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Question: Is gender a social construct?
FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents
Introduction to Question
It’s a common refrain among the cultural left of the West that gender is a social construct. A social construct is any category of thought that is created and imposed onto reality through and because of human, social interaction. Key to the idea of a social construct is that the category of thought is not extracted from reality but imposed onto reality. For instance, social constructionists give the boundaries of nations as good examples of a social construct. At a finite moment in time, someone had to come along and say "here is where the boundaries of what we'll call the United States are going to be!" From that moment on, we have acted as if the boundaries of the United States have an objective, primitive existence when, according to these theorists, they don't.
The view of gender as a social construct stands in stark contrast to the ideas of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that "[g]ender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."
When saying gender in the statement “gender is a social construct”, most are referring to the idea that there aren't any sex-specific, biologically-determined, psychobehavioral differences between men and women. According to these people, there are no substantive differences in preference or behavior between men and women. Postmodern-adjacent philosopher Judith Butler refers to gender as conceived here (as well as a person's gender identity) as a “performance”. This performance is an outward showing or demonstration of the expectations that have been imposed onto a person through speech acts in their cultural environment. In other words, what we call “femininity” and “masculinity” is just people conforming to how society says that a man or woman “should act” and nothing more. There is no biological, neuroanatomical basis for any cognitive or behavioral differences between men and women. How a man or woman "should act" is merely an imposition from broader society for a particular social purpose—in this case the continuing replenishing of society with healthy citizens to run that society's economic and other political infrastructure.
When others say gender in the statement "gender is a social construct", they mean to say that the biological sex binary of male and female itself is a social construct. Butler in a 1994 book chapter regards the immutability of the body as pernicious since it “successfully buries and masks the genealogy of power relations by which it is constituted”. “In short,” summarizes social conservative philosopher Ryan T. Anderson, “‘the body’ conceived as something in particular is all about power.”
Some people refer to both the male-female sex binary and cognitive-behavioral differences when saying gender in the statement "gender is a social construct".
The theory that gender is a social construct is the brainchild of second-wave feminism. Simone De Beauvoir is thought to be the mother of the movement. She is famous for the saying from her 1949 book The Second Sex that "[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine." Second-wave feminism "broadened the debate [from merely about the ownership of property and suffrage, such as under first-wave feminism] to include a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, domesticity, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. It was a movement that was focused on critiquing the patriarchal, or male-dominated, institutions and cultural practices throughout society. Second-wave feminism also drew attention to the issues of domestic violence and marital rape, created rape-crisis centers and women's shelters, and brought about changes in custody laws and divorce law." Key to undermining the conception of female as interested in domestic affairs was "undoing the myth" that there were sex-based, biologically-determined, psychobehavioral differences between men and women. Thus, second-wave feminists, and especially those involved in neuroscience and psychology, have been vocal for many years that gender is a social construct, and that there are no substantive brain differences between men and women that lead to differences in cognition and behavior. All of this theorizing and scholarship was toward the end of providing greater political equality for men and women. The claim that gender is a social construct now dominates most halls of academic learning in the West. While we can recognize the substantial and wonderful differences that have been made in society because of feminism including greater learning, financial, and professional opportunities for women as well as greater political power and influence, we can also recognize the deficiencies in the social constructionist theory of gender and theorize about new ways that themes of equality, equity, justice, fairness, sexism, and misogyny can be potentially reworked and retooled with our understanding of brain differences. We can celebrate men qua men and women qua women.
This article will respond to the social constructionist theory of gender under both meanings of gender as well as provide some resources for understanding other themes better.
Response to Question
Social Constructs May Not Exist
First, at the broadest level, social constructs may not exist. Recall that (key to the idea of a social construct) there is no objective existence to the categories imposed on to reality. Also, these categories of thoughts are created and imposed onto reality rather than extracted from it.
But both the subjectivity and the creation of categories are highly doubtful.
