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Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary (IEET White Paper 03)

George Dvorsky
By George Dvorsky
IEET White Paper Series

Posted: Mar 20, 2008

An IEET White Paper by By George Dvorsky and James Hughes.

Abstract: Postgenderism is an extrapolation of ways that technology is eroding the biological, psychological and social role of gender, and an argument for why the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory. Postgenderists argue that gender is an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation on human potential, and foresee the elimination of involuntary biological and psychological gendering in the human species through the application of neurotechnology, biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Postgenderists contend that dyadic gender roles and sexual dimorphisms are generally to the detriment of individuals and society. Assisted reproduction will make it possible for individuals of any sex to reproduce in any combinations they choose, with or without “mothers” and “fathers,” and artificial wombs will make biological wombs unnecessary for reproduction. Greater biological fluidity and psychological androgyny will allow future persons to explore both masculine and feminine aspects of personality. Postgenderists do not call for the end of all gender traits, or universal androgyny, but rather that those traits become a matter of choice. Bodies and personalities in our postgender future will no longer be constrained and circumscribed by gendered traits, but enriched by their use in the palette of diverse self-expression.

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George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
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Eloi contributed this critique of our piece over at Betterhumans:

Postgenderism & Egalitarianism
via Betterhumans by eloi on 4/16/08

In their essay Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary, George Dvorsky and James Hughes (hereafter D&H;), argue that “the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory” and contend that “dyadic gender roles and sexual dimorphisms are generally to the detriment of individuals and society.” “Binary gender” refers to the existence of two genders, male and female. Therefore, D&H;envisage a future in which male and female no longer exist and in which the two genders have been assimilated (in the sense of made the same) through the use of various biotechnologies. “Dyadic gender roles” are those roles that the male and female assume in a pair bond. The most obviously different role is that of child bearing. “Sexual dimorphism” refers to the difference in physical attributes between the male and the female, most strikingly the difference in height, strength, and sexual organs.

For some reason, D&H;do not explain why the creation of an androgynous race will be liberatory. Perhaps they have addressed the question elsewhere. But the reader is left to wonder: Liberatory in what sense? What will the human race of today be liberated from? It’s “gendered traits”? But do humans want to lose their masculine or feminine natures, and if not, wouldn’t they experience the loss of such traits as a deprivation rather than a liberation?Again, one must ask how the existence of males and females is “generally to the detriment of individuals and society.” One often hears men complaining about women, and vice versa. But one rarely hears either men or women saying that the world would be better of if there was only one androgynous sex.

Though D&H;state that “[p]ostgenderists donot call for the end of all gender traits, or universal androgyny, but rather that those traits become a matterof choice,” they do indicate their preference for androgyny as the ideal human condition when they assert that gender differences “are to the detriment of individuals and society.”

As regards “choice,” there are two issues: 1) Will the decision to androgynize always remain a matter of choice? It is possible that an elite of biotechnicians, if they ever achieved political power, will force androgynization on a mass scale. After all, if binary gender is detrimental to society, one could make the case for its elimination through legislation requiring biotechnological interventions. 2) Will parents or guardians make the choice for their children or wards? Might a child who has been androgynized through the use of various biotechnologies, including the use of irreversible genetic engineering, by his parents feel himself to be a freak of biotechnology once he had grown and started to interact with normal children? Could that adult child sue his parents for their having inflicted bodily harm and psychological damage?

It is possible that D&H;‘s dislike of gender differences arises from what bioconservative Leon Kass (in his Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity) calls a transformation or corruption by expansion and exaggeration of the liberal democratic principles of freedom and equality (or egalitarianism). D&H;refer approvingly to “our Enlightenment values” and are happy that what they term “the burdenof patriarchal oppression on women” has been reduced. But they point out that “[e]fforts to ameliorate patriarchy and the disabilities of binary gender through social, educational, political and economic reform can only achieve so much so long as the material basis, biological gendering of the body, brain and reproduction, remains fixed. Postgenderism confronts the limits of a social constructionist account of gender and sexuality, and proposes that the transcending of gender by social and political means is now being complemented and completed by technological means.”

Perhaps D&H;view patriarchy negatively because it conflicts with their ideal of exaggerated equality. In any case, their solution to the problem of patriarchy is to assimilate humans beings into androgynes. This assimilation will be accomplished in part by drugs: “[T]he final liberation from dyadic, gendered, heteronormative relationships will likely come aboutthrough use of drugs that suppress pair-bonding impulses.”“Heteronormative relationships” we can assume are normal, heterosexual pair-bond relationships, which D&H;are against because such relationships presuppose the existence of “binary gender.”

