Is Gender Socially Constructed, As Race Is?


A Christian Facebook friend asked me this today:

What do you think can be said of the claim that race is socially constructed, and that just as we typically identify someone’s race by looking at their outer appearance instead of DNA, we do the same when determining who is allowed in a particular restroom ? For example, someone might point out that some transgender “women” are indistinguishable from “biological women” and so we would have no qualms about them entering the women’s room because we wouldn’t be able to notice the difference.

It’s a fair question.

To Start With: What’s Definitely Socially Constructed

Let’s start with what race and sex or gender have in common in this context. Both of them have to do with a person’s bodily attributes, clothing choice, behaviors, and the social context in which they live. Persons observing others rely on all these cues to assess others’ race and sex (historically) or gender (in today’s language, see below).

Fashion choices (clothing, jewelry, and hair style) for men and women as well as for members of various races range across a wide spectrum, albeit wider in the case of sex than race. The same is true of typical behaviors. There’s also considerable overlap in both fashions and behaviors among the two sexes and among all the races. And what constitutes typically male or female clothing can vary over cultures and times. An individual may present himself or herself socially as a member of a different race or sex, and others may interpret race and sex differently as they observe the cues that person presents.

So there is some social construction involved in how persons present themselves sexually and racially. To that extent both race and sex (gender) are socially constructed. Press it further, though, and the analogies fail pretty quickly.

Not Socially Constructed: Sex Is Binary

First, sex is normatively binary, with sharp distinctions between male and female. (Of course now I’m speaking of biological sex.) Race is only culturally/socially divided, and intermarriage can make it harder for even the most bigoted person to decide whether someone is black, Asian, south Mediterranean, Caucasian, Amerindian, or any of the other possible variations.

I said sex is normatively binary. Transgender activists commonly make a big deal over intersex conditions, like XXY or androgen insensitivity. These are extremely rare, so that for virtually all of history, until the past eye-blink, they’ve been regarded as unfortunate exceptions to an otherwise solid distinction. Medical science has enabled some understanding of these conditions’ etiology, and  nothing about that knowledge has done anything to undermined the common-sense view that they’re hereditary or congenital disorders. It’s disingenuous to define normality that way.

So sex and race differ from each other in the variety of their distributions among the healthy, normal population.

Sexual Differences Are Firmly Physical

It’s been said that genetic differences between the races are nonexistent. Obviously that’s not 100 percent true, for children do resemble their parents; but the differences are minuscule. Not so with the sexes. Bodily shapes, especially reproductive functions, are sharply different, and the differences are decidedly genetic in nature: an entire chromosome differs considerably.

So to say that the difference between boys and girls is “socially constructed” is to overlook the obvious in the first place, or to beg the question in the second place. That is, sexual differences are so pronounced, no one could conceivably conclude that they’re socially constructed without first being committed to that as their conclusion.

Some Behavioral Differences Between the Sexes Are Not Socially Produced

The above has to do with physical differences, but behavioral differences between the sexes appear to be just as hard-wired. Of course there’s considerable overlap between the sexes’ behavioral patterns, and a range across which persons adopt their same-sex or opposite-sex expected behaviors. My mom loved football, my dad does needle work, and I’ve got bread baking even as I write.

But statistically there are real, easily observable differences, and they are stable. Unlike racially-associated behavioral differences, some of them exist uniformly across cultures, and they strongly resist manipulation, even manipulation from the moment of birth.

Male and female brain structures definitely differ, a distinction which no credible person has tried to claim about the various races for a hundred years. (Yes, sadly, there was a time when scientists made such claims.) Male and female hormones, which certainly influence behavior, are called “male” and “female” for a reason: They’re not the same, and neither are the behaviors they tend to induce and/or support.

Male and female clothing styles vary: Women wear pants in most of the West, men wore skirts in the Roman armies and in Scotland. Except they are always very careful not to call them skirts, or any typically feminine name; and in any case, the fact  men dress different from women remains constant in any culture I’m aware of.

Not Like Race in This Case

This differs sharply from racially-associated behaviors. Think of persons’ accents, for example: Is there a typical white English accent? Check around America, Britain, Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Canada, and so on. No such thing exists. Is there a typical Black accent? In Britain, accents are often indistinguishable by race, more so by class instead. So the idea (where it exists) of a “Black accent” is certainly socially produced. Not so for the more constant male and female behavioral traits.

Therefore, while still recognizing there is overlap, we can safely conclude that men’s and women’s distinctively different sexual behaviors are not socially produced. They’re not socially interpreted, either, for the same reasons. Granted, we learn these differences in behaviors by observing persons in social contexts, but the fact of these patterns is so stable from one culture to another, one society to another, that it’s question-begging to say they are “merely” a matter of social construction.

What About When We Don’t Notice the Difference?

Quoting again:

Someone might point out that some transgender “women” are indistinguishable from “biological women” and so we would have no qualms about them entering the women’s room because we wouldn’t be able to notice the difference.

Granted. If a man who looked completely like a woman used the women’s room, no one would know. That doesn’t make sex socially constructed, it makes it alterable in appearance. Sometimes. With varying degrees of success.

How Does This Affect Bathroom-Use Law?

I could get into the implied question about how we handle the differences in law, but first I need to recognize my Facebook friend’s follow-up question:

I also worry that some of the reasons we provide for segregating bathrooms by sex (i.e., privacy from people of the other sex due to natural sexual attraction between people of opposite sexes) might be critiqued in such a way that we would have to exclude people who are same-sex-attracted from the locker room that matches their sex. To state the reason explicitly, same-sex-attracted people would have to be excluded from the bathroom or locker room that matches their sex because we are concerned about them ogling other people of the same sex when they’re in a state of undress.

He does well to note that sexual attraction is just one of the reasons we segregate bathrooms. It is worth noting, now, that segregating bathrooms is a socially constructed idea. In some parts of the world, men urinate against walls, outdoors. A woman came in to clean the men’s room I was using in Korea — in fact several men were using it at the time — and no one thought twice about it.

But here in the West we have a strong, persistent, and I think well-justified preference to segregate bathrooms. I note that bathroom laws also apply in many cases to hotel rooms; that is, where schools are expected to grant transgender access to rest rooms, they’re also expected to allow trans persons to share hotel rooms with persons of opposite biological sex. In that case the segregation preference is even more well justified, for obvious reasons.

Why Segregation is Justified

In the case of both bathrooms and hotels, it’s justified because the great majority men and women prefer to save their physical nakedness for members of the same sex, and for members of the opposite sex only in moments of mutually agreed close physical intimacy. That’s a preference that’s worth honoring in law and policy; for there is no other place to make sure it does get honored.

Of course there are exceptions as mentioned, but to rewrite laws and policies for them would be to dishonor the strong preferences of the great majority. That’s not to mention the real possibility of predatory males using transgender access as cover to permit their entry into women’s rooms.

Going back to the question about the biological male who really looks and sounds and acts like a woman (or vice versa), there’s no way practical way to write a law preventing such a person from entering the opposite-sex rest room and using it as if he or she were the opposite sex. And since others using that bathroom are not aware that their preference is being violated, there’s no strong need to write such an impossible law. So practically speaking it’s sensible not to try.

Note, however, that’s not because “male” and “female” are socially constructed. It’s because people can alter their appearance to match opposite-sex norms.

Finally: Is “Gender” Socially Constructed?

So far I’ve been careful to speak mostly in terms of “sex,” not “gender.” Gender is a relatively new term in our culture, borrowed (as I understand it) from linguistics. Usually it refers to the social expressions associated with the two sexes; but remember: that’s a socially constructed definition.

To the extent that a society can define a term like gender, and limit its meaning to the social expressions of sex, to that extent it’s socially constructed. But that’s question-begging again. “Gender” has been socially created and fashioned specifically in service of a sexually revisionist agenda, to mean that persons’ gender choices are self-created and self-fashioned. The fact that this definition supports that agenda should hardly surprise anyone. The fact that they had to make it up to do so should lead us all to treat it with great caution.

For when a term is socially constructed, that doesn’t mean the reality it refers to (tangentially, in this case) is also socially constructed.

Image Credit(s): Edward Cisneros/Unsplash.

4 Responses

  1. Yes, many behavioral differences between the sexes appear to be just as hard-wired as physical differences.

    So now you just have to consider that the hard-wired behaviors and physical features of a particular sex might not always go together. Some unfortunate people have the hard-wired physical features of one sex and the hard-wired mental/behavioral features of the other sex.

    What do you want to do with such people? We can’t just ignore them because they make up perhaps 3-4 percent of the total population, so that’s quite a large number of people.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Homosexuality is a separate question. How many hundreds of thousands of words have I written on it already? (That’s no exaggeration.) I’m going to stay on subject, thanks.

    If you thought you were writing about transgender, your 3 to 4 percent figure is too high by several orders of magnitude.

  3. Andrew says:

    It’s misleading to suggest that sex has a strong biological basis and race does not. However, the classification of sex is mostly objective while race has a large social component (both in terms of creating the classifications and defining the boundaries thereof).

    You might have noticed that top basketball players are almost uniformly of a particular physical phenotype that we generally associate with people who originated from particular African people groups. Image that we could find an arbitrary village in the Phillipines, entice them to migrate to the US and live in an environment similar to a large sub-group of current basketball stars. It would be naive and foolish to assume that within a generation they are producing top basketball players.

    Biologically speaking, “race” is a way of tracking the genetics of population subgroups.

    It would also be naive to assume that only physical traits are tied to population subgroups, but not social or intellectual traits.

    That said, there’s certainly a “social construct” aspect to race. It’s not surprising race gets tied to culture: over time, any distinct population group will tend to homogenise both biologically and culturally (the latter more quickly, admittedly). Over time, traits will come to be associated with the people group, without over-much concern whether they are environmental or heritable.

    Importantly, though, race is amenable to cross-breeding. All other things being equal, a male of one “race” can breed with a female of another and produce fully functional, viable offspring who are biological hybrids of the parents. In contrast, every single race naturally divides into two sexes, the members of which are not biologically interchangeable with each other but are biologically compatible with the opposite sex of any race. And while people are occasionally born who are not entirely male or female, these people are usually infertile and certainly can’t go off and interbreed into a third sex.

    Race is biologically real, but there’s a high degree of interchangeability between people of different races, and the biological distinctions will change over generations in the absence of strong breeding controls. There is a strong “social construct” effect when it comes to classifying race.
    Sex is biologically real, but unlike race sex is biologically binary and its classification fixed. Biological differences between the sexes cannot naturally homogenise over generations. Biological ambiguities in classifying sex are mostly due to atypical phenomena, not subjective boundaries.
    Application of both race & sex to society is subject to numerous social constructs.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    There’s a lot I can’t agree with in your assessment of race. Just one example: For decades, top baseball players were almost all of a different “phenotype” than the top basketball players you mention. Is biology that sport specific? Is it “White men can’t jump”? Social factors explain it a lot better than that.

    And honestly, no, race isn’t functionally a way to track genetics. No one’s doing that except geneticists, their client disciplines such as pharmaceuticals, and etc. Race was around a long time before anyone even thought of the word “genes.”

    We did know the term “cross-breeding” a long time ago. But I know more than one multi-racial married couple, and I would never say they were “cross-breeding,” or even that they were “breeding” with each other. Good night, have some sensitivity to language, okay?

    Physical variations obviously have biological roots, including variations in skin color; facial features including the amount of facial hair in men; hair color, texture, and degree of curliness. That’s not necessarily “race,” however; social dynamics have made it so. One evidence of that is in the fact that there are physical characteristics that vary among populations without being considered markers of race. Only persons of African descent are at risk of a sickle-cell diagnosis, but we don’t call that a racial difference, it’s a population difference.

    But let me add this: I wrote this post in answer to a question, a good question, in my view. I do think race is a social construct; that it is not identical to the things we treat as racial markers, so while it has biological correlates it is not identical to those correlates.

    Yet having said that, I am not a scholar in the field. I’m happy to yield the point if someone shows me wrong. I could have addressed the question this way, and it would have come out the same: “Suppose race was merely a social construct, as many theorists say it is. If a person agrees with them, can he or she rightfully disagree with other theorists who say gender is a social construct?”