Sex-based vs Gender-based Oppression: A Fisk of Dembroff

A couple of weekends ago I got into it on Twitter with the Feminist Next Door, over a bunch of things, including her claim that women are subject to ‘gender-based’ rather than ‘sex-based’ oppression. As I said at the time, this makes no earthly sense to me, and I responded with a thread about how patriarchy functions by treating women as a resource, which also – plug – happens to the theme of the forthcoming issue of The Radical Notion. Handily, at the end of last week, this video appeared in my mentions… a presentation by the AFAB non-binary Yale philosopher Robin Dembroff, purporting to explain why patriarchy has nothing to do with male dominance and female subordination and why we should all understand it as a system of ‘gender-based oppression’ (which if Dembroff’s illustrations are anything to go by, is really the mostest oppressive to gender non-conforming men). You will no doubt be surprised when I say this still makes no earthly sense to me, but Dembroff’s presentation serves as a useful example of what people are thinking when they assert that patriarchy is a ‘gender-based’ rather that a ‘sex-based’ system, and it’s therefore worth unpicking.

So Dembroff presentation is called ‘Putting Real Men on Top,’ and is an outline sketch of their book, Real Men on Top: The Relation of Patriarchy, forthcoming from OUP. It concerns, as Dembroff says, “the metaphysics of patriarchy,’ and specifically the effort to demonstrate that patriarchy is not a sex-based system, and that, as Dembroff asserts at the start, “No one is oppressed because they are a woman.” (Dembroff admits this is a surprising claim for the beginning of a feminist philosophy talk (well Robin, in-fucking-deed)). The second ‘surprising’ claim Dembroff kicks off with is ‘No one is oppressed because they are a man, but many people we take to be men experience gender oppression.’ It is exemplary of this entire talk that right from the off, the ‘gender oppression’ experienced by males (sorry ‘people we take to be men’) is foregrounded, and the effects of patriarchy on female people completely fucking ignored. (Heaven forfend feminists concern themselves with the oppression of female people!)

According to Dembroff, people have a “knee-jerk reaction” (1.23 min) to these claims because they have “implicitly absorbed” what Dembroff calls ‘the binary model of patriarchy.’ Note, we must have ‘implicitly absorbed it,’ it is an unreflective, probably primitive, reflex, because it couldn’t possibly be that we have thought long and hard about it and come to the conclusion that no, we’re pretty sure patriarchy is sex-based. (This is basically just an academic iteration of ‘educate yourself’).

Dembroff defines the binary model of patriarchy as “a system of gender oppression, in which men are privileged because they are men, and women are oppressed because they are women.” Problems arise immediately here because even while trying to critique the radical feminist model, Dembroff can only represent it in their own wokeist terms, that is, that patriarchy is a model of ‘gender oppression’ rather than ‘sex-based oppression,’ and is best understood in terms of ‘privilege’ – a word which individualises structural class-based phenomenon, and then allows you to say things like ‘look this man isn’t ‘privileged’ because he’s gender non-conforming, therefore patriarchy isn’t about male dominance.’ (Handy that). No radical feminist would define patriarchy in these terms, rather, our definition would go something like, ‘a system of male dominance and female subordination which functions through structural sex class relations and is inculcated, enforced and maintained by gender socialisation, policing and hierarchy.’ As we keep saying, ad nauseum, gender is the mechanism of enforcement of sex-class relations, and if you don’t relate gender to its role in maintaining sex-class relations, it’s just some random free-floating discursive widget that exists for no apparent reason, as Robin is about to helpfully demonstrate.

So, Robin wants to keep the idea of patriarchy as ‘gender oppression,’ (THAT WASN’T THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS IT ROBIN???) but get rid of the thought that it ‘privileges’ men and oppresses women. In so doing they will provide an excellent illustration of how changing the definition of patriarchy from ‘sex-based’ to ‘gender-based’ is really useful for outright denying the structural subordination of female people as a class.

