Pt. 2,The Sex/Gender Binary: Essentialism

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Radical feminist John Stoltenberg responds to transgender feminist Cristan Williams‘ essay by recounting the way in which their conversation began and reviews the way he and Andrea Dworkin viewed sex and gender essentialism. Stoltenberg then offers a new metaphor for conceptualizing sex and gender in a way that’s free of implied or asserted binaries.

Keywords: Sex Gender Social Constructionism Gender Theory

The Sex/Gender Binary: Essentialism
BY John Stoltenberg

The Conversation Begins

sub1bCristan, first of all: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to have this conversation with you. I was very touched to learn that my essay in Feminist Times about the life I shared with Andrea Dworkin was what prompted you to contact me. And I deeply welcome this chance to talk and listen. I’d like to begin with a few words about the background of that essay. I wrote it at the invitation of Feminist Times editors for a planned #GenderWeek editorial series. As I was composing it, I intended it to do three things. The first was to clarify that Andrea’s views were trans inclusive. (It was important to me to correct the record because some things I had read online said she would identify with the faction of radical feminists who are called trans critical or trans exclusionary—and I knew that not to be the truth.) Andrea’s views were trans inclusive when I first met her in 1974—she had said so in her first book, Woman Hating, where she wrote, in part, “Every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms.” (Her full statement is quoted here.) In the 31 years we were together those views did not change; she never retracted them. Nor for her was there ever any contradiction between being trans inclusive and her fierce and eloquent radical feminist commitment to end male supremacy and the sexual violence done to maintain it.


One of the reasons there was no such contradiction for Andrea was that, as she first articulated in Woman Hating, she did not believe there is a sex binary in the human species. And clarifying that became the second intention of mine in writing the piece. I wanted to explain that Andrea understood there is no essential division of humans (or material or ontological or biological or however you want to say it) into two discrete, fixed, and absolute categories of so-called sex. As she put it (in a passage that changed my life),

The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. 1

The discovery is inescapable:

We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete. 2 3

Andrea was to extend that analysis in later work. For instance in a speech published as “The Root Cause,” she drew a distinction between reality (meaning the gender hierarchy and polarity in social and political life as we know it) and truth (meaning what is, that which is actually existent, what she called “our general multisexuality”):

I have made this distinction between truth and reality in order to enable me to say something very simple: that while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true. It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. It is not true that the male embodies both positive and neutral human qualities and potentialities in contrast to the female who is female, according to Aristotle and all of male culture, “by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” And once we do not accept the notion that men are positive and women are negative, we are essentially rejecting the notion that there are men and women at all. In other words, the system based on this polar model of existence is absolutely real; but the model itself is not true. We are living imprisoned inside a pernicious delusion, a delusion on which all reality as we know it is predicated. In my view, those of us who are women inside this system of reality will never be free until the delusion of sexual polarity is destroyed and until the system of reality based on it is eradicated entirely from human society and from human memory. This is the notion of cultural transformation at the heart of feminism. This is the revolutionary possibility inherent in the feminist struggle.

Now, I know for some people that passage may be difficult to grasp or accept. Andrea had an encompassing intelligence; she read voraciously; the scope and sweep of her writing and speaking was vast. I myself was often overawed as I read her work in draft and was sometimes humbled by the enormous range of genres and voices in which she wrote. So I get why the entire body of her work is not necessarily equally accessible to every individual who reads her. In particular I’ve learned from recent online communications that there are those who identify as radical feminists who either do not comprehend or who disavow what Andrea said here about the difference between reality (the social-political hierarchy and polarity of gender) and truth (the infinite multisexuality that she believed to be intrinsic to the human species). Some have accused me of being revisionist for pointing out this fact of Andrea’s intellectual framework, which they reject because they believe there exists a true, fundamental, natural, essential sex binary. But the reason I am sure I’m right is that Andrea’s understanding to the contrary expressed itself not only in her written work but in our life together.

