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The Logic of Sex: Heteronormativity, Gender, and the Law of the Excluded Middle

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Philosophy, Politics, The End of Heterosexuality? on March 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The first in our on-going series of articles on “The End of Heterosexuality?”


by Joe Weinberg

It has long been thought that there are two and only two genders: male and female. While some (such as Butler in Gender Trouble) have argued that there is actually only one gender (Male being the norm, and female, as not-male, being the only gender) and used as a basis for justifying patriarchal mistreatment,[1]  it seems more accurate to say that there are more than ‘just’ two genders. That heteronormative binary is not only inaccurate, but actively hurtful to large groups of people, those who fall ‘between’ or ‘outside’ that binary.

Once we accept that there is more to the world of gender than male and female, certain questions arise. Do we look at gender as a spectrum? How many genders are there? And where does sex come into the picture? The simple answers are “No,” “I don’t know,” and “Everywhere.” For more nuanced and complex answers, we have to take a step back and define a few terms.

First, heteronormative binary. The heteronormative binary is a very fancy way of saying “two genders.” Basically, it’s referring to the idea that there are only two genders (male and female) and that being one means NOT being the other. Similarly, it refers to the idea that sexuality is pure, either homo or hetero. I don’t like binaries; there is more to being a woman than NOT being a man, and vice versa. I also think it is possible to have aspects of both without being ‘in transition’ from one to the other. And, it’s possible to be neither one, and be perfectly satisfied with that. Similarly, even if we throw in bisexuality to the homo/hetero split, I STILL think there’s more. That’s a matter of simple logic.

Speaking of logic, there are two other principles I need to get out of the way: The Law of the Excluded Middle (LotEM) and the Sorites paradox. The LotEM basically just says that there are other more than two options, and that sometimes the decision that seems to be between two things is actually between more than two things. For some nicely inflammatory examples, abortion isn’t a matter of Pro Choice or Pro Life; someone can be opposed to abortion in all cases EXCEPT incest or rape, or can be in favor of the right to choose while choosing for themselves not to have an abortion. There’s more than just black and white. The LotEM basically reminds us that there are shades of gray.

Sorites is a bit more complex. That’s the question of when something becomes a pile. Sorites himself used millet seeds, but I prefer the image going bald. If I lose one hair, I’m not bald. If I lose all my hair, I’m bald. But one hair isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other, right? But at the same time, if I take my hair away one at a time, sooner or later I cross into the bald category. That means that there is a point where one hair DOES make a difference. So a single hair both does and doesn’t matter. That’s why it’s a paradox.

Okay. Back to the spectrum of gender. If we see gender as a spectrum with male on one side and female on the other, we run into a Sorites paradox. Look:

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.16.34 AM

Somewhere along that line, a person goes from being female to being male. At some point, a single quality changes the gender. While there is a fluid space in between, a space where someone could be ‘partly male’ or ‘mostly female,’ even then their gender identity is directly linked to that same binary. Riki Wilchins writes that “when you look closer, every spectrum turns out to be anchored by the same familiar two poles – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. The rest of us are just strung out between them, like damp clothes drying on the line. The spectrum of gender turns out to be a spectrum of heterosexual norms, only slightly less oppressive but not less binary than its predecessors” (30-31). A spectrum really just is a binary. It’s just a binary that looks at the places between. But not as places in themselves so much as portions of one or the other side of the binary. So we have that paradox. Read the rest of this entry »