An Important Correction

Before I begin this third part of “Gender Whipped,” I want to acknowledge a mistake that I made in the previous two posts. While I addressed Serano’s individualist view of gender and her opinions about femininity, I failed to emphasize, “where she was coming from,” the context in which her ideas developed. Serano was not adopting an individualist view of gender or a highly positive view of femininity, simply for the sake of doing so. She was actively responding to gender theorists and feminists, who had expressed transphobic and misogynistic attitudes. Her move to reclaim femininity as positive and empowering is a response to those feminists who have policed trans women’s genders and cruelly lambasted them for being too feminine and reinforcing patriarchal structures. Germaine Greer, for example, has claimed that "sex-change surgery is profoundly conservative in that it reinforces sharply contrasting gender roles by shaping individuals to fit them" (The Whole Woman, 71). Her work contains even more rabidly transphobic statements, such as: "No one ever asked women if they recognized sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem" (The Whole Woman, 74).

Serano’s concern with individualizing gender also arises from her experience as a trans woman in academic circles: social constructivists have posited gender as “performance” and “artifice,” and this has served to demean and discredit the trans experience of feeling a deep, intrinsic belonging to a particular sex or gender. Serano describes how trans women face an uphill battle in the sense that their femininity and their femaleness are viewed as “artificial” and “fake” in society, while as individuals, they very much feel like real women. Gender theorists who assert that all gender is artificial do not help their cause.

Kate Bornstein said in a recent interview that, “people use books on gender to invisibilize transsexuals.” I do not want to serve this purpose with my writing and I realize that my last two posts may very well have contributed to the “trans-invisibility” that Bornstein and Serano rightly criticize. Thank you to users cannonball and samwhise for pointing this problem out.

Estrogen High: Hormonal Effects and Gender Differences

In Whipping Girl, Serano develops a new theory of gender (the “Intrinsic Inclination Model”), which she portrays as a substantial critique of both social constructivism and gender essentialism. As the following passages demonstrate, she positions herself as an informed and rational voice, sitting squarely in the middle of a heated, overly ideologized, and ultimately pointless debate:

“As someone who both is a geneticist and has experienced first-hand the very different ways in which women and men are treated and valued in society, I believe that both social constructionists and gender essentialists are wrong (or at least they are both only partially right)” (97). And while the idea that gender is a combination of many things – some biological and others sociological – does not make for a catchy sound bite or a sexy ‘hook’ for one’s book or thesis, it appears to me to be indispensable” (156). “Having experienced both female and male hormones firsthand, I feel it is my duty to spoil [the] nature-versus-nurture debate” (66).

Nevertheless, the brunt of Serano’s critique is focused on social constructivism and her book gives the impression that sex, gender, and sexuality are mostly biological, innate and fixed. She begins her theory with a personal account of her transition from male to female, which involved “taking estrogen, along with an anti-androgen [which suppresses endogenous testosterone levels] to shift the hormonal balance into the range that most adult women experience” (67). This hormone has caused significant changes in her psychology and physiology that are indicative of some of the biological differences that may exist between males and females. For example, Serano talks about how she “feels [her] emotions more” after taking estrogen: “when testosterone was the predominant sex hormone in [her] body, it was as though a thick curtain [was] draped over [her] emotions. It deadened their intensity” (67). Further, she found that her sense of touch was greatly sensitized: she was “able to feel things that [she] couldn’t [feel] before” (68). Her sense of smell has also “increased in sensitivity” (69). In terms of sexuality, Serano reported a major decrease in her sex drive. When she was hormonally male, she “could barely go a day, let alone two days, without some form of release,” but as her body adjusted to significantly higher levels of estrogen, she started to crave sex “about three to four times a week” (70). She also found that her sexuality became less visual: smells and touches became much more sexy than sights and images.

Overall, Serano’s personal experience suggests that estrogen makes people feel their emotions more intensely, increases the sensitivity of their sense of smell and touch, lowers their sex drive, and makes arousal less dependent on visual stimuli. She argues that these effects are generalizable to all or most women because “similar experiences are regularly described by other trans women” who have taken hormones (71). Also, “trans men typically give reciprocal accounts: they almost universally describe an increase in their sex drives (which become more responsive to visual inputs), a decrease in their sense of smell, and more difficulty crying and discerning their emotions” (71-2).

The “Intrinsic Inclination Model”

All of this must mean that hormonal effects do create certain biological gender differences between males and females. There are, of course, many exceptions. But if we take the averages of both groups, we will find that there clearly are gender characteristics and differences that precede socialization. Thus, sociologists and queer theorists are wrong in positing that gender emerges as a result of social construction. Serano considers the most damning evidence against their theories to be that atypical gender and sexual characteristics emerge despite negative reinforcement from society. How can social constructivists even explain the existence of gender and sexual non-conformists, if they argue that gender is only the result of socialization? Given the heterosexist and transphobic nature of our society, socialization could not have produced gays, lesbians and trans people.

These insights then lead Serano to develop the “Intrinsic Inclination Model,” which explains why most people have typical genders and sexualities, but at the same time, accounts for the vast diversity of gender and sexual expressions. The basic tenets of the model include the following: (1) There are three major gender inclinations: subconscious sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation. They are determined independently of one another – gender and sexual orientation do not automatically follow from a particular sex; (2) All of these gender inclinations are intrinsic – “they occur on a deep, subconscious level and generally remain intact despite social influences”; (3) There could be a variety of “genetic, anatomical, hormonal, environmental, or psychological factors” causing the inclinations; (4) Each inclination is roughly correlated with sex (e.g. – although males will on average be more masculine than females, any one male could be more feminine than any individual female) (99-100).

So, if much of the variation in gender and sexuality is the result of intrinsic, natural, biological, and subconscious processes, what kind of a role does socialization play? While most gender theorists have posited that, “socialization produces gender differences,” Serano claims that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist” (74). For example, society “actively discourage[s] boys from crying, even though testosterone itself should reduce the chance of this happening... [And it] encourage[s] men to act on their sex drives (by praising them as “studs”), while discouraging women from doing the same (by dismissing them as “sluts”), despite the fact that most women will end up having a lower sex drive than most men anyway” (74). Socialization works to exaggerate naturally occurring gender differences by forcing those with atypical tendencies to stifle themselves – it does not create the gender differences, as social constructivists allege. Gender is, thus, socially exaggerated, not socially constructed.

Hormones have effects… but how important are they?

Serano’s model does present a strong challenge to social constructivism. But it still leaves numerous questions unanswered. The issue of hormones “causing” gender differences between men and women is complex. As Serano herself points out:

“Hormones do not simply act like unilateral on/off switches controlling female/feminine or male/masculine development. All people have both androgens (which include testosterone) and estrogens in their systems, although the balance is tipped more toward the former in men and the latter in women. Not only are there different types of androgens and estrogens…but there’s an extensive amount of natural variation built into the way individual people experience and process specific hormones...” (66).

Furthermore, in addition to the fact that each individual processes hormones differently, it can be hard to tell real “hormone effects from perceived or presumed effects” (66). Human behavior is directed by a variety of factors and isolating hormones as specific causal forces is very difficult. In fact, the impact of hormones on men and women is so diverse that Serano suggests that there might be more variation among men and women than between the “averages” of the two groups. She gives the example of height: “While it may be true that, on average, men are taller than women, such a statement becomes virtually meaningless when one examines individual people, as any given woman may be taller than any given man” (100).

Taking all of this into account, one must ask: is there any relevance in emphasizing “natural” differences between men and women? Hormones undoubtedly have effects, but if each individual processes them in a variety of ways, and if men and women can differ more amongst themselves than between each other, is it not “virtually meaningless” to posit general differences between men and women? And while it might be easy to provide “averages” of traits such as height, how can we possibly quantify complex psychological and physiological factors (emotions, senses etc…)?

If we take these questions seriously, positing grand gender differentiations begins to seem like a futile exercise. The real danger, however, is that gender differences, which are perceived and portrayed as natural, innate or biological can be used to deny people jobs, positions of social authority and to structure belief systems about essential identity. If we reopen the “pandora’s box” of biological determinism, then we risk justifying discrimination on the basis of gender. This is how sexist and patriarchal systems operate: (1) claims are made about general “natural” differences between women and men; (2) each gender is actively discouraged from social activities that are not fitted to its “nature” and encouraged to adopt those that are.

Serano (perhaps unwittingly) makes the dangers of her own framework evident in a short passage at the end of Chapter 4. She complains about how the warning label on her progesterone prescription said: “avoid operating heavy machinery” (75). She views this as an example of society placing “negative connotations and inferior meanings” on femininity and female hormones. But she herself acknowledged, just a few sentences earlier, that female hormones made her “softer” and “weaker” (75)! The biological reasoning that she uses effectively undermines other people’s perception of her ability to operate heavy machinery. If estrogen and progesterone do indeed make most women softer and weaker, then why on earth would anyone let them near a giant machine? Serano would surely respond by saying that “most” does not mean “all” women and that there are surely exceptional women who would be better than many men at operating a heavy machine. While this may be correct, in society, “most” can function as a synonym for “all” and social positions can still be denied to gendered individuals on that basis. For example, in his famous speech at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, Larry Summers used research, which argued that “most” women were naturally less apt at physical science and math, to suggest that the lack of women in the physical sciences is not something that should be too worrisome.

