The Conflict About Sex — Işık Barış Fidaner


According to Joan Copjec, sex can be reduced to neither biology nor gender:

[Freud] founded psychoanalysis on the refusal to give way either to “anatomy or convention,” arguing that neither of these could account for the existence of sex. While sex is, for psychoanalysis, never simply a natural fact, it is also never reducible to any discursive construction, to sense, finally. For what such a reduction would remain oblivious to is the radical antagonism between sex and sense. As Lacan put it, “Everything implied by the analytic engagement with human behaviour indicates not that meaning reflects the sexual, but that it makes up for it.” Sex is the stumbling block of sense. (“Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason”)

If we follow Copjec’s lead, we should reject both of the two great camps of the current conflict about sex: (1) the second-wave feminists who reduce sex to biology, (2) the third-wave feminists or queer theorists who reduce sex to gender. Their external conflict originates from the antagonism inherent to sex as “the stumbling block of sense”. But how can we explain the dual structure of this conflict?

To grasp the duality of the conflict, let us return to Descartes’ famous proposition: “I am thinking therefore I am” (“Cogito ergo sum”). According to Lacan, two aspects of this proposition, thinking and being, take place separately: “I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking.” (Écrits) This separation is the acknowledgement of the unconscious.

I associate Descartes’ duality with another duality: authorization-embodiment [1]. Firstly, a person thinks in language, and the function of language is to authorize an addressee, so Descartes’ “I am thinking” means that “I am authorized”. Secondly, “I am” means that “I am embodied” as a human being. “Cogito ergo sum” derives the person’s embodiment from his/her authorization, marking the distinction of the human being as an “authorized animal” [2].

In the premodern conception, all authorization comes from God, and all embodiment comes from Nature. The modern ground of authorization is a particular will, because “God is dead” (Nietzsche); whereas the modern ground of embodiment is a particular (eco)system, because nature is not-whole and inconsistent.

Now we can easily articulate the two sides of the current conflict about sex: According to the second-wave feminists, sex is determined by the sexed bodies with sexual organs, whose embodiment is grounded by the sexual dimorphism in the (not only) human reproductive systems. According to the third-wave queer theorists, sex is a social authorization (“gender identity”) that is grounded only by the person’s will to identify as a man/woman/etc.

So the second-wave gender criticals focus on “I am” (sum) prior to “I am thinking” (cogito); they focus on the sexed embodiment that humans share with other animals; whereas the third-wave trans activists focus on “I am thinking” (cogito) and derive the being-embodiment from the thinking-authorization like Descartes does (“Cogito ergo sum”) by asserting the distinction of the human being.

This means that the resolution of the conflict about sex requires the acknowledgement of two dualities: (1) authorization and embodiment, (2) will and system that grounds them [3]. The psychoanalytic symptom can be conceived as the desire-malfunction that disrupts the will-system [4]. The division enacted by these signifiers is the truth of sex as the stumbling block of sense.


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Separation of Authorization from Embodiment”

[2] See “The Coronavirus Crisis”

[3] See “There are only embodiments and authorizations”

[4] See “Desire and Malfunction”

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