In Favor of Gender Abolitionism
By the ancient law of Chesterton’s Fence, when one sees a fence in a field for no reason, one should by no account knock it down. People don’t build fences for no reason. If you don’t know why that fence is there, then you should figure out why, in case the answer is “it is a necessary part of preventing Cthulhu from rising from sunken R’lyeh and destroying us all.”
So let’s talk about why people built this here gender fence.
There is one obvious difference between human men and human women: namely, with a few exceptions, women are the ones who have babies and who breastfeed. The second obvious difference is that (again, with a few exceptions) men are stronger than women.
Gender-related human universals include:
- females do more direct childcare
- males dominate public/political realm
- males engage in more coalitional violence
- males more aggressive
- males more prone to lethal violence
- males more prone to theft
- males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime
- division of labor by sex
So let’s pretend we’re designing a society with two groups that are entirely identical, except that one of them is physically stronger and one of them has babies. Obviously, you’re going to have a division of labor by sex: you want women to perform work that can be easily done while pregnant or nursing a child, and men to do any work that requires physical strength. Women are going to do more childcare, because they’ve already nursed the children so they have more of a connection, and taking care of children is an obvious example of work one can do while pregnant or nursing. Men will be more aggressive, violent, and prone to theft, because they’re stronger and more likely to win. Men will travel farther, because they don’t have to carry children and with all the strength and concomitant violence they’re more able to take care of themselves in strange territory. The public/political realm is disproportionately likely to involve (a) violence, (b) going far away, or (c) things that are hard to do while pregnant or nursing, explaining male dominance. Besides, men are the violent and strong sex; even if women wanted power, the men would be more than capable of violently enforcing that women couldn’t get it.
If you have all those sex differences in how your society works, it affects how you’d socialize your children. After all, if you’re certain Jane is going to take care of children as an adult, you should probably teach her the necessary skills when she’s a child. Similarly, you’d also want to inculcate different values in men and women: John, who might grow up to be a soldier, needs to be taught the importance of bravery.
The thing is that, thanks to technology, very few of these considerations apply in our current society. A sexually active woman before birth control and low infant mortality rates could expect to be pregnant or nursing for most of her life; after birth control, she can expect to have one or two children. Thanks to bottlefeeding and breastmilk pumping, fathers can take a nearly-equal role in the early years of a child’s life. Physical strength is an advantage for fewer and fewer jobs. More and more jobs can be easily done by a working mother.
Therefore, there is less need to socialize men and women differently.
However, gender socialization also has fairly significant costs. Enforcing particular norms requires punishing people who deviate from them: hence, oppositional sexism. Even those who are not punished might end up in worse situations than they would have without gender roles: a man who’d be happier as a stay-at-home dad might end up working full-time because that’s what’s expected of them.
Some people have proposed that we end gender roles without ending gender. That is fairly plausible if you have a trans-exclusive viewpoint: you just let “gender” mean the same thing as “sex.” However, if you have a trans-inclusive viewpoint, then you have this mysterious Essence of Gender floating about that doesn’t indicate anything about a person. I predict that that is an unstable situation and what will happen is people not caring about gender at all.
It’s true that ending gender socialization would cause a decrease in neurodiversity: fewer people would have a strong sense that they are a particular gender. However, one can imagine gender clubs springing up like kink clubs do today: consenting adults may enact byzantine gender roles in private, without the costs associated with gender roles today. That preserves the “has gender” neurotype. And there might even be a net increase in neurodiversity. Right now, thanks to gender socialization, all the ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ traits are correlated, creating two primary neurotypes. If we ended gender socialization, they would become much much less correlated, allowing for a far wider array of possible neurotypes.
Against Gender Abolitionism
However, as I said, I’m only in favor of gender abolitionism on even-numbered days. On odd-numbered days, I have some other thoughts.
