Gender, Sex, Economy

Gender, Sex, Economy October 28, 2016

In his provocative essay on Gender, Ivan Illich describes a shift from “vernacular gender” to “social sex.” By the former, he meant “a distinction in behavior, a distinction universal in vernacular cultures. It distinguishes places, times, tools, tasks, forms of speech, gestures, and perceptions that are associated with men from those associated with women. This association constitutes social gender because it is specific to a time and place. I call it vernacular gender because this set of associations is as peculiar to a traditional people (in Latin, a gens) as is their vernacular speech.”

In a gendered society, there are distinct male and female tools, places, tasks. Male tasks aren’t necessarily regarded as superior to female. They are simply different, and non-interchangeable. Gender designates the “the eminently local and timebound duality that sets off men and women under circumstances and conditions that prevent them from saying, doing, desiring, or perceiving ‘the same thing.’”

Social sex, on the other hand, is “the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting with the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character or intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of deviations from the abstract genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous language of science. Gender bespeaks a complementarity that is enigmatic and asymmetrical. Only metaphor can reach for it.”

Illich believed the shift from the “dominance of gender to that of sex constitutes a change of the human condition that is without precedent.”

Illich claims that industrial society requires this revolution: An industrial society cannot exist unless it imposes certain unisex assumptions: the assumptions that both sexes are made for the same work, perceive the same reality, and have, with some minor cosmetic variations, the same needs. And the assumption of scarcity, which is fundamental to economics, is itself logically based on this unisex postulate. There could be no competition for ‘work’ between men and women, unless ‘work’ had been redefined as an activity that befits humans irrespective of their sex.”

Since the “subject on which economic theory is based is just such a genderless human,” the unisex assumption of economics spreads to every realm touched by economics. Which is to say, every realm: “Every modern institution, from school to family and from union to courtroom, incorporates this assumption of scarcity, thereby dispersing its constitutive unisex postulate throughout the society.”


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