Is gender mostly a social construct?
- John Money (1921-2006) invented the concept of ‘gender identity,’ theorizing gendered behaviors were societal constructions not bound to biology. Opening the first US gender clinic at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Money was among the first doctors to study/perform “sex reassignment surgeries” and tested his gender theory on the male-born Reimer twins in the controversial “John/Joan” case.
- Before Money coined the terms “gender identity” and “gender roles”, “gender” was primarily a language term applicable to grammar and not synonymous to “sex” until the 20th century.
- The American College of Pediatrics released a statement in 2021 asserting that gender and sex are not synonymous, saying “gender identity, resting largely upon a psychological comfort or discomfort with one’s biological sex, is neither innate nor immutable and does not in any way determine biological sex.”
- A 2018 Pew Research survey reports around 42% of Americans believe that when forms or online profiles “asks about a person’s gender, it should include options other than ‘man’ and ‘woman’ for people who don’t identify as either.”
- As of February 24, 2021, a Gallup report estimates 5.6% of US adults identify as LGBTQ, with 11.3% of that group identifying as transgender.
Are masculine and feminine gender roles a social construct? Perhaps. But is gender itself a social construct? If using the term interchangeably with 'sex,' then no; gender is not socially constructed. Historically, gender etymology derives from the Latin word genus—meaning birth, descent, origin, or type—and the french word genre—meaning kind, sort, or style. Language aside, is a gestating mother merely a 'social construct,' or is she demonstrating innate biological realities? Those who reject gendered stereotypes, such as feminists do (dresses and makeup is not what makes a woman), are finding those stereotypes reasserted amongst trans activists, who push the idea that sex, like gender, is a spectrum. The belief gender is socially constructed stems from gender theory, first emerging in the mid-60s as a subset of postmodern critical theory. As the name implies, these are theories. Theories that are ultimately proven false when it rejects scientific, biological truth.
Distinct sexual dichotomy is reflected throughout the animal kingdom: one species impregnates, and another gets impregnated. The procreation of any species requires sexual dimorphism: male and female. Intersex people do not disprove the reality gender/sexual differences, just as people born without limbs don't disprove the reality that humans have limbs. Likewise, if there aren’t distinct gender differences, one must wonder what exactly LGBTQ is identifying in to or out of.
Some buck against gender because of the perceived inequality between the sexes, but as the saying goes, “men tend to value things, women tend to value people.” This is reflected in their life choices, which are geared towards different pursuits, explaining most outcome disparities. Gender is not the enemy here, constructed to keep women down and men up. Gender is expressed uniquely through every human and does not disprove the biological reality of the sexual binary.
Gender identity as a social construct isn't just a position taken by activists. Well-respected medical organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association all refer to gender in those terms and define it differently from biological sex.
Even if one wanted to assume some innate association between sex and gender, the presentation of gender has changed over time and between cultures, displaying a heavy socialization component. For instance, men (generally) no longer wear high heels to show off their aristocratic status, and pink is now considered a feminine color instead of a masculine one. Or take the way occupations have become coded to certain genders. Secretaries until the late 19th century were almost exclusively male. Yet, today, the position is far more likely to be perceived as feminine.
And that's just from a Western European perspective. Two-Spirit people within indigenous cultures—people who embody various types of non-binary gender identity—used to occupy specialized positions within many pre-colonial Native American communities, while numerous Asian cultures in places like Thailand and the Philippines have historically recognized multiple genders and trans identities.
Often in these discussions, 'social construct' is presented as equivalent to 'imaginary.' But simply because something is a social construct does not rob it of its meaning. After all, nation-states, religious traditions, and the conception of time itself—among many, many other things—are also social constructs. Yet rarely do you see people dismiss the existence of a nation or clocks simply because their history and traditions result from social interactions instead of anatomy. Gender should not be treated any differently.