What ever happened to sex?

Robert S. McElvaine

July 27, 1993|By Robert S. McElvaine

LAST WEEK'S confirmation hearings on the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court were a veritable love feast. But, although no senator was likely to bring it up, Judge Ginsburg had one nearly unforgivable mistake in her past. According to one of her for mer students, it was Judge Ginsburg who coined the terminology "gender discrimination," because "she can't say the word 'sex.' "

The result of the incoming justice's squeamishness is that we have reached the point where it now seems permissible to use "sex" only in the secondary meaning that gave her pause (intercourse), not in its primary meaning (the condition of being female or male).

Misuses of "gender" can be found almost daily in the media. "Women in India are at monumental risk to gender violence," one recent article declared, because husbands burn them to death in order to get another dowry from a second wife.

Gender violence? These people are killed because they are biologically women, not because they have been made "feminine" by culture. At last month's U.N. Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, petitions signed by half a million people around the world declared: "We demand gender violence to be recognized as a violation of human rights." The violence complained of is all too real, but it is violence against a sex, not a gender.

Then, there is my personal favorite, a recent headline: "Gender of Blue Crabs Easy to Tell."

Part of the reason that "sex" has been all but banished in its basic meaning is a reluctance on the part of some people to utter the word. But the far more important reason for the nearly ubiquitous misuse of "gender" is that "sex" implies that there are biological differences between males and females, a heresy that one faction of feminists calls "essentialism."

Most often, those who insist on speaking of "gender" contend that sex identity is entirely a product of culture. They say that any differences between the "genders" are learned -- "constructed" is the currently accepted terminology. The old one-liner, "Susan is of the female persuasion," is now taken seriously in many quarters.

But being female or male is not merely a matter of persuasion.

To contend that men and women are the same except for "different plumbing" is to adopt the most extreme form of John Locke's tabula rasa concept. It is to say that all humans at birth are slates that are completely blank except for a few parts that are of no particular significance except for mating and urination; otherwise, females and males are identical until culture constructs different genders.

Both common sense and biology show that this argument is wrong. Women and men are far more alike than different, but there are innate, genetic differences between them. The segment of DNA in the 46th chromosome pair (the one that is XX in females and XY in males) that differentiates males from females appears to be only about 1/1000 of the total DNA in a human cell.

This is certainly not much. But it does matter. It results in varying prenatal doses of hormones, which make the brains of the sexes a bit different (not better or worse, just different); and later flows of hormones, beginning at puberty, usually accentuate those differences.

It is obvious that culture has a large effect on the differing characteristics displayed by men and women. But to say that there are not, on average, somewhat different motivations in men and women as a result of their biological natures is nonsense. Can anyone seriously deny that hormones affect outlook and behavior?

No one who points to the sometimes deleterious effects of testosterone on men's behavior can sensibly maintain that only gender, not sex, matters. Culture does not produce hormones; biology does.

But while there are differences on average between the biological predispositions of women and men, the range of differences within each sex is very large and entirely overlaps that of the other sex. This means that prejudgment on the basis of sex is unwarranted. That the average man may be less suited for a task than the average woman in no way means that a particular man might not be better suited for it than a particular woman.

What makes the idea that there are biological differences between the sexes unpalatable is the assumption that difference must entail inequality, and so the acceptance of difference will perpetuate the subordination of women. But different things can be equal. The sexes are equal, but not congruent.

The trouble with accepting the congruence implied by "gender" is that it leads to just the reverse of what its proponents desire. The result is the assumption that there is one "right" human model, and that must be the one that has been in authority in the past: the male model. Surely, that is not the intent of those who have replaced "sex" with "gender" for ideological reasons.

There is no one "human creature"; women and men both are human creatures, very much the same, but on average a little different, and equally human.

Let's bring back sex.

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. His newest book, "The Way We Are: Human Nature, Sex and Traditional Values," will be published by Scribners next spring.

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