Surprisingly, the authors validate the contention of many people who see homosexual marriage as threatening the existence of the traditional family. “The spread of legal gay marriage in Europe,” D&H;write, “and its slower adoption in the US, has accelerated the recognition of legal marriage as an arbitrary contract, rather than a religious, heterosexual, dyadic institution. Therefore laws against polygamy and group marriages must eventually fall, since they are clearly based in religious discrimination….The erosion of dyadic marriage will, in turn, help to erode the gender binary.”

The authors recognize a Marxist element in postgenderism: “In her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex socialist-feminist Shulamith Firestone argued that, just as the material reality of the means of production determined the power differential between the owners and workers, the material reality of women having to bear children determined the gendering of power insociety.“Firestone states that “the heart of women’s oppression is her childbearing and child-rearing roles To assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and seizure of control of reproduction:... so the end goal of the feminist revolution must be unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter.”

It is true that there always exists tension between the various social and economic classes, just as there always exits tension between male and female. The question is whether the attempt to resolve the tension by assimilating the classes produces more harm then good.

As regards “the seizure of control of reproduction,” it’s difficult to see why women should have to seize control of something that is going on inside them. Indeed, women nowadays have the legal right to kill their unborn children in the womb:surely an indication of absolute control.

“For Firestone,” D&H;write, “the only way to fundamentally undermine patriarchy and gender itself was to liberate women from the necessity of childbearing with the technology of the artificial womb.“But the use of an artificial womb would put control of childbearing into the hands of technicians, possibly male technicians. In reality, Firestone is advocating not that women take control of reproduction, but that they put it into strangers’ hands. So great is her personal distaste for motherhood that she attempts to universalize that distaste by trying to convince all women that motherhood somehow oppresses them. To eliminate what she regards as male privilege, Firestone wants to deprive women “of the necessity of childbearing.” In other words, she wants to deprive women of their womanhood, their essential womanly nature. She sees pregnancy in negative terms, as a “deformation of the body” and as something that “hurts and isn’t good for you.“Why Firestone should take her personal distaste for motherhood and construct out of it an unnatural social and political ideology is a question to be asked.

D&H;see in the current use of certain psychotropic drugs the beginnings of a means to assimilate the sexes: “[Psychotropic] efforts to treat female depression and male aggression, autism and ADD would give us ways to make the brain more androgynous. Francis Fukuyama lamented these trends, the ‘masculinizing’ of depressive women’s moods by antidepressants, and the ‘feminizing’ of ADD boys with stimulant medications, in Our Posthuman Future, asserting that they were the result of pressure to conform to an ‘androgynous median personality’ in American society.”

As stated previously, the desire to create an “androgynous median personality,” or an actual androgyne, seems to stem from a desire for exaggerated equality. Kass points out that “liberal principles were, to begin with, narrowly political. The rights of the Declaration of Independence were asserted to protect against despotism, not to serve as sole moral tender in all social matters and private life….Yet as the nation has become more pluralistic and more secularized, and as the once merely political language of rights has invaded and come to dominate all moral discourse, the liberal principles have been transformed:and, in my view, corrupted:by expansion and exaggeration.”

Indeed, the idea of political equality cannot be transferred onto the natural world, being made up, as it is, of boundaries, hierarchies:in a word, of inequalities. Sex differences and the patriarchal family are aspects of a survival strategy that has evolved over evolutionary time.

Today, we in the West are wealthy, comfortable, and face no present threat. It has not always been so in the past. Will it always be so in the future? Someday, perhaps even tomorrow, we will need the evolutionary advantages that our sexual and familial strategies have given us. We cannot afford to tamper with them just because such tampering gratifies our egalitarian sensibilities.

The West, for the moment sustained by its great wealth and protected by its nuclear arsenal, is a kind of hothouse where all types of exotica can flourish. But once the hothouse glass is broken, and the merciless forces of selection pressure enter, these delicate organisms will wither. The androgynization of the human race would comport the loss of survival strategies that have been honed over evolutionary time. Therefore, what might be considered eccentric behavior in a few individuals could become dangerous when universalized into a mass movement.

View our video response to your paper.

I appreciate the creative response Transalchemy, although I find the sinister tone a little puzzling.

