Sexism and Sexual Essentialism

Posted: February 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” Simone de Beauvoir Butler critiques the discursive construction of ‘sex.’ Queer culture has embraced the gender as social construction. Masculine and feminine are discursive positions not ontological categories, but much of feminist theory and lesbian cultural practice is deeply invested in the privileging of the ontological category of ‘sex’ and the male/female binary. Butler is fond of the Beauvoir quote “One is not born a woman.” Woman (and man?) is a socially constructed gender. Many readings of Butler stick here and follow Butler into the idea that if the genders are discursively created than an infinite number of genders exist. As Deleuze would say, one for each person. But if we read Butler this way were are missing her essence. This reading allows us to make man and woman relative but transfer our understandings of these genders to the constructs of male and female. This kind of progress is hardly progress at all. It is What Deleuze and Guatarri refer to as a relative deteritorialization. Butler was not only critiquing the gender essentialism in feminist thought but also the essentialism of biological sex. I will name this sexual essentialism, the belief that male and female are real essences that are somehow produced by DNA or hormones. Sexual essentialism goes deep in our culture and language, and it seems very counter-intuitive to question it. It runs deep in a number of liberatory discourses, among which are the transsexual, lesbian and feminist discourses. I believe that it is ultimately a restratification of these discourses which robs them of liberatory potential. I refer to these discourses as Sexist, in that they privilege the construct of biological sex.

1) Transexual (Transgender?) – This discourse privileges male and female as ‘real’ structures that can be attained. The discourse is about switching from one ‘real’ sex to another. Many but not all discourses within the transgender umbrella share this sexual essentialism. Medicine, social services academics and transgender activism share and extend this sexual essentialism through the politics of representation. See David Valentine’s ‘Imagining Transgender’ for an insightful critique of ‘Transgender’ as identity politics.

2) Radical Feminist – Second wave feminism was founded on a reverse discourse of sexual essentialism. Male and Female are ‘real’ constructs which are the privileged frame for understanding society. Where hegemonic masculinity privileges male, second wave feminism privileges female. When Butler critiques the sexual essentialism in feminism it is a devastating critique because it is pointed at the root of the discourse. In ‘Gender Trouble’ she calls this a “totalizing gesture of feminism” and warns “The effort to identify the enemy as singular in form is a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms.[18]” This was written in 1990, but it remains true. Feminist discourse has cherry picked concepts from Butler without embracing her central critique. Straight white male is collapsed into the term male and represented as a monolithic enemy.

3) Lesbian – Lesbian discourses are deeply essentialist. The trope of male as ‘knuckle dragger’/aggressor is deeply privileged. The ontology of male/female and all the binaries that can be attached to that are foundational to the identities which are instantiated by lesbian discourses. The category of ‘sex’ never far from the surface. Every binary can be and is ascribed to ‘sex’ in the lesbian discourses. Typical binaries are feminine/masculine, evolved/unevolved, empathic/unempathic, soft/hard, oppressed/oppressor, beautiful/ugly and victim/predator. One half of the binary is sexed as male and one half as female. This is deeply limiting for all theoretical discourse within a lesbian frame. I include in this critique poststructuralists like Haberstam (2003) as well as second wave lesbian feminism. The very concept of ‘women’s space’ and ‘womyn born womyn’ is deeply sexist and helps to extend the power of the sex binary.

4) I have heard gay male culture described as misogynist and sexist. Radical Faery spaces are often exclusionary and sexist, but I do not know queer male discourse as well as I know trans, feminist and lesbian discourse.

So I am labelling feminist discourse and the L, the G and part of the T in LGBTQ as sexual essentialist and/or sexist. I believe that the way forward is through deprivileging sex, gender and sexuality as the foundation of identity. I am hopeful about the liberational possibilities of a pan-sexual queer movement.

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