April 8, 2022

What does the word "gender" really mean?

The main problem with the term gender is that it is not referring to one phenomenon only, but many. It is this ambiguity of language that makes discussions so confusing. But it also this complexity that makes the topic so interesting. 

The reason for this ambiguity is that the language most people use today has been developed within a culture that requires you think of male and female as "natural" and mutually exclusive. Moreover, these concepts of male and female are supposed to determine everything you are or can do.

However, reality does not care. Nature does not care. And everyone violates these rules on a daily basis. Everyone!

Here are the most important phenomena referred to as "gender":

Biological sex


Biological sex refers to what is called "gametes", as in sperm and egg. Gametes are real, so biological sex is real. 

Still, the two sexes are not mutually exclusive. Nature throws a lot of dice that comes up intersex, with different chromosomes (as in XY women and XX men) and a wide variety of ambiguous genitalia and sex characteristics.

Many species reproduced by way of gametes, as in human sperm an eggs. Other species have other ways of continuing the species.


By the way: Not even post-modernist gender philosophers deny the existence of gametes.  They are simply pointing out that our understanding of what the existence of biological sex means for our daily lives is colored by culture, and that the scientists themselves are also influenced by culture when they develop and present their theories. 

They are right about this, and scientists may also change their views based on new concepts and new ideals developed elsewhere. Homosexuality and gender dysphoria are, for instance, no longer seen as mental illnesses.  
Note also the way transphobes try to present  the statement "gender is the same as biological sex" as science. That statement represents, at best, 19th century science. I know of no serious scientists today – whether they come from the natural sciences or from the social ones – that argue that the complexity of cultural gender can be reduced to gametes, genitalia or chromosomes. 


Cultural gender


Throughout the ages various cultures have created an insane number of social rules as to how men and women should dress and behave. A Roman man would not be caught dead in trousers. Most cis/het American men today will not be seen in a toga ("Eeeeek! A dress!!!)

The current idea of pink being a girl's color and blue being for boys is a 20th century has no foundation in nature. Previously red was a male color ("fire!!!") and blue was a female color ("calm serenity"). 

Some cultures have more than two genders. Cultural gender is definitely a social construct.



One of the benefits of traveling around the world is that you will have your cultural prejudices challenged by reality. In many Arab countries pink remains a male color, while many Asians cultures do not see blue as a male color. The blue/pink gender color scheme  is definitely a social construct. (Photo of Barbie and Ken dolls.)

Gender identity


Gender identity refers to our gendered sense of self, i.e. to what extent we fundamentally experience ourselves as men, women or something else.

Cis people rarely reflect on this, since their assigned gender at birth fits their experienced gender. The very existence of transgender people, however, tells us that there is no one to one relationship between gender identity, assigned gender and/or biological sex.

This is why transphobes try so desperately to prove that trans folks do not exist. It is weird, I know. The TERFs and the Fascists apparently spend a lot of time harassing people that do not do not exist.

Gender expression


I have given up trying to find a fundamental and unambiguous definition of "masculine", "feminine" or "androgynous". Since cultural gender varies from (sub)culture to (sub)culture, epoch to epoch, these concepts have to be fluid and imprecise. The same applies to "maleness" and "femaleness."

Still, it is an undeniable fact that people use clothes and interests and mannerisms to express themselves. It is also an undeniable fact that gender expression does not have to fit concepts of biological sex, cultural gender or gender identity. Life is messy, and that is a good thing.

Many male K-pop stars are known for their ultra-feminine gender expression. This does not mean that they are gay. This does not mean that they are trans, either. It is simply that this kind of feminine masculinity appeal to their target audience: Young women and girls. This tells us that the stereotypes of culture (and even science) are just that: stereotypes.


Sexual attraction


Sexual orientation is clearly separate from all of the above. Yet, a lot of traditionalists insists that sexual orientation must follow the script of stereotypical cis man meeting stereotypical cis woman. 

Lesbian "gender critical" TERFs seem to argue that their sexual attraction to other women is based on those women's genitalia. I don't know how they navigate that complexity. I am afraid to ask.

The fact is that sexual orientation is a separate dimension that exists in parallel to those listed above.

