Q&A — Gender as Social Construct

Another question came in using our Ask a Pastor button on the right. Sorry these are taking a while to answer, but we are getting quite a number of questions, some of which are difficult to research and answer.

Studying at Indiana University I constantly hear the phrase, “gender is a social construct.” To clarify, their meaning behind this is, in specifically Western society, that masculinity (associated with authority, strength, basically your classic macho man) and femininity (submissiveness, gentleness, your classic “Leave it to Beaver” wife) are characteristics that build harmful barriers between sexes, limiting the acceptable activities of each sex. Classic definitions of masculinity and femininity are seen as, by many of my peers and professors, a harmful outdated ideology which holds back sexes, particularly females. Your basic “well women deserve to be in control just as much as men” and “the wife should be able to control the house if she wants” and “God made us all equal, so yeah.” I have multiple points of discussion that I would like you to elaborate on.

1) Does this idea of “gender as a social construct” undermine the order of God’s creation? For doesn’t this idea prompt the question of “is it man who creates the attributes of sexes or God”, siding with man?
2) If the classic acceptable attributes of males and females are attempted to be rethought through this lens then what will be the effect on vocation? Doesn’t this “modern” thinking attempt to undermine the vocations of mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, etc.?
3) Can you elaborate on the terms “sex” and “gender” for the purposes of this discussion.
4) How can one approach this subject without being immediately accused of being a sexist? (Perhaps unavoidable)

I would appreciate some Scripture for use in the context of this discussion.
Thank You!

Whoa! Thanks for the question. You give an eye-opening description of what’s being taught, not only at Indiana, but also here at the University of Northern Iowa, and I suspect on many college campuses.

For a further overview of what you describe above, I highly recommend the book, You’re Teaching My Child What? by Miriam Grossman. The idea behind “gender as a social construct” is that even though we are born male or female, we are gender neutral the first few years of our life. Our gender is supposedly imposed on us by the stereotypes attributed to each sex (blue blankets for boys, pink for girls, trucks for boys, dolls for girls, etc.). Instead of imposing such ideas on our children we should let them decide for themselves what gender they would like to be. In fact, a person’s gender may change over the course of his lifetime. The following poll from scarleteen.com reflects this type of thinking:

When it comes to my gender, I:

  • Was assigned female sex at birth and also identify myself as female.
  • Was assigned male sex at birth and also identify myself as male.
  • Was assigned female sex at birth and identify myself as male or transgender.
  • Was assigned male sex at birth and identify myself as female or transgender.
  • Was assigned female sex at birth and identify myself as genderqueer, questioning or something else.
  • Was assigned male sex at birth and identify myself as genderqueer, questioning or something else.
  • Am intersex and identify myself as female.
  • Am intersex and identify myself as male.
  • Am intersex and identify myself as intersex.
  • Am intersex and identify myself as genderqueer, transgender or something else.

Vote on the Poll on scarleteen.com

In her book, Grossman shows that the stereotypes associated with each sex are not at all neutral. Rather, already in the womb, boys and girls are predisposed toward such attributes: “Studies indicate that genetics and pre-natal hormones predispose boys and girls to have—among other things—specific toy preferences, play styles and activities, and peer relationships. Simply put, science in the twenty-first century supports the stereotypes SIECUS, Planned Parenthood, and other sex educators are telling kids to reject.” (166)

In other words, “gender as a social construct” is nonsense.


Now to your questions:

1) Does this idea of “gender as a social construct” undermine the order of God’s creation? For doesn’t this idea prompt the question of “is it man who creates the attributes of sexes or God”, siding with man?

Answer: Yes, “gender as a social construct” undermines the order of God’s creation because, as you imply, it suggests that man is the creator of the attributes of gender or sex, not God. Scripture teaches that it is God who created them male and female (Gen. 1:27). Proponents of the “gender as social construct” believe that the woman has been suppressed into a submissive “helper” position by man (or man’s made up religion) and should be set free from this oppression. Scripture teaches that the woman was created by God to be the helper to man: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18, ESV)

It is not suppression or oppression by man. Rather, it is the orderly creation of male and female by God and it is good (Gen. 1:31). The male and female sexes complement each other and provide order. Sandra Ostapowich observes, “God specifically created woman to be in relationship with man to solve the problem of being alone. Neither man nor woman is created to be independent of the other.” (Higher Things — Knitted Women)

To suggest that the female gender as helper to the man is a social construct is absolutely false. Clearly, it is God who made the woman from the man to be a helper fit for him. It is God who determines gender.


