Philosophy and science of gender and sex

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Pfhorrest
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Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu May 24, 2018 3:25 am UTC

I suggested a while back in the LGBT+ safe space support thread that it might be useful for there to exist somewhere on the forum a place to discuss the philosophy and science of gender and sex, because occasionally people pop into that thread wanting to discuss such things but it's not appropriate for such a safe space, and rather than telling them to go away completely it might be more constructive to have somewhere to redirect them to.

I don't know why I waited until just now to do so, but I thought now's as good a time as any.

I can post some old thoughts on the topic as a discussion-starter if anyone likes, or if someone else has thoughts they'd like to discuss, feel free to get things rolling yourselves.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu May 24, 2018 3:32 pm UTC

Seems reasonable to separate out debate and support, as the two topics can conflict, sure.

If you've got questions, go for it.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Fri May 25, 2018 1:09 am UTC

I don't exactly have questions per se, but there are a few topics I've wanted to discuss in the past that I could write about.

Before I get into those though, I feel like I should write something of an overview of my understanding of sex and gender, both so people know my later comments aren't coming from a place of ignorance, and also maybe as a good primer for later people who will maybe get directed to this thread to discuss such things. I'll make clear where I am stating things that are my opinions only or where I'm uncertain, and the rest that's not thus marked is just uncontroversial fact so far as I'm aware (but if I get any of it wrong, please do say so).


GENDER IS NOT SEX

Since 1950, western (or at least anglophone) sociologists have distinguished between the concepts of "sex" and "gender", with the term "sex" referring to a biological categorization and the term "gender" referring to a sociological categorization abstracted from sex. (Prior to this, the term "gender" referred only to a linguistic categorization, also abstracted from sex, in analogy to which the sociological sense of the term was coined).


SEX IS COMPLICATED

This distinction was prompted by the realization that sex, the biological thing, is more complicated than we, socially, act like it is. Society insists on figuratively putting people into one of two boxes based on their "sex", yet sex turns out not to be a single two-valued attribute that works like that, but rather a compound of multiple aspects each with more than two values.

Chromosomes come not only as XX or XY, but a myriad other configurations such as single-X, XXY, XYY, XXX, and XXYY. Hormones and the body's response to them run in a spectrum from the testosterone-heavy male type to the estrogen-heavy female type. Both gonads and genitals come in configurations other than just testes/penis and ovaries/vulva, but also a variety of intermediate forms. Secondary sex characteristics like body fat and hair distribution likewise.

And all of these aspects can vary somewhat-independently of each other: for example, there are people born with XY chromosomes but a genetic insensitivity to androgens that causes them to nevertheless develop (from birth through puberty and their entire lives) wholly female sexual characteristics, like a vulva and large breasts and minimal body hair, except for nonfunctional ovaries.

All of those conditions have their own distinct names, but are collectively referred to as intersex conditions.

Yet society insists on categorizing all people into one of two boxes, "man/boy" and "woman/girl", even though intersex people don't match all the features such labels are meant to imply. For example the aforementioned person with androgen insensitivity would usually be categorized as a girl or woman, despite having a XY sex chromosomes, and despite lacking functional ovaries.

So it's clearly useful to be able to distinguish between a person's underlying biology (sex), and their place in the structure of society that may not perfectly match that biology (gender).


GENDER IS COMPLICATED

Meanwhile, in many other places and times around the world and throughout history, different societies have long been structured with more than just those two gender categories, such as the berdache of Native American culture and the kathoey of Thai culture. These social gender categorizations are still not just a direct description of the true complexities of sex, just different social constructs than the two that we use here, based in part on sex, in part on sex-differentiated social roles and presentations, and sometimes even based on sexual orientation.

For a made-up illustration based on western gender stereotypes, imagine that we categorized people into three genders: people with penises, who wear pants, work outside the house, and prefer sex with people who have vulvas; people with vulvas, who wear dresses, work inside the house, and prefer sex with people who have penises; and people with penises, who wear dresses, work inside the house, and prefer sex with people who have penises. Notably, the third is not considered a variant or deviant form of the first, but rather something else entirely, perhaps even something more like the second (as for example Thai kathoey are considered a "second type of woman", despite being biologically male).

It's not hard to think up a hypothetical person who still wouldn't fit into any of those three categories (without even involving intersex conditions), but if those were the categories by which our society sorted people, then we'd insist that everyone is one of those three things, and if they don't fit quite properly, they'd be seen as just a defective example of one of those things. Just like we do with the two categories our society actually has.

"Gender" simpliciter (without any qualifications) refers to which of its boxes society puts a person into. Those traditionally sex-differentiated social roles and forms of presentation are aspects of gender, called "gender role" and "gender presentation" respectively. "Gender identity" means something a little bit more complicated, though.


GENDER IDENTITY IS EVEN MORE COMPLICATED

On the surface, "gender identity" refers to how a person categorizes themselves, and consequently how they would like to be categorized by others. Because gender is an arbitrary social construct, there is no sense in which a gender identification can be factually right or wrong: the act of identifying constitutes the fact of the identity; to have a gender identity just is to identify as some gender.

The analogy I like to use for illustration is other socially constructed categories like "nerd". There are no objective criteria that the term "nerd" refers to, it's just an arbitrary categorization of people. A nerd is just someone who identifies as a nerd, and because of that there's really no point in arguing about who really is or isn't a nerd. To nominally disagree with someone who identifies as a nerd isn't even to actually disagree on any matter of fact, because there is no deeper matter of fact upon which to agree or disagree. The meaning of such disagreement is nothing more than an attack upon the other person's self-image, basically just a bare insult with no descriptive content.

Likewise with gender identity. Nobody "really is" one gender or another in any sense deeper than being categorized by people as one gender or another, and so to dispute someone's gender identity is purely to attack their self-image and insult them.

When one identifies as the same gender that society identified them from birth, that is called cisgender. When one identifies as the opposite (in the binary, two-gender scheme we use in our society), that is called transgender. But like sex and gender itself, this kind of identification is not binary either. One can also identify as no gender (agender), or both genders (bigender) or all genders (pangender), and so on. In some cases, "transgender" is used as an umbrella term for anything besides cisgender, including all of those just mentioned.


...


I'm finding myself stuck on how to continue writing in an encyclopedic voice (and I feel like it was already starting to fall apart up there), so I'm going to switch to discussing my own personal thoughts here. It seems like there are numerous different concepts that all get lumped in together under "gender identity", and I'm not sure that (and if so, how) they're differentiated in mainstream thought. One conflation of aspects seems to be between "gender identity" as in man/woman/etc, and "gender identity" as in cis/trans/etc. The former seems like the strictest sense of the term, given the origins of gender as a concept, but then it seems like there should be a separate term for the latter, and I'm not aware of one.

Another thing that seems to get conflated in there is an attribute that doesn't seem like it should be described by the term "gender" (the sociological category) at all: how one feels about one's biological sex. Completely aside from issues of social identity, role, presentation, etc: Are you comfortable with the sexual characteristics (genitals, etc) that you have, and would you be comfortable with the sexual characteristics of the "opposite" sex?

That distinction is important to me personally and so far as I know we don't have adequate theoretical language to discuss it. I call myself various things like pangender, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc, but the substantive content I'd like to be able to convey more easily is: I don't care how society categorizes me, I mix and match role and presentation as I please, but more importantly than any of that, while I am okay with the masculinity of my body, I would prefer that it be more feminine, and I'd be okay in principle if it were completely feminine, but I'd really prefer to keep some masculine traits too.

I've heard people make a distinction between "transgender" and "transsexual" sometimes that seems intended to capture that difference. But for one thing we still don't have a term for what "transsexual" (and presumably "cissexual" as well) is a kind of, since if it has nothing to do with gender, it's not a gender identity. A "sexual identity" or something? And secondly, it's not clear how to extend that terminology outside the cis/trans binary, since "asexual", "bisexual", "pansexual", etc, are already words that mean something completely different (sexual orientations).


For that matter, while I'm mentioning sexual orientations, there seems to be need for some clarification somewhere or another on the relationship between gender and orientation, since as mentioned above some gender schemes from other cultures have factored orientation into their genders. A lot of people in the west here have trouble distinguishing between gender and orientation as well. If we're going to say that other cultures' genders can be determined partly by orientation, and our own culture is having trouble not doing that, can we not say that in some sense our culture might treat e.g. "lesbian" as a gender, comparable to how a homosexual Native American might traditionally have been considered berdache?


And one last thought for discussion that didn't fit in anywhere above: I think that when most English speakers, historically and presently, who have no knowledge of any of this sociological stuff, use terms like "man" and "woman", they are aiming to talk about sex, not about gender. I think it's therefore unfortunate that we have academically decided that those terms refer to genders, not to sexes, because I think that causes a lot of unnecessary confusion and strife, especially for the transgender community.

