“The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak Dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they cancelled by their existence.” —George Orwell, 1984
One can’t help noticing that our society has become confused about the very concepts of sex and gender. Linguistic confusion has both caused and resulted from that. It all tends to weaken people’s ability to develop and sustain healthy sexuality, marriages, and families. That in turn undermines the very basis of civil society. But things don’t have to stay that way. It is both possible and necessary to restore good sense. In this article I shall contribute to that task mainly by focusing on the preliminary work of exposing the linguistic confusion. One cannot sort out the conceptual and philosophical confusion without doing that.
Roots of the Problem
To be sure, we must take due note of the social and ideological context. The roots of the problem lie in the dogma of sexual autonomy that is bedrock for secular progressivism, the now-dominant ideology of educated folk in the West. In the mid-20th century, a new consensus developed among them, and not just among them: Sexual activity between “consenting adults” is nobody’s business but theirs. That’s the intuition behind the so-called “right to privacy” articulated by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which struck down state laws banning the sale of contraceptives and created precedent for the reasoning of Roe v Wade (1973) about abortion.
Though only a half-truth, at least it makes a certain sort of sense. But soon the supposed right to privacy morphed into the idea that consent is the sole moral criterion for assessing sexual behavior. That’s the key premise of the so-called “sexual revolution” that kicked into high gear after the introduction of the Pill to the mass market in the mid-1960s. And that premise is simply false—as anybody who’s had to deal with broken hearts, STDs, embarrassing pregnancies, and the sex trade should know. Indeed, consent itself can often be problematic. The recent #MeToo movement has raised people’s awareness of the fact that consent is often only partial or relative: the more powerful can and do find ways to elicit it from the less powerful, even when not abusing or harassing them outright. So people are often confused about how much “consent” is really enough.
Beyond that kind of confusion, acting on the premise that consent suffices is libertinism, which has only exacerbated the ills just named. And that despite the various apparent fixes readily available: contraception, abortion, antibiotics and retroviral drugs, and of course anti-depressants. The actual increase of the problems that such anodynes supposedly solve is not hard to explain. If you think you have a backup for dealing with the consequences of wanton behavior, then even if perchance you’re not more likely so to behave than you would be without the backup, you are unlikely to curtail such behavior over time. That brings costs: sometimes covered in part by the anodynes, sometimes not. Sooner or later, one ends up having to face at least some of the natural consequences. Those are bad in themselves and often not handled well. And that’s easy to understand theologically. Original sin, whose effects we all share, “darkens the intellect” as well as weakening the will; actual sin, when habitual, tend to make people stupid. That’s a more common cause of confusion than the confused are capable of recognizing.
But the confusion runs much deeper because, over the past generation or so, the ideology of sexual autonomy has gone much further. What we are as sexual beings, not merely what we do sexually, is now taken as a matter of personal self-understanding unfettered by traditional norms or even by simple biology. Hence the “transgender” movement; the dozens of “genders” posited on social media and progressive college campuses; and of course, the appearance of laws and codes prescribing penalties for refusing to use made-up pronouns that gender self-definers want others to use for them. That’s where the confusion deepens to the point of incoherence in “gender theory.”
Origins of Linguistic Confusion
As I’ve suggested, the problem is both expressed and exacerbated by linguistic confusion. Consider the first instance of it: the term ‘homosexual’.
When that word was coined in the 19th century, it made no sense from a biological standpoint. A few would argue that it still doesn’t, even though it became firmly ensconced in both psychology and general usage. That’s because in biology, the very concept of sexuality is—or at least was—about the difference between the sexes, which exists for the sake of reproduction. Of course there have always been people who want to and do use their sexual organs for pleasure with members of the same sex as they. But to call such a disposition and activity ‘homosexual’, thereby necessitating the corresponding coinage ‘heterosexual’, insinuates that sexuality is primarily about using one’s genitals for purposes other than procreation—pleasure or “love”—not primarily about procreation itself.
If that’s what sexuality is primarily about, then there’s no good reason to believe that genital acts that are of the procreative sort are any more, well, sexual than genital acts that are not. From that point of view, what is now called ‘heteronormativity’ is indeed the empty prejudice that the gay-rights movement and gender theory would have us believe. It all started a century-and-a-half ago. In evolutionary terms as much as in terms of traditional morality, it makes little sense.
Even so, and for a few generations thereafter, standard usage of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ was quite specific, and each had its meaning clearly distinct from the other. A person’s sex was either male or female and assumed to be biologically fixed; the very small percentage of intersex and transgender people was accordingly assumed to suffer some sort of disorder (genetic in the former case, psychological in the latter). The term ‘gender’ was used almost exclusively in a grammatical context. Thus in most inflected languages, nouns and corresponding adjectives are “masculine,” “feminine,” or “neuter,” but not “male,” “female,” or “neuter.” That’s how people generally understood that sex and gender are not the same.
