Woman/man as cross cultural categories

The sex/gender distinction with reference to the so-called third sex

Traditional approaches to sex and gender
Sex and gender as natural or constructed categories
The sex/gender distinction and the third sex
Gendered sex and sexed gender

The sex/gender distinction is widely used among social scientists. It is considered to be a useful analytical tool for studying differences between men and women. This essay will discuss the significance of this distinction with reference to the third gender and the contents of and relations between the two categories.

Traditional approaches to sex and gender

Every society seems to categorise its members on the basis of gender. Gender is related to, and in one way or another based on sex (Shapiro 1991). Gender is normally referred to as the socially and culturally constructed differences between men and women within a cultural system. Sex, on the other hand, is traditionally seen as a biological entity (Seymour-Smith 1986). Social anthropologists emphasise gender variations in their studies of differences and similarities between the sexes. They try to offer an alternative to biological determinism, which argues that behaviour is grounded on biological facts. Sex is for social anthropologists a category which is considered to be universal and unproblematic. Biology, and thus sex, is often seen as something which is just there and has little influence on the social reality. Margaret Mead found through her studies in Samoa that gender is socially constructed rather than determined by biology (Caplan 1987). This is in many ways characteristic of the way social anthropologists approach sex and gender.

Sex and gender as natural or constructed categories

Moira Gatens argues that theories which emphasise socialisation processes consider the body as passive (Gatens). The social characteristics of the sexes are seen as being the same for boys and girls at birth. Socialisation processes then act on a consequently neutral and passive body. Gatens also claims that the sex/gender distinction is similar to the separation often made between body and consciousness. She warns that this might lead to behaviourism, which she claims is more suitable for animals than human beings (Gatens). If the sex/gender distinction is seen as a dichotomy it can correspond to respectively essentialist and constructionist theories. Essentialists view biology as pre-discursive. Whereas constructionists focus on gender differences (Broch-Due 1993). Moira Gatens' alternative is to bring the body back into focus and look at an active process of signification including our perception of the body. She says that the sex/gender distinction ignores the fact that femininity acted out by a female body differs from femininity acted out by a male body (Gatens). There is a relation between the male body and masculinity and between the female body and femininity. She wants to study the body as lived. We have a historically based and a culturally shared idea about biology. There is a close connection between our conception of this lived biology and our gender categories. Gender identities are seemingly based upon biological sex in Somalia. Aud Talle (1993) shows in her article "Transforming Women into 'Pure' Agnates", that biology is partly constructed through infibulation. The already existing differences between male and female genital organs are emphasised through removal of the male, 'hard' parts of the female genitals. Vigdis Broch-Due also argues that biology is socially constructed:

"The biology of sex is ambiguous. Anything one says...about the biology of sex...is already mediated by specific models that have gender constructs built into them" (Broch-Due:57).

Pat Caplan supports Moira Gatens' theory that sex is wrongly viewed as an exclusively natural and thus unchangeable category. Our perceptions of the body and of sex are not static. Caplan (1987) points out that even though the term sex is believed to be something natural (at least in western societies) it has contained different meanings at different times. He illustrates this by explaining how the expression 'having sex' is a recent invention. It was not included in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1975. The moral standards concerning sex and sexuality have also changed considerably over time (Caplan 1987). Recent findings in the field of biology also prove that our knowledge about biological sex is changing. The sperm has, since Aristotle's philosophy about the relationship between man and woman, been seen as the active part in the procreation process (Gaarder 1994). Aristotle believed that women passively received the sperm which contained all the characteristics the child would be born with. New theory focuses on the active role of the egg. The female egg 'chooses', rather than inactively accepts, one sperm and refuses others. Pat Caplan concludes that: "...sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed" (Caplan:10). Henrietta Moore (1993) further argues that the dichotomy sex/gender also is socially created. The very idea of a biological domain separated from the social is a western academic construct:

"...the...separation of the biological from the social,...is thus likely to be insufficient for coming to grips with local notions of embodiment" (Moore 1993:208).

