We see this in the Communion of Saints: There are these different ways of living out masculinity — think St. Francis de Sales and his gentleness. And then there are other male saints who are much more strident. And the same with the female saints: You’ve got Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, as well as Mother Teresa, right? There are a lot of different ways of being a woman and living out one’s sex. So I think that’s the middle way that Edith Stein and John Paul II are going down.
Deep confusion about sexual identity is a seeming cornerstone of contemporary society, plaguing not only our institutions and laws, but, sadly, the lived experiences of many. But according to Abigail Favale, a deeper linguistic confusion undergirds much of our inability to make sense of who we are in a way that fully integrates all the factors, including our bodies.
In fact, in an important 2019 piece for Church Life Journal entitled “The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender,” Favale argues that a widespread cultural neglect of our sexed bodies and inherent procreative potential as the basis for the distinction between men and women — and therefore for a person’s own sexual identity — is the source of many societal ills today.
Favale, an associate professor of English and the dean of the College of Humanities at George Fox University in Oregon, argues that a potent combination of widespread oral contraception and social theory gave rise to a concept of gender — that is, the socially conditioned roles men and women play — divorced from embodiment. Gender, rather than sex, has become the primary way people think and talk about their sexual identity, to the point now where a person’s self-identified gender is considered to be determinative of his or her biological sex, instead of the other way around.
As a former postmodern feminist who converted to Catholicism, a compelling spiritual odyssey detailed in her memoir Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Favale is in a unique position to provide helpful analysis. The wife and mother of three is currently finalizing a book for Ignatius Press on the topic of our culture’s confused approaches to gender and sexuality, a malady that she suggests affects not only progressives and postmodernists, but even some conservative and traditionalist Catholic responses to our current crisis. Favale recently spoke to the Register at length.
I was struck by how you link the demise of sex — that is, an understanding of our sexual identity as rooted in our bodies and procreative potentiality — to widespread oral contraception. You pointed out that the rise of this technological factor actually allowed social theories of gender that were divorced from our sexed bodies to become more influential in society. What’s the link between the introduction of contraception and this fundamental change in the way we perceive our sexual identity and our relationship to our body?
I think when our culture became contraceptive, it shaped our cultural imagination in a way where we now have this kind of default or presumptive attitude that everyone’s sterile, but especially women; that’s the default state. And so, once our understandings of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are not really linked to our procreative potentials, then what’s the ground of sexual difference? What’s the ground of being a man and being a woman?
Well, then it becomes things like secondary sex characteristics [things like facial hair, the development of breasts, deepness of voice]. And so I think — and you see this, right? — when you hear kind of the more popular way of talking about gender or these memes, like the genderbread person or the gender unicorn, they talk about sex and just list a bunch of secondary sex characteristics. But they never actually talk about gametes. They never talk about the capacity to gestate or, you know, to produce sperm. It’s all downstream of that.
So the unifying purpose of those secondary sex characteristics has been kind of forgotten or neglected. And so now sex is just about those secondary characteristics. And if you can mimic the appearance of them, that’s all that sex really is. So, the logic goes, you can change sex.
It’s ironic, because people say Catholics are unnecessarily obsessed with sex and fertility and procreation. But as you point out, the word “gender” itself comes from gens, which is tied to birth and generation. And if we’re made in the image and likeness of a wildly generative, creative, relational God, understanding our generative capacities seems like an essential foundation for understanding the human person.
Right — it’s about looking at sexuality within the context of not only the whole person, but also the whole cosmos, whereas the more popular contemporary way of thinking about it is to just think about sex in terms of sexual pleasure, as an end in itself. So it’s disconnected from life. And so the Catholic view is about looking at sex in a way that includes its connection to life, rather than excluding it.
In your Church Life Journal piece, you’re certainly critical of “second wave” and subsequent forms of feminism, which played a big role in disconnecting gender from the reality of biological sex. But you’re also critical of a kind of “essentialism” that locates sexual difference in a rigid set of roles that men and women play in society. Do you think there’s a middle way?
One of the problems that’s driving our confusion about sex and gender is an overreliance upon stereotypes to define men and women. And there are really two sides of the same coin. There’s the more traditionalist version of that, which is like, “Dress your boys in blue and your girls in pink.” But then the more progressive view also takes the same premise, and says, “If you have a boy who really likes pink, he must not really be a boy.” So they’re kind of both relying too heavily on stereotypes, rather than sexual embodiment as the foundation for what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. They’re locked in this mirroring war.
But there is a middle way. St. Edith Stein, the 20th-century Catholic convert and philosopher and a big influence of John Paul II and his theology of the body, wrote about a dynamic essentialism. You have embodiment, but you also have the will and the intelligence and the emotions. There’s a central potential that we have as human beings that needs to be developed and cultivated. So I am essentialist in the sense that I think that womanhood is rooted in femaleness. It’s not this kind of free-floating construct that anyone can just appropriate or step into. But I’m not essentialist in the sense that I think simply being female determines in a kind of narrow, biologically deterministic way what a woman is in the world. I think the Catholic view has a pretty strong understanding of human freedom and our ability to develop as a human person. So if embodiment is the foundation for manhood and womanhood, then there’s a little more freedom in how that is lived out. And it doesn’t have to look like a cookie-cutter way of being a man or a woman.
So should Catholics be using a term like “gender” — or does it just confuse things?
One helpful thing about gender — and it’s something that second-wave feminists did contribute, although I think it eventually backfired — is that it helps us recognize that there are certain ways that society and culture shape how sex is expressed. So if you look at different cultures, different historical moments, there are certain contrasts about how men and women should look, what they’re allowed to do. And that’s not just strictly and solely determined by biology. I think it’s important to be able to recognize that and to name that, and, initially, gender was a way of doing that.
But the problem is when you have a concept of gender that’s neatly separated from sex, where they’re no longer connected: Then you eventually get down this road where gender becomes the ground for manhood and womanhood, and sex is not even really considered important at all. So I think, ultimately, the second-wave feminist sex/gender distinction set the ground for this kind of postmodern juggernaut of gender.