “she/her” pronouns, remains a man in a frock, irrespective of his subjective self-identity, and even if people treat him as if he were a woman.
Of course, there is some conceptual and terminological fuzziness associated with the evolving contingencies of real-world usage, in comparison, say, to the (ostensibly) crisp and clear rigor of academic discourse. The terms “male” and “female” attempt to be scientific terms, applied to any sexually dimorphic species, and are associated with possessing the basic equipment related to the production of respective gametes. Nonetheless, the traditional view struggles, at least a bit, with the fact that Homo sapiens doesn’t always come in just two biological varieties.
The existence of genetic exceptions is sometimes rhetorically overplayed by opponents of the traditional view, for these anomalies are extremely rare, and arguably don’t disprove the basic contention of dimorphism. (Such anomalies also occasionally occur in other species, after all, without anyone finding dimorphism incoherent as a meaningful and scientifically useful organising concept for the biologist or naturalist. Nor does the existence of the very rare anomaly in any way imply that sexual phenotypes are evenly distributed by degrees along a continuum; they aren’t, for any species.) Still, this remains a point of contention.
The traditional view is complicated by the frequent use of other terms that sometimes confuse more than they illuminate. As applied to humans, the traditional view is usually comfortable substituting “man” and “woman” for “male” and “female,” respectively, but in practice these terms are more ambiguous. And most of the time, “man” and “woman” do seem to be less clunky ways to describe people who are male and female, respectively. Sometimes, however, the former terms are used in ways that carry connotations of gender identity and role, which can confuse things somewhat by conflating what should be kept separate if one can.
Phrases, for example, like “Be a man!” or “Man up!” convey something of society’s expectations about gender roles and gendered behaviours that do not necessarily map onto the facts and requirements of biology. This is a conceptual failing. (You presumably wouldn’t exhort someone to “Be a male!” because that’s not something one does, but rather something one just is or isn’t. By contrast, the terms “masculine” and “feminine” are clearly associated with specific gendered expectations about how it is that males and females should behave, and are thus less at risk of being confused with biological categories.)
Given the degree to which the traditional view depends upon the idea that biological sex exists to some degree prior to individual human or societal volition, moreover, this paradigm struggles to identify and explain the boundaries and relationships between biological “nature” and more “nurture”-type factors of social construction, individual choice, particularistic circumstances, and other such contingencies. It clearly feels that at least something is the result of “nature” and therefore inherent and objective, but it can be hard to identify precisely what.
It is well accepted, for example, that the differing sexes in non-human dimorphic species often show very pronounced, presumably evolved, behavioural divergences. (This is, one imagines, primarily a result of their dimorphic biology, since it is very hard to point to any meaningful quotient of potential social construction or conscious volition in all such divergently-behaving species.) Does this apply to humans at well? The traditional view tends to think that it does, since otherwise one would have to explain why humans are unique in the animal world in not having actual evolutionarily derived behaviors to accompany our sexually differing bodily morphologies.
But if there are indeed some behaviours, or at least behavioural tendencies, that result from evolution and biology, what are they? How much of what we take for granted in the world of human sexual and gendered behavior can be traced to “inherent” biology and how much to more contingent things? And even for what might be said to be “natural,” what is the moral and societal import, if any, of this naturalness from the perspective of ethics, politics, and social behavior? (It might be “natural,” for example, to want to take a cudgel to someone who has said something that infuriates you, but that doesn’t mean you should be permitted to do so!) Such questions have huge implications for our understanding of sexual and gender identity, of course. Yet our scientific understanding of evolution and biology and ourselves isn’t (yet) up to offering many compelling answers in the kind of detail likely to be very useful in the political and social arena.
There is nothing logically self-contradictory about invoking the authority of science to suggest the existence of sex- and gender-related inherencies that need (somehow!) to be taken into account in public policy and gender politics. When that science still has difficulty pointing to exactly what these inherencies are and what “proportion” of traditional gendered assumptions they do (or don’t) explain, however, it is not hard to see how the stage is set in today’s polarised environment for frustration, contestation, and the suspicion in some activist quarters that scientific objectivity might be providing unjustified cover for patriarchal traditionalism.