We can imagine a state of affairs in which there are no subjects, such as human beings, that exist. During that state of affairs, at some primitive point of time, there still existed the possibility that human beings would exist. On top of the possibility that human beings would exist was the possibility of their gender being physically substantiated and embodied. Given that the possibility of human male and female existed, the categories of male and female are objective and not imposed onto reality. The possibility is “out there” in the world and humans have merely given substance to the category of human male and female.
The same goes for all categories. Categories are never created and never merely subjective. Categories can only be embodied and recognized.
The Two Sex Gametes and Their Implications for the Male-Female Sex Binary
It is important to start by substantiating the existence of the male-female sex binary since, without it, sex-specific differences in cognition and behavior have no firm foundation. Without the existence of categories like male and female, there is no such thing as a "male brain" nor "female brain".
As explained by the atheist, lesbian, neuroscientist, sex researcher, and columnist Dr. Debra Soh:
Biological sex is either male or female. Contrary to what is commonly believed, sex is defined not by chromosomes or our genitals or hormonal profiles, but by gametes, which are mature reproductive cells. There are only two types of gametes: small ones called sperm that are produced by males, and large ones called eggs that are produced by females, There are no intermediate types of gametes between egg and sperm cells. Sex is therefore binary. It is not a spectrum.
It is because of the existence of the two and only two gametes that we are genetically evolved and constructed as human beings to be a segment of the population that carries and produces one gamete or the other: males or females. It is also by reason of the existence of the two gametes that intersex conditions are considered disorders of sexual development. A person was meant to develop and be born as either male or female. Evolutionary force has differentiated between male and female because of the advantages of sexual reproduction for the survival and progress of our species. The proximate, cooperative work of mother and father are vital to the health, development, and survival of human infants and young given that our young are helpless when born and thus require much attention. Nature gave us male and female in order to ensure that our young develop healthily.
Men are ordered towards the end of impregnation and women towards the end of hosting conception and incubation. Can you think of a third reproductive function that must be performed by a third member of the species in order for us or other animals to reproduce? If not, you have just been given additional evidence that the sex binary is real and that we were meant to develop as male or female and not something between it.
The male-female sex binary exists. This is not a category of thought that we have imposed onto reality but one that we have extracted from it.
Some claim that human sex is bimodal instead of binary—citing intersex conditions as evidence of people not being easily categorizable as male or female and thus evidence of human sex's bimodality. While it may be okay to make a merely descriptive claim that human sex is bimodal, it is not an accurate metaphysical claim. In other words, just because a group of people developed such that they are not easily categorizable as male or female, that does not mean that they weren't meant to develop as male or female. It does not mean that intersex conditions represent an entirely healthy, normal sexual development. Scripture proclaims and even secular evolutionary observations demand that we are meant to develop as either male or female.
Evidence For Neuroanatomical and Correlative Psychobehavioral Differences Between Men and Women
There is a lot of evidence for neuroanatomical and correlative psychobehavioral differences between men and women cited below. One of the clearest and most obvious differences between men and women is sexual preference. The vast majority of the human population is heterosexual and for obvious, biological reasons. There are also large differences in physical aggression and moderate to small differences in personality traits. Women have more oxytocin—a chemical reponsible for social paring and bonding—than men. This makes it so that women, on average and in general, are, for instance, more interested in careers involving people rather than things.
