The Anglo-Saxon expressions of sex and gender must decide if the devaluation of women, which seems universal, is founded in nature. All sorts of ‘natural’ reasons to justify this depreciation – amongst them their ‘weakness’ — have been advanced. However, others have denied these reasons and invoked ‘good’ female qualities in order to restore a certain equity. They made the distinction between the natural state, characterised by very real differences (sex), on which History lays inequality, and the ‘social sex’ (gender), produced by this inequality. According to them, there is not sufficient reason for the first to produce the second. However, we note that the social inequality of sex remains justified and legitimised by ‘natural’ reasons, themselves presented as original root causes. But it is a circular argument, to recognise or not the well-foundedness of the subordination of women to men, because in general either nature is referred to justify discrimination, or the fiction of nature to condemn it. In this last case,we would be concerned with a fake nature that would work in the same way as a true nature A ‘true’ understanding of nature would allow it to be understood that nature cannot be at the origin of sexism. But the fact that nature, in such a case, as well as in an imaginary nature, produces the same devaluation of ‘the feminine’ clearly shows that nothing such as the ‘authentic Nature’ exists for humans.
What is at work in this game is a process of symbolism, a collective mental operation transmitted from generation to generation. It is neither nature nor sex that is refracted by culture and reason, and what was understood as a cause is only the reason given.
The terms sex and gender have been very useful for distinguishing between, on the one side, an historical process of social structuring with a hierarchy of roles for each sex (secondary) and, on the other, actual biological difference (primary). This distinction is difficult to support theoretically, even though at political level it is relatively efficient. The very duality of the presentation of our thought inculcates highly sexuated complementary values, both positive and negative which are independent of our will. Thus we can invert them and choose to prefer certain ‘feminine’ qualities, but they are still derived from supremacy and oppression.
The articulation and shift between these two terms reveals the patriarchal order: sex (gender) has become a normative category by ‘recourse to nature’. It is also an important parameter along which Good and Evil, exterior and interior, public and private (as well as other dichotomies) divide themselves. This distinction, although possible in other languages – sex and gender – is not always tolerated as well as it is in English. The distinction has been heavily influenced, in this language, by women’s studies, for political motives. In fact, it is only politically useful, up to a certain point for women to be able to make this distinction. But by over emphasiwing it, often we end up affirming, in opposition to the first intention, a singular fixed feminine nature.The Anglo-Saxon distinction presumes their own categorial apparatus, preoccupied with the potential naturalisation of the social category gender. On the other hand, the essentialisation of the biological category sex is far less of a concern. Sexes are relationships, not fixed categories with a determined content. In a final analysis, the rigidly maintained nuance between these two terms derives from a sort of insurmontable antimaterialist dualism of the soul and the body. It must be understood as a shifting relationship between the two terms.
The distinction between sex and gender is worth exactly what the anthropological differentiation between nature and culture by Levi-Straus is worth. Beyond its descriptive utility, it is the perspective that led structuralism to fix these categories, and that which had to be updated afterwards in order not to be an obstacle to comprehension of the social dynamic and agencing of desires. The sharp differentiation between sex and gender would lead, in effect, to freeze an immutable biological ‘nature’ of the sexes, without taking into account the relationships between the two, and would link both terms to the concept of identity. This dichotomy (nature-culture, sex-gender), whilst it is affirmed at the heart of closed discourse, ends up itself being inscribed as a function of language and a ‘natural’ ingredient, therefore ‘determiner’ of History. Whilst the primary intention behind the introduction of this distinction is to support the historical origins of the relationship and to show that nature does not determine culture (nor sex, nor gender), the insistence on the distinction de facto sometimes, alas, fatally transforms it.
It is a matter for philosophy to work on the shifting articulation between these two open and submitted terms, both of them, to History, to rightly deconstruct the seat of the ideological and metaphysical justification of the concept of gender, in and by that of sex. It is not that sex precedes gender. But that ‘gender’ produces ‘sex’ as its image under the condition of ‘natural originary’. Henceforth, it is possible to reverse the relation and to say that gender is at the origin of sex, by continually repeating it. Sex should not just be a place, itself arbitrarily designated, of negotiation, or the fantasy of gender identity, but also of all other identity. The imaginary divide between sex and gender is decided upon at any given moment, in everyone, and produces a redefinition of concepts. For philosophy, conscious of the possible complicity between the becoming identity which takes shape around ‘I’ with a certain power (passing through language), the first term (sex) will be submitted to all the same suspicions and appear rather in its turn as ‘en-gendered’. The identity of gender is no less than all the other identities — it is fictional.
All definition of sex and gender, of feminine and masculine, thus appears to be an illusion.
(On the same problem or on connected issues we recommend the following article by the same author : The Liberal Totalitarian System and Gender)