Sex and Gender Not One

From Earl Jackson, Jr., Strategies of Deviance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). Theories of Representation and Difference. Teresa de Lauretis, General Editor


The Heterosexual Sex/Gender System

Monique Wittig has observed that there is only one recognized „gender,“ which is „the feminine, the ‚masculine‘ not being a gender. For the masculine is not the masculine but the general“ („Point of View“ 60). This reinforces the relegation of women to the physical and particular, and arrogates to men the exclusive use of „the abstract form“ through which „men have appropriated the universal for themselves“ (Wittig, „Mark“ 79-80). Conversely, as evidenced in Freud’s universal castration complex and Lacan’s transcendental phallic signifier, there is only one sex. This asymmetry is sedimented and perpetuated in relations best described in Wittig’s term the „heterosexual contract.“

Drawing from her interviews with heterosexually identified men and women, and from her own heterosexual history, Wendy Holloway argues that within the heterosexual system, individuals attain socially coherent identity and gendered subjectivity by occupying gender-differentiated discursive positions in relation to sexuality (Holloway 236-37). The relative stability of these identities thus achieved depends upon the degree to which the effective complementarity of those positions can repress or otherwise contain their contradictions. For example, two of the discourse types Holloway extrapolates from her interviews are the „male sex drive discourse“ and the „have/hold discourse.“ The „male sex drive discourse“ is the „commonsense“ belief that male sexual desire is a unidirectional biological aggression – or as one of her colleagues described it, an indiscriminate „need to fuck“ (ibid. 231). The „have/hold discourse“ displaces the question of female sexuality onto the woman’s primary investment in a „relationship with husband and children,“ at times construing „the sex act for women“ as merely a means to obtain her true goals of motherhood and „‚family life'“ (232-33).1

In preparing for the „have/hold“ position, adolescent girls define their femininity in terms of being „attractive to boys,“ which precludes any sense of an autonomous sexuality, since part of this „attractiveness“ often entails having sex with men in order to confirm and maintain a sense of that attractiveness (240-42). The heterosexual institutions that produce these subject po-sitions enforce sexual practices that reproduce the imbalance in the assignations of „sex“ and „gender“ itself. That is to say, a man as a man is unmarked in terms of gender, but that unacknowledged gendered position is the basis of his „natural“ position as a sexual subject (his sexual drives are without inflection and in any event beyond interrogation). Through sex he is simultaneously expressing his autonomous sexuality and denying his gender. Women, however, fulfill their gendered identity as feminine by responding to the man’s sexual desire. Heterosexuality for women, therefore, suppresses their sexuality and totalizes their identity as gender.

Holloway’s findings resonate with Catherine MacKinnon’s reduction of „femininity“ to a woman’s status as object of male desire: „Socially . . . femininity . . . means sexual attractiveness [to men], which means sexual availability on male terms. . . . Gender socialization is the process through which women come to identify themselves as sexual beings, as beings that exist for men“ (MacKinnon 530-31). Each of these texts, it seems to me, needs one more step to realize the radical implications of its observations. Holloway is consistently conscious of the heterosexual parameters of her models of gender production, yet she does not venture outside them, even after proving their insurmountable limitations.2

MacKinnon’s depiction of „femininity“ is perfectly accurate within a universe of discourse that defines all sexuality as heterosexuality, but it is precisely that heterosexual presumption which installs and perpetuates this definition of female identity in the first place. Both texts, therefore, inadvertently hypostatize heterosexuality as the ultimate determinate limit: Holloway by indicting heterosexuality but situating counterstrategies within its constraints, MacKinnon by analyzing heterosexuality but universalizing its sociopathology as endemic to sexuality itself.

1. Heterosexual ideology obscures the fact that the perfect execution of these two positions within a relationship would inevitably result in profound dissatisfaction for each party requiring constant acting against one’s own self-interests. For a man chiefly identified as subject of the „male sex drive discourse,“ being the object of the „have/hold discourse“ should prove intolerably constrictive, just as the woman’s identification with the latter subject position demands a repetitive self-sacrifice as object of the male partner’s discursively authorized aggressions.

2. See Teresa de Lauretis’s critique of this conclusion („Technology“ 16-17) and Sue-Ellen Case’s commentary on de Lauretis’s critique („Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic“ 55-56).