I think it would have been much better if, rather than doing that, we had instead tried to shape our social gender concepts to better match the underlying biology and psychology, inventing new terminology to describe unfamiliar concepts instead of repurposing existing terminology in unfamiliar ways. But alas, almost 70 years now after that ball got rolling is probably too late to turn back, and I guess we'll just have to wait for a generation or two to die off before this wholly unnecessary purely linguistic kerfuffle settles down.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tchebu » Sat May 26, 2018 5:33 am UTC

Very nice writeup, thanks. Most of the "encyclopedic" part seems to be a setup of definitions so there's no much to disagree with on a logical/empirical level, but I think the way you set things up runs into trouble, because you define gender as being purely socially determined and gender identity as purely personally determined.

Specifically when you get to:
there is no sense in which a gender identification can be factually right or wrong: the act of identifying constitutes the fact of the identity; to have a gender identity just is to identify as some gender.


The way you phrased it, it's technically correct but seems empty. If my gender identity is by definition how I, myself, feel about my place within some "gender framework", whatever it happens to be, then that's all there is to it. But this basically just decouples "gender identity" from "gender", as you defined them... whereas what most people care about is how those two actually relate to each other.

You later say
Nobody "really is" one gender or another in any sense deeper than being categorized by people as one gender or another, [...]

But you defined gender as the fact of being categorized by others, so this sense of "really being" a certain gender is actually the deepest sense possible... and it's not a trivial sense given how much people care about it, particularly in cases of disagreement.

, and so to dispute someone's gender identity is purely to attack their self-image and insult them

By your definitions, telling someone "your are a man" is not a claim about their gender identity at all, but a claim about their gender. Disputing someone's gender identity would be something like telling people "you feel like a man" when they claim not to, but I suspect this is not what you had in mind.

My approach would be to just have a unified notion of one's identity (not even limited to gender) as being collectively determined both by the person and by society through a sort of negotiation process, with certain aspects being more personally dictated and others more socially dictated. This is certainly how I think about my own identity and it's the only way I can think of to avoid running into the sorts of 1st/3rd-person disconnects like the above. The whole point of an identity is that it provides an interface between us and society, so it's necessarily modulated by both. I suspect this is likely not the sort of view someone whose self-perception is in constant disagreement with societal perceptions of them would enjoy, especially with regards to something like gender, but I do think it's more accurate descriptively than the kind of separation you suggest.

I have some other points about other parts of what you wrote, but they're largely unrelated, so I'll leave it at this for now.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Dr34m(4+(h3r » Sat May 26, 2018 10:35 pm UTC

Gender identity is the phenomenal manifestation of as of yet not fully understood neurological traits. In that sense it's perfectly objective, just as much so as the rest of biology. There are just problems with researching it:

1. Small sample size
2. Sample pollution: It's not really tenable to separate out fetishists from people who actually have gender dysphoria at this time, so already small samples will already wind up polluted.
3. Lack of political will to research something that either disproves current social and policy inclinations (IE, that vindicates trans people), or else is redundant to them (since anti-trans politicians and insurance companies don't need "hard disproof" of the validity of transsexualism to act as they do)

Any perspective other than this is basically retarded metaphysics by way of arbitrary semantic fuckery

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Sat May 26, 2018 11:49 pm UTC

Tchebu wrote:Very nice writeup, thanks. Most of the "encyclopedic" part seems to be a setup of definitions so there's no much to disagree with on a logical/empirical level, but I think the way you set things up runs into trouble, because you define gender as being purely socially determined and gender identity as purely personally determined.

FWIW I'm not trying to declare definitions on my own authority or anything like that, but to report (what I understand to be) the prevailing definitions used in mainstream sociology (or, as applicable, other fields), something you might find in a college textbook.

Beyond that, I'm highlighting what seem to me to be ambiguities or other limitations in such mainstream theory that make talking clearly about such matters difficult, in the hope that either someone will clear up what's just a misunderstanding on my part, or else agree that yeah, that's something that could use further clarification/research/whatever.

By your definitions, telling someone "your are a man" is not a claim about their gender identity at all, but a claim about their gender. Disputing someone's gender identity would be something like telling people "you feel like a man" when they claim not to, but I suspect this is not what you had in mind.


What I meant by "disputing someone's gender identity" is identifying them other than how they identify themselves. So if someone says "I am a woman" and you say "no, you're a man", assuming you are both genuinely using "woman" and "man" to refer to gender and not sex (which I think is often not the case in such disputes), you're effectively just asserting that you categorize them differently than they categorize themselves.

But (again, assuming we are genuinely talking about gender, the social construct, and not something else that's being conflated with it) the categorization is arbitrary, there is no underlying reality to it, so there's no sense of objective right or wrong to it, there's just their self-image and your image of them, and you're just insisting that they categorize themselves they way that you do, which is not so much a disagreement of fact as it is just a social action.

Like if someone says they're a nerd and you say no, they're "just" a dork. There's no objectivity about who "really" is a nerd or a dork, so you can't be right or wrong, and neither can they, but insisting that they self-apply the label you'd apply to them is not a factual disagreement, it's just kinda being mean, calling them a name they don't like. (Meanwhile, someone else might like being called a dork. I've known people who self-applied that label, and other people who applied it to others with positive connotations, to people who took it as a compliment).

Dr34m(4+(h3r wrote:Gender identity is the phenomenal manifestation of as of yet not fully understood neurological traits. In that sense it's perfectly objective, just as much so as the rest of biology. [...] dysphoria [...] Any perspective other than this is basically retarded metaphysics by way of arbitrary semantic fuckery

That is a thing that the term "gender identity" gets used to describe, and as I said in my previous post I think that that is an important thing that we need the language to accurately discuss, but the term of "gender", originally and still defined in socially-constructive terms, doesn't seem conductive to that end. I think we need clearer language to separate out, as I described it before, the question of whether you feel comfortable with the sex of the body you were born with and whether you would feel (more, or less, or just as much, etc) comfortable with a body of the opposite sex, from matters of gender the social construct. Because conflating the two things together seems to cause nothing but confusion and strife.

The question of what-body-feels-comfortable-to-you seems more akin to (but of course, still separate from) the question of sexual orientation, i.e. it's an objective psychological fact about the person in question (which, like all psychological facts, likely has neurological underpinnings). Given the examples of other cultures factoring sexual orientation in along with role and presentation into the construction of their genders, it seems like that what-body-feels-comfortable-to-you attribute could certainly be a factor in the social construction of genders. But it seems important to be able to discuss it as an independent objective fact of a person's psychology, separate from social matters, in the same way that it's important to be able to discuss sexual orientation separately from them.

Also, though, I worry about attempts to define (rather than merely explain) that what-body-feels-comfortable-to-you attribute in terms of neurological structures, for the same reason that I'd worry about attempts to define gender by chromosomes or define orientation by the presence of a hypothetical "gay gene". Any of those threaten to possibly declare anyone having the phenomenal experience, but lacking the usual biological cause of that experience, as "not really" trans/gay/whatever, and also threatening to declare that we usually have no idea what of the relevant categories a person fits into because they haven't had the relevant biology tested yet. It seems like we should be defining the category in terms of just having the phenomenal experience, and then out of pure scientific curiosity investigating the biological cause(s) of such experiences, but not looking for a biological tell with which to identify the category.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Soupspoon » Sun May 27, 2018 12:10 am UTC

An ignominious place to have previously mentioned it, but it's a remarkably pithy adage. Obviously, I am not the original author of it.

And this is just the right kind of place to challenge it, I suppose.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Sun May 27, 2018 2:59 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Like if someone says they're a nerd and you say no, they're "just" a dork. There's no objectivity about who "really" is a nerd or a dork...
...but there =is= a difference between a nerd and a dork. In common parlance (being aware that English usage is descriptive, not prescriptive), "nerd" describes arcane-knowledge display, and "dork" describes social awkwardness. Both of these are external traits as opposed to self-image traits.

Regarding sex and gender, I wonder if some of the angst is caused by people wishing to pigeonhole others into groups, and the resulting wonder as to into which group one belongs. And maybe this causes the creation of spurious groups into which to place people.

I'm sure there are many more categories than "male" and "female" in the sex/gender realm, but maybe some things just aren't indicative of belonging in any of these groups. To pick a simplistic example, one who doesn't like sports may not be "more female" than somebody who does, but perhaps the quest to make categories would cause somebody (otherwise male) who doesn't like sports to wonder if he's "really" a man... and if not, then what?

Maybe they just don't like sports, and not liking sports is fine.

Could this apply to less simplistic traits?

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby PAstrychef » Sun May 27, 2018 3:20 am UTC

Ah, the idea that men like sports and women don’t is a social construct of gender identity. This is part of how societies define masculine and feminine roles. Some societies are more rigid in their exoectstions of how people behave based on which category they are perceived to be part of.
We have reached a place in the US where individuals are insisting that they get to decide which, if any of those categories they identify with.
Indeed, for most of human history those who found themselves nit fitting well with their society’s gender roles did wonder if they were “really a man/woman”. I don’t think you mean that trans people are just folks who don’t fit with local gender norms. There is a whole range of issues-from severe body dysphoria to just having the “wrong” hairstyle or clothing.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Sun May 27, 2018 3:53 am UTC

ucim wrote:but there =is= a difference between a nerd and a dork. In common parlance (being aware that English usage is descriptive, not prescriptive), "nerd" describes arcane-knowledge display, and "dork" describes social awkwardness. Both of these are external traits as opposed to self-image traits.

