Feminism studies: Compare and contrast two competing accounts of ‘sexual difference’ – between Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler

Friday, February 2nd, 2007 (Posted 14 years, 8 months ago)

Part 1 – The notion of ‘sex’

In order to compare and contrast the term ‘sexual difference’ between these two thinkers, it is necessary to define Irigaray and Butler’s notion of ‘sex’. In ‘This Sex Which Is Not One’, Irigaray criticized Freud’s concept of the ‘binary opposition’ of sexuality. She theorized, ‘another system is needed, a system that will privilege the feminine as much as the masculine and will be based on the multiplicity of sexuality’ (Harmon, 1996). By pointing out the ‘multiplicity of sexuality’, Irigaray explained that from the historical interpretation (Freud’s concept of Binary opposition), if male sexuality is based on having a penis (a single sex organ) and female sexuality is based on having ‘nothing’, and then the binary opposition could be one of ‘penis/nothing, clitoris, vagina’ (Harmon, 1996). It is clear that the ‘sex’ for Irigaray is not only ‘one’ – the ‘one’ indicates an active, male, patriarchal culture. What she argues against is the historical idea that women are passive, whose desire and pleasure have been situated in males. As Harmon stated, Irigaray suggested constructing a new system for women, which ‘will privilege the feminine as much as the masculine and will be based on the multiplicity of female sexuality.’

Judith Butler does not draw a clear line between sexes. She agrees that humans have natural characters but also claims that ‘sex’ reveals multiplicities to humans, who then need to be considered as ‘cultural products’. She contends that:

…there is a sedimentation of gender norms that produces the peculiar phenomenon of a natural sex, or a real woman…this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another’. (Butler, 1988, p.407)

Butler focuses on the relationship between ‘natural’ sex and ‘performative’ gender. She believes that sex is a gendered body, which bears cultural meanings. She states that ‘the acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts’ (Butler, 1988, p.403). It seems that ‘cultural products’ play an important role in constructing different sexes. For her, sex is also not ‘only one’, but also not only two – it is the multiplicity. Sex is never ‘natural’ for her, but can be seen as a culturally transformed gender. ‘Gender performativity’ can be seen as a way to represent different sexes. Irigaray responded to and rejected the historical consequences (the binary opposition of sex), whereas for Butler’s ‘multiplicity’ this is irrelevant, but now it directly explains it’s own genesis.


Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. In Conboy, K., Medina, N., Stanbury, S. eds. Writing on the Body: Female Movement and Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Harmon, B. (1996). Luce Irigaray.
http://www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/Irigaray.html Internet (last viewed 10 January 2007).

Leave a Reply