Monday, November 4, 2013

What is gender artifactualism?

This is the one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

So in Excluded, I introduce the term “gender artifactualism” to describe, “the tendency to conceptualize and depict gender as being primarily or entirely a cultural artifact.”[p.117] Gender artifactualist viewpoints are pervasive within feminist and queer activism, and within the academic fields of Women’s/Gender Studies, Queer Theory, Sociology, certain subfields of Psychology, and in the Humanities more generally.

Why is this term needed?

I created the term to make a distinction between the idea that gender is “socially constructed” versus the idea that gender is “just a construct”—both of which are common refrains within the aforementioned academic and activist settings, but which imply very different things. As I put it in Excluded:

To have a social constructionist view of gender (by most standard definitions) simply means that one believes that gender does not arise in a direct and unadulterated manner from biology, but rather is shaped to some extent by culture—e.g., by socialization, gender norms, and the gender-related ideology, language and labels that constrain and influence our understanding of the matter. By this definition, I am most certainly a social constructionist. Gender artifactualists, on the other hand, are typically not content to merely discuss the ways in which gender may be socially constructed, but rather they discount or purposefully ignore the possibility that biology and biological variation also play a role in constraining and shaping our genders. Sometimes, even the most nuanced and carefully qualified suggestions that biology may have some influence on gendered behaviors or desires will garner accusations of “essentialism” in gender artifactualist circles... [p.117-8]

Is gender artifactualism correct as a theory?

Absolutely not. In Chapter 13, “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality,” I thoroughly detail why gender artifactualism (along with its sparring partner in the nature-versus-nurture debate, gender determinism, which presumes that gender-related behaviors arise solely via biology) is flat-out incorrect as a theory to explain why gender differences exist. Instead, I forward a holistic perspective that acknowledges that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together in an unfathomably complex manner to create both the trends as well as the diversity in gender and sexuality that we see all around us. This holistic perspective is completely compatible with the idea that gender is socially constructed (i.e., shaped by socialization and culture), but incompatible with the idea that gender is merely a social artifact (or in activist parlance, “just a construct”).

Why bother debunking gender artifactualism?

The prevalence of gender artifactualist thinking within feminism and queer activism has led to two major fallacies that have undermined these movements. The first is the idea that gender artifactualist positions are inherently liberating, progressive, and anti-sexist in contrast to gender determinism (which is why artifactualist views are so often touted in these settings). However, as I point out in Excluded:

The truth of the matter is that gender artifactualism can be used to promote sexist beliefs just as readily as gender determinism can. For much of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud’s hardline gender artifactualist theories were used to pathologize queer people and to portray girls and women as inferior to their male counterparts. Similarly, contemporary feminists and queer activists are outraged by stories of intersex children being subjected to nonconsensual genital surgeries, or gender-non-conforming children being subjected to rigid behavior modification regimes, yet the justification for these procedures is founded in the gender artifactualist theories of psychologists like John Money and Kenneth Zucker, respectively. [p.145-146]

Indeed, I go on to make the case that both gender artifactualism and determinism have an “exception problem,” in that they focus on explaining typical genders and sexualities (e.g., the preponderance of heterosexual, gender-conforming people), yet “...fail to provide a reasonable explanation for why so many of us gravitate toward various sorts of exceptional genders and sexualities.”[p.147] As a result, both approaches can provide a rationale for pathologizing gender and sexual minorities on the basis that we represent “mistakes” or “developmental errors” of some kind.

The second fallacy of gender artifactualist thinking goes something like this: If our gender and sexual identities and behaviors arise solely as a result of culture, and given that our culture is hierarchical and sexist, then we (feminists, queer activists, people more generally) must simply unlearn these oppressive ways of being that we were indoctrinated into, and instead “do” or “perform” our genders in more liberating, subversive, and righteous ways. While this line of reasoning might sound promising on the surface, in reality, it is often used to condemn and police other people’s genders and sexualities: 

After all, if gender and sexuality are entirely social artifacts, and we have no intrinsic desires or individual differences, this implies that every person can (and should) change their gender and sexual behaviors at the drop of a hat in order to accommodate their own (or perhaps other people’s) politics. This assumption denies human diversity and, as I have shown, often leads to the further marginalization of minority and marked groups. [p.134]


Granted, not all gender artifactualists buy into this idea that we can readily change our genders and sexualities in order to better conform to some political view or another. But those who do will typically cite gender artifactualist mantras (e.g., “all gender is performance,” “gender is just a construct”) in order to make their case. In Excluded, I borrow Anne Koedt’s phrase ‘perversion of “the personal is the political” argument’ to discuss how this premise has been used repeatedly to police gender and sexual expression within various strands of feminism over the years. In contrast, the holistic approach that I forward accommodates gender and sexual diversity both within our movements, as well as in the world more generally.

