What is the difference between sex and gender? What does the Bible tell us about sex and gender? How is that different from the dominant narrative of our culture? How should Christians relate to those in the midst of gender dysphoria? Join us as we answer these questions and more with our guest, Abagail Favale and her new book, The Genesis of Gender.
Dr. Abigail Favale is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She has an academic background in gender studies and feminist literary criticism. Abigail's essays and short stories have appeared in print and online for publications such as First Things, The Atlantic, Church Life, and Potomac Review.
Scott Rae: What is the difference between sex and gender? What does the Bible tell us about sex and gender and how is that different from the dominant narrative of our culture? How should Christians relate to those in the midst of gender dysphoria? Join us as we answer these questions and more with our guest today, Dr. Abigail Favale, as a result of her new book called “The Genesis of Gender.” I'm your host, Scott Rae.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: And this is “Think Biblically” from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Abigail, welcome. Glad to have you with us. You have such an interesting personal journey involved in your study of gender specifically. That forms a big part of the backstory here. Tell us about where that journey started and sort of where you are today.
Abigail Favale: Sure. So I was raised as an evangelical Protestant. And when I went to college at a Christian school, I became really interested in feminism and gender and social justice. I was a philosophy major, I had lots of questions, and I think I was personally invested in wanting to understand my own dignity as a woman. What does it mean to be a woman? I had this sense that there was something meaningful and important about that. And that's when I started studying feminism a little more intensively. And then I graduated and went on to graduate school studying literature, but also feminist theory and gender theory, and also some kind of religious thought and theology thrown in there. And so over the course of my 20s, I developed this expertise in gender theory and feminist theory. And then toward the end of my 20s, I had a kind of reversion to the Christian faith because through my graduate studies, I'd really drifted away from Christianity. And then I became Catholic right around the age of 30 and experienced a very profound worldview shift. And so now I find myself trying to bring my insider knowledge of gender theory to help Christians navigate the current confusion and debates around gender that were navigating our culture.
Sean McDowell: One of the things you write, Abigail, is that, quote, "The gender theory I'd been teaching my students was rooted in an underlying framework at odds with Christianity." What was that gender theory and how did it come... How did it be at odds with a Christian view of gender?
Abigail Favale: Sure. So the gender theory I was teaching, it was just kind of the standard, you know, gender theory anthology that you would find. So a lot of Judith Butler, a lot of second and third wave feminist thinkers. But I think what I didn't quite realize at the time, or initially when I started studying this in graduate school, is that there's this implicit worldview at work. But no one ever talked about it, right? When I was in my grad school seminars, no one ever kind of stepped back and was like, "Wow, what are the claims about absolute truth being made here. No one had that conversation because there was just this assumption that we're working within a worldview where all of reality and truth is seen as a construct of language and a construct of society. So perhaps there is ultimate truth, but it's unknowable. We're working with human concepts, human words. So the word God is a metaphor, something human beings have tried to create. Man, woman, these themselves are constructs or metaphors. And there's, I would say that worldview is also implicitly, sometimes explicitly atheistic, right? There's no God, there's no kind of ground of meaning, that there's no sense that the world is intelligible to us. And there's certainly no sense that there is a God who's actually revealing himself and reaching down to us, right? So that's kind of the water I was swimming in, and that's the implicit worldview in all of these texts. And I had this moment of realization that not only had I kind of absorbed this worldview, almost by osmosis, but by teaching that, those texts in just this kind of typical academic, like let's read these texts and talk about them without actually drawing attention to some of the assumptions that are being made about reality in the human person and God and truth, that I had kind of brought my own students into that same kind of osmosis. And so that was not a fun wake-up call for me, but an important one.
Scott Rae: So Abigail, let me expand on that just a bit. It sounds like you had inherited some of the predominant views of gender that were not only involved in the Academy, but in the culture at large. So help our listeners. I think we have listeners who are maybe not super familiar with the debate on gender. Help our listeners understand what are some of the current views of gender that are predominant in the culture at large. If you could give us a bit of a roadmap on that, I think that'd be really helpful.
Abigail Favale: Sure. Right. So it's really confusing, so I will do my best. I think one of the problems that we're facing is that the word gender is used to mean very significantly different things. And sometimes it's even the different meanings are used by the same person in the same conversation. So let's just kind of focus on some of the main definitions that are at work. One is just maybe the ordinary person on the street. Gender is basically a synonym of sex, right? They're just interchangeable. So if you're female, you're a woman, that's your gender, end of story. Then we have the concept of gender as a social construct. Certainly if you've been in a college classroom in the last 20 years, you will have encountered that phrase. And this is the idea that really comes from second wave feminist theory, that you have biology, so you have sex, which is biological, but then you have gender, which is the social and cultural expressions or norms associated with sex, so that aren't strictly natural. So that's the important distinction there. They're not strictly biological. So you might think about something like, in our culture, it's normal for women to have certain hairstyles. It's not as if their hair naturally or biologically grows differently, but that's more of a gendered construct. So then there's that idea, gender as a social construct.