That may be how you define them, but others will disagree. For example in my old circle of friends social awkwardness was an essential quality of a nerd, and those with arcane knowledge but not social awkwardness were called geeks. In the end the terms are loose labels of social categories — social constructs, not precise labels for objective taxa — that are defined for others by whatever they see in common between those who self-apply the label.

Similar issues face identities like “gay”. Some men who have sex exclusively with other men insist that they are not “gay” because they are not effeminate or otherwise stereotypically unmanly, besides their sexual preferences, which requires sociologists to use awkward circumlocutions to refer to such people unambiguously. In those contexts, “gay” seems to be treated like a gender, the way we sometimes see others cultures consider orientation and presentation together in the construction of their third genders.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Sun May 27, 2018 4:02 am UTC

PAstrychef wrote:I don’t think you mean that trans people are just folks who don’t fit with local gender norms.
Correct. I know that these are real and significant things. However...
PAstrychef wrote:Ah, the idea that men like sports and women don’t is a social construct of gender identity. [...] We have reached a place in the US where individuals are insisting that they get to decide which, if any of those categories they identify with.
I am proposing that perhaps some of these categories are spurious. Maybe liking sports shouldn't be considered as part of "being male", at least to the extent that the gender "male" is related to the sex "male" (which is why the same word is used). Maybe we should "reach a place in the US where" irrelevancies are no longer part of how people identify their gender.

Pfhorrest wrote:That may be how you define them, but others will disagree.
...which goes with the idea that the English language is descriptive (of usage) rather than prescriptive (of meaning). But the same holds for self-identification. If two people with the same characteristics self-identify differently, then the term used is robbed of its usefulness as a descriptor. There needs to be general agreement on the meaning of a word for it to be a word in the first place.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tchebu » Sun May 27, 2018 2:58 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:FWIW I'm not trying to declare definitions on my own authority or anything like that

Yup, fair enough. I didn't mean to imply that you did. They do sound like fairly standard definitions.

Pfhorrest wrote:For example in my old circle of friends social awkwardness was an essential quality of a nerd, and those with arcane knowledge but not social awkwardness were called geeks.

Sure, but pretty much everyone would agree that they are not, say "jocks" or something, right? And that this isn't an arbitrary judgement completely devoid of objective content? Socially constructed categories are nebulous, without a clear set of necessary or sufficient conditions that define them and often flow gradually into each other as well as themselves change over time, but they certainly are attempting to capture a general gradient of people's appearances/behaviors/attitudes or whatever the categories are meant to describe. It's basically an attempt to discretize a continuous space but with the discrete elements also having blurred edges. "Geek" and "nerd" are strongly overlapping neighboring categories, so there's bound to be some confusion there, but this is also precisely what makes them a bad example imo.

On a similar note, and getting back to gender, could you elaborate on how you conclude that gender has "no underlying reality to it" and is "arbitrary"? This is often thrown around, but I have yet to see a real knock-down argument for it. Most of the time when I hear this, it's motivated by pointing out to the different notions of gender in other cultures, but it seems to me that it only shows that notions of gender are variable. Variable doesn't mean arbitrary in the sense of "any other would be just as good" (is that the sense you're using?). It indicates that it's hard to put a precise set of clear-cut conditions that would work at all levels of detail but it doesn't mean they don't (or aren't attempting to) capture real observable differences between people at some level of detail.

I don't think cultures came to their notions of gender by pulling a lotto ball out of a bag, because then why have them at all? If gender categories don't capture some relevant distinctions, however imprecisely, what are they even for, how did they come to be and why are attempts to categorize according to gender so ubiquitous? Perhaps I'm missing some important empirical point, however. What do we know about the origins of gender? Are there cultures that don't have a notion of gender at all?
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon May 28, 2018 11:24 pm UTC

I feel like you're asking me to defend the notion of social constructions, when I'm again just trying to relay my understanding of how mainstream sociologists define them. So far as I understand it, they basically define them as arbitrary and with no underlying reality, which is to say with no significance other than that which society arbitrarily gives them. If there is some underlying reality to them, they are not social constructs at all but rather (possibly inaccurate or unclear) labels for those real things they're attempting to refer to. For that very reason I find the notion of them pretty useless for many purposes. I'd actually argue that in many cases, people are not actually trying to use social constructs, but trying unsuccessfully to talk about objective reality, and in the process accidentally creating and promulgating social constructs.

In the case of gender, as I said before I think that most people are trying to talk about sex, and orientation, and that property we need a better name for that's about how comfortable you feel with the sex of your body. They're merely inaccurately conflating some of all of those three things with each other, and conflating the many different aspects of sex per se together as well, and conflating a bunch of unrelated things about dress and work and manner of speech and so on with those, and drawing false dichotomies across all of those variables, creating a handful of ultimately very oversimplified labels that are just fortunate enough to work well enough for a majority of cases that do happen to line up that way.

I guess at some point those oversimplified concepts take on a life of their own, becoming concepts that don't really refer to real things at all but only to themselves, such that (for a stereotypical western example used by others above) "man who doesn't like sports" starts to sound like a contradiction because "man" has taken on connotations besides a description of biology and become the name of a socially constructed (i.e. imaginary) thing, to the rules of which reality (e.g. biological human males) might not conform.

I would be inclined to just tell people that their imagination of what sex, orientation, and that-quality-we-need-to-name are like is wrong and needs to be cleared up to be more accurate and eliminate their confusions. I get why sociologists, who are supposed to be merely describing and not judging cultures, can't do this, and have to employ the concept of social constructs like gender to describe the way in which societies think about things, without saying anything about whether those social constructs align with reality or not. But we as members of our societies should be able to affect change in our social constructs, even dissolving or disusing them if we see fit.

That is partly why I'd really like a term for how you feel about the (actual, prospective, or former) sex of your body that doesn't employ the concept of "gender", which was defined from the start as a social construct. As I said before we could use (and have used) "cissexual" and "transsexual" to describe the binary extremes of that property, but there's a problem extending that terminology to nonbinary values of it because other words with "-sexual" as the root have meanings already as sexual orientations. And it's not clear what we'd say "transsexual" and "cissexual" are kinds of; they're not strictly "gender identities", if by "gender" we mean a social construct and we're using those terms to avoid going through that social construct, but they're also not "sexes" or "sexualities" because those already mean something else . If we could just come up with a different root, we could even stick the same "cis-" and "trans-" prefixes on it (along with "a-", "bi-", "pan-", etc) and be done, making the terminological transition pretty easy as well. (E.g. people could still just say "trans", and everyone would know what they mean, but "trans" would just technically be short for something other than "transgender"). I'm just not sure what the best root would be.

(In an essay I wrote on this subject once, I proposed "-tendant", as that describes what you're aiming for, where you're metaphorically going, but I'm not sure that "cistendant", "transtendant", etc are terms that really convey their meaning easily enough and are catchy enough to get used).
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 2:41 am UTC

What is a social construct? I'm not sure it's a thing at all, or at best, a labeling attempt with a feedback loop. And if that's the case, how does it differ from any other word? Because that's what a word is.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue May 29, 2018 4:11 am UTC

The usual example given of a social construct is money, which is a symbol of value that has value because we agree that it symbolizes value and is therefore valuable in lieu of what it symbolizes, but which we all (well, those who've thought a moment about it) realize has no intrinsic value other than the fact that other people think it has value. The only reason I want money and will do or give things for it is because other people want it and will do or give me things for it, but their reason is the same, with no bottom to it.

So basically, something that only has reality inasmuch as people will really act as though it does.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 5:03 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:The usual example given of a social construct is money
But I would argue that money is not a social construct. It is something that has intrinsic value, in the same sense that a share of stock does. Money is a share in the economy. It's valuable because it allows you to participate in it. Similarly, a ticket to a movie is valuable not for the paper, but for the permission that it engenders - the ability to see a movie.

The economy, or the idea of paying to see a movie, may be an activity that is governed by social norms (and laws); in that sense the "social construct" is pretty much all of society, but it's not arbitrary.

More to my point, calling something "money" is not a social construct; it is an act of labeling, one which is effective because other people (the feedback loop) accept that label. If I handed out used flashbulbs and called it "money", I'd probably get no traction. It's not money (except in my imagination) if it can't be used to buy stuff. And if I manage to create a system wherein used flashbulbs circulate and are used as a medium of exchange, then I have built something valuable and the used flashbulbs are a share in that valuable thing. But just calling a tail a leg doesn't help a horse to walk.