And this brings me to the third intention I had in writing that Feminist Times piece: I wanted to sketch biographically and autobiographically how this belief I learned from Andrea—that male and female, man and woman, are cultural constructions, pernicious delusions—found expression in the ethics and erotics of our life together. It was a belief that inspired much of what I wrote after we began living together. For instance in an essay titled “How Men Have (a) Sex” published in my first book, Refusing to Be a Man, I wrote, “There are as many sexes as there are people”— a direct borrowing from Andrea’s “we are a multisexed species.” 4 Granted, a brief essay in Feminist Times could not possibly say a whole lot about how that precept of our shared intellectual life manifested itself in all the years of our life together, but I tried to find a few instances that would give some idea. To make unmistakable this third intention, I titled the piece “Andrea Dworkin on Living Beyond Gender.”

I was grateful to the editors of Feminist Times that they accepted the manuscript without requesting any changes. They did want a different title, however, which they ran by me: “Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic.” I knew their title portrayed the piece reductionistically, but I also knew it was factually accurate and, being a longtime magazine editor myself, I could appreciate what is needed to get people to read stuff. So I okayed it. Unfortunately in the ire about the piece that ensued in that faction of radical feminists—on the basis of its title alone, angry objections began appearing online even before the piece published—my three intentions got overlooked.

Looking back on that essay in light of the blowback it got as well as in the context of the questions about language you have posed to start our conversation, I have to acknowledge that in that essay I conflated what some people would distinguish as the meanings of the words sex and gender. I’ve used the words interchangeably in other contexts as well, which I know to some is a linguistic no-no. Drawing a bright line between sex and gender is quite the fashion these days; in some quarters it’s de rigueur. The thing is, if one believes (as Andrea did and as I do) that the notion of an essential sex binary is a fallacy, then the point of sorting out what’s “sex” from what’s “gender” becomes irrelevant. Understandably, such sorting is insisted upon by those who want to say that whatever vagaries and variables may go by the name of gender, there exists a fixed, essential binary of sex, some core definitional content divisible unequivocally into two. Well fine, if that’s what one wants and needs to say. But if one not only doesn’t want to say that but doesn’t see any point in meaning it—if one doesn’t believe those two so-called essential sexes are true—well then, what’s the point?

I can hear my critics thinking, This dude doesn’t get that there are biological women; he must hate women. I get why I have rankled these critics: They believe something Andrea didn’t, and I’ve angered them by saying so. But beyond that I am honestly perplexed that a radical feminist politics of abolishing male supremacy should need to rest upon a biological determinant at all. Does one need to believe there is such a thing as a biological black person in order to know that white supremacy and its corollary race hate must be eliminated? Of course not. People with radical, to-the-root politics get that the purpose and function of white supremacy is to construct, assert, and maintain whiteness (which likes to think of itself as having an unequivocally physiological basis in the human genome somewhere but is in fact just phony-identity-defending hatred). Exactly the same justice-based, social-constructivist radicalism applies to manhood (which likes to think of itself as the birthright of biologically “real men” but is in fact just phony-identity-defending hatred). What’s driving both systems of dominance—white supremacy and male supremacy—is nothing innate in human nature; it is the drive to reify an identity construct that exists only through institutionalized dominance and acts of power over and against. But the problem of these two essentialisms—race and sex—goes beyond being analytically false and useless. As pet principles upon which to base an effective politics that has revolution and liberation as a goal, they are not only shortsighted but counterrevolutionary: Insisting on there being biological blacks plays into the malevolent cultural delusion there are and should be biological whites, which is precisely the fallacy white supremacists want to reify. Similarly, insisting on there being real biological women plays into the cultural delusion that there can and should be real biological men—a notion that Andrea saw through before I met her and that I began to repudiate shortly after knowing her.

