At the Well blog


The illusion of gender compartmentalisation 

We still have a long way to go before gender is viewed as a characteristic that can vary in degree, the same way as your height, for instance’, writes Susa Tyrniluoto, who is in the process of compiling a community art piece called 100 ja yksi sukupuolisuutta (‘100 and one sexualities’).  

As an artist, I examined the definition of gender in a project called Esseitä sukupuolesta (‘Essays about gender’), in collaboration with Johanna Mappes, who is a professor of evolution ecology. Our work plan included a series of articles about the biological definition of sex, but the work has proved much more difficult than I expected because gender seems to be a touchy subject for nearly everyone – even for people studying it. Who has not sometimes felt insecure in their role as a man or woman or been bullied because they did not fit the traditional mould for a boy or girl? Perhaps that is why the definitions of sex or gender used in the humanities and natural sciences are so full of mistakes.  

Even today, human gender is usually determined in terms of men and women or through other kinds of gender compartmentalisation, although gender is a collection of attributes varying on a continuum from male to female, and it can be studied on the genetic or chromosomal level or from the point of view of anatomical, social or psychological gender. Most people build their identity simply as man or woman. Yet gender is not about either-or but rather both-and, even if the characteristics of most people do fall mainly at either the masculine or feminine end of the continuum. A person is just a human being, with varying degrees of gender attributes, but there is no formula for determining everyone’s gender as a sexual subject.  

Even if, biologically, gender could be divided into two compartments on the basis of reproductive cells, this division cannot be used in legally valid definitions, because there are people who lack reproductive cells altogether. On the other hand, in the near future, two people with male reproductive cells will be able to have a biological child together, thanks to biotechnology. This has already been done with test animals in laboratories. The definition of gender cannot be simplified so that it is based on reproductive cells, even if such a definition is used in sources such as the Finnish dictionary created by the Institute for the Languages in Finland.  

Humanistic researchers often try to shrug off sexual biology by simply defining it as nothing but a ‘social construction’, although this is the result of an inaccurate translation of the expression ‘gender is a social construction’. Finnish does not have a proper equivalent for the word gender. The concept of gender is, indeed, a social construction, developed in the 1950s when doctors wanted to justify operations on the genitalia of intersexual babies to make them look like a boy or a girl, even if there were not always medical grounds for such operations. The theory of social gender was used to explain to parents that the child could be raised as a representative of the gender chosen by the doctor, even if the ‘patients’ often experienced these choices as wrong. Although there have been attempts to stop this cruel custom, these operations are still performed in Finland.  

Supporters of the feminist movement and humanistic gender researchers have later used the concept of social gender to separate conclusions made on the basis of a person’s anatomic sex from their capabilities, which has been an important goal. However, ignoring biology has also opened up opportunities for attacks against feminism and social sciences, because it is clear that the history  of gender evolution cannot be ignored so cursorily. On the other hand, the common habit of researchers in the field of social sciences to completely ignore the concept of ‘social’ in gender research is every bit as strange, because even bacteria have been found to have patterns of social behaviour.  

To create a conceptual definition of gender, a synthesis of social and natural sciences is needed. Only sexology seems to have managed this fairly well. As early as at the beginning of this millennium, Jukka Virtanen stated in his book Kliininen seksologia (‘Clinical sexology’): ‘It is extremely difficult to define what is 100% woman and 100% man, and, so far, this seems to have been scientifically impossible’. He also wrote that: ‘…everyone possesses characteristics of the opposite sex to a lesser or larger extent’.  

Gender-specific power is a slippery slope

The difficulty in defining gender is not that scientific or sociological research is so complicated; it is that most people seem to feel threatened by the scientifically proven facts that the definition of a man or woman is, in fact, a social construction. Admitting this would also invalidate various organisations’ legal grounds for accepting members of a certain sex only, as well as religious communities’ grounds for allowing marriage only between a man and a woman. The crumbling of gender compartments will unavoidably lead to the crumbling of sexual compartments. If gender is a matter of interpretation, so are heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual identities.  

The legal differentiation of sexes has been in development for thousands of years – ever since the Code of Hammurabi, at least – because sex has been used as the basis for certain liberties and rights. When a legislator or a church, for example, gave power to male people, they had to simultaneously determine the sex of people who could not be compartmentalised as men or women either anatomically or socially. It seems that the more strongly a societal hierarchy has been based on the rights of a certain sex to power and property, the poorer the rights of the people on the gender border have been. Because the majority of people can adjust to belonging to one or the other of the compartments, it has been possible to judge people defying sexual boundaries as ill and socially unfit. Finnish legislation, for example, orders people who seek sex reassignment surgery to be sterilised, and medically, they are considered psychologically unwell.  

Dealing with gender in a scientifically sustainable way would, therefore, necessitate questioning one’s own identity and the assignment of power through gender. That is extremely difficult for anyone who has not already been forced to do so by society. It is very rare for anyone to publicly admit to possessing both male and female characteristics, because characteristics assigned to the other compartment are usually considered shameful. A person’s abilities as a politician, for instance, are still often evaluated on the basis of gender characteristics, although competence has nothing to do with how manly a man is or how womanly a woman is.  

While gender compartments in Finland are no longer locked and many people dare express characteristics of the opposite sex, we still have a long way to go before gender is viewed as a characteristic that can vary in degree, the same way as your height. Basing the definition of a legal subject on anatomic characteristics is not a sound principle; there have been examples throughout history of how people have been given different rights on the basis of things such as skin colour. That is why I am in the process of creating a community art work called 100 ja yksi sukupuolisuutta (‘100 and one sexualities’): I collect people’s descriptions of their gender identity, in which they evaluate their masculine and feminine sides.  

I collect these personal descriptions on the gallery website at, and I invite everyone to participate. I believe that if we together admit that nobody is 100% male or female, this can have a restorative effect on many people’s identity; even so, it would be important also to amend the official definition of gender and to remove any items in the legislation that violate human rights. In the end, a gender compartment – should anyone wish to be assigned to one – is based on a person’s interpretation of themselves.  


Susa Tyrniluoto