The Promise and Failure of Gender Nihilism


The gender nihilist, the gender abolitionist, looks at the system of gender itself and see’s the violence at its core. We say no to a positive embrace of gender. We want to see it gone.

Such is the ultimate goal of gender nihilism. Gender nihilism wants to see gender destroyed. But is this actually possible? Is it possible to live in a world without gender? Gender nihilism argues that there is no gendered subject, no metaphysical core self to which our gender identity “rings true”. Because there is no essential gendered subject, any attempt to reify gender into a metaphysical truth is a form of violence that works against the gender and sexual minorities of the world.

For gender nihilism, gender is a system of signification that operates through political regulation of coded signs. But the very way in which gender nihilism views gender renders it impossible to banish. The raises the question of whether gender nihilism’s goal of gender absolution is even conceptually coherent.

Gender works through difference, functions through difference – so as long as there is difference between people then gender will work to codify and regulate those differences into a system of norms, rules, scripts, institutions, signs, punishments, and rewards. Gender nihilism insists that gender is a social construction, one they seek to see deconstructed entirely. But deconstruction never exists in a vacuum – there is always the corresponding constructive component working inside all human minds. We are social creatures in our core – social interaction within a milieu of semiotics structures the development of the mind-brain system even from within the womb. Sociality is part of the essential structure of the formation of human minds. This illustrates another incoherency of gender nihilism: its insistence on anti-essentialism blinds it to the essential social nature of human experience, the fact that we are all raised in a culture of signs, a culture that works to take difference and turn them into constructed reality.

Masculinity and femininity are constructed realities of coded significations that operate on the individual differences between persons. Broadly speaking there are estrogen-dominant persons and testosterone-dependent persons, and many intermediate cases. But from a statistical perspective it’s possible to break the human species into two large camps. One camp is assigned male at birth and is capable of producing small mobile gametes. The other camp is assigned female at birth and is capable of producing large immobile gametes. That it’s possible to break humans into two camps is product of evolutionary history. Sex has not always existed but once created it reinforced a dimorphism between small gamete producers and large gamete producers, a crucial physiological building block that constructs biological difference. Biological differences that are not neutral mutations lead to real differences than manifest in different behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, desires, motivations, and physiological properties. These biological difference operates along a diverse and variable sexual spectrum. Although it is possible to divide humanity into two distinct camps it is never wise to ignore the alternative perspective: which is to view humanity in terms of the radical spectrum of individual differences that make us each unique beings.

These two views are complimentary. Appreciation of evolutionary history compels us to see sexual dimorphism as a biological realty that works to create difference between males, females, and those in between. People who give birth to children have different behaviors than people who do not. This difference has existed for millions of years. At the same time, the radical individuality of human beings suggests that biological difference operates along a spectrum or continuum of traits. Appreciation of individuality helps us realize that the differences within the group of males is larger than the difference between males and females and vice versa for females. Individuality trumps sexual dimorphism but sexual dimorphism does indeed generate real difference. There is no such thing as a strictly “male” brain or a strictly “female” brain – all brains are a mixture of male and female structures with more overlap than difference. But statistically there is a difference between male and female brains – though is unclear whether the difference paints a clear causal pathway to the gendered differences between men and women. The intersection of nature and nurture makes it impossible to clearly delineate the contribution of biology to the types of high-level behaviors we see in human reality, such as being a scientist or politician.

Gender nihilism attempts to collapse entirely into individualism without realizing that tremendous forces are operating to construct a dimorphic difference between male and female realities. Gender essentialism, in contrast, fails to grasp how sexual dimorphism is not biological destiny. People assigned male at birth are not imprisoned by this biological cage – technologies of gender now allow people to modify their biological sex through hormonal and surgical techniques. Hormonal technologies have also allowed for sex to be decoupled from reproduction through birth control. The pill has ushered in a new age of bioengineering. Trans people are also riding this wave of biohacking, being able to escape the confines of their assigned sex and transform the fundamental building blocks of their physiology through hormonal replacement.

Gender nihilism is a half-truth. But it is not a complete theory. Its goal of living in a world without gender cannot be reconciled with its own proclamation of what gender is. If gender is a system of signs that operate on difference, then gender will never go away because differences will never go away. The only consolation the gender nihilist might have is that the strict gender binary might loosen its dependence on sexual dimorphism and be expanded into a multidimensional system of variables that arise from human biocultural individuality. Gender itself is not going away but that doesn’t mean gender is a static phenomenon, destined to never change. It’s next to impossible to predict what the human gender system will look like a million years from now. But I guarantee it will be radically different, especially as systems of gender technology become more pervasive as social mechanisms of personal change. As technology loosens the grip of evolution on our sexed bodies, gender itself will expand to represent the infinite individuality of human variability.

Variation has always existed in nature. Variation is the essential building block of evolutionary change. And when you then add in the infinite variability of human culture you take a variable system and exponentially increase its potential for variability. This is where gender nihilism gets it right. Gender dimorphic binary could in theory die off and be replaced by a system of gender that is multidimensional. But gender itself is not going away. We cannot escape it. Nor should we necessarily want to. The violence inherent in the gender system is the same violence that drives evolutionary change. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. Of course we can work to reduce the worst examples of violence, especially the violence of patriarchy. But the violent oppression of patriarchy is not the same as the creative violence of evolutionary change that works to create healthy variability in a population. Such creative violence is necessary for keeping the population adaptive to the changes in the environment.



Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

2 responses to “The Promise and Failure of Gender Nihilism

  1. All those darn ocracies! Theocracy, plutocracy, gerontocracy etc., then a few archies, oligarchy, patriarchy all festering and crushing us as individuals. There is a long way to go before humanity shall be free of these shackles and logic rules.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. January Powell

    I like the idea of gender nihilism, but cannot imagine how it could be made to work in the real world. You really bring both (all?) sides of that issue into focus. Quite thought-provoking, with one or two “Aha” moments! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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