We all know that with the best intentions we can commit the worst mistakes. I want now to comment on one error, which takes place in the especially painful field of the struggle for equality between men and women: I mean the distinction between “sex” and “gender”.
Sex might be biological and gender might be social, sex describes the anatomical and physiological differences between men and women and gender may depict the inequalities between the roles of men and women, with the former prevailing as is portrayed in social, cultural, economical and religious patterns all through history.
Those who’d rather talk of gender explicitly mean to transcend the biological level towards the social one, exposing the abuses committed by men upon women, and thus undermining their traditional justification of the alleged natural superiority of men. In short, maybe nature was egalitarian, but society, always phallocratic and machista has promoted injustice between men and women.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of nature. Any naturalist could overwhelm us with such examples of cruelty among animals that our hearts would shrink and make us rejoice that they have not been able to invent weapons. Coming back to our human species I totally agree that the history of all known societies in every civilization shows that whenever they could, individually and collectively men have taken advantage of their muscular superiority to subjugate women. We’ll not spend one moment arguing against all the murders, assaults, rapes, abuses and injustices of all kinds. The point I’m arguing is whether in the battle towards equality we have won anything by substituting the word sex by the word gender.
I mean to lay out three reasons, from lowest to highest in importance.
First of all, you need not explain the term “sex” to anyone, while it would take a pretty long time to explain “gender” to a layman and may take several hours with an expert, since it has multiple taxonomic dimensions. Linguistically, gender just means one class of things, different from other kinds of things (animate and inanimate, edible and inedible, friend and stranger, etc). There are languages with many genders, as many as sixteen that I know of (male and female being just one case) and instead the majority of languages (up to 85% according to experts) lack the marker of sex (male or female), a missing fact which doesn’t prevent their speaking populations from having as many cases of male violence as the others.
Climbing up, the claim to separating too sharply between the biological and the social dimension is just scientifically nonsense and ends up unwittingly supporting the scoundrels who find in testosterone the much desired biological excuse for male violence, untamable thus by any society. This difference is completely forced and ultimately false. The “outside-in” (all society) is so Taliban-like as its opposite “inside out” (all genes) and both ignore the existence of mind, the product of millennia of genetic and social interaction but having a dimension and influence of its own. Evolution, that is to say, randomly adaptive success, down from the second chimpanzee that began the road to humanization, morphed the theory of tabula rasa into just a narcissistic myth, like the teenager who does not want to owe anything to their predecessors. As a matter of fact, from the first chimpanzee.
In order to develop my third point I want to start by saying that the founders of the “gender perspective” must have had a very dim view of sex. Perhaps they thought that sex was just that. That what men think most of the time, that’s right, but in doing so they became guilty of thinking like the more dogmatic machistas do. Maybe they disliked the word sex but relegating sex to pure biology and so by putting everything else (how, who, what, affection and relationship) within social context did nothing but complicate things and ignore that we already had a much better definition of sex.
Freud, whose work divided the feminist movement among those who saw only another sexist affronting woman and those for whom the founder of the deep psychology, by means of identifying the machine of phallocentrism had just opened the way to overpass it, had defined sex in an inclusive way. Thus he gave theoreticians as well as clinicians a useful set of operational concepts on sex and gender, which allowed not only its conceptual disarmament but also how to relieve the suffering of those under the yoke of neurotic conflicts.
This definition included a) the body, b) the prevailing identification and c) sexual object choice. I will not dwell now on each, but suffice to say that for Freud it was as arduous to describe the psychosexual process (process!) by which a person had come to homosexuality as one who had ended up heterosexual. He saw neither unique genetic fates nor most lovingly oppressive mothers or fathers of the horde, just a path with several maps conjugating the relative weights of biology, identification models and possibilities in the individual’s personal context. But he never changed its name, did not need to, he had already enough work trying to broaden the so restricted concept his contemporaries had of sex and had, moreover, to bear the epithet of pansexualism, when he was struggling just to keep the mystery of sex from being just that.
In short, I think those of us who want a more equal world between men and women have lost much more than we have gained with this change. We have now available, yes, a great amount of research on inequalities inspired by the gender perspective, and very informative and encouraging efforts have been made aiming at the equalization of rights, but we’ve lost the best flag that could guide us, the one we all can understand easily. Just try to say “male violence” and compare the effects obtained in saying “gender violence”. The latter not only sounds hard to understand but modestly euphemistic. Anyway, I see that in the press and television news we hear more frequently of sexist violence rather than gender violence, every time another woman turns up murdered by her partner or ex-, and I applaud those responsible for this decision.
In this struggle we men have a great deal of work to do, and talking of gender is not the way we may feel represented. And we must be, because physical violence is typically masculine, showing a male’s wounded narcissism. As a therapist in a center for abused children, as well as in my private practice, I have treated several cases of violence against women, where children have been unfortunate witnesses. I have talked extensively with men who have beaten their wives, who they regarded just as devilish tempting and defying sexual objects, but without whom their feeble masculinity was falling apart, males reduced to attacking women with scorn and blows in a useless spree to master the terror of the male who fears not to be.
This typical masculine anxiety has its social roots of course, and probably also biological (with Oedipal we mean all of it), but we do not need a new word to talk about what we all understand so well.
The word gender, restrictively used as we have seen to the male-female distinction started around the 50′s and peaked in the international 1995 Beijing Declaration. Its political goal is clear and fair: progress on equal rights between men and women. But what are the grounds for the change of concepts? A claim that society has done badly what was right or at least indifferent in nature? Or the belief that the history of society, has been made by men subjugating women always and whenever they could? Making gender (only social) prevail over sex (biological only) would be very politically hopeful only if we are possessed by the paranoid fantasy that what comes from our genes is incorrigible, and so we had better join the innate clean slate conviction and put all our hopes on education to tame nature and improve everything. But firstly, this is a false dilemma and we also know that genes are not the determining factor in our fates. Secondly, above and beyond what the gene may dictate, we people have an internal device (not one, several, almost always in disagreement, that’s true) which we call mind, programmed by evolution to choose sometimes peace and sometimes war, not always choosing correctly, it’s true, but certainly as qualified for hatred as for love.