How to Have (a) Sex: The Appropriation of Cultural Practices to Fit Postmodernism

Two lions: one female, one male.

The claim that Indigenous cultures didn’t understand the difference between male and female is pure sleight of hand on the part of postmodern “thinkers.”

“Colonialism is not satisfied with snaring the people in its net or of draining the colonized brain of any form or substance. With a kind perverted logic, it turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it. This effort to demean history prior to colonization today takes on a dialectical significance.”

Frantz Fanon, “On National Culture,” The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

“Women are a colonized people. Our history, values, and cross-cultural culture have been taken from us—a gynocidal attempt manifest most arrestingly in the patriarchy’s seizure of our basic and precious ‘land’: our bodies.”

Robin Morgan, “On Women as a Colonized People” (1974), Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist (1978)

“Democracy by coercion is hardly democracy, in any language, and to some Indians recognizing that fact, the threat of extinction is preferable to the ignominy of enslavement in their own land.”

Paula Gunn Allen, “When Women Throw Down Bundles: Strong Women Make Strong Nations,” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986)

A narrative exists, as mainly propagated by the male-dominated, white-dominated, Eurocentric field of “gender studies,” in which no group of brown people knew how to tell the difference between males and females, until white people taught them how to have (a) sex. And so, as the story seems to go, before settler colonialism and the Enlightenment, nobody, especially pre-colonial Indigenous populations, knew how males and females differed on the basis of sex.

Apparently, nobody knew what sex was or how it worked, anywhere, in Africa or Asia or anywhere else, until white people in Europe came up with sex. This narrative derives from the fatal flaw in thinking that biological sex traits associated with “male” and “female” are themselves the same as gender roles associated with “masculine” and “feminine.” It seems to me that too many people think that “gender binary” (i.e., masculine and feminine) is the same as human sexual dimorphism (i.e., male and female), a presumed sameness, which, in fact, is rooted in the idea that “gender” means “sex” or vice versa. Such a mistake denotes their refusal to see the social and cultural (in this case, “gender”) as being related to, but distinct from, the biological and physiological (in this case, sex). Many of these discussions, if not almost all of them, prove deeply unproductive, I think, because people on “the right” use the term “gender” to mean “sex,” and, in a reversal, people on “the left” use the term “sex” to mean “gender.” And, then, unsurprisingly, invested in being divided by their ideologies, “both” “sides” deny the need to clarify these terms and differentiate between them.

Exemplary of this tendency, a piece recently appeared in The Independent in which “nonbinary” writer, Amrou Al-Kadhi, author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen, wrote about biological sex being itself a product of colonialism and racism. Therefore, according to Al-Kadhi and others, Eurocentrism and white supremacy, together, have taught us all, especially all colonized populations of people everywhere around the world, how to have (a) sex. So, Al-Kadhi writes: 

“The British Age of Enlightenment prized itself on scientific rationality, including with it strict taxonomies of racial and sex categorisation – i.e. your biology meant you were strictly male or female, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race superiority (with whites at the top). And so, Britain’s cannibalisation of the rest of the globe simultaneously erased rich non-Western trans histories.”

It is significant to note that one being male does not mean that one must be “masculine,” as being female does not mean that one must be “feminine.” In the above passage, Al-Kadhi makes the mistake of thinking that male and female (which are about sex traits) are interchangeable with “masculine” and “feminine” (which are about gender roles). So, the essay involves the mistake that male means “masculine” and female means “feminine.” In fact, not once does either the term “masculine” or “feminine” appear in the text for clarification that the two differ from both maleness and femaleness. As such, human sexual dimorphism, observed at the biological and physiological level, essential to human reproduction, has been argued as both “colonialist” and “racist.” We see no differentiation made whatsoever between human sexual dimorphism (i.e., male and female as the two reproductive sexes) and the gender binary (i.e., masculine and feminine imposed on males and females). Sex itself, then, becomes an expression of colonialism and racism, or so Al-Kadhi argues. Once a relatively dismissed ideology, sex denialism recently has emerged as a dominant force on “the left,” so, here, we will be considering how people have (a) sex.

