Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory

The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. The politics of sex and gender are inseparable by social design because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism.fausto-sterling SOCIAL DETERMINISM

I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:

As a teaching tool in their struggle to change the medical practice of infant genital surgery, members of the Intersexual Rights Movement have designed a ‘‘phall-o-meter’’ (shown in figure 3.4), a small ruler that depicts the permissible ranges of phallus size for males and females at birth. It provides a graphic summary of the reasoning behind the decision-making process for assigning gender.

Again, in Fausto-Sterling’s words:

Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl, then, employs social definitions of the essential components of gender. Such definitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.

Medical diagnosis of “male” or “female” determines the individual’s social role as “boy” or “girl.” Culture imposes a complex set of values on our bodies, behaviors, moods, and relationships through the process of sex-based (aka “gender”) role socialization. This sex-based division of social labor is externally—not internally— enforced and dictates a very particular set of things about the forms our relationships to others must take. For example, the picture of the bib below provides the popular social script for how adult males are expected to relate to their female children, and female children to their fathers. This particular male/female dynamic is no way spontaneous or organic, for it is expected to begin development before the child is even capable of feeding herself without making a mess!pink_daddys_little_princess_bibIn some parts of the world, fetuses are killed because the sex of the potential child is female. In others, gender (sex?) reveal parties are a growing practice. Everywhere, compulsory heterosexuality is the dominant paradigm of cross-gender relations. The process of sex-based social role differentiation begins well before individual humans develop conscious memory of their own. As a lived experience, gender socialization seems to have no beginning and no end.

In this light, it may be easier to understand why many people passionately insist that “gender” is programmed from within despite what is so obvious about sex-based social role assignments at birth. The psychological experience of sex-based role socialization actually supports a personal belief in biological essentialism: there is a complete lack of control, as Fausto-Sterling puts it, in “the decision-making process for assigning gender.” There is no consultation with the individual patient; there is no informed consent. Opting-out simply is not possible. At least, not for a few years, during which time the child is handled according to the sex-based social role that “matches” his/her genitals. As most early childhood educators and psychologists will tell you, these early experiences are formative whether we enjoy them or not.

This is how my feminist theory analyzes the mechanics of “gender,” which includes both the ideological and material axes of females’ oppression. The biological reality of so-called “intersex” conditions perfectly illustrates, and in no way interrupts, this analysis: individuals with disorders of sexual development are also shoe-horned into the social caste system of gender. Sex-based gender roles are not a natural or healthy arrangement for any human. We  therefore expect gender role rebellion to occur in all human subgroups without exception. And indeed, it does.


Lack of control over—and corresponding lack of insight into—the social psychology of sex-based typecasting can help explain why so many people are slow to resist the characterization of their coerced placement in the gender binary as endowing them with “cis privilege” over trans-identifying people.

The idea that non-trans people can be accurately described as “cisgender” assumes that failure to reject the sex-based social role one is coercively assigned at birth—that is, rejecting it by actively identifying as “trans”—is an accurate reflection of “cis” people’s Authentic Self. Otherwise, hey, why would “cis” people “identify with” the sex-based social role they were assigned at birth? Well, failure to reject something is not equivalent to positively embracing it. This is basic logic.

Opposing “oppression” according to a cis/trans axis of gender, rather than by male/female social-role-assignment and its widespread consequences, requires subscription to the belief that humans have something like an internally calibrated “gender identity compass.” This “gender identity compass” presumably directs us toward one of two mutually exclusive (yet culturally bound) sex-based social roles.

“Cis privilege” theory is predicated on the assumption that if the orientation of each individual’s “gender compass” matches their sex-based gender role assignment at birth, they are privileged by gender. If it doesn’t, they are oppressed by gender. Using the word “cis” to describe non-trans people’s experiences of their assigned gender role is a concession to this essentialist position about the internal source of humans’ “gender identity.”

By definition, then, to be “cisgender” is an unproblematic state of experiencing gender because it means your sex-based social role assignment at birth is in harmony with your True Self. To describe someone as a “ciswoman” is to believe that girl-socialized-females should (and do) experience their sex-based socialization as a series of neutral or maybe even pleasant interactions with the world. Yet the lived experiences of women and the statistics tell a staggeringly different story.

