Feb 17, 2014

What gender is and what gender isn’t


Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing with trucks. It is the additional assertion that doll-playing people who play with trucks are deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people have stronger libidos than other people; it is the assertion that the people with low libidos owe people with high libidos satisfaction of their desires. It is furthermore an assertion that low-libido people who display high libido are deviant and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction and also violence. In this way it creates a hierarchy between low-libido people and high-libido people, and a power imbalance that allows high-libido people to use violence in their relations with low-libido people.

Gender is not a straightforward assertion that some people are always the doctor and other people are always the nurse; it also asserts that nurses are less valuable than doctors. It furthermore asserts that nurse-people who want to be doctors should nevertheless be economically under-compensated compared to doctor-people doctors, and that doctor-people who want to be nurses are economically over-compensated compared to nurse-people nurses. In this way it creates a hierarchy of economic injustice and maintains it through the non-arbitrary distribution of financial rewards.

Doll-playing people with high libidos who train to be doctors are highly likely to be considered deviant, to have been subject to violence, and to be on the losing end of a non-arbitrarily unjust distribution of financial rewards.

I will give you a minute to think about what we tend to call to these libidinous doll-playing doctors.


You may have noticed that I said “gender” and not “gender oppression”. Gender creates hierarchies with unjust power differentials; it is oppression. People are not oppressed “on the basis of gender”, they are oppressed by  gender. Gender, like class, has two relative positions, whatever Mark Zuckerberg tells you: up and down. Powerful and exploited. Fully human and non-person.

You will notice that at no point in this little disquisition have I referred to the genitalia of the truck-player-libido-doctor class. Or to anybody’s genitalia, for that matter.

That’s because genitalia have nothing to do with it. The phenomenon whereby people are sorted into groups, characteristics are said to apply to those groups, and then people to whom those characteristics do not apply are laid in a Procrustean bed of social sanction is in no way, shape, form or meaning biologically embedded. It is arbitrary.

Let me give you a different example[1].  It’s a pretty good example because it shows how a system of domination went from arbitrary to non-arbitrary, and the benefits to the dominators that could be had from that.

In the ancient past, (and in some places at present) any person could become a slave. Greeks enslaved Greeks, Romans enslaved both fellow Romans and Gauls, Germans, Britons and Egyptians (to name a few); the Barbary Corsairs raided European shores for slaves and exported some millions of Europeans for slavery in Africa and the Middle East. British plantation owners bought their fellow countrymen who had been sold into slavery by their government after being convicted of a crime.

But at some point during the economic development of what would later become the Southern United States, this changed. For the first time in history, enslavedness ran along colour-coded lines. People with (certain kinds of) dark skin were seen as automatically slaves. This create the paradoxical situation that did for Solomon Northrup: that he was legally a free man in one state but, based on nothing but the colour of his skin, legally a slave in the other. It had nothing to do with him as such; it was arbitrary as regards the individual, but non-arbitrary as regards the group, or class. Slavery became encoded in the racial identities attached to people from African descent and stopped being an emergent factor contingent on war or economic upheaval.

A common hypothesis for why slavery turned from being random to being racially based is class warfare. White and black people resisted the economic and political oppression they suffered together, as in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The policy of placing one arbitrarily in a superior position to the other split their resistance and refocused solidarity along ethnic instead of economic lines. Landowning capitalists: 1, poor revolutionaries of all colours: 0, black people: oy vey.

There is nothing, nor was there ever anything, nor could anything ever have been hypothesised to exist, that makes people with black skin more slave-like or slave-prone or slave-worthy than white people. It was and remains one of the profoundest injustices ever committed by man against fellow man[2] for the sake of protecting entrenched economic interests.

Nevertheless, the colour of people’s skin (as well as other associated physical characteristics of course) was the ostensible basis on which the dichotomous nature of free vs. slave was imposed. Nothing, I repeat, nothing whatsoever inherent to the blackness of black people could possibly have caused white slave owners to so oppress them; nevertheless, it was the colour of their skin that served as the pretext for dehumanising and exploiting them.


In a similar vein, nothing whatsoever about women’s bodies can justify the historic and ongoing economic, sexual, epistemological, religious and political exploitation, oppression and injustice inflicted on us as a class.

And yet it is nevertheless the case that our biology – our bodies, arbitrary features of our physiology that could in no way be said to be relevant to our political, sexual, intellectual, religious or economic ambitions and activities – that were and continue to be used as the ostensible pretext for so oppressing us.

To say that biological sex is at the root of women’s oppression is to state an easily verifiable historical fact. Go back as far as Aristotle or the Jewish Bible, and women are described as inferior, fallible, unclean or subhuman based on nothing other than our ability to gestate and lactate. The connections are clear, unambiguous and unashamed, and they have by no means retreated into a distant and irrelevant past; they underlie and underpin the continued segregation of women as a class into a gender – a genre, or type, in the original French – that plays with dolls, has a lower libido, and is better suited for a low paid nurse.

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact. The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other. However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.

Sex exists[3]. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from them, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes by women themselves is no counter-argument, but a - relatively minor - entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

[1] I know. You find it “incredibly problematic” that I would use racism as an example because the “overwhelming majority” of radical feminists are “white and middle class”. The fact that that’s how you read people who don’t trumpet their racial or class identity for you to see, because they oppose identity politics, is in no way an indication of your own internalised biases about the sorts of people who go in for radical analysis, but a totes factual reflection of the demographic of a group you disapprove of. This makes complete sense. Have a nice day.

[2] Notwithstanding the women slaveowners of the South, I use the term advisedly.

[3] Oh yeah, there's a paragraph missing, right? The one where I assure the reader that I bear trans women no ill will and am fully committed to their legal emancipation and bodily security? Well, if you think you’ve a right to demand such a paragraph, I have one thing to say to you: fuck you. If you think that simply admitting that women exist is, absent some explanatory waffle, a form of hate speech by omission, please go away and never darken my blog again. You are too stupid and mean-spirited to be allowed access to the English alphabet.