What I believe about sex and gender: part 5

Political implications, continued

39. Women and trans women have some political concerns in common. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are traceable to sexism or misogyny, as many are, they have common interests with women, and both groups would benefit from working together and organising together.

40. There is also some divergence in experience. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are not shared with biological females, there may be a need for them to work and organise separately. On some issues – for instance, with respect to forms of discrimination and marginalisation traceable to transphobia, rather than sexism – trans women and trans men may have more in common with one another than do trans women and biologically female women, and so may benefit from organising together.

41. Some political issues will affect biological females only. These issues are usually of paramount importance to female persons. Reproduction, contraception, female diseases: these are only really issues of concern for biologically female people, and insofar as they don’t affect trans women, who are biologically male, it may sometimes be appropriate for them to be excluded from organising on this issue.

42. As noted in point 30, despite their differences and divergences, there is sufficient overlap and commonality of experience to conceive of women as a coherent political class, and it is this belief that makes feminism, despite its inherent diversity and variety of forms, a coherent political label. One especially salient form this commonality of experience takes is harassment, abuse, exploitation, and violence at the hands of men. Obviously this incorporates a large spectrum of behaviours, including exploitation of domestic, emotional and sexual labour, emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, verbal harassment, physical violence, sexual assault, rape and murder. All women live under the constant background threat of male physical and sexual violence, fear of which constrains our freedom and shapes our behaviour and choices. Crucially, this exploitation, abuse and violence towards women is committed by people born male, and raised and socialised as men. This may be a product of biological factors, such as higher levels of testosterone among males; it may be a product of male socialisation and the inculcation of masculine norms of dominance and aggression; or, most likely, it may be caused by a combination of the two. But it is clear that inflicting emotional abuse and violence on women is not caused by simply “identifying” as a man. If it were, we would expect to see transsexual men inflicting violence and abuse of women at the same rate that men born and raised male do. The fact is that most violence and aggression – whether towards women or towards men – is carried out by male persons, inhabiting biologically male bodies, who were raised and socialised as men.

43. Given this common experience of exploitation, abuse and violence inflicted by male people, those born and raised female – especially those who have personally suffered male  abuse and violence – have a legitimate interest in the existence of some spaces designated for females only, away from the presence of people with male bodies who have been raised and socialised male. These might be spaces to recover and heal; they might be spaces for political organisation and consciousness-raising; or they might simply be places for temporary sanctuary and privacy, safe from male attention. The users and organisers of gyms and sports centres, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, and other kinds of women-only space, may legitimately decide that it is appropriate for such spaces to exclude those born and raised male, to facilitate women’s healing, or to provide a site of respite and safety from a male-dominated world. Alternatively, they may decide to include some male born people, under certain conditions, such as full transition. This is not to say that all persons born and raised male are necessarily violent or abusive, or will inevitably shatter the sanctuary of such spaces, any more than acknowledging the need for persons of colour to organise and associate freely in the absence of white people assumes that all white people are violent or abusive. It is simply to recognise the political significance of being a member of an oppressed class, and to acknowledge the importance to members of that class of being able to organise and associate separately, free from those who are members of the dominant class, who will have different experiences of that class system.

44. The result of this is that if the users and organisers of a women-only space deem it appropriate for them to exclude trans women from this space, it will often be reasonable and legitimate for them to do so. (See here for a careful and considered account of the various functions different female-only spaces perform, and the degree of inclusion or exclusion that might be appropriate.) This may cause emotional pain and distress for some trans women, who may strongly feel that they are women, identify as women, and desire to be regarded by others as women. This emotional pain and distress is unintended and unfortunate. No feminist wants to inflict emotional suffering on trans women. However, it may sometimes be unavoidable, and there is no reason why in these instances, the desire of some trans women to be included in the space in question should trump the legitimate interests of females in occupying separate spaces. It is essential that we ask what purpose the space is intended to perform, and be prepared to engage in a critical reflection of whether such purposes might be thwarted by the presence of male-bodied and male-socialised people, regardless of the intent or desire of those people. While it may be painful and injurious to the self-perception and self-identification of trans women to exclude them from some female-only spaces, these spaces do not exist to validate the identities of those who believe themselves to be women. They exist to provide safety, sanctuary and community to those born and raised female, something which females, as an oppressed social group, have a right to enjoy.