But now we're encountering yet a different understanding of gender, which I try to just call gender identity theory to distinguish it from gender as a social construct. And that seems to be the idea that gender is this profound innate sense of self. It's an entirely subjective thing, but it's also profoundly real, and it can be at odds with one's biological sex. And if there's any kind of incongruence between one's gender identity and one's sex, then the body must be pretty drastically altered to be brought into alignment. Now, that's a very different understanding than gender being this external social construct, right? Rather than something that's almost like a gendered soul. So those are almost opposite meanings, really. And yeah, so that's part of the confusion, I think, that we're navigating these very different concepts. But just to maybe make a more meta point, I think what is happening is that all the meaning that traditionally has been attributed or attached to biological sex is now being attached to gender and gender is subjectively defined and it's not grounded in the body.
Sean McDowell: Okay, so of those three definitions. It would seem that the first one Christians would take no issue with that if you want to use gender as a synonym for sex. Second one, the kind of cultural expression maybe of maleness or femaleness, whether it's how somebody does their hair or pink for girls and blue for guys. Using that term because it maps on somewhat onto reality doesn't seem as a whole to be problematic. The issue would really come into when we talk about gender identity theory number three. Is that true or would you push back a little bit on that second definition and say not so fast?
Abigail Favale: I love this question. I would say in general that's true, but I would have, I would have kind of, it's almost like green light, yellow light, red light, you know? So maybe have a more cautious ... I do think it's true that when we talk about gender in that social construct way, that's naming a real phenomenon that's important, I think, to have in our discussions about men and women in general. There are different cultural norms and some of them are good and some of them are bad. We could think of Chinese foot binding or infant genital mutilation. And so these are not good cultural norms. So I think it's helpful to realize that not everything associated with the sexes is actually natural. At the same time, I do think, and this is an argument I make in my book, that the distinction between gender and sex has kind of led to gender being seen as not just distinct from sex but actually separate from sex. So I think it really has kind of driven a wedge between these and it's kind of paved the way for the gender identity theory concept, which really rejects the meaning of the body altogether. So I'm a little ambivalent about that, about the sex gender split.
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. Christopher West, who I know you're familiar with, just a Catholic writer on theology of the body, he says the root word of the term gender comes from “generate” or “generation”, how somebody begets. So even if there is some cultural expression of somebody's biological sex we call gender, it still needs to be tied to how somebody begets and reproduces. And I thought that's a very helpful fair point. Would you agree with that?
Abigail Favale: Yes, absolutely. Right. I would say how I would love to rehabilitate the term gender, I think that sex refers to, like, I'll just talk about myself right now, my biology, I'm a female. Gender is the fact that I'm a woman. Now, woman, the word woman does contain a richer meaning than just female, right? Woman includes the idea of human. And if we're coming from a Christian perspective, there's also a spiritual reality that's at work here that's not just the biological reality right? We're both, we're body-soul composites, right? That's the Christian anthropology. So I think if we're using the term gender as a personal category, and by that I mean relating to a person, a human person, then it includes sex, but it also has this kind of extra richer meaning. But in general, I think using it as a synonym for sex is a better way to proceed than trying to make it something separate from sex.
Scott Rae: Abigail, you have said in your book that you ended up at this point in your journey, you've become a gender essentialist. Explain what that means and why it's important. And I'm just curious too, why do you think in the culture at large there is such animus toward the notion that men and women are different?
Abigail Favale: Wow. Okay. So it's so funny. Yes, even saying I'm a gender essentialist, this is like the worst sin you could commit as a feminist here.
Scott Rae: So those are fighting words, huh?
Abigail Favale: It is. I remember actually when I was doing my doctorate, and I'll be honest, I've been kind of a closet essentialist all along, but I remember having to write this whole section about how I'm not really an essentialist, even though I'm making these arguments that sexual difference is real. Anyway, now I just own it. Okay. So basically, essentialism means that there are differences between the sexes that are rooted in our nature and that aren't purely socially constructed. So that's what I think men and women are both fully human. We share fully in human nature, but we also have a sexual nature, a sexual nature that is asymmetrical, that's sexually differentiated. So that's basically what I mean. Now we could go super into the weeds about Aristotelian essentialism and whether there's a gendered soul. I don't want to do that because I actually don't even know what I think about that. But when I say I'm a gender essentialist, it is like there is this stable difference rooted in our nature. And it's not like we're polar opposites either because I think one of the critiques against essentialism that has truth in it is that gender essentialism has too often been interpreted in ways that make the sexes seem like they're polar opposites, and usually that women are kind of not quite fully formed men, right? Or say women are emotional, men are rational, okay? That kind of false gender essentialism, I would definitely still critique and reject. But I think what's happened is that feminist theory basically threw the baby out with the bathwater. And instead of saying, "Okay, let's make some careful distinctions here about good essentialism versus bad essentialism," they basically said, "No, gender is just a social construct," and really went in the nominalist direction. So instead of seeing there's a different essence between the sexes, rather it's just a nominal or a categorical the station that's convenient for political action.