Male sexual violence against women; the persistent pay gap between males and females; and lack of female representation even in democratically elected governments serve as undeniable evidence that the sex-role socialization of females operates as a handicap to females’ full humanity, not as a benefit or a privilege. Many women find the notion of “cis privilege” offensive for exactly this reason. It neutralizes unequal power dynamics between males and females and then proceeds to analyze gender-based oppression according to each individual’s self-reported comfort with the social role s/he was assigned at birth. Structural oppression doesn’t work that way; it isn’t subjective and you can’t “free yourself” by changing your internal identity.[ii]


Because “cis” and “cis privilege” rely on an essentialist framing of gender, the theory does not contemplate the possibility that long, long ago—after reasonable alternatives failed to present—an individual may have resigned herself to the sex-based social role she was assigned at birth. I believe this happens much more often than we collectively acknowledge. At some point in early childhood —knowing that the underlying social justification for one’s role as a “girl” or a “boy,” the body, is unchangable—many of us resigned ourselves to being a “girl” or a “boy” and to making the best of it within the parameters allowed by our parents and peers.  This does not constitute a positive embrace of assigned gender role; rather, it is the hesitant acceptance of something undesirable but seemingly inevitable.

The social psychology concept of pluralistic ignorance helps to explain how widespread but reluctant assimilation to one’s assigned sex-based social role is made invisible, like the madness of crowds. And in this vacuum, the concept of “cis privilege” flourishes. Briefly,

Pluralistic ignorance posits that in certain circumstances most people will falsely believe that others conform to certain ideas or standards, and will uphold them, too, while privately disagreeing with them. Since there is a fear of disagreeing with what is believed to be the norm, situations or behaviors continue that few people actually endorse. This is a social psychology concept that was first brought to attention in the 1930s by Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz. It can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.

The increasingly popular concepts of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” seem to fit the description of “pluralistic ignorance” perfectly. As individuals, we falsely assume or believe that everyone else has seamlessly assimilated to their assigned sex-based gender role, while we secretly struggle with our own. If we dare to express distaste for our role, we are led to believe that our inability or unwillingness to adapt is a personal failing and that resistance is futile. Because normal people, “cis” people, just do it. They don’t feel angst or discomfort- do they?? Most of us internalize these feelings of abnormality and reluctantly conform to prevailing gender norms without realizing how many of our peers feel similarly ill-at-ease with this social system.

As an extreme example that clearly illustrates the power of social coercion, females are taught to disregard even the physical pain that is caused by gender-specific garments such as high heels and tight clothing because wearing them can increase the perception of a woman’s social value (see “empowerment” feminism). Beauty is painful, they tell us, but it’s a natural and expected part of womanhood.  In order to prove that we are normal and socially acceptable, those who want to be “Good Women” comply without complaint. And regularly. Even when it physically hurts. This is the opposite of free association. It is the brutal and destructive consequence of gender ideology.

On the other hand, the unexpected cultural embrace of, for example, Marlo Thomas’s “Free to Be…You and Me” indicates that many people are unhappy with the current arrangement and that lurking just beneath the surface of sex-based social role normativity is a powerful undercurrent of resistance. The same might be argued for the trendiness of “trans” identities among young people. But Thomas and friends took a very different approach to the problem of pluralistic ignorance and sex-based social roles. Instead of internalizing and glorifying “gender” as an essential part of the Self, they challenged these social constructs as harmful.


[Pluralistic ignorance] can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.

By insisting that gender is programmed from within, the cis/trans framing of “gender” does just that. It prevents us from questioning the bigger picture. It tells us that individuals who reject their assigned social role are outliers in an otherwise acceptable social structure that, supposedly, reflects “cis” people’s natural orientation toward gender roles.

If we assume that assimilation (or resignation) to one’s assigned sex-based social role is the normal, healthy, default human position; then yes, trans-identified people are unique. This is the motivating hypothesis behind the scientific search for a biological cause or source of “transsexualism.”  It is a comforting framework for a small minority of people who fancy themselves exceptional humans. For the rest of us, however, this way of talking about and understanding “gender” is a barrier to both personal growth and social change.

To forget, or even merely to minimize, the power of sex-based social role determinism suggests that the starkly unequal relations between “men” and “women” are, in some way, inevitable. Where we assume that being both “cisgender” and heterosexual is the natural human order— wherein “ciswomen” embrace their social role as subservient to “cismen” who control the lion’s share of institutional power and access to resources[iii]—we are, again, led to believe that resistance is futile. This is a conservative assessment of social relations and the politics of oppression. If social justice is our goal, normalizing conformity is antithetical to progress. Indulging the dominant paradigm of pluralistic ignorance around gender essentialism is to reinscribe the status quo of sex-based inquality.