First, we know that sex preceded both settler colonialism and the Enlightenment, as well as the transatlantic slave trade, which seems self-evident, since all human societies have reproduced through human sexual dimorphism. While males have produced sperm, females have produced ova, with the union of the two gametes resulting in the zygote, which has been how babies have been made since the beginning of the human species. Not all males must produce fertile sperm to be male, as not all females must produce fertile ova to be female, as does happen for some people, but only males produce viable sperm and only females produce viable ova. Although not all females can become pregnant or do become pregnant, only females become pregnant.

My essay, “In Defense of Sex as a Category of Significance,” discusses the above points in section four: “Enlightenment or Bust!: Or, Postmodern Deconstructive Philosophical Discourses on How Human Beings Probably Did Not Know How Sex Worked Before Both the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment has been dated between 1685 and 1815, coincidentally long after the human species began being either male or female and, as such, making babies around the world.

Moving along, if we see the social meaning of sex in relation to sexism and the social relations between the sexes within this context, which can, in fact, be sexual, we would notice that sexism, as a social system, has a history that goes back thousands of years. In Gerda Lerner’s 1986 book, The Creation of Patriarchy, she traces the system of sexism, that is, male dominance and female subordination, back to ancient Mesopotamia. The beginning of patriarchy, its structuring of relations between men and women, was, according to Lerner, “a process developing over a period of nearly 2,500 years, from approximately 3,100 to 600 B.C. It occurred, even within the Ancient Near East, at a different pace and at different times in several distinct societies.” So, yes, by thousands of years, sexism historically preceded and informed settler colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, the transatlantic slave trade, and chattel slavery.

Indeed, Lerner’s research shows us that, in particular, man’s control over woman’s sexual and reproductive capacity, written in all his codes, his creeds, and his customs, preceded the development of private property. As she writes, the commodification of woman on the basis of sex—her being privatized for one man’s possession, exchanged from one man to another in marriage, or prostituted among many men—is itself critical to the origin of private property. By the use of force, mankind has seized the means of reproduction from womankind, the sex who, everywhere, across our human species, has performed the very first labor that has preceded all other human labor.

Patriarchy has manifested differently across societies and cultures, looking different, but its structure has been the same in which mankind has dominated womankind distinctly on the basis of sex. Varying systems of belief from one patriarchy to another patriarchy, situated on men possessing women, have sustained male dominance and female subordination as a hierarchy observed around the world. On the basis of sex, sexism, being how people observed male at birth have oppressed people observed female at birth, holds these historical beginnings, meaning that it can have a historical ending.

Before we return to Al-Kadhi’s essay, let us consider what Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a radical feminist activist from the Dominican Republic, wrote in 2017: 

“To argue that sex is not real and that gender is innate or chosen, instead of socially imposed, demonstrates both ignorance to the world around you as well as a position of privilege. In this way, we see that gender identity ideology literally is ‘white feminism’: a (so-called) feminism that ignores the material realities of the marginalized, centers the feelings and interests of the most privileged, and presents itself as universal. It is a ‘feminism’ invented by academics in Western countries that does little to address the struggles of those outside these circles. […] But women and girls oppressed for being born female don’t have the privilege of opting out of womanhood, and appropriating the male privilege of straight men. Patriarchy doesn’t care if women don’t like or relate to their subordinate role. Many people who consider themselves progressive believe that by swearing allegiance to gender identity ideology, they demonstrate ‘intersectionality.’ But if they truly cared about the intersections of sex, race, and class, they would center women and girls marginalized by those axes of oppression. Instead, progressives and queer activists are centering men who believe oppression is something you can opt in and out of. Surely, most women around the world would take offense at the notion the violence and injustice they suffer is a choice… Or that it has anything to do with eyeliner.”