45. It does not follow from this that any feminist who wants to organise a female-only space is proposing to conduct checks on the people who try to enter those spaces, to demand to see a Gender Recognition Certificate, or to insist on examining the genitals of people at the door. Rather, it is a matter of making the policies of the space and the boundaries of the women who use that space publicly known, and asking for those boundaries to be upheld and respected. If trans women respect biological females as their sisters and allies, they will be willing to acknowledge those women’s need for some female-only space, and their right to draw their boundaries in whatever way makes them feel comfortable and safe – as indeed, most trans women do.

46. Like biological females, trans women are frequently victims of male violence and sexual predation, and so they too have an interest in having access to safe spaces away from men. Ideally, there would be sufficient time, resources and physical space for trans women to have their own facilities and spaces where appropriate. In addition to mixed facilities for those who are comfortable with them, there would be female-only changing rooms and refuges, and facilities designated specifically for trans women. Such objectives can sometimes be relatively easily realised, such as through the creation of gender-neutral, self-contained toilets and changing cubicles. However, given inevitable constraints on resources, the provision of safe spaces and facilities exclusively for trans women may not always be achievable. Such cases present us with difficult challenges, and careful thought and deliberation will be required to determine, on a case-by-case basis, how best to balance the competing interests and claims at stake. But it should not be presumed as a matter of principle that trans women have an absolute right to enter all existing women-only spaces, as depending on the context and the purpose of the space, this may conflict with the needs and desires of existing users. Furthermore, the funding and resources for spaces such as women’s refuges and rape crisis centres frequently exists only as a result of long, dedicated, continuous work and commitment on behalf of the women who run them. There is nothing to stop trans activists and their allies engaging in similar projects to provide their own facilities.

47. The label TERF, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, to refer to those feminists who argue for the continued existence of at least some female-only spaces, is a thought-terminating cliche: a piece of rhetoric designed to mask the difficulty and complexity involved in balancing competing interests, to prevent the need for further reflection, and to stifle dissent. As argued above, there may sometimes be valid and legitimate reasons to exclude trans women from feminist spaces, depending on the context and the function of the space. The use of the label TERF to describe any woman who argues in favour of some female-only spaces serves to pathologise all disagreement on this issue, and to foreclose the possibility of reasoned discussion and compromise. Either you agree that self-identified trans women should be entitled to enter each and every female space, including shared changing room facilities and women’s refuges, with no exceptions or conditions; or you are labelled a dangerous, malicious bigot who must be ostracised and contained. If you express any discomfort about, for example, this individual gaining access to female changing rooms and toilets; or if you think that a convicted rapist who decides to identify as a woman should not be housed in a women’s prison; you are a TERF, guilty of bigotry on a par with racism or homophobia, and thus your concerns can be dismissed without further argument.

48. Furthermore, the word TERF and accusations of transphobia are now levelled at any person who questions the conceptual coherence and scientific plausibility of the idea of gender identity, or who continues to believe in the material reality and political significance of biological sex. Making statements such as “the penis is the male sex organ” or “women have vaginas” is, among certain transgender activists, sufficient for one to be labelled a dangerous, transphobic bigot. The label TERF is therefore not a neutral descriptor. It is not a meaningful description of any feminist politics, and there are no individuals who define their own position as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Furthermore, regardless of how those who coined it originally intended to be used, it should now be interpreted as a slur: first, because no woman actually endorses the label to define herself, and generally speaking most women called TERF object to being so labelled; and second, because it is so frequently accompanied by abusive language and threats of violence.

49. Part of the motivation for writing the present posts is to clarify my own position on sex, gender, and female-only spaces. I have been labelled a TERF and a transphobic bigot on many occasions, simply for continuing to insist that: female biology exists; female biology matters; and females have a right to some female-only spaces. These posts are intended to clarify my view for any observer who has read such accusations about me or women like me. The reader can decide for herself whether she thinks the views I have expressed here are evidence of bigotry and prejudice towards trans people.