In that sense, "money" and "dork" are the same. The fact that I identify as a dork, or as gay, or identify a used flashbulb as money does not make it so.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue May 29, 2018 5:33 am UTC

All of those things you compare money to are also classic social constructs. Their reality lies in people's belief in them.

Joe Random calling some random trinket "money" doesn't make it money to anyone or everyone, that it, it doesn't mean anyone will accept it as a symbol of value that they will trade goods or services for, but it does indicate that he will accept it as such. You could use trinkets to account for trade of goods and services with Joe Random, because to him trinkets and money. There's no point in arguing about whether the trinkets are "really" money because the reality lies entirely in the belief. Saying "no, trinkets aren't money" to him is not really disagreeing about a fact, it's just indicating that you do not accept trinkets in trade. When he says "yes they are", he's really just indicating that he does accept them. The nominal assertions of what look like facts are really just reifications of your (and his) acceptance or non-acceptance of a social arrangement. Likewise with arguments about whether people really are or aren't members of some social construct. You're just expressing acceptance or non-acceptance, not really disagreeing about facts.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 2:05 pm UTC

It's not money if only he will accept it as such. What makes it money is that other people do. Whether other people do or don't is a matter of objective fact. That makes calling it 'money' a matter of descriptive labeling.

If most people who are sexually attracted to their own sex call themselves "gay", then that's the meaning the word acquires. It is a label; a statement of objective fact. If I then decide that I'm gay too because I like trees, that doesn't actually put me into the same category "people who are sexually attracted to their own sex". It merely puts me into the category "people who call themselves gay". The former is a meaningful category, the latter, not so much. The latter is calling a tail a leg.

It's kind of like being an atheist Catholic. It's not a kind of Christian. It's a semantic delusion.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby PAstrychef » Tue May 29, 2018 3:21 pm UTC

Actually, your comments on money show exactly how it is a social construct. A society develops a norm that accepts bits of metal or cowrie shells or digital inputs as being of more than intrinsic value. It sure is easier than barter. The US uses gold to represent value. Why? Because, historically, it was valued for being shiny, seen as pure, and relatively hard to find. Basically though, it’s just a kind of rock. The paper bills we use are another remove from intrinsic value. Without the social construct of the idea of money-a stand-in for things or labor, all they are is plant pulp with coloring. Diamonds are a semi precious mineral, driven by a great marketing campaign to be see as the most extravagant gem around. People will trade months of labor to obtain a chunk of diamond to give to another to show how much they value them.
But no more economics.

(Judaism, by the way, has room for Jews that don’t believe in god)
Beyond biology, what makes a man a man? The biology of sex is rather more complicated than it seems on the surface, as a minute of research will tell you. A gender role is a social construct because it is defined by a given society. In Japan, female names end with an o, male names end with an i. In America, naming a boy Sue was seen as confounding gender expectations. In either case, the society has developed this pattern of differentiation. It is linked to sex, but not in any way absolute-every society will have its own naming conventions. Expectations of clothing and presentation are similar. Ask a Scotsman if the kilt is a skirt.
So societies differentiate gender roles. Historically, these have tended to fall into two broad categories based on external genitalia, with a few societies accepting crossover identities.
Modern society is being introduced to the idea that a binary construct of gender roles is not an optimal strategy. If women can be soldiers and CEOs, and men can stay home as full time parents and be nurses, then the social definition of manliness and womanliness is changing. But those are external signifiers.
As society changes its expectations of what defines gender, individuals are choosing for themselves. For some people, that means wearing the clothes they like and doing the jobs they like.
For others, the internal perception of the body they were born with feels wrong. They find themselves wanting or needing to be perceived as having a different body. Sometimes they want or need to physically alter their body so it better matches up with their perception of themselves.
The social ideas of masculinity and femininity are separate from the biological ideas of male and female.
I must admit that I often wonder exactly what idea of female-ness many trans persons want to inhabit. As a cis female who wears her hair short and dresses almost exclusively in jeans and tee shirts, the hyper femininity taken on by many trans women confuses me. It seems very much more about being perceived than any inner state. The rigidity of gender norms drives people to accept the hell of electrolysis (painful, expensive, and time consuming) just so strangers will see them as more likely female than male.
When a child says ”I’m a girl!” What, exactly, do they think that means? Wearing “girl” clothes? Having “girl” hair? Playing with “girl” stuff? The idea that their body is the wrong shape? I wonder if more fluid gender norms will lead to more people being able to be ok with the bodies they have.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tchebu » Tue May 29, 2018 3:48 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:I feel like you're asking me to defend the notion of social constructions, when I'm again just trying to relay my understanding of how mainstream sociologists define them. So far as I understand it, they basically define them as arbitrary and with no underlying reality, which is to say with no significance other than that which society arbitrarily gives them. If there is some underlying reality to them, they are not social constructs at all but rather (possibly inaccurate or unclear) labels for those real things they're attempting to refer to.


Ah, okay. Well, I suppose if that's the definition of a social construct and the definition of gender is specifically the socially constructed part of what people talk about with statements like "thou art woman" then there's nothing to argue about, but it seems we're both dissatisfied with the capacity of this notion of gender to capture the essence of these issues...

That being said, I kinda agree with ucim's objections as well. It seems that by this definition practically no sufficiently sophisticated notion is a pure social construct despite being used as classic examples of such...
Just because something is only "as real as people say it is", doesn't mean there aren't limits on what variants of it people will be willing to accept, and not just due to their arbitrary whim, but due to real practical considerations imposed by the reality around them.

"Many things can serve as money" is not the same as "Anything can serve as money", because there are functions that a system of money must fulfill and using, say, spaceships as money fails spectacularly at fulfilling them. Can we really say that the refusal of people to use spaceships as money is arbitrary and not rooted in reality?

In general I find the notion of social constructs a useful one, to describe notions that arise through and rely on some collective agreement, but not with "arbitrary and without underlying reality" being part of their definition, because these notions are made to serve some functions and how good they are doing so is an empirical question that differentiates between the variants of these notions and assuming that the ones that get adopted in societies are somewhere near the top of the "performance chart", makes the ones that we do find in societies non-arbitrary.

Getting back to sex/gender, and to finally bounce off some of my own views on the topic, I think adopting such a functional view of the notion of gender helps understand why the different modern notions of sex/gender roles/orientation get persistently conflated. Putting on my amateur wannabe social psychologist hat, It seems that the sort of "intuitive core" of what people are trying to talk about when they talk about gender is one's potential role in the creation and upbringing of future generations. This is a broader concept than just biological sex, and also seems to explain why sexual orientation and gender roles seem to constantly be brought into the equation. The thing they all have in common is that they relate to procreation and upbringing of children. It would make sense that it's this combined (conflated?) notion that would be most natural for us psychologically speaking since that's kinda what nature really "cares" about, more than just the genitalia or ones sexual preferences in isolation.

I don't know much about non-western cultures' gender models, but on a first pass, they also seem to be basically organized around this question "Are you, in principle, eligible to make children and what role, if any, would you play in raising them? (and, perhaps as a secondary question, what other roles does this leave you free to perform?)". The various answers to this question seem to end up being the different "genders".

Given the changing attitudes toward having children and family structures in general it may or may not be worth trying to explicitly attempt to categorize along these lines today, but the overall point is that sex/gender/orientation seem to form a combined space and those three might not be the most convenient "choice of axes", so to speak, for navigating the social world because they don't relate to prospective social function so our minds intuitively gravitate toward a different set of axes that revolve around procreative potential and child rearing. This view also explains why it's hard to separate questions of a purely individual discomfort with one's physical sexual characteristics from the collective social questions or gender roles etc.

Thoughts/comments/corrections?
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 29, 2018 4:11 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Similar issues face identities like “gay”. Some men who have sex exclusively with other men insist that they are not “gay” because they are not effeminate or otherwise stereotypically unmanly, besides their sexual preferences, which requires sociologists to use awkward circumlocutions to refer to such people unambiguously.


Having to define what exactly you are studying is not such a hard thing to do. Generally, for most things, you would want to do that regardless, as you are often studying specific behaviors. Pretty much all scientists end up putting at least some thought into identifying precisely just what they are studying.

ucim wrote:In that sense, "money" and "dork" are the same. The fact that I identify as a dork, or as gay, or identify a used flashbulb as money does not make it so.

Jose


It is generally the acceptance of "enough" people that makes a social construct work. One can rant about how fiat money is garbage, and only gold and silver are real(and some do!) but it doesn't really matter. In practice, if I want to buy a thing, I will have no trouble exchanging dollars for that thing. So in practice, dollars are money. I can say whatever, and it doesn't change objective fact.

Labels are somewhat different, in that labeling someone a dork may not have any objective use. Do we, legally, treat dorks differently? Then sure, suddenly we have an objective standard that matters...but we probably shouldn't go down that path. It's a sub-categorization without merit. And it's hard to think of a non-silly example where the categorization ought to matter.