Its not meant to be sinister, its meant to be a serious piece on serious issues that need more discussion. 

We can’t just open Pandora’s box blindly.

Gender is one of the fundamental components to stable evolutionary processes, starting from trees and the simplest forms of life up to humans. Erasing genders will inevitable lead to a system where junk defective DNA (or a software code in the future) replicates itself indefinitely. So, erasing genders is a really, really bad idea for the society. It can be done in the post human society, but it could be fatal and self destructive to allow it because the society as a whole will still and always will be an evolutionary system subject to the evolutionary laws. You may argue that synthetic life will not be subject to the same biological laws, but in fact these evolutionary laws are very fundamental in nature and should be obeyed. Even various genetic programming techniques adopt the genders to avoid the degenerative paths. More on this here:

Why would allowing people to choose the elements of their gender expression have an impact on their DNA? You aren’t a Lamarckian are you?

Well, I am against the self-replication or having multiple exact copies of the same or parts of the same. Gender and other physical attributes was imprinted into normal organisms brains as to promote choosing genetically different mate to produce a healthy offspring. What mechanism would be used in the future to maintain this and enforce diversity? While the physical appearance is not important for survival in the future, maintaining the diversity is important. If suddenly all people want to have the same fashionable hot looks, they will have it and the diversity suddenly disappears at least in the body domain. The diversity choice and body choice are deeply linked to the brain structures, possibly at very low levels. I may be wrong here, but enforcing the physical diversity stability may be a good way to to enforce the genetic diversity in the future.


I really don’t understand what you are talking about. If you are concerned about protecting human diversity then you should be in favor of a future with a zillion genders instead of just two.


You are deliberately misconstruing postgenderism as a forced conversion to neuter status, as opposed to allowing everyone the freedom to choose, whether they use it or not. Postgenderism is simply a subset of morphological freedom.

As for Biodiversity, I fail to comprehend how random genetic mixing could not occur just as readily in vitro as au natural, considering that we are rapidly learning how to program in DNA code. The likelihood of our completely divorcing sex from procreation is almost certain within the foreseeable future, as is the possibility that we may even chose to abandon DNA entirely as a genetic carrier.

well I am somewhat conservative on this subject, simply because nobody knows the consequences of various freedoms and the gender being one of the most fundamental driving forces of the natural selection and evolution. I totally understand that we potentially can become anything we wanted to be very rapidly at some point in the future. The main question is would the new society be stable and viable enough in the long term if we change a lot of things, laws and restrictions too rapidly. The complexity of the entire society is far greater than that of individuals, so even the posthumans may not be able to comprehend potential dangers. From my point of view the safest approach would be to initially preserve all natural laws that we have now in the new society and only after that very carefully try to experiment in limited groups over a long time. Some of these groups may prove to be viable and strong, while others may fail to develop well and die.

Not going to happen. It would take a Tyranny to put those kinds of breaks on progress.

Every singularity has caused chaos and upheaval in the social order. Scribes used to be extremely wealthy, men of power who had the ability to read and write. Once the printing press occurred, not only did they cease to have any social value, but the Church which relied heavily on the populations inability to the read the Bible to justify it’s power was shattered, divided into hundreds of protestant groups who sparked off 100 years of religious civil wars.  Add in the Black Death, and the society that emerged from the “Singularity” of the Printing Press was vastly different than the one which existed prior.

The same goes for the Industrial revolution. The wealthy farmer all but vanished as we migrated to the cities, cars and radio allowed city culture to invade the countryside, and eventually TV homogenized the majority of us into “Americans” as opposed to “Floridian’s” or “Californians”

Singularities will ALWAYS shatter the existing social order. They have too, because older societies are based on ideologies and technologies which are no-longer priorities or relevant in the new age. An Industrial Revolution society CANNOT cope with an Information Revolution technology base. We are already seeing this occur in REAL TIME with the economic crisis. And we see people desperately trying to prevent that creative destruction from occurring, just as you advocate, and failing miserably.

Your idea SOUNDS reasonable, but it is impossible to carry out, would require a complete moratorium on technological development, and an impossibly strong tyranny to enforce. You may be right that “no-one knows the consequences” but your “solution” is worse than the possible consequences. History shows time and again that evolution of society takes place alongside the evolution of the technology base. Attempts to delay that evolution inevitably result in far worse suffering and death than allowing evolution to occur, and yet we continue to allow those losing status and wealth due to evolution to inflict those useless efforts to stave off change, ensuring maximum bloodshed and suffering.

