It is typically thought that sex is one’s biological designation in the reproductive process, whereas gender is the socially constructed and assigned significance of sex. Judith Butler and Ásta Sveinsdóttir both challenge this assumption. They posit that gender is a social complex that designates which body parts ought to be assigned meaning, and which body parts are viable candidates for social meaning. As such, gender and sex are culturally constructed, and are virtually indistinguishable. Sveinsdóttir, while agreeing with Butler, also asserts that sex assignments are based on biological features. However, since it seems to factor into social explanations more so than biological explanations, it seems reasonable to think of sexual designations as social properties. In what follows, I will explore Sveinsdóttir’s arguments in-depth, then argue that sex is a natural property derived from the function of certain biological features.
Since Ásta Sveinsdóttir recapitulates Butler’s arguments, and is far clearer, I’ll simply focus on explaining her arguments. Sveinsdóttir, in “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender,” explains and adopts Butler’s views on sex and gender, with a few caveats. Along with Butler, she asserts that gender schemes provide the framework for sexual designations by identifying and defining human bodies (Sveinsdóttir 53). In order for the sex designations to be stable, the gender framework presents sex as socially prior and established in nature (Butler 9, 10; Sveinsdóttir 55). Furthermore, sex, like gender, has normative rules attached to it. The normative rules of sex are which gender one ought to conform to qua sexed person, and the rules of gender dictate individual comportment qua gendered individual. As such, individuals do not encounter gender norms passively, but rather appropriate them, act them out, and become them in some sense(Butler 34; Sveinsdóttir 53, 55, 57). Since sex is merely constructed within gender, and since sex designations have normative rules as well, it follows that the distinction between sex and gender either collapses completely or is blurred significantly (cf. Butler 9, 10).
Although Sveinsdóttir agrees with Butler that sex is constructed via gender, she insists that sexual constructions must have some biological foundations. For instance, she points out that it is readily observable that certain people do in fact play particular roles in the reproductive process; no amount of interpretation can change that (Sveinsdóttir 58). As such, any account asserting the social construction of sex would have to “[give] the constraints of nature its due”(ibid.).
Sveinsdóttir compromises with Butler, and argues that sex is a conferred property. Conferralism involves five elements: the property being ascribed to someone, the person doing the assigning, the attitudes or judgments relevant to the property in question, the conditions surrounding the ascription, and which traits are being tracked by the property(Sveinsdóttir 59, 60). To prove her point, she takes child birth as an example: it is not one’s sexual designation which determines fertility, but rather particular natural traits tracked by the sexual property (Sveinsdóttir 62). Furthermore, sex seems to primarily explain social phenomena, rather than biological phenomena (ibid.). Additionally, it is the judgment of authority figures at one’s birth which determines sex, rather than biological characteristics simpliciter (Sveinsdóttir 63). They determine sex according to certain “sex-stereotypes” rather than careful scientific inquiry, which lends strength to the idea that sex conforms to gender (Sveinsdóttir 64). As such, Sveinsdóttir concludes that sex is a conferred property.
Moving on to my critique, I’ll first analyze Sveinsdóttir’s argument that sex is a conferred property. As part of her argument, she claims that one’s sex assignment does not grant the ability to bear children, but rather it is “some other [set of] properties that the sex assignment is intended to track” (Sveinsdóttir 62). She further asserts that sex’s primary explanatory power is found “when it comes to the distribution of various social resources, privileges and burdens” (ibid.). To her mind, this “suggests that sex is a social property and not a natural one” (ibid.). In the paragraph being cited, it’s not clear whether the characteristics are natural or social. However, the characteristics would have to be natural, since social traits do not impact birthing capacity. In order for her argument to succeed, it must be established that the sexual property is not naturally contained within the biological characteristics tracked by sexuality. For the property to be contained within the characteristics means that it may be empirically derived from the function of the relevant characteristics. If the sex property can be derived simply from the function of certain characteristics, then we may say that sex is a natural, non-conferred property. Consequently, if the property is naturally derived from biological characteristics, then it need not explain any of the relevant functions of said traits; since sex would be a property derived from functional biological characteristics, it would not have to explain anything. Furthermore, so long as sexuality can be established as a natural property, it does not matter why they have a strong social role. As such, its primary role in social delineations need not be worrisome.
In order for us to assume that the sex property is separate from the natural traits it tracks, we have to ask two questions: first, how is sex defined? Second, what are the biological functions of the traits it tracks? A basic definition of sex could be as follows: it is one’s designated role in the reproductive cycle. The physical traits associated with the reproductive cycle are: the penis, the testicles, etc; the vagina, the uterus, ovaries, etc. The former characteristics clearly play an inseminating role; the latter traits play a “receptive,” “carrying,” and birthing role. It is readily observable that there are people who possess these body parts, and thus play particular roles in the reproductive cycle, all other things being equal. Given this information, it seems that two categories are immediately derivable: first, there is the category of people whose body parts, all other things being equal, would designate them as those who produce eggs viable for insemination. Second, there is the category of people whose body parts, all other things being equal, would designate them as those who produce sperm, and thus fulfill the inseminating role. The former obviously corresponds to the ‘female’ category, and the latter corresponds to the ‘male’ category. In other words, these designations are clearly derivable from certain biological traits and their functions. Therefore, male-ness and female-ness are natural properties.
To revisit what was discussed: Sveinsdóttir argues that sex is constructed within gender norms, and is a property conferred by authority figures. She asserts that since its primary explanatory role is social, it should not be considered a natural property. In response to Sveinsdóttir, I argued that apart from the biological characteristics relevant to reproduction, the properties of male-ness and female-ness would be non-existent. Thus, my arguments demonstrate that it is reasonable to assume sex as a natural property.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Sveinsdóttir, Ásta Kristjana. “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender.” Feminist Metaphysics. 2011. 47-65.