Now the second part of your question, why is our culture so allergic to essentialism, I guess? Well what's interesting is that I think gender identity theory is a new essentialism. Even though it's like come out of the hardcore social constructionism of gender theory, it's almost asserting this new kind of core of womanhood and core of manhood, but completely unrelated to the body, or at least not, it has to be made related to the body, right? So the body becomes almost this project that you have to complete in order to match your gendered essence. But I think the problem with that is the rejection of the meaning of the body.
Scott Rae: Okay, so let's be really clear about this. For the gender essentialists, just so our listeners really understand this, what is it that's different about men and women? Is there anything other than the sexual function related to procreation, or is that basically where the difference resides?
Abigail Favale: Well, the difference is grounded in the body and the generative potential that each sex has, which really affects the whole body, right? I think one of the problems about the conversation in our culture right now is that there's too much focus on body parts rather than realizing that sex is a structural, it's an arrangement of the entire body, right? So it's a holistic category. So I would say it is grounded in the body, but also because in a Christian understanding, a Christian anthropology has this union of body and soul, right? And so the soul being the form of the body, there's such a profound union between the two of them, that I do think there's some kind of distinction then between a male soul and a female soul because of the union with the body. But maybe another way of putting it is that what kind of body we have also affects our psychology. There's a spiritual reality to being a man or a woman. Because we're not just purely biological beings, right? We’re spiritual. But yet it's grounded in the body. That's where the distinction is. So I know I'm kind of like not giving you an exact answer on this, but yeah.
Sean McDowell: Okay, no, that's super helpful. So let me ask a question that if somebody told me that, "Hey”, 10 years ago, “Sean, you're going to be hosting this podcast at Biola, and you're going to ask a guest this question”, I would have said, "Nah, this is crazy." But this question expresses where we are as a culture. So what is the definition of a woman? What is a woman? And why does our culture have such a difficult time answering this question?
Abigail Favale: I know. I'm with you too. I still, every time I ask this question, I'm like, "I can't believe I have to answer this question." Anyway, so I think here's a good definition of a woman. A woman is the kind of human being whose body is organized according to the potential of gestation and generating within herself. So a man, in contrast, is the kind of human being whose body is organized according to the potential to generate outside of himself. Now I use the word potential here and it's really important because sometimes people get hung up on the fact, well, what about women who struggle with infertility? Are they somehow less female or less woman? And I’m saying emphatically no, because in fact the very category of infertility signals an inherent potential that for some reason is being prevented from being actualized. So if we don't look at a man who can't get pregnant and say he's infertile, no, because he never had that potentiality
Sean McDowell: Exactly.
Abigail Favale: in the first place. So that's why I think the term “potential” is really important here. And really, I think that that definition is a really good one, because it holds up against the what about-ery, like what about infertile women? What about post-menopausal women? What about prepubescent girls, right? But nonetheless, that's what anchors what it means to be a woman.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Not every capacity is actualized all at the same time.
Abigail Favale: Yes.
Scott Rae: So, yeah, I think that, yeah, putting that in the language of a capacity that under the right conditions can be actualized, I think is the right way to understand that.
Abigail Favale: Yeah. And I would also say that it exists and shapes our lives even if it is never actualized, right? So even someone who never had...Like a woman who never has children, that potential and the fact that her body is structured according to that potential will still shape her experience and her bodily life and her psychology, right? So there's a sense in which it might not be fully actualized in birth, but it is very real. Like it is a real potential that structures our bodily life.
Scott Rae: Yeah. And I think this discussion we just had, I think relates to an earlier observation you made that as part of your journey from feminism to gender essentialism, you made the observation that femaleness was turned into a form of pathology. Instead of something being divinely ordained, there was something actually fundamentally sick about that. How did that occur?
Abigail Favale: Right. So, yeah, that's another one of my feminist heresies, the heretical points that I make, I mean heretical against feminist orthodoxy that I make in the book, and that's ironically, feminist thought since the second wave especially, has a real bias against being female. So women's capacity for pregnancy, gestation, lactation, birth, those are seen as things that have to be managed and treated, their risks rather than gifts. And so I make the argument in the book that this pathologization of femaleness, it might not originate in the birth control movement, but it really escalates in the birth control movement. So Margaret Sanger was kind of at the helm of, she almost really single-handedly, completely shifted the cultural tide in terms of embracing contraception. And if you read her writings, it's really shocking how she basically scapegoats women's fertility for everything that's wrong with the world. The fact that we have war, poverty, oppression, even tyranny, right? It's the tyrant's mom who was to blame because she gave birth to him.
