"Sex or Gender?": The Feminist Debate upon the Concept of Sexual Difference


In this article, the concept of sexual difference and the philosophical debate created upon it will be discussed. In order to do this, the different positions of two of the most influential and authoritative feminist philosophers of our times will be examined: Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler. According to the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, sexual difference is the question that we early twenty-first-century Westerners are historically bound to struggle with: “It is our horizon and our utopia” (Braidotti, 2011). The arguments in favour and against it show the persistence of this question, a persistence whose status is not eternal, but one that belongs to these times . However, feminist scholars find themselves in profound disagreement when it comes to deciding how to use the theoretical tool of sexual difference. Historically, since difference has been predicated on relations of domination and exclusion, to be “different from” came to mean to be worth “less than”. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir identified sexual difference as a central notion of feminism, and called for the need to overcome the hierarchical scheme within it that defined femaleness as devalued “otherness” via an egalitarian use of reason (de Beauvoir, 1949).


In the mid-seventies, the post-structuralist feminists challenged De Beauvoir’s emphasis on the politics of egalitarian rationality and instead emphasized the politics of difference as the affirmation of positive counter values to femininity and womanhood (Braidotti, 2011). Then, throughout the 1980s, a polemic divided the “difference-inspired” feminists from the Anglo-American “gender” opposition. The first ones tried to identify and emphasize the feminine pole of the sexual dichotomy to create different and positive meanings and representations for it and through it; the second ones rejected the scheme of sexual bipolarization in favour of a desexualized understanding of gender identity. Despite the basic disagreement, the common ground was found in the rejection of dualistic thinking as the patriarchal way of being that conflates the masculine to represent the universal human while confining the feminine to a secondary position of otherness and lack. The debates concerning the theoretical priority of the concept of sexual difference over the one of gender within feminist theory are all crosscut by “the permanent difficulty of determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end”(Butler, 2004). This philosophical debate is well exemplified in the different perspectives adopted by Braidotti and Butler. In fact, while for Butler sexual difference is not the right basis on which to build feminism but rather a question to interrogate, Braidotti thinks of it as both an epistemological and political tool for her feminist project.


(Fig. 1: Digital collage by Elisa Riemer, 2018 )

Since difference has been turned into a mark of pejoration, Braidotti claims that the aim of a feminist project should be to redefine it in a positive way. According to Braidotti, feminist theory needs to recode or rename the female feminist subject “not as yet another sovereign, hierarchical, and exclusionary subject, but rather as a multiple, open-ended, interconnected entity”(Braidotti, 2011). Her project of “nomadic” feminism involves both the critique of existing definitions and representations of real-life women and the attempt to create new images of the female subjectivity. The project of nomadic feminism is divided into three different phases (non dialectically or chronologically ordered), all of which are linked to the concept of sexual difference.


The first level is the political will to assert the specificity of the lived, female bodily experience and the refusal to disembody sexual difference into a new allegedly “postmodern” and “anti-essentialist” subject (Braidotti, 2011). The second one starts from the recognition that “Woman” is a general umbrella term that brings together different kinds of women, experiences and identities. This means that global statements about all women must be rejected and avoided by paying attention to the situated position from which one speaks. Lastly, the third and final level highlights the complexity of the embodied structure of the -female- subject that is multiple, split, fractured and guided by both conscious and unconscious drives. Here, Braidotti acknowledges that the experience of being a woman is shaped by other factors like class, race, age and sexual choices. However, she is talking about women only, claiming that the recognition of the sameness of our gender —if all other differences are taken into account— is a sufficient and necessary condition to create a bond among women that is more than just a sharing of common interests. Her definition of womanhood is strictly bound to the sexed materiality of the body, understood as neither a biological nor a sociological category, but rather as a place where the physical, the symbolic and the sociological overlap. Therefore, the starting ground for feminist redefinitions of female subjectivity should be “a new form of materialism that emphasises the embodied and therefore sexually differentiated structure of the speaking subject”(Braidotti, 2011), where the subject is always already sexed. Braidotti’s argument in favour of sexual difference opposes on ethical and political grounds: it relies on the conviction that to construe transformation as the overcoming of sexual difference suits the aims of phallogocentrism since it once again erases the specificity of the symbolic domain of the feminine. According to this perspective, sexual difference is thus the positive affirmation of our “facticity” as women, as well as the very vehicle and instrument of feminist transformation. As stated by the Italian philosopher: “Until we have worked through the multiple layers of signification of Woman —phallic though it may be— I am not willing to relinquish the signifier”(Braidotti, 2011).

