Sex/Gender: Which Is Which? A Rejoinder to Mary Riege Laner



This article is a challenge to Mary Riege Laner's exhortation to “Let sex be sex and let gender be gender” as expressed recently in the pages of Sociological Inquiry (Laner 2000, p. 471). I examine the theoretical and linguistic underpinnings of such a view, critique the sex/gender distinction on which it is based, and endorse the maneuvers of a number of poststructuralist thinkers who have sought to problematize that very distinction. I argue instead that the classic sex/gender distinction of second-wave feminism goes wrong on (at least) three counts: (1) it is ahistorical in an area where historical specificity matters; (2) it rests on a simplistic and untenable account of language; (3) the conceptual dichotomy it posits—demarcating gender from sex—is not sustainable and cannot withstand close scrutiny. Finally, I question whether the import of the poststructuralist critique necessitates a move to epistemological and ethical relativism in the field of sex/gender studies.

When language games change then there is a change of concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change. (Wittgenstein 1969, § 65)