Body shopping

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 41, Summer 2000.

It seems that any new word designed to describe something other than sex difference is eventually reabsorbed into that same biological discourse, so strong is the impulse to discuss gender relations in terms of nature. Not surprisingly therefore, feminist usage of the term ‘gender’ has been displaced almost entirely by the common tendency to use it as a polite — or politically knowing — euphemism for the term ‘sex’. At first glance, this would also appear to be the fate of the emerging vocabulary of ‘gender outlaws’. In this article, however, Debbie Cameron argues that, far from being outlaws, these self-styled ‘sex radicals’ are far more deeply wedded to the relationship between sexed body parts and gender identity than any die-hard Darwinian.

In politics, words matter; in feminist politics, one of the words that matters most is gender. Recently, though, something peculiar seems to have happened to this useful and important word: something that interests me as a linguist, and irritates me as a feminist.

It’s easy to forget how recently gender, meaning something to do with women and men as opposed to something you learn about in grammar lessons, entered the vocabulary of the English-speaking public at large. In 1976, the British socialist critic Raymond Williams published his influential book Keywords, which traces the history and usage of various politically significant words. A revised edition appeared in 1983 [1]. But even in the later edition, the word gender does not rate an entry. Instead it is discussed briefly in the entry for sex, and what Raymond Williams says about it shows very little awareness of feminist usage over the previous decade. He remarks that after the emergence of a critique of sexism in the 1960s, some writers began using gender where before they would have used sex. He suggests that these writers were trying to avoid ‘the C20 associations now gathered around sex (cf. the rejection of views or presentations of women as sex objects‘. In other words, sex had acquired a primarily erotic meaning, and consequently speakers felt the need for another word to refer to the difference between men and women.

This is not the reason most feminists would give (or would ever have given) for preferring gender to sex. For feminists the point is a theoretical one: that the social condition of being a woman or being a man is not the same thing as, and does not follow ‘naturally’ from, the biological condition of being female or male. Since that point was first made, the distinction between sex (biologically given) and gender (socially constructed) has been subject to criticism from within feminism (postmodernist feminists have questioned it, so have materialist feminists like Christine Delphy, and so have ethnomethodologists, as Stevi Jackson explains elsewhere in this issue of T&S). Nevertheless, the insight that being a woman or a man is a matter of culture rather than nature remains fundamental to just about every kind of feminism.

But outside feminist circles, it seems that this understanding of what gender means has limited currency. The word itself is now common enough, but often it is used simply as a substitute for sex, with no necessary implication that the phenomenon denoted by the term is social rather than biological. Sometimes, indeed, the implication is the opposite. For instance, I once heard a biologist on TV explaining that there was still no reliable DNA test for ‘gender’. If gender is understood in the feminist sense then this observation is redundant. What he meant, of course, and in context it was quite clear, was that contrary to popular belief, scientists still cannot categorise individuals as biologically male or female with 100% reliability by inspecting their chromosomes.

The avoidance of the word sex in this context is remarkable. (If a biologist cannot talk about biology, who can?) It suggests that sex has become some sort of ‘dirty word’, whether because of its strong association with the erotic or because of a perception that gender is to sex as Black or African American/Caribbean is to coloured — it means the same thing but is somehow politer or more ‘politically correct’.

Another example comes from a 1999 letter to The Guardian in which the writer Adam Mars-Jones drew attention to the apparent existence of homosexual behaviour in colonies of King Penguins, noting: ‘Courtship activities such as “bowing” and “dabbling” take place between males, as well as between penguins of different genders’. Penguins of different genders? Here, the use of gender can hardly be motivated by squeamishness about sex in the ‘copulation’ sense, since that is the whole subject of the letter. But if Adam Mars-Jones thinks penguins have gender, he evidently doesn’t understand the term as meaning socially constructed femininity/masculinity. This is strange, given that Adam Mars-Jones is not just any old writer, but a well-known gay activist and intellectual. Gay and queer theorists as well as feminists have a stake in the term gender, since they have also questioned, albeit not always for the same reasons as feminists, the assumption that particular characteristics, desires and behaviours follow ‘naturally’ from the possession of particular kinds of sexed bodies.

From gender to transgender

It is queer theorists and activists who have recently added a new term to the social constructionist vocabulary: the word transgender(ed). Gender provides the root from which this term is derived, while the trans- prefix echoes two older words, namely transvestite (someone who cross-dresses) and transsexual (someone who changes sex). In current activist and scholarly usage, transgender is an overarching term which encompasses these already familiar possibilities — but importantly, it is not limited to them. Whereas transvestite suggests a fairly superficial and temporary kind of ‘crossing’, and transsexual an absolute, permanent switch (living as someone of ‘the other sex’ and re-sexing the physical body by way of surgical procedures and hormone treatment), transgender is potentially more complex and ambiguous.

For example, in Brazil there is a group of people — born and brought up male — who are known in Portuguese as travesti [2]. The word means ‘cross dressed’, and travestis do wear women’s clothing, but their ‘crossing’ takes other and more drastic forms as well. They adopt women’s names; they take hormones and inject silicone into their breasts, buttocks and thighs to produce a feminized body-shape; they are erotically attracted to (non-feminized) men. At the same time, they retain their male genitals and penetrate their sexual partners as well as being penetrated by them. Unlike those transsexuals who seek surgery on the grounds that they are suffering from the clinical condition of ‘gender dysphoria’ [3], Brazilian travestis do not regard themselves as ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’. Indeed, they regard MTF (male to female) transsexuals who want to be women — and are willing to lose their penises in that cause — as insane. Travestis say quite clearly that they are homosexual men, and that they reconstruct their bodies in order to be attractive to the kind of men they desire. Travestis’ bodies end up having a mixture of male and female characteristics (e.g. a penis and breasts). ‘Transgendered’ is not a word they would use for themselves, but it is considered by people who have studied them to be an apter label than ‘transsexual’, which tends to suggest switching rather than mixing.

Prominent among those who do claim the label ‘transgendered’ for themselves are those western ‘gender outlaws’ who undergo sex-change operations but refuse (as an act of conscious political subversion) to categorize themselves as ‘women’ or ‘men’, to adopt all the conventional markers of their chosen gender or to identify as heterosexual. The law such individuals are breaking is the one that says sexed bodies, gendered social identities and erotic desires should all ‘match’ — and this in a framework where there are always exactly two positions (male/female, masculine/feminine, hetero/homo). Transgender in these people’s usage is meant to challenge the idea of a pure, two-term system in which every individual is (whether ‘naturally’ or not) ‘either one thing or the other’.

But, hang on a minute: wasn’t challenging the presupposition of an absolute and immutable binary opposition part of the business of the word gender, part of the reason for using it as an alternative to sex? Although feminists were bound to acknowledge the overwhelming social fact of two genders as well as two sexes, there was nothing in the feminist definition that ruled out the possibility of gender ‘crossing’, or of a future society with more than two genders or of one with no gender at all. So why do we need to refer to people who are anomalous within the binary system as transgendered rather than just gendered? One might suggest that ‘trans’ emphasises the processual aspect, the ‘becoming’ that is evident in transgendered people’s life stories: but again, ‘becoming’ was one of the things feminists had tried to build into their theory of gender, where it applied to everyone, not only the ‘anomalous’ cases. (In Simone de Beauvoir’s classic formulation, ‘one is not born a woman; one becomes one’.)

Arguably, transgender is needed because gender has failed: at best it is understood as a sort of cultural icing on the biological cake, while at worst (which is even more common) it is understood as synonymous with sex. It seems possible that transgender itself may meet a comparable fate as it is taken up by a wider speech community. Perhaps it will come to be equated with the phenomenon most people currently call transsexualism (altering the body to fit the man/woman you always knew you ‘really’ were). In that case a new term will be needed for cases that are harder to fit within the dual gender system.

Not the revolution

I said at the beginning of this piece that words matter in politics; but the issue isn’t just words. Not all languages have two words corresponding exactly to the English sex and gender. The absence of the distinction in the vocabulary of, for instance, Swedish or French (the language in which Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex) clearly hasn’t prevented feminists who speak those languages from distinguishing between biology and culture. But because English does have two words, it is possible to see, by looking at the way they are actually used, how the distinction is understood in English-speaking societies. Examples like the ones I’ve quoted here suggest that it is not really understood. The idea that differences between women and men are rooted in nature remains far more powerful than the idea that they are socially constructed.

The newer term transgender does not seem to me to represent either a conceptual or a linguistic advance. As I have already said, it would not be needed in any case if the feminist usage of gender had achieved the kind of currency its originators intended. But beyond that, there is something deeply contradictory about the whole idea of transgender, or at least the version of it that is most often put forward by transgender activists in their speeches and books.

These activists not surprisingly agree with feminists that women and men are made rather than born — in other words, that gender is a social construct. They vociferously denounce the essentialist position that leads to the persecution of people like themselves on the grounds that they are flying in the face of nature. They are also critical of the medical authorities who will only prescribe treatment if a patient is willing to conform to gender stereotypes. But if you have grasped that gender is socially constructed, and that conventional gender norms are oppressive and limiting, should the logical next move not be to reject gender as we know it? If you argue that gender is fluid rather than fixed, and that there is no necessary connection between sexed bodies and gendered social identities, why should making the move to a different or ambiguous gender involve drastic and permanent alterations to the physical body?

Whatever we think about the beliefs of travestis, and of transsexuals who claim to have been born with the ‘wrong’ body, at least their practices are consistent with those beliefs. There is a logic there which is absent from the more ‘sophisticated’ arguments of the (trans)gender outlaws. To me, the phenomenon of transgender does not challenge but rather underlines the continuing power of sex/gender dualism, and the persistence of the tendency to ground gender in sex. Men and women are conceptualised as assemblies of body parts, and the ‘radical’ aspect of transgender is simply that you can mix and match bits from the two available models. Saying that this revolutionises our ideas about gender is like saying that customising cars revolutionises our ideas about transport.

Crossing gender boundaries is something of a theme in this issue of T&S (see also the pieces by Stevi Jackson and Liz Kelly), and no doubt that is a sign of the times. From the tackiest talk show to the most acclaimed film, popular culture is currently obsessed with the subject. Even while I was writing this I was interrupted by a TV researcher working on a series in which ‘ordinary’ men and women will be given training and then sent out to see if they can pass as members of the other gender. (When I raised a few elementary theoretical objections to the way the programme makers proposed to go about it, the researcher reminded me that the aim was to entertain. Oh, so that’s all right then.) Meanwhile, the plasticity or otherwise of sex-linked characteristics, and the possibility of manipulating them deliberately, is one of the hot topics of contemporary science and medicine.

I see these developments as part of our culture’s ever-increasing individualism and consumerism. Gender, sex and sexuality are being sold as matters of individual choice (though as always in a consumerist culture, many so-called choices are only available to those who have the cash) and also as forms of individual self-expression. I believe it is important for feminists to respond to this tendency, making clear why we are critical of it without just lapsing into the kind of ‘it’s unnatural’ rhetoric favoured by social and religious conservatives. Recent linguistic and cultural changes have tended to take the politics out of gender; feminists must try to put them back.


[1] Raymond Williams, Keywords. (Fontana, 1983)

[2] The source of my information about the travestis is an anthropological study by Don Kulick: Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[3] The term ‘gender dysphoria’ is itself an example of the way gender is persistently reduced to sex. What (allegedly) causes the ‘dysphoria’ (= ‘bad feelings’) of the people this term is applied to is their conviction that they have the wrong body for their preferred social role and identity. Typically they have to prove to the doctors that they are not ambivalent or confused about their ‘true’ gender.