(Fig. 2: Illustration by Carmela Caldart )

On the other hand, Judith Butler approaches the issue by posing some interesting questions: What is sex, and what does it mean to be sexed? Does sex and its duality have a history? Starting by questioning its alleged immutable character, Butler claims that the category of sex is culturally constructed, just as the one of gender. This means that there is no clear distinction between sex and gender. Gender is not to culture as sex is to nature, because there is no way to understand gender as a cultural construct which is imposed upon the body or its given sex. According to Butler, not only gender but also sex is both normative and performative: sex “is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs, that is, whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power, the power to produce —demarcate, circulate, differentiate— the bodies it controls” (Butler, 1993). Sex is thus not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process in which sex is materialized by the reiteration of some regulatory norms. More specifically, these norms work to materialize sex —and therefore sexual difference— in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative.


The very idea that there might be a “truth” of sex is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent gender identities through coherent gender norms. These norms aim to institute a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality that requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from the feminine one, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire. “One is one’s gender to the extent that one is not the other gender” (Butler, 1990). In this way, the restriction of gender within that binary pair is perpetually reinforced, while the internal coherence or unity between gender, sex and desire can only happen within the heterosexual matrix. Usually, critics of this position points out that the existence of some minimally, sexually differentiated parts, activities, capacities, hormonal and chromosomal differences that can be conceded without reference to “construction” is undeniable. Nonetheless, to concede that sex or its "materiality” are undeniable is always to concede some version of sex and some formation of materiality. “There is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body”(Butler, 1993). What is (not) included within the boundaries of sex is always set by an operation of exclusion. However, some subjectivities —such as intersex, transgender and non-binary people— exceed these boundaries and fail to fit in the limited scheme of both sex and gender binarism and their rigid norms. The incoherence of this kind of subjectivities challenges the heterosexual binary system of sex/gender identities and force us to rethink these categories in order to go not “beyond gender”, but beyond gender binarism.



(Fig. 3: Illustration by Pep Boatella)

Since the norms that govern idealized human anatomy work to produce “a differential sense of who is human and who is not, which lives are livable, and which are not”(Butler, 2004), we must be careful when dealing with the concept of sexual difference in order to avoid the risk of turning back to biology as the ground of a specific and immutable feminine sexuality and character. The insistence on the necessity of working through the concept of sexual difference risks undermining and delegitimizing the validity of all the other possible gender identities. In fact, if her sexed body is what makes a woman such, what happens to all the non-binary people who do not identify themselves as neither women nor men regardless of their sex? Or to all the transgender women who identify themselves as such but who do not have a female sexed body?


It must be considered that "the political assumption that there must be a universal basis for feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist cross-culturally, often accompanies the notion that the oppression of women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination”(Butler, 2004). Indeed, the notion of a universal patriarchy has been widely criticized especially by non-Western feminists for its failure to account how gender oppression works in different cultural contexts. Feminist critique is thus called to understand how the category of “women” as the alleged subject of feminism is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought, and how the very attempt to fix its ultimate definition always produces other exclusions that delegitimize some subjectivities. The whole sex/gender binary system might be inadequate to account for all of the possible differences and nuances of gender identities; working with and through it thus means to remain trapped into the Western dualistic way of thinking that feminists should try to overcome. Doing it without giving up on valuing women's experiences and fighting for women's rights is one of the main challenges that contemporary feminists has to deal with.

Bibliographical References:

Butler, J. (1990). Subjects of Sex Gender Desire, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, Routledge. Butler, J. (2004). Introduction: Acting in Concert, in Undoing Gender, New York, Routledge. Butler. J., (2004). The end of sexual difference?, in Undoing Gender, New York, Routledge. Butler, J. (1993). Introduction, in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York and London, Routledge. Braidotti, R., (2011). On the Female Feminist Subject, in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, 2nd Ed. New York, Columbia University Press. Braidotti, R. (2011). Sexual Difference as a Nomadic Political Project, in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, 2nd Ed. New York, Columbia University Press.



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Alice Pinotti

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