What is gender artifactualism?

This is the one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
So in Excluded, I introduce the term “gender artifactualism” to describe, “the tendency to conceptualize and depict gender as being primarily or entirely a cultural artifact.”[p.117] Gender artifactualist viewpoints are pervasive within feminist and queer activism, and within the academic fields of Women’s/Gender Studies, Queer Theory, Sociology, certain subfields of Psychology, and in the Humanities more generally.

Why is this term needed?

I created the term to make a distinction between the idea that gender is “socially constructed” versus the idea that gender is “just a construct”—both of which are common refrains within the aforementioned academic and activist settings, but which imply very different things. As I put it in Excluded:
To have a social constructionist view of gender (by most standard definitions) simply means that one believes that gender does not arise in a direct and unadulterated manner from biology, but rather is shaped to some extent by culture—e.g., by socialization, gender norms, and the gender-related ideology, language and labels that constrain and influence our understanding of the matter. By this definition, I am most certainly a social constructionist. Gender artifactualists, on the other hand, are typically not content to merely discuss the ways in which gender may be socially constructed, but rather they discount or purposefully ignore the possibility that biology and biological variation also play a role in constraining and shaping our genders. Sometimes, even the most nuanced and carefully qualified suggestions that biology may have some influence on gendered behaviors or desires will garner accusations of “essentialism” in gender artifactualist circles… [p.117-8]

Is gender artifactualism correct as a theory?

Absolutely not. In Chapter 13, “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality,” I thoroughly detail why gender artifactualism (along with its sparring partner in the nature-versus-nurture debate, gender determinism, which presumes that gender-related behaviors arise solely via biology) is flat-out incorrect as a theory to explain why gender differences exist. Instead, I forward a holistic perspective that acknowledges that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together in an unfathomably complex manner to create both the trends as well as the diversity in gender and sexuality that we see all around us. This holistic perspective is completely compatible with the idea that gender is socially constructed (i.e., shaped by socialization and culture), but incompatible with the idea that gender is merely a social artifact (or in activist parlance, “just a construct”).

Why bother debunking gender artifactualism?

The prevalence of gender artifactualist thinking within feminism and queer activism has led to two major fallacies that have undermined these movements. The first is the idea that gender artifactualist positions are inherently liberating, progressive, and anti-sexist in contrast to gender determinism (which is why artifactualist views are so often touted in these settings). However, as I point out in Excluded:
The truth of the matter is that gender artifactualism can be used to promote sexist beliefs just as readily as gender determinism can. For much of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud’s hardline gender artifactualist theories were used to pathologize queer people and to portray girls and women as inferior to their male counterparts. Similarly, contemporary feminists and queer activists are outraged by stories of intersex children being subjected to nonconsensual genital surgeries, or gender-non-conforming children being subjected to rigid behavior modification regimes, yet the justification for these procedures is founded in the gender artifactualist theories of psychologists like John Money and Kenneth Zucker, respectively. [p.145-146]
Indeed, I go on to make the case that both gender artifactualism and determinism have an “exception problem,” in that they focus on explaining typical genders and sexualities (e.g., the preponderance of heterosexual, gender-conforming people), yet “…fail to provide a reasonable explanation for why so many of us gravitate toward various sorts of exceptional genders and sexualities.”[p.147] As a result, both approaches can provide a rationale for pathologizing gender and sexual minorities on the basis that we represent “mistakes” or “developmental errors” of some kind.
The second fallacy of gender artifactualist thinking goes something like this: If our gender and sexual identities and behaviors arise solely as a result of culture, and given that our culture is hierarchical and sexist, then we (feminists, queer activists, people more generally) must simply unlearn these oppressive ways of being that we were indoctrinated into, and instead “do” or “perform” our genders in more liberating, subversive, and righteous ways. While this line of reasoning might sound promising on the surface, in reality, it is often used to condemn and police other people’s genders and sexualities:
After all, if gender and sexuality are entirely social artifacts, and we have no intrinsic desires or individual differences, this implies that every person can (and should) change their gender and sexual behaviors at the drop of a hat in order to accommodate their own (or perhaps other people’s) politics. This assumption denies human diversity and, as I have shown, often leads to the further marginalization of minority and marked groups. [p.134]
Granted, not all gender artifactualists buy into this idea that we can readily change our genders and sexualities in order to better conform to some political view or another. But those who do will typically cite gender artifactualist mantras (e.g., “all gender is performance,” “gender is just a construct”) in order to make their case. In Excluded, I borrow Anne Koedt’s phrase ‘perversion of “the personal is the political” argument’ to discuss how this premise has been used repeatedly to police gender and sexual expression within various strands of feminism over the years. In contrast, the holistic approach that I forward accommodates gender and sexual diversity both within our movements, as well as in the world more generally.
[alert type=”info”]Cross-posted from WhippingGirl[/alert]

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