2. Social construction
Alternatively, one might hold that all aspects of sex- and gender-related identity are purely social constructions. This wouldn’t necessarily erase the facts of biology and science, but it would consign them to irrelevance for identity-constitution purposes. And indeed, the conception of social construction would be a powerful weapon against the traditional notion of sex and gender identities rooted in the undeniable objective facts of dimorphic human biology.
All that matters in this view is how society builds identities, and there aren’t really any inherent constraints upon how that identity can be constructed. If you adopt this approach, therefore, it might well be that either “people who menstruate” or “people with penises” could truly be either women or men, irrespective of those particular biological attributes. Such thinking could potentially also ground the legitimacy of the proliferating alphabet soup (e.g., LGBTQIA+) of various alternative sex- or gender-related identities that do not correspond to traditional dichotomies at all.
But there are limitations to this conception, for it is inherent in the idea of social construction that identity is, well, socially constructed. This precludes it from being individually constructed. If such identities are social constructs, the specific personal, subjective feelings of the individual are actually not terribly important. This isn’t to say that they are entirely irrelevant, but they only matter as one single input from one single member of the far larger group (society as a whole) that actually “makes” such decisions.
If you really take the idea of social construction seriously, therefore, a gender “transition” hasn’t actually occurred unless and until the broader society accepts that it has occurred. In this view, in other words, the aforementioned “man in a frock” can indeed truly be a woman, but only after, and as a result of, the broader society having accepted that this is the case. Until then, in terms of the social reality of the situation, it doesn’t particularly matter what the individual thinks or feels. By definition, you don’t get to “socially construct” something all by yourself.
3. Internal essentialism
A third view might posit that there is something inherent about sexual and gender identity—that it is a kind of internal essence that exists entirely independent of the particular, contingent biological facts of your existence. In this view, you could be truly a man or a woman (or conceivably something else) irrespective of what biology you happen to have.
This view has some strengths in today’s gender politics debates. It might, for example, provide an explanation for gender dysphoria and accommodate the idea that someone has been “born into the wrong body” in ways that support the use of surgical interventions to make the physical self correspond more closely to the “real” one determined by that internal essence.
This essentialist view also partakes of the compelling claim to objective fact, without any awkward need to depend upon constructivist social acceptance by third parties. If it is objectively true that you have such an essence, after all, I would presumably be quite wrong to deny it. It is intrinsic to the idea of objective facts that they can be claimed to trump contrary opinion, which delegitimises itself precisely to the degree that a fact in question is objectively clear.
There are conceptual limits to this idea as well, however. For a start, it raises all sorts of questions about what it means to hypothesise an inherent essence that is, by definition, entirely independent of the facts of biology and the contingent circumstances of birth, upbringing, and experience. On what basis, if not biology, could this essence be said to exist? Does one need to hypothesise a kind of “sexual soul” existing separately from the biological body?
And by what means might such a soul-like thing affect that body, or matter to it at all? This is a “mind-body dualism” problem of the sort that Western philosophy has struggled with since at least Descartes. There is no sign of it being solved by those in the trans activism community who seem to believe in such an essentialist approach. (Nor, I might add, has Cartesian dualism fared well in philosophical circles. I wouldn’t consider such a position a terribly strong foundation to build upon these days.)
Another problem with the idea of an inherent essence that determines gender identity is the degree to which gender identity is itself strongly tied to cultural contingency. What does it mean to say that an essence is truly “inherent” in a soul-like way when it compels you to conform your behavior to the actual, contingent gender roles and expectations of a specific society (e.g., culturally-specific indicia of the social presentation appropriate for a “woman”)? An inherent inner essence driving gendered behaviors that vary by culture and geography, and over time, is a strange sort of thing indeed, verging on incoherence. How could a “self” that is, in Michael Sandel’s term, so clearly “situated” in real-world contingency truly be said to be inherent in a meaningful way?
