What Does It Mean To Assign Babies A Gender?

More Philosophical Difficulties With The Concept Of Gender

I’m posting this because I think it raises some interesting philosophical issues about what it even means to assign a child a gender at birth as opposed to merely assigning them a sex. I mean surely the article isn’t advocating that we stop observing which genitalia a child has at birth or even that we stop using those facts to make decisions1. So then what even does it consist of to assign a child a gender at birth?

It seems to have something to do with assuming they will fill a certain kind of societal role, i.e., will comply with the societal expectations we have for men or women. So, for example, merely having a doctor note the genitalia expressed by the child or passing that information on to others wouldn’t count but having a “It’s a boy” party, and thereby encouraging guests to give boy appropriate presents, would.

However, this raises interesting questions about whether it is meaningful to claim to have a certain gender (say one different than the usual one for your sex) but be non-conformist to the usual social stereotypes. Or, indeed, what it would even mean to claim a given gender identity in the absence of such gender stereotypes and whether one can coherently support the idea of someone being transgender (as opposed to simply gender non-conforming) while opposing the idea of expectations of gendered behavior, i.e., in order to support the idea of someone claiming a different gender must one in some sense assent to the idea that it is appropriate to have certain gender specific expectations of behavior?

Interestingly, if on accepts the analysis I offer below, on which gender identity is ultimately about a preference between various gendered societal roles it may be that the suggestion in this article is in a sense conceptually self-defeating since if society ever got close to the point of adopting this solution the very concept of gender as distinct from sex would dissolve.

Why we should stop giving babies a gender when they are born

Trans rights have burst into the spotlight in the past few years thanks to high-profile figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, with the former’s 2014 Time cover seen as a watershed moment for the movement. Now, the debate has turned to children and gender.

Before I go one I’d like to impress the importance of distinguishing theoretical considerations from more practical ones. For instance, one could believe that gender identity doesn’t really make sense because it rests on the inappropriate idea that we should have different expectations and social roles for men and women while believing that since, in the near term there is no practical means of eliminating those expectations/roles the best thing to do is to support people’s ability to change which set of expectations/roles apply to them (or make the effort of opting out). This isn’t quite the position I hold but I would like to stress that however the theoretical discussion turns out I firmly believe that, as a matter of simple human compassion and empathy, we should respect people’s requests to be referred to and treated as the gender they identify with. Regardless of whether the notion of gender is philosophically suspect or not it causes people real pain to be misgendered and doing so benefits no one. Even if you believe transgender identification is a mental disorder2 which doctors should try to cure rather than accede to refusing to gender colleagues as they request or let them use the restroom of their choice, like screaming at someone whose religious beliefs you disagree with, accomplishes nothing but making more people miserable.

Tentative Thoughts

These kind of questions push me towards the view that the only sense in which one can claim to have a certain gender (as distinct from sex) is insofar as one is announcing an intention to comply more with the social expectations of and fulfill the social role of your chosen gender and requesting others apply those expectations to you. Obviously, one need not intend to comply with all the stereotypes and expectations society has of your chosen gender or request they all be applied to you but by announcing a particular gender identity one is suggesting that in the main you intend to comply with or wish to be treated according to the stereotypes for your chosen gender more so than the other gender. Or in the case of a declaration of a non-binary gender identity that one doesn’t intend to fill either social role and doesn’t wish to be treated as if one belongs in either.

