What if gender is gravitating towards sex? Popular etymology and Subjectivity in gender-sex discourse

What if gender is moving towards sex?

Allow me to explain the question…

In 2012, my partner and I were asked by an ultrasound technician if we would ‘like to know the gender of the [future] baby.’ I told her, that she surely means ‘sex.’ (Gender is the social construction of categorical differences, not a biological category). She replied, that they no longer use this word. Instead, they call it ‘born gender’ or ‘gender the baby is born with,’ and I later saw this category in many other NHS documents. The story repeated itself almost accurately in 2016, when we went for another scan for a second baby, and the technician got annoyed when I suggested that a gender [identity] cannot be foretold with an ultrasound scan. Or, indeed, in any other way.

Wikipedia explains this with a quote of David Hage:

Among the reasons that working scientists have given me for choosing gender rather than sex in biological contexts are desires to signal sympathy with feminist goals, to use a more academic term, or to avoid the connotation of copulation.

Still, when I taught undergraduates about gender, I often started by ‘testing’ their existing knowledge, to see what is their, or the common understanding of the term, by asking the class simply, ‘What is gender?’ The answers were always one of two. Either they would say that ‘sex is the gender you are born with,’ or that ‘gender is the sex you choose.’ These are, of course, somewhat in the right direction, but mostly wrong, twice. You are not ‘born’ with a gender, but at some point usually identify with one; and gender neither a sex (which is a social assignment based on biological properties, but a behavioural, performative social category), nor ‘chosen’ (better: identified with). Both sex and gender are epistemological constructions.

Gender was coined by social scientists (thanks, Batler!) following linguistics exactly to detach the traits that are socially associated with genders (masculine, feminine, other) from bodily predispositions. This allows to understand as well as challenge much of our hitherto-thought-of-as-natural behaviour, and consequently challange them too.

In this brief note, I would like to ponder the lingual epistemological meaning of the popular etymology unfolding in front of our eyes and ears in the above examples, about the way gender and sex are gravitating towards each other in popular un/wisdom, (which also disobeys the post-Linguistic-Turn’s belief that a language can construct a reality and modify norms). It seems that in popular use, one is inherently born with/into a gender, (and therefore in medical fields, it is called born gender), whereas the individual has the power to ‘willingly’ change it.

Again, as a social scientist, I must comment immediately that both notions are problematic, and are contrary to the social theory that distinguished them. They remove society and history from gender, by making it ‘a choice’ of the individual/subject, not a subject identity within a discourse and a location within a structure. (Indeed, identity is another disagreement: it is not seen by poststructural sociology as ‘chosen’ but as a representation of locus in an objective reality, in the ideological-Althusserian sense of an ‘the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’).

BUT my point is, from a social-linguistic perspective, not to correct the entire society and force our ‘better’ understanding of a reality, but to ask about the direction language is heading. Put simply, I wonder what the fluctuations in these terms mean, (1-) about the roles popular etymology plays in shaping the terms, outside the social sciences; and (2-) as an example for the way language does not necessarily modify norms, but norms also have their way of pleading existing epistemology to fill lexical gaps.



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