When, however, “sexology” emerged as discipline in the 1950s, a new use of ‘gender’ emerged in the literature with the work of Dr. John Money, a pioneer of gender theory. While the meaning of ‘sex’ remained the same for the time being, now ‘gender’ came to be used for masculine and feminine traits, behaviors, and roles (e.g., ‘gender roles’). It was duly noted that being male or female did not necessarily mean that a person conformed to any particular, corresponding gender stereotype. That opened to door to, among other things, the contention of “second-wave” feminism that the only significant natural difference between males and females consists in their primary and secondary sexual characteristics, which are purely biological. Every other difference was taken to be—as academia now puts it—”socially constructed.” Differences that cannot be reduced to biology are thus “nurture” not “nature.” And what is socially constructed, the product of nurture, can be socially deconstructed—for good or ill.
Kernels of Truth
Before I briefly chart how the project of change devolved into the linguistic and conceptual nonsense of gender theory, I note that it began with some truth. The polarities: male/female and masculine/feminine, while of course closely related to each other, are not the same. Embodying the latter physically, the former is about reproduction: more precisely, genetic contributions from two sources with correspondingly different and mutually complementary reproductive tracts. The latter consists in traits, behaviors, and roles that people ordinarily see as additional, complementary differences between the sexes—be they innate, socially constructed, or a combination of both.
In some religions and philosophies, the masculine and the feminine are even seen as mutually inhering and interdependent cosmic poles—embedded, for example, in the wider yin/yang polarity—of which là difference between the sexes is simply the instance most important to us. Traditional Christianity shares that sense of things, holding that God became a man who refers to himself as the Bridegroom and wants to marry the Bride, the Church, to become one body with her—the “Mystical Body,” to use a Catholic expression.
Human marriage, which entails the polarity of the sexes, is indeed meant to be the real, temporal symbol (the “sacrament”) of something more fundamental and eternal. If you believe that such themes are permanent aspects of divine revelation, you won’t see them as mere cultural contingencies, and thus as now-dispensable divine concessions to “the patriarchy.” So even for traditional religious believers, there’s no linguistic, philosophical, or theological reason to insist that use of the term ‘gender’ in English should have remained confined to its traditional meaning. The initial expansion of meaning wasn’t a bad thing in itself.
The setup for the real confusion was complete, however, when another linguistic change occurred in tandem with the one already described. Thus the term ‘sex’ came to denote an activity more than a static biological characteristic: People were said to ‘have sex’—a phrase that retains its original use as a bland euphemism. So once the meaning of ‘gender’ expanded as I described above, it became convenient to reserve ‘sex’ for sexual activity and use ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘sex’ in the traditional sense, to mean a static biological characteristic. In the Anglosphere, we saw that usage develop in the 1980s and 90s.
That confusion mounted exponentially at the same time is no coincidence. For one thing, when people began using the word ‘gender’ to refer to what the word ‘sex’ traditionally referred to, it became all too easy to believe that the two concepts are the same. That would be an instance of what philosophers call the ‘word-concept fallacy’. Yet we know that gender traits, behaviors, and roles are more fluid than static, biological sex.
Thus, they can wax or wane in an individual person; to a degree, they take different cultural forms; and the borderline between masculinity and femininity is blurry. Indeed, the metaphysical difference—for want of a better phrase—is identifiable as the poles of a spectrum. The content of the poles cannot be well-articulated in the discursive, technical language of science—the arts are better here—and each pole shades into the other toward the middle of the spectrum.
Leaving aside the nature/nurture issue for the moment, while it’s clear that some traits and activities are typically “masculine” and others typically “feminine,” some are neither, and a mentally healthy member of one sex can exhibit some traits, behaviors, or roles more typical of the opposite sex. Something is amiss only when a member of one sex, for whatever reasons or causes, identifies primarily with the other. The clinical phrase for that is ‘gender dysphoria’. But when the most recent linguistic evolution is combined with the general recognition of the fluidity of gender, the idea that sex is also fluid in some sense immediately suggests itself. And if sex is thought to be fluid in any sense, then one’s biological or “natal” sex, which is almost always genetically fixed, need not be thought of as one’s real sex.
Of course most people rightly believe that their natal sex is their real sex. I say ‘most people’ because about 1% of people are intersex; in some cases they can’t fairly be classified as either sex natally, so that being assigned a sex is an option that’s often hard to avoid. But as our ways of speaking have evolved alongside the dogma of sexual autonomy, there’s every social inducement to believe that everybody’s sex is primarily a matter of subjective definition. So if a biologically male person feels impelled to define his sex as male, that’s fine, but if such a person feels impelled to define his sex as female, that’s fine too.