11 comments:

  1. What you call "gender artifactualism" and I call "radical feminism" only has an "exception problem" if social construction of gender is a perfect process. Because instead it's a political process, done through political activities (including the activities we do ourselves, a la Butlerian performativity), there's room for variation and yes, "failure" of the gendering process. Personally I'm glad that patriarchy makes mistakes. I'd argue that all feminists represent a "failure" of patriarchy (and a success for women!).

    This view has no reflexivity problem because we radical feminist women who speak of gender don't have any difficulty in giving accounts of the formation of our individual gendered subjectivities (or at least, no more difficulty than other folks). The problem only arises if "gendering" is seen as totalising, based on either total social control (impossible? certainly not present-day-reality in my society) or essences (not the radical feminist position).

    Am I a "gender artifictualist" as you'd see it? The truth is I just don't care what biology has to say about gender. If the gender we see today is even 1/10 biologically inspired then we are all lost and doomed to live in an eternal patriarchal hell. If the gender we see today is 1/10,000 biologically driven then who cares? There is an awful lot of work to do before the question even becomes meaningful except as a curio ("Do you think that one day we'll be able to discern any biological influence on subjectivity which fall in a broadly sex-dimorphic pattern, old chap?")

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    1. So this post was meant to be a brief overview of a term that I discuss in the book. In Excluded, I have a roughly 10,000 word chapter about how gender artifactualist perspectives have historically been used to undermine gender and sexual minorities within feminism (including lesbians and trans people), and another 10,000 words on why such views are wrong (aka, where I debunk both "sides" of the nature vs nurture debate).

      I cannot possibly reiterate all that here, and I encourage interested parties to read the book (specifically chpts. 12 & 13) for the full argument.

      What I forward in Excluded is not significantly different than what I say in Whipping Girl, but it is more thorough and addresses common rebuttals on both "sides" of the debate.

      To address the concerns you expressed in your comment:

      1) I say in both the book and this post that not all gender artifactualists erase other people's subjectivities. But what I am saying is that, within feminist & queer movements, people who wish to erase other people's subjectivities typically rationalize such erasure via gender artifactualist arguments.

      2) I am not forwarding my holistic model because I am interested in how biology influences gender and sexuality. While I'm a biologist, I find it to be a rather irrelevant issue. What I am interested in is challenging sexism, hierarchies, double standards, and marginalization. My book is not at all about biology except for the one chapter in which I bring it up to challenge gender artifactualism. And I only bothered with that because gender artifactualism is regularly used to undermine people's subjectivities.

      3) you say this:

      "If the gender we see today is even 1/10 biologically inspired then we are all lost and doomed to live in an eternal patriarchal hell."

      This comment is based upon the false assumption that biology acts in a determinist manner. It doesn't. Biology functions in ways that are fundamentally anti-essentialist and anti-determinist. I make this case in that chapter. The argument you are making presumes that biology acts in a determinist manner. In a sense, you are making the gender determinists' case for them! But biology doesn't work like that.

      4) you say:

      'we radical feminist women who speak of gender don't have any difficulty in giving accounts of the formation of our individual gendered subjectivities (or at least, no more difficulty than other folks). The problem only arises if "gendering" is seen as totalising, based on either total social control (impossible? certainly not present-day-reality in my society) or essences (not the radical feminist position).'

      I'm sorry, but from my standpoint, you are an exception in this regard. Every other radical feminist that I have talked to or read previously has undermined some gender and sexual minorities' subjectivities (whether they be trans, feminine, bisexual, sex workers, others). And their arguments are extremely arbitrary. Sheila Jeffreys (to name but one) will claim that being lesbian challenges the patriarchy, but being transsexual, feminine, bisexual, and/or a sex worker is a product of the patriarchy in her eyes. And it's not just her. I could list a score (if not more) of influential radical feminist theorists who have made similar arguments. (and for the record, it's not just radical feminists. Liberal feminists, queer theorists, and others make these arguments too.)

      In other words, *a lot* of radical feminists do have totalizing views of of gender and sexual minorities that they do not identify with. And they invariably base their critiques of such people using gender artifactualist logic.

