The cause of so much confusion over the nature of gender is that gender is a construct of unparalleled proximity. Gender is a construct of the private home, of the confines of the bedroom and the kitchen. It’s the construct of intimacy. It’s the construct that must invest in drawing up personal barriers due to the relative impossibility of more traditional barriers. It’s the construct that, by necessity — due to the closeness between “husband and wife” within the private household — creates the most deeply held personal ideology. I’m not talking about a difference in severity here, just a difference in the way it is reproduced.

Class and national oppression are reproduced at a relative distance. The bourgeoisie, the whites, they don’t have as much contact — certainly not as much contact of the intimate kind — with the groups lower on the hierarchy. It is easy to enforce “racial” distinctions without resorting to individual ideology and personal identity as much, because these distinctions are generally enforced across borders — across entire communities, regions, or nations. There is a comparatively clear-cut separation. Entire families are usually racialized the same way, and in the private sphere there isn’t much “mixing” between “races”.

If we imagine a society where the bourgeoisie mixes socially, sexually, personally, and in every other kind of intimate manner, with the proletariat in perfect proportion to the percentage of the population they make up, then this society would be a very different society from our current reality. In our society, the bourgeois live in gated communities, in rich suburbs, or affluent postcodes. They inter-marry with other bourgeois, and create new bourgeois when they reproduce. Social mobility is a myth, class is semi-hereditary, and capitalism is only slightly better than feudalism in this regard. Members of the bourgeoisie don’t have any intimate interaction with the members of the proletariat; if they are to get close and interact with the proletariat, then it isn’t the intimate kind of closeness like the closeness of the family. It’s the sort of closeness of a barked order, of a wage packet, of hiring or firing, of the ownership of the means of production that the proletariat operates.

Gender is another matter entirely. If we imagine a society where men mixed (in both intimate and non-intimate contexts) with women in perfect proportion to the percentage of the population that women make up, and vise-versa, then this society would not be too different from the one we live in. It is considered the ultimate destiny — the sole and divinely ordained purpose — of woman and man to join together, to become one, and create their own private sphere together. Gender isn’t hereditary like class and nation is since the husband and wife are tasked with the extension of themselves and their sphere through the production of new husbands and wives. Effectively, the family functions as a self-replicating unit, constructed from two people of radically different positions in the gender hierarchy, and tasked with the creation new people of differing positions in the very same hierarchy.

So if the division between husbands and wives (and the future husbands and wives they produce) in the family — and ultimately the division between woman and man — can’t be so overtly enforced at a relative distance like class and nation divisions are, then how is gender oppression propagated? What options gain increased importance due to the relative impossibility of others?

The intimacy requires, and enables, that the ratio of the “subjective-coercive” mechanism (coercion in the form of ideology) to the “objective-coercive” mechanism (coercion in the form of force, or the threat thereof; the standard definition of “coercion”) be much greater in gender than it is class or nation. Gender role education makes up one aspect of this “subjective-coercive” mechanism. But for the family unit to function as it currently does, it isn’t enough for the “different genders” to each receive their own specialized education. It needs to go further than that. These gender roles, once learned, must then be put into practice, and for this to happen as it currently does, we have the other aspect to the “subjective-coercive” mechanism: gender identity.

Both aspects heavily rely on each other to function and give each other meaning. Patriarchy needs us to believe that gender and gender roles are inherent to us so that we behave appropriately — not out of service to others, or because we were overtly coerced — but in service to ourselves and our natural inclinations and needs. We must be educated to want out of our own hearts, and to deeply feel, our gender (roles). Our genders and our selves are produced by society; patriarchy is the subject, gender is the verb, we’re the object, and gender identity is the result. For the oppressed to self-police, and really internalize their subjugated role, is a huge win for patriarchy. Likewise, for the oppressors to police themselves and the subjugated, and really internalize their subjugator role, is a huge win for patriarchy.

If gender identity somehow didn’t exist as an aspect of patriarchy, then patriarchy wouldn’t be as strong. Removing gender identity, we have two options to keep the same level of patriarchy as before: decrease the level of intimacy, or increase the level of the “objective-coercive” mechanism. The relative amount of intimacy is fundamental to the arrangement of patriarchy, so the only thing left to do is to increase the relative amount of the “objective-coercive” mechanism, but an increase in this couldn’t happen with gender identity gone because it’s men who need to enforce the violence (on a relatively intimate level, don’t forget!), and it’s gender identity that helps this happen in the first place.