Health insurers or the government will even, in many cases, pay for the surgery and drugs needed to make such a man as much like a woman as possible—because nothing must inhibit the exercise of the inherent right of self-definition, as outlined by what the late Justice Scalia scathingly called the “sweet-mystery-of-life passage” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). In many circles, we are now expected to accept such self-definitions on pain of social disapproval at the very least and legal sanction at worst. Those who decline to call a ‘he’ a ‘she’, or vice-versa, reveal themselves as bigots. And let’s not even get into the made-up pronouns coined and preferred by some whose sexual self-identification is more ambiguous than that.
Sexual Alphabet Soup
Adding further to the confusion is the rather new and unfortunately serious idea that there are many “genders.” The reasoning, such as it is, goes roughly as follows.
Thanks to the “gay-rights movement,” it is generally accepted that one’s “sexual orientation” is beyond one’s control. (Judging from my own observations and others’ testimony, that is often but not always true.) As such, it is thought to be part of one’s personal identity, and any attempt to change it is a form of violence to that identity even if the attempt succeeded, which it probably wouldn’t. For practical and moral purposes, therefore, one’s sexual orientation is an immutable “given.” That allows sexual orientation to be thought of as being what one’s sex used to be thought of as being—and thus as fulfilling essentially the same role.
One’s sexual identity, now commonly referred to as one’s “gender identity” or simply as one’s “gender,” is an inalienable feature of one’s personal identity—only it’s determined not by one’s natal sex but by one’s sexual orientation, no matter how “queer” or polymorphous that may be. And of course one’s “gender” bears only a contingent relationship to one’s natal sex, which one may or may not be inclined to change, depending on what gender traits, behaviors, or roles one feels drawn to.
That rather gnostic view accounts for what I call the Sexual Alphabet Soup. I lost track of the letters after ‘LGBTQ’, but the exact number of letters taken to denote sexual orientations, and thus genders, is of no intrinsic importance. What’s important in the new dispensation is that people be “affirmed” and “included” as whatever they deem themselves to be, no matter how outlandish it might seem to the rest of us. That is the central prescription stemming from the dogma of sexual autonomy.
That is why “heteronormativity” is classed as a sin in the secular-progressive catechism, and why even “cis-normativity” is working its way toward that status too. Last time I counted, Facebook offered 57 different “genders” as self-identifiers for users to choose from. It may well have gone higher since then, because in principle, there’s no ceiling on the number of such “genders” possible even if, in practice, continually adding to the list would be too exhausting and confusing for everybody.
If the developments I’ve been describing seem to you to have yielded tortuous nonsense, that’s because they have. To get at the heart of the nonsense, one need only notice a set of paradoxes. Bringing them out requires setting a bit more of the context.
If one’s sex, now usually called one’s ‘gender’, is primarily determined by how one feels rather than by one’s chromosomes, then the “second-wave” feminists were wrong to hold that the only inherent difference between the sexes is biological, i.e. their primary and secondary sexual characteristics. One’s sex, or rather one’s gender, is what one’s subjectivity “identifies” it as being, and of course that needn’t be limited to biological categories such as male and female. Unsurprisingly, the old-guard feminists haven’t taken that lying down. And they have a point, and least regarding transgenderism.
One of their central concerns was to ensure that neither biology nor socially constructed gender norms should be destiny for women. People should be liberated to become the persons they choose to be. Then along came the “trannies” who say that they can’t help identifying as members of the sex opposite to their natal sex, and that the right to such self-identification must be protected by legal and social sanctions. But in terms of what does a person make such an identification in the first place? A biological male who can’t help feeling he’s a female, and thus feels “trapped in a male body,” can feel that way only if he is drawn more to typically feminine traits, behaviors, or roles than to typically male ones, as expressions of who he “really” is.
Yet if, as second-wave feminists and others insist, all such traits, behaviors, and roles are just social constructs, then the trannie is simply trading what is experienced as the tyranny of biology for the tyranny of social constructs. From that point of view, the new tyranny is less justified than the old, because what’s socially constructed not only can be socially deconstructed but often should be. To the feminist old guard, therefore, transgender ideology is a major step backwards from what they were trying to accomplish and thought they had accomplished to an extent.
Paradoxes Upon Paradoxes
In fact, it’s a paradox. In the name of liberation from oppression, the transgender community has managed to re-establish a form of oppression with which we’re already familiar, only on a new footing: the operative social constructs are no longer thought to be tethered to biological sex. But they are nonetheless, and inescapably—else they could not have developed and would not persist. Which is another paradox.
Admittedly, the above is paradoxical only given the premise that all gender traits, behaviors, and roles, beyond the purely biological, are merely social constructs. But that paradox gives us a clue to the wider, related paradox inherent in gender ideology as such.