      I've read a lot of your essays. And I know you don't use gender artifactualism to undermine other people's subjectivities. But many feminists do. That is why I felt that gender artifactualism needs to be challenged.

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    2. In general in my comment I was mostly responding to your criticism that the hard gender constructionist position is not reflexive. I certainly agree that arguments which incorporate hard gender constructionism have been used against trans women and others.

      I agree with you that those arguments are often arbitrary. That's why I don't feel any need to condemn hard gender constructionism on that basis. They use plenty of other good and bad arguments from other spheres against us too; the problem is their hate.

      My main objection to your argument in favour of what I'm going to call "soft gender constructionism" is actually that, by making reference to biology, you're making a very weak form of the argument.

      I think there is a much stronger and more important argument for soft gender constructionism which I have a lot more time for, which is simply that: it is the working theory of much of the trans community.

      Just because I don't follow it doesn't mean I don't respect that. I think we situate ourselves on the best possible epistemic ground if we say not that our theories are right because of something external (especially ground as suspect as gender in biology), but that they are appropriate to us because they are our theories.

      In that sense, I have a lot of time for soft gender constructionism. I believe trans people are pretty damn smart and that we think out in the best possible direction given the constraints on us in any particular historical moment.

      I'm interested in loosening up some of those constraints and changing the moment, to see if that creates room for our ideas to expand and change, and because my hunch is that there's fertile ground in the direction of hard gender constructionism (despite much misuse), those are the directions in which I'm trying to open up space.

      Does that make sense?

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    3. Yes, that totally makes sense. I agree with you that our perspectives/subjectivities as trans people should be respected because they are our perspectives/subjectivities, regardless of how they came to be.

      In the book, I am not making the standard born-that-way case - in other words, I am not using biology to explain why trans people exist or to use it as some external force to explain our perspectives/subjectivities. (Although I do use the existence of biological variation and difference in social situation & individual experiences to argue that we should expect people to experience their genders and sexualities differently to a certain degree).

      Also, I understand that gender artifactualist perspectives are self-sufficient and do not require biology. However, there is evidence that biology (to some degree) impacts or influences gender and sexuality. Gender determinists exaggerate this evidence and portray it in essentialist (and often highly sexist) ways. I feel that the gender artifactualist position vacates biology entirely, thus allowing gender determinists to misrepresent how biology works. So I address biology in order to challenge gender determinism/essentialism.

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    4. My relation to biology is much more "who cares" than "influence is 100% unpossible!". I've said elsewhere that trying to understand any effect of biology on gender is like standing under a massive waterfall of blue and pink paint and then trying to figure out if you'd been wearing a white or pale yellow t-shirt. It's not really relevant until you get out of under the paint!

      So to that extent I think talk about the biology of gender is as relevant to a discussion of gender as, say, talk about the effect of quasars on gender. But of course a lot of this really boils down to how big a deal you think patriarchy is. I've described the fundamental insight of radical feminism as that "patriarchy is a really big deal - no, bigger than you think when you hear that".

      To that extent I'm suspicious of "there is evidence". "There is evidence" that women are inferior kinds of human, as well as other marginalised groups. I'm more of the tendency that aims to break down the structures that produce evidence in the passive voice than that which believes they can be corrected for bias.

      And, I'm sorry, I'm sure this is frustrating for you as a biologist. If it's any consolation, it's possibly at least as frustrating for me as a radical feminist. :)

      We may also be finally hitting lingo. What residue of gender you may ever find in biology is what I think of as "pre-sex"; the material substrate on which sex is constructed as a "division", on which gender is constructed, on which sexuality is constructed, the latter three of which are interdependent with each other in Butler's "heterosexual matrix". While I agree there is a moment at which we experience pre-sex, sex, gender and sexuality all together, I think it's a mistake to call this "gender" when "gender" is too easily naturalised.

      Anyway I do plan to read the book when I can afford a copy so may get back to you after I've read it!

