Toward a Theory of Gender

Evolution has shaped our species’ cognitive developmental stages, and therefore the process by which we develop personalities and our core gender identity development. The assumptions I’m making here are that human personality development is a product of our cognitive development, and that our core gender identity is an aspect of human personality. The remaining question  I’ll address here: why does individual gender identity develop as it does?

Much academic energy has been spent in discerning the how’s and why’s of gender identity, and how gender identity affects, or is affected by, our personality development (Bem, 1981;  Buss, 1995; Erikson, 1993; Feingold, 1994; Freud, 1905/1991;  Harter, 1998; Kohlberg, 1966, and more). Very little of that – perhaps none – has encompassed all genders. Heteronormative genders are addressed comprehensively, but non-heteronormative genders are left unexamined, assumed to be pathologies. This exclusion and its unstated guiding assumption leave these theories short of their goals.  Logically, any explanation of heteronormative gender identities must also explain non-heteronormative gender identities – even if that means explaining how the assumed pathology of non-heteronormativity developed. I will argue, though, that non-heteronormative gender might not be pathological; the labeling of it as pathological is cultural, rather than scientific, and is not evidence-based. Instead, an inclusive, unified theory of gender development can, and should, be found.

Modern gender theory began as many psychological studies have, in the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905/1991). Of course, he did not address gender as separate from physical characteristics; gender was a synonym for sex and an indicator for sexuality. These three things were inseparable, and any deviation from heteronormativity was considered a mental illness. Thus healthy sexuality was tied unequivocally to an individual’s primary sex characteristic (namely, their genitalia), and it was taken for granted that one led to the other in any natural progression. Freud wrote of sexuality as though it were a given, based on the developing individual’s primary sex characteristics. Indeed, that was an unquestioned assumption – almost a cultural foreclosure – applied to research by Freud and a legion of following psychologists. Freud, and arguably western culture in general, viewed gender as a binary: the only options were male and female, anything else was a malady or perversion.

Looking at Freud’s theory of sexual identity, we must set aside his linguistic conflation of sex and gender, and view it as a theory gender identity development; this both captures the essential meaning of his theory and makes that theory useful to our discussion. In Freud’s words:

As we all know, it is not until puberty that the sharp distinction is established between the masculine and the feminine characters. From that time on, this contrast has a more decisive influence than any other upon the shaping of human life. It is true that the masculine and feminine dispositions are already easily recognizable in childhood (Freud, 1905/1991).

If we accept “masculine” and “feminine” as gender descriptors, rather than necessary personality traits dictated by primary sex characteristics’ physical appearance, then we see that Freud is suggesting that gender begins quite early in childhood and is probably innate, but develops clearer distinctions with the onset of puberty. If puberty is a guiding event in gender development, then it seems there is a biological component to that development beyond the obvious primary sex characteristics, however tied they are to the biochemistry of puberty. However, Freud still argued that children modeled their gendered behavior after their parents, thus supporting the idea that gender, in some ways, is learned.

Whether later psychologists agreed with Freud or not, his language (which was perhaps a shared language of western culture) colored their perspective and guided their research. Erik Erikson agreed, partially; he theorized that the development of a core gender identity began during adolescence, in what he terms the “identity versus role confusion” stage. He disagreed that adolescents mirrored their parents exclusively to achieve gender identity. Instead, Erikson thought that peers were the greater influence during this stage (1993). Erikson’s theory set the stage for Susan Harter’s conceptualization of the social interactionist perspective, which described the development of identity (including gender identity) as a process of acting out various cultural role-templates in public situations, much the way one might try on clothing to find the right fit (1998). Erikson and Harter, and many others, shared the belief – stated or not – that gender was external, which youths developed primarily by watching the people around them. Thus, gender was not basically innate.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1966) brought the concept of internally-derived gender back to the table with his cognitive-developmental model; he also thought that gender solidified around seven years of age, much earlier than his predecessors had argued. Kohlberg stated that children were capable of recognizing gender differences by age three, and began to understand “gender consistency” between the ages of four and seven years. It followed, according to Kohlberg, that children would naturally want to learn how to behave as their assigned gender. Thus gender identity was internal, but the social roles played by each gender were external.

In the early 1980s, Sandra Bem brought these opposing viewpoints together in her gender-schema theory, blending cognitive and social elements of the process of core gender identity development (1981). The sources of gender, then, were both internal and external – we’re back to Freud, but without the automatic gender assignment based on anatomy. Bem may have been the first prominent gender theorist whose theory didn’t automatically assume that individuals would choose male or female, depending on their genitals; the theory avoids that assumption by describing the process of gender development as separate from but related to sex-typing, rather than using the two concepts synonymously.

