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Posted by Anisha Maitra

For the longest period of time, gender theory and feminist theory have maintained a significant distinction between gender and sex—sex is ‘biological’ whereas gender is culturally constructed by various factors. This idea was popularised by second wave feminist Simone De Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex where she very famously says, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” The primary reason why such a division was constructed was to propagate the idea that one born as a female might not exhibit ‘feminine’ characteristics or vice versa. As Ruth Wodak points out,

Such an understanding implies that sex/gender concept operates on the principle that, while the binarity of the sexes is an immutable fact, the traits assigned to a sex by a culture are cultural constructions, that they are socially determined and therefore alterable.

However, the dichotomy of sex versus gender enables heteronormativity instead of contesting it. Let’s take an example to understand why such a dichotomy is problematic. There are socially accepted or constructed ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ attributes. A masculine attribute could be, to put it very stereotypically, being efficient on cutting wood or screaming at the television during a football game and a feminine activity could be sewing or painting nails (based on a website called Glamour).

However, all these activities could be performed by any gender individual; then why do we still keep using attributes such as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? 

According to Mathieu, the idea that gender is performed on the basis of one’s sex is what he calls ‘ideological fiction’: the organisation of all people into two sexes is historical as it was used for social organisation. Michael Foucault also talks on similar lines in his book History of Sexuality (Volume 1) where he says that knowledge was created and reproduced in such a way so that heterosexuality, or being straight, could be understood as the norm. This was to ensure that in a society of industrialisation, there was enough procreation, leading to more labour for the capitalists to employ.

According to Mathieu, the idea that gender is performed on the basis of one’s sex is what he calls ‘ideological fiction’: the organisation of all people into two sexes is historical as it was used for social organisation. Michael Foucault also talks on similar lines in his book History of Sexuality (Volume 1) where he says that knowledge was created and reproduced in such a way so that heterosexuality, or being straight, could be understood as the norm. This was to ensure that in a society of industrialisation, there was enough procreation, leading to more labour for the capitalists to employ.

To simplify the idea, a far-fetched poor analogy would be the way caste was the social and historical organisation of individuals of the Indian subcontinent: even though it is assumed that caste was biological or rather hereditary, these divisions were created to ensure subjugation and exploitation of certain groups so that these people left without these resources are forced to go to work for the more privileged on disadvantageous terms. 

Also read: Responses From Trans & Intersex Communities On The Transgender Rights Bill 2016

This is not to deny that most human beings have either XX or XY chromosomes, but had the social organisation of gender not been so important economically, politically and socially, the category of sex would not have gained as much relevance as it did today. In the book The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche introduces an idea known as ‘sign chain’ (as qtd. By Butler in Bodies That Matter): the entire history of a substance or thing is heavily dependent on vivid interpretations and adaptations that sometimes might not be related to the substance itself, sometimes the interpretations actually take the position of the sign chain.

To elaborate, it is believed scientifically that most human beings are born with either XX or XY chromosomes, these chromosomes then determine what kind of bodily aspects an individual would have. However, the aspect of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were attributed culturally to chromosomes: if an individual has XY chromosomes it does not essentially mean he has to have ‘masculine’ performative attributes such as to put it stereotypically again playing sports or cutting wood. 

The primary problem with such an organisation of gender and sex is that it negates the possibility of other “biologically” gendered identities; even if it is identified, it is mostly identified as an imperfection, a flaw or even a disorder. To look at a specific case study, the recently passed Transgender Bill mandates the use of a gender certificate that declares that they belong to the category of transgender or that they identify by a certain gender category. The screening committee would comprise of the Chief medical officer, district social welfare officer, one representative of the transgender community, a psychiatrist and an officer of the state government.

The primary problem with such an organisation of gender and sex is that it negates the possibility of other ‘biologically’ gendered identities; even if it is identified, it is mostly identified as an imperfection, a flaw or even a disorder. To look at a specific case study, the recently passed Transgender Bill mandates the use of a gender certificate that declares that they belong to the category of transgender or that they identify by a certain gender category. The screening committee would comprise of the Chief medical officer, district social welfare officer, one representative of the transgender community, a psychiatrist and an officer of the state government.

Based on the recommendations of the District Magistrate, the gender of the person would be declared as transgender. Once the individual has obtained the transgender certificate, he or she can apply for other citizenship documents such as Aadhar, PAN, Passport where the gender identity would be specified based on the certificate (The Transgender Persons Bill), an individual has the right to self-identify himself as male, female or inter-sex after they have been medically screened according to the government procedure.

However, if an individual would want to change their gender identity again, they will have to produce a sex-change certificate which then has to be acceptable to the government officer in order for it to be approved. The question that here arises if sex is ‘biological’ and gender is ‘cultural’, or societally constructed, then why does an individual need to produce sex-change certificate in order to change their gender? Why is there a need for stability of gender identity in order for public participation, and basic human rights? These are very complex questions that might take lots of time to unravel. 

Also read: Microaggressions: The Small Big Things About Gender, Sex And Sexuality

To conclude, finding a purely biological basis for sex is a complicated task, as no two identities are the same, no two gendered individuals are the same. As Anne Faust-Sterling would say, whatever bodily functions we attribute as masculine or feminine is already entangled in our ideas about gender. 


Anisha Maitra is currently a Masters Student at Christ (Deemed to be) University. Over the last four years she has spent time reading and negotiating with ideas of gender, cultures and post-coloniality. In her free time, she enjoys watching animated shows, reading and listening to soundtracks. She currently lives in Bangalore. You can find her on Facebook.

Featured Image Source: The Tempest

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32 COMMENTS

  1. What a load of gibberish. Sex is the reproductive function of your body; it is based on immutable biological facts, not “self-identification”. Gender is bunch of regressive stereotypes. No one needs a “gender identity”, that’s just sexist nonsense. People can have any kind of personality irrespective of sex.

    • Firstly, I think it is important to respect another person’s opinions. Secondly, she is not denying that sex is a biological functions but instead it’s connotations extend beyond that. Thirdly, gender is not a regressive stereotype in the least but is a form of self expression that everyone who is willing should indulge themselves in.

      • Hi Priyasha,

        Thank you so much for your support. I am so glad that there are other people who think like me and lets hope together we can continue in contesting harmful notions on identity. 🙂 I really appreciate your comment.

  2. BS! The author has a very superficial understanding of the concept. This article shows that FII will publish just any long-winded account with even people’s names spelled wrong. It’s not Michael Foucault – it’s Michel

  3. This is just wonderfully written. It’s sad that the notion that sex isn’t really biologically driven is still so far from most people’s thinking. Thank you for sharing.

  4. This is such a good read 🥺 I hope more people can understand this more and the nuances of it through this. The entire concept of limiting people to certain boxes and labels is so 👎👎 I love how everything’s been articulated and presented. I couldn’t have said it any better! 🖤🌸

  5. The article is well-researched and it makes so much sense. More often than not, people are born in the wrong bodies, but it doesn’t mean that they are imperfect, or diseased for that matter!

    • Hi Swayanka!
      Thank you for your comment! I agree with you; just because someone has been born with a body they did not want, it does not mean that it is a disorder. It is time we move away from these myths!

  6. This is such a good read 🥺 I love how everything’s been articulated and presented and I hope this can be THE text for someone which brings them closer to understanding the nuances of this concept of sex and gender. It’s so difficult to come across this idea in media in general, let alone mainstream media so I’m glad there’s this now. It’s beautifully written 🖤🌸

  7. This is such a good read 🥺 I love how everything’s been articulated and presented and I hope this can be THE text for someone which brings them closer to understanding the nuances of this concept of sex and gender. It’s so difficult to come across this idea in media in general, let alone mainstream media so I’m glad there’s this now. It’s beautifully written 🖤🌸

  8. It’s an article that makes us unlearn what notions we were forced to believe. The unlearning process can be very uncomfortable for some (clearly). But, the arguments made here are fair- it breaks down the idea that sex is biological and gender is cultural- that it is not necessarily the case and the fact of the matter is, it definitely goes beyond this idea that sex is the reproductive organ and gender is a societal sterotype as some people like to say. It’s great to see and question the idea of sex and gender because even sex goes beyond the XX and the XY.

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, I absolutely agree with you. Our bodies are far too complex for it to simplistically categorized into numbers or organs.

      Thank you for your support!

  9. Being an English major student, I deal with sex and gender in my theoretical courses. Today people need to be informed about the difference between these two components.
    It is a very well written article, and I am sure that this article will help many to understand the difference at large.

  10. Great article and views. Our society is still so ignorant about all of these issues. One of the best reads for this month❤️❤️

  11. The article actually makes a lot of sense, imo. Sex is just as arbitrary and socially constructed category as gender is. Apart from anatomical differences, there are none whatsoever between a male or a female body, yet characteristics of maleness and female-ness ( commonly associated with gender) are assigned to these bodies based on sex differences. If gender and sex were such separate categories, gendered assumptions would not have been made based on the sex of an individual.

    Related to this is the idea of the sexual ‘other’ who is disenfranchised and marginalised by being termed a biological anomaly. If sex were what it is assumed to be: a biological basis for differenciation without any bearings on gender, why this cultural othering (that is typical of gender relations) that is inflicted upon, say, an intersex person? Why, if sex were so organic and clinical, do we make assumptions about a person’s masculinity or femininity based on their appearance as determined by primary and secondary sexual characteristics?

    • Thank you for your comment!
      Yes, there is no better way to put it than the way you said it. I completely agree with you 🙂

  12. This was a good and enlightening read; thank you so much for sharing! It’s very well-written and succinctly put—there isn’t a single wasted sentence.

    This makes me think, really, about our entrenched notions of gender and its performative roles in society and how we alter our treatment of others for just that reason.

    Besides the ones you’ve mentioned, are there any other resources you recommend for further reading? You have piqued my interest and this is a conversation I look forward to having with people I’m acquainted with.

    Thank you, once again, for sharing this! Do keep writing, you have a gift for simplification without taking away from the subject of discussion, making it easier for the public to consume this material!

    All the best! I look forward to reading more of your articles!

    • Hi Rue! Thank you for your comment! I really appreciate your support!

      If you want some recommendations I can send you a mail, let me know your mail ID. 🙂

      Thank you again!

  13. The points that the author raised about the Transgender Bill have been widely criticized. The entire concept of gender self-determination while also requiring a certificate after undergoing medical screening is contradictory and incompatible.

    Also, the author argues that the entire concept of gender is societal. I was, however, under the impression that it was anatomical as well, to a certain degree at least. Recent studies in brain functionality has, I think, shown that there are some differences between male and female brains, though, this stance is highly debatable (neurosexism).

  14. This was an interesting read! It definitely piqued my interest and made me want to think more and read more about what I previously accepted to be true. Your piece started conversations – that’s certainly a testament to good writing.

  15. Thank you for your appreciation! Yes, I absolutely agree with you. The entire idea of putting labels on individuals and attempting to control their identities is so problematic! I am glad that you liked reading my article 🙂

  16. I apologise for the rudeness of my earlier comment on the article. But feminism exists because women have always felt oppressed by gender roles. Why should a woman have to identify as something else, in order to express herself? Women are human beings capable of the full range of thought, feeling and action. The idea that you can’t be a woman unless you conform to stereotypes of femininity is deeply regressive.

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