Can social constructivism explain gender and sexual diversity?

One of Serano’s main arguments against social constructivism is that it cannot account for sexual and gender diversity. If sex, gender and sexuality were truly the products of socialization, then everyone would turn out to be straight, gender conforming, and cissexual. This view can be challenged using the work of Michel Foucault on sexuality. Although people may have a plurality of sexual drives (towards a particular gender, a liking for leather, S & M, armpits etc…), the way that society organizes and structures these drives establishes a normative context that influences how they are experienced and conceived by individuals. For example, in Ancient Greece, the choice of sexual partners for a male citizen was influenced less by gender than by social class. He could “penetrate” all those who were in lower social positions than him: younger men, women, and slaves. Thus, while there was no question of “penetration” between social equals, such as two older male citizens, sex between a male social elder and a subordinate “boy” (pederasty) was perfectly acceptable. And while we cannot know whether Ancient Greek men had more or less “homosexual” sex than modern men do, it is likely that they were tempted to try it more. On the other hand, the modern conception of sexuality tends to limit individuals by placing them either in “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or “bisexual” categories. Nowadays, the gender of one’s partners, rather than his or her social class, defines sexuality. Sexuality is, therefore, a social construction. While sexual desires are very real, the normative context in which they emerge can profoundly impact their character: Ancient Greek men were likely to have been more susceptible to engaging in homosexual acts than modern Western men.

Sigmund Freud has also developed a constructivist explanatory model, which meets Serano’s two criteria: accounting for the diversity of gender and sexuality, but also explaining why most people conform to gender and sexual norms. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he argued that children have a “polymorphously perverse” sexuality: they may develop a diffuse sexual attraction to a variety of body parts and they are likely express a range of different gender inclinations. Through a series of positive and negative reinforcements, parents, family members, schools and society indicate to the child the kinds of sexual and gender inclinations that are acceptable. Thus, they “mold” appropriately sexed and gendered children. Gender non-conformists, and those with non-heterosexual and fetishistic sexualities, are the result of the occasional “failure” of socialization to mold the straight and gender-normative person. This Freudian conception of sexual and gender diversity could function as a powerful challenge to Serano’s “Intrinsic Inclination Model.”

Social Exaggeration or Social Construction?

Finally, the social exaggeration model that Serano proposes can be highly problematic. Asserting that gender is socially exaggerated, rather than socially constructed, can contribute to the naturalization and justification of oppressive gender structures. For example, is the gender system in Saudi Arabia a social construction or a social exaggeration? In that country, women need to obtain permission from their guardian (father or husband) in order to work, they are not allowed to drive, they can only walk around in public if they are fully covered, and they are allowed to enter a bank only if their husbands accompany them. The advantage of viewing this system as a “social construction” is that it emphasizes its arbitrary nature and provides hope for the eventual overthrow of the system. Under the “social exaggeration” framework, it might be possible to argue that the gender system in Saudi Arabia simply represents an amplification of “natural” differences between men and women. Women are more emotional, softer, and weaker than men, and so it is only “natural” for men to establish a social system that subordinates and dominates them. Such reasoning is echoed in the Saudi legal code. It justifies banning women from serving as witnesses in most court cases as follows: “women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.”

Overall, Serano’s critiques of social constructivism and her biological, “Intrinsic Inclination Model” of gender, bring up the following questions: (1) To what extent do sex hormones (androgens and estrogens) control gendered characteristics and behaviors? Have the vast majority of other trans people experienced the changes in their psychology and physiology that Serano describes, as a result of taking testosterone or estrogen? (2) Can social constructivist models account for gender and sexual diversity? And can they explain why most people have rather typical genders and sexualities? Or does accounting for gender and sexuality require bringing in “intrinsic inclinations” and biology? (3) Will (re)opening the question of biological differences between men and women potentially provide a new set of justifications for discrimination on the basis of gender? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next and final post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano’s criticisms of the umbrella term, “transgendered,” and her analysis of the specific ways in which trans women are oppressed by cissexist society and by queer communities. It will also examine some of her creative revisions of feminist theory.

***For more information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For a different take on the issue of hormones by another biologist, see Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Strong social constructivist theories of gender and sexuality can also be found in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Serano’s work has also been addressed in the following Below the Belt posts by bookmonkey and askfannie: Sexist Feminists and Observations on TransSexuality.

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