Metaphors for sex as the raw material for gender

Let’s take for granted both the contemporary distinction between sex and gender and that sex is the “raw material” for gender, i.e. that sex is the biological basis for the social construction of gender.  This leaves two crucial unexplored questions: (1) how different are the raw materials of masculinity and femininity from each other and (2) how great a distance is there between the raw material of sex and its completing form of gender?

Different raw materials are more and less like each other, so if we are to see men and women as different raw materials, are they different like Kevlar and feathers? Butter and margarine? Analog and digital? Here the metaphors won’t do much – there’s really no way around just laying out the various male-female sex differences: characteristic hormonal levels, propensity to aggression, hand strength, number of nerve endings in skin, skeletal structure, amount of striated muscle, communication patterns, amount of body hair, love of cooperation or competition, body mass, alcohol tolerance, distribution of intelligence, non-verbal communication skill, average height, extraversion…

What’s more essential to understand the “raw material” idea is what might be called the distance between the material and the final thing. The distance between plaster and a statue, it seems, is much greater than the distance between coffee (beans) and coffee (the drink) even though both the plaster and the beans are the raw material for the statue or drink. The plaster is so formless and indeterminate with respect to the statue that it stands like one to infinity; the coffee is so determined to the drink that we use the same word to refer to both, and the only variations are within a pretty narrow range of strengths. We have another example of what I here call a short distance in the difference between a musical score and its performance, which seems to close that there seems to be an identity between them. Both just are Beethoven or Debussy or whoever.

And so while everyone can admit a distinction between sex and gender, this doesn’t determine how long or short a leash gender roams around on. If it is like clay to a shape or sound to a language, then gender is a form so different from its matter that the matter (sex) is barely worth mentioning. If it is like coffee and coffee or a musical score and its performance, then gender is so much a proxy of sex that gender is almost not worth mentioning.

Gender difference is thus a function of two independent unknowns: the distance between sex differences (A) and the distance of these sex differences from gender (B). One gets the sense that more traditional accounts of men and women saw A as large and B as small, where we are more likely to see A as small and B as large, or perhaps we see B as so large as to render sex differences unimportant.

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1 Comment

  1. September 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    What about the sexlessness of God and his gender being masculinity in relation to us, and we are feminine in relation to him? If that is an example of masculinity without physical sex, then your definition of masculinity is not only smaller in scope but also off-point from what masculinity in its deepest principles.

    Thank you!


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