Sociologists’ Failure to Address Gender

Something that has irked me for a while is the apparent failure of sociologists to make inroads dispersing the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’

As an alumnus (no, not alumni–that’s plural, and I pretty sure ‘alumn’ isn’t a word) of the community college of Indiana, I was surveyed in late 2015 by Gallup, an institution presumably led by college graduates–or is that too far an assumption? Among the age-old, unreflective questions [such as what is your age and race–but don’t conflate your ethnicity (which for some reason is only ever Hispanic or non-Hispanic ((because this is the only ethnicity and surely not a race?))] lay an apparent failure to distinguish between sex and gender. What a surprise.

I place the responsibility to make this fundamental clarification upon sociologists, because, well, isn’t this their turf? I mean, are philosophers now charged to both think and act?

Doubtless some of you out there have been privy to at least one recent discussion concerning gender. What with some college campuses creating gender-neutral restrooms, to the Indiana legislature circling back to dig its heels in against affording civic protections for ‘the’ LGBT community [‘the (insert adjective here) community’ being a subject of a later post] , you’d think one of the easiest things to do is begin with a little clarification between the difference between sex and gender–and then actually doing something about it.

It doesn’t take a study committee to clarify sex and gender and then update use of those terms accordingly.

I’ve taken one class on intro to sociology, and another of gender and American society. From that I have taken away the following distinction: sex is what one is born with; gender is the roles assigned to those sexes. [Let us table for now the fringe elements here, of such matters as micropenises, extra chromosomes, and non-American gender roles (gotta keep blogs short right?)].

Essentially this clarifies the distinction between male and female, and masculinity and femininity.

With this simple clarification we see such terms such as ‘gender-neutral restrooms’ are terminological failures. Strictly speaking it should be ‘sex-neutral’ restrooms. Restrooms aren’t distinguished by particular behaviors by the sexes; they are distinguished simply by differing sex.

Of course the word sex alone is enough to water down the discussion when the more immature connotations surface. Who the hell made reproduction/physical intimacy synonymous with biological sex anyhow? Did the word sex tickle our former generation’s immaturity so deeply as children that they ironed the proper use of the term out of existence? Are we millennials too perpetuating this conceptual foible?

Then we get to other bastardizations of conceptualization, such as ‘biological gender.’ This is an absolute failure of defining terms. Indeed the term is explicitly contradictory: Biology is what one is born with (sex); gender is the role(s) one is assigned based on sex. The former is physiological–the latter is cultural. No need to sign up for a gender and society class–you can keep the thousand dollars.

As an aside, I’ve come across the notion that science is ‘philosophy in action,’ and that seems pretty apt. And whereas, to my mind, sociology and psychology in particular are more philosophic than the hard sciences, then to some extent they too are philosophic. But what is the point of being a sociologist if nothing changes as a result? Why not simply fold back in with your actionless peers and call yourself a philosopher?

Which is why I place most the blame on sociologists. Sociologists are typically excellent at theorizing–but what separates them from this mere philosophic activity is that their work is aimed at the ‘real world,’ typically in addressing widespread social issues. Can’t at least some of the work begin by promoting the simple distinction between sex and gender? How long must we wait until the host of employment applications and check boxes on surveys be updated to reflect this basic distinction? Has no hopeful PhD candidate aimed at the simple task of updating employer application and census forms? What hope is there to address transgender and public restroom issues if we can’t understand and use terms correctly? Does any of this require a PhD in sociology?

Perhaps I’ve been too hard on sociologists. Perhaps they have tried. However, I’m not aware of efforts to promulgate this fundamental distinction; therefore I’ve laid the charge at the feet of sociologists, the group that most comes to mind when it comes to issues of gender, race, and ethnicity. I’ve already been taught these distinctions, as doubtless thousands others have, yet there appears to be widespread lag in even something so seemingly simple.

What am I missing; where have I erred? Is here any truth; are these just words?


Simply because restrooms aren’t too often the subject of philosophic inquiry, if you are interested in reading my first blog post ever, check out what I then called Philosophy of the Men’s Restroom.