Much of today's society conflates the concepts of biological sex and sex differences in behavior. For instance, there are many different gender identities that one can choose from according to much of the modern cultural and political left. One of these is to be "non-binary". Those that identify as non-binary typically identify as such because they do not conform to stereotypically masculine nor feminine ways of thinking and behaving. In most cases, they are born male or female and physically present as such but, later in life, believe that they don't identify with their birth sex. It's important to remember that one can be gender non-conforming in behavior without necessarily having to identify as something other than their birth sex. Indeed, there are masculine women and effeminate men. Also, one does not need to be stereotypically masculine in every respect to be considered masculine or feminine. For its part, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints defines masculinity as acquiring the bodily and cognitive capabilities to do three things in the context of family life: preside over one's family, protect one's family, and provide for one's family. As for femininity, it is defined as acquiring the cognitive and bodily capabilities to nurture one's family. Father and mother have these primary roles but share in the other's roles and aid the other in those roles. What's great about these definitions is that, in the context of masculinity, masculinity is defined quite narrowly such that a man can love cooking, musicals, knitting, and other stereotypically feminine things but still be masculine insofar as he also acquires and becomes apt at the skills necessary to play the three roles listed above on behalf of his family and those around him. In the context of femininity, a woman can like and do stereotypically masculine things and still be a feminine woman so long as she acquires the bodily and cognitive skills necessary to nurture her family and those around her. Even if you don't have masculine nor feminine capabilities, there is still your body to confront which, in 99% of cases, will be genetically constructed as male or female. You can't identify as something that contradicts plain reality. If you are a more effeminate man, you don't have to identify as anything other than that: an effeminate man. There is indeed a spectrum of masculinity and femininity that one can be a part of. But one's greater or lesser masculinity or femininity should not lead someone to conclude they are something other than male or female and change their bodies which are, in about 99% of cases, organized as either male or female.
It is important to recognize that just because the author believes that gender (as behavior and cognition differences) has a biological basis, that does not mean that we are committed to the notion that socialization plays no role in how we shape our thinking or behavior. Differences exist at the individual level. Debra Soh explains:
To claim that there are no differences between the sexes when looking at group averages, or that culture has greater influence than biology; simply isn't true. Socialization shapes the extent to which our gender is expressed or suppressed, but it doesn't dictate whether someone will be masculine or feminine, or whether she or he will be gender-conforming or gender-atypical.
Let me explain: Whether a trait is deemed "masculine" or "feminine" is culturally defined, but whether a person gravitates toward traits that are considered masculine or feminine is driven by biology. For example, in the Western world, a shaved head is viewed as masculine, and the majority of people sporting a shaved head are men. For women who choose to shave their head as an expression of who they are, they are likely more masculine than the average woman, and will probably be more male-typical in other areas of their life, too. From a biological standpoint, compared with other women, there's a good chance they were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero.
If, in an alternate universe, a shaved head was seen as a feminine trait, we would expect to see the reverse—most people who shaved their head would be women, and any men who chose to do so would likely be more feminine than other men, and exposed to lower levels of testosterone in the womb.For someone who is gender non-conforming, this is similarly influenced by biology, but the extent to which they will feel comfortable expressing their gender nonconformity (through, say, the way they dress or carry themselves) will be influenced by social factors, like parental upbringing and cultural messaging. Social influence cannot, however, override biology. No matter how much parents or teachers or peers frown upon gender nonconformity (or gender conformity, for that matter), a person will gravitate toward the same interests and behaviors, but he or she may feel more inclined to hide that part of themselves.
What A Man or Woman "Should Be"
But let's offer one more argument against the notion of a social construct. Judith Butler is a famous American philosopher and gender theorist. Butler is famous for the notion that gender is a "performance". This is known as the theory of "gender performativity". That theory is described well in an introduction to Butler's most famous book Gender Trouble (1990) here.
Butler's essential premise is that behaviors, attitudes, preferences, and temperaments that we typically associate with men and women are not innate to male and female. Male and female are not stable concepts, according to Butler, and any behavior that we associate as "innate" or "natural" to them is merely illusory. Gender identity—one's subjective sense of the sex that they belong to—is not innate either. Gender identity is constructed through a set of socially popular speech acts that are then performed. Gender identity and the behaviors that we engage in based on our understanding of what our gender identity is are thus socially-constructed. Recall that a social construct is a subjective category that is imposed onto reality.
There are three main points that we can offer against Butler's arguments:
- Our inner sense of being male or female is most-often driven by the recognition that our bodies conform to the male or female sexual reproductive system. This is an objective observation.
- Our inner sense of being masculine or feminine is driven by our recognition of patterns in male behavior and female behavior against which we judge our own level of masculinity or femininity. This is arguably an objective observation.