Pat Caplan (1987) further argues that even gender relations often are seen as fundamental also among social anthropologists. This has resulted in gender relations sometimes being regarded as "natural" entities and thus being overlooked (Caplan 1987). Judith Shapiro points out that gender identity often is considered to be: "...established early...impervious to change" (Shapiro:251). Cross-cultural studies which recognise the possible variation in the relationship between gender and sex, might illuminate whether the contents of and relations between the two terms are fundamental. Sheperd suggests that biological sex is very important for one's identity, in inland Africa. Children are highly valued and wanted. Fertility is not distinguished from sexuality (Caplan 1987). Judith Shapiro offers the opposite among the Nandi of Western Kenya. It is possible for women to marry women in this society. The woman who becomes husband is in some instances seen as a man. This is because she has tasks that only men can have. Her gender identity is based on her social role, not her biological sex (Shapiro 1991). In Scandinavian countries it is now possible for a woman to have traditionally male responsibilities without changing her gender. Gender identities are thus based on biological sex but the contents of male and female roles have expanded and merged. What these examples show us is that various combinations are possible between gender, sex and sexuality (Caplan 1987). Neither gender nor sex are natural categories which are given once and for all.

The sex/gender distinction and the third sex

From the discussion above, one can see that gender identities are grounded in ideas about sex and cultural mechanisms create men and women. But some boys become women and some girls become men. Judith Shapiro defines transsexualism like this: "...suspension of the usual anatomical recruitment rule to gender category membership" (Shapiro:248). Because of this nature of transsexualism, it is especially helpful to study the phenomenon in order to see the relevance of the sex/gender distinction. According to Shapiro the transsexuals who wish to take, or have undergone, a sex operation show us that gender is more powerful than biological sex, although sex can be problematic. Transsexuals have a clear idea about their gender identity. But their biological identity does not correspond to their gender. Transsexuals do not wish to change the categories: male and female. They try to "pass" as a gender that does not fit with their original biological sex, but by doing so they do not create a new category. In this sense they do not constitute a third gender. They merely uphold the distinction society makes between men and women. Shapiro argues that this shows us that gender cannot be predicted by anatomical sex:

"...the basis on which we are assigned a gender in the first place (that is, anatomical sex) is not what creates the reality of gender in ongoing social life" (Shapiro:257).

It is easier to change your physical body than your gender identity. Shapiro emphasises that we are all trying to pass as a gender which is decided by cultural systems, not our biological sex. But what happens when transsexuals do not pass!? The operation does not make their bodies fully male or female. The genitals will not function as genuine genitals and their chromosomes cannot be changed. Voice pitch and other physical characteristics might reveal their transsexualism. I would like to return to Moira Gatens' theories again. She makes clear that there are no neutral bodies (Gatens). The male transsexual's experience of female identity is bound to differ from a female's who is not transsexual. At the very least most women do not have problems passing as women (although it might be problematic to break out of the gender category and still be seen as a complete woman). I am not suggesting an essentialist view of biology. Our conception of biology is, as mentioned above, very much culturally constructed, but also important in creating identity. The lived body as experienced by transsexuals might influence their encountering of gender identity. One could argue that transsexuals constitute both a third gender and a third sex, because their body, which is neither male nor female, influences how their (third) gender is identified by themselves and others.

BBC1 showed a program called Third Sex the 28th of March this year. It portrayed a workshop where women dressed up as men for one day. The organiser of the workshop said that most of the women who came to her did not believe they would be able to "pass" as man. But in the end all of them were able to do so (at least for one day). The organiser said that it is only a matter of learning 'sex acts' i.e. acting as the opposite gender. This seems to support Shapiro's theory that socially constructed gender is powerful. But the program also showed women who had removed their breasts. One of them had experienced complications both concerning the operation and her private life. She felt miserable and not accepted in her "new" third-sex-body. A man who cross-dressed was also interviewed. He felt that he was fortunate. He worked as a man and thus earned more than a woman, but he also experienced the positive aspects of femininity in his private life. These examples show that socially learned factors are very important in order to "pass" as woman or man and consequently achieve a gender identity. But a man who dresses as a woman will have a different experience than a woman. The male body of the cross-dresser will in this case make him able to choose which parts of femininity he wants. Similarly a transsexual will have different experiences of masculinity and femininity than "genuine" men and women. Shapiro (1991) herself points out that men who have undergone a sex operation often emphasise traditional feminine values even more than women who are not transsexuals. One could argue that they do so because their sex acts must be even more convincing than women's because their body is not fully female. In view of these facts it might be said that a third-sex-body can be related to a third gender experience just like female and male bodies are linked to the experience of femininity and masculinity.

The Berdache in North America are often seen as an example of third gender persons. They are men who adopt female dress and activities (Shapiro 1991). It can be seen as institutionalised transsexualism, or at least cross-dressing. Their gender identity is often considered as intermediate between male and female. Shapiro poses the question whether they really are constituting a third gender category, or just preserving the dichotomy between man and woman. Gatens does not discuss the case of the Berdache in her article, but according to the logic of her theory the Berdache would constitute a third gender category. Their experience of femininity will differ from women's because of the significance of having a body that does not fit with their gender.