Grammatical class


Gender is also a term used to refer to a grammatical class found in many languages, like my own. Norwegian. Indeed, the word "gender", as used in the examples above,  has been adopted from linguistics. 

You might think grammatical gender would follow at cultural gender or biological sex, but the fact is that whether a thing is masculine, feminine, neuter or something else is pretty random and will vary from language to language, and from dialect to dialect. In Norwegian the word for woman may be feminine "kvinna" or masculine (!!!) "kvinnen". 

So there you have it: The term "grammar" is used to describe a lot of phenomena, phenomena that have little in common. It is clear that the English language is too crude to be able to describe the nuances of sex and gender, and that this hinders communication and understanding. If we can get behind the words we use, we may experience life in richer and more meaningful ways.

Introducing the grammatical term "gender" to address culture has been of help, for sure, but it it clearly not sufficient. We need new words to capture the complexity of all of this.


7 comments:

  1. "Simply pointing out that our understanding of what the existence of biological sex means for our daily lives is colored by culture and that the scientists themselves are also influenced by culture." Completely irrelevant. Even if scientists themselves are influenced by culture, the scientific method is not. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

    — Richard P. Feynman.

    And by the way, why are you still using the concept of gender as a framework when I explained to you why the concept of gender doesn't makes sense? Again, how can genders exist if all forms of behavior can be part of people of all genders?

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    1. footnote: If a scientist has obtained information through the scientific method then none of that information can be dismissed because of that scientist culture. This is why decolonizing the curriculum is complete and utter bullshit because the value of information does not depend on what culture the person has that produced it.

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  2. b.t.w., did you know that if you are born biologically male everything you do, no matter how feminine, is male behavior by definition? Male behavior is WHATEVER males do.

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  3. //did you know that if you are born biologically male everything you do, no matter how feminine, is male behavior by definition? Male behavior is WHATEVER males do.//

    What kind of linguistic hocus pocus is this? You need to look up the concept of tautology, and you will see what I mean.

    Sure, "Male behavior is whatever males do" might sound self evident (and as such it gives us no new understanding of the topic). But in the current transgender debate, toxic with hypermasculine, Patriarchal transphobia, your sentence will be read as "Male behavior is WHATEVER those assigned male at birth do," which is completely meaningless, as any behavior encompassed by this definition can also be found among those assigned women. In other words, your definition would be:

    "Male behavior is WHATEVER men and women can do."

    In other words: Nonsense.

    //Again, how can genders exist if all forms of behavior can be part of people of all genders?//

    Because people are shaped by beliefs, word views and narratives, and those narratives are real and have an effect on the lives of people, even if they are incorrect in their description of the world.

    Read Michel Foucault! Power is not only upheld through violence. It is upheld through the concepts of language and through narratives that make the citizens believe that the system serves their interests, even when it does not.

    This is why so many of the anti-feminist activists throughout history have been women. They have been raised to find an identity and some kind of affirmation in the very society that stops them from realizing their true potential.

    So even if the statements "women are inferior to men" or "trans women are men" are false, they do exist and they do have an effect.

    Great many of our beliefs are social constructs like these. The most influential right now is the "gender is defined by biological sex" narrative. All serious scientists and philosophers see it as absolute nonsense, yet is serves the purpose of the Patriarchy and transphobic TERFs in their political oppression of trans people.

    So your argument can serve as an example of the processes I am discussing in this and other posts.

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  4. I was wondering about 'hard-wired' behaviour and how this fits in, for example this might be the desire to penetrate/be penetrated (i.e. the concept of top/bottom). I'm sure humans, like any mammal, have some sex specific behaviour which may in some cases not align to their biological sex?

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  5. I know of many female dogs who like to hump other female dogs who are in heat, and the same kind of behavior is found among many animals. Indeed, there is a lot of research that shows that what is often thought of as gender specific behavior among female animals are found in male ones and vice versa. This tells us that we are facing gradients and not binaries.

    As far as humans go dominance/submission dynamics will be found among straight and gay/lesbian people as well as cis and trans people.

    Take a look at my article on same-sex sex among animals. There is also one about gender variance found in animals.

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  6. Agreed - I have seen the same. My question is whether someone could be e.g. female biological sex, female gender identity/expression, attracted to males and want to penetrate during sex. If so, I'm not sure this falls neatly into your model.

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