The overall aim of the talk is to explain how patriarchy works if it is not explicable in terms of “facts about who are men and women.” As if anyone who’s spent more than five minutes considering women’s oppression thinks ‘facts about who are men and women’ are sufficient to explain the existence of patriarchy anyway. Dembroff stunningly illuminating answer is that patriarchy, that is, ‘a system of gender oppression, is explained by facts about how we stand in relation to ideals of manhood and womanhood.’ Ideals of manhood and womanhood are artefacts of gender, so Dembroff’s argument here is basically that ‘gender oppression is explained by gender.’ Which is tautological and hence, not an explanation of anything. That someone with a job in the philosophy department at Yale can present this screaming ‘tautology-identifying-as-an-explanation’ to a bunch of professional philosophers in a professional philosophy webinar and not be laughed out of town is, in and of itself, a pretty compelling example of how far academic philosophy has departed from its disciplinary norms on the trans issue. Anyway, given no one stood up and pressed the big red tautology button, I guess we’d better carry on.

Notably, at this point, Dembroff’s trans ideological commitment to conflating sex and gender, and presenting both as cultural artefacts, comes clearly into focus. ‘Ideals of manhood and womanhood’ includes, not only norms about masculinity and femininity, but also, norms about what makes a male body male or a female body female. There will be further more florid recitation of the sex denialist theses later, of course. Inevitably, at no point will Dembroff admit that they’re conflating sex and gender, and that the whole effort to subsume sex-class analysis by gender depends on it.

According to Dembroff then, patriarchy is a system of gender oppression that enforces ideals of manhood and womanhood. By radical feminist lights, this is half right, in that of course we agree that patriarchy functions by enforcing gender norms (as opposed to thinking patriarchy simply is this system of norms). Note, however, that as we saw above, Dembroff has smuggled ‘thinking humans are sexed’ into the definition of ‘gender ideals’ here, and ta-dah, women who think oppression is sex-based can therefore be dismissed as evil right wing patriarchal bigots. Cool. By this reasoning, the people who benefit from patriarchy are not all men, but only men who conform to patriarchal ideals of manhood, what we’d call, ‘patriarchal men.’ And this is true, if you think that the only benefits and harms of the system relate to the policing of gender. That we’re actually dealing with a structural system of material resource extraction has already been completely elided. As then has the fact that gender non-conforming males, who may well be discriminated against, largely by other males, still benefit from the reproductive, domestic and emotional labour of females. (The issue of gay men’s exploitation of female surrogates would be axiomatic here for example).

So, that’s the introduction, already a conceptual car crash. If the tautology, conflation and general sniffiness about giving a shit about women wasn’t enough to put you off already, strap in, there’s plenty more where that came from.

The rest is divided into three, slowly unfolding and more detailed car crashes, as follows:

1. Against the Binary Model

So, this is what Dembroff claims is the traditional ‘binary’ definition of patriarchy as a system of ‘male supremacy’ used by feminists, which doesn’t actually represent anything like the feminist account of why male dominance exists, and reduces it all to the flat-headed also-tautological thought that male dominance just is a system of male dominance.

There are two problems for the binary model according to Dembroff.

As suggested above, the second feature here is just wrong. Facts about the existence of men and women don’t explain patriarchy. That would be biological determinism. Which is what Dembroff thinks we believe, because Dembroff is either a) dumb or b) strategically disingenuous. The first feature, that we think gendered power relations act on already existing sexed humans is true. Dembroff, as we also saw above, will dismiss that, because ‘sex-is-a-spectrum-Judith-Butler-is-the-oracle’ etc.

The first problem with this model for Dembroff is it “reduces gender oppression to women’s oppression.” (OH NO! CAN’T HAVE THAT!) Sarcasm aside, this is not an accurate representation of our understanding of how patriarchy works, but it’s a distortion again created by Dembroff conflation of sex-based oppression with gender-oppression. Dembroff seems intent on wilfully ignoring that the analysis of how gender functions was in fact developed by radical feminists, and we have long been cognisant of the fact that patriarchal masculinity is harmful to men as individuals, and that heteronormativity – which is a gendered bolt-on to the system of sex-based oppression – is harmful to gay men and lesbians (Adrienne Rich came up with the concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality‘ LONG before Butler showed up.) However, the sex-based oppression of women is not reducible to gender oppression. The easiest way to conceptualise this is in relation to the double bind. The concept of the double-bind was notably outlined by Marilyn Frye in her essay ‘Oppression,’ which Dembroff references a couple of times in this talk. Frye focuses there mostly on classic double binds, such as those around the madonna/whore dichotomy, which present women with to two choices, neither of which are good.

I think it is important however to extend the notion of the double bind to make it clear that all patriarchal norms create double-binds for women, and indeed, for all people who are oppressed by hierarchical mechanisms. The structure of patriarchal gender as experienced by women is such that women are disadvantaged whether or not they conform to, or rebel against, gendered norms. This is because the function of patriarchal gender is to socialise women into performing the role of a reproductive resource, and service class, for males. If women correctly perform patriarchal femininity, therefore, they are undermining their humanity, and placing themselves in a position of exploitation. And this is true, even while they are not subject to any kind of social sanction for their gender. That is, sex-based oppression is distinct from gender-based discrimination, if gender-based is understood to be ‘disadvantage accrued because of how you do gender.’ Males can be subject to gender-based discrimination, but not to sex-based oppression. And males who perform patriarchal masculinity correctly benefit from it, whereas females who perform patriarchal femininity correctly get screwed by it (that’s the point), and also get screwed if they rebel against it (which would be gender-based discrimination). What is therefore completely occluded by subsuming ‘sex-based oppression’ under ‘gender oppression’ is the fundamental structure by which gender functions to extract resources from female people as a class. Well done Robin, have a book deal.

Dembroff will allegedly demonstrate that patriarchy can’t be a system which privileges men as a class by using examples of places where individual men from racialised or sexual minorities are disadvantaged. They then assert that we can’t account for this, and further, that we would deny that is has anything to do with the gender (SEX!) of the individuals, because apparently if you believe in sex-class analysis you have to believe all individual men are privileged and have to be a reductive idiot who can’t understand the nuances of how gender works (which Dembroff genuinely seems to think they are the first person to grasp.) Of course, males who do not perfectly perform white patriarchal masculinity will be penalised by gender-policing, that’s the foundational mechanism through which male dominance is inculcated and enforced. However, this only undermines sex-class analysis if you individualise it, obdurately refuse to grasp how gender functions to structure sex-class relations, and pretend you can’t understand how gender-based hierarchies are intertwined with both racialised and socio-economic hierarchies.

Indeed, Dembroff will use ‘the problem of intersectionality’ in order to somehow prove patriarchy can’t be a system of sex-based oppression, focusing on three legal cases where claims were made under Title VII protections against ‘gender discrimination.’ What the examples prove, I would suggest, is not that sex-based oppression doesn’t exist, but that a) it needs to account for how that is modulated by race and b) that discrimination on the basis of gender non-conformity should be a separate class of legal phenomena which shouldn’t be crowbarred into ‘sex-based’ discrimination. Dembroff however, having reduced ‘the binary model’ to a straw-woman account which apparently can’t explain discrimination against GNC people as an auxiliary effect of sex-based oppression, will claim that these examples show us why sex-based oppression isn’t a thing, and, moreover, thinking about sex-based oppression is bad and wrong because it “reduces gender oppression to a homogenous notion of women’s oppression.” No Robin, no. The oppression of women as a class is not identical to ‘gender policing.’ It cannot be, because women are still exploited and subjugated as members of a sex-class even when they are subject to no gender based discrimination at all, even while they are fulsomely praised for being an ideal home-maker, a good little girl, or for styling themselves for the male gaze. It is you, by collapsing the notion of sex-based oppression into gender-based discrimination, who have produced this reduction, and doggedly attributed it to us, in wilful denial of the fact that it was us who produced this analysis already.

Dembroff maintains that the ‘usefulness’ of the ‘binary model’ is very limited (all that unuseful focusing on women when you should have been paying attention to the damage done to people who really matter eh Robin?). It’s not useful, they claim, because it doesn’t provide a “unified understanding of gender oppression,” which apparently, was what the concept of patriarchy was supposed to provide. Again Robin, no. The concept of patriarchy was developed, by women, to explain the social subordination of women. It was not supposed to provide a ‘unified theory of how patriarchy really hurts men the most,’ although the concept of gender as the mechanism of sex-based oppression, does, in fact, explain why males who do not successfully perform patriarchal dominance are disadvantaged by that, relative to other males. So what is your point, exactly, other than, ‘we need to stop paying any attention whatsoever to the sex-based exploitation of women’??? [Enter Sally Haslanger stage right, still furiously falling over herself to make up for that time she once ‘problematically’ claimed that people who are perceived as female were subject to oppression on that basis. Don’t worry Sally, just a few more years rowing back on any commitment to the exploitation of your sex-class and you’ll be forgiven!!]

2. What Explains Gender Oppression?

The binary model apparently tries to explain gender oppression by ‘facts about women and men,’ which Dembroff thinks they’ve just dealt with. So, now we’re now going to try plugging a bunch of other things into the tautology ‘gender oppression is caused by gender’ and see what happens. Fun!

The first of these, roughly, gender identity, can’t explain gendered oppression because it is itself produced in relation to that oppression. True. That’s why you shouldn’t try to define people by it in law right? The second thing, social roles of subordination and dominance, also doesn’t explain it for the same reason. Quite. (Hmmm, maybe gender doesn’t explain gendered oppression after all). Dembroff will then change tack and interpret gender to mean sex, and explain that that doesn’t work, because if you take sex to be the sole cause of patriarchy, you are committing biological determinism. This is true, if you think that the body being central to the explanation of patriarchy commits you to thinking biology must therefore be the sole determinant of the existence of patriarchy. As Dembroff says, if you “think there is nothing social that bridges the gap between the body and social hierarchy” (24.08), then you’re Stephen Pinker or something. The fact that feminists who believe in sex-based oppression have been arguing with Stephen Pinker since long before I was a baby radfem seems not to concern Dembroff.

It is completely stupid to insist that anyone who thinks the body is central to the oppression of women must think the body is the only variable in the story and is therefore a biological determinist. But this kind of move, as I discuss in more detail in the intro to the Spring issue of The Radical Notion, has long been used by those who want to erase the analysis of patriarchy as a system of sex-based resource extraction, and replace it with free-floating gender wibble-wobble. A system of resource extraction depends on both the properties of the ‘raw material’ which mean that it fulfils a certain set of human needs, and a historical and social system which developed in order to facilitate the appropriation of that material. Dembroff may as well argue here that because the international oil trade does not arise by mechanical necessity from the existence of oil that the material properties of oil have nothing to do with the oil trade. Like I said, completely fucking stupid. Still, this kind of argument is apparently allowed to fly. And I’m sure that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that erasing the recognition of sex-based resource extraction serves the interests of males very nicely thank you very much.

The fourth plug-in will be ‘sex based features plus their social meanings.’ This won’t work, Dembroff thinks, because apparently, the features which make a body male or female are just totally random ever morphing cultural phenomenon that have absolutely nothing to do with human’s reproductive potential… *lapses into rote sex denial*…”something something many (um 99.8% in fact) bodies have clusters of features which mean they can be classified as male or female, something something, ‘exhaustive binary’ (no, edge cases are normal in all classification) something something ‘relation of body to cultural ideas’ (yes, human concepts involve the relation between things in the world and our classification systems, that doesn’t mean classification is just some piece of arbitrary cultural wibble) something something normative, (OMGHARD NOT NORMATIVE, THAT IS THE WORST AND MOST EVIL OF ALL THE SINS, I mean, seriously, who gives a fuck if female people’s bodies are exploited and abused day in and day out as long as we DON’T SAY ANYTHING NORMATIVE.)” Robin is then going to list all the people harmed by these pernicious normative ideals, which will of course conflate normative ideals of sex with normative ideals of gender, starting with intersex people, running through trans, gay and indigenous people, and ending with ‘”even hilariously, Suffragettes.” (28.30) I’m not quite sure what’s hilarious about force-feeding women for the gender non-complying temerity of demanding the vote. Maybe it’s funny because us evil green-purple-and-white types allegedly don’t believe in gender oppression but “Ha! Look! You experience it too” (*slow blink*). Or maybe it’s just hilarious because Robin hates women. Really, who can say.

Anyway, so, to recap, gender oppression can’t be ‘explained’ by gender identity, by people filling certain social roles, by sex, or by sex plus its social meanings. So what, tell us, Robin, explains gender oppression.

The explanation is that gender oppression is explained by a ‘two place relation’ between individuals and gender ideals. Note again the collapsing of male/masculinity and female/femininity into ‘ideals of manhood an womanhood.’ This two place relation ‘binds and polices’ individuals according to gender ideals – it’s normative gender policing basically. So, the stunning new model of patriarchy for which we should happily abandon our account of sex-based resource appropriation is…. ‘gender oppression (which is being devalued or treated badly because you don’t conform to normative gender ideals) is caused by gender policing (which is being subjected to normative gender ideals.’ Great, glad we got that all sorted.

This apparently ‘helps’ because gender ideals are inflected by ‘racism, nationalism, homophobia and abelism’ (not sexism, naturally), and it therefore allows us to understand how different intersectional groups are differently impacted by gender policing. U-huh. You don’t need to abolish sex-based class analysis to do that Robin. You just have to understand how gender works differentially at the intersection of different hierarchies.

Anyway, Robin is now going to talk a lot about how individuals stand in relation to gender ideals, without actually dealing with the fact that gender ideals are applied to people on the basis of their sex, and it’s not possible to make sense of how gay men, or Black men, are judged in relation to ideals of gender without it being the case that people can recognise them as males to begin with. But hey, mere details. Robin is also not going to even remotely attempt to explain where these ideals come from, what their functions is, how they arose, or how they serve any system of material interests. They’re just there. Gender oppression exists because there are gender ideals, and those are historical and shit, and they change, and they don’t serve any particular ends (other than hurting some men probably), and they are applied to people, on some basis, which has definitely not got anything to do with their sex. Right-o. Really clarifying, thanks for all those diagrams and arrows Robin. Made a massive theoretical contribution there.

3. Patriarchy is a Dynamic System of Real Men’s Dominance

“With that in our back pocket” Robin says at this point. With what in your back-pocket Robin??? The claim that gender oppression is caused by gendered ideals? BRILLIANT. Now we get a load of true but not remotely groundbreaking stuff about how patriarchy benefits men who perform patriarchal masculinity. (Sorry, silly me, not men, there is no such thing as men, only “people who are bound and policed by ideals of manhood” for evidently completely arbitrary reasons.) What this benefit actually consists of Robin never says. Given the manifest circularity we’ve been subject to so far, they probably think that ‘the benefit of performing patriarchal dominance is that you are dominant’ is a novel or explanatory insight. Indeed, Dembroff notes, people who do not perform patriarchal masculinity correctly are disadvantaged, and that disadvantage seems to inhere in the ‘way they are valued.’ (At this point Robin is even forced to note that women who perform patriarchal femininity correctly are ‘valued less’ than men… yes Robin, why might that be??? What does that tell you about how well the idea of gender oppression captures the experience of female people who are still treated like shit even when they play right by all the gender norms????)

As you might be able to tell, I’m pretty much losing the will to live now. There’s some stuff that involves Robin bending themselves into a pretzel to avoid dealing with the fact the existence of male animals is not actually something created by patriarchal ideals of gender, followed by something about Aristotelian teleology and how masculinity is the ‘end’ of maleness that makes virtually no sense and gives the concept no substance whatsoever. Then there is more discussion about the negative effects accrued by males (sorry, ‘people who are bound and policed by ideals of manhood’) who don’t do patriarchal masculinity correctly. Okay we get it Robin, men being hurt by gender is really really important and women’s material exploitation and subordination regardless of how they do gender is just totally fucking irrelevant to anything. Which brings us to the final slide I want to look at, the one where, on the basis of a whole load of tautological reasoning, sex/gender conflation, and sex-denialist bullshit, Robin finally delivers the real goods, the assertion that ‘patriarchy is not a system of male dominance and female subordination.’ There is no way to describe this other than as an act of manifest class betrayal. And I have to say Robin, on the evidence presented here, that fancy-ass job and fancy-ass book-deal weren’t bestowed in recognition of your stellar philosophical chops, soooo…..

2 comments

  1. So, “there is no such thing as patriarchy, only individuals and their gender identity.”

  2. I’m torn between admiration for your precision take-down of this ridiculous “logic” and hair-tearing anger that it has to be done at all. The “dumb or disingenous?” question is one I’ve found myself asking at least twice a week since about 2013.

    It’s interesting, by which I might mean infuriating, that the most privileged people seem to consistently confuse structural privilege with individual, arbitrary advantages. (A dead giveaway is the use of plural “privileges,” as though they’re talking about special favors rather than the oppression of whole classes of people by other classes of people!) They seem to be so steeped in their own privileged position that they view “privilege” as any advantage someone else happens to have over them, or even just something another person possesses that they envy.

    How and why do any of these gender identitarians believe patriarchy arose? Without it creating a structural advantage–even an evolutionary one–for some people, why would the whole system come into existence in the first place? For that matter, what could possibly motivate the evolution of gender identity absent an awareness of sexed bodies, and just how do you identify as a member of a class whose very existence you deny? (The whole thing reminds me of one of those absurd, time-travel paradox stories where it turns out someone ends up being born only because he went back in time and introduced his parents to each other.)

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