2) If the classic acceptable attributes of males and females are attempted to be rethought through this lens then what will be the effect on vocation? Doesn’t this “modern” thinking attempt to undermine the vocations of mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, etc.?

Answer: Rethinking the Biblical attributes of males and females through the lens of “gender as a social construct” will and does undermine vocation. It blurs the distinction of the sexes across the board and consequently leads to confusion in one’s vocation.

For example, the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism requires husbands to “be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3:7). The concept of “gender as a social construct” suggests this idea of “weaker partner” has been imposed upon the woman. Proponents of this will seek to rid this idea of “weaker partner” from the vocation of wife. They suggest that she has every right to be the stronger partner. So the vocation of wife is undermined.

Here’s another more striking example of how vocation is undermined. I had a student ask me about how she should respond when she had a panel of transgender people come and talk to her class which included a “Lutheran pastor who was male, but saw himself as transgender and dressed as a woman 5% of the time.” (Double eek! Mouth-dropping craziness!) I’d say there were some serious vocational issues going on here which were no doubt influenced by the idea of gender as a social construct.

Sadly, and I really believe this, “gender as a social construct” has led to vocational madness. We speak of the wife “wearing the pants” in the house instead of speaking of headship and respect on the part of the husband. Husbands and fathers are forsaking their duties all over the place (Eph. 5:22-24; 6:4; 1 Pet. 3:7; Col. 3:19), especially when they can’t get out of bed on Sunday morning! Brides are rewriting their wedding vows to remove any mention of “submitting” (cf. Ep. 5). “Partners” in same-sex unions are adopting children resulting in two fathers or two mothers or role playing the opposite sex. Etc. and etc. Vocational madness!


3) Can you elaborate on the terms “sex” and “gender” for the purposes of this discussion.

Yes. Perhaps this is oversimplification, but I like things simple: Sex is gender. Gender is sex. Male sex is male gender. Female sex is female gender.

But the terms are not so simple for those who believe that gender is a social construct:

The official line on the correct usage of “sex” and “gender,” according to a 2001 monograph published by the National Academies:

  • Sex is a dichotomous biological variable. Humans are either female or male.
  • Gender is a continuous variable. Gender is socially constructed. Humans can be mostly feminine, mostly masculine, or anything in between.

    (Sax, Why Gender Matters; 252)

Did you catch that? “Gender is socially constructed.”

Miriam Grossman refers to this terribly confusing definition of gender as “Genderland.” Just like Alice in Wonderland, “everything you know is turned on its head.” She writes:

Genderland is a dumbfounding departure from reality. Here, male and female are arbitrary identities based on feelings, not biology. Here it’s normal for, say, your adolescent son to wonder what he is—a boy, a girl, or neither? That’s right, in Genderland the idea that he must be one or the other is an arbitrary, oppressive paradigm—another noxious ‘ism,’ like racism. Citizens of Genderland reject that model—some insist they’re male and female, others claim they’re neither. Hence words such as ‘ze’ (another option aside from ‘he’ and ‘she’), and ‘hir’ (an alternative to the oppressive ‘his’ and ‘her’).

Have I already lost you? It’s okay. Trust me, I’ve been there.

What’s the difference, you wonder, between sexual identity and gender identity? The former refers to the sort of person you’re attracted to. The latter refers to whether you experience yourself as male or female. Sex ed dogma claims the two are unrelated; in other words, gender identity does not necessarily determine sexual identity.

(Miriam Grossman, You’re Teaching My Child What?; 157-158)

It is as if sex and gender had nothing to do with each other in “Genderland.” Looks like a boy, acts like a boy, she must be a girl. That’s just silly. What do the dictionaries say?

I have a 1962 copy of Webster’s Dictionary right here in my hand. Let’s see how these terms were defined back then…

sex – 2. The character of being male or female; all of the things which distinguish a male from a female.

gender – 2. [colloq.] sex.

