Cartesian-Inspired Gender Confusions

In August, California’s governor signed a bill stipulating that: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

The federal government is also considering a law that goes by the acronym ENDA, which would make it illegal for any organization to “discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” – “gender identity” defined (if you’re wondering) as “the gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s sex at birth.”

In other words, if as a woman you would prefer to have a female nurse help you get dressed or bathe you in the hospital, and the hospital happens to have a male nurse who identifies as “female,” then it would be violating the law to refuse to assign that male nurse to you, regardless of your personal wishes.  His “rights” must be protected. Yours, as a “gender-identifying woman” and hospital patient, not so much.

There are of course good things about prohibiting certain forms of discrimination (and of course all forms of violence) against those who engage in what used to be called “cross-dressing” (and still is by many of the people who engage in it). As Thomas Aquinas suggests, trying to enforce laws against all behaviors we consider “immoral” would bring more disorder than justice.

Then again, on the matter of gender, we seem to have allowed ourselves to become a bit, well, confused.  And I can’t help but think that some of this confusion stems from the mind-body dualism that was infused into the culture with the philosophy of René Descartes. 

John Paul II saw more clearly than most how so many of the pathologies of modern culture could be traced ultimately to mistaken notions of the human person: man as nothing more than a materialist economic being (as in Marxism), or man as nothing more than a rational maximizer of self-interest (as for some contemporary laissez-faire capitalists), or man as a product of instinctual evolutionary forces (as for some proponents of Darwinian Theory).  None of these theories is totally false; the question is whether any of them provide a totally accurate and complete account of the human person. 

So too with our current confusions about “gender.”  Not only do they rely on an incomplete picture of the human person as essentially individualistic and radically autonomous from others. They’re also based on a Cartesian confusion about the fundamental unity between “body” and “spirit.”

The result is, one finds on the one side those who will claim that “gender” is reducible to body parts.  Male parts means you’re a boy.  Female parts means you’re a girl.  Just ask the delivery room nurse.

                                                                                                   [Photo by Ulric Collette]

The most common reply to this view is to point to the existence of hermaphrodites who have both male and female body parts.  What do we say about them?   And what about men or women who tragically lose their “distinctively” male or female body parts?  Do we say to a man who has had his testes blown off serving in Afghanistan that he is less of a man, or to a woman who has lost her breasts to a radical mastectomy that she is less of a woman?  That seems wrong in the same way it seems wrong to say that a soldier returning from war without his legs or arms is somehow less of a human being.  Our “humanness” is bodily, but also transcends the bodily in important ways as well. 

You could check the chromosomes, but is what it means to be a man or woman really reducible to this little marker?

Some respond to these challenges by insisting that the body has nothing whatsoever to do with gender — that gender is nothing more than a cultural construction. The only question for such people then is who gets to do the “constructing.”  Shouldn’t we allow individuals the freedom to “construct their own gender identities,” rather than having our current “culturally-constructed” gender roles imposed upon them?

There is something to be said for this view given that a certain number of our social expectations surrounding gender roles are socially constructed.  When Roman soldiers and Scotsmen wore short skirts, no one complained — certainly not the way my boss would if I showed up in a skirt.  (Full disclosure: Don’t worry.) But is everything about gender thus “constructed”

This is a topic on which I’ll have more to say in the future.  But for now I merely want to point out how “Cartesian” our current debate is: one side insisting that the body alone determines gender, the other insisting that gender is entirely a construction of the mind, with the body having no bearing on the matter whatsoever.  If I think I’m a man, I’m a man.  If I think I’m a woman, I’m a woman.  But is the relationship between the mind and the body really so incidental, so accidental, and so utterly without meaning as both sides seem to suppose? 

There are of course those in our society who treat patients scheduled for major surgery as though they were nothing but “meat machines,” a collection of material “parts,” and who ignore the spiritual and emotional dimensions of the whole human person.  Others respond to this problem by engaging in so-called “holistic” therapies that claim to put the emphasis on the “spiritual,” while often having little or no proper grounding in the crucial wisdom the empirical sciences reveal about the true nature of the human body.  

Doesn’t wisdom suggest that both sides are missing something?

It’s worth giving this question further thought.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.