Let's look at an objective thing for gender. Which bathroom you use, as these are gendered. This ends up being a flashpoint, because it's an objective test, much like buying things ends up being a test for if a thing is really money. If you can easily use bathroom x without conflict, then society is accepting you as gender x. Note that I'm not making any statements about what should be...merely what is. You can test it as easily as you can test money.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 5:17 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:...Without the social construct of the idea of money-a stand-in for things or labor, all they are is plant pulp with coloring...
Are stocks (shares in a company) a social construct? What distinguishes a social construct from any other abstraction?

PAstrychef wrote:(Judaism, by the way, has room for Jews that don’t believe in god)
Good to know. Catholicism doesn't.

PAstrychef wrote:A gender role is a social construct because it is defined by a given society.
Perhaps. But it is the role that is the noun here. Gender is not the same as gender role. And yes, I agree sexuality is complex and it's good that society is realizing this. But complex doesn't mean arbitrary.

Wearing a dress is part of playing a gender role. It is not part of gender. People can play roles that don't match themselves - playing a role doesn't make you the thing you're playing.

PAstrychef wrote:For others, the internal perception of the body they were born with feels wrong.
I don't dispute this, although I don't feel it myself and don't know what it would feel like. By imagining myself in a female body I speculate that there would be two parts to what it might feel like - one being "what are all these other body parts doing here?" and the other being the different (gender) role I would be expected to, but am not interested in, playing. The first is biology (sex), and the second has primarily to do with the roles I'd play, not with what gender I'd call myself. I might need to call myself something just to talk about it, but that's an act of labeling.

Tyndmyr wrote:...[L]abeling someone a dork may not have any objective use. Do we, legally, treat dorks differently?
Yes, we do. That is, we treat them differently, and it is legal to do so. It is not necessary for the legal system to treat them differently for it to be a useful label. It may be superficial, but saying somebody is a dork communicates something about them, and that's only possible if "dork" has a meaning accepted by (as you say) "enough" people. Language is a social construct in which we create labels.

As to the bathroom test, let's translate it. There are black bathrooms, white bathrooms, and that's it. Where does an Oriental go? An Arab? An Amerind? Nobody cares so long as there aren't any Orientals, Arabs, or Amerinds around. But there are, and they used to put a bag over their face and pick one. Now they are either not using the bag, or having the bag ripped out of their hands.

Are "Oriental" and "Black" social constructs? Does it matter?

The answer is no. They are labels, with which we partition people to groups. Whether bathroom use should be partitioned at all is another question, but given that we are doing so, the partitioning is a labeling system. Like money, it needs an objective basis to be useful.

Jose
edit: Correct quote misattribution
Last edited by ucim on Tue May 29, 2018 6:23 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue May 29, 2018 5:41 pm UTC

ucim wrote:Wearing a dress is part of playing a gender role. It is not part of gender.

Gender roles are by definition part of gender. It sounds like you're saying "gender" where you mean "sex" here (and elsewhere in this post). On the whole it sounds like you want to argue that there isn't anything besides sex and possibly-inaccurate attempts to label and describe sex, and maybe there's no such thing as social constructs, (and I'm not arguing against that right now), but that would be to say that gender doesn't exist at all, not that it's the same thing as sex. Because by definition it is a social construct abstracted from sex. If there is no such construct, then there is no gender at all. But if there is such a construct, then role is a big part of it.

Pfhorrest wrote:...[L]abeling someone a dork may not have any objective use. Do we, legally, treat dorks differently?

FWIW that was Tyndmyr, not me.

Are "Oriental" and "Black" social constructs?

Yes, actually. Race is a social construct inasmuch as no racial categorization scheme ever used by any society actually reflects any real degree of biological relatedness. There are different degrees of biological relatedness, of course, and we could categorize people according to them, but nothing anyone has ever called "race" corresponds to what those categorizations would be. If we divided people up such that "oriental" was a sensible division, and "amerind" was a different division from it, then there would be multiple equally-unrelated "white" races and many many equally-unrelated "black" races. Even if we divided it up such that all "orientals" and "amerinds" made up one (e.g. "mongoloid") "race", there would still be several different "white" races and many "black" races on par with that "mongoloid" race. If we wanted all "whites" to count as one race, then all "mongoloids"/"orientals"/"amerinds" would also count as that same race -- basically everyone from Iceland to the Inca, everyone outside of Africa, would be the same one "race" -- and yet there would still be multiple "black races". If we wanted "black" to make sense as a single racial group, then everyone everywhere would have to count as "black", because e.g. Berbers are as closely related to Chinese and Germans as they are to Khoi-san. The biological reality has no connection at all to anything anyone has ever called "race", which is pretty much just imaginary, i.e. socially-constructed.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby arbiteroftruth » Tue May 29, 2018 6:19 pm UTC

Pfhorrest, you seem to be taking an overly binary approach to the notion of something being objective vs. socially constructed. You say, on one hand, that a social construct is arbitrary and with no underlying reality. On the other hand, you say that race is a social construct simply by eliminating the possibility of treating it as a completely objective category. But there's a whole spectrum you're overlooking. Something can be vague and imprecise, and the specifics of how that vagueness is handled is determined by social consensus, but there is nevertheless an underlying reality being referred to, albeit vaguely. In the case of race, that underlying reality tends to be skin color and a few other physical traits, or close genetic relationship to someone with those traits. The specific collections of traits being referred to don't form distinct and cohesive genetic groups, nor is each and every trait rigorously applied in every case of deciding what race to call someone, but the individual traits themselves are nevertheless objective realities that underlie the social notion of race.

Race as a whole is socially constructed in that it's based on an arbitrary collection of physical traits, and even then the boundaries are fuzzy. But the traits themselves are still objective realities, and thus it's still possible to say that someone objectively is of a particular race, in much the same way that we can objectively say whether some particular piece of paper is money. The choice to accept certain pieces of paper in trade is ultimately arbitrary, but the very fact that it *is* widely accepted in trade is an objective reality that the term 'money' refers to. Same same with arbitrary collections of physical traits defining our categories of race, and arbitrary collections of traits defining our categories of gender. The choice of categories may be arbitrary to some degree, but once that choice is made, the categories themselves are still referring to objective realities, albeit vaguely and imprecisely.

Edit: Actually, the 'nerd' example is much more applicable here than the money example. "Nerd" refers imprecisely to a set of personality traits, and although the specific collection of traits referred to is arbitrary, the traits themselves are objective. Although the term is imprecise and there will be ambiguous edge cases, there will still also be cases in which you could objectively say that someone is or isn't a nerd, because they are nowhere near that fuzzy boundary.

When it comes to gender, the social divide on the issue seems to be about whether it should be just a fuzzified pseudo-synonym for sex in a manner similar to race referring to fuzzy collections of physical traits, or whether it should be a more purely socially constructed concept. There's no inherent problem with either approach, but as has been alluded to in this thread, the specific social construct that seems to be coming out of the latter approach is one in which gender communicates no meaning beyond the labeling itself.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 29, 2018 6:55 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:...[L]abeling someone a dork may not have any objective use. Do we, legally, treat dorks differently?
Yes, we do. That is, we treat them differently, and it is legal to do so. It is not necessary for the legal system to treat them differently for it to be a useful label. It may be superficial, but saying somebody is a dork communicates something about them, and that's only possible if "dork" has a meaning accepted by (as you say) "enough" people. Language is a social construct in which we create labels.

As to the bathroom test, let's translate it. There are black bathrooms, white bathrooms, and that's it. Where does an Oriental go? An Arab? An Amerind? Nobody cares so long as there aren't any Orientals, Arabs, or Amerinds around. But there are, and they used to put a bag over their face and pick one. Now they are either not using the bag, or having the bag ripped out of their hands.

Are "Oriental" and "Black" social constructs? Does it matter?

The answer is no. They are labels, with which we partition people to groups. Whether bathroom use should be partitioned at all is another question, but given that we are doing so, the partitioning is a labeling system. Like money, it needs an objective basis to be useful.

Jose
edit: Correct quote misattribution


Dorks vs Nerds vs Geeks is, mostly, an argument that only the aforementioned people care about. It's not a distinction with a basis in law or custom. Ultimately, which you choose doesn't matter very much, as nobody else cares about it. It's not very much like money at all.

Also, yes, in many respects, racial labels are indeed social constructs. If a given group of people is considered "white" or something else may vary depending on society, and yes, you can use examples like segregation to test how society identifies an individual person. How other people view you based on racial classification may matter a great deal more than the dork/nerd/geek thing. How much it matters depends on the specific society in question, but if we're looking at the segregation era, then it definitely matters a good bit.

Not all social constructs are equally relevant, and I agree that, generally, if there's no test in which other people care about a distinction, it's pretty meaningless. However, I don't believe this is the case for race, in which it's fairly easy to find cases in which folks are treated differently. If you're looking for something objective like DNA markers or something, I believe you would find it difficult to coherently describe races in such a fashion. Yeah, there are correlations, but labels like "white" are not a race, and genetic differentiation between "races" is often large. The definition can definitely be tested in an objective fashion, but the distinctions it is based on are mostly arbitrary/historical in nature.

Money is pretty much the same way. We have a "dollar" and the exact design it has for similar reasons, but that doesn't mean that monopoly money is equally valid.

So, yeah, they're definitely social constructs. Which are, of course, also a labeling system. The particular groups are a bit arbitrary in nature, but that doesn't make the current effects any less real.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 7:23 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Gender roles are by definition part of gender. It sounds like you're saying "gender" where you mean "sex" here (and elsewhere in this post).
No, at least that's not where I'm coming from. They are however related.

I take "sex" to mean the biological differences which pertain more or less directly to reproduction. I take "gender" to be the sociological differences which pertain to how people of different (biological) sexes relate to one another. One of the ways people relate to one another is to play roles, but those roles don't exist in a vacuum. Wearing dresses (an action) is only meaningful sociologically if society ascribes meaning to it. This meaning has evolved through the practice of different sexes dressing differently (something which may have had practical reasons in the past, but is now primarily an act of signalling).

Playing gender roles are not part of gender; that is, I don't change my gender by putting on pants or lipstick. I merely change my presentation, the same way I don't actually become a thug when I play a hit man on TV.

Pfhorrest wrote:Race is a social construct inasmuch as no racial categorization scheme ever used by any society actually reflects any real degree of biological relatedness.
I didn't mention race. I merely picked some groupings. In any case, it does reflect a nonzero degree of biological relatedness. It may be an unimportant one (skin color, shape of eye, propensity to sunburn) but it is certainly an objective (though fuzzy) one. It's like classifying clouds as stratus or cumulus, or high, middle, and low, or even classifying biological species in the first place. Ring species anyone?

Now, because race has taken on a judgmental aspect (inferior, superior, chosen,...), society has also invested itself in bending these classifications (us vs them) to suit itself. This makes the classification system less accurate, and more self-serving. But it is still based on external properties. I might want people to treat me as an Oriental, but that doesn't make me one.

Tyndmyr wrote:Dorks vs Nerds vs Geeks is, mostly, an argument that only the aforementioned people care about.
It doesn't matter (to the philosophical argument) how many people care about it. It matters what it is. And the nerd/geek/dweeb/dork/jock thing and the white/black/oriental/amerind/arab thing and the money/junk thing all share the property that what makes them useful is that the way society reacts to them, but what they are are labeling systems.

Things can be labeled incorrectly. Things can be hard to label. The classification scheme could turn out to be contradictory, overlapping, or incomplete. But it's still a labeling system, and in all three cases there are objective traits that contribute to the label that should be applied.

People may disagree as to what traits should correspond to what label (nerd/dork...) but that just makes the labels less useful. Words have meanings; they change with time, and people do use the wrong words sometimes. But a dictionary isn't a random number generator.

Would {planet | pluton | asteroid | dwarf planet | comet | gas giant | star} be a social construct? How about {continent | island }?

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby PAstrychef » Tue May 29, 2018 7:36 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
PAstrychef wrote:...Without the social construct of the idea of money-a stand-in for things or labor, all they are is plant pulp with coloring...
Are stocks (shares in a company) a social construct? What distinguishes a social construct from any other abstraction

You really get irritating when you are deliberately obtuse.
A social construct is a framework within a society that effectively governs how that society operates. An abstraction is a more general term for an idea, rather than an object or event in the physical world. So, in some sense social constructs are abstractions, in that they deal with the ideas societies develop about how people should behave. Numbers are abstractions. Numbers of objects are not.

Come on, let’s leave the economics out of this, please.
Spoiler:
The idea that you can buy, with money, anything at all is a social construct. Money does not exist outside of human society. It’s only value is in the extent to which human society chooses to accept it. There used to be many currencies across Europe, now there is the Euro. All of the old exchange markers of the previous currencies now only have historical or curiosity value, you can no longer use them in an exchange.


Let’s return to the bathroom. Many places separate toilets by which set of genitalia is supposed to use them. This is driven by the idea that different sets of genitals shouldn’t mingle, as well as by the reality that those users have very different behaviors. But why are penis users so different from vulva users? Because boys are shown that certain behaviors when pissing are ok, and girls are taught different behaviors. Those behaviors are hardly intrinsic to pissing, they are socially constructed. If American society cared less about who sees what, all bathrooms could be used by anybody. If all bathrooms had only stalls, so you couldn’t be seen, all bathrooms could be used by anybody. Why single user toilets need gender specific signage is beyond me.
But the decisions of who gets to use which toilet when have nothing to do with actually using the toilet. Those decisions are social constructs. For some people, those constructs govern not just their behavior, but also their identity. They are threatened by people who won’t fit into the “correct” set of behaviors.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 29, 2018 7:39 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:Dorks vs Nerds vs Geeks is, mostly, an argument that only the aforementioned people care about.
It doesn't matter (to the philosophical argument) how many people care about it. It matters what it is. And the nerd/geek/dweeb/dork/jock thing and the white/black/oriental/amerind/arab thing and the money/junk thing all share the property that what makes them useful is that the way society reacts to them, but what they are are labeling systems.

Things can be labeled incorrectly. Things can be hard to label. The classification scheme could turn out to be contradictory, overlapping, or incomplete. But it's still a labeling system, and in all three cases there are objective traits that contribute to the label that should be applied.

People may disagree as to what traits should correspond to what label (nerd/dork...) but that just makes the labels less useful. Words have meanings; they change with time, and people do use the wrong words sometimes. But a dictionary isn't a random number generator.

Would {planet | pluton | asteroid | dwarf planet | comet | gas giant | star} be a social construct? How about {continent | island }?

Jose


They do share the property of all being labeling systems, but they are very unequal in other respects. If you attempt to use "not money" as "money", you will face significant real world difficulty. In a great many times and places, attempting to act as a race other than what society expected you to carried(ies) significant real world difficulty with it.

The same is not really true of nerd/dork.

All labeling systems are made by people, yes. Some are more clearly defined than others, and some are taken far more seriously by society than others.

PAstrychef wrote: If all bathrooms had only stalls, so you couldn’t be seen, all bathrooms could be used by anybody. Why single user toilets need gender specific signage is beyond me.


This is one of my favorite solutions, personally. I mean, sure, maybe in theory, a BSG-like society where nobody cares would be nice, but individual bathrooms are generally nicer than mass bathrooms in any case, and it avoids needing to change all of society in order to be adopted, which makes it pretty practical. If we ditched signage, we could pretty much just have arbitrary bathrooms, and nobody is the worse off.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 8:01 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:A social construct is a framework within a society that effectively governs how that society operates.
Good definition. (That's what I was after - a good definition. Thank you.)
PAstrychef wrote:But the decisions of who gets to use which toilet when have nothing to do with actually using the toilet. Those decisions are social constructs.
Agreed. But that social construct was... er... constructed when there were only two socially acceptable genders. According to this page, Terry Kogan, who has done extensive research on the history of sex-segregation in public restrooms, tells TIME [magazine] that the policies came about as a result of social anxieties about women’s places in the world.

"Women's place in the world" is a social construct - a framework that governs society. "Gay people's place in the world" is the same. But what a gay person or a woman is seems to be less so. Society can determine what traits qualify one as gay or as a woman, but that's just a matter of word definition. It isn't (in itself) a framework, except in the sense that language itself qualifies as one.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 29, 2018 8:06 pm UTC

ucim wrote:"Women's place in the world" is a social construct - a framework that governs society. "Gay people's place in the world" is the same. But what a gay person or a woman is seems to be less so. Society can determine what traits qualify one as gay or as a woman, but that's just a matter of word definition. It isn't (in itself) a framework, except in the sense that language itself qualifies as one.

Jose


I think you'll find, in practice, that society mostly is pretty good at putting people into boxes, and has very little trouble classifying people as "gay" or a "woman". The difficulty arises when the individual is unhappy with the expectations for members of that box, or sees themselves as being in a different box.

Basically, any difficulty surrounding this cannot be solved merely by tidying up definitions.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 8:32 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:I think you'll find, in practice, that society mostly is pretty good at putting people into boxes, and has very little trouble classifying people as "gay" or a "woman". The difficulty arises when the individual is unhappy with the expectations for members of that box, or sees themselves as being in a different box.

Basically, any difficulty surrounding this cannot be solved merely by tidying up definitions.
In the latter case (which is the one in question), and aside from the separate question of whether or not boxing people in is appropriate here at all, there are three possible answers: The individual is incorrect, society is incorrect, or the system is broken (and at least needs another box). Which is the case can be determined by looking at the objective criteria surrounding the classification. Like everything, edge cases are an issue, but I don't think we're talking about edge cases.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 29, 2018 9:15 pm UTC

Correct in what sense?

In some cases, the easiest answer may be literally "who cares?" That is certainly appropriate for geeks vs nerds or whatever. In some other cases, it may also be a viable solution. I don't actually care who is in the next bathroom stall. I don't really need to figure out if the individual is correct, or if society is correct. I pretty much just need to poop, and they're after the same. There's no real need for me to make a determination or even care.

Now, some people evidently do care a great deal, as demonstrated by laws and such on the topics. I'd personally advocate in favor of making the box of "nosy busybody" less acceptable, but hey, folks love to judge. However, my priorities need not be dictated by societys opinions on the matter.

I also doubt that twiddling with the objective criteria around the classification to determine who is correct will remedy any such conflicts on the matter. It's not really a matter of "correct". It's just a classification of what people do. What people do may or may not be correct, or moral, or consistent or anything else. You can try relabeling it, or persuading someone that their definition is improper, but mostly, that doesn't seem to work out well.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue May 29, 2018 9:42 pm UTC

arbiteroftruth wrote:Pfhorrest, you seem to be taking an overly binary approach to the notion of something being objective vs. socially constructed.

Because so far as I understand the mainstream definition of a social construct, it is "binary" like that. So far as I understand the definition, if an idea is capable of being objectively right or wrong, then it is not a social construct; they are defined by the lack of objectivity. So ideas aiming at merely describing or labelling the objective world and doing so with different degrees of success aren't somewhere on a spectrum between social constructs and objective facts: they all purport to be objective facts, but are right or wrong to different degrees. A social construct isn't just an idea that's wildly inaccurate to reality, it's something to which accuracy is not applicable.

To say that a society employs this or that social construct and categorizes such-and-such specific person or object this or that way according to their social constructs is a claim of objective fact. You are describing real people, and describing how they think and behave, and you can be right or wrong about that. That's what sociologists do, and sociologists can make incorrect factual claims about how groups of people think and behave. But the use of the construct by a society is not something that is capable of being factually accurate or inaccurate. Only a claim of whether society uses it that way or not.

So to say that chumash shells were money to the native coastal California tribes that are now named after said shells is to make a claim about how those people thought and behaved, and that claim can be true or false. But when those natives offered Spanish missionaries shells in trade for goods and the Spanish said "that's not real money", that's wasn't a claim of fact but a rejection of a norm. They were refusing to use the shells as money, not claiming that they were not "in fact" "real money", because there is no reality to money besides the acceptance of it. It's not like the Chumash people had bad monetary science and had inaccurately assessed the chumash shells to be in the real ontological category "money", into which something like gold "more accurately" falls. They just decided to employ them for the purpose of their trade and accounting, in a way that the Spanish chose not to employ them but rather gold instead. Neither culture was right or wrong about which trinket was "real money", even though an observer of both societies could be right or wrong about whether either was used as money by either society.

And if Jose Random Spaniard decided that he did accept chumash shells in trade, then to him it would be money, and it would be factually wrong to say that chumash shells are not money to Jose, even though it would be factually correct to say that they are not money to the Spanish in general. Whenever it makes sense to say "[apparently objective claim] [to subjective party]", you're dealing with a social construct, and what you're really saying is something about the thoughts or behaviors of the subjective party, not about the object the claim nominally appears to be about. When you say "gold is money to Spaniards", you're not really talking about gold, but about Spaniards. "Gold is money" with no qualifications is not something capable of being objectively correct or not, because "money" is a social construct that inherently makes reference to someone or another's acceptance of something for trade, so with no someone or another specified it's not even really a complete claim.

So to really hit the nail on the head with regard to gender, we have to ask, when a person with a penis calls themselves a woman, are they trying to describe some objective fact of the universe, or are they expressing something about their perception of themselves? I expect that most people with no understanding of gender issues will think they are trying to describe their sex, and think that they are doing so inaccurately, while the person is not actually trying to do so, and that's where a lot of the surrounding conflict comes from. A possibility not much considered but that has been brought up here is that they are describing broader society's application of social gender constructs to them, a claim that could also be objectively true or false, depending on how well they pass. But I'm pretty sure they are usually neither trying to describe their sex nor to describe society's application of gender constructs to them, but rather applying a gender construct to themselves, which is in the same category of "accepting something as money": it's not something you can be factually wrong about, it's just something you choose to do or not and how you do it. And then other people can choose whether or not to go along with you in that behavior, e.g. whether to also accept something as money, or accept a person as a woman. But there's no facts to agree or disagree about involved, neither of you can be factually right or wrong, you can just choose to accept or not.

In the case of someone's gender identity, I really can't see any reason I would have to object to their self-application of gender constructs, because they don't matter to me at all. It's like if you treat chumash shells as money, but we're not business partners and you're not trying to pay me in them so what do I care if they're money to you, if you want to treat them as money more power to you, I hope that works out for you.

Now if we were business partners, then things there could get dicey, because I have no desire for chumash shells and I'll want payment in some other form if we're going to work together. But arguing over whether chumash shells are "really money" seems pointless there as well. Just cut to the chase: I'm interested in dollar bills, not chumash shells, and if all you've got to offer are chumash shells then sorry, no deal, good luck elsewhere. If I were a straight man who was only interested in sex with people with vulvas, I could see the question of whether someone was "really a woman" might seem applicable as well, but if by "woman" we're really talking about this social gender construct and not about biological sex, then there's still no point in arguing about it. Just cut to the chase: I'm interested in vulvas, and if all you have to offer is penis then sorry, no deal, good luck elsewhere. (That's not actually true of me, but hypothetically speaking). The social construct, lacking in objective reality, isn't really useful at all in practice, so arguing about it ends up being nothing but an argument about self-images, and I've no interest in pointlessly thrashing someone else's self-image.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby arbiteroftruth » Tue May 29, 2018 10:23 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:But I'm pretty sure they are usually neither trying to describe their sex nor to describe society's application of gender constructs to them, but rather applying a gender construct to themselves, which is in the same category of "accepting something as money": it's not something you can be factually wrong about, it's just something you choose to do or not and how you do it.


If that's what's generally meant when someone of non-traditional gender self-identifies as something, but they're saying it amidst a society that already has its own social construct of gender, doesn't that reduce the whole thing to a language barrier (between what people on the left and right mean by 'gender') at best, and a massive case of 169 at worst? If society at large has a consensus of 'gender' as referring to some fuzzy combination of genetics and secondary sex characteristics (I'm not saying such a consensus actually exists), and some small group of people instead uses the same word to refer to a construct they've decided for themselves within their own heads, why would society want to accept that construct, particularly since it creates linguistic ambiguity with a pre-existing social construct?

Pfhorrest wrote:In the case of someone's gender identity, I really can't see any reason I would have to object to their self-application of gender constructs, because they don't matter to me at all.

...

If I were a straight man who was only interested in sex with people with vulvas, I could see the question of whether someone was "really a woman" might seem applicable as well, but if by "woman" we're really talking about this social gender construct and not about biological sex, then there's still no point in arguing about it. Just cut to the chase: I'm interested in vulvas, and if all you have to offer is penis then sorry, no deal, good luck elsewhere. (That's not actually true of me, but hypothetically speaking). The social construct, lacking in objective reality, isn't really useful at all in practice, so arguing about it ends up being nothing but an argument about self-images, and I've no interest in pointlessly thrashing someone else's self-image.


But that's the issue right there. If the social construct advocated by the transgender community isn't useful at all in practice, while a social construct that roughly correlates with biological sex has obvious uses, why should society at large use the former rather than the latter? And on the flip side, if gender is an individually determined construct with no objective content behind the labeling, why is it important to the individual to have that label accepted by anyone else?

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Tue May 29, 2018 10:30 pm UTC

It strikes me that "sex" is about a person's body, and "gender" is about a person's... for lack of a better word... 'soul'. (Not necessarily in the religious sense, but in the sense of the difference between software and hardware).

Pfhorrest wrote:It's like if you treat chumash shells as money, but we're not business partners and you're not trying to pay me in them so what do I care if they're money to you,
Well, there are reasons to care (you could be devaluing my ability to trade in gold by trading in chumash shells). But the discussion isn't about whether or not one cares (or ought to care) about gender identity, the discussion is about what it is. So (and also to Tyndmyr's point), "who cares" isn't an answer (though it may be the best response in the real world).

arbiteroftruth wrote:If the social construct advocated by the transgender community isn't useful at all in practice, while a social construct that roughly correlates with biological sex has obvious uses, why should society at large use the former rather than the latter?
As a method of oppression, perhaps, or to escape it? Stated reasons for actions are rarely the underlying reasons.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue May 29, 2018 11:49 pm UTC

arbiteroftruth wrote:
Pfhorrest wrote:But I'm pretty sure they are usually neither trying to describe their sex nor to describe society's application of gender constructs to them, but rather applying a gender construct to themselves, which is in the same category of "accepting something as money": it's not something you can be factually wrong about, it's just something you choose to do or not and how you do it.

