When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.
The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.
This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.
The Reality of Sex Differences
I recently read Michael Kimmel’s highly acclaimed gender studies textbook The Gendered Society, advertised by Oxford University Press as “the most balanced and up-to-date gender text on the market.” Kimmel sets up the book as an attempt to refute perspectives that view gender differences as the product of biology (nature) as well as those that trace the origins of gender differences to mere socialization (nurture). Both of these perspectives, he claims, exaggerate the differences between women and men.
Unlike my students, Kimmel does concede the reality of sex differences, writing:
Women and men are biologically different, after all. Our reproductive antinomies are different, and so are our reproductive destinies. Our brain structures differ. Our musculature is different. Different levels of different hormones circulate through our different bodies.
So far so good. Kimmel is, after all, a social scientist, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University, State University of New York. And scientists do have to recognize the facts.
But Kimmel’s field is gender studies, not biology, and he quickly hastens to assure his readers that the sex differences he has just described have virtually no meaningful necessary implications for the universal human experience of gender. Gender is a social construct, a product of culture, and it is so polluted by the reality of gender inequality that virtually everything we think we know about it needs to be abandoned. As he puts it, “I will argue that gender difference is the product of gender inequality and not the other way around . . . I will make the case that neither gender difference nor gender inequality is inevitable in the nature of things nor, more specifically, in the nature of our bodies.”
This is an ambitious project. Kimmel’s objective is not only to prove that men and women are equal, but to prove that gender differences have no basis in the nature of human bodies.
Let that sink in for a moment.
His goal is to prove that gender differences have no necessary connection to human sexuality. How could he possibly prove such a thesis, in the face of nearly universal human experience? Kimmel concedes that women and men are physically and sexually different, but he refuses to recognize that such sex differences have any necessary gender implications. He ignores the fact that for all of human history human beings have assumed the opposite. Indeed, the very distinction between sex and gender is itself a modern social construct. And it is on the basis of that constructed distinction that the entire edifice of Kimmel’s “balanced” approach to gender studies depends.
Driven by Ideology, Not Science
Consider Kimmel’s definition of gender. “‘Gender’ refers to the meanings that are attached to [sex] differences within a culture.” This is in contrast to “sex,” which “refers to the biological apparatus, the male and the female—our chromosomal, chemical, anatomical organization.” By definition, for Kimmel, sex is physical and biological, while gender is socially constructed. By definition, then, there can be no necessary connection between gender and sex
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