The debate over what is and isn’t a social construct has intensified over the past couple of years, specifically about the social subjectivity or objectivity of gender roles in US culture.

On one hand, the social objectivists cite overwhelming biological proof that there are distinctions between male and female; on the other, social subjectivists cite fluidity in the expression of masculinity or femininity, or whatever combination of those qualities.

One thing I believe the two sides agree on, however, is that there is a difference in those expressions. Both are seeking to satisfy the questions, What does it mean to express male-ness? What does it mean to express female-ness? Can a biological male express female-ness, and if so, what does that mean for his identity?

It is this existential question of identity that rises to the top of the debate – a debate that is intensified by subjective individuals attempting to persuade the objectivity of their own perspective. The social subjectivists argue, like good existentialists, that identity is more important than the social ideal – or put another way: individual existence precedes transcendent essence. Objectivists, on the other hand, recognize commonality among subjective identities and attempt to deduce statistical ontology (or “general truths”).

What is fascinating to me is how subjectivists approach and, in some way, recognize “social objectivity”. A woman in transition to a male identity first accepts the social norms of masculine appearance – in clothes, in grooming, in hobbies perhaps. A male in transition to a female identity does the same – in cosmetics, in timbre, in allure. The subjectivist who argues for the legitimacy of these expressions, in other words, temporarily accepts the cultural objectivity of these masculine-feminine expressions. Furthermore, they insist that individual gender itself is determined by expression of social norms.

There is great controversy over what “gender” actually is. Traditionalists will appeal to the word’s etymology or historic usage, while progressives will assign new meaning to it, insist on that definition, and therefore insert themselves into a circular tautology: “the meaning of gender is x because x is the meaning of gender.” I grew up understanding that gender had everything to do with grammatical distinction, not biological sex; but the etymology and historic usage does not support even that understanding.

In its most general form, the term gender is related (coincidentally) to the word general. It has throughout the history of the English language been used as a synonym for that word, or another related word, genus – i.e., “A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common” (OED). Shakespeare used it as such in his Othello, when the villain Iago describes “a gender of herbs” in his own existentialist monologue.[1]

But don’t mistake its occasional synonymy with “general” to infer its ultimate derivative. For both general and gender – along with other words like gentle, genre, and regenerate – derive their meanings from a more basic concept of production, or causality. The book of Genesis is the book of beginnings, of creation, of divine production and first causes. The universe is engendered by the genius of Almighty God. In the animal kingdom, genitals are the generating mechanisms for progeny, and the perpetuity of genes. It is no wonder then that gender has often – and more usually – been likewise a synonym for “sex” as a noun to distinguish between categories based on reproductive function.

Lady Montegu quipped “of the fair Sex,” that her “only consolation for being of that Gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being marry’d to any one amongst them.”[2]

In any case – at least according to etymology and historical usage – the term gender has been associated with reproductive qualities or capacities. Whether it be of a generic or abstract reproduction, family, genus, or kind; or whether it be of the physical reproduction, copulation, or pro-generation, we can infer gender to mean that which has been engendered, or created, or produced. In other words, it is in this sense very much a biological distinction rather than a cultural one.

Of course, the etymological fallacy —  that modern denotations must conform to historic denotations — is a well-known mistake. I don’t intend to make that mistake here. We understand that words shift meaning over time, but history and etymology does inform us in many respects of how it became what it became – just as genes inform us of both distinctions and similarities among multiple varieties, races, or breeds. Genes do not insist the progeny conform in every respect to the progenitor, just as proper etymology does not insist language remain static.

But there is another linguistic fallacy that is even more dangerous, and that is to alter denotation by fiat; that is, to attempt to change the meaning of a word simply by saying it has been done. Modern subjectivists would have us believe that gender is mutually exclusive from biological sex. But there is no scientific or etymological evidence for this unless one changes the fundamental meaning of the word gender. If gender is a concept of induction rather than reproduction, there has somewhere been a fundamental shift imposed by linguistic kleptocrats.

It’s no wonder when discussing gender the ontologists and existentialists are in a very real sense speaking different languages without even knowing it. The social subjectivist might define gender in a six-dimensional framework: (1) an individual’s DNA, (2) an individual’s internal sense of male-ness, female-ness, or combination thereof, and (3) an individual’s expression of behaviors conformable to social norms. The unique intersection of these three “dimensions,” can then be compounded and altered by (1) the totality of the individual experience with all three dimensions, and (2) the totality of how that individual is perceived by others, or rather, how that individual feels he or she is perceived by others.[3] The result then is that “gender” is a unique quality for every individual experienced on a multilayer composite of space, time, matter, and energy.

This is an extremely complicated formula for traditionalists and social objectivists that can classify gender using a twofold equation of (a) that which has been generated, and (b) that which also has the capacity for generation. It is a fundamental shift in language, and its meaning is imposed by authoritarian fiat. If you do not accept this meaning, you have violated the law – an ironic law that says language (a social construct) is rigid and objective, so long as it conforms to their definition.

Again, what is fascinating to me is the manifestation of these expressions. Using the existentialist formula above, an individual may be (1) born a biological male, (2) feel internally a sense of female-ness, but (3) choose to express himself in a lesbian and socially male context. This absolutely begs the question – what is an internal sense of female-ness, and why should social norms influence the outward expression of that essence? What distinguishes that internal female-ness from the internal male-ness? Is it the social norms that drive the individual’s expression of gender?

