Sex, Gender and a Whole Lot of Confusion
A conversation with Catholic literary scholar and former postmodern feminist Abigail Favale.
Deep confusion about sexual identity is a seeming cornerstone of contemporary society, plaguing not only our institutions and laws, but, sadly, the lived experiences of many. But according to Abigail Favale, a deeper linguistic confusion undergirds much of our inability to make sense of who we are in a way that fully integrates all the factors, including our bodies.
In fact, in an important 2019 piece for Church Life Journal entitled “The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender,” Favale argues that a widespread cultural neglect of our sexed bodies and inherent procreative potential as the basis for the distinction between men and women — and therefore for a person’s own sexual identity — is the source of many societal ills today.
Favale, an associate professor of English and the dean of the College of Humanities at George Fox University in Oregon, argues that a potent combination of widespread oral contraception and social theory gave rise to a concept of gender — that is, the socially conditioned roles men and women play — divorced from embodiment. Gender, rather than sex, has become the primary way people think and talk about their sexual identity, to the point now where a person’s self-identified gender is considered to be determinative of his or her biological sex, instead of the other way around.
As a former postmodern feminist who converted to Catholicism, a compelling spiritual odyssey detailed in her memoir Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Favale is in a unique position to provide helpful analysis. The wife and mother of three is currently finalizing a book for Ignatius Press on the topic of our culture’s confused approaches to gender and sexuality, a malady that she suggests affects not only progressives and postmodernists, but even some conservative and traditionalist Catholic responses to our current crisis. Favale recently spoke to the Register at length.
I was struck by how you link the demise of sex — that is, an understanding of our sexual identity as rooted in our bodies and procreative potentiality — to widespread oral contraception. You pointed out that the rise of this technological factor actually allowed social theories of gender that were divorced from our sexed bodies to become more influential in society. What’s the link between the introduction of contraception and this fundamental change in the way we perceive our sexual identity and our relationship to our body?
I think when our culture became contraceptive, it shaped our cultural imagination in a way where we now have this kind of default or presumptive attitude that everyone’s sterile, but especially women; that’s the default state. And so, once our understandings of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are not really linked to our procreative potentials, then what’s the ground of sexual difference? What’s the ground of being a man and being a woman?
Well, then it becomes things like secondary sex characteristics [things like facial hair, the development of breasts, deepness of voice]. And so I think — and you see this, right? — when you hear kind of the more popular way of talking about gender or these memes, like the genderbread person or the gender unicorn, they talk about sex and just list a bunch of secondary sex characteristics. But they never actually talk about gametes. They never talk about the capacity to gestate or, you know, to produce sperm. It’s all downstream of that.
It’s ironic, because people say Catholics are unnecessarily obsessed with sex and fertility and procreation. But as you point out, the word “gender” itself comes from gens, which is tied to birth and generation. And if we’re made in the image and likeness of a wildly generative, creative, relational God, understanding our generative capacities seems like an essential foundation for understanding the human person.
Right — it’s about looking at sexuality within the context of not only the whole person, but also the whole cosmos, whereas the more popular contemporary way of thinking about it is to just think about sex in terms of sexual pleasure, as an end in itself. So it’s disconnected from life. And so the Catholic view is about looking at sex in a way that includes its connection to life, rather than excluding it.
In your Church Life Journal piece, you’re certainly critical of “second wave” and subsequent forms of feminism, which played a big role in disconnecting gender from the reality of biological sex. But you’re also critical of a kind of “essentialism” that locates sexual difference in a rigid set of roles that men and women play in society. Do you think there’s a middle way?
One of the problems that’s driving our confusion about sex and gender is an overreliance upon stereotypes to define men and women. And there are really two sides of the same coin. There’s the more traditionalist version of that, which is like, “Dress your boys in blue and your girls in pink.” But then the more progressive view also takes the same premise, and says, “If you have a boy who really likes pink, he must not really be a boy.” So they’re kind of both relying too heavily on stereotypes, rather than sexual embodiment as the foundation for what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. They’re locked in this mirroring war.
But there is a middle way. St. Edith Stein, the 20th-century Catholic convert and philosopher and a big influence of John Paul II and his theology of the body, wrote about a dynamic essentialism. You have embodiment, but you also have the will and the intelligence and the emotions. There’s a central potential that we have as human beings that needs to be developed and cultivated. So I am essentialist in the sense that I think that womanhood is rooted in femaleness. It’s not this kind of free-floating construct that anyone can just appropriate or step into. But I’m not essentialist in the sense that I think simply being female determines in a kind of narrow, biologically deterministic way what a woman is in the world. I think the Catholic view has a pretty strong understanding of human freedom and our ability to develop as a human person. So if embodiment is the foundation for manhood and womanhood, then there’s a little more freedom in how that is lived out. And it doesn’t have to look like a cookie-cutter way of being a man or a woman.
We see this in the Communion of Saints: There are these different ways of living out masculinity — think St. Francis de Sales and his gentleness. And then there are other male saints who are much more strident. And the same with the female saints: You’ve got Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, as well as Mother Teresa, right? There are a lot of different ways of being a woman and living out one’s sex. So I think that’s the middle way that Edith Stein and John Paul II are going down.
So should Catholics be using a term like “gender” — or does it just confuse things?
One helpful thing about gender — and it’s something that second-wave feminists did contribute, although I think it eventually backfired — is that it helps us recognize that there are certain ways that society and culture shape how sex is expressed. So if you look at different cultures, different historical moments, there are certain contrasts about how men and women should look, what they’re allowed to do. And that’s not just strictly and solely determined by biology. I think it’s important to be able to recognize that and to name that, and, initially, gender was a way of doing that.
But the problem is when you have a concept of gender that’s neatly separated from sex, where they’re no longer connected: Then you eventually get down this road where gender becomes the ground for manhood and womanhood, and sex is not even really considered important at all. So I think, ultimately, the second-wave feminist sex/gender distinction set the ground for this kind of postmodern juggernaut of gender.
Which is where we’re at today. So it seems difficult to speak about gender in a way that recognizes both that, yes, there are different human ways of expressing the difference between men and women that are culturally developed, but also that these aren’t arbitrary and are in some way intrinsically connected to sexual embodiment.
The fact that there’s so much confusion about gender makes part of me think maybe it’s better to just use language that’s intentionally distinct so it can’t be misinterpreted and contribute to this linguistic confusion that is driving a lot of this.
The theologian Angela Franks, whose work I admire in this area, uses the phrase “sex lived out” as a way of talking about this, which I think also is what you see in John Paul II’s work. He only uses the phrases “masculinity” and “femininity” in relation to male and female persons; so, for him, masculinity is the way of living out one’s maleness in the world and femininity is a way of living out your femaleness in the world. And so I think he’s even making a kind of a distinction there that I think is helpful, but he doesn’t actually rely on the word “gender” to do that. And so I think that’s maybe a more fruitful way to go now. But it’s something I’m still wrestling with. Do we try to rehab gender by emphasizing its relation to generation or do we just search for a different way of talking about the same kind of reality that’s the “lived-out” dimension of sex that interacts with culture and history but is always rooted in the body?
Ironically, it seems like a lot more conservative responses to the current confusion about sex and gender are to simply point to gender roles from 50-plus years ago as sort of essential truths, instead of thinking about what applying authentic womanhood and manhood to the conditions of today might look like, which is understandable, given all of the flux and instability around the issue. But how do we focus on “incarnating” masculinity and femininity in 2021, instead of merely retreating to contingent roles and norms from the past?
So, if my son, for instance, likes My Little Ponies, he likes bright colors, he’s really drawn to beauty, he has a very poetic sensibility, I could panic and say, “No, absolutely, you can’t play with My Little Ponies.” Or I could be like, “Oh, wow, he must be a girl because he likes My Little Ponies.” Those are both the wrong things to do in this situation. Rather, let’s just let him play with My Little Ponies and not make a big deal out of it, because I think it’s pretty normal developmentally for a lot of children to not fit into stereotypes and to kind of push back against them.
And another critique I would make of the emphasis on “traditional” gender roles is that I think it’s a mistake to define what men and women should do by a specific historical, cultural or economic situation, because we often don’t have control over things like employment patterns or economic realities. The model of the man working outside the home, 9 to 5, and the woman staying at home and exclusively taking care of the children, that’s a fairly recent manifestation of gender roles, so it would be wrong to universalize that. Because Catholicism is connected to history and culture, our vision of sexual identity is always engaging with those things, but it can’t just be anchored to one particular era or one particular culture. It has to transcend that in some way.
Ultimately, the vocation of both men and women is love and self-gift, to give and receive love. So I do think there’s a meaningful way, for instance, for a woman to think, “Okay, how do I live out the feminine genius in the world?” or “How do I live out my potential for motherhood in a spiritual way, in whatever sphere I find myself?” I think that’s the more fruitful direction to go, rather than saying, “Oh, I have to be in a specific sphere like the home or the workplace. Rather, “Here are the spheres I’m in, and what am I doing to live out my vocation as a woman in that sphere?”
I think that makes a lot of sense as a tool of personal discernment. But there are also things like broader social “scripts” that help us, or at least helped us in the past, collectively navigate things like dating, or family life, or child care. How should the reality of sexual difference inform these different areas of life on a societal level?
Well, it has been a long time since I’ve been in the dating world, so I don’t know how much I can say about that, except that it sounds like a nightmare, with online dating and everything. But I think there’s a lot that can be or that should be redeemed in that, in terms of men really seeing women as whole persons and neither men or women being encouraged to just kind of use one another for emotional or physical comfort. And I think, in the home, I don’t see men and women as totally interchangeable.
I think there are physical realities, especially when it comes to pregnancy, lactation, the very kind of early phase of parenting, where sexual difference really matters a lot. I remember when I first became a mother, before I was Catholic, when I was pretty postmodern and feminist, and I was just shocked by the reality of sex all of a sudden. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, you know, my husband and I are different.” There are things that I can do that he can’t, and vice versa. At the same time, my husband is and has been for a while the primary caregiver of our children.
So you’re arguing that, for instance, the fact that a woman might work outside the home, or that a man might be the primary caregiver of his kids, is not really where our problems related to gender and sex are primarily located. At the same time, some Catholics will point out that these types of developments over the past half-century are still deeply entwined with the kind of practical androgyny that is the problem. What do you make of those kinds of critiques?
This is something I’m still definitely working through. On the one hand, I think one of the benefits of more fluid roles has been a greater acceptance for men to be more centered on the home, rather than in the workplace and how they make money; because from a Catholic perspective, the home should be the center of gravity for both the man and the woman, regardless of who works outside the home. That’s the primary vocation.
I definitely am critical of the capitalist ideal of finding oneself through work and through making money. You see this mistake in second-wave feminism, that liberation for women looks like being able to compete with and do what men do in society.
In effect, this has created an economic expectation that both parents work outside the home. And it has also really disparaged the domestic sphere and women who choose and want to be there, because I think a lot of women honestly would prefer to be at home with their children, especially when they’re in the childrearing phase, rather than in an office for eight hours while someone else takes care of their children. And so I feel very positive about things like child allowances and some of these policies that would make it economically possible for women to choose to stay at home or for families to be able to choose for one parent to be at home and be a primary caregiver.
With my husband and me, our personalities have lent themselves to the kinds of roles we’ve worked out in our marriage. But those aren’t fixed either. He’s going to graduate school right now. He’s going to be launching a new career soon. And every time I have a baby, for like four months, I’m like, “Yeah, I think I just want to quit my job and stay home.” So I’m always prayerfully holding that possibility with an open hand.
It’s good for us to have freedom to navigate those things. And I think it would be good for our Catholic culture to have a sense of freedom, as well, because there is something about our intelligence and our will that matters. We should have the ability to use those wisely in responding to our circumstances rather than having these strict boxes or rules or scripts that we’re supposed to follow in every situation.
I don’t think it’s possible to just kind of unwind this and roll back to a precontraceptive society. I think there’s the possibility of cultivating subcultures that live very differently in relation to contraception and this sort of thing, but I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the 1950s.
Wendell Berry, for instance, critiques how the home has become a place of consumption rather than production, and so I think that’s a big shift that has been detrimental to both men and women. Because even what it means to, say, be a stay-at-home mom now looks very different than what it looked like 100 years ago, because it’s much more about having a “Pinterest-ready” home or buying certain products rather than making bread from scratch and having a homestead that you’re both working on in order to sustain your family. And it’s not possible to just go back to that exact model. But at the same time, I think there are ways in which we can be more conscious of how consumer society shapes our relationships and try to find a way to resist that as much as we can.