Scott Rae: Well, I thought it was all men's fault.
Abigail Favale: Right. I know. It's really striking, right? And then, you know, second wave feminism, and so this one, we're talking about the mid-20th century, that movement really embraced this idea because they saw the solution to women's oppression as contraception and abortion. In other words, in order to be free, women have to function biologically in the world as much like men as possible. This sets women at war with their own nature. That's kind of the argument that I make, that our culture doesn't really know what to do with female-ness, with this interdependency that female-ness signals and actualizes.
Sean McDowell: Abigail, what do you make of the prevalence of transitioning procedures? How common is this, and how might we think about it as Christians?
Abigail Favale: Right. Well, how common is it? That's a good question. I think maybe the more interesting question or the interesting aspect is not so much the rarity, but rather the pretty rapid change in escalation in terms of especially young people and especially young women who are seeking transition, gender transition and experiencing gender dysphoria. So we're seeing a rapid rise in the last... I would say, especially since 2014, right? So if you just kind of imagine a graph that really begins to surge in 2014 and then really spikes after COVID as well, we're seeing like thousands of percent of increase in the number of young people who are seeking out medical transition. And this happens to be coinciding with a very profound mental health crisis among young people, especially girls, right? Which there was just a, I think a CDC survey that was released recently that talked about like one in three teenage girls has like seriously considered and made a plan for suicide, right? So our young women are not all right. And yet then this trend is coinciding with this surge in gender transition as well. So I think there are a lot of things feeding into this. I do think that we should be concerned as a culture. I think social media is feeding into it. I think there's also a profound amount of money behind it. There's a lot of money that can be made if you medicalize healthy young people for life. So there's a lot of top down power behind it as well as bottom up influence through especially, I would say, the internet and social media.
Scott Rae: So Abigail, one final question. Let me follow up on that. How should us as Christians relate to those who are wrestling with gender dysphoria in the midst of transition or considering it beyond the two extremes that you lay out? Where there's either sort of simplistic condemnation or as you refer to it, fawning affirmation. I take it you hold some sort of middle ground in between those two. What is it?
Abigail Favale: Yes, absolutely. There's a middle ground. I would say rejection is not the way of Christ. A lot of trans-identified people have stories about being rejected by their families, rejected by their church communities when they transition. Then on the other hand, you do have this affirmation that basically is never asking questions, right? It doesn't seem to be concerned about the entire holistic flourishing of the human person. So I really do think there's a middle way. And honestly, I think that way is found in a careful attention to the person. I think one of the lies, I guess, of the gender framework is that it takes this whole range of complex human experiences, complex human anguish and suffering, all kinds of things that might be going on in a person's mind and heart. And then it funnels it into this really simplistic framework. Like, "Oh, you don't feel at home in your body? You must be trans." Or "You don't feel like you belong anywhere? You must be trans." You know, you don't... And I think what we need to do then is to kind of peel, like look past the framework, peel past the script and really see the person and what they need and what seems, it's being attentive to what they're going through, what kind of suffering they're having, and then accompanying them in that, but also having a really good handle on what's true and what's real. And I think it varies depending on when you're talking about a minor or another adult, right? So I think, again, making those kind of distinctions can be helpful. And considering your responsibility in relation to someone, right? If you're a parent, you have a particular sphere of responsibility. If you're a pastor or a counselor or a doctor, right? As opposed to say, just like friend or a neighbor. So I think thinking about our roles, our spheres of responsibility, the age and state of development of the person in question, those are really helpful distinctions to make. But then really having a personalist approach, like what is going on in this particular human soul and how can I love them while also still holding on to what's true?
Scott Rae: Now, thank you for that. That's super helpful, I think, in the way. Because I think we, as a church, I think we've really wrestled hard with the right way to approach people who are in the middle of this struggle. And there's got to be a better way than the two extremes that are the most common.
Abigail Favale: Yes, absolutely. And I think this is like the question, right? And it's very complex. It doesn't have an easy answer. But I do think that the answer is relational.
Scott Rae: Yeah, that's really helpful. Well, Abigail, thank you so much. I feel like, Sean, we just scratched the surface here
Sean McDowell: I agree.
Scott Rae: with what we could have talked about. But Abigail, this has been so helpful. I want to commend to our listeners your book, "The Genesis of Gender," subtitle “A Christian Theory”. It's so well done, so clear, and I think will provide a really nice roadmap for our listeners to then navigate this area of sex and gender and the conversations in the culture. So thank you so much for being with us. This has been super, super helpful.
Abigail Favale: Thank you so much. This has been great.
Scott Rae:This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including those from our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Abigail Favale, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.