In other words, why does a man, who feels like a woman, but expresses himself like stereotypical man in his conduct, dress, and sexual attraction, identify as a woman?

There is indeed a contradiction, and a conflict between social subjectivity and social objectivity – in the acceptance of objective biology, the acceptance of internal subjective feelings, and the acquiescence to accepted social norms.

What is ironic, I suppose, is that conducts of dress and style are irrefutably social constructs that differ from culture to culture – often from town to town. It’s a confusing irony that when a boy likes dresses or the color pink, the progressive subjectivists will objectify those social norms to infer this boy must objectively have a sense of femaleness. It’s another confusing irony that a biological female that feels like a male must express herself physiologically as a male, when those expressions – the preference for facial and body hair, muscular build, short hair, loose fitting clothes, or three-piece suits – are inarguably social constructs that have absolutely nothing to do with the biology or essence of male and female.

It’s as if the expression of and conformity to blatant social norms is more important than an inward essence or biological norm. And if gender is ultimately about conformity to social perceptions of male and female, then it is not the individual determining their maleness and femaleness at all – it is admittedly an external entity that drives expression. This is an existential contradiction.

To complicate matters, and perhaps in an attempt to scientize the issue, some movements of gender existentialism have associated maleness and femaleness with the chemical makeup of individuals. During controversy surrounding a male-born weightlifter in Australia who competed (and won) the female division, sports writer Phil Gifford defended the idea of people born as males competing as females, and declared gender to be determined by testosterone levels.

“It’s testosterone levels which is a much more scientific way of measuring male gender, female gender than anything else that is currently known,” he said, according to the Daily Mail. In other words, testosterone determines maleness or femaleness. However, the problem with this measurement — and with the premise that chemicals determine gender — is that testosterone levels are continuous data points, not discrete. Therefore, as long as chemicals determine gender one must accept that a level of 600ng/dL (nanograms per deciliter) of testosterone is a different gender altogether of 500ng/dL; and even if there were two individuals with the same level of testosterone in measured nanograms per decileter, that does not mean they are equal: their levels could (and would) be different in picograms, femtograms, attograms per decileter, etc.

Every individual’s gender would necessarily be different based on this scale, and we lose all hope of classification or generalization, and end up in the existentialists’ dream of the total desystematizing of subjects; in which common nouns are a thing of the past and every individual is a proper noun; in which every entity’s internal identity determines their essence. Quot homines tot genera.

And this identity would not be static, but very fluid. Again, basing gender on testosterone levels forces us to recognize that genders change on a daily basis. And if increased testosterone determines increased maleness, there are serious questions regarding social functions based on empirical evidence that need to be answered.

In 2015, psychologists studied the testosterone levels of male and female trained actors asked to portray a boss firing an employee. Under all conditions and controls, when each actor portrayed this boss, their testosterone levels rose on average by about 3% for the male actors and 13% for the females actors.[4]

Does this mean that being a boss, or at the very least, firing someone should be more closely equated with the male gender, since measuring testosterone levels “is a much more scientific way of measuring male gender, female gender than anything else that is currently known?”

The absurdity could go on, and this measurement of gender — while more empirical than the 6-dimensional subjective approach — gives us no better means of gender classification because testosterone levels are not discrete. And even if classifications could be made (say, based on testosterone level ranges), the question would always be begged: who determines the level ranges for each classification of gender? It would always be an arbitrary classification determined by social consensus, which brings us back to the existential contradiction of an external entity determining the proper expression of identity.

The traditionalist view, on the other hand, rejects that testosterone levels determine gender, but rather gender (i.e., sex; i.e., genetics; i.e., genitals) determines generally the manifestation of chemicals and identity expression — that essence precedes existence.

Again, what both sides seem to accept in this argument is that there is a binary distinction in what is male-ness and what is female-ness – what is masculine and what is feminine. Social ontologists believe the essence of male and female determines the expression; while social existentialists believe the totality of individual expression determines the social perception of the essence.

I approach this argument as a social ontologist – that through enough observation we can determine statistical ontology, or an essence that is generally, with a good probability, an objective truth – that males and females are essentially distinct, in their biology, their spirits, and their expression. This does not mean I believe men must necessarily be rugged and females must necessarily be fair; it simply means, as with most animals, there are ultimate distinctions in self-preservation and the progeneration of their species.

I’ve no special intolerance for people qua people who express themselves in this fashion. I’m no better; I, too, am totally depraved and chances are I’m a worse sinner than they are in my own natural state. But I do admittedly harbor intolerance for logical absurdity and contradictions accepted as truth.

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[1] Virtue! A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills….

[2] Montagu, Mary Wortley, The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol. 2: 1721–1751, Robert Halsband (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965 (33).

[3] The most honest and candid explanation of modern social subjectivism on gender I could find was at The Gender Spectrum, and is worth reading in toto: https://www.genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender/

[4] Van Anders, Sari M, Jeffrey Steiger, and Katherine L Goldey. “Effects of Gendered Behavior on Testosterone in Women and Men.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112, no. 45 (2015): 13805-10.