Notes Towards a Femontology, from a Woman with a Penis.

, ,

What do I mean by “Pure Gender?”

No person is originally identical with their gender. In fact, no person has ever been identical with any gender. There is no graspable masculinity that can be identified within certain “true” men and not in others. There is no ideal of woman that every woman must be measured against. And so on. Terms such as man, woman, masc, fem, are historical contingencies. They do not in themselves constitute “genders”* but can only be said to contribute to an illusion of gender continuity where in fact there is rupture.

*I have no problem using the term “gender identity” in everyday life, or saying that my “gender” is woman. This kind of linguistic flexibility can be allowed in the practical realm, but not in the theoretical. Individual “gender identities,” in a theoretical sense, are better thought of as a sustained continuity of gender impressions, but always as individual constructions, never as a copy from an original.

If individual gender identities are mere contingencies, where do we locate Pure Gender? Is there even such a thing? I think so, but I do not think it is easy to approach. Only by retracing the problem of the impossibility of sex, and distinguishing between gender and the gender impressions, can we begin to grasp the form – though perhaps never the matter – of Pure Gender.

Sex and Gender

The non-biological character of gender is demonstrable through a simple thought experiment. Imagine three people. One of them is a cis man, the second is nonbinary, and the third is a trans woman. Now imagine that they are identical triplets. Is it easier to imagine that the two gender-nonconforming triplets went through some aberrant process that the cis triplet did not? Or can we instead imagine that each of the three underwent the same non-biological process, cis and trans alike? 

But that gender is irreducible to biology is far from an original insight, and captures only a small part of the truth. The “constructed” nature of gender is an easy idea for most to accept, but its radical character is often missed. Judith Butler’s statement that “gender is performative” is too often misinterpreted as: “there is such a thing as real, biological sex, but gender is something else grafted onto that.” 

In fact, Butler argues almost the exact opposite. . “It would make no sense,” she says in Gender Trouble, “to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category… sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along.”

Far more than performativity, this is Butler’s great insight, her Copernican shift. No longer is the relationship between sex and gender one between biology and culture. Biological sex does not determine gender. Instead, gender retroactively determines a sex that can never be biological at all.

I repeat: sex is never biological. No human being is born identical with a sex, but is instead mired in the impossibility of sex from the day they are born. This impossibility is constitutive of sex, is in fact the only positive existence it can be said to have. And it is precisely at this point of impossibility that we can experience Pure Gender as an encounter.

Failure and Insistence

I do not want to mislead you into thinking I hold the keys to some prediscursive, original source of gender. Anyone who offers you such an “all-access pass” to gender should not be trusted. Pure Gender cannot be held in the palm of your hand. It must be reached for while blindfolded. And I am not so much interested in what I am reaching towards as I am in the reaching itself.

That is because gender, by definition, is that which cannot be reached. More specifically, gender is the limit of sex. What does this mean? It means that sex strives towards some form of gender expression, but always fails. It is through this failure that gender emerges on the scene to begin with. Sex and gender do not occupy a closed circuit, nor do they represent two scales to be balanced. There is a fundamental relationship of asymmetry and exclusion between them. It is only by wrestling with this nature that we emerge as gendered subjects.

Where sex always fails, gender always insists. Gender is that which will always return and yet never reach its destination. For if gender ever did complete its circuit, it would be nothing at all. Through the inevitability of failure and impossibility, Pure Gender sustains itself. It could be said that sex is the biological impossibility that sets gender into motion, and Pure Gender is the motion itself.

So what, though? So far, our explanation has only approached Pure Gender, and not described it in-itself. What is the actual nature of Pure Gender? If we truly encounter Pure Gender through the transition, what is it that we are encountering? I.e. the encounter can be thought of in two steps: the act of encountering, and the object that is encountered. So far, the former has come somewhat into view. The latter, however, remains to be seen.

What is Performativity?

The best way to understand the nature of the encounter with Pure Gender (the transition) is through Judith Butler’s notion of performativity. To put it succinctly, when Butler says that gender is “performative” she means that is an encounter in which the encountered is in the encountering.

In other words, Butler is asking us to restructure our earlier explanation of the encounter as an active process of encountering the encountered. Instead, the encountering, by prefiguring the encountered, constitutes it. In Butler’s own words: “the anticipation conjures its object… [gender] operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.”

Pure Gender thus becomes not a tangible object but an unrealizable, though nonetheless embodied, objective. In the transition we submit to the utter biological failure of sex. In doing so we can begin to generate gender impressions, which are the ONLY tangible form that gender takes. Gender impressions cover everything that is tangible about gender, from individual labels such as “man,” “woman,” “enbie,” etc., to feeling such as euphoria, to all of the individual acts that have previously been labeled “gender expression.” The result of the transition, everything about gender that you can grasp, this is the gender impressions.

But the gender impressions, as dazzling and manifold as they are, are not Pure Gender, for the simple fact that they are alway historical, contingent, and individual. Pure Gender, on the other hand, is ahistorical, substantial, and universal. A paradox emerges: if the gender impressions comprise the only way that gender makes itself known, and if Pure Gender consists of abstracting away from these impressions, then can we in fact say nothing intelligible at all about Pure Gender?

Pure Gender is gender without contingencies. It is therefore ungraspable in-itself through experience. Nevertheless, as I hope I have demonstrated so far, we can say quite a bit about how it behaves. We can see the way that it interacts with sex, as a limit/vanishing mediator. We can also see that it is responsible for the gender impressions, even if the gender impressions are not analogous to Pure Gender. These three terms – sex (qua negativity), Pure Gender (qua limit), and the gender impressions (qua positivity) – comprise the three foundational elements of this theory.


Pure Gender is what is left when we remove gender from its historical, contingent, and individual frame. While this may seem to be an overly theoretical project, it is actually an attempt to salvage gender from being completely unraveled by particularism. 

Much of “gender studies” focuses on the binary, how it is constructed, and how it acts on individuals. This is an admirable project for sure, but it cannot be considered one devoted to Pure Gender. It is more accurately named an historicist project, aimed at creating a genealogy of the binary as it has operated in certain colonial and post-colonial societies over the course of the modern period. Again, I certainly consider this to be a worthwhile and respectable project.

But it is not my project, for it does not study Pure Gender, but rather what Judith Butler calls “intelligible genders,” i.e. the binary. If the binary was indeed all that we meant when we talked about gender, then the business of resolving gender could be done before lunch.

But nevertheless, gender persists. We know very well that the binary is constructed, imposed upon us, that it is nothing more than a crude mashing up of normative genital structure and rigid social archetypes. That is why, on this blog, I will show very little interest in the binary, in “man vs. woman” or “masc vs. fem.” As far as I’m concerned, Butler and her peers have already trod that ground well. What I am interested in is the ground that has not yet been tread upon – in Pure Gender itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



%d bloggers like this: