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.
But what if there is such a connection? What if certain human social conventions arise from natural, embodied human tendencies? Kimmel’s scholarly method does not allow for the possibility. He has built his conclusion into the very premises of his argument. He declares that he will prove from the sociological data that gender differences do not arise from nature, but his definitions assume the very conclusion he claims to be proving before he even looks at the evidence. Kimmel’s book, like far too much of gender studies, is driven by ideology rather than by science.
Of course, this is a criticism that is increasingly being raised about sociology in general. Sociology’s historical roots are in the post-millennial, social gospel theology of the late nineteenth century. Early sociologists sought to ground the social gospel impulse in the hard data of science rather than in the traditional dogmas of religious teaching. But the field has increasingly come under criticism for letting ideology determine its scientific analysis instead of teaching us truths about human society. Kimmel’s colleague at Stony Brook, Stephen Cole, gathered a group of sociologists to make this point in a book titled What’s Wrong with Sociology? And Mark Regnerus, sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has recalled in a piece here at Public Discourse,
As a graduate student, I worked for a time with a professor who analyzed and reanalyzed data until it could sustain the story she wished to tell about it. This practice ignores the key sociological goal of being able to explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world. And it’s a textbook example of why so many remain skeptical of the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular. The data will often say anything you’d like them to say, if you adjust (and justify) how you analyze them.
This description captures the spirit of Kimmel’s The Gendered Society and of gender studies in general. Indeed, the problem is even worse in gender studies than in other sociological fields because virtually every single person working in the field holds to the deconstructive view of gender.
It need not be this way. Gender studies is an important field from which we have much to learn. We could desperately use an influx of sharp and disciplined minds willing to explore the connections among gender, sex (i.e., biology), and society. But as it is, the deconstructionists rule the roost, and that means that their abuses of the sociological method are permitted to proliferate largely unchallenged. To be fair, gender studies remains in a state of infancy. No doubt like other sociological fields, it will mature through a process of controversy and critique. But that has not yet happened, and in the meantime, gender studies is doing major cultural damage.
Helping Men and Women Become “More Deeply and Fully Themselves”
In spite of his skewed definitions, Kimmel comes to a number of conclusions that contradict the logic of his own thesis. For instance, he defends the segregation of women and men in the realm of sports based on physical sex differences. He skillfully describes the different ways in which women and men experience and practice sexual relationships, insisting that the differences appear even more starkly when looking at gay and lesbian relationships. He acknowledges the necessity of technologically advanced methods of birth control and abortion for women’s social and sexual equality. And he favors special treatment of women in order to achieve full gender equality in the world of work. These differences are justified, he insists, based on the true sex differences between women and men.
Indeed, Kimmel even concludes the book by claiming that the social transformation he is promoting “does not require that men and women become more like each other, but, rather, more deeply and fully themselves.” Yet he fails to acknowledge that he is doing precisely what he claims to be arguing against: drawing gender distinctions as the necessary implications of natural sex differences.
What does Kimmel think is at stake? He thinks that gender difference is the product of gender inequality. “By eliminating gender inequality, we will remove the foundation upon which the entire edifice of gender difference is built.” The result, he insists, will not be “some nongendered androgynous gruel, in which differences between women and men are blended and everyone acts and thinks in exactly the same way,” but a context in which our individual uniqueness and differences will be permitted to define who we are as human beings. In short, Kimmel thinks that gender differences are inherently oppressive. There can be no genuine equality between women and men as long as gender differences are seen to arise from nature.
I share Kimmel’s desire to see genuine equality between women and men. Indeed, much of Kimmel’s work has the salutary effect of deconstructing misguided assumptions about gender that deserve to be abandoned to the rubbish heap of history, such as the pervasive tendency to identify masculinity with violence or femininity with intellectual weakness. The liberation of women for social and political equality during the past century was a moral imperative, long overdue and clearly to the long-term benefit of Western society.
But if gender studies is going to serve as a helpful guide for the next century, it must abandon its invented dualisms of sex and gender, nature and nurture, embodiment and social construction. Gender sociologists need to study the way human beings actually live rather than the way they wish we would live. They need to become less ideological and more scientific.