I’ve noticed that people tend to think of sex and gender metaphorically. Whatever the science, the data, the findings, the so-called facts, our brains like to conceptualize this dimension of human nature and experience in what are basically images: binary, category, continuum, spectrum, and the like. These are all merely metaphors, really, signs that seem to help us wrap our minds around meanings that in fact can be elusive and consequently easily contested. Disagreements pop up as to which metaphor is the correct one for whatever people want or ought to mean when they say the words sex and gender. But really, we’re all talking metaphors, mental imagery for different human beings’ experiences of human embodiment.

A New Metaphor

So I’d like to suggest a new and altogether different metaphor, one that I think might better express what’s ineffable about what people have tried to name sex and/or gender.

Think of a color wheel. And don’t think of one with colors segmented by lines like a pinwheel; think of one where the colors blend and blur into one another as they do in the infinitely circular rainbow that is the visible spectrum:

Figure 1: Color spectrum wheel

I submit that for any individual, what we think of as sex and gender is actually more like a point somewhere on a color wheel (rather than a point somewhere on a linear continuum with two ends, each of which supposedly represents two poles of a binary). A person’s color point might be somewhere within a range—say, the blue range or the magenta range—and it might seem generally constant and unchangeable. Or it might seem to move, migrate around on the color wheel, or get lighter or darker. I’m not referring solely to people who identify as trans. I’m referring here to everyone’s experience over time, from moment to moment, week to week, decade to decade.

Colors are cultural signifiers but there are more colors than there are signifiers. Some colors get clumped into having a meaning. Some for instance are generalized as cool; others, warm. Some are viewed as opposite or complementary; others, adjacent. But really, there are gazillions more colors than there can possibly be meanings. Yet isn’t it amazing? Humans have evolved to be able to see each unique wavelength of them.

Now the really cool thing about the color wheel as a metaphor for sex and gender is that there are two types of color wheel. One type represents emanating light; its primary colors are red, green, and blue, which combine as the pixels you’re seeing if you’re reading this online. The other represents reflective light; its primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow, which are three of the ink colors used to print on paper. A sighted person’s eye can perceive colors that come from emanating light or from reflective light. To the retina, it’s all light. But the light originates in two different ways. Similarly our sense of sex and gender arises in two different ways. There is the color point we emanate at any given time. That’s like the color of our self-concept. But there’s also the color point that we reflect at any given time. That’s like the color point someone looking at us thinks or assumes we are. In other words, in human experience, sex and gender are expressive like points of color; and in social interactions, individuals’ sex and gender are inferred and interpreted like points of color.  And guess what? The emanated-light color point might be the same as the reflected-light point, or it might be different. Meanwhile, both color points can change in hue, saturation, and lightness or darkness over time. Each color point has a specific wavelength in the visible spectrum, what human eyes can discern. The wavelength is not the meaning, however; the wavelength is simply the visible signifier of cultural meanings we understand because they are interpolated, projected, intended, inferred, attributed, and such. What this means, of course, is that no particular meaning is inherent in any particular wavelength.

About This Series:
What you are reading is a conversation between Cristan Williams and John Stoltenberg that began more than a year ago. In April 2014 John published a personal essay about Andrea Dworkin, his life partner for thirty-one years, titled “Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic.” Cristan happened to read it and had a question for John, which she asked him in the comment thread. Unaware of who Cristan was, John replied. Shortly thereafter Cristan contacted John asking if he would be willing to be interviewed in The TransAdvocate, where she is managing editor. One email led to another and before long the two were writing back and forth in what became a wide-ranging, nearly book-length conversation. After several months, they realized what it was all about: “the radical inclusivity of radical feminism,” a conviction that both Cristan and John deeply share. That conversation, which is ongoing, is being published for the first time in installments on this site.
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  1. Dworkin, Andrea. “Androgyny: Androgyny, Fucking, and Community.” Woman Hating, 174. New York: Penguin Group, 1974.
  2. The italics are Andrea’s.
  3. ibid. 183.
  4. Stoltenberg, John. “How Men Have (A) Sex.” In Refusing to Be a Man Essays on Sex and Justice, 18. Rev. ed. London: UCL Press, 2000.

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