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

Thursday, February 15th, 2007 (Posted 11 years ago)

Part 3 – sex and gender

It seems that Irigaray and Butler’s interpretations of ‘sexual difference’ are based on different starting points. Irigaray focuses on the rejection of female sexuality in cultural theory, and claims that gender is sex based. However, Butler states that it is extremely limiting if one understands gender as a separated model, which is based on sex, and does not take into account other bases of gender identity and different forms of sexuality (Long, 2006). She articulates Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the phenomenology of perception on “the body in its sexual being”, saying that the human body is “an historical idea” rather than “a natural species.” She is also inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of “woman”, for which ‘any extension, and gender, is an historical situation rather than a natural fact.’ Butler explains that ‘[Beauvoir] clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity’ (Butler, 1988, p.403).

According to Butler’s theory of sex and gender, one can argue that biological sex does not oppose performative gender. Sex and gender can be seen as an interacted relationship (sex/gender). Sexes can be seen as gendered bodies, which are created by culture. Butler elaborates gender as an aspect of identity, which are created through ‘a stylized repetition of [performative] acts’ (Long, 2006). In this sense, gender can also be defined into multiple assumptions. As Butler states

‘…there is neither an “ essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis’ (Butler, 1988, p.405).

Even through both Irigaray and Butler agreed that patriarchal power has been influencing and controlling human interpretation of ‘sex’ and gender, one could argue that Butler reveals more possibilities for the understanding of sex/gender. Butler’s notion of sex/gender is sublimated to an intellectual level, which free individuals to define their own sex/gender.


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
Long, V. (2006). Subjectivity and Gender: Luce Irigaray’s, Judith Butler’s and Riot Girl’s Gender Challenge. Internet (last viewed 10 January 2007).

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