A conversation with Catholic literary scholar and former postmodern feminist Abigail Favale.
by Jonathan Liedl in National Catholic Register
Deep confusion about sexual identity is a seeming cornerstone of contemporary society, plaguing not only our institutions and laws, but, sadly, the lived experiences of many. But according to Abigail Favale, a deeper linguistic confusion undergirds much of our inability to make sense of who we are in a way that fully integrates all the factors, including our bodies.
In fact, in an important 2019 piece for Church Life Journal entitled “The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender,” Favale argues that a widespread cultural neglect of our sexed bodies and inherent procreative potential as the basis for the distinction between men and women — and therefore for a person’s own sexual identity — is the source of many societal ills today.
Favale, an associate professor of English and the dean of the College of Humanities at George Fox University in Oregon, argues that a potent combination of widespread oral contraception and social theory gave rise to a concept of gender — that is, the socially conditioned roles men and women play — divorced from embodiment. Gender, rather than sex, has become the primary way people think and talk about their sexual identity, to the point now where a person’s self-identified gender is considered to be determinative of his or her biological sex, instead of the other way around.
As a former postmodern feminist who converted to Catholicism, a compelling spiritual odyssey detailed in her memoir Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Favale is in a unique position to provide helpful analysis. The wife and mother of three is currently finalizing a book for Ignatius Press on the topic of our culture’s confused approaches to gender and sexuality, a malady that she suggests affects not only progressives and postmodernists, but even some conservative and traditionalist Catholic responses to our current crisis. Favale recently spoke to the Register at length.
I was struck by how you link the demise of sex — that is, an understanding of our sexual identity as rooted in our bodies and procreative potentiality — to widespread oral contraception. You pointed out that the rise of this technological factor actually allowed social theories of gender that were divorced from our sexed bodies to become more influential in society. What’s the link between the introduction of contraception and this fundamental change in the way we perceive our sexual identity and our relationship to our body?
I think when our culture became contraceptive, it shaped our cultural imagination in a way where we now have this kind of default or presumptive attitude that everyone’s sterile, but especially women; that’s the default state. And so, once our understandings of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are not really linked to our procreative potentials, then what’s the ground of sexual difference? What’s the ground of being a man and being a woman?
Well, then it becomes things like secondary sex characteristics [things like facial hair, the development of breasts, deepness of voice]. And so I think — and you see this, right? — when you hear kind of the more popular way of talking about gender or these memes, like the genderbread person or the gender unicorn, they talk about sex and just list a bunch of secondary sex characteristics. But they never actually talk about gametes. They never talk about the capacity to gestate or, you know, to produce sperm. It’s all downstream of that.
So the unifying purpose of those secondary sex characteristics has been kind of forgotten or neglected. And so now sex is just about those secondary characteristics. And if you can mimic the appearance of them, that’s all that sex really is. So, the logic goes, you can change sex.