Ultimately, this means that there is a certain sense in which I don’t think it makes sense to ‘really’ be intrinsically male (female) despite being biologically female (male). There is no societally independent objective notion of gender relative to which one is really male or female. There are only certain societal roles, expectations and stereotypes about men and women and attitudes people have about how they wish to relate to those roles, expectations and stereotypes. Thus, its simply incoherent to claim that one’s gender is really female but that one doesn’t intend to play more of the stereotypical female role in social interactions nor does one want others to treat you more according to the usual social expectations we have of women. In other words, the only real concept of gender (as distinct from sex) which we have recourse to is the operational concept defined by way of society’s gendered expectations. As such, the common implicit assumption in discussions of gender identity that gender is some kind of intrinsic property of the individual must be rejected.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that talk of gender identity is misguided or can’t be made sense of. The operational definition (or a precisification thereof) I gave above works perfectly well and makes sense of what is going on when someone makes a male or female gender identity claim. However, it does suggest a certain skepticism about claims of gender identities other than male, female and none of the above (if gender is understood as a desire to be treated as if you belong/don’t belong to certain societal categories it doesn’t really make sense to call categories that society doesn’t have gender identities) and suggests a certain degree of skepticism regarding the implicit assumption of intrinsicness often made about gender. Accepting this view, however, does limit one’s ability to simultaneously claim to have a male/female gender identity while resisting the idea that gender specific social norms and stereotypes should be applied to you.

Gender As Personal Identification

I suspect a common response to my suggestion above is that I’m ignoring the very real sense in which some individuals strongly identify as a given gender. I fully accept the fact that some people simply feel male or female and are more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way. For those of us, like myself, who are cis by default such feelings certainly seem puzzling but I’m very much convinced they are real. But if I’m convinced these feelings are real why not just accept that the concept of gender merely refers to the sense of personal identification as male or female?

For one thing, the discussion of personal identification (driven by a noble desire to be inclusive) elides the fact that this can mean very different things to different people. I found the answers to this question I asked on quora about the experience of gender dysphoria quite illuminating. In particularly, it suggests that while some people’s experience of gender dysphoria is best described as a desire to be socially treated as a member of the other gender other individuals feelings were directly related to a feeling of discomfort with the genitalia they were born with. However, the focus on social role seems both more common and more faithful to the idea that gender is something distinct from biological sex (or even desired biological sex) and the operational definition above seems to capture the primary ways people want to use the term.

But why not go further and simply accept the claims of strong personal identification with a gender as defining the concept of gender? This, after all, seems to be what most transactivists seem to favor and would allow one to make sense of both the variety of non-binary gender identification and those individuals who want to both claim a given male/female gender identity while rejecting the operational aspects, i.e., the request to be treated according to gendered societal expectations or desire to fit into gendered roles.

Unfortunately, this approach has several serious flaws. First, it seems unable to cope with the phenomena of cis by default as such individuals lack any particular feeling of personal identification but we don’t want to deny they have the default cis gender. One could offer a disjunctive definition of gender but such unwieldy theoretical constructs should generally be avoided. Even more problematic is that such an approach fails to pick out a clear concept as what feelings count as identifying as a particular gender will vary from person to person. Of course, one might try and offer some kind of objective yardstick of male/female identifying against which various feelings can be measured but that just pushes the problem of choosing a conception of gender back a level. More broadly, it still leaves us in want of any sense in which we should regard a particular kind of feeling of identification to be a feeling of gender identification rather than some other kind of psycho-sexual identification.

Besides, as a purely practical matter it might be best if the transrights movement, at least temporarily, disassociated themselves from the idea that one can simply choose a word that describes how you feel about your `gender’ and call that a gender-identity. Even if you don’t share my conceptual concerns about calling such identifications, no matter how sincerely felt, gender identities it may be a necessary tactical move just as it was tactically necessary for gays to disassociate themselves from other non-traditional relationships like polyamory in the pursuit of gay rights.

Philosophical Work

Yes, I’m aware that there is some philosophical work on this subject. Unfortunately, while there are a few interesting papers in the analytic tradition far too many are nothing but ideologically driven continentalesque concept association. Of the papers that are worth reading the only one that I’ve found which directly tackles these hard conceptual issues is “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” but even this paper doesn’t, to my mind, give enough weight to how these terms are actually used and (perhaps motivated by understandable3 concerns about harmful effects on the trans rights movement or perhaps the authors simply don’t share these intuitions) avoids bullet biting when such bullets would conflict with transpositive ideology. However, It’s quite likely I’m unaware of some good work on this subject and would appreciate being pointed in the direction of other good analytic philosophy papers dealing with this subject.