First, there may be more sex differences than strength and ability to bear children. My analysis above assumes that those sex differences are either too small to be usefully predictive or irrelevant to socialization. If it turns out men are slightly better than women at math, then you should probably ignore gender and just look at quantitative IQ. Women are significantly more capable of multiple orgasms than men, but that doesn’t affect anything interesting about socialization. However, if sex differences turn out to be tremendously important, as important as strength and childbearing, then my analysis is overturned.
(Note that the existence of very important sex differences does not imply the necessity of strengthening those sex differences through socialization. If men are more violent than women, then you should socialize men into androgyny– at least on that trait.)
One category of sex differences I find really interesting is sex differences in preferences about the other sex. If women as a whole are much more attracted to men with long hair, then you can improve women’s overall happiness by socializing men to want to have long hair. I find it pleasingly counterintuitive to think about a society in which men and women are basically the same but taught to be different because of their different desires about each other.
But the question that puzzles me most is:
Has anyone else noticed that social dysphoria is really weird?
People often have a preference about what category they’re put in. Maybe one category is treated better than another category; maybe one category more accurately reflects their experiences; maybe people in one category are expected to behave in a way that it’s easier for them to behave in. Social dysphoria is a preference about what category one is put in that is totally unrelated to any of those reasons. I agree that I have breasts, a vagina, a uterus, female-typical hormones, etc. and that many people consider “woman” to mean “a person who has breasts, a vagina, a uterus, female-typical hormones, etc.” Being nonbinary empirically involves all the nonsense involved with being a woman, with bonus tedious conversations about my gender and risk of being disowned. And people expect women to cry a lot, wear skirts, and watch Legally Blonde, and I am a total fan of all three of those things.
Nevertheless, I want people to put me in this imaginary “nonbinary” category I made up, rather than the “woman” category.
I have put a lot of effort into thinking about an analogous experience to social dysphoria, and the closest I can find is whether you identify as a “Michigander” or a “Californian” if you’ve lived in both places. Even that’s a bad analogy because it probably does relate to what “Michigander” means (a person with a connection to Michigan) and anyway if someone misstates you you are likely to shrug rather than to frantically google “Michigander passing tips assigned Californian at birth.”
Like, no wonder people keep thinking we transition out of a sexual fetish or a desire for male privilege! If I didn’t experience it I would be confused too.
Sometimes I explain social dysphoria as a product of the existence of constant gender socialization that sometimes misfires. But sometimes I wonder if what’s actually going on is that people have some sort of drive (of varying strength) to find their local gender role and execute it as best they can, regardless of what that gender role is.
There’s some evidence that cis people also experience that drive. Anecdotally, children often have amusingly flawed understandings of gender difference: a child whose mother is a doctor may conclude that boys can’t be doctors, while a child whose mother drinks coffee and whose father drinks tea may decide that girls like coffee and boys like tea. That certainly looks like children are trying to figure out what men and women are supposed to do in their own culture.
Children seem to acquire rigid gender stereotypes around age five and become more flexible around age seven. On one hand, of course, this might just be children noticing that a lot of our society is gendered; dividing children into two random groups is enough to create stereotypes. Children might just be looking for information about their own place in society, and noticing that gender is a pretty major division. On the other hand, as far as I know, there’s been no research showing that children acquire rigid race stereotypes around age five and become more flexible at seven. If gender rigidity is solely a product of children looking for firm roles in society, one would also expect to see race rigidity.
Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender alerted me to the research of primatologist Frances Burton. She argues that there is significant within-species variance among primates about gender roles: in some groups, males are involved parents, while in others, they are hands-off. Primates seem to “learn” gender roles from observing other primates within their local group. Since it is unlikely that primates were socialized into caring about gender by the patriarchal mass media, it seems that my hypothesized drive may be present in primates.
So if there is such a drive, what do we do?
Gender socialization still has fairly significant costs. However, leaving that drive unfulfilled seems likely to both make everybody unhappy and to not work. I would suggest keeping gender socialization to traits that are relatively unimportant and changeable by society. For instance, we might preserve women wearing skirts, liking pink, and listening to pop music, while eliminating the pressure on men not to cry and encouraging women to enjoy STEM fields.