The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. This is because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. The politics of sex and gender are therefore inseparable by social design. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism. SOCIAL DETERMINISM
I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image itself is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:
As a teaching tool in their struggle to change the medical practice of infant genital surgery, members of the Intersexual Rights Movement have designed a ‘‘phall-o-meter’’ (shown in ﬁgure 3.4), a small ruler that depicts the permissible ranges of phallus size for males and females at birth. It provides a graphic summary of the reasoning behind the decision-making process for assigning gender.
Again, in Fausto-Sterling’s words:
Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl, then, employs social deﬁnitions of the essential components of gender. Such deﬁnitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.
Medical diagnosis of “male” or “female” determines the individual’s social role as “boy” or “girl.” Culture imposes a complex set of values on our bodies, behaviors, moods, and relationships through the process of sex-based (aka “gender”) role socialization. This sex-based division of social labor is externally—not internally— enforced and dictates a very particular set of things about the form of our relationships to others. The picture of the bib below provides an example of the social script for how adult males are expected to relate to their female children, even before the child can feed herself without making a mess.
In some parts of the world, fetuses are killed because the sex of the potential child is female. In others, gender (sex?) reveal parties are a growing practice. Everywhere, compulsory heterosexuality is the dominant paradigm of cross-gender relations. The process of sex-based social role differentiation begins well before individual humans develop conscious memory of their own. As a lived experience, gender socialization seems to have no beginning and no end.
In this light, it may be easier to understand why many people passionately insist that “gender” is programmed from within despite what is so obvious about sex-based social role assignments at birth. The psychological experience of sex-based role socialization actually supports a personal belief in biological essentialism: there is a complete lack of control, as Fausto Sterling puts it, in “the decision-making process for assigning gender.” There is no consultation with the individual patient; there is no informed consent. Opting-out simply is not possible. At least, not for a few years, during which time the child is handled by others according to sex-based social role that “matches” his/her genitals.
This is how my feminist theory analyzes the mechanics of “gender,” which includes both the ideological and material axes of females’ oppression. The biological reality of intersex conditions perfectly illustrates, and in no way interrupts, this analysis: individuals with disorders of sexual development are also shoe-horned into the social caste system of gender. It is a function of social determinism. Sex-based gender roles are not a natural or healthy arrangement for any human. We therefore expect gender role rebellion to occur in all human subgroups without exception. And indeed, it does.
BIOLOGICAL ESSENTIALISM and CIS PRIVILEGE
Lack of control over—and corresponding lack of insight into—the social psychology of sex-based typecasting can help explain why so many people are slow to resist the characterization of their coerced placement in the gender binary as endowing them with “cis privilege” over trans-identifying people.
The idea that non-trans people can be accurately described as “cisgender” assumes that failure to reject the sex-based social role one is coercively assigned at birth—rejecting it by actively identifying as “trans,” that is—is an accurate reflection of “cis” people’s Authentic Self. Otherwise, hey, why would “cis” people “identify with” the sex-based social role they were assigned at birth? Well, failure to reject something is not equivalent to positively embracing it. This is basic logic.
Fighting oppression according to a cis/trans axis of gender, rather than by male/female social-role-assignment, requires subscription to the belief that humans have something like an internally calibrated “gender identity compass.” This “gender identity compass” apparently directs us toward one of two mutually exclusive (yet culturally bound) sex-based social roles.
“Cis privilege” theory is predicated on the assumption that if the orientation of each individual’s “gender compass” matches their sex-based gender role assignment at birth, they are privileged by gender. If it doesn’t, they are oppressed by gender. Using the word “cis” to describe non-trans people’s experiences of gender is a concession to this essentialist position about the internal source of humans’ “gender identity.”
By definition, then, to be “cisgender” is an unproblematic state of experiencing gender because it means your sex-based social role assignment at birth is in harmony with your True Self. To describe someone as a “ciswoman” is to believe that girl-socialized-females should (and do) experience their sex-based socialization as a series of neutral or maybe even pleasant interactions with the world. Yet the lived experiences of women and the statistics tell a staggeringly different story.
Male sexual violence against women; the persistent pay gap between males and females; and lack of female representation in democratically elected governments the world over serve as undeniable evidence that the sex-role socialization of females operates as a handicap to females’ full humanity, not as a benefit or a privilege. Many women find the notion of “cis privilege” offensive for exactly this reason. It neutralizes unequal power dynamics between males and females and then proceeds to analyze gender-based oppression according to each individual’s self-reported comfort with the social role s/he was assigned at birth. Structural oppression doesn’t work that way; it isn’t subjective and you can’t “free yourself” by changing your internal identity.
