What’s Your Gender, or, When Usage Errors Kill

If you filled out a form today, you were probably asked your “gender.” I’m always tempted to answer “mannish,” or “girlie.” This isn’t what the form wants to know. Frequently in public culture, gender gets used as a euphemism for the apparently louche condition of being male or female. Forms want to know your sex—your biological, chromosomal identity—but ask instead for your gender. Same-sex marriages are not infrequently called “same-gender” marriages.


Students learn in their first five minutes in a women’s studies class that sex is supposed to connote being male or female. Gender connotes the secondary, often arbitrary cultural characteristics of masculinity and femininity that may or may not correlate with someone’s biological sex.

True, poststructuralists resist this dichotomy. They believe as the lifeblood of their academic careers that sex shouldn’t be treated as a biological certitude, any more than gender. They argue that there is an element of social construction to the creation of biological categories of male and female, too.

Chances are, you don’t need to know about this idea to be happy and prosperous, unless you’re an academician in one of a few sub-disciplines who is writing a dissertation.  Otherwise, this idea is unlikely to impact your life except at its deepest, murkiest philosophical strata. (And, to be fair, poststructuralist ideas raise important points about what we take to be essentially true, and what we concede to be culturally constructed.)

Whatever the case, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Health Department aren’t opting to use gender instead of sex as an homage to the poststructuralist densities of Judith Butler, or out of regard for Foucault’s deft subversion of the false dichotomy between biology and culture.

So, let’s say for now that the difference between sex and gender is useful, and reflective of reality. Gender refers not to genitals, which have remained more or less unchanged by time, but to ideas of masculinity, which are variable.

Indeed, men seem to be caught in a generational cycle of getting softened up or toughened up. One decade it’s all about the feminization and softening of sex, and masculinity (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliant work on the 1970s, Re-making Love). It’s about men cooking, and crying. The next decade, it’s all about toughening up these overly-softened men, with Rambo and remonstrations that “real men don’t eat quiche.”

Out of the thesis of masculine toughening and its antithesis of masculine softening, an occasional synthesis attempts to unify the two, such as Robert Bly’s strange Iron John movement in the early 1990s.

Now, we seem to be in a resurgent toughening up and “manning up” phase of masculinity. I’ve noted that Miami Dolphins players are defending themselves against charges of bullying a teammate by implying and stating that he needed to be “toughened up,” and many male sports fans on my local sports talk show seem to agree. The way to handle bullies is to punch them in the face. The typical NPR listener, still in a regime of softening up, perhaps, and having never gotten punched in the face, spanked, or played football, tends to look on with horror. 

Meanwhile the bedraggled American male continues to ricochet culturally from being softened to toughened.

The American female does likewise. After going through their own toughening up phase in the 1980s, with Superwoman in her padded, heavily-armored business suit, women went through a “domestic goddess,” retro femininity phase in the 1990s. Today, they’re awash in the Pepto Bismol of pink: Disney-fashioned Princesses are all the girlie femininity rage, as Peggy Orenstein describes in her book.

Where once Western civilization had myths with complex, multifaceted gods and goddesses to create gender imagos, we now have corporate marketing departments to create the caricatures against which people define their gender.

Without a good understanding of masculinity and femininity as constructs only arbitrarily tied to being male and female, these regimes of gender identity weigh heavier, as if they aren’t fashions but true and ordained things; as if girls were born liking pink and boys born to punch each other.

I suspect that bureaucrats, administrators, journalists, police officers, lawyers, and other cultural functionaries were guided to use gender rather than sex in the woeful decade when multiculturalism hijacked liberal and left politics. During the 1980s all of the identity nomenclature was in flux, and I guess gender sounded less like a slur than sex—or, in some way, less discriminatory.

The upshot is that today, gender is often used to indicate biological identity.

Ironically, the replacement of sex with gender—the use of only one term, when two are needed to convey a distinction—pretty much returns us rhetorically to the days of biology as destiny, when sex was the catch-all term for being both male, and masculine; when the qualities of femininity were thought to attach inherently to the fact of being female.

The revelatory feminist insight was that sex and gender are separate.

The contemporary concept of “transgendered” puzzles me in this regard, because gender is already and inherently “trans”: It already assumes that one’s performance of gender may or may not have anything to do with one’s genitalia. Men who wear skirts are performing a stereotype of feminine behavior; women who play football are performing a stereotype of masculine behavior, but that is the whole point of creating a space between sex and gender. To say “trans-gendered” suggests that “normal,” non-trans gender does correlate with sex, such that having a discordant sex and gender expression requires a new term, when it doesn’t. Gender already accommodates the discordance. Put another way, it has the discordance “baked in” to the term.

It’s important that people not be discriminated against for non-conformity to gender stereotypes. But the pursuit of this cause doesn’t actually require a new term.

In any case, without the rhetorical distinction between gender and sex, the conceptual distinction is harder to discern, too.

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