- When in a situation where we have to tell someone to "be a man", we are transmitting a moral imperative to someone that they must act in accordance with. These morals can be persuasively argued to be objective morals. That moral imperative is transmitted with that particular linguistic content based on either the behavioral patterns that we witness men and women engaging in and/or the tasks that we can observe male and female bodies are more aptly suited for. These are all arguably objective observations.
If objective observations, then they definitionally cannot be social constructs. It's like what we call "walking". Walking is a particular kind of activity, and we can distinguish it from other kinds of activity like jogging and sprinting. That distinction is based on objective observations and abstracting a category of thought from objective observations. In a similar way, we might abstract categories of femininity and masculinity from objective observations of how men and women act. Performing these activities may have a biological basis that holds at the general level, varies slightly at the individual level, isn't infinitely malleable, and endures across time and culture.
Latter-day Saint Theology and Gender
As stated above, Latter-day Saints hold to gender being an essential characteristic as someone's eternal being. This understanding is gleaned from the scriptures of the faith.
The scriptures teach that the human spirit (or at least a part of it) is eternal. Prior to being given mortal bodies, the spirits of humans were created as male or female. Spirit is believed to be made of some kind of physical matter. Thus, the Latter-day Saint scriptures appear to teach that a part of human spirits is eternal while another part of it is created from perhaps more elementary spiritual matter particles. Latter-day Saints tend to call these parts a person's spiritual intelligence (which is eternal going backwards and forwards) and a person's spirit body (which is created). All people's spirits, from eternity past to eternity future, will be sired in some sense by a Heavenly Mother and Father.
Some Latter-day Saints (under what we'll call TSGA: "Theory of Spirit Gender A") believe that our gender is a part of only our intelligence and others (under what we'll call TSGB: "Theory of Spirit Gender B") believe that it is a part of only our spirit body. Another possibility (under what we'll call TSGC: "Theory of Spirit Gender C") may be that gendered ontologies are a part of a person's intelligence and are then added upon and expanded with a person's spirit body. Ultimately, it is not known exactly how and when gender becomes an eternal characteristic of someone's identity.
No matter which way you slice the theology, it is clear that gender is not a concept that was ever created. Some critics may be tempted to claim that gender is socially constructed in Latter-day Saint theology, but review of the scriptures and other official pronouncements declared to be inspired and authoritative contradicts that claim. Under TSGA, gender has always existed as a brute fact regarding a person's intelligence. Under TSGB, a divine feminine and masculine have existed from eternity past and will exist into eternity future and thus the concept of male or female gender was never created while our spirits' particular gender was. Under TSGC, both of these are true: gender is native to our intelligences and added upon with our spirit bodies by heavenly parents who have always been male or female and always will be male or female.
Key to understanding Latter-day Saint theology of gender and its importance to Latter-day Saints is the idea of gender complementarianism. That is: men and women play complementary roles and have complementary behaviors that contribute to the greater whole of producing and rearing children. For Latter-day Saints, this complementarity is something that is essential to the function of our mortal and eternal lives. That is why Latter-day Saints (and, at least in part, religious people more broadly) defend differences between men and women so much. There is something about men and women, qua men and qua women, that makes them special and contributes to the broader order of the cosmos. Gendered behavior and bodies are deeply meaningful to Latter-day Saints and signatures of the Eternal Mother and Father and their relationship. As stated by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them."
It is certainly the case that Latter-day Saints can create an understanding of complementarianism that is more rigorously based in scripture, science, and sound philosophy. However, it is clear that complementarianism is a necessary belief for fidelity to the basic, rudimentary statements of the scriptures and other pronouncements declared to be inspired and authoritative such as the Family Proclamation cited above.
Rethinking Sexism, Misogyny, Equality, and Morality
In noting that there are sex differences in cognition and behavior between men and women, it provides us an opportunity to plug an article that may be helpful in reconsidering and retooling our philosophical ideas regarding sexism, equality, misogyny, and more since much of the current moral and political discourse is based on an understanding of those themes that is informed by the assertion that gender is a social construct. We have written an article linked below that treats those themes philosophically and scripturally that we encourage our readers to be familiar with.
