What is a woman? What is a man?
I am among those psychologists and other professionals who introduced the use of the term “gender” into the lexicon of the social sciences 50 years ago—in my case and by those feminists working alongside me, into the field of psychology. Before our generation of writers, teachers, and therapists, the differences between boys and girls, men and women, were all subsumed under the term “sex.” They were considered immutable gifts of Mother Nature to all humans that would further differentiate females and males as they matured. Any deviance from the prescribed path was proscribed and considered a problem in development.
We did not just name gender for idle or academic reasons. We needed a paradigm that was more amenable to important questions. We wanted to investigate whether gender was different from sex; we wanted to find out if certain aspects of one or the other were learned rather than given; we wanted to know if gender and sex were written in stone or in the shifting sands of culture.
We were richly rewarded, as the psychology of the past 50 years has been enormously deepened and extended by this research. At present, theorists and researchers have been able to view and treat gender as a social construct and sex as biologically based. Sex is coded into the DNA of every cell of every human and a discussion of the anomalies, such as intersex, is beyond the scope of this article, so I leave it to others. Unlike sex, gender is largely learned, while its specifics have been shown to differ in different cultures and at different times.
What used to be called trans-sexual has morphed into transgender and, in my mind, this again obscures the differences, as well as effects on each other, from further questions and research. This linguistic conflation is not accidental, but part of a cultural change that has little or no basis in scientific research, but instead in personal and political values. In fact, this cultural shift is largely refuted by today’s scientific research.
This is not a specious question that I am posing. It grows from my own perspective and experience in the theory and practice of gender in context. I support the rights of every individual to adopt whatever gender presentation they prefer, but I resist the idea that gender preferences require hormonal or surgical intervention. Why is an attempt to change the physical body the best or even any treatment for a change in gender expression?
There is a cultural battle going on that has reached the universities and practitioners and it is not about learning more about these issues through a mushrooming of research and clinical results. It is instead a political attempt to silence these very questioners before the questions can even be voiced.
We know from 50 years of research that gender is learned and can be unlearned. We realize now that it is not binary, but fluid and malleable to different degrees in different individuals. We know that family and culture fill in the specifics, such as how to walk, how to talk, what jobs to take, etc. We also know a bit about how gender interacts with other human qualities, such as sex and even sexuality.
It is past time to extend our knowledge to the physical and psychological results of transition and to the very definition of the word—that is, are these procedures changing biology or psychology or appealing to human vision only? We, researchers and practitioners, owe it to the field of psychology and to the many individuals, young and old who are participating in this vast social experiment.
Some of the questions that I consider important are:
- Why are so many professionals choosing to privilege psychology or self-perception over biology?
- Why is sex changeable and racial characteristics not?
- Do the current treatments actually change sex at all? For example, my own research has highlighted the fact that treatment effects are accessible only to the sighted and are a byproduct of our hypervisual culture.
- Should children of 4 or 5 be allowed to make a decision to transition and to undergo hormonal treatment?
- What are the physical and psychological effects of the drugs and surgery involved? Short term and long term?
- Do these treatments, along with genital surgery, really change anyone’s sex? Epistemologically speaking, we have not yet defined what it might mean to change one’s sex.
Continuing and extending the study of these issues should be most important to those participating in this experiment, those who are living this issues in their very bodies. While I encourage and support their human rights, I also strongly recommend continued and better questioning, along with the search for answers that we know as science.
Kaschak, E. (1992), Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women’s Experience, Basic Books.
Dottolo, A.L., & Kaschak, E. (Eds.). (2016). Whiteness and White Privilege in Psychotherapy. Routledge.
Kaschak, E., (2015), Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes