Bates College seems to be of two minds when it comes to marriage and human sexuality.
One mind is on display in the opening page of the Winter 2013 Bates College alumni magazine: a neon pink sheet, mostly empty, with seven lines of bold printing in the center of the page. They read,
Gender is not a straightforward amplification of underlying biological differences between males and females; rather, gender is constructed through social processes and enforced through social mechanisms.
The other mind comes many pages later; I’ll come back to it.
The neon pink-page quotation is from The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press 2012), a new book by Bates sociology professor Emily Kane. In a genre teeming with how-to books warning parents against the perils of helicopter hovering, or neglecting to serve up certified organic diets of spinach and Lara bars, Kane adds one more parenting “pitfall” to the list: raising kids with their biological sex, or as she terms it, “gender,” in mind.
The word “gender” itself, of course, is a political argument condensed to two syllables. The term originated in linguistics, where it designated types of words, such as noun declensions with masculine or feminine endings. The expansion of a technical sorting term to refer to people is an assertion that “male” and “female” are not realities determined by chromosomes, but cultural inventions determined by patriarchs, or at any rate, by human authorities. This is a pretty familiar story to anyone who has glanced at academic feminism in the last thirty years. The puzzle, if there is one, is that Bates College seems to think Kane is breaking new ground.
Kane fears for parents who reinforce their child’s native sex and thereby perpetuate social ideals of masculinity and femininity. There’s a chance the child’s biological sex at birth might not be his sex later in life, thanks to surgical advances, and even if it is, biology might contradict the child’s mental gender, which is somehow more real and important. And because gender, for Kane, constitutes a fluid spectrum, one’s biological sex might be a true, though incomplete, indication of one’s full gender identity. Radically rejecting materialism, Kane believes that gender is not a fixed fact, but a malleable psychological state emerging from various social forces. The malleability Kane believes to be a good thing. The social construct, she fears, will improperly reinforce biology.
In The Gender Trap, Kane surveys the parents of preschoolers to find out what attitudes they take towards their children’s “genders,” where she uses the word for both their sexes and their social identities. Kane, herself the parent of twin boys (now grown), raised her sons in a gender-neutral environment, dressing them in browns and greys (never blue) and discouraging “violent” toys like decks of cards with images of weapons printed on the backs. Kane finds that a decent number of parents do the same (she wishes there were more), but that many cling to the “baggage” of their own socially-inculcated notions that gender is “binary” and permanent. Some of these heavy-laden parents struggle against social strictures, but, alas, to Kane’s mind, too many strap the same burdens on their children. These parents nudge their kids towards sex-specific traits (empathy, bravery), accoutrements (dresses, toy trucks), or activities (baking, playing football).
Kane categorizes parents as “naturalizers” who see gender as biologically “hard-wired” and tend to encourage a “gendered upbringing”; “cultivators” who believe gender emerges from social forces, but who choose to nudge their children towards “traditional” conceptions of gender; “refiners” who place an equal emphasis on biology and society; “innovators” who discount biology’s importance and try to create gender-neutral environments for their children; and “resisters” who worry about and try to protect their children from unwanted social pressures to conform to “traditional” gender ideas.
But if Kane on page 1 of the Bates alumni magazine represents liberation from the straitjackets of sexuality, pages 76 and 77 of the publication quietly annul her claims. Tucked away towards the back, in the midst of the “Bates Notes” section collating alumni news (“new liver doing better than the old one,” “welcomed a new son in February,” “working as a reporter for American Banker”), Bates features a full-spread celebration of what Kane dismisses as “traditional” gender distinctions.
The pages congratulate Bates alumni on their weddings. A photo collage shows tuxedoed and gowned Bates grads waving their alma mater’s banner at their receptions. Three columns of text describe the events and identify the members of the wedding parties, themselves often Bates graduates. In sharp contrast to Kane’s fluid conception of “gender,” weddings recognize rigid sexual distinctions, celebrating the differences between men and women and the ways in which they complete each other.
The pages evoke a complementarian philosophy of the body—the idea that not only do male and female exist, as indicated by biology, but they complement each other in special and unique ways. Differences between the sexes are important and worth emphasizing, because they afford a level of bodily, emotional, and spiritual intimacy uniquely possible among two individuals of the opposite sex. They allow for the joint act of reproduction, but also provide skill sets, perspectives, and dispositions that support and shore up one another in a way that no other relationship allows. Bates doesn’t publish a directory of alumni friendships or business partnerships. It maintains, with at least prima facie unanimity with the whole of human history, that marriage is a distinctive relationship unlike any other.
But more than celebrating sexual distinctions, marriage presupposes that those distinctions exist in the first place. Where Kane conceives of sexuality as an abstraction donned and doffed at will, a marriage takes as given that “male” and “female” exist as irreducible realities. Moreover, it assumes that these features are discrete types, and that biology accurately indicates which type a person fits. As Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson have argued, marriage is an inherently sexual matter—not merely in the act of consummation, but in its very presumption of the metaphysical reality of human sexuality.
Granted, the Bates magazine is an alumni periodical meant to congratulate its graduates and professors on their accomplishments, whether securing a spouse or publishing a book. But Bates’s juxtaposition of two contradictory takes on human sexuality testifies to the academy’s confusion and hollowing out of the essence of the term “marriage.” The two views are immiscible. Any conception of marriage that takes the institution seriously will leave no room for squishy undefined notions of an alterable, socially-dependent gender. Likewise any logical attempt to eliminate sex as an innate part of humanity will deny the very need for marriage itself.
Emerson warned that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” By all means, let us avoid foolish consistencies. But what to do with foolish inconsistencies? Bates’s little excursion into feminist polemics against traditional child-rearing sits ill at ease with its complaisance at the prospect of its graduates tying the heterosexual knot. Perhaps the way to read this is that in the Kane page, Bates is in show-off mode, bragging of its transgressive radical chic, while in the marriage page, Bates is more passive, settling into the comfort of natural, familiar social institutions. It is a minor but rather telling display of one of the contradictions that run through higher education in America today. The desire to overturn traditional social structure and the desire to simultaneously affirm it are, so to speak, married on campus – though one suspects, not in the happiest of unions.