The Androgynous Form of Shiva and Parvati (Ardhanarishvara). India, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, 2nd-3rd century sculpture. Mottled red sandstone. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
11th of July

Why gender is NOT socially constructed


Though claiming that various features of humans are “socially constructed” has become something of a fad in sectors of the humanities and social sciences, usually not a lot of evidence is provided to justifiy social construction claims. “Social construction” itself is often too ambiguous a concept. After weeding out ambiguities, Paul Boghossian has come up with a definition of social construction that is more in line with the interests of social construction scholars themselves. I’ll paraphrase his definition thus: what is meant by saying that a thing is socially constructed is that it was created intentionally by a particular society to address its interests, and is contingent upon the whims of that society in such a way that it wouldn’t have come about otherwise (e.g., if that society had different interests, or if another, different society had done the construction). Some socially constructed things are cross-cultural. Money, for instance, was constructed independently by some societies to exchange goods, and because most societies today have an interest in exchanging goods efficiently, money has become almost universal. But if the money-using societies had different interests, money could have never come into existence. So it is clear enough that money is socially constructed.

But are gender categories like “men”, “women” and “fa’afafine” (the Samoan gender category close to what we would call effeminate gay men) socially constructed? I don’t think so. For the following reasons:

– Cultures are creative, so socially constructed things tend to be diverse and numerous, like the different currencies the world has had in history. Think also of Indian castes. There are about 3000 different castes in India, and even more subcastes. Compared to castes and currencies, gender category numbers across cultures seem to be boringly low – two in Brazil, three in Samoa, with no society as far as I know achieving two digit numbers. Indian castes seem to have a better claim at being socially constructed, to the point where it is possible to explain their existence by known historical facts of the Indian subcontinent cultures.

– Cultures do have a say on what gender categories they’ll work with and how many they’ll be. But the reasons why they have gender categories at all are not socially constructed themselves. They are (1) sexual dimorphism of human bodies strictly followed by all but a tiny minority of bodies; (2) a limited number of naturally occurring sexual orientations that exist because of the sexual dimorphism of bodies (homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality) – heritability for sexual orientation is moderate to high and some of the genome regions involved have been mapped; (3) naturally occurring aggregates of behaviour (besides sexual orientation) that tend to follow sex dimorphic lines (apparently less rigidly than bodies), some of which have evolutionary origins and are attached to organisms based on whether they produce an abundance of gametes or are scarce in gametes and responsible for foetus rearing.

Research on the latter reasons is ongoing and claims as to what exactly are these (evolutionary predicted) differences are highly contested. Some results are consistent, however: males tend to be better at rotating 3D objects mentally, while females seem to have an advantage on empathy-related tasks like reading someone’s emotions. But even if previously appointed gender differences in behaviour end up being shown to be false, we should be fairly confident that, while observant of bodies, evolution probably did not stop above the neck when it comes to sex in the brain.

It’s entirely possible that, while gender itself is not a social construct – for different cultures will end up categorising individuals similarly, on the basis of natural differences in body and behaviour – some associated things like gender roles or expressions probably are social constructs, at least instances of them like what colour is supposed to be preferred by boys or girls, who is thought to be responsible for initiating sexual advances, etc. There’s evidence men and women make on average different career choices, even in very egalitarian societies, what counts as evidence these categories are not socially constructed, while not at all means that a particular individual should have to face discrimination for making gender-atypical career choices.

It is important to recognise the difference between the non-socially constructed core of gender and its socially constructed auxiliary features, so policies and moral decisions based on gender are fairer. This has been made clear within medicine, by results on how brains sitting on female or male bodies may respond differently to the same drug. Now the failure of the social construction hypothesis must be recognised in cultural debates too. Activists are only too prone to accuse sexism where people are behaving as typical members of their genders, revealing a misplaced and delusional hope of eradicating gender categories from existence. Now, to avoid clashing with science even more, they’ll have to recognise that action to stop unfair discrimination should not be coupled with a hope of achieving a 50/50 gender parity in everything (in societies with 2 genders, of course). Forcing people to behave in the same way where they naturally are diverse is not activism, it’s utopian social engineering. Free people just need equality in opportunity to pursue their own diverse interests. Men and women (and fa’afafine etc. where applicable), including the trans men and women, appreciate themselves and each other without moral crusaders trying to force them to be what they know they are not. And they certainly do not need falsehood parroted as the only way to justice – justice prefers truth.

Commented References

One should be aware that there is a small number of research groups within neuroscience that are ideologically committed to claiming all differences in brain and behaviour found by other researches are false or negliglibly small. Abhorred by everyone are an even smaller minority of gender role-conservative scientists who will jump at any claim of biological difference to defend it regardless of the quality of evidence. So sometimes peer-review will fail and substandard studies will be tooted as revealed truth by blogs and narrative-driven media outlets. Scientists like Melissa Hines, Simon Baron-Cohen and Larry Cahill, who study brain gender and of course assert its existence based on evidence (in the case of Baron-Cohen, because it has something to do with autism, which is much more common in males than in females), will be often opposed by Cordelia Fine, Daphna Joel & their collaborators, who seem to be interested in denying differences or reinterpreting them as a “brain mosaic” unclassifiable as male or female where most people are “brain intersex”. I recommend reading all of them and deciding for yourself who’s backed by evidence.

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Boghossian, Paul. “What is social construction?.” (2001).

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Cahill, L. (2006). Why sex matters for neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(6), 477–484. http://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1909
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Cahill, L. (2014). Equal ≠ the same: sex differences in the human brain. Cerebrum, 5. Available here.
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Hines, Melissa. Brain gender. Oxford University Press, 2005.
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Bao, A.-M., & Swaab, D. F. (2011). Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relation to gender identity, sexual orientation and neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(2), 214–226. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2011.02.007
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Sanders, A. R., Martin, E. R., Beecham, G. W., Guo, S., Dawood, K., Rieger, G., … Bailey, J. M. (2014). Genome-wide scan demonstrates significant linkage for male sexual orientation. Psychological Medicine, 1–10. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291714002451
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Review of Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender”:
Baron-Cohen, Simon. “Delusions of gender—’neurosexism’, biology and politics.” The Psychologist 23.11 (2010): 904-905. Available here.
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Latest paper by Joel et al. claiming you can’t predict a person’s sex (and gender) from brain features:
Joel, Daphna, et al. “Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.50 (2015): 15468-15473. Available here.
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Replies to Joel et al. showing they are wrong to claim human brains cannot be naturally categorised as male and female:
Del Giudice, Marco, et al. “Joel et al.’s method systematically fails to detect large, consistent sex differences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.14 (2016): E1965-E1965. Available here.
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Rosenblatt, Jonathan D. “Multivariate revisit to” sex beyond the genitalia”.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2016). Available here.
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Chekroud, Adam M., et al. “Patterns in the human brain mosaic discriminate males from females.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113.14 (2016): E1968-E1968. Available here.
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Image: The Androgynous Form of Shiva and Parvati (Ardhanarishvara). India, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, 2nd-3rd century sculpture. Mottled red sandstone. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.