  1. For example, parents who are perfectly balanced between choosing to relocate to an area with far more boys than girls or an area with far more girls than boys could presumably consider the fact that the balance of probabilities favors their child being attracted to individuals with the other kind of genitals when they grow up. 
  2. Personally, I think even phrasing it this way is to miss the point. Of course transgender individuals are suffering from a mental disorder as is anyone experiencing mental anguish. The only relevant question is whether things like gender reassignment surgery or claiming a different gender identity are effective means to reduce that suffering and I believe the evidence suggests they are. 
  3. Understandable and well-intentioned perhaps but still, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s my view that people can sense when certain conclusions or arguments are being avoided out of concern for their harmful impact and this works to push many readers towards a generalized skepticism of such work. At least in the context of an academic philosophy paper where there is little risk of being quoted out of context in the mainstream media, far better to defang the best arguments that can be raised against a position (or at least the public rhetoric associated with a position) and bite any required bullets while showing that need not force one to take an unsupportive or uncompassionate position regarding the vulnerable group in question. 

The Conceptual Penis Embarrassment

How an Idiotic Hoax Gave Skeptics A Bad Name and Reinforced A Dubious Discipline

Skeptic magazine recently published a piece describing a hoax article submitted to a gender studies journal (and published by one journal) in an attempt to debunk gender studies as deeply intellectually flawed. I’m not going to wade through the resulting controversy but suffice it to say that skeptic magazine didn’t put in sufficient due diligence to verify the results obtained really backed up the conclusions about both the field of gender studies, the status of academic publishing or pay to publish academic journal. I was embarrassed that a publication so associated with the skeptic community didn’t notice multiple major unjustified assumptions required to reach anything more interesting than a mild finger-wagging at the publisher and/or editor of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies for passing along (what they claim was an automated message sent mistakenly) suggesting republication in what Cogent Social Sciences along with their rejection. Worse, this failed attempt to discredit gender studies functions to further the narrative that it is a cogent academic discipline engaged in a search for the truth.

Indeed, if the hoaxers really believed that gender studies had gone off the railings they should have known no hoax would work. The discipline of gender studies must continue to hire and fire professors, determine which papers to publish in top journals and generally make determinations of status and it’s not plausible that this is all accomplished by the toss of a coin. Rather, you would expect to see the same kinds of cultural signifiers of status you see in subgroups like hipsters of goths. Certain kind of language, references etc.. etc.. would all collude to let members of that subculture recognize each other and notice an interlooper immediately. This is even more true regarding choice of ideology. Just because Christian beliefs about Jesus have almost no basis in fact and to the non-believer sound like “Blah Blah Jesus nice…miracle…salvation…soul blah” doesn’t mean an unfamiliar non-believer can just toss something together that sounds similar to them and pass as a Catholic theologian. When ideology because the driving force rather than fact people don’t shrug and say ‘close enough’ they start killing each other over minor differences (at least Tuvel only had her paper withdrawn).

In other words the hoax was surely doomed to fail because, in a large part, gender studies is deeply flawed in something like the way they fear. But simple reflection should have made it clear this would mean they would have far more means of detecting belonging/status than a discipline with clear objective standards like mathematics.

Discrediting Gender Studies and Feminist Philosophy Myself

Rather than following the hoax strategy there is a much easier way to debunk gender studies (and it’s relative feminist philosophy). Simply take a look at what they themselves write. For example, to quote from a paper I found by browsing Hypatia (a top tier journal) to get a taste of their articles (no, not cheery picked)

When it comes to relations among specific human beings, I understand sexual agency as the ability to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the sexual interaction in question. To have sexual agency is to be recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction; it is, in an Irigarayan sense, to be recognized as sexually distinct from the other, such that the interaction is marked by that difference.