And yes, just before we continue, let me make it absolutely clear that cis people gender identify just as much as trans people do. The only real difference between the two is that when cis people gender identify, it’s approved by cissexist society. Patriarchy is incredibly invested in making sure that people develop gender identity on it’s own terms, but trans people are a threat to this. We must treat this fact very carefully. We need to figure out how to approach gender identity ultimately being a product of patriarchy without further marginalising trans people. Generally, I think it would be ultra-left (with rightist consequences, like all ultra-leftism) to start pointing this out in everyday political contexts, given that cis people don’t view themselves as having gender identities, and so in their eyes this would be nothing but an attack on trans people. Just like we as communists support bourgeois-democratic revolutions in oppressed nations against imperialism (whilst still acknowledging the need for proletarian revolution), we also support trans people against cissexism and their right to gender identity on the same terms as cis people (whilst still acknowledging that gender/identity would not exist without patriarchy).

For brievity, I’ll call the turning of gender into an identity, whether on a personal or a theoretical level, “the eroticisation of gender”.

Liberal feminists exemplify the eroticisation of gender when they say that women are oppressed because they identify as women. As well as confusing up from down, symptom with cause, and basically mistaking the floor for the ceiling, this is an obvious idealist mistake because of the simple matter that if we waved a magic wand and made every woman in the world stop identifying as women, then patriarchy would not completely disappear!

An identity-based definition of gender falls down in other places, too. Since coming out to others as a trans, I first identified as a woman, then as non-binary, then as a woman again, and then I finally rejected identity. Despite all the changes in my identity, the only thing that actually changed my position in patriarchy was coming out as trans. Identity is a useless way to analyze my experience. Likewise, I used to know a really femme cis gay man. Saying that “he identified as a man” is just a banality. What matters is structural relationships. He wasn’t treated, in a gendered way, like the average man. He was a man, to be sure, but to leave our understanding at “identity” and say that “he identified as a man” doesn’t really mean much, and doesn’t enlighten us to the way that femme cis gay men are treated as atypical men (despite having “the same gender identity as other men”).

So what about radical feminists, when they turn gender into biology? They make some slipshod attempt at materialism and rising above the erotic by saying all women are women because they were “born female” and all men are men because they were “born male”, because that’s what “woman” and “man” is constructed from by patriarchy. As I pointed out earlier, though, they’re just as wrong as the liberals:

[A]n individual person’s “sex”, as decided by society, doesn’t completely determine their relationship to sexism. Designation at birth isn’t some metaphysical essence that’s imparted on someone for life, entirely and necessarily coloring all further social interactions. Designation at birth is of course an incredibly powerful predictor of the ensuing privileges, socialization, and sex education society places upon someone, and this absolutely cannot be denied. But as ever, as with all generalisations, it isn’t correct in every case.

Confusion of the conditions for the creation and development of oppressor and oppressed classes with the conditions for oppression in a mostly individual context is one of the most infuriating aspects of radical feminism. The categories of “DFAB” and “DMAB” developed in tandem with the development of the gender hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that each individual person’s place in the gender hierarchy is necessarily what one would traditionally expect for a person of their birth designation. To think otherwise is a classic misunderstanding of the relationship between the aggregate and the particular.1

To step around these problems in the two major ways of defining gender, I contend that it’s the gendering that one receives from society that makes the gender. As revolutionaries we need to understand that it harms our project to truly understand and change society if we treat “woman” and “man” as anything other than scientific terms to be used based on an objective assessment of someone’s position in patriarchy. It’s an extremely sad state of affairs that the veil of eroticism has kept us from understanding gender from a power point of view. When we say that someone is petty-bourgeois we don’t look to their identity, but to their relation to production. If we can already do it with other social positions like class, why can’t we do it with gender? Why can’t we look to relation to patriarchy?

What does “look to relation to patriarchy” mean concretely, though? If we accept the fact that sex is a social construct and something that is not necessarily determinant of someone’s gender, but is an institutional basis for gender, then we free ourselves up to simply looking at how someone is treated by patriarchy. What is their place in the hierarchy? Do they possess gendered power or are they a victim of gendered power? Do they face sexual violence or control? What gender roles are forced upon them? Are they the objectifier or the objectified? These are the sorts of questions we should ask, not the arrangement of genitals or identity, but the broad position within patriarchal society as assigned by patriarchal society itself. The relations of oppression are what matter because that’s fundamentally what patriarchy is.

As I’ve said earlier:

When I say “I’m a woman” I’m not saying I innately “feel like a woman” (I don’t think you can ever construct a non-patriarchal justification for that), I’m instead relating myself to other women and our somewhat shared experience as a group under patriarchy. I’m stating that my material interests and experience of the world are aligned with womanhood; my liberation is therefore fundamentally and intimately bound up with other women, and thus as far as I’m concerned, “woman” describes me.1

・ ・ ・

In western society, gender is de jure binary. This statement will raise no objections from anyone. What about de facto, though? If gender isn’t biology, or identity, then as I said, the only thing left that we can define gender with is “one’s relation to the gender hierarchy”. Based on this, taking a look at the positions within current patriarchal society, we come to the inescapable conclusion that western society is de facto a trigender society. What we have are “men”, “women”, and “gender outlaws”.2

(Image credit: based on a sketch by Zoë Meinhof)

No one talks about the gender outlaws. You won’t find any official recognition of them, you won’t find a ‘☣’ symbol (or something) joining ‘F’ and ‘M’ in the list of valid birth certificate stamps. They’re the people that patriarchy has no use for, and doesn’t like to admit to: the outcasts, the “freaks”, the unintelligibles. Going back to the intimacy of gender, and the truly elaborate nature of gender roles, it’s inevitable for there to be those who fall between the cracks. If patriarchy does happen to recognize the gender outlaws, then it’s a recognition of the threat they pose to, or their incompatibility with, the current order. Gender outlaws are the people who must be shoved back into one of the de jure positions: “housewife” or “lumberjack”, “male” or “female”. Failing this they must be exterminated.

Trans women are perhaps the biggest gender outlaws. No one wastes any second of any day telling us that we’re the sex “male” or the gender “man”, yet neither do they ignore any chance to treat us as anything but males or men. Despite the assertion to the contrary on a de jure level by society, trans women are de facto “non men” because we exist as targets for extreme gender oppression. I think that the degree that each trans woman is “trans-gendered” by society is generally the degree that they are gendered “outlaws” by society. The trans women who face more transmisogyny (because they are perceived as more trans and less cis) are more “outlaws” and less “women” than the trans women who face a lower amount of transmisogyny. This also applies to the degree that one deviates from the cult of heterosexuality. Non-heterosexual men and women objectively exist closer to the “outlaw” end of the power structure than heterosexual men and women. Sexuality and gender are very closely related, and queer politics is the politics of the gender outlaws.

What about non-binary trans people, though? What’s their structural relation to patriarchy, where do they fit in this trigender model, and what’s the most accurate descriptive statement about them? I apply the same answer here as with everyone: “their gender is whatever their structural place in patriarchy is”. So if non-binary people are “non-binary”, it’s not because of their identity, but to the degree that they are placed outside of the binary by society (i.e., the degree to which they are gender outlaws). Of course asserting an identity like “agender” can make one a target for being outlawed, but this doesn’t make “agender” really exist from a non-erotic point of view because “agender” is not a discrete way of being gendered and placed into the gender hierarchy by patriarchy. While the vast majority of people saying that they are “women” or “men” engage in every bit as much gender eroticism as non-binary people do, “woman” and “man” coincidentally happen to exist from a non-erotic point of view, and by and large the people who identify as one of the de jure genders also tend to actually be placed into that position within the gender hierarchy by society, just because patriarchy tries hard to cultivate an “appropriate” gender identity in everyone.

Note that when we talk about “non-binary”, it would be eurocentric to attempt to apply that term to societies/contexts that have more than two (de jure) genders. “Non-binary” is only applicable to a society/context where there is a de jure binary to define itself against; it’s a relative term for a relative concept. If a given society had genders X, Y, and Z, then the equivalent term to “non-binary” in that society would be “non-trinary”. All three genders, X, Y, and Z would exist from a non-erotic point of view within that society, just because that’s how people in that society can get gendered, meaning that those genders are objective positions within the gender hierarchy of that society/context. Taking a tri-gender gender system and putting it into a diagram, just for an example, we might end up with something that looks vaguely like the following:

A rough measure of how patriarchal any given society is can be found in the relative size of the “gender outlaw” gender versus officially sanctioned (de jure) genders (this won’t apply in all cases, but should be true in the aggregate). In some societies the de jure genders take up much more space relative to the gender outlaw gender, meaning less people are forced to be outlaws, and more people can exist as one of the less oppressed de jure genders. Other types of less patriarchal societies, instead of having each de jure gender take up more space, will instead have more de jure genders, with the same end result — that the society is more forgiving of gendered difference because the range of non-outlawed positions within the gender hierarchy is larger.