Evolutionary psychology has offered modern psychologists another view of gender. Instead of attempting to describe gender without knowing its origins, evolutionary psychologists attempt to determine why we develop gender identities as a species, which in fact gives us a description of gender development in individuals. David Buss gives a concise evaluation of the evolutionary perspective of gender in Psychological Sex Differences: Origins Through Sexual Selection (1995). The sociocultural differences between males and females within a heteronormative model developed just as male and female physical differences in any secondary sex characteristic did, through sexual selection. In fact, though he doesn’t specify, his definition does categorized gender as a secondary sex characteristic. It’s notable too, that this perspective of gender uses gender identity not as a whole component of personality, but as a measurement of relative trait strength or frequency; it could be said that each trait which could be used to quantify the gendered-ness of an individual could be measured against zero, with ‘males’ scoring higher in specific traits, and ‘females’ in others. Buss never tells us how he thinks non-binary gender fits into this, but his theory leaves space for additional information and hypothesis.

If these traits which define our genders are in fact explained by evolutionary pressures and are an adaptation through sexual selection, and they are measurable by degrees, then we might best view gender as a wide continuum, with “male” and “female” on opposite ends. I would predict, were we to do this, that given the variations in evolutionary pressures over the wide geography and history of humans, most individuals in today’s more blended world culture would vary from the absolute, thus falling somewhere between those ends, rather than on the ends. Additionally, were such a continuum graphed, there would be room for and instances of gender that deviate from the culturally-associated sex. In fact, if the necessity for gender bifurcation becomes less – given our species’ progressive dominance over the environmental factors which create evolutionary pressures – we may see an increased variation in gender expression among our global population.

From 2000 to 2013, the American Psychological Association, publishers of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR; 2000) defined Gender Identity Disorder in a way that included transgender self-identification regardless of the relative happiness of the patient with that status. While some transgendered individuals certainly do experience distress over the non-conformity of their gender and their sex, that isn’t the case for all transgendered individuals. By the DSM-IV-TR’s definition, “Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual” (p. xxi-xxii). Thus people who are transgendered and well-adjusted (not in conflict with society) were described in the definition of Gender Identity Disorder, but not in the definition of a basic pathology. That specific pattern of inclusion/exclusion indicates that transgendered individuals who were not in distress could have been considered mentally ill by the  American Psychological Association (APA). The implication was that cultural assignation of gender took precedence over an individual’s internal understanding of gender, such that a person who believed their own gender to be in opposition with the gender assigned to them were automatically pathological.

Gender identity is being reconsidered by the APA. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5; 2013) stresses that individuals must show distress over their gender to be diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria, although the central attribute of diagnosis is still the difference between a transgender person’s assigned gender and their gender identity. This seems indicative of a shift in the perception of gender. In recent years, research concerning the nature of gender has identified physical aspects to gender identity that separate gender from sex. We know now, for example, that sex is not determined merely the absence or presence of certain gonadal hormones, and that there are neurobiological and anatomical differences among the sexes that result from chromosomal differences rather than hormonal differences (Arnold, 2003; Ngun, Ghahramani, Sanchez, Bocklandt & Vilain, 2011). Researchers have also identified neurobiological structures that could be linked to gender identity and others are seeking out various potential genetic origins of gender (Ngun et al., 2011).

As research in this area progresses, the results may challenge us to further consider separating the distress caused by external, cultural pressures of gender from internal, apriori psychological distress. Perhaps those who present as having distress over their gender identity should be evaluated in light of determining whether their distress is a natural result of the cultural difficulty of living as a transgender person in a world that does not accept transgender people.

As we come to understand that gender differentiation is accompanied by differences in genetics and neuroanatomy, we must look more closely at the components of gender. Just as we once had to learn to split gender and sex, we now must separate the development of gender expression from from the biological development of gender identity. The discussion so far in this paper has conflated gender expression and gender identity. When we separate these aspects of gender, we see that they result from very different things. Gender identity is apparently related to differences in neurobiology, while gender expression remains mysterious, seeming to be influenced primarily by less empirically measurable variables, such as personality and social mores.

We are moving toward an understanding of the biological components that shape individual gender identity. This will be a key component in understanding gender expression, as it provides the motivation for the expression of gender that is not socially copacetic. For a transgender person, gender expression – because it conflicts with social expectations – becomes the battleground on which they fight for their right to be their identified gender. That battleground then becomes the source of psychological distress that the APA has identified as a key to diagnosing Gender Dysphoria. If genes and neurobiology shape gender, then it follows that any person can be whatever their gender identity is without that identity being considered pathological. The clarification of gender identity development will open the door to understanding gender expression development.




Arnold, A. P. (2003). The gender of the voice within: the neural origin of sex differences in the brain. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13(6), 759-764.

Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender Schema Theory: a Cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88(4), 354-364. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from the Cornell University database.

Buss, D. (1995). Psychological Sex Differences: Origins Through Sexual Selection. American Psychologist, 50(30), 164-168.

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. (4th ed.). (2000). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Feingold, A. (1994). Gender Differences In Personality: A Meta-analysis.. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 429-456.

Freud, S. (1991). On sexuality: three essays on the theory of sexuality. London: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1905)

Harter, S. (1998). The development of self-representations. Handbook of Child Psychology (5th ed., pp. 553-617). New York: Wiley.

Kohlberg, L. (1966). A cognitive-developmental analysis of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes. The development of sex differences (p. 0). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ngun, T. C., Ghahramani, N., Sánchez, F. J., Bocklandt, S., & Vilain, E. (2011). The genetics of sex differences in brain and behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(2), 227-246.





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