The clash

Alright. I gave a longish introduction to what my personal feminism crisis consists in, so I might as well get to the point now.

Like many people, I used to have a very naive and biologistic view of gender. It was a massive eye-opener to me when I was first introduced to the idea that there are two layers to being a man or a woman: the body level (the “biological sex”) and the social level (“gender”). While English at least has those two words (although I was told that many native speakers think that “gender” is just a polite way to say “sex”), German only has “Geschlecht”.

The idea in separating the two is that some of what it is to be a woman (or a man) is determined by sex , but a lot of what we think to be “womanly” (or “manly”) is actually determined by a society. Being part of a society, we can work towards changing that if we want to. While it is a sex issue that almost all women deal with menstruation or pregnancy-related topics at some times in their lives, the way women can or can’t dress, behave, speak,… is a gender issue. While it is pointless to complain that we have to deal with certain sex issues, it is absolutely not pointless to try to change the expectations that constitute the gender level.  This was so much of a revelation to me that I can’t imagine that I ever thought about related issued without applying these concepts.

While this was entirely new to me a couple of years ago, it is actually already the old conception of gender.  It has been criticized for some of what it says about the biological level: biology now knows more than one dimension of biological sex, there is so much more than just genitalia. However, we still assign sex at birth according to genitalia. That way, some people learn later in life that they, for example, have the female characteristic on one dimension (say genitalia) but the male characteristics on other dimensions (say chromosomes). This means that they are intersex. It also means that most of us actually do not know if we are intersex, unless we have for example our chromosomes checked.  This now creates trouble for the two-layer view I described above: It needs to say much more about how the body-level categories work and how many there actually are.

And here, queer theory (sometimes called “queer feminism”) enters the stage. As far as I understand, the view in queer theory (and definitely underlying some queer activism) is that these problems for the two-layer view can be seen as proof that both levels are “socially constructed”. This alone would not be too bad for the proponents of the view because, contrary to some views, social construction is a harmless diagnosis. Money is socially constructed, and that diagnosis does not magically make money go away. The trouble for the view comes with the premise that social constructions are instruments of power and are to be measured according to their inclusiveness. If they are not inclusive, they need to disappear. Biological sex is said to be an exclusive concept because it excludes intersex and trans people and therefore, it needs to go. Queer activism often calls for a replacement of the two layers of gender by a third one which is self-identification.

I was on board with this for quite some time, until I saw some of the consequences. Of course they are extreme, they are relatively rare, and they need not be representative. But they are consequences nonetheless. One consequence is that it is sometimes seen as bigotry if feminists call abortion and pregnancy “a women’s issue” instead of “an issue for people with a uterus”. It also makes room for complaints such as “Feminism is not important anymore because of its focus on women.” And last but not least, it is sometimes seen as hateful bigotry if someone’s self-identification as lesbian includes the thought of the partner having “a female anatomy” instead of “a vagina”. If you have read my longish introduction, you might have an idea about why that gives me stomach-ache.

I think that we need a three-layer view of gender, which includes gender identity but also contains the biological level and the socialisation level in order to make sense of everyone’s experiences. But I am afraid that in some corners of the feminist internet and in some actual places I go to, this is seen as a totally unacceptable and even hateful view. And that constitutes my “feminism crisis”.

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