Women as a sex have not “self-identified” into their own oppression on the basis of sex. “Gender identity” obscures this fact by positing that whether or not one holds “gender privilege” is purely a matter of personal choice with regard to one’s “gender identity.” However, people observed male at birth have held power and privilege over people observed female at birth explicitly on the basis of sex. Here, we see the problem with “gender identity” as an excessively problematic extension of “identity politics” that has come to undermine any critical thinking about the sexist oppression of women on the basis of sex.

It is no surprise, then, that “gender identity” ideology, which prioritizes individual fantasy over social reality, in the same way as the ideology of “sex work is work,” has dominated Western academia and spread elsewhere, largely at the expense of women’s rights as a sex. Where we see “TERF” yelled to silence women, we often also see “SWERF,” not coincidentally, because both “transgenderism” and prostitution are built on the underlying premise of men possessing women. Such ideologies prioritize male demand and male desire over female humanity. And so, impacting us differently on the basis of sex, “gender” is a caste system that informs our individual senses of self in relation to society; being a hierarchy imposed on the basis of sex, “gender” is not simply an “identity” into which we, whether male or female, “self-identify” ourselves. Seeing “gender” exclusively as an “identity,” rather than a hierarchy, undermines any critical understanding of how it works in relation to women’s oppression on the basis of sex. It also tends to neglect how gendered socialization differentially impacts the cognitive development of males versus females in how they relate to members of the same sex versus members of the opposite sex.

Returning to Al-Kadhi’s essay, we see a fundamental misreading of third-gender categories cross-culturally, which are all stamped, wrongly, with the labelling of being so-called “well-established transgender communities.” Ironically, for despite all Al-Kadhi’s talk of rejecting Westernized reinterpretations of history, this sleight of hand projects a modern, Westernized understanding of the relation between sex and “gender” (specifically “gender identity”) onto other groups of people. It should, therefore, be most unsurprising that The Independent published this essay in a failed attempt to weaponize the history of colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy against women’s rights and in defense of male supremacy.

The key problem with categorizing Hijras and Two-Spirit Indigenous people as “transgender” is that these are third-gender categories. More specifically, in the case of Hijras, in India, these people have all exclusively been people observed male at birth, also exclusively homosexual, who, by virtue of not being either masculine or heterosexual, appear segregated into a separate gender category from both “masculine” males and “feminine” females. As members of the male sex, quarantined away from the majority of gender-conforming males in society, these gender-nonconforming males have not been seen as either “transgender” or “female.” Nor has the existence of Hijras been indicative of a “third sex” other than either male or female, which, in fact, as the two sexes, constitute the basis upon which one can be determined as Hijra or not.

Part of the problem with wielding the term “transgender” as an umbrella term for any cultural practice related to gender-nonconformity is that it homogenizes all gender variance across cultures into a monolith, which, last time I checked, is what Western academia does. It erases the significance of the sociocultural context in which certain gender roles appear as they differentially impact people on the basis of sex. Academics should stop treating non-Western societies, or pre-colonial communities, as canvases upon which to project Western fantasies. Such a practice constitutes historical negationism, not historical revisionism, because it attempts to negate what really happened in the past in order to rewrite it for the sake of one’s own argument.

Anyway, alongside this mistake in retroactive reclassification, Al-Kadhi falsely claims that the Buggery Act of 1533, a British colonial law exported to India, resulted in the targeted persecution and oppression of Hijras for them being “transgender.” In fact, the act states that it regards homosexual males as criminals, on the basis of sex, not on the basis of “gender identity,” for them engaging in “unnatural” sexual relations with members of their same sex (“buggery”/“sodomy”). Transcribed, the very first sentence of the act tells us:

“For as moche as there is not yet sufficient & condigne punishment appointed & limitted by the due course of the lawes of this realme for the detestable & abominable vice of buggeri committed with mankind or beest.”

