Why We Need to Say Sex, Not Gender

Since May of this year, every website in the EU has had to update its terms and conditions since earlier this year to include a GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) tick box for all visitors, adding to the virtual bureaucracy of privacy. The evolution of Internet bureaucracy, to include people’s web hosting needs which now incorporates where servers are storing data, has coincided with the waterfall of identity tick boxes. As the Internet expands in its mediatization of the social and individual identity recognition to include more and newer adjectives by the month, we can see how the proliferation of bureaucratic structures coincides with the exponential manners in which the individual to “curates” the self—especially the “gendered self.” Yet, none of these terms that refer to a so-called “gender identity” have anything to do with the material reality of sex.

While the Internet has proven to be the perfect superficial space where people can fashion themselves another identity and avatar where “flying” in Second Life is as real as one’s purple haired anime, turn the corner and the Internet contains the very brass tacks of material bureaucracy as we must click on our iTunes user agreement and hundreds of other agreements 99% of us never read. What could be more capitalist than the notion that more equals better?  More adjectives, more identities, more tick boxes. We have bureaucratized ourselves into a nonsensical blur of self-concentration with a side-dish of narcissism for sure. But where does this leave those of us on the left who are aware that you cannot identify out of material reality?

So, last week I shared an article on social media from earlier this fall about the UK’s Labour Party calling for a ban on sex-selective abortions. “Early gender tests ‘leading to selective abortions of girls in UK‘,” headlines an article which discusses a “baby’s gender” and “gender determination.” But to anyone who has studied the basics of elementary school science, the body does not have a gender, bodies are clearly sexed. You don’t need a tutor to understand that sex is what is determined by the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT), a blood test used to detect genetic abnormalities in addition to biological sex.

And as I read the article on selective abortions, I had to wonder why any journalist would make such a glaring mistake since gender is a social construct and is well-cemented in everything from sociology to anthropology. Similarly sex is enshrined into the World Health Organisation (WHO) policies as well as medical and biological science. In fact, the people who generally see gender as innate, tend to be religious conservatives who view gender as something deeply connected to the sexed body. This means that no matter how much we demonstrate demographic data on “gender,” as so many studies today do, this word “gender” is constantly misused and often conflated with “sex.” Yet, anyone knows that the somatic (the body) is sexed, not gendered.

As a woman, it is a constant annoyance to be at a doctor’s appointment, for instance, only to be given the form that asks me for my gender, followed by male or female to tick. “Wait,” I think to myself, “I don’t have a gender—I have a sex.” And this happens quite regularly—especially online—where I am asked about my gender or “gender identity.” Wait a minute—I don’t have one of those. I do have a collapsable umbrella, however.

We are witnessing the slow erasure of sex despite it being a necessary category for medical forms, the census, and all sorts of statistical data used to test public services (eg. if there are enough cervical screening centers for women?). For no matter how you identify, there are certain realities of the body that are inescapable.

Speaking with other women, I have come to learn that more and more women have similar concerns that our bodies are being written out of reality and that the weight of someone’s identification (gender) is replacing the somatic. Several women have told me that they take their pen out and cross out the word “gender” and write above it “sex” in protest.  Others tell me that they write a mini-essay in the margins as to why the terms are incorrect. And no scientist worthy of their credentials would state that gender is anything but a social construction that has long functioned to keep women at home, childbearing and busied with domestic chores men leave the home, for centuries marginalized from political and social life. So why is “gender” popping up on our medical records?

Despite the fact that London’s first public toilets for women were built for the 1851 Great Exhibition or that, it was not until the early twentieth century where public toilets for women were regularly constructed for women’s use. This coincided with the production of leisure goods and the fad called “shopping” which brought women out of their homes and into the public sector, to do everything from perambulating to drinking coffee and buying goods. This allowed for women to leave their homes and take part in public life since “respectable” women were not able to relieve themselves in infrequently used streets or alleys as men did and still do today. And of the few public toilets that existed during the Victorian era, they were designated for men. This formula ensured that the public sphere was male-oriented and the private female-oriented.

Sex was clearly that which put women in danger of leaving the safety of the private sphere, not their gender. Women had little choice in anything related to their rights, much less the ability to influence lawmakers to construct separate facilities for their use, much less have the right to vote for such changes. Sex is what has left 63 million women classified as “missing” from India’s population. And sex is what leaves one million foetuses aborted annually and 21 million unwanted in India alone. If only these females could identify their way out of the brutal reality that they face.

Like millions of women on the planet, I have also faced sex-based discrimination in the work force. I think to a job interview I had with one of the UK’s top universities while seven months pregnant, where I was asked during the interview this: “But don’t you want to stay at home and be with your baby?” That’s a question a non-female will never be asked.

The sex-based oppression of females is a reality and although the wage gap has improved in limited measures over past decades, it’s definitely not a “gender pay gap”—it’s a sex-based pay gap. Nothing that females suffer happens because of how we “identify” or see ourselves. The oppression and discrimination we suffer very much occurs because of social modeling of what gender means to families, societies, employers, and individuals in power. While we might dislike the visceral term “sex,” often used to describe the sexual act, we need to stop being linguistic prudes about this term and start employing it again.

Sex-based inequality isn’t going away just because we say “gender.”

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.