RESIGNATION and PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE
Because “cis” is an essentialist framing of gender, it does not contemplate the possibility that long, long ago—after reasonable alternatives failed to present—an individual may have resigned herself to the sex-based social role she was assigned at birth. I believe this happens much more often than we collectively acknowledge. At some point in early childhood —knowing that the underlying social justification for one’s role as a “girl” or a “boy,” the body, is immutable—many of us resigned ourselves to being a “girl” or a “boy” and to making the best of it within the parameters allowed by our parents and peers. This does not constitute a positive embrace of assigned gender role, rather it is the hesitant acceptance of something undesirable but seemingly inevitable.
The social psychology concept of pluralistic ignorance can help us understand how reluctant assimilation to one’s assigned sex-based social role is made invisible, like the madness of crowds. And in this vacuum, the concept of “cis privilege” flourishes. Briefly,
Pluralistic ignorance posits that in certain circumstances most people will falsely believe that others conform to certain ideas or standards, and will uphold them, too, while privately disagreeing with them. Since there is a fear of disagreeing with what is believed to be the norm, situations or behaviors continue that few people actually endorse. This is a social psychology concept that was first brought to attention in the 1930s by Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz. It can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.
The increasingly popular concept of “cis privilege” seems to fit the description of “pluralistic ignorance” perfectly. As individuals, we falsely assume or believe that everyone else has seamlessly assimilated to their assigned sex-based gender role, while we secretly struggle with our own. If we dare to express distaste for our role, we are led to believe that our inability or unwillingness to adapt is a personal failing and that resistance is futile. Because normal people, “cis” people, just do it. They don’t feel angst or discomfort, do they?? Most of us internalize these feelings of abnormality and reluctantly conform to prevailing gender norms without realizing how many of our peers feel similarly ill-at-ease with this social system.
As an extreme example that clearly illustrates the power of social coercion, females are taught to disregard even the physical pain that is caused by gender-specific garments such as high heels and tight clothing because wearing them can increase the perception of a woman’s social value (see “empowerment” feminism). Beauty is painful, they tell us, but it’s a natural and expected part of womanhood. In order to prove that we are normal and socially acceptable, those who want to be “Good Women” comply without complaint. And regularly. Even when it physically hurts. This is the opposite of free association.
On the other hand, the unexpected cultural embrace of, for example, Marlo Thomas’s “Free to Be…You and Me” indicates that many people are unhappy with the current arrangement and that lurking just beneath the surface of sex-based social role normativity is a powerful undercurrent of resistance. The same might be argued for the trendiness of “trans” identities among young people. But Thomas and friends took a very different approach to the problem of pluralistic ignorance and sex-based social roles. Instead of internalizing and glorifying “gender” as an essential part of the Self, they challenged these social constructs as harmful.
[Pluralistic ignorance] can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.
By insisting that gender is programmed from within, the cis/trans framing of “gender” does just that. It prevents us from questioning the bigger picture. It tells us that individuals who reject their assigned social role are outliers in an otherwise acceptable social structure that, supposedly, reflects “cis” people’s natural orientation towards gender roles.
If we assume that assimilation (or resignation) to assigned sex-based social role is the normal, default human position; then yes, trans-identified people are unique. This is also the motivating hypothesis behind the scientific search for a biological cause or source of “transsexualism.” It is a comforting framework for a small minority of people who fancy themselves exceptional humans. But for the rest of us, this way of talking about and understanding “gender” is a barrier to both personal growth and social change.
To forget, or even merely to minimize, the power of sex-based social role determinism suggests that the starkly unequal relations between “men” and “women” are, in some way, inevitable. Where we assume that being “cisgender” and heterosexual is the natural human order— wherein “ciswomen” embrace their social role as subservient to “cismen,” who control the lion’s share of institutional power and access to resources[ii]—we are, again, being led to believe that resistance is futile. This is a conservative, not a progressive, assessment of social relations and the politics of oppression.
In the current political climate any critique of “gender identity” or trans ideology, even abstractly, is akin to a thought crime. I will not repeat the things I have been personally accused of for daring to express and defend my anti-essentialist view of “gender,” but assure you, they are outrageous and malicious. Critical political discussion of gender is routinely silenced and no-platformed by all mainstream media outlets; “cis” people are told that they have no right to speak about sex or gender because they are “privileged” by it. This article itself will be controversial.
I reject all essentialist framings of gender. The consequence of sex-based social role differentiation is, and always has been, the oppression of women. This is not a function of “ciswomen’s” innermost desires and “identities.” Women’s oppression is caused by sex-role ideology combined with social role determinism. So yes, we are going to keep resisting the pluralistic ignorance of a “cis” theory of “gender” that naturalizes traditional sex-roles. It is harmful to women and it is anti-feminist.
“As long as stereotypical femininity remains the controlling standard of appropriate behavior for women (trans or not), we will continue to struggle not only with setting boundaries against others’ predatory and/or exploitative intentions, but we are also doomed to walk uphill against the professional double standard recognized in the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins:
An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not.
The behavioral characteristics of femininity are economically and intellectually devalued as compared to the traits of masculinity. Power is gendered.”