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Sexualités américaines

Claudine Raynaud

Sex and Gender in Women's Studies and Diverse Cultures1

Nicole-Claude Mathieu

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  • 1 This brief statement is based on two previous articles: Mathieu, 1991; English Leonard a (...)

1One often thinks of sex as that which is tied to the biological, in contrast to gender which is tied to the social. Nonetheless, a certain number of non-Western societies and of marginal phenomena within Western societies are interesting in so far as they show that neither the definitions of sex and gender nor the boundaries between sexes and between genders are so clear. The renewed interest of symbolic anthropology in "gender" was stimulated by a feminist impetus in the 1970's. And now more and more studies and gender politics are concerned with phenomena called the "third sex" or the "third gender" which certain authors are attempting to theorize on the basis of their points of similarity. These phenomena would escape the binary thinking opposing man and woman. For my part, I have investigated their points of divergence as regards the articulation between sex and gender, and also as regards the way in which they may conform to systems of bicategorical thinking and behaviour.

2In more general terms, my intention was: 1) to study (among ethnographic facts) diverse phenomena of conformity or transgression between conceptions of sex and conceptions of gender and to try to classify them; 2) to see if and how such a classification could give wider scope to a model that I had elaborated earlier for Western societies, drawing upon the different meanings underlying the notion of "woman" in feminist and lesbian movements. The method consisted in considering the commonalities between phenomena (i. e. representations and behaviours) of different levels:

  1. the more or less diffuse norm of global societies — focusing upon the way in which what those societies consider inappropriate is defined and "resolved";
  2. permanent or occasional institutionalized forms of so-called "deviance" — researching if they are a simple bending of the norm or, on the contrary, its quintessence;
  3. self-definition of groups or individuals considered as deviants or marginals — asking if that definition constitutes a solution to the sensed inappropriateness which conforms to, or subverts, the norms.

3The play of convergence and divergence (between normative and marginal, and between sex and gender) — at the same time as the play of asymmetry and symmetry between the sexes in certain of the studied phenomena — has thus been the focal point of analysis.

4An examination of Western as well as non-Western givens has led me to define a grid of three major conceptual patterns of the relationship between sex and gender. In each of these three modes of conceptualisation one can apprehend a "logic" articulating:

  1. a problematic of personal identity in relation to the sexed body and to sexuality, but also in relation to the status of the person in the social organization of "sex";
  2. a strategy and politics of relations between the sexes;
  3. a conception of the relationship between biological sex and social sex (or between sex and gender);
  4. a definition of the relationship between hetero-and homosexuality; in other words, between sex, gender and sexuality.

5The three types of logic can coexist within one society, particularly within modern Western societies. In many societies, one type of logic prevails for the definition of men, and another for women. Additionally, these three logics can be used to classify the different currents of minority, gay and lesbian movements, as well a s the different mainstream or non-mainstream trends of thought in the social and human sciences.

MODE I "Sexual" Identity. Principal reference: sex

6It is based upon an individualistic consciousness of the psychosocial experience of biological sex. It is a problematic of the fit between sex (conceived as determined or to be determined) and gender (which must follow the bi-partition of sex). The problem is to conform to Nature on the ground of a fixed opposition: maleness equals masculinity versus femaleness equals femininity. An homologic connection is established between sex and gender: gender translates sex. The main concept is "sex difference", the model: heterosexuality. This logic is "sexualist," naturalist (whatever the conception of nature may be). In the human sciences, we find here most part of psychoanalysis and psychology, as well as studies on the biological determinism of gender.

7Among the examples analyzed:

  • Homosexuality conceived as anti-natural, or natural (in political trends), or random (a typical sentence in the West would be: "I love a woman, but it could have been a man", or just: " I prefer women").
  • Western transsexuals who hate homosexuals and want, by changing their sex, to access a "true" heterosexuality.
  • Inuit (Eskimo) transvestism, where children are clothed and educated in the sex/gender of their eponym which can be different from their own sex; but nevertheless these children return to the gender corresponding to their sex of origin at puberty.
  • Hijras, transvestites in India, who are castrated because devoted to a female deity.

8The last three cases are what I call "transgressions of gender by sex" (adjustments of the convergence between sex and gender).

MODE II "Sexed" Identity. Principal reference: gender

9It is based upon a sexed group consciousness (for example, men's culture and women's culture). It is a problematic of the social complementarity of the sexes (be it conceived as harmonious: equality in difference, or antagonistic: dominance of men/power of women). The basic, and somehow flexible, opposition is: virility/"féminitude". The problem is either to reveal (e. g. "Woman must come into being", in cultural feminism) or to elaborate Nature. An analogous connection is established between sex and gender: Gender symbolizes sex, and conversely. The model is heterosociality, the logic, "pragmatic". In the humanities, studies are conducted on the cultural development of sexual difference (gender construction). Political movements are oriented towards the defence of minority rights as such. Among the women's movements, we have a sort of anatomization of politics.

10Among the examples analyzed:

  • Homosexuality as a way of life, and sexual sub-culture; in Western cultural lesbianism, a typical sentence has been: "the lesbian is the most womanly woman".
  • Male homosexuality as an expression of the male/female antagonism, and not contradictory with heterosexuality.
  • "Women's revolts" (as Igbo "women's war" in Africa, or of certain feminists) to improve gender inequalities. We also find here what I call "transgressions of sex by gender" (adjustments of the divergence between sex and gender):
  • Western transvestites who adopt the other gender but do not desire the other sex (the opposite of transsexuals in mode I).
  • American Indian "berdaches"; that is a mam could become a social woman and a woman a social man for life (contrary to transvestite Eskimo children in mode I).
  • African marriages between men and between women that confirm the gender hierarchy of the masculine gender upon the feminine gender (whatever the sex of the gender).

MODE III "Sex" identity (or sex-class identity). Principal reference: heterogeneity of sex and gender

11Based upon a sex-class consciousness. The hierarchical bi-partition of gender is conceived as separate from the biological "reality" of sex, but grounded in the oppression of the class of the sex "women" by the class of the sex "men." We find here studies on the social differentiation of the sexes, on social modifications of sex and sexuality. A socio-logical connection is established between sex and gender: gender constructs sex (as racism constructs race). This logic is materialist and anti-naturalist. We can refer here to such analyses as Colette Guillaumin's on the material appropriation of women by men which has an ideological counterface: naturalising the oppressed; as Paola Tabet's, who showed in many societies: 1) the control by men of productive means and of weapons; and 2) the exacerbation of reproductive capacities in women leading to "forced reproduction"; and as Christine Delphy's on gender (Leonard and Adkins, 1996).

12Among the examples analyzed:

  • Certain Western male homosexual and radical feminist and political lesbian trends as attempts to abolish gender. Here, homosexuality is conceived as a resistance to gender. We find what I call a politicization of anatomy, contrary to the anatomization of politics in mode II.
  • A feminist uprising in Africa by peasant women against their men (Kono society in 1971).

Gender or social sex?

13Whatever the conceptual forms of articulation between sex and gender across societies, there exists a functional asymmetry and hierarchy of gender on the basis of sex, even within their "transgressions." Let us give a few examples:

  1. Gender-crossing of the American Indian berdaches (mode II) and sexand gender-crossing of transvestite Inuit children (mode I) qualify them for shamanism (communication with spirits and ability to cure illness), but the status and range of skills of males who have become women are superior to those of females who have become men.
  2. As concerns the berdaches, it was often said that the male turned into social woman was better at feminine tasks than ordinary women, and rarely said that the female turned into social man was superior to men in masculine tasks.
  3. Among Mohave Indians, the female berdache had a harder time finding a wife than a male berdache finding a husband. Moreover, she could be mocked and threatened with rape.
  4. Among the Inuit, the first menstruation (i. e. reproduction) brings about the return to the sex/gender of origin for the girl; but for the boy the killing of the first animal (i. e. production) effects the same transformation.
  5. African marriages between men officially permitted sexual activity; marriages between women were made for the purpose of reproduction (with the aid of an outside male genitor). Moreover, in numerous societies, sexuality in itself (that is, non reproductive — be it hetero-or homo-sexual) is prohibited for women but not for men.

14In conclusion, I would prefer the term "social sex" (as I proposed in 1970) to that of "gender" because until now, sex (the definition given to it) functions in fact as a parameter in concrete social relations despite the variability of symbolic or discursive elaborations. The present exclusive use of the term "gender" tends to mask this material-ideological fact (especially in English speaking feminist and non-feminist research).

