When historians look back at our era centuries from now, what will they make of the dramatic revolution we’ve seen in the last 50 years in how we humans conceptualize our sexedness and genderedness?
The evidence for that revolution is all around us. Going back to the 1960s, the counterculture and pop culture turned something then called androgyny into exuberant art and everyday play. In recent decades the experiences of proud transfolk have come to the fore in the media as never before. And the words one can use to identify themself —once only male and female—now includes genderqueer, nonbinary, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, plus a lengthening list of other terms that bespeak a sex-and-gender pluralism never before seen. Even the fact that I can meaningfully use the word themself in that sentence—referring to a single gender-unspecified “one”—is a sign of these new times.
Like every revolution worthy of the name, this one has been met with a reactionary counterrevolution with a vehemence (and sometimes violence) intended to rebuke (and sometimes punish) adherents of this unwanted trend. It is a cultural backlash (backed up by force) intending to interrupt and stall the revolution’s momentum and return to yesteryear’s rigid roles and rules about who is a real man and who is a real woman. It would be no exaggeration to say that what’s happening, around sex and gender, is analogous to the way pro-democracy movements in repressive societies are met with totalitarian crackdown. For make no mistake: Patriarchy’s historically hierarchical construction of the gender binary is the very template of totalitarianism.
For many of us who have been inspired by feminism’s vision of liberation and equality—who seek a future devoid of human-over-human domination and aspire to an ethic of loving justice—it is as if we live as combatants in an ongoing war against male supremacy, a battle whose advances can be tracked, whose retreats and retrenchments can be assessed, whose troops can be regrouped, and whose outcome right now is anyone’s guess.
Feminism has been a significant driver of the dramatic new insights about human sex and gender that are now so hotly (and sometimes hatefully) contested. For instance, when feminism (broadly construed as the liberation of women from male-pattern domination) first made possible a woman’s self-possession—literally extricating her body from its historical status as a man’s property—a change began that was to overthrow ownership-based models of sex and gender. When feminism first made possible a woman’s right to choose—rescuing her reproductive capacity from under a man’s control—a change began that was to open life options that previous biology-based conceptions of sex and gender had foreclosed. When feminism first began to equalize the workplace—breaking down sex-discriminatory barriers that subordinated women and privileged men—a change began that was to level the field for accomplishment and employment for millions and in so doing upend economic-based stereotypes about sex and gender. When feminism first began to confront rape as sexualized hatred—an act of power and control that can trigger a rapist’s erection, and be a war crime against women—a change began that was to challenge every received presumption (“if it turns me on it can’t be wrong”) about eroticism-based models of sex and gender.
In these ways, and more, feminism can be credited with shaking loose to the core how we think about sex and gender, thus how we inhabit our own bodies, thus how we behold and treat one another. In countless everyday instances, whether we are consciously aware or not, the social changes incited by feminism can be seen to cohere as a real politics of egalitarian liberation up against a real politics of elitist tyranny.
All of this has taken place alongside (and sometimes in tandem with) a progressive politics up against crimes of economic injustice by the system of ownership, exploitation, and profit. So powerful and insidious is this system that is can poison empathy, despoil compassion, and manufacture hate – a contaminant of contempt that spreads evermore horizontally and downwardly and leaves the privileged unperturbed.
This has also taken place alongside, and sometimes in tandem with, a real civil rights and #BlackLivesMatter politics up against the crimes of white supremacy. Among the most profound contributions of that movement is one of particular relevance to this discussion: the insight that the concept of “race” has no definitional material content; it does not exist in human nature as a meaningful category with ascribable parameters. Race is entirely a social/political construction, and it is solely human-to-human hate —racism—that constructs and polices the category “black,” in order to boundary and exclusively privilege the category “white.”
Without hate, there would be no black or white.
Similarly, without hate there would be no male or female.
Perhaps that second sentence comes as a shock. It shouldn’t and it needn’t. As Andrea Dworkin articulated in her 1974 book, Woman Hating, there is no sex binary in the human species; there exists no essential division of humans – material or ontological or biological – into two discrete, fixed, and absolute categories of so-called sex. As she put it (in a passage that changed my life),
The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.
The discovery is inescapable:
We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete. [The italics are hers.]
Those words would of course be anathema to male supremacists intent on maintaining their powers, privileges, and prerogatives as men—who aspire to be real men and believe themselves entitled as real men. Meanwhile the operative meanings of the words real and men in that or any sentence have been eroding and washing away in the wake of feminism like sandy shores during a tsunami.
Currently at the vanguard of the feminist revolutionary assault on male supremacy are those who see gender itself to be an obstacle to human liberation, because it is a hierarchical category system designed and built in the interests of patriarchy, whose destructive reign on the planet is long past its term limit. I agree with this position, as one might suppose from the titles of my books (Refusing to Be a Man and The End of Manhood). If, as I believe, it is misogyny that constructs the category “women” so that the category “men” can have concrete and exclusionary meaning, then to eliminate that misogyny and liberate all those oppressed by it (including folks who are treated like women, irrespective of their birth assignment), the binary gender categories themselves have got to go.
Easier said than done, of course. As fervently as that future might be wished for, no wave of a magic wand will get us there, and the opposition is well resourced and fueled by a global fury that any two-bit demagogue can inflame. The collective gender anxiety of men’s rights advocates alone would annihilate this revolution if it could.
But I see huge hope today in the currents of the revolution now going on in how we conceptualize human sexedness and genderedness, especially the multiplicity of self-identifications now emerging. There are those who still conceptualize sex as an essential binary but do see gender as an optional variety. And there are those who see no reason to hold on to anything binary at all, meaning both sex and gender are conceptualizable as fluidities, evidence of our species’ intrinsic and kaleidoscopic multisexuality.
At the moment, these two differing philosophical positions, both inspired by and strongly allied with feminism, are skirmishing over a relatively recent question having to do with trans women (trans men seem not to prompt the same contretemps): Are trans women counterrevolutionary because they “reify” gender, thereby undermining the revolution that’s specially supposed to liberate women who were assigned female at birth? Or—as the intersectional rejoinder to that perspective goes—are trans women as fully entitled to inclusion in the movement to liberate women as are all other women who have been marginalized on account of multiple oppressions?
A way out of this feminist conundrum has emerged, an egalitarian notion of radical inclusivity applied to matters of sex and gender. It is a perspective that sees trans folk as unheralded heroes of the larger resistance movement against male supremacy, because they bear vivid witness to real-life victimization under violent impositions of the gender binary that many folks experience. Far from undermining the feminist critique of gender as hierarchy, their survivor testimony underscores and amplifies it.
Every one of us bears the trauma of male supremacy. And to the extent that more and more people feel free to live outside binary sex and gender mandates—to the extent that there are more and more genders and there are as many sexes as there are people—and to the extent that more and more people recognize their own stake in eliminating male supremacy and its mandates—that may be humanity’s most promising hope right now to explode the fiction of the sex binary and tear down the hierarchy of gender.
John Stoltenberg, a long-time activist against sexual violence and a radical-feminist philosopher of gender, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, The End of Manhood: Parables of Sex and Selfhood, and many articles and essays. He is also a novelist (GONERZ), playwright, creative director, communications strategist, and theater reviewer. With trans feminist Cristan Williams, he contributes to an ongoing conversation about “the radical inclusivity of radical feminism” at The Conversations Project. He lives in Washington, DC. He tweets as @JohnStoltenberg.