In the current political climate, any critique of “gender identity” or trans ideology, even abstractly, is akin to a thought crime. I will not repeat the things I have been personally accused of for daring to express and defend my anti-essentialist view of “gender,” but I assure you, they are outrageous and malicious. Critical political discussion of gender is routinely silenced and no-platformed by all mainstream media outlets. “Cis” people are told that they have no right to speak about sex or gender because they are “privileged” by it. This belies a need to silence dissent and an inability to disarm it with reason. In fact, all humans are routinely assaulted by the tyranny of sex-based social role ideology. And females, molded into “women,” are the largest causalities.

I reject all essentialist framings of “gender (role) identity.”  Sex-based social role differentiation is, and always has been, the root cause of women’s lesser status compared to men. The modern trans movement’s demand that we accept “gender identity” as an essential guiding principle of human behavior necessarily naturalizes traditional social roles. Women’s oppression is directly caused by this conservative sex-role ideology combined with social role determinism at birth. Women’s social status is not a natural function or consequence of “ciswomen’s” innermost desires and “identities.” It never has been and it never will be. So yes, feminists like myself will continue to resist the pluralistic ignorance of a “cis privilege” theory of “gender” that glorifies traditional sex-roles as “natural.” It is harmful to women and it is anti-feminist.

[i] From PDF page 67/478 of “Sexing the Body” by Anne Fausto-Sterling at
[ii] For more about the fallacy of identifying-out of oppression, see “Socialization Matters: Why Identity Libertarianism is Failed Politics” written by yours truly. The current article, plus “Socialization Matters,” plus the article linked in endnote [iii], below, can be read together for a more detailed understanding of my political analysis of “gender.”
[iii] To quote myself quoting the Supreme Court of the United States, from “A feminist critique of ‘cisgender:'”

“As long as stereotypical femininity remains the controlling standard of appropriate behavior for women (trans or not), we will continue to struggle not only with setting boundaries against others’ predatory and/or exploitative intentions, but we are also doomed to walk uphill against the professional double standard recognized in the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins:

An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not.

The behavioral characteristics of femininity are economically and intellectually devalued as compared to the traits of masculinity. Power is gendered.”


  1. Survivorthriver · ·

    Bulls-eye. Clear, concise, cogent and correct. Thank You!

  2. aaliyah · ·

    Well said!

  3. […] Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory. […]

  4. Thank you very much for writing this piece. I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the over-representation of the trans agenda in feminism and I could not explain why until finding your blog. I am comfortable with my sex, but I realized that what was always a problem was my gender. The whole transgender movement denies all the body experience rooted in biology which makes a woman a woman, and put right back on us the strait-jacket of gender.

  5. I second the above “brilliant” comment!

  6. Russell O'Connor · ·

    This is all very interesting, but something has me really puzzled: None of the people I know who care about trans issues are gender essentialists. On the contrary, they think of gender as a social construct, implicated in relations of power, and of gender identity as something that is internalized through a process of socialization that attempts to force everyone into one of two types of social roles — based, of course, on anatomy. People who are trans, in the relevant sort of sense, are people who, for whatever combination of reasons, feel as if the role they have been assigned fails in some *very large way* to match their own sense for who they are. It’s kind of like if people started treating me as if I were African-American. Not that it’s bad to be African-American, obviously, but that’s not who I am.

    What’s right, to be sure, is that everyone feels this way to some extent. The gender roles are too narrow and too limited for anyone to fit into them perfectly. And I agree that any implication that “cis” people are somehow unthinking conformists is ridiculous. But some people feel this sort of disconnect extremely acutely. No doubt, it would be better to do away with the gender system and its oppressive structures altogether and let each of us be ourselves, but, as things are, we all live within the gender system whether we want to do so or not, even as we fight it. And if someone is distinctly uncomfortable having people react to them as a “man” or as a “woman”, socially speaking, and feels as if they would be more comfortable having people react to them the other way, then I don’t see how insisting on one’s right to be treated as being of the gender with which one personally identifies somehow furthers patriarchal oppression.

    I would have thought that “queering” gender was (or at least could be) a way of questioning it, of exposing it for what it is: a purely social construct. For myself, what I most seem to want to say to people is something like: Please do not treat me like a “man”; that is, please do not make the kinds of assumptions about me that society inclines you to make about “men”; and, while you’re at it, please do not accord me the sorts of privileges society tells you to accord me as a “man”. How successful I can manage to be at any of that, given the nature of the society in which we live, is a different question.