If that's what's generally meant when someone of non-traditional gender self-identifies as something, but they're saying it amidst a society that already has its own social construct of gender, doesn't that reduce the whole thing to a language barrier (between what people on the left and right mean by 'gender') at best, and a massive case of 169 at worst?

I think an unfortunate amount of the hullabaloo really is conceptual and linguistic confusion, yeah. Which I'd really like to sort out, which is why I've wanted to have a conversation like this for a long time, among people who aren't hateful bigots, but are also open to honestly discussing the way we talk and think about such a sensitive subject.

If society at large has a consensus of 'gender' as referring to some fuzzy combination of genetics and secondary sex characteristics (I'm not saying such a consensus actually exists), and some small group of people instead uses the same word to refer to a construct they've decided for themselves within their own heads, why would society want to accept that construct, particularly since it creates linguistic ambiguity with a pre-existing social construct?

I think it's worth noting here that the word "gender" did not mean anything like "sex" until 60-some years ago, so there isn't really a "traditional" use of the word "gender" outside of linguistics (where it meant something different), unless you reckon traditions on a very short time scale. When the term was coined back in 1950, it was in the sense of these subjective social constructs. Use of "gender" to mean roughly "sex" is just that relatively new sociological jargon seeping into popular usage without common people really understanding what was meant by it. (Things like Facebook's "gender" selector mixing up options that are all for different things, having man/woman and male/female and insersex and transgender and transsexual and transman/woman and berdache/kathoey/etc all jumbled together in the same damn list, really doesn't help much).

Though I guess you could make an argument that it's like the term "hacker". That's even more recent in origin, and originally meant "someone who comes up with creative solutions", but has been popularly misunderstood as "someone who breaches computer security", and it's kind of a lost cause by now trying to curb the misusage. Maybe "gender" is in the same boat? If so, then it seems sociologists need to come up with another term for what "gender" used to mean, and abandon "gender" to be a synonym for "sex". Otherwise, as the common tactic taken today seems to be, we need to get people to stop using "gender" to mean anything like "sex", and understand what it's supposed to mean. Unfortunately, even most people who get that "gender" doesn't mean "sex" also seem unaware of its original sociological meaning, and think it means... something we don't have another word for, about how you feel about the sex of your body, which I think is a much more important thing to talk about than any social construct. Should we abandon "gender" to mean that instead, let the common people fall back to "sex" to refer to sex, and still make sociologists come up with another word for what "gender" originally meant?

I don't know what any individual member of society can do about this confusion of language, and I don't even know how to broach the subject in a general discussion in a way that's not going to give someone or another the wrong impression (and possibly hurt someone in the process), without prefacing it with basically that entire enormous second post of mine, which just isn't practical.

But that's the issue right there. If the social construct advocated by the transgender community isn't useful at all in practice, while a social construct that roughly correlates with biological sex has obvious uses, why should society at large use the former rather than the latter? And on the flip side, if gender is an individually determined construct with no objective content behind the labeling, why is it important to the individual to have that label accepted by anyone else?

The uses better served by something that roughly correlates with biological sex would be best served just by talking about biological sex directly. As for the use for the social construct... other than in describing a society's behavior in the third person, I don't really see a use to them myself, which is why I call myself pangender or agender, in that I don't bother making any assertion of gender identity and I don't care how or whether other people categorize me.

Other people clearly do care, and I can't properly speak to why they do because I'm not them, but I would speculate that it's at least partly because of this confusion of gender-the-social-construct with that property I think we need a better name for, about how you feel about the sex of your body. People whose mental image of what sex their body should be does not line up with the physical sex of their body don't have at present any language besides that of gender by which to express that fact; but also, being treated socially as though they were of the sex they feel they should be must certainly alleviate some of the constant negative feelings that come from being some way you don't want to be, even if they do know (which of course they do) that they are actually that way.

For analogy: I am fat, and I would like to be thinner. I don't think I am thin, but if someone says something to the effect about me seeming thin, or thinner than I think I am at least, that makes me feel good. If somehow we couldn't talk without making constant reference to people's weight, and every time anyone talked to me they had to either call me thin or call me fat just because of the grammar of our language, it would drive me nuts being constantly called fat all the time, even though, yeah, I know I am, but I don't want to be, and I don't want people constantly reminding me that I am something I don't want to be. I am dysphoric about my bodyweight; it makes me feel bad to be the shape that I am, and I want to be a different shape, even though I know I am not that other shape.

I am not dysphoric about my sex, it doesn't make me feel bad to have a penis, but I would, ideally, like to be more physically feminine than I am. I really don't think I am very physically feminine, but occasionally, for whatever reason, people address me as though I am, and that makes me feel good in the same way that comments to the effect that I'm thinner than I think I am make me feel good. I can easily imagine that if I was dysphoric about my sex, the fact that people couldn't refer to me without naming my sex would drive me nuts the way being called fat all the time would, and I might insist that if you have to put me into one of two boxes just because of language, please put me in the one that makes me feel good instead of bad. The gendering of language doesn't really mean anything anyway, so it shouldn't mean anything to arbitrarily use differently-gendered language if it makes someone else more comfortable, and if for some reason biology becomes important to the conversation we can talk about sex directly.

The real solution is to not gender language, since gendered language doesn't really mean anything, but... good luck with that.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Wed May 30, 2018 12:19 am UTC

"Gender" (in the sense we're discussing) came about, I believe, as a euphemism for "sex". Perhaps because people didn't want to say the word in polite company, or perhaps because they wanted a word to depict the biological sex of an individual without reference to the biological act of sex. I relate to people of different sexes differently, with no (direct) connection to the act of having sex. So, using "gender" softens the word, so that the idea of the act of sex doesn't come up as part of the concept being expressed. And once we got a new word to use, it acquired new meaning through the sets of circumstances in which it (rather than "sex") is used.

Thus, the confusion, as people figure out how to best use this new dimension of discourse.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Wed May 30, 2018 12:48 am UTC

ucim wrote:"Gender" (in the sense we're discussing) came about, I believe, as a euphemism for "sex".

Except it didn't, because as I've related it originated in linguistics and then was coined by John Money in 1950 as part of his research on intersex children to refer to a social construct abstracted from sex by analogy to the linguistic use of the term.

Use as a euphemism for "sex" seems to be from popular misunderstanding of that technical jargon.

(Ninja'd as I was adding an "ETA" to this, will repost in a second post instead).
Last edited by Pfhorrest on Wed May 30, 2018 3:46 am UTC, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby ucim » Wed May 30, 2018 3:37 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Except it didn't
Perhaps it was popularized for that reason? Yes, the original (now repurposed) word is from linguistics; that's what often happens. But why did ordinary (non-researcher) folk cotton to it? I don't know the actual historical tracing of the popularity of the word, but it might be an interesting experiment to consciously use the word "sex" whenever "gender" (nonlinguistically) would have otherwise been used, and see how people react to it, both immediately and overall.

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Re: Philosophy and science of gender and sex

Postby Pfhorrest » Wed May 30, 2018 3:46 am UTC

(This was an ETA to my post above but then I was ninja'd by Jose's response).

I had the thought on my evening walk just now that maybe a root like "-phoria" or "-morphia" might be a good way to name the attribute I think needs a name besides "gender", the how-do-you-feel-about-your-sex attribute, because (paired with "gender") "eu-" and "dys-" prefixes for those are already used to describe values of that attribute (e.g. gender dysphoria). It's still not perfect, given the etymology of those roots and some existing uses of them, but it's better than the "-tendant" root I suggested in a previous essay. So someone who feels like the sex they were born as is wrong and the opposite sex feels better to them are "transphoric" or "transmorphic" (which persists even across transition, even as the mismatch causing dysphoria is changed and euphoria sets in instead). Someone who feels like the sex they were born as is right and the opposite sex feels worse to them is "cisphoric" or "cismorphic". And then you can append whatever prefixes necessary to cover the whole spectrum of nonbinary values of this attribute, aphoric/amorphic, biphoric/bimorphic, panphoric/panmorphic, etc.

While I'm here, I also want to share the model of gender-related things in which I think, for which I am searching for more apt terminology. Consider a two-dimensional spectrum, with one axis being maleness and the other femaleness:

Image

Imagine a figure in that spectrum that has position, orientation, and momentum. (Angular momentum would make sense too but nobody seems to care about what that would correspond to). Your position is your sex, and there's plenty of room for intersex people there. Your orientation is... your sexual orientation, pointing at where on the spectrum you are attracted. And your momentum is your "-phoria"/"-morphia", that thing that's often mislabeled "gender identity" but has nothing to do with social constructs like gender; it's what your position (i.e. sex) would become, if nothing stood in the way of it, i.e. if you had your way. (Angular momentum likewise would have to be something like "what your orientation would become if nothing stood in the way of it", but that doesn't seem to be an attribute anybody has need to talk about). The etymology of "-phoria" means "to bear", as in "to carry", so that also seems to fit with the "momentum" metaphor here: it's the direction you are bearing, the direction you're carrying on toward.
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