If one’s gender is determined by or even tantamount to one’s sexual orientation, and the latter is assumed to be immutable, then one’s gender is no more a matter of choice than one’s natal sex. Accordingly, the affirmation and inclusion that gender ideologists demand for those who swim in the Sexual Alphabet Soup does not facilitate greater freedom to be what one chooses to be. It simply multiplies the number of ineluctable “identities” we’re all supposed to affirm and include, simply because what is taken by those involved to be their personal identities must, on moral grounds, be respected as such.
Yet even when accorded the respect due to persons merely as such, one’s having “no choice” but to self-identify in terms of a sexuality that isn’t oriented toward the interpersonal communion of normal marriage and family is not a step forward in one’s development as a free person. It is to treat as an essential element of personal identity a set of sexual desires whose distinctive characteristics have no obvious biological or social value—that is, no value other than the fact that their subjects happen to have and value them. But such desires needn’t be satisfied and can actually enslave a person who believes they must be satisfied for the sake of finding “love.”
Thus the rejection of “heteronormativity,” the relativizing inherent in speaking of “cis” sexuality, and the corresponding valorization of a host of fadged-up “genders,” constitute a step backward in the development of individuals as distinctively personal and thus free agents. Once again, “liberation” from traditional norms leads to a new form of slavery—one that is all the less tractable for going unrecognized by the slaves.
Expediency or Essentialism
Such is how sexual autonomy, as understood by currently fashionable dogma, eats itself. There are two possible paths out of that self-consumption: oscillating between contradictions for expediency’s sake, or “gender essentialism.”
As Ryan Anderson discusses in his new book When Harry Became Sally, while many gender theorists take the line I’ve described above—that sexual preferences and gender identity are immutable—some do not. The latter insist that gender, whether or not the word is used as a synonym for sex, is indefinitely fluid. But that is logically inconsistent with the insistence of some trannies and gay people that they “can’t help” having such-and-such a sexual or gender identity.
That is, unless it’s said that sex and gender are fluid for some people but not for others. But that, in Newspeak fashion, is to empty the concepts of sex and gender of all objective content, allowing them to be redefined whenever that would be personally or politically expedient. Sex and gender are thus thought to be whatever the right people want and define them to be, just to suit themselves. With that, we’re back with Alice, in Wonderland:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
So long as all the aforesaid confusions persist, will-to-power is all that can decide anything. That is another paradox. The original idea was liberation from the oppression of both biology and social constructs; now, gender theorists want government to enforce their ideology, which is but a form of will-to-power. And in the Anglosphere, they’ve had a degree of success at that. The only way out is a return to some form of what both traditional feminists and gender theorists contemptuously dismiss as “gender essentialism”: the notion that the masculine/feminine polarity is real, and while necessarily embodied in the physical polarity of the sexes, also transcends them. In other words, a metaphysic.
That’s not to say that any old gender essentialism will do. Two ways of being a gender essentialist are errors diametrically opposed to each other.
One is to assume there must be something off about a person who does not conform to one or more gender stereotypes. Some traditionalists, especially religious traditionalists, are prone to that error. But at least it’s no longer as common as it once was. We can admit that real, normal males and females vary rather widely in how they exhibit masculine and feminine traits, behaviors, and roles, without validating what is rightly classed as a disorder: gender dysphoria.
The opposite error, though, has become quite common: People are essentially of this-or-that “gender,” but gender bears no intrinsic connection with biological sex. That’s the key tenet of transgenderism. But as Anderson explains, it’s a kind of dualistic metaphysic in an era when such thinking is unfashionable in almost every other intellectual sphere. It’s no more plausible than other such dualisms, and arguably less plausible than, say, soul-body hylomorphism.
A Sensible Via Media
What’s needed is the sensible via media. The human person is necessarily embodied, and sex, in the traditional sense of the word, is a very important way in which we are embodied. Maleness embodies the gender: masculinity; femaleness, femininity. Certainly a wide range of embodiments of gender characteristics in sexed persons is normal, both individually and culturally. There’s always some “yin in the yang” and “yang in the yin.” That’s because a person’s sex is less important than their being a person, thus capable of some real self-determination. But that doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs. Existence does not precede essence, even if essence is more fluid than many were once wont to think. Thus many, perhaps most, gender traits, behaviors, and roles are indeed socially constructed, and can change to a degree; but such constructs are not often arbitrary or unjust, and some make perfect sense given biologically-based differences between the sexes, such as in brains.
Still, more people are moved by religion and spirituality than by philosophy. In my view, the best religious response to gender theory comes from the Catholic hierarchy. Pope Francis has had some harsh things to say about it; the U.S. bishops have helpfully provided some quotations from him and other Catholic resources. I believe that, in the long run, such sound ideas will be there, holding the line of good sense, when the cultural lunacy of gender theory has run its course. In the meantime, we can at least avoid being confused by words.