Men are much more stigmatised when cross-dressing, adopting feminine features or practising homosexuality in western societies. Women can for example wear trousers or even suits and hold traditionally male positions without being seen as anomalies. Judith Shapiro (1991) argues that masculinity corresponds with being a complete person in western societies. She argues that women who strive to move "upwards" in western societies, are not seen as a threat to the social organisation or the dominant male world. Those women merely adopt male values. Women who cross-dress do not challenge the traditional gender division. Media has recently focused on what is called "lipstick lesbians" as something attractive not only to lesbian women, but even more to heterosexual men, as opposed to "dykes" with a militant image. "Lipstick lesbians" do not jeopardise the traditional system. They act and look very feminine. In a way they also help preserving the "normal" gender order. If we look at the significance of the body in these instances the answer might be different. A woman dressed in male clothing, working in a male system can still be characterised as a woman. Although she adopts some male values she does not change her gender, but maybe she adds something to the female and the male categories - or even creates a third gender. It is likely that a female body acting out a seemingly male gender constitutes a third gender, without preserving the dichotomy between male and female. This could be the fact precisely because sex and gender are interrelated and influenced by each other. Various combinations of the two are possible. Men are now starting to move "downwards", in Shapiro's terms, i.e. adopting female values and tasks, and adding new aspects to their gender identity without being stigmatised.

Gendered sex and sexed gender

This essay has looked at different ways gender and sex are defined and related in different contexts and situations. I would go even further than Caplan, who says that sexuality is socially constructed, and argue that also biological sex is socially constructed - or at least our ideas about biological sex. The meaning and significance of and the relations between sex, sexuality and gender must be analysed in a cultural and social context. The terms sex and gender are useful as analytical tools only if this is taken into consideration. The sex/gender distinction seen as a set and unchangeable dichotomy does not help social scientists. It is too narrow and excludes many nuances of complex social organisations. Social scientists must consider the possibilities of sex being gendered and gender being sexed. By this I mean that it is not given how people will define and emphasise biological sex or social gender. The definitions are largely socially constructed and the one is dependent upon the other. As Moira Gatens pointed out, our conception of sex is based on a lived biology which is constituted of our historical and cultural ideas (Gatens). Anthropological studies have shoved us that the cultural processes which create different identities for men and women are different from society to society. Gender identities are thus not similar in every cultural system. But gender is influenced by sex and sex is influenced by gender. As mentioned in the first pages of this essay, gender relations are grounded in sexual differences in one way or another. To borrow Judith Shapiro's words:

"While sex differences may serve to "ground" a society's system of gender differences, the ground seems in some ways to be less firm than what it is supporting" (Shapiro:272).

I agree that gender is powerful but would in addition argue on the basis of this essay, that the culturally mediated notion of sex, like gender, is an ambiguous and powerful category. These factors must be taken into account when the sex/gender distinction is used.


BBC1 the 28th of March 1995. Third Sex.

Broch-Due, Vigdis 1993. Making Meaning Out Of Matter: Perceptions of Sex, Gender and Bodies among the Turkana in Carved Flesh Cast Selves, Gendered Symbols and Social Practices, (eds) Vigdis Broch-Due, Ingrid Rudie and Tone Bleie, Oxford/Providence: Berg Publishers.

Caplan, Pat 1987. The Cultural Construction of Sexuality (introduction) in The Cultural Construction of Sexuality (ed) Pat Caplan, London: Tavistock.

Gatens, Moira. A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction.

Gaarder, Jostein 1994. Sofies verden, Oslo: Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard).

Moore, Henrietta 1993. Epilogue in Carved Flesh Cast Selves, Gendered Symbols and Social Practices, (eds) Vigdis Broch-Due, Ingrid Rudie and Tone Bleie, Oxford/Providence: Berg Publishers.

Seymour-Smith, Charlotte 1986. Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology, London and Basingstoke: the Macmillan Press Ltd.

Shapiro, Judith 1991. Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex in Body Guards. The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (eds) J. Epstein and K. Straub,

Talle, Aud 1993. Transforming Women into 'Pure' Agnates: Aspects of Female Infibulation in Somalia in Carved Flesh Cast Selves, Gendered Symbols and Social Practices, (eds) Vigdis Broch-Due, Ingrid Rudie and Tone Bleie, Oxford/Providence: Berg Publishers.