Moreover, this view has difficulty with change. If you take essentialism seriously, for example, it can be challenging to explain changes in identity. Errors would not necessarily be a problem, for there is nothing self-contradictory about simply being mistaken about an objective fact, and this could explain some changes in any individual gender-identity trajectory. (“I was conditioned to believe I was a woman, but I was never comfortable with myself and now see that I was really a man all along.”)
Nonetheless, if you open the door to potential errors by admitting that one’s internal and essential identity is not always completely clear or obvious even to oneself, then it is at least possible that one could be conditioned or mistaken in essentially any given direction or respect. And this makes it harder for the trans activist community to rule out, a priori, the legitimacy of “de-transition,” or of contested “social contagion” theories of gender transition, under which enthusiasm for gender-switching may to some degree result from social-media influence and cultural pressure rather than from the compelling power of one’s true internal “self.” If you can be socially pressured to ignore or confuse your true nature in one direction, after all, why is it impossible to be pressured in the other direction?
The essentialist paradigm has even more problems with any suggestion that there is an element of choice in sex- or gender-related identity. Surely, if one’s identity is in these regards “baked in” to one’s self in ways more fundamental even than the biological realities of one’s existence, this is not terrain on which you can “reassign” yourself in any defensible way. You might choose to act differently, perhaps, but it is hard to see how that could possibly alter the intrinsic, soul-like essence upon which this paradigm is based. You can’t, in other words, intelligibly take the essentialist position and accept the malleability of identity at the same time.
The fourth fundamental conceptual model for how one might think about these sorts of identity is personal choice. There is a sort of libertarian logic to this approach, inasmuch as it leaves the determination of “what” one is to the individual. This conception is inherently much more flexible than the others, for it does not need to demonstrate the existence of any sort of objectively pre-social “fact” (e.g., in the form of biological identity or of some quasi-religiously postulated “sexual soul”) and it can also easily accommodate dynamics of change.
A downside of the “choice” paradigm, however, is that it is perhaps too flexible. Does this ability to assign oneself identity admit to any limits at all? Is there anything that one could not declare oneself to be? For example, might one at least conclude that you cannot legitimately declare yourself to be a man and a woman at the same time? Even if there is at least this limitation on one’s choice, however, wouldn’t ruling out such contradictions require the prior existence of some definitions or categories of identity real enough to allow us to understand whether or not there is a contradiction at all?
And if the definitions of various potential categories of identity are fundamentally no more than hostages to individual caprice, how is it meaningful to talk about such identities as important at all? It is hard to see how such airy fogginess could justify investing the kind of psychic and moral energy in gender issues that one sees in contemporary Western society, or justify prizing such self-identities over the presumably huge range of other potentially transitory and ephemeral ones that a human being could have at any given time. (Surely it must be presumed that gender issues are the focus of so much attention because they are deeply important? If that depth cannot be justified, we have all been wasting a great deal of time.)
Of the four basic paradigms, the “choice” approach is also arguably the most belligerent in what it demands of others. One of the benefits of an objective fact, after all, is that one can legitimately demand that others agree upon its existence. As noted earlier, if you reject something that is objectively true, you are either a fool or a knave. Even through a social constructivist prism, moreover, there is at least some degree of objectively defensible fact involved in the assignment of identity, for socially constructed things can be said to exist objectively, depending on whether or not the broader society accepts or does not accept a given proposition. With its infinitely malleable and subjective identities, however, the “choice” paradigm forfeits being able to point to anything external for validation. My identity is simply what I say it is, and that’s that.
Yet in this context, the “choice” paradigm does not posit merely that my true identity is whatever I feel it to be. These four competing approaches to gender and sexual identity are not codes of conduct or good manners regarding how politely to manage disagreements about the truth of such identity; they are ontological claims, about what the basis and nature of such identity actually is. So the “choice” paradigm is laissez-faire only with regard to my own individual feelings.