However, those are the precise reasons I strongly support the development of VR technology, which is already rapidly being developed and will most likely be commonplace by the end of the decade. VR will allow us to have a “proving ground” for Morphological freedom among other “miracle tech” abilities. Object creation is essentially similar to nanotech fabrication, Virtual “post scarcity” economic models could be “tried out” for viability, etc. VR gives us the “laboratory” we will need to perform those “tests” you want done. IN REAL TIME, and without needing a tyrant to clamp down on innovation. We can have our “disasters” in Cyberspace, before exporting what works to Realspace. With this, perhaps we can reduce the chaos’s harmful aspects and not lose as many lives.

yes, you precisely grasped my point - the tech singularity could be so strong and disruptive that it could produce something completely new and so different that all biological life and all of its past would be completely erased. Imagine an intelligent grey goo that consumes all life forms and inherits absolutely nothing from us, except the consumption of energy and resources. What we need is to find a reasonable compromise between the goo and preserving the human values. There would be nothing too complex and too slow in trying to create as high fidelity brain and VR models as possible. By high fidelity I mean the closest technologically possible reproduction of the natural things such as the brain, the body and the environment.

The Second Life game would not be so captivating if it was not resembling the real life. We just should not stop our integration efforts to make it more real life looking, including direct interfaces with the neurons, more sensory inputs/ouputs, more realistic environment, etc. If AIs happen to come first, and by AIs I mean low fidelity intelligent singular self-improving models, before we can create the high fidelity models, they may choose to convert the whole thing into a grey goo where all of us would be simply dead.

Always remember that all of this is still highly speculative, If you truly don’t want to see us all die tomorrow, then do something about it today.

We are not slaves to the future, stop going at this from a future to pass mentality, approach it from the present to the future.

Instead of disagreeing on the possible futures we all want, lets just create a future we all want.

The problem with that fear is that no currently existing trend in technology points to either Grey Goo or Runaway AI as more than an extremely improbable event, more akin to a “miracle” than certainty.

Grey Goo ignores all known physical laws. For example, take a “Carbon nanovore” the most commonly used “Goo”. I’ll ignore the substantial amount of engineering that would be needed to basically create a “car that can not only drive itself, but drill a well, refine it’s own oil, make it’s own fuel, mine it’s own ores, refine them, and then build it’s identical copy” and simply look at it as a biomass.  So it starts multiplying exponentially, eating up carbon in the environment. How does it supply carbon to those units in the center of the “nanomass”? At some relatively early point, the mass will only have access to carbon at the surface of the mass, and no means of transporting carbon to the interior. This will limit the “exponential doubling” extremely rapidly as the mass grows, because an every increasing majority of the mass will become “carbon starved”

So let’s say that the mass DOES manage to share resources, there is still only a fixed amount of resources available at any given moment, Exponential growth would then be limited to the amount of carbon available from the environment and once more place a cap on the speed of growth,

So the possibility of a “Goo” is extremely small, and likely would require engineering skills so complex that equally complex engineering skills could keep pace.

The same more or less goes with AI as well. Every advance we have made so far in “AI” has immediately become a factor in human intelligence enhancement. We are increasing the complexity of our minds as rapidly as we are discovering the processes which underlie that complexity, and developing AI.

Don’t believe me. Shut down your computer and write your reply by hand. See how often you will want to refer to my post, to other posts, to other links, and to other resources external to your meat brain. We’re already enhancing ourselves, and we blind ourself to this fact daily.  By the time we actually can model even WEAK AI, we will have used those models to enhance HUMAN Intelligence by a considerable factor.

But at no point do I consider the singularity as being SO disruptive that it could mark the end of “biological life”. Why? Because Biology makes use of the most common elements in the universe. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen. We are rapidly proving that both DNA and Carbon make superior building tools. Why would we abandon them when we are finally beginning to realize their true potential? Carbon blows silicon out of the water for electronics, DNA is proving nanotech feasibility as soon as next decade. Both systems are largely untapped resources with the potential to redefine all the “future visions” of the past. We are probably not looking at a future of “steel and silicon” but one of “DNA and Carbon” which will make the “cyberpunk future” look as odd as the fifties version of the future in Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden.

In any regards, VR will be the “first comer” and the single biggest definer of the future, due to it’s bypassing of the “surface identity” to directly access “mental identity” I have discussed this more fully in a series of articles I wrote originally for H+ magazine.

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