The Insidious Fusion of ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’
In May 2022, a controversial documentary entitled “What is a woman?” was released. Produced by the DailyWire and hosted by Matt Walsh, it was viewed as a cheeky ‘mockumentary’ by some, but dangerous hate speech to others, simply for posing the facially simple titular question to various experts. A recurring response to this question was that ‘a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman’.
At first blush, this seems to be an absurd definition since it is a classic case of a ‘circular definition’. In fact, at the time of the release, many dictionaries did offer the familiar primary definition of woman as being ‘an adult female person/human’. More expansive definitions would include the property of producing ova (or sperm in men). Regardless, some non-profit and activist organisations see no issue with invoking the circular definition. For example, the European Institute for Gender Equality defines woman as being “a person assigned female sex at birth, or a person who defines herself as a woman”.
Such a discrepancy can conceivably be explained by the progressive, social justice-type by pointing out that the word ‘woman’ is a term denoting gender, rather than sex. Sex refers to biological differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’, whereas gender refers to other socially or culturally related ideas of ‘man/woman’ (gender identity), or ‘femininity/masculinity’ (gender expression), as they relate to sex through history. Consequently, while sex should ordinarily be defined in an objective manner, gender can be defined depending on how one wishes to self-ID, supposedly making the circular definition internally coherent.
However, the concept of gender is a recent innovation, formerly confined to scholarly spaces, and now unleashed upon the body politic. The fact that the word ‘woman’ as defined by dictionaries described a person of the female sex is a historical signpost showing that few understood ‘woman’ as being associated with gender. Nevertheless, social conservatives, who typically deny the concepts of sex and gender as being real, default to performing a ‘power move’ in debates – pointing to a dictionary and claiming victory. “The dictionary here says that a woman is an adult human female! End of discussion!”.
But this can no longer happen in a straightforward manner, because as of very recently, Merriam-Webster has added a secondary definition to the word ‘female’ on which the definition of woman seemingly hangs. That is, ‘female’ (adjective) is also now defined as “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male”.
While the primary definition of ‘female’ still retains the essence of biological characteristics, the secondary definition is astounding. On one hand, it feels like a sardonic ‘aikido counter’ to the conservative power move by throwing the dictionary back at them. On the other hand, it seems to be a meaningless and absurd update, introducing another level of circularity. If a female is not a male, and a male is not a female, then what are either of them?
But more importantly, it signals a pivot from the proposition that sex and gender are essentially real and distinct concepts. It has revealed that successfully separating sex and gender in culture is now inadequate – the next goal in transforming society is to make them both coterminous, particularly linguistically. In other words, for the past two to three decades, it has been drilled into our minds that sex and gender are two different things, but because of ever-shifting definitions, it has becomes difficult to see how they differ. In effect, gender becomes more real than sex. The dictionary becomes the prime battleground to effect such a change, and that battle has just been won.
Ideologically Motivated Definitions Hurt More Than They Empower
In general, social justice advocates believe that words have prescriptive meanings, which serve to stigmatise already marginalised peoples. Hence, some may launch appeals to dictionaries to consider changing the meaning of certain words. In fact, the word ‘woman’ was already challenged as early as 2017 (as explained in this useful Slate article).
However, lexicographers treat words as being descriptive, hence dictionaries reflect the way words are used in broader society. Their task is not to gatekeep the definition of words in service of a greater social cause. But lexicographers may not be immune to political or cultural pressures. For example, the meaning of the word ‘racism’ was updated by the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the BLM riots, to reflect both the notions of prejudice and systemic and institutional power. It was updated as a result of a university graduate writing in, asserting that racism was a “system of advantage based on skin colour”.
Accordingly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) took this one step further and adapted the meaning to be more specific – “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of colour based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges White people” [emphasis ours].
However, the problem with adopting this overly specific definition came into sharp relief following the controversy surrounding Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that the Holocaust was “not about race,” because, in her words, “This is white people doing it to white people” (some consider Jews in the US to fall under the artificial racial category of ‘White’). Such a misconception, essentially erasing the racist motivation behind the Holocaust, embarrassed the ADL, which back-pedalled its definition of racism to its neutral state of discrimination based solely on race or ethnicity.
Because there is serious contention on what categories like ‘White’ and ‘Black’ mean in common discourse in the US, hastily legitimizing the new dictionary definition as a foil to disempower ‘Whites’ backfired tragically by causing pain to many Jews worldwide. Similarly, unless there is widespread agreement on the meaning of the word ‘female’ (or ‘male’), especially in relation to how words denoting sex and gender should be sufficiently differentiated, changing definitions may end up hurting real people.
The Sex-Gender Conflation is Far More Pervasive Than Just in the Dictionary.
For such a change to be made in the dictionary, naturally there has to be some evidence that the sex-gender conflation has been present in broader discourse for some time. Consider how this conflation snuck up on the meaning of ‘sexual orientation’. Key researchers in the science of sexual orientation (including Bailey, Diamond, and others) have utilised the definition of sexual orientation referring to attraction to the same, opposite, or both sexes (see the section ‘What Is Sexual Orientation?’ in this scientific review published in 2016). Findings from these researchers have been used to provide scientific justification against anti-sodomy laws, and for same-sex marriage in various nations.
But notice the subtle but substantial shift in the meaning of ‘sexual orientation’ in very recent years. Consider Zula, a local lifestyle website, which published a ‘guide to sexual orientations’, introducing seemingly bohemian terms such as pansexuals, polysexuals, and ceterosexuals – persons who are romantically or sexually attracted to those of other gender identities. Likewise, Channel NewsAsia reprinted a Reuter’s report claiming that the Japanese court’s ruling against same-sex marriage would “not allow people of the same gender to marry”. Such examples show that ‘sexual orientation’ is no longer treated as being tied to another’s sex, but rather, their gender.
While this seems like a fairly obvious category error, some may disagree with such a characterisation by claiming that ‘sexual orientation’ ought to signify the sort of individual you are attracted to, and that such an individual should not be reduced to their sex. But even if that were true, such a refutation does nothing but further reinforce the view that sex and gender are deliberately being conflated in popular discourse, such that that gender is being overlaid upon sex.
Furthermore, sexual orientation is increasingly being recast as having a spectrum, following the language of a ‘gender spectrum’. While activists are facing resistance for pushing pseudo-scientific ideas such as a sex being a spectrum rather than a binary, one can expect to see the concepts of sex and gender become fused linguistically at an accelerating rate. The end goal of blurring the meaning of these words, against the tide of scientific reasoning, is the erosion of cisnormativity and heteronormativity in order to elevate sexual and gender minorities, and legitimise all forms of so-called ‘sexual and gender diversity’.
But what effect this will have on other sections of society remains to be seen. Altering the definition of ‘racism’ in the US was risky due to the historical sting of slavery, and the heightened visibility of the Black community. But while the (politically) Black identity seems to remain rather static and resists the inclusion of other kinds of sub-identities, women do not possess such an immunity. That is why we find that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has allowed for a word that has been strictly employed to denote sex, to also denote gender, despite the resultant incoherence. Therefore, one can expect further disenfranchisement of natal females, especially marginalised segments of women in society, as they are forced to share spaces with non-natal females against their will, comfort, or consent.
It is crucial to recognise that what is happening here is not an innocent mix-up between sex and gender on the part of progressives or social justice activists – this is being done deliberately. It is wise, therefore, to be aware and awake to such linguistic gerrymandering, where sex and gender are being fused together despite what we were told in the past. And we need to reasonably interrogate the reason for such a fusion, in order to expose its hollowness.