(CLJ) The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender

A colleague once expressed to me her dismay that a student in my gender theory class seemed unable to articulate the difference between sex and gender. I found this oddly affirming: this student had rightly picked up on the fact that those two terms do not have fixed meanings in gender theory, and certainly not in the culture at large. Why? Because, in a nutshell, we are deeply confused what it means to be a body, particularly a body who is sexed.

This widespread confusion is reflected in the slippery usage of the terms “sex” and “gender.” Are these interchangeable synonyms? Or, do they reflect a dualistic split between a sexed body and gendered soul? Do they signify the interplay between biology and society in human identity? Depending upon the context, the words sex and gender can evoke any and all of those meanings. We no longer know who we are as sexed beings, and this is mirrored in our language.

Perhaps more importantly, the meanings we hitch to those two words reflect (whether intended or not) specific philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a human person. And these meanings are continuing to shift at an astonishing rate in our historical moment. As a Catholic, I believe that the proper response to any human person is always love, but this does not exempt the idea of human personhood, as currently presented in our culture, from scrutiny. If anything, the command to love the person and guard his or her inviolable dignity necessitates a thoughtful understanding of what it means to be a person. What is needed at this juncture is a hard look at, to borrow Chesterton’s phrase, “the idea of the idea” of gender in our time.

In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues against a simplistic narrative of secularization, wherein science supplants the supernatural, instead tracing this paradigm shift along two axes: the waning of the prior framework’s hold on the social imagination and the development of new alternatives. In a similar way, I am resisting a simple subtraction narrative in order to describe a two-fold revolution in our thinking about sex and gender: first, the erosion of the old framework, in which bodily sex referred to the person as a whole and was characterized by generative roles, and secondly, the emergence of an alternate framework, one centered on the newly expansive—and inherently unstable—concept of gender.

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Posted in Anthropology, Ethics / Moral Theology, Sexuality, Theology