With regard to what other people are expected—and indeed required—to accept about my identity, it is totalitarian. I may be able to assign myself any identity I wish, but you must also be compelled to accept that whatever I have articulated is indeed what I truly am. For that matter, you are required to continue agreeing with me, whenever and however I change my self-description. For you to do otherwise would be to “erase” my identity, which in an age (and for a paradigm) of radical individuality is one of the worst sins imaginable.
This “choice” paradigm of identity, in other words, claims for any given identity the compelling character of an objective fact, in that it makes demands upon others that they accept that description of identity, on pain of being considered either a knave or a fool if they do not. But the “fact” it invokes isn’t objective but rather, by definition, a subjective claim. Indeed, it is a “fact” of identity that is impossible for anyone else to discern or substantiate except by some authoritative pronouncement from the individual feeling it. It is also one that is potentially changeable at an individual’s caprice. Nevertheless, despite the opacity and malleability of such a subjectively-chosen identity, it is quite essential to the paradigm that everyone be made at all times to agree with my description of it, whatever that may be.
Hence this paradigm’s intellectual totalitarianism. Rather than asking that others merely acknowledge the existence of an exogenous reality, this paradigm demands the right to exert real-time control over how others act, speak, and even think on the topic. And every single individual in society has the right to demand ongoing control over how every other person conceives of that individual. This seems rather a lot to ask.
Despite the “choice” paradigm’s ostensibly liberating focus upon individual choice, this approach might not in practice produce much in the way of real personal freedom. To the contrary, one’s own ability to choose an identity would be counterbalanced by perpetual enslavement to having always to accept and performatively validate everyone else’s conception of their own identity in every respect, on an ongoing basis, forever.
Where does this leave us?
Much of the contemporary rhetoric in the trans activist community is conceptually confused because it draws indiscriminately and in self-contradictory ways upon all three of the non-traditional conceptual paradigms outlined above. I would imagine that this is because activists understandably would like, if they can, to take advantage of the differing strengths of each of the three non-traditional paradigms.
- To avoid the inconvenience of having to understand and account for the influence of biology, sexual and gender identity is described as being socially constructed.
- To take advantage of the conceptual strength of an argument that demands fidelity to purportedly objective facts, the very objective truth of which permits you to depict any denier as either stupid or malevolent, one’s gender identity is held to exist inherently, independent of circumstance, volition, or even biology. Such identity simply “is” and must be acknowledged as a clear and incontestable reality.
- To avoid gender roles being seen as a lifelong straightjacket and to free up some space for individual volition, it is also said that once you come to realise that your prior understanding of your own identity was wrong, or that you now simply feel differently about it, you should be free to choose another, and that this new identity must now be considered your true self.
Each of these assertions has a basis that is defensible at least on the terms of one or another of the non-traditional paradigms I have discussed. But the cost of them being employed so opportunistically and selectively is incoherence. Simply put, those assertions cannot all be true at the same time, and each tends to undermine the other.
If gender identity is socially constructed, for example, it is neither inherent nor something that you can decide to change all on your own. But if it is inherent, then it cannot be socially constructed, and one is basically substituting a purportedly objectively extant quasi-religious “sexual soul” for the purportedly objectively extant biological reality of sex, which also means you cannot really explain identity change. And if these matters really hinge only on the potentially contingent ephemera of personal choice, you diminish your ability to fight off the objective reality of science (because you are no longer invoking, against the traditional view, what claims to be a countervailing objective reality). At the same time, you risk having your whole schema collapse into a formlessly whimsical free-for-all in which it’s hard to see why these matters are important enough to justify our time and attention in the first place, especially in a world so full of dramatic, concrete, and definable wrongs in need of righting.
This leaves the Western policy, political, and ethical community in dire need of rigor and the associated intellectual honesty and civil tolerance needed to explore these issues with real seriousness. We must have the courage to interrogate their assumptions and abandon lines of thought that cannot be intelligibly defended.