・ ・ ・

Ultimately, turning gender into a subjective matter, making it something based not on society but on oneself and one’s feelings, is nothing but misogyny. “Woman” and “man” are concrete positions within a social hierarchy, but when we eroticise gender we confuse this. We end up obscuring the functioning of patriarchy, naturalizing gender, and falling to bourgeois individualism. Eroticising gender inevitably leads to reformism because if gender is an identity, not a relation to patriarchy, then “gender is an inevitable occurrence because it must have existed before patriarchy”, and so the best we can do is “reform gender, because gender will never disappear”. To justify gender reformism, perhaps the most highly developed gender eroticist, Judith Butler, says:

[G]ender can be very important to us, and some people really love the gender that they have claimed for themselves. If gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people. And others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood.3

Using pleasure as a metric for legitimacy under patriarchy is ceeding ground to patriarchy because patriarchy constructs pleasure in its own image. In the manufacturing of consent to patriarchy of the participants, patriarchy requires that women enjoy their own domination. Although most feminists don’t like to admit this, significant numbers — somewhere in the 31% and 57% range — of women have rape fantasies.4 They get themselves off on the idea of male ownership of their bodies. They treat what is perhaps the purest expression of patriarchy as something pleasurable, as erotic, as a nice fuck. Why, then, should we be surprised when people treat gender itself as something similar to a “nice fuck”? When the person-object who’s gendered and acted upon by the patriarchy-subject starts enjoying their own objectification (in both senses of the word), then that’s to be expected because it’s just how intimacy functions.

As MIM quite rightly pointed out:

It’s not possible to say that women and men have had unequal power for centuries and then pretend that much of women’s behavior relative to men is not some kind of adjustment to that inequality.5

In summary, and to switch up Beauvoir’s famous words: One is not born female or woman, nor does one identify as such, but rather, one becomes female and woman.

— Alyx Mayer


  1. Trans People and the Dialectics of Sex and Gender: Against Radical and Liberal Feminism 
  2. After writing this, it has been repeatedly brought up that a writer called Kate Bornstein once used the term “gender outlaw” [in a different way!] 30 years ago in some obscure book. I was not aware of this, and am not referencing Bornstein’s work in any way, shape or form. 
  3. Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate interviews Judith Butler 
  4. According to a meta-review of 20 studies. Women’s Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research
  5. MIM Theory 2/3 — Gender and Revolutionary Feminism

Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. Man and woman are not and cannot be scientific terms. They are the names for the patriarchal gender roles that are assigned on the basis of sex and then enforced. Children are taught to act certain ways and adults are expected to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” precisely because roles are things that have to be acted–they are not biological or inherent.

    Unfortunately, male and female HAVE been used as scientific terms, despite the fact that biological sex is a continuum rather than being binary. There is no dividing line and the fact of intersex infants being genitally mutilated to force them into one false binary or the other proves it, as Judith Butler pointed out in the book Sexing the Body.

    Think of it as analogous to race. People come in a wide spectrum of skin colors, not just in black or white. Past attempts to force people into that false binary resulted in people with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes being legally designated as black if they had black ancestry. Since we originated in Africa, we all have black ancestry, so carried to the extreme we would all have been legally designated black.

    The use of sexual orientation as identity is also absurd. There are few if any males today who eroticize the painfully bound, deformed, artificially diminished female feet that were considered attractive in prerevolutionary China. In reality, what was valued was the inability of the female slave to run away from the male owner.

    An example of the socioculturally constructed patriarchal gender role of women being imposed on males, rather than on females, was described by Moses Diamini (“Hell-Hole Robben Island,” African World Press, 1984), and recounted by Kate Millett (“The Politics of Cruelty,” W.W.Norton, 1994). On the infamous South African prison island where Nelson Mandela spent so many years, and where there were only males and no females, there was a fight between two rival gangs. The winners killed the losers, except for those who were willing to become women in order to survive. These women, and no quotation marks are necessary, for women is what they were, became household and sex slaves, wore traditionally feminine clothes, took traditionally feminine names, and were referred to with traditionally feminine pronouns. Although they were women, that is, they adopted the gender role to which the word women is attached, they did not undergo genital surgery or apply for legal status as female, so they remained indisputably male.

    The violence that forced these males to become women is no different from the violence that forced our female ancestors to beome women. There’s even a Greek word for the phenomenon of male armies swooping down on peaceful towns and villages, killing the adult males and taking the females and children as wives and slaves, and at least one such event is described in the Old Testament. There was little difference between wives and slaves in those days, in that the man who owned them could demand absolute obedience from, and had the same power of life and death over both. Both wives and slaves were considered to be property and forbidden to own property, and were also denied literacy for fear that their descendants might learn of their origin and rebel. The sociocultural role of women is no more natural to females than to males, was originally imposed through violence, and the statistics showing that over 5,000 years later, one out of four females in the United States is a victim of domestic violence, prove, I believe, that despite acculturation, ultimately patriarchal gender roles can be established and maintained no other way.

