U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Towards Sexual Fluidity: Is the Earth Moving Under Our Feet?

genderScholars of science in Early Modern Europe tell us that premodern Europeans viewed sex, as in the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ or ‘male’ and ‘female,’ fundamentally differently than we do today. While once Europeans tended to view sexual categories as fluid, since the Enlightenment we incline more towards fixity. Furthermore, while once Europeans understood sex as conforming to what Tom Laqueur has called a “one sex model,” the notion that man and woman occupy different places on the same spectrum, since the 18th century we have gravitated towards a “two sex model,” which views man and woman as two distinct and even oppositional categories. According to Laqueur, we have always viewed sex through the two competing frameworks of fixity and fluidity, but at different times for various reasons one framework took precedence over the other.(1)

The momentous transformations of the Early Modern era seem to explain this recalibration of categories. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries political and scientific revolutions challenged the once predominant notion that the world conformed to a godly and hierarchical cosmological order that placed god, king, patriarch, and man at the center of the concentric spheres of cosmos, polity, family, and the body, respectively. Moreover, this seismic epistemological shift reversed the relationship between the social and biological, between gender and sex. In the older premodern order, as Laqueur put it, “to be a man or a woman was to hold a social rank, to assume a cultural role, and not to be organically one or the other of two sexes.”(2) Indeed in such a world biology was the more fluid category and gender the more fixed. By contrast, the post-Enlightenment framework, which cast distinct gender categories as derivative of irreconcilable biological difference between the two sexes, ordained that the gender categories ‘man’ and ‘women’ feature intrinsically distinct qualities.

It is quite clear that the gender pendulum in the Western world has swung over recent decades from fixity to fluidity, but recent LGBTQ activism seems to slowly influence the movement of the sex pendulum as well. And while violence and other forms of intolerance encountered by Trans people are a poignant reminder of how far we are from a day in which the fluidity of sexual categories will predominate, the relative exposure contemporaries have received through popular culture to the myriad challenges Western culture poses to Trans people, from Laverne Cox to Caitlyn Jenner, is hopefully a signal of things to come.

If the reactionary rants of conservative commentators over the pages of the National Review is any indicator of ripples in popular culture, then there is some cause for optimism on that front as well. Though reactionary pundits have spewed much bigoted nonsense in response to this recent surge, they themselves seem to evince a sense of fatalism and have not mobilized with the same conviction they had in past decades during the height of the Culture Wars. “It is puzzling that the response of so many social conservatives has been so timid and uncertain” reads the subtitle of one National Review article, which then goes on to marshall a host of confused psychological research rife with erroneous assumptions about the nature of the woes of Trans people. (3) Indeed, Andrew Hartman may be right, the contemporary cultural tug-of-war seems to have not featured the conservative zeal of past decades. Though the National Review issued a flurry of articles and blogposts in response to Caitlyn Jenner’s assumption of new gender and sex categories, it has, for the most part, tried to appear above the “noise” and “drama” in what I think is a de-facto admission of cultural defeat.

What seems particularly interesting is that in such smirking commentaries about what conservative pundits regard alternately as “the left” or “liberals” they try to cast liberals as blundering Quixotic warriors and scientific facts as the windmills. They would have us leave Don Quixote to his delusions so long as we recognize the windmills for what they really are (even they have recognized the irony of conservatives taking a scientific stance). “As a practical matter,” asserts one commentator, “discrete individuals have little stake in Jenner’s “internal, deeply held sense” of being male or female or a parakeet.” The problem for this pundit lies when liberals demand “not that we indulge Jenner’s confusion out of charity, but that we adopt it as our own. You, too, must accept that Jenner is, in truth, a woman.”(4)

“I really don’t care if Bruce Jenner wants to live as a woman.” notes another National Review blogger, adding that “if we were to meet, I would respect Jenner’s desire to be treated as a woman.” However, the problem again lies in liberals’ supposed attempts to fight against scientific truths: “[w]hat I find fascinating is how much magical thinking is involved in all of this. It’s true that gender is a social construction. It’s also true that it’s a social construction built on a natural foundation. If you have a problem with that statement, take it up with the archeological record and the evolutionary psychologists.” In the tradition of Western Enlightenment thought, yet again, the biological category of sex serves as the factual cornerstone upon which we should erect our social constructions in a “sensible” manner. “The idea that there are 56 different genders (and counting!) is the sort of thing only someone paid to talk about gender theory could take seriously,” added the same frustrated pundit.(5)

What those who lean back on biology and sexual categories seem unable—or unwilling—to recognize is both that we need not assume that sexual categories hold primacy over gendered categories, and that sexual categories themselves are to a significant degree constructed. To be sure, most people—not all people—have certain biological attributes that we can discern as either male or female, but there is no reason for us to hold that these distinctions are the most significant ones, or that they are diametrically opposed. Furthermore, medical advances have already rendered—and are certain to render in the future—these distinctions even more fluid, which will hopefully allow people to live as they see fit.

While just a decade ago Lee Edelman’s No Future, which called for the embrace of the death drive and the rejection of the child as cultural icon, marked a pessimistic turn in Queer studies, more recently in Gaga Feminism J. Jack Halberstam cast the prospect of a Queer future—and children—in more sanguine terms. Halberstam notes, for instance, how an embrace of popular culture icons such as Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants and Lady Gaga offer kids and young adults gender and sex fluid icons that allow them to flourish in which ever way they will.

While only hindsight will be able to determine whether we are in the midst of another seismic epistemological shift, the way we view gender and even sex is perhaps indicative of the ground shifting under our feet. This should not lead us to scramble for safer ground but to enjoy the ride.

[1] Thomas Laquour, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990)

[2] Laqueur, 142.

[3] David French, “With the Celebration of Caitlyn Jenner the Left Doubles Down on Social Decay,” The National Review, 6/8/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/419473/caitlyn-jenner-and-lefts-embrace-social-decay-david-french

[4]Ian Tuttle, “Who Won Bruce Jenner’s Olympic Medals,” The National Review, 6/2/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/419223/who-won-bruce-jenners-oiympic-medals-ian-tuttle

[5] Jonah Goldberg, “Gender Fluidity Industry’s Magical Thinking,” The National Review, 6/6/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/419416/gender-fluidity-industrys-magical-thinking-jonah-goldberg

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  1. For all the head-scratching it seems clear to me that history has always granted men the right if not outright ownership of sexuality — how ever fluid — and denied it to women. Only in recent years has something akin to equality begun to appear, but judging from the Ashley Madison customer lists — sex is still a commodity to men.

  2. This is a really nice piece. An interesting example of a sort of return to a one-sex model (filtered through a certain kind of Marxism and quantum physics) is offered by the feminist philosopher Katerina Kolozova, a student of the renegade non-philosopher François Laruelle (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/cut-of-the-real/9780231166102). Interesting, too, is the work of Gayle Salamon on trans embodiment (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/assuming-a-body/9780231149587).

    To my mind, these texts present exciting answers to the question of “what next?”–after the “negative” turn, which is too negative for a lot of people. and after the “SpongeBob” turn, which is a little too (gratingly?) positive for others. Kolozova and Salamon present, in different ways, contemporary recuperations of psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories that suggested the possibility of sexuality as a single matrix, in which bodies, affects, and identities are articulated and entangled… My guess is that the history (or historiography) of sexuality will find a lot of archival material that affirms such a vision.

    • These sound like great readings! Thanks.
      Also I like the term “SpongeBob turn,” it’s quite pertinent.

  3. Thanks for the post, Eran. What will matter most, I believe, in future accounts about sexual fluidity in this era, is the religious register. Your post focuses on politics, which has to do with circumstances of policy and practices. But how will religious institutions adjust or not? Those longer deeper currents will determine true change—i.e. whether we’re on pendulum swing or a changed kind of march of time/progress. – TL

    • Yeah that’ll be quite interesting to see. Hopefully we won’t get another 150 years or so of religious wars as they had in Europe from the reformation to the end of the 30 Years War.

  4. The Venn overlap between regular readers of the USIH blog and viewers who have seen every single episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants is probably not huge. However, as one of the people who would fit in that demographic sliver, I have to say that I missed the memo on Sponge Bob and the fluidity of sexual identity.

    • Ha! Well, I never really watched it, but I’ve read about it in “Gaga Feminism,” which is a short and quite fun read designed for popular audiences rather than the usually dense Queer theory stuff.

  5. I have to admit to being one of the liberals who was flummoxed by the tide of enthusastic endorsement for Caitlyn Jenner coming from the left. I didn’t understand — and I confess to puzzlement today — what the progressive political benefit is from cheering on a further instalment in the Kardashian entertainment complex, this one centering on a declared Republican whose notions of femininity appear to be closer to Barbara Bush than, say, Amy Shumer. This is not to dispute any subjective experience of Jenner’s, or to deny the right to a sex-change, but to query what, to me at least, is the startling uncritical embrace of a celebrity culture that is designed to undermine and dissolve all political thinking.

    • I think it just so happens that at times something good can come out of a celebrity culture. As I see it, personally, Caitlyn Jenner as an individual is not the issue, but the very real transphobia that permeates our society. Jenner’s story, I think, constituted a stride forward in that regard, what ever else it might entail, or whatever Jenner might personally think.

      • Do you honestly believe Kaitlyn Jenner helped the situation at all…because I sure as hell don’t. I think she only reinforced the weirdness or strangeness of it in most people’s minds…take it from me. I have no irons in this fire. I have nothing to gain or lose. I don’t care what people do…what ever floats your boat…but couldn’t we have a better person than Kaitlyn Jenner as an example of a trans-gender human being? As far as gender fluidity I find the whole notion annoying, but that is just me..I’m old…54…I (and I’m sure I’m not alone) am sick of having this whole issue thrust in my face constantly..It only makes me uncomfortable and I feel like they’re bashing me over the head with it. I don’t care who sleeps with who… I JUST DON”T CARE….Gender fluidity seems more like an excuse to do what ever you want with no responsibility. From what I see of it in Hollywood celebrities, there is little depth to these relationships and they seem to come and go quicker than the Kardashians change their butt implants…uggggg …honestly it’s hard to take anything coming our of hollywood seriously. Don’t hate me…just my old lady opinion..what do I know…

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