Gender is not a binary—nor is it fluid. The case for “gender viscosity”

We should pay attention to how people actually define themselves

January 01, 2018
Photo: Richard B. Levine/SIPA USA/PA Images
Photo: Richard B. Levine/SIPA USA/PA Images

Not so long ago, received opinion was that men were from Mars, women from Venus, boys would be boys and girls would be girls. It’s a simple message that proved resistant to protests that gender is largely a social construct. In recent decades, gender essentialism even became intellectually respectable again, boosted by dubious interpretations of findings from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. There was to be no arguing with the scientific discovery of the “male brain.”

Now, it is increasingly accepted that binary distinctions are out and we are all not only on a spectrum, but free to wander up and down it as we please. This is even more evident with sexuality than it is with gender. It is now widely believed that you don’t have to choose between being heterosexual or homosexual. We’re all more complicated than that.

A 2015 YouGov survey showed that half of young people aged 16-24 did not identify as 100 per cent heterosexual. Only 27 per cent of the population insisted that “there is no middle ground—you are either heterosexual or you are not.

To borrow the terminology of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, it seems we live in an age of “liquid” gender and sexuality. Solid, stable identities have dissolved, replaced by ever-changing, fluid ones.

Look behind the headlines, however, and it’s clear that the break with absolutes has not led to an abandonment of the old binary categories. That same YouGov survey showed that 89 per cent of the population still identifies as heterosexual, even as 60 per cent of these support the idea that sexual orientation exists along a spectrum. Only 17 per cent have ever had a homosexual experience.

If gender and sexuality are so fluid, why don’t we see more actual flow? The answer is that they are not so much fluid as viscous. Both sexuality and gender are not absolutes set in stone but they are generally more sticky than liquid. They have soft edges but tend to keep their shape.

This means the old binary distinctions still work well enough most of the time. Even if no-one is 100 per cent heterosexual, most people are stable enough in their sexual orientation to be accurately described as such. Similarly, although many men see a feminine side in themselves, and women a masculine one, most people feel male or female without any ambiguity.

“There is a spectrum between red and orange—but most of the time it makes sense to talk of them as distinct colours”
We are right to see that there are spectrums of gender and sexuality rather than discrete categories. But the existence of a spectrum does not make the use of such categories redundant. There is a spectrum between red and orange, for example, but most of the time it makes perfect sense to talk of red and orange as two distinct colours.

In the same way, since at least when Alfred Kinsey developed his scale in the 1940s it has been recognised that there is a spectrum between heterosexuality and homosexuality, with bisexuality in the middle. Even though some, such as asexuals, can’t be easily located in this scale, the majority can clearly be identified as belonging to one of the three categories.

The same applies to gender. Those who would rather do away with categories of male and female are therefore rejecting one binary choice while unwittingly assuming another: that we must choose between thinking in terms of absolutes or spectrums, because if gender is on a spectrum it never makes sense to use binary distinctions at all.

This misses the fact that while there are infinite shades of grey, most of us are merely slightly off-white or not quite solid black.

Although this seems obvious to me, I can see why many would be reluctant to row back on the issue of gender fluidity. So much of what we think of as masculine and feminine is socially constructed that it is difficult to see what is left of gender once we strip culture away. The feeling that there must be something left could be just that—a feeling.

I wonder, however, whether the problem here is yet another false binary: that if something is not entirely “natural” it is merely a social construct and therefore not real at all. The truth is surely that human beings are biological and social creatures, and so who we are is always a result of the complex interactions between the two. “Male” and “female” are in that sense social constructs but ones built on biological distinctions of sex that are not arbitrary.

The fact that they are largely constructed does not make them any less real than families, communities, artistic or political movements. Rather than trying to do away with the categories of male and female, we should perhaps simply work at getting rid of the harmful prejudices that are attached to them, as well as tackling prejudice against those for whom these labels don’t fit. Social justice requires than we are each given the same rights, not that we are all seen as being no different from each other.

Thinking in terms of sex and gender viscosity allows us to accept the usefulness of common-sense distinctions without a misleading return to strict either/ors. One reason to follow this middle path between liquidity and solidity is that it acknowledges difference more honestly than the well-intentioned but misleading emphasis on the fact that we are all on a spectrum.

To be transgender is very different to being a man who is in touch with his feminine side. To be homosexual or bisexual is very different to finding the occasional member of your sex attractive. Claiming that we’re all the same because we are all on a spectrum can look like an inclusive way of building solidarity but it actually ignores the real differences that make the experiences of those who don’t fit the standard categories so difficult.