    Reply
    • I think you must be misunderstanding my use of the phrase “scientific term”. It seems like you’re taking it to mean “bourgeois science” or “patriarchal science”, or something. I thought it should have been clear that I used the phrase “scientific term” to refer to something scientific within the context of marxism/feminism: something that isn’t defined subjectively based on individual identity, but objectively based on a relation to society that is created by society itself.

      I don’t think we’re on the same page at all.

      Oh, and don’t you mean Anne Fausto-Sterling instead of Judith Butler?

      Reply
      • Thank you, Alyx. It was, of course, Anne Fausto-Sterling, not Judith Butler, who wrote Sexing the Body.

        And you’re correct that I was using scientific to refer to bourgeois or patriarchal science, as it never occurred to me that interpreting something within the context of an ideology like Marxism/feminism could be termed scientific.

        If we stopped thinking of people in the binary terms of patriarchy and recognized that humans exist across a biological spectrum there could be no gender outlaws–it is the construct of gender that is artificial and leaves everyone unable to fulfill their fully human potential. Identity should not be based on a patriarchal social construct like gender, race, nationalism, or class, but on each individual’s character and attributes.

        Patriarchal science fails completely when it comes to sex, as there is no possibility of having a control group that is not treated in one of two totally different ways from birth, or of finding scientists whose powers of observation are not similarly stunted.

        I agree that patriarchy would not disappear if women stopped identifying as women. For patriarchy to disappear all people would have to identify as people, as human, without regard to sex. We’d need to stop defining ourselves and identifying in terms of socially constructed and violently imposed false binaries that limit and constrict people’s lives, like sex and race, and embrace the full spectrum rainbow of unique human identities and potential.

        Thank you again, both for an interesting article and for taking the time to respond to my comment and correct my errors.

  2. I am fascinated by the theories here, and think them to represent some of the best work on this topic ever produced. Very cutting edge stuff.

    Looking at the triangle graphic, I cannot but help wonder if there is a kind of continuum where those gender identities closer to the edge of the binary, but not in them are less outlaw (for example, a womyn who is lesbian) to more outlaw toward the center (for example a “male” to “female” trans who identifies as a lesbian). And isn’t it interesting how those outlaws closer to the binary are more acceptable withing a bourgeois framework, like how cis lesbianism is accepted but how other identities are reacted to not only with derogitory terminology such as “chicks with dicks” and pathological violence. It appears to me that it is almost corralated perfeclty: the animosity against an outlaw identity and its potential as a transformative (pun intended!) social force. Think about how TERFism can occur on the edges of the outlaw community and it almost in perfect dialectical opposition to transexualism, which is more thoroughly outlaw at near the center. It makes sense that those who are more deeply outlaw should be and are now leading the gender liberation movement. It was cis wimmin, now the trans community is the most radical in its praxis. I see the intersection of the most non-binary outlaw with non-white and other oppressed identity as the real proletarian nexus.

    Reply
  3. The professor in my Women’s Experiences class was presenting the idea that identity has an important impact in the constution of gender sociodynamics.

    I don’t know what my gender is. What about people like me? I was born to be in what people consider a male body but I have always dressed very plainly. I always wear my jean jacket and my vintage Levis. Closer to Fine is probably my favorite song. 32 Flavors is probably my other favorite song. When I heard these songs I did not even know about lesbians. I just identified with Ani when she sings about being misjudged and underestimated by men. “I am 32 flavors ant THEN SOME.” I love that part. Many people mistake me as a lesbian. I think that lyric “the closer I am to fine” is about me but I can’t prove it. People think I’m weird because I do not like being touched on the right side of my body. The thought of sex frightens me and I am not sure who I am attracted to but certain smells arouse me. I am still a virgin and am not ashamed. I can’t explain it. I apologize for taking up your time. I just want to know where people like me fit in. Does being a gender outlaw require being conscious of it? I kind of just wanted to talk to someone about this.

    Reply
  4. […] The Eroticisation of Gender […]

    Reply
  5. […] or class from class oppression (we have touched on this theme before in Alyx Mayer’s piece, The Eroticization of Gender). Therefore rape, which is a mechanism through which the victim is objectified, transformed into […]

    Reply
  6. […] ou la classe de l’oppression de classe (ce thème est abordé dans le texte d’Alyx Mayer’s,The Eroticization of Gender). En conséquence, le viol, qui est un mécanisme par lequel la victime est objectifiée, […]

    Reply
  7. […] or class from class oppression (we have touched on this theme before in Alyx Mayer’s piece, The Eroticization of Gender). Therefore rape, which is a mechanism through which the victim is objectified, transformed into […]

    Reply

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Feminism, Theory