Our understanding of gender and its origins will continue to grow as neuroscientists and philosophers uncover more, but one thing is clear: it is the "conservative religious" folk that have an understanding of gender closer to reality than much of the modern cultural left of the West.
- Mascolo, Michael. "Time to Move Beyond 'Gender Is Socially Constructed': Contradictions of sex and gender," Psychology Today, July 31, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/old-school-parenting-modern-day-families/201907/time-move-beyond-gender-is-socially-constructed.
- ↑ Unless otherwise stated, all quotations and citations from the feminist authors below come from Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter Books, 2018).
- ↑ "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," 2nd paragraph.
- ↑ Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2006), 171–80.
- ↑ Judith Butler, “Bodies That Matter,” in Engaging with Irigaray, ed. Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 148.
- ↑ Anderson, When Harry Became Sally, 153.
- ↑ Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex , trans. H.M. Parshley (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953; 2009), 294.
- ↑ "Second-wave feminism," Wikipedia, accessed January 11, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-wave_feminism.
- ↑ Dr. Debra Soh, The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths About Sex and Identity in Our Society (New York: Threshold Editions, 2020), 17.
- ↑ Bruce Goldman, "Two minds: the cognitive differences between men and women," Stanford Medicine, Stanford University, May 22, 2017, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html; "'Two Minds' two years later: Still curious about sex differences in cognition? Here are some resources," Stanford Scope Blog, October 24, 2019, https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2019/10/24/two-minds-two-years-later-still-curious-about-sex-differences-in-cognition-here-are-some-resources/; John Stossel, "The Science: Male Brain vs Female Brain," YouTube, October 15, 2019, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTEi2-FAEZE; David C. Geary, "The Real Causes of Human Sex Differences," Quilette, October 20, 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/10/20/the-real-causes-of-human-sex-differences/; "The Ideological Refusal to Acknowledge Evolved Sex Differences," Quillette, September 1, 2022, https://quillette.com/2022/09/01/the-ideological-refusal-to-acknowledge-evolved-sex-differences/; Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, 3rd ed. (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2020). Indeed, every single cell of our body is influenced by our sex. See Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Understanding the Biology of Sex and Gender Differences; Theresa M. Wizemann, Mary-Lou Pardue, eds., Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter? (Washington D.C.: National Academies Press (US), 2001), Executive Summary, 2, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222291/#!po=1.11111. For further info on male-female neuroanatomy and psychobehavior, see Amber N. V. Ruigrock et. al, “A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 39 (2014): 34–50; Larry Cahill, “A Half-Truth is a Whole Lie: On the Necessity of Investigating Sex Influences on the Brain,” Endocrinology 153 (2012): 2542; “His Brain, Her Brain,” Scientific American, October 1, 2012. For a paradigm of gender compatible with the Gospel, see Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally, chap. 7. See also Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022). For the most thorough coverage of the literature exploring sex differences in neuroanatomy and psychobehavior in one book that the author has seen, see Charles Murray, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (New York: Twelve, 2020), 11–127.
- ↑ Donatella Marazziti et. al, "Sex-Related Differences in Plasma Oxytocin Levels in Humans," Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health 15 (March 2019): 58–63; Shan Gao et. al, "Oxytocin, the peptide that bonds the sexes also divides them," Proc Natl Acad Sci 113, no. 27 (2016): 7650–7654.
- ↑ Soh, The End of Gender, 42–44.
- ↑ Abraham 3:18
- ↑ Moses 3:4–5
- ↑ Doctrine & Covenants 131:7
- ↑ Of course, a commitment to TSGB would mean that the male-female binary could be redefined or otherwise abolished given a different plan for the configuration of a person's or group of people's spirit gender.
- ↑ Dallin H. Oaks, "Apostasy and Restoration," Ensign 25, no. 5 (May 1995): 87.