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. actually, the "deleted" comment was not actually deleted. it was moved to above (as it was intended to be a reply to radtransfem's comment)

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  3. I wonder also how much the discussion of gender being socially constructed may suffer from ambiguous language. "Gender", itself, is a pretty huge term; for instance, I remember when I was a college student I had a discussion with a friend (I'm a cis woman, she's a trans woman, this might be relevant to how we conceptualise it); I was arguing that gender is socially constructed; she disagreed. As the conversation progressed, we realised that we have quite different things in mind when we said 'gender': she was thinking of the fact of knowing/feeling/acknowledging yourself to be male or female, and I was thinking of the complex system of things one does on the basis of being male or female.
    I remembered that conversation when I read 'Whipping Girl' ;)

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    1. Yes, I couldn't agree more. I discuss this in a Chapter in Excluded called "Performance Piece," which was recently excerpted in the Advocate:

      http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2013/10/07/book-excerpt-gender-more-performance

      Here is a quote from that chapter:

      "Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let’s recognize that the word gender has scores of meanings built into it. It’s an amalgamation of bodies, identities and life experiences, of subconscious urges, sensations and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture. Instead of saying that gender is any one single thing, let’s start describing it as a holistic experience."

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  4. A few thoughts regarding this post: I think there's a methodological, interpretive, and theoretical cornerstone missing from this whole conversation, and that is History. Both hard biological determinism and the second-hand school of social construction flatten history, the former by saying that history floats on the surface of what's real, and the latter by saying that history is a prelude to what's real. But well-done social construction doesn't forget about history. As I've said time and time again, just because something is constructed doesn't mean it's not real. I think that goes for biology, as well: for example, I have done some digging in the archives related to the development of hormones and endocrinology in the 20th century and how our understanding of both have changed dramatically over an amazingly short period of time. But just because there's a history to endocrinology, just because what we thought we knew changed, changed, and then changed again, does NOT mean that biology is "just" anything. And by and large the guys who cut off guinea pig testicles and the small number of surgeons in the 20s who transplanted testicles taken from corpses, prisoners, and Chimpanzees onto the wealthy and famous (including D.H. Lawrence) in an attempt to "reinvigorate" them... these were not *bad* researchers or surgeons. Badly misinformed? Yes. Mistaking correlation with cause? Yes.

    I think that you may have spent so much time fighting off the totally crap knockoff of the well thought out version of social construction that's you are missing something: properly done, understanding gender as a social construction DOES " acknowledge that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together". It also allows for each of those factors as well as others to have interconnecting histories, some as long as the life of one person, some as old as Tumblr, some thousands of years in the making and still developing.

    And since I'm posting a wall of fucking text already, I'd like to add that I don't think it's actually WORTH going after all of the people who have completely misunderstood things like "gender is performative" and reduced a perfectly reasonable idea to stuff like "gender is a performance." We don't shit on evolutionary theory because of it's misapplication as social Darwinism or as eugenics. Not because it's wrong, but because it's not worth our time.

    Julia, as always your writing is food for thought and a pleasure. - MB

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    1. So I agree with most of what you said. And as I say in the book (and the excerpt above), I am a social constructionist in that I believe "that gender does not arise in a direct and unadulterated manner from biology, but rather is shaped to some extent by culture — e.g., by socialization, gender norms, and the gender-related ideology, language and labels that constrain and influence our understanding of the matter." And I realize that many social constructionists "acknowledge that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together" as you point out. Indeed, that's the very reason why I feel the term "gender artifactualism" is necessary, as it differentiates between the social constructionists that you mention (who view gender as complex traits) and those who advocate oversimplified gender-equals-socialization/drag/performance stances.

      And that leads to my only real disagreement with what you've said, namely that you 'don't think it's actually WORTH going after all of the people who have completely misunderstood things like "gender is performative" and reduced a perfectly reasonable idea to stuff like "gender is a performance." ' I disagree because, within feminism & queer activism, gender-equals-socialization/drag/performance is routinely used to dismiss certain gender and sexual identities and expressions. I talk about this a great deal in the book - indeed, it is the main reason why I bring the issue up in the first place.

      You said, "We don't shit on evolutionary theory because of it's misapplication as social Darwinism or as eugenics." I agree. To extend the analogy, I am by no means "shitting" on social constructionism - I am a social constructionist myself and believe that we cannot understand gender and sexuality without critically examining how these phenomena are shaped and constrained by society. Having said that, I feel that it is important to critique those who misapply evolutionary theory (e.g., those who forward Social Darwinism and eugenics) in order to rationalize the marginalization/exclusion of certain populations. Similarly, I feel that it is necessary to critique gender artifactualists who misapply social constructionism in order to marginalize/exclude certain populations. That is the context in which I bring up "gender artifactualization" in the book.

      > Julia, as always your writing is food for thought and a pleasure

      Thank you for the kind words and your thoughtful comment!

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