What should we make of the ideological development of sex and sexuality? Is sex [as opposed to gender] a biological fact? A social construction? A self-creation? It turns out to be all these things at once. There are facts of biology, law-like interactions. But the facts of biology are not ‘men have penises’ and ‘women have vaginas’ or ‘men are rational’ and ‘women are emotional’. The facts of biology are that cells are influenced by chromosomes, not just XY versus XX but XY, XX, XXX, XO, XXY, and XYY. Within any individual, at the cellular level, one might have a set of cells in one sex configuration and a set of cells in another. The composition of our cells will determine the shape and size of genitalia and gonads, how they function in terms of human reproduction, what sort of shape and texture our bodies will take as we reach adulthood – i.e. what kind of secondary sex characteristics we will manifest. Our bodies exist on a continuum with most people falling on one side or the other. But karyotypes that make a human body do not make a human person.
Personhood is constructed through our metabolic interaction with the natural world, including other persons – our life on the planet within a universe operating within the laws of physics. Our experience of this metabolic interaction with the natural world (which is experienced in part as resources that sustain us) is conditioned by the social ordering of those resources and the social relations required to maintain that order.
Social relations organize human biology according to what is compatible with the needs of the system and what is biologically possible. This is not done just through propaganda campaigns but also through material pressures. During the hunter-gatherer epoch, children were spaced according to the need for group mobility. In settled agriculture, more children were needed and women were tasked with childcare roles. (And the women were sorted into the category according to their assumed reproductive faculties based on a general inductive logic of signs of the roles in reproduction – guesses about future genitalia and secondary sex characteristics.) Even women who did not bear children, like the person at a traffic light in the desert, would be disciplined into understanding their place in the world.
The problem with poststructuralist conceptions of discipline is the assumption that social discipline comes from language and power, and therefore personally resisting discipline becomes a socially transformative act. Certainly, we can use Fields to develop a materialist conception of Butler’s theory of iterability.
On the other hand, psychoanalytic explanations based in object relations theory are circular: girls become women because they look at a woman (their mother) and say, ‘I am going to be a woman someday, I must break from my mother but somehow also become one.’ This is naturalized through the presence of the phallus (first the biological penis from Freud, then the conceptual phallus from Lacan), which is understood as provoking a response in the child as symbolic of having and lacking.
Because the phallus is the dominant signifier of sexual relations, there is what Nina Power called the ‘tragic-psychoanalytic model’ of Lacanian sexual relations, where there is no genuine possibility of love between the sexes. This view is influenced by the structuralist paradigm, where gender discipline is produced from a matrix generated from the deep structures of presence and absence. The Foucauldian model of discipline operates through the reflection of power throughout the social field, like a spotlight refracted through a house of mirrors; discipline makes you confess, makes you expose yourself.
However, another model of discipline, a Marxian model, could be derived from the experience of material social relations. In this model, people are shaped by interactions, by the adoption of behaviors they predict will satisfy desires, by their rejection of behaviors that seem to hold no promise of satisfaction, and by the pressure to repeat behaviors, even those they experience as irrational, because they are standard operating procedures within the system in which they exist.
For example, the figure of the loving and gentle mother is an attractive one, particularly in a brutal world. It is attractive for those who need soothing and it is attractive to those who find meaning in life by caring for others. So the idea of ‘mother’ is ideologically powerful under capitalism in that it is logical and satisfying. It is also logical to the systemic drive for profit: a mother’s love means less social spending for childcare, schooling, and eldercare. However, this ideological phenomenon, this reification – hagiography even – of motherhood has its dark underside in that it reinforces the logic of oppositional sexism: a woman must be all these things – the system requires it. In a less brutal world, the relation between mother and child would be more contingent, resulting in greater freedom for individual development, and the freedom from enforced drudgery for many of those organized into the ‘woman camp’.
It is not likely that the mythology of Holy Motherhood will wither away under capitalism – and especially not among the working classes and the poor. In a sense, it has already withered away for the ruling classes who are not raised by their mothers but by their nannies and maids. Here, caretaking is not just something women do: it is something that poor women do. Motherhood is not only a gendered configuration, it is understood through class dynamics: the feminization of care is dialectically related to the feminization of poverty.
Here, we are still clearly in the terrain of social constructivism, even though it is a materialist constructivism. So, what accounts for gender variance? What accounts for the fact that some assigned to the ‘woman camp’ feel relatively at home in their bodies but wish to integrate the behaviors and expectations of men, and others do not feel at home in their bodies at all? Here, the ideology of oppositional sexism no longer makes sense. For those who find gender ideology to be patently irrational or personally unsatisfying, it is only through force that they keep adhering to it: through fear of social alienation, fear of not being able to sell a complexly gendered self on the market, and fear of violence.
If gender is ideological, how can some desire to change their bodies to match an ideological framework, one that they, perhaps, are also contesting? The foundation of the answer is not so difficult: what is socially constructed is material in motion, and bodies are part of the material shaped. We know that bodies are not born into two ideal categories – XY man with testes and XX woman with ovaries; rather, we are comprised of cells, combinations of which produce different reactions. There is no reason to assume that some configurations do not produce a sense that one’s body composition is ‘off’.
However, when one has the desire to change one’s body, one is also, depending on the changes made, expected to change one’s social gender. At that point, social gender must be dealt with. Just as those assigned as females at birth might not reject social gendering, there is no reason to assume that those who adjust the composition of their bodies would not also sometimes challenge gender expectations and sometimes not challenge them.
Some trans women want to be beautiful flowers because there are aspects of feminine gender expression that they find lovely and edifying – for the same reason that cis women do. Other trans women have no interest in being delicate in any way and do not see how femininity has anything at all to do with being a woman – just like some cis women do. In addition, some trans men also want to be beautiful flowers. Some intersex people feel at home with some social gender expectations; others do not feel at home with any at all. Everything that is possible exists. Nothing exists ex nihilo sprung from a well-formed or ill-formed Platonic vision. Queer, trans, and intersex people are real. Queer, trans, and intersex people are rational. Queer, trans, and intersex people are part of the everybody.
We can perform against the prevailing ideology – break from what is generally repeated – but the parameters of that ideology will not change unless the material social relations that support the ideology also change. Social relations – class relations – do not prescriptively determine exactly what will be, but they constrain the parameters of what can be. A eunuch in Byzantium could not imagine the parameters of liberal pluralism, and a boy in a tenth-century Germanic tribe could not imagine ‘anti-Black racism’; in fact, even seventeenth-century Americans didn’t know the terms ‘Black’ and ‘White’.
Queer politics based on challenging binaries through demonstrating the ideological character of those binaries is not itself a sufficient condition to eradicate gender ideologies brought about by the forces of everyday material life as it is organized through capitalist social relations. Likewise, demonstrating the absurdities of racist ideologies is not a sufficient condition to eradicate racism. Even if every white person in the United States were to recognize the fallacious reasoning in the construction of racial ideology, even if every white person were to become sensitive to the absurdities faced by Black people in the criminal justice system, nothing would change until there were an organized movement to challenge those absurdities.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was deemed responsible for failing to prevent his own murder. Acceptance of this absurdity, like the repetition of stopping at a stoplight in an empty desert, enforces its meaning; if you accept that some small children deserve to be mowed down in a matter of seconds for holding a toy gun on an empty sidewalk, then your epistemological map will adopt this as a natural consequence of ‘the way things are’. The next atrocity down the line will be that much easier to accept. Many people will not accept that such atrocities are logical, but without organizing with others to solve the problem, they will be left to quietly submit to a map that makes no sense.
Change requires awareness and solidarity, but change also requires change.