The Trouble with “Gender Trouble”

“The category of sex belongs to a system of compulsory heterosexuality that clearly operates through a system of compulsory reproduction. . . . ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ exist only within the heterosexual matrix; indeed, they are the naturalized terms that keep that matrix concealed, and, hence, protected from a radical critique.” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, p.150).

This conclusion comes at the end of a chapter in which Butler explores the views of French feminist Julia Kristeva, and her favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault. She paraphrases his position (from Volume I of the History of Sexuality) as follows:

“For Foucault, the body is not ‘sexed’ in any significant sense prior to its determination within a discourse through which it becomes invested with an ‘idea’ of natural or essential sex. The body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations. Sexuality is an historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity. As such, sexuality is understood by Foucault to produce ‘sex’ as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis.” (pp.124-125)

The chapter concludes with what Butler describes as an “unscientific postscript” in which she uses the science of biological sex to undercut or question the binary nature of sex, reproduction, and the dominance of the “principle of masculine activity” in the role of genes encoded on human chromosomes, specifically the Y chromosome.

The “system of sex” being described here is in fact the “idea of sex”(per Foucault) that should be more accurately labelled as gender. “Sex” is falsely portrayed by both Butler and Foucault as nothing more than discursive within structures of power. The scientific literature Butler refers to is outdated and incomplete – perhaps not surprising in a book first published in 1990. In the Preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble Butler could have corrected her claims, but she did not. Chromosomal irregularities in intersexuality, or Disorders of Sexual Development that she cites, have been well-studied and considerably updated. Her claims that up to 10% of the human population may be effected by unusual chromosomal or genetic variations is simply not true. Not even Anne Fausto-Sterling, whom she cites, makes such a claim. We now know that intersex conditions effect about 0.015% of humans and these variations are also binary.

Whatever Foucault might’ve been talking about, Butler is not discussing sex. Butler consistently confuses sex and sexuality with gender, which does indeed “extend and disguise the power relations responsible for its genesis” – ie. Patriarchy.

Biological sex as it appears and develops in humans and other species, is actually gender neutral. It has existed in binary form for billions of years. Humans, other mammals, birds, fish, most other vertebrates, octopuses and most other marine creatures, insects, plants and all other sexually reproducing species are either female or male. Nature does not provide a third option. Gender may or may not exist within non-human species. Where language and culture exist, especially in social species, it might be more common than we think. But, other than possible secondary sex characteristics such as nurturing in females and competitiveness in males, it is not innate or biologically determined.

The “trouble” within human reproduction and sexuality is indeed “gender”, consisting of those social, cultural and psychological structures that are attached to sex, and the power structures gender produces and enforces on the basis of sex. Heterosexuality is both sexed as a primary determinate of reproduction and human development, and gendered as significant, if not compulsory, in most human societies. Reproduction is only one aspect of sexuality however. Controls on reproduction through non-heterosexualities may be both biological and cultural, social or psychological.

Butler also quotes a study by Eva M. Eicher and Linda L. Washburn in which the primacy of the Y chromosome in the determination of sex is frequently over-emphasized in the literature. It’s clear that Butler never got past the introduction. In the very next paragraph of their article Eicher and Washburn state simply and clearly “A developing mammalian embryo has the somatic potential to become either female or male.” (“Genetic Control of Primary Sex Determination in Mice”, Annual Review of Genetics, 1986, p.329). This is so regardless of the gendered biases of male cellular biologists as to the activity or passivity of genetic or chromosomal material in the development of testes and ovaries.

Butler’s overall agenda was to challenge what she perceived as the “heteronormativity” of First Wave feminism. Instead she somewhat accidentally created a theoretical discourse about something called “gender identity” detached from sex and sexuality. Whatever may have been the situation in 1990 when Gender Trouble was written, this focus on heterosexuality has shifted dramatically since then, just as a supposed focus on whiteness or Euroamerican agendas in feminism has broadened.

Butler forces us, through what became queer theory (which is itself overwhelmingly white and Euroamerican), to abandon “women” as a meaningful category within discourses of power to an over-extended and exaggerated interpretation of gender identity disconnected from biological sex.

Gender itself is one enormous problem. It’s various forms have effectively crippled one half of humanity and severely damaged the other half through the punitive and toxic normalization of”femininity” and “masculinity” as structured by power. It has also been used to police “compulsory heteronormativity” through the stigmatization of other sexualities – a process that continues with “transgenderism” as a form of homophobic conversion “therapy”. Now, gender’s theoretical and pop-cultural disconnection from embodied sex and sexualities, and it’s abandonment of women and girls, is yet another huge problem. Instead of looking clearly at gender within Patriarchy with the intent of dismantling it, Butler’s theorizing simply reinforces male dominance by disguising the Patriarchal matrix behind a veil of confusion, performance,  and obscurantist language. This is a clear representation of how the Master’s tools cannot dismantle the house that the Master has built (to paraphrase Audrey Lorde).

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