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Sexual difference: Shedding light on popular claims (I)

Today’s post is the first in a series about sexual difference. Stay tuned for more!

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First, let’s clear the pathway, so to speak, by thinking about popular notions about sexual difference and where they fail to capture the full truth.

Is sexual difference a wound or a curse?

The idea of sexual difference as a wound has ancient roots. In the myth of Aristophanes, as recorded by Plato in the Symposium, the world was originally inhabited by androgynous creatures (a combination of man and woman). These four-legged, four-armed beings mounted a failed rebellion against the gods. For their punishment, Zeus split each of them in half, fashioning what we now know to be individual men and women. Previously united as one dual-gendered person, these new sexually-differentiated creatures were doomed to wander the world, searching for their “other half.” Sexual difference, here, is a wound, a punishment, and a scar on humankind’s originally unified existence.

The ancient myth of Pandora also alludes to sexual difference as something negative. Pandora is the first woman, and she is as beautiful as a goddess. But along with her beauty, she brought to men her infamous box. When curiosity overcame her, she opened the box and released every sort of evil, sickness, and disaster upon the earth.

Modern life seems to echo these stories. One only has to watch a few episodes of daytime Court TV or the soaps to see the myriad wounds and pain that men and women inflict on each other: domestic abuse, cheating, shouting matches, and so on. It might seem tempting to say that sexual difference is a wound, and the world would be a better place without it!

But this is not the whole story or even the truth of the matter. As the book of Genesis makes clear, sexual difference is good and a gift from God. In Genesis 1:27, we read, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” And later, “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (1:31). (Note that only here, after the creation of man and woman, the pinnacle of creation, does God find his work not just good but very good.)

It is only after the Fall that problems between the sexes begin. With the first sin, shame, mistrust, accusation and distance enter into Adam and Eve’s relationship (see Gen 3:1-13). As John Paul II puts it, “Instead of being ‘together with the other’…man becomes an object for man: the female for the male and vice versa” (TOB, 32.4). How often have these words been lived out since the dawn of creation! And yet animosity between the sexes is not part of sexual difference, but rather a result of sin.

Is sexual difference a construct of society?

A second common idea about sexual difference is that the differences between men and women are socially constructed.[i] In other words, sexual difference and gender traits are what we – society – make them to be, and thus are infinitely malleable – and effectively meaningless (if not oppressive). It is claimed that, with the proper upbringing, a child could be raised as a boy, or as a girl, or as neither until “he” is old enough to decide for “himself.” (Gendered pronouns are a heated topic in the gender-as-social-construct arena.) As Anne Fausto-Sterling puts it, labeling someone as male or female is a “social decision.”[ii]

But is sexual difference just what we make it? Are gender-specific traits caused entirely by nurture, with no contribution from nature? While the interplay of biology and rearing make it difficult to parse out the precise source of a person’s personality and behavior, there is something more at the root of one’s sexual identity than the dictate of society (see Catechism, nos. 2331-2336: “‘God created man in his own image…male and female he created them’” – no. 2331; “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” – no. 2333).

Consider the sad story of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer.[iii] Or consider the testimonies of mothers who, despite making “Herculean efforts” to raise “gender-neutral” children, come to the realization that their daughters will only wear “a dress and tights,” and their sons are obsessed with toy guns, which are officially banned from the household. As one mother relates, her son “quickly learned that Tinker Toys make wonderful guns, and one of his male friends found that even waffles could be used to shoot his dad at breakfast.”[iv] These stories suggest that sexual difference does, after all, have something to do with a person’s body, and that society has less influence on one’s authentic sexual identity than is sometimes assumed.

Coming Wednesday: Two more popular claims about sexual difference, and why they’re problematic

For more on sexual difference, watch the video Made for Each Other and read the companion materials (Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet).



[i] See, for example, Judith Lorber, Paradoxes of Gender (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994) and “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (May 12, 2008) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/#GenSocCon.

[ii] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 3.

[iii] For the complete account of David Reimer’s story, see John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (New York: Perennial, 2001). See also John Colapinto, “What were the real reasons behind David Reimer’s suicide?Slate (June 3, 2004)

[iv] See Steven E. Rhoads, Taking Sex Difference Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), pp. 22-25.

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About the Sexual Difference Series:

What is sexual difference? What is it not? And why does it matter? This series of posts will attempt to answer these questions, in order to shed light on a crucial – but often misunderstood – aspect of marriage: sexual difference. Sexual difference, man to woman and woman to man, is essential for marriage. The posts in this series will by no means say all there is to say about this rich topic, but hopefully they will provide a jumping-off point for further reflection and discussion.

2 Responses to “Sexual difference: Shedding light on popular claims (I)”

  1. [...] on sexual difference, we have looked at various ways that our culture describes sexual difference (part one and part two), examined Scripture and the Catechism on the subject, and added two helpful phrases [...]

  2. [...] You can read more about the meaning of sexual difference here. [...]

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