In 1962, gender = sex. And this is after psychologist John Money introduced the concept in 1955 that humans develop an internal sense of maleness or femaleness, separate from the chromosomes and anatomy. He claimed that infants were born gender-neutral. (Grossman, 159)

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary as of November 2012 has this:

sex – 1: either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures

2: the sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of organisms that are involved in reproduction marked by the union of gametes and that distinguish males and females

gender – 1 (the first definition deals with grammar)

2 a: sex

b: the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex

In 2012 gender = sex. Although gender may also be a “trait typically associated with one sex,” it’s still not a social construct.

Let’s keep it simple. Male sex = male gender. Female sex = female gender.


4) How can one approach this subject without being immediately accused of being a sexist? (Perhaps unavoidable)

I agree with you, it may be unavoidable—especially on the secular campus, but it’s worth a shot.

I would approach this subject in one of two ways depending on the audience:

  A) those who have no regard for the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures or

  B) those who hold the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God.


A) Approaching the Subject without Quoting Scripture

If the person or group rejects Scripture and is favorable toward “gender as a social construct,” I recommend appealing to recent scientific facts. Raise the question: Is gender really a social construct or is it biological? Miriam Grossman provides pretty compelling evidence for gender as biological, rather than a social construct. She writes:

Today we know the Y chromosome is teeming with units of DNA that are unique to males. There are distinct male and female blueprints created from the moment of conception. (164)

Later she adds,

Abundant research indicates that sex differences in social behaviors—girls’ and women’s increased sensitivity to emotional nuance, for example—are related to early brain development. At one day of age, presumably before the child has received any messages about conforming to a gender stereotype, boys look longer at a mobile, while girls show a stronger interest in the face. At one year, girls are drawn to a video of a face moving; boys to a video of cars moving. And at both one and two years of age, girls make more eye contact with their mothers than boys. Remarkably, the amount of contact is inversely correlated with the prenatal level of testosterone. The higher the testosterone level was before birth, the lower the amount of eye contact. (166)

In her book, she cites several recent documents that may be helpful in this discussion.

Once you tear down the idea of “gender as a social construct,” then say, “Oh, by the way, Christianity has a beautiful picture of the created order of male and female given in the Bible. And it looks like this…”


B) Approaching the Subject with Scripture

For our fellow Christians who hold to the Scriptures on one hand while believe that gender is socially constructed on the other, I believe it’s worth looking at Ephesians 5 where St. Paul describes the relationship between a husband and a wife:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph 5:22-24)

This is not “gender as a social construct.” This is God’s wonderfully created order. Gene Veith, in his book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, comments,

The wife sees Christ hidden in her husband. She submits to him as the Church does to Christ. The husband, in turn, in his relationship with his wife does for her what Christ has done for the Church: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). The wife’s vocation is to submit to her husband. The husband’s vocation is to give himself up for his wife… The purpose of vocation, remember, is to love and serve the neighbor. In marriage, the wife’s neighbor is her husband, and the husband’s neighbor is his wife. The wife fulfills her calling by loving and serving her husband. And he fulfills his calling by loving and serving her. The wife loves and serves through submission. The husband loves and serves through giving himself up. He is called to do for his wife what Christ did for the Church. (Eph 5:26-27).

(Veith, God at Work; 80-81)

Sandra Ostapowich echoes:

They both had roles to fill as man and woman, loving and serving each other. Woman was created for a specific purpose—to love and trust the man the Lord gave her. Man was given the opportunity to love and authority to care for the beautiful, perfect creature God made just for him.”   (Higher Things – Knitted Women)

She also gives helpful insight on what it means to submit:

Maybe we should find out what submission is. God the Son became man, taking on all our sins and dying for us. Through Baptism, we are holy and sinless in His eyes. Jesus considered us more important than Himself and gave everything He had to serve us and look out for our good. God calls us, as women, to submit to certain men. We don’t have a problem submitting to the Lord, so why would we doubt that our earthly husbands would do anything less for us? That doesn’t mean we’re commanded to slavishly cater to their every whim while they order us around and threaten punishment for disobedience. That’s not how Christ husbands His Bride. Remember, it says to ‘submit to your husbands as to the Lord.’ The Lord looks out for us. We trust Him to do just that as husbands do for their wives. Submission is really just serving someone as you trust them to do their vocation for you.   (Higher Things – Knitted Women)

Far from being sexist, the submissive wife to the loving husband is Scriptural and godly. It is God’s perfect order. It is God’s construct.

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