Meaning “sodomite,” “bugger,” as a slur, is the equivalent to calling someone a “faggot,” specifically a male; it holds no sensible application to anyone not of the male sex, with its explicit denotation of male homosexual sexual acts. And so, the text of this piece of legislation, like other similar homophobic, not “transphobic,” laws throughout history, indicates that it has paired consensual sexual intercourse between two people of the same sex (“homosexuality”) with bestiality. It seems basically influenced by the Book of Leviticus. It has had nothing to do with “gender identity,” including whether or not a person observed male at birth, who feels sexually oriented toward other members of that person’s own sex, desires to be seen as a “heterosexual female” and not a homosexual male. That is, this British colonial law has functioned as a law broadly criminalizing homosexuality. Indeed, it has included Hijras, who are, by definition, gender-nonconforming homosexual males, seen as “eunuchs,” as well as other members of the male sex who engaged in homosexual sexual relations.

Next, we see Al-Kadhi mention “the transgender Two-Spirit traditions,” mentioned alongside Hijras, as examples of how “sex” (not “gender”) was “fluid,” instead of either male or female. As I have written above, the problem with this claim is that it fails to see Two-Spirit Indigenous people as either male-sexed or female-sexed and inhabiting a third-gender category based on their gender nonconformity with regard to their respective sex as either male or female. This postmodern appropriation, as it does with regard to Hijras, annihilates the distinct nuances that must be accounted for with regard to these cultural practices.

In addition, although communities like the Iroquois and the Apache were some of the most progressive and egalitarian Indigenous communities, they lacked a third-gender category. It is significant that, for the most part, third-gender categories allowed for the containment of non-masculine males as “Other,” while keeping masculine males the standard for maleness. Two-Spirited people were mostly people observed male at birth, almost always homosexual, with the rare few of them being people observed female at birth, primarily because, in more patriarchal communities, gender roles have been more rigidly imposed on females than on males. 

Communities with third-gender categories (or more) tended to exhibit a more rigid adherence to binary definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity” imposed on males and females, which made them less egalitarian and not more egalitarian. And so, we see a wrongful romanticization of Two-Spirit traditions, alienated from any analysis of the cultural context in which such practices existed. A 2013 essay, “Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous ‘Two Spirit’ People in Trans Politics: The Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy,” provides some clarification as to how gender categories differed across Indigenous communities.

On intersex people, Al-Kadhi writes basically what most of “gender studies” academia writes about differences in sexual development (DSDs). This commentary, more often than not, tends to be simultaneously vague and reductive, if not also fetishistic, in seeing intersex people as a “combination” or a “mixture” of body parts. I call this (mis)appropriation of intersex people’s bodies “the hermaphrodite fetish.” Alongside criticizing the notion that humans did not know how to have (a) sex until the Enlightenment, I discuss issues with (mis)appropriating intersex people to advance “gender identity” in my essay, “In Defense of Sex as a Category of Significance.” I cover these issues in the sections “Sex Is a Spectrum” and “Humans Need a Comparison to Clownfish ‘Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle.’”

One of the problems with how Al-Kadhi and others use the term “biological essentialism,” which is central to sex denialism, is that these writers seem unaware of exactly how to use the term. Namely they seem to think us recognizing that male and female bodies are biologically and physiologically different, on the basis of sex, essentially means that males must be “masculine” and females must be “feminine” in terms of gender roles. Ironically, however, this view that recognizing maleness and femaleness necessitates “masculinity” for males and “femininity” for females is, in and itself, biological essentialism from the very person claiming to be against it.

To recognize men as male and women as female, however, does not mean that males must be “masculine” and females must be “feminine.” Decades ago, second-wave feminism already established this raised consciousness that neither men nor women have to be “masculine” or “feminine” in order to be male or female. An authoritarian denial of human difference does not produce a more democratic society, as it seems founded on the fiction of “sameness” authorized by force.

“There is no way around it, as the record makes clear: women and men are fundamentally, essentially, and eternally not the same.”

Paula Gunn Allen, “Father God and Rape Culture,” Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing, Loose Canons (1998)
About Donovan Cleckley 7 Articles
Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and is completing an MA in English at Tulane University. His research focuses on sexual politics and the history of the global women’s movement. Learn more about his work at donovan-k-cleckley.com.

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