If you read that quote without contrarian fussiness it feels like something meaningful was said but try and actually identify what it was and it fades away. For starters, what is the effect of qualifying this passage to `specific human beings’? Are there non-specific human beings? While mere unreasonable verboseness isn’t a mortal sin it is qualifiers like this which simultaneously create the sense that something deep and non-trivial is being said while leaving open the option to use ‘sexual agency’ in some completely different sense by setting up a metaphorical sense in which it is no longer about ‘relations among specific human beings.’ Coming to the definition of agency one finds oneself totally unenlightened. My grip on ‘sexual agency’ was stronger than my understanding of what is meant here by ‘contribute’, ‘meaningfully’ and ‘quality.’ For instance, does meaningfully operate as a synonym of significantly, indicate the phenomenological feeling of purpose/understanding or simply serve as a weasel word so that any time sexual agency needs to be denied one can simply say it isn’t meaningful?

Then we come to what appears to be a further elaboration of that definition but now we are told that it is “recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction.” But this seems to be a completely different criteria than the one it elaborates. If your partner has a fetish for having sex with robots genuinely tricking them into believing you were a robot using your mad acting skills in a way you both find super hot should be off the charts on the first definition yet as you are literally not recognized nor is the interaction intersubjective the second definition says something completely different. Maybe the author is sneakily reading this sense of intersubjective recognition into the idea of quality which does violence to the plain meaning but that just highlights the tension between the robot example and our intuitive sense of sexual agency.

Note that none of these definitions makes any sense of the claim that in cases of where a woman’s partner only seeks their ‘consent’ and wouldn’t take any other reaction at face value their sexual agency is limited. Notice how the inattentive reader who is inclined to assume a cogent argument is being made is pulled along. It certainly feels like there is something limiting about having only one ‘real’ choice but even that is the result of a sleight of hand. Presumably there is nothing less real (only less desirable) about choices that require one to have unpleasant interactions. If we understood agency to diminish as the unpleasantness of the outcomes increases then we would have to say a disabled individual whose conditions imposes massive untreatable pain has much less agency because the outcomes of all his choices are deeply painful. Moreover, yet again the definitions above seem to give all the wrong answers and the situation continues downhill when we are later told that in an act of sexual violence the victims agency is ‘negated’ (whatever the hell that means) because what happens and how is unaffected by her desires, interests, etc.. etc… But surely some rapists are motivated by an active desire for cruelty and deliberately perform whatever acts they intuit their victim would most dislike so are we to conclude that in those cases the victims agency isn’t ‘negated’? Moreover, if agency is understood as the ability to contribute meaningfully then a victim whose rapist would deeply enjoy her consent (and if necessary suppose it would change the nature of the experience for her) is overflowing with sexual agency despite, intuitively, the fact that her agency is being denied by overriding her choice.

Note that I’m not engaging in unrepresentative cheery picking. The entire content of the paper (as well as the other papers I pulled) has this form. Worse, the author is not only apparently willing to let her concerns about what is desirable function as reasons for believing or rejecting specific claims she actually sees this as a huge positive.

What I aim to emphasize is that the very act of categorization needs to be recognized as a social and world-constituting act, one that ought not to be understood as an objective practice that either succeeds (by correctly aligning an experience with a definition) or fails (by mismatching an experience with a definition). To identify a particular experience as an instantiation of sexual violence (or not) doesn’t just reflect the world as it is (or reflect it inaccurately); it creates new possibilities, and forecloses others.

This passage pushes the paper into the realm of the openly absurd. There is no sense in which all the fancy words in the article are actually an attempt to describe the world. Of course, those inclined to defend postmodernism will offer long erudite sounding defenses of this sort of thing but as the above exploration showed the kind of explanations they will provide shouldn’t be assumed to have any factual content just because they sound smart. They will also surely explain that I simply don’t understand what is being said here and it is only in relation to (big name drops) that I can appreciate this but at some point when a subject simply continues not to make sense as you dig down layer after layer you’ve simply got to shrug and say you don’t believe there is anything there.