    I know that people sometimes talk in terms of an innate sense of gender, etc. I think that’s a mistake for a lot of reasons. But it also seems clear to me what’s actually meant: That the features of one’s personality, etc, that make one’s assigned gender feel like a bad fit are relatively “innate” (or at least very early developing) and in some sense “deep”: not the sort of thing one can simply change by choice. I can see why people’s not being clear about this might make it *sound* as if they were endorsing some sort of gender essentialism, when the underlying idea is really just that it is part of the process of socialization that one is supposed to internalize these socially determined categories in a certain way, so that one “identifies with” a certain social role. And that seems right. It’s part of how the gender system works: by getting us to think of ourselves in its terms.

    I think that we *shouldn’t* think of ourselves in the terms of the gender system specifies but also that, as things are right at this very moment, we have little choice in the matter, which is not to say we can’t fight for a different future. That’s unfortunate but consistent, it seems to me. (See e.g. the research on implicit bias.) But we have to live now, and as long as there is a gender system there will be people who struggle with it the way trans folk do.

  7. @Russell
    I note what you say, but what I find difficult to understand is, why, if gender is merely a social construct, a box or straitjacket that society tries to push us into, a trans person would be so eager to escape one straitjacket in order to don another? Why should one false stereotype be so much more attractive than another false stereotype (to the extent that people are prepared to undergo surgery, in some cases losing the ability to produce kids). How can a stereotype which you reckon many of the people concerned know to be false, yet exercise such attraction for them?

    You say as regards yourself that you find yourself wishing you could say to people, don’t treat me like a man, don’t have the expectations of me that people normally tend to have of men. Do you think that now, in 2014, people in general have radically different expectations of men (except in regard to relatively superficial matters like wearing a dress or make-up) than they do of women, or that they treat men very differently than they do women? I’m trying to think how in my everyday life, I (I’m a woman) and other people treat men in a very different way than they treat women….and I can’t come up with anything much.

  8. Tobysgirl · ·

    susan, your point regarding jumping from one gender prison to another is well-taken, but are you really unaware of how differently people treat men and women? I don’t even know where to begin it’s so overwhelming. Men are listened to, women are not. If a man goes to the doctor, his ailment is not treated as though it is in his head, whereas women frequently experience this. I used to see a chiropractor who happened to be a lesbian; she was far more attentive to my husband when he saw her than she was to me. (I know, that makes no sense except that nearly all women are taught to fawn over men.) I’ve been in stores where men get waited on and women just stand waiting; I’ve seen male customers in restaurants get preferential treatment. I’ve been ignored in conversations where two men are present; I’ve had conversations with women which they have interrupted because a man came into the room. The list is endless and depressing. What did I learn from my mother and grandmother? You have to be loud, assertive, and fierce to often even be seen. My grandmother was with my mother when my mother was giving birth to my sister, and my grandmother insisted that someone pay attention to my mother. A friend’s mother was ignored in the same way and her sister was born after having the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck so long it stunted her brain development. Perhaps you are young and just haven’t seen the back of the bus that women are shunted to on a daily basis.

    This was the comment from Russell that caused me a good laugh: please do not accord me the sorts of privileges society tells you to accord me as a “man.” Very, very funny, Russell.

  9. Russell O'Connor · ·

    Thanks to tobysgirl for answering part of susan’s comment. I was similarly puzzled.

    Regarding the comment that gave tobysgirl “a good laugh”: That part was meant to be funny, because, in my case, it is such a hopeless request. I am aware of the privileges being categorized as male earns and has earned me, though not, I am sure, as aware as I might be and, hopefully, one day will be.

    Regarding the first part of susan’s comment, I think there are a lot of interesting questions here, ones I’ve been puzzling about for some time. They have to do with what it means to “identify as” a certain gender — or ethnicity, or sexuality, for that matter. I doubt I can say much convincing now. But I’ll make a few remarks.

    I think the comparison with ethnic identities is helpful, though there are lots of differences. Ethnic identities are socially constructed, and they often come with false stereotypes. But identifying as (say) Italian-American doesn’t mean accepting those stereotypes. On the contrary, someone who so identifies might find the stereotypes even more offensive than those of us who do not. Ironically, what is in part distinctive about so identifying is accepting that you are one of the people to whom those stereotypes falsely apply. I take this to be about things like solidarity and belonging, then, more than about anything rational. Note, too, that identifying as Italian-American is different from just being an American of Italian descent. I’m that, but I don’t identify as Italian-American.