Cultural gender games versus social sex-oppression

15These symbolic or discursive elaborations are what I call "cultural gender games". Here I would like to say a few words on post-modern theories and gender politics.

16Postmodern and queer theorists may think that they have moved beyond the three modes of conceptualisation which I have described and which all refer in a way to bi-categorical thinking concerning sex and gender or to the analysis of a bicategorised reality. Many postmodernists are trying to go "beyond feminism".

17Postmodern feminists, for example, accuse previous feminism of having "essentialized" the category of woman by emphazising the social opposition between man and woman. (Let me say in passing that this is a misinterpretation of what essentialism means. Essentialism is a naturalism pertaining to mode I of thinking, where we can hardly find any feminism). Nowadays one speaks of "transcending", "blurring", "troubling" gender, of transgendering, of "proliferation of gender", etc. (something that my ethnographic examples of gender-crossing and even sex-crossing show not to be new!).

18I. — On the one hand, within (especially American) literary criticism, one speaks of discursive positions, gender discourse, a shifting subject, etc., but not of the concrete social relations between the sexes. And among those under the influence of psychoanalysis, one speaks of "displacing the phallus"..., but not of the social conditions that might abolish it.

19What is meant by the terms gender and sex in these so-called postmodern statements? Only the more cultural, representational, symbolic, psychological, I would say superficial aspects of gender, that is dress, demeanour, voluntary mental and sexual attitudes — hence the interest in travesty, transvestism, theater, "camp", performance, etc. Concerning the term sex, only one aspect is retained, that of sexuality — hence the interest in bisexuality and multiple forms of sexual behaviour, etc. All these aspects can be well exemplified by Madonna's performances.

20But what is forgotten is that the concept of sex encompasses much more than sexuality. It is a biological categorization which continues to function on the social, economic, material, and judicial levels. Because "gender" is not only symbolic. It is an economic and social system with a hierarchical bi-partition of functions, occupations and material statuses between two social groups, or to put it better, two social classes, that takes biological sex as its main criterion.

21II.— On the other hand, among the social sciences, like sociology and cultural anthropology, there is now a renewed and widespread trend to give priority to studies of the mental and ideological representations of gender according to diverse cultures or sub-cultures. And even when they describe concrete social relations between the sexes, they try again to dissolve the category of "women" by insisting upon the "differences between women" (according to societies, social classes, situations of racism, etc.). They refuse to consider the structural commonalities across all situations in the system of the material exploitation and psychic oppression of women by men. This is a backlash.

22All over the world, including our European and Western societies, and even if it is in a sometimes less harsh manner than in underdeveloped countries, there exists a social organization of sex that utilizes, but also constructs the anatomical bi-partition of sex, and transforms it into a class system to the detriment of the social class constituted by the female sex. A detriment in all domains: corporeality, consciousness, sexuality, reproduction, production, nutrition, health, selfdefence, etc. This is "social sex-oppression" as opposed to "gender cultural games".

23There can no doubt exist "man-woman" genders or "neither man nor woman" genders, but at the basis and at the bottom of the sex/gender hierarchy and politics, there are females — whose social sex is "Woman".



Mathieu, Nicole-Claude, 1989. "Identité sexuelle/sexuée/de sexe? Trois modes de conceptualisation du rapport entre sexe et genre", republished in 1991. L'Anatomie politique. Catégorisations et idéologies du sexe. Paris, Côté-femmes.

— "Sexual, Sexed and Sex-Class Identities: Three Ways of Conceptualising the Relationship between Sex and Gender". English trans. of Mathieu, 1989, above, as chap. 4 in Leonard, Diana and Lisa Adkins, eds, 1996. Sex in Question: French Materialist Feminism. London, Taylor & Francis.

— 1994. "Dérive du genre/stabilité des sexes". in Dion, Michel, ed., Madonna. Erotisme et pouvoir. Paris, Kimé.


1 This brief statement is based on two previous articles: Mathieu, 1991; English Leonard and Adkins, 1996; Mathieu in Dion, 1994.


Maître de conférences at l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and a member of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie sociale, Paris. She edited the anthology L'Arraisonnement des femmes. Essais en anthropologie des sexes (EHESS, 1985) and is the author of L'Anatomie politique. Catégorisations et idéologies du sexe (Côtéfemmes, 1991), partially published in German translation (Wiener Frauenverlag, 1995). Most of her articles have also appeared in English.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1997

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