    The fact that gender is socially constructed, then, doesn’t mean that someone’s identifying as female means embracing the associated stereotypes. They might do so, I guess, but they don’t have to do so. They might find them all the more offensive. Here again, I think this is more about a sense of where one belongs in the social world. As tobysgirl pointed out, the social world is heavily structured by gender (even if we wish it were not). And it just so happens that some people who are born with vaginas feel, very strongly, as if they do not fit into the social category “female”; they don’t feel as if they belong with “women”; they would much prefer to be treated as being in the social category “male”; etc. It doesn’t seem terribly surprising to me that there are such people, given how much of a disconnect there is between the social roles and anything merely anatomical.

    But my point was meant just to be this very tiny one: Feeling as if you don’t belong with this group but do belong with that group is totally compatible with thinking that people shouldn’t really be grouped in those ways in the first place. You don’t have to be a big fan of the gender system to feel that way. You might hate it. But whether you do or not, we all live our lives within the gender system, and we all have to struggle to make the best of it. And it’s not just outside us. It’s inside us, whether, again, we want it to be or not. That’s what the research on implicit bias shows so convincingly.

    But if one realy wants to understand this, then I’m not sure what more I could suggest than reading what trans people have to say about their own experience. (That’s a rich source, too, by the way, of a sense for how differently men and women are treated in our socieity.)

  10. Dogtowner nee Tobysgirl · ·

    You know, Russell, I’ve never identified with many of the markers of femininity. I completely do not understand dreaming of one’s wedding day, gossiping, shopping, etc, etc. That said, I’ve never identified with the markers of masculinity. Why would someone not enjoy listening to women gossip in a hair salon and then want to spend time farting and burping with men in a fishing shack? (Ice fishing is a big thing where I live.) Yuk on both counts. Instead of thinking of oneself as an identity, which I fully realize most people do, I believe one’s responsibility is to discover who one is without the labels of Italian-American, genius IQ, newspaper reporter, whatever. The fact that I am a woman is not an identity, it is a biological reality. The fact that I am disabled is not an identity, it is a biological reality. I may occasionally refer to myself as Euro-American, but that’s not my identity, it’s my ancestry.

    Radical feminists certainly do not deny that people may be uncomfortable with the gender norms expected of them. However, I would guess that most radical feminists would find adopting another set of gender norms rather absurd. It’s fine if a man wants to wear a dress and plan his wedding day, but that does not make him a woman. I’ve read some trans stuff by bloggers who are not vicious and stupid, and I’m sad to say that my overall impression is that people who reject their biological bodies have deep-seated mental health issues which are probably not solved by hormones and surgeries.

  11. Russell O'Connor · ·

    Wow, you sure are pulling out the negative stereotypes there.

    I can’t speak for trans-folk, not being such a person myself. Generally speaking, I tend to agree with you that these sorts of labels are harmful. But, knowing quite a few such people, my overall impression is that people who have strong gender identities that don’t match their biological or anatomical sex don’t have any more deep-seated mental health issues than any of the rest of us. Maybe we all wish they’d just give up on “identity” altogether, but I’m not sure that’s our choice to make for them.

    To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that you would make such accusations, without a hint of irony, given the sad history they have had when directed at gays and lesbians. The days of conversion therapy for sexual orientation are not even yet behind us.

  12. stchauvinism · ·

    Reblogged this on Stop Trans Chauvinism.

  13. […] Fighting oppression according to a cis/trans axis of gender, rather than by male/female social-role-assignment, requires subscription to the belief that humans have something like an internally calibrated “gender identity compass.” This “gender identity compass” apparently directs us toward one of two mutually exclusive (yet culturally bound) sex-based social roles. […]

  14. I have no idea which section of this post you are referring to..?? But you know GD is in the DSM, right? I suggest that trans advocates lobby for GD to be removed from the DSM like homosexuals did. Then we can talk about how pathologizing non-conformity is bad and wrong.

    I consider the psychiatric and medical professions’ suppport for the idea that someone can be “born in the wrong body” a form of conversion therapy. It reinforces sexist (cissexist if you do double speak) norms about sex/gender(identity) “MATCHING.” There is no such thing as a match. That’s the problem.

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