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here.)

What I believe about sex and gender: part 4

Political implications

29. People can and do experience oppression across numerous dimensions. The key theoretical insight and political contribution of feminism has been to highlight the various ways in which biological sex acts as an axis of oppression, and the ways in which living in a female body in a male-dominated society is accompanied by a range of injustices. Some of these injustices are directly connected to the material conditions of female biology, such as lack of access to contraception, abortion and obstetric healthcare, lack of research into and medical treatment for female diseases, under-provision of maternity benefits and employment rights, female genital mutilation. Some are less directly connected to female biology, but are a result of being read as female and living in the subordinate sex role, such as sexual and physical violence, sexual harassment, unequal pay, lack of political representation, unequal division of domestic labour, and many, many more. All are products of, and manifestations of, a social order organised to perpetuate male dominance and supremacy and female passivity and subordination – what feminists call patriarchy.

30. Sex-based oppression will intersect with other axes of oppression, including race, disability, and socio-economic class. So white women will be privileged in comparison to women of colour with respect to race, while being oppressed in comparison with men of all races on the axis of sex. We must always be sensitive to the ways in which various axes of oppression interact to produce unique experiences for different individuals, depending on the specific features of their identities. However, the fact that women of different races, classes or abilities will have different perspectives and experiences of injustice does not negate the fact that sex is an axis of oppression in its own right. Nobody suggests that because black men will have a different experience of racism to black women, this means that we cannot coherently talk about race as an axis of oppression. Feminism as a movement, and as a political label that individuals adopt, is predicated on the belief that there are some shared experiences among women, and that despite their differences and diversity, we can conceptualise women as a coherent political class. It makes little sense to refer to oneself as a feminist, if one does not believe that there is sufficient commonality and shared experience among women for them to constitute a coherent political class.

31. If you do not recognise the material reality of biological sex or its significance as an axis of oppression, your political theory cannot incorporate any analysis of patriarchy. Women’s historic and continued subordination has not arisen because some members of our species choose to identify with an inferior social role (and it would be an act of egregious victim-blaming to suggest that it has). It has emerged as a means by which males can dominate that half of the species that is capable of gestating children, and exploit their sexual and reproductive labour. We cannot make sense of the historical development of patriarchy and the continued existence of sexist discrimination and cultural misogyny, without recognising the reality of female biology, and the existence of a class of biologically female persons.

32. If we do not recognise the material reality of biological sex and its significance as an axis of oppression, women’s experience of oppression becomes literally unspeakable. We lose the terminology and tools of analysis – tools carefully developed by generations of feminists working before us – to make sense of female experience, and of the reality of negotiating a male-dominated world in a female body. Cancelling performances of The Vagina Monologues on university campuses, referring to female people as “uterused people“, or insisting on eliminating the word “woman” from all discussion of pregnancy, serves to erase the reality of living in a female body, and renders invisible the underlying cause of female oppression and subordination. Insisting that we stop talking about abortion as a woman’s issue does nothing to actually make abortion more accessible to those who need it, and only serves to obscure the underlying reasons why access to abortion is restricted. It is not just a coincidence that the people who experience sexism and misogyny happen to be the ones with vaginas and wombs, and happen to be the ones that bear the children. Those biological facts are the underlying rationale for that system of subordination. Furthermore, it’s not clear why redefining the word “female” to mean “a feeling or a state of mind in a person’s head”, and losing our terminology to describe the class of beings capable of gestating children, represents any kind of improvement. We still need some terminology to describe the class of humans that is capable of getting pregnant and needs access to reproductive healthcare and abortion.

33. In the vast majority of cases, those who are biologically female are also socially read as female – i.e. are women – and thus will be vulnerable to all of the forms that sexism takes. However trans women, who are not biologically female, may experience misogyny and many forms of injustice that come with being a woman, while not being vulnerable to those oppressions that are directly connected to the reality of inhabiting a female body. They may also benefit from escaping the experience of being raised as a woman from birth, and thus being spared some of the most damaging effects of female socialisation. Similarly, biological females who successfully transition to live as men may avoid many of the forms of oppression to which women are vulnerable, but having been raised as female will need to overcome the effects of their gendered socialisation, and may still be affected by issues stemming from their biological sex.

34. It is of very little political significance how any individual “identifies”. People can call themselves genderfluid or genderqueer or non-binary or agender or pangender or demiboy or neutrois or anything they like. While these identities do not reflect deep, essential properties, people are free to define themselves however they choose, and to adopt any label they like to make sense of their lives and experiences. But these labels have no real political significance, and are certainly not axes of oppression. Biologically female people are oppressed on the basis of their sex, and therefore require special social, political and legal protections. Transsexual people are a marginalised group who experience discrimination and harassment, and they too will require special legal, social and political provisions. These facts are politically salient because they reflect the material conditions of individuals’ existence, and structure their social interactions and how others engage with them. But no individual is oppressed or marginalised solely on the basis of their gender identity, since gender identity is nothing more than a subjective mental state, a feeling in one’s head, unknowable to anyone else unless it is somehow expressed or revealed. Oppression means something more than “one’s self-perception or self-identity not being socially recognised and validated”. Oppression is generally speaking tied to resource extraction, and takes the forms of exploitation, powerlessness, and violence; and nobody experiences these things solely on the basis of their subjective mental state.

35. That is not to say that people who do not conform to traditional gender roles will not experience discrimination and prejudice. Of course they will. But this will be on the basis of their appearance, behaviour, dress or comportment not fitting neatly into one of the pink and blue boxes that we expect all human beings to squash themselves into: in other words, they are being oppressed by gender and the rigid restrictions it imposes on all people, and the social sanctions its imposes for non-compliance. Since there is typically no way of distinguishing between a supposedly cisgender woman, and a self-identified “non-dysphoric, femme presenting, Assigned Female At Birth demigirl“, except their self-definition, it is difficult to see how the latter could be more oppressed by gender than the former. This is especially apparent when we take the case from the previous post of the “male presenting woman” called Simon. A person who was born male, socialised as male, presents as male, but “identifies as a woman” cannot be more oppressed by gender than a female person, just because he “feels like a woman” whereas the latter knows she is female.

36. Whether or not one is happy to adopt the label “cisgender” to refer to oneself and one’s relation to gender, the notion of “cis privilege”, where this refers to a form of structural advantage that female persons possess over male persons, is incoherent, and damaging for females. Females and gender non-conforming males are both oppressed by the same hierarchical system: namely gender, the hierarchy that values maleness above femaleness, men above women, masculinity above femininity. The fact that it is often undoubtedly painful and difficult to be a trans woman or a gender non-conforming male, and is often accompanied by social stigma and prejudice, does not entail that female people possess structural advantage over them, or that females represent an oppressor class with respect to gender non-conforming males. (This is an excellent post on the political implications of the idea of cis privilege.)

37. Transsexual people are a marginalised group who need and deserve support, empathy and compassion. They are human beings trying their best to live and to flourish under the constraints that gender imposes upon them, just as everyone is. They should be provided with whatever support and treatment they need to live happy, healthy, flourishing lives, and be treated with the same respect and kindness as anyone else. They have the same right to privacy as anyone else, and therefore there can be no justification for doxxing trans women or publicising their past identities, or bullying, abusing or harassing them, either in person or on social media. They have a right to physical integrity, safety from violence and protection from harassment, access to medical care, and protection from discrimination in education, employment and housing.

38. We can support trans people without pretending to believe in something that is quite clearly false, namely the current dogma which insists that that there is no such thing as male and female, that trans women are female and have always been female, that there are no important social and political differences between trans women and biologically female women. We do not show respect for trans people as rational, intelligent adults by acceding to the demands of a small minority who insist that we deny biological and social reality. There is nothing negative or pejorative about being male, and therefore there is no reason to deny this fact. There is nothing shameful about experiencing dysphoria or finding the constraints of masculinity intolerable and so seeking to live differently, and therefore there is no reason to deny that one is becoming something different to what one was before.

39. We can support trans women without denying the rights of biologically female women, or without sacrificing their interests and concerns. Part of a feminist understanding of gender is the realisation that those raised as women from birth are socialised and trained to sacrifice themselves and their needs for others. For this reason, it is a radical and revolutionary act of feminist politics to respect the needs and wishes of those raised as women from birth, and to respect their boundaries and exclusions. One of the fundamental aims of feminism is to fight for women’s right to draw their own boundaries, to be able to exercise control over who they associate with and what form this association takes, and this is necessarily a matter of excluding as well as including people. For that reason, the criticism that feminism is exclusionary is generally misplaced, since one of the things that feminism is striving for is for women’s exclusions to be respected.

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 5 is here.)

What I believe about sex and gender: part 3

Trans issues and gender identity

18. While we will all experience unease and discomfort living under the constraints of gender to a greater or lesser degree, some persons experience this especially intensely and acutely, to the extent that they cannot tolerably live in the gender role associated with their biological sex. Further, a small percentage of persons experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be more accurately labelled sex dysphoria or sex dysmorphia, as it is a form of acute distress and discomfort caused by the experience of living in their sexed bodies. Although biological sex is immutable, residing in our chromosomes and expressed in physical and anatomical features, it is possible for persons with dysphoria to undergo treatment to make their bodies more closely resemble those of the opposite sex, and to enable them to live more easily in the gender role associated with the opposite sex.

19. Whereas the label “female” refers to a biological category, membership of which is fixed at birth and hence unalterable, the label “woman” refers to a social category. Being a woman is not so much a matter of having female biology, as it is a matter of being read as a person who has that biology, and being treated accordingly. What it means to be a member of the social class ‘woman’ is that one is read by others as female, and is treated in accordance with the gendered rules that prescribe feminine passivity and submission to members of the female sex class. The vast majority of persons occupying this class do so because they have female biology and so were inculcated into this class from birth, through the process of gendered socialisation. However, given that woman is a social rather than a biological category, it is therefore possible for biologically male persons to transition into the role of woman. Since being a woman is primarily a matter of being socially read and treated as female, it is possible for persons born male to undergo a process of transition, at the end of which they will be read and treated as female, and hence are women. This may or may not involve medical treatment in the form of hormone treatment and surgery. But what it will necessarily be is a process of social transition, which will involve, among other things, confronting and addressing the privilege that comes with being raised male and living as a male for a period of time. What such a process will involve and how long it will take are difficult and complex questions that will vary from case to case, and there is no simple or universal answer. But once such a process has been completed, those persons now occupy the category of woman, and it is appropriate and respectful to refer to such persons using feminine pronouns.

20. While it is possible to transition to the role of woman, this cannot be achieved by a simple act of will or performative utterance. The mere fact of “identifying as a woman”, feeling like a woman, believing one is a woman, or declaring “I am a woman”, on their own are insufficient to make one a woman. To be a woman is to occupy a social role and to be viewed by others as occupying that role, and therefore no subjective mental state is sufficient to make one a woman; becoming a woman is not a mere matter of “identifying as a woman”. If you are called Simon and “present as male“, then the mere fact that you identify as a woman, which presumably means simply to have some sort of feeling or belief in your mind, will have no bearing on how anyone views you, and thus you will continue to be treated with the respect and deference that it usually shown to men.

21. There has been on the left a general shift away from class based politics and structural analysis of oppression, and towards an individualistic politics whose primary demands are for the recognition and validation of identities. In conjunction with this shift, recent discourse on trans issues has moved away from the language of transsexuality, which defined transsexual people in terms of the experience of dysphoria, and towards the notion of talking about transgender people, who are defined in terms of their “gender identity“. This significantly broadens the category of people who now refer to themselves as trans. Many people who now self-define as trans may not experience any dysphoria at all, may have no desire to modify their bodies in any way, and may have no intention of ever engaging in a process of transition to live in the gender role associated with the opposite sex. What this means is that being trans is now entirely a matter of self-definition and self-identification.

22. “Gender identity” is described as “someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman“, or “a person’s private sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender”. These definitions are vague and unclear, and so it’s not easy to get a grasp on exactly what it is that is being posited in talk of gender identity. One crucial feature of gender identity, as posited by its proponents, is that it is considered to be entirely independent of both biological sex, and of gendered socialisation. So the claim is that persons have an internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or something else entirely – more on this in point 28) that hangs free from, and can be explained and described without reference to, both their physical bodies, and their experience of being socially read and treated as a person with such a body. It is this that explains how a person can come to identify as a woman despite having a male body, and despite having been raised as male and having lived as a man. If you are transgender, then your “gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex [you] were assigned at birth”. it is claimed that everybody has a gender identity, so that if you are not trans, then you are cisgender, which means that your gender identity is aligned with the sex typically assigned at birth. (I have written before about my discomfort with the label cisgender, which I feel does not accurately describe me, nor many other women I know.)

23. Given the free floating nature of gender identity, it’s very unclear what kind of a property or mental state it is purported to be. If by “gender identity” what is meant is a strong feeling or conviction that one’s personality, dispositions and preferences are more closely aligned with the gender norms for one sex over those of the other, such that one can survive and flourish more comfortably in that gender role, then it is plausible to suggest that everybody has a gender identity. However, the term is generally used in ways that suggest something much deeper and more fundamental than this. Gender identity seems to refer to some quasi-metaphysical property or essence that is fixed, unchanging, and may not be challenged. An individual’s professed gender identity is an essential, sacrosanct part of their identity, and must be believed and respected without question.

24. This notion of “gender identity as essence” has troubling implications. The unclarity about what kind of a property it is, and its inherently entirely subjective nature, means that the doctrine of gender identity becomes unfalsifiable. Positing the existence of a gender identity is thus equivalent to positing the existence of a soul or some other non-material entity whose existence cannot be tested or proved. If we wish to avoid this implication, the only option is to make a claim for the objective reality of gender identity and to try to search for its material basis; and then we come perilously close to positing the existence of gendered brains, and suggesting that people can be born with a brain belonging to one sex but with the primary and secondary sex characteristics of the other sex. I am not qualified to pronounce on the validity of these claims, having no scientific training and very little knowledge of neuroscience. But feminists have long been suspicious of any attempt to argue for the naturalness of gendered traits and dispositions, as these arguments are so frequently invoked to justify women’s social and political subordination. (I acknowledge my own scientific limitations here, but like any good feminist, I recommend those who are inclined to believe in the existence of ladybrains to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender).

25. If we take an individual’s self-declared gender identity as the sole necessary and sufficient condition for membership in a gender class, the result is that the meaning of the word “woman” is reduced to a subjective mental state, to a feeling in a person’s head. The only answer to the question “what is a woman?” becomes “a person who feels like a woman”. But this is an entirely circular definition that tells us nothing about what a woman is. The purpose of language is to convey shared social meanings. If a word means something different to every person who uses it, and they cannot explain to others what they mean when they use that word, then it means nothing. If the word woman is defined as “someone who thinks they are a woman”, then the word woman becomes meaningless, and can no longer be the name of anything. The political implication of that is that women as a class disappear. This also leads to absurd and profoundly objectionable conclusions such as the one linked to in point 20, where someone raised as male, living as male, presenting as male – in other words, a man – can suddenly insist he is a woman and be allowed to speak over and on behalf of those who have been living as women and been socialised as women since birth. By insisting that being a woman is nothing more than a feeling in a person’s head, the notion of gender identity erases and invalidates the experiences of both biologically female women and transsexual women. Both biologically female women and transsexual women should resist the idea that womanhood is nothing more than a state of mind, a feeling in a person’s head, evidenced only by a performative utterance, because such a position has the effect of eradicating the existence of women altogether.

26. The fact that it is possible to move from one social group to another itself is evidence of the fact that the individual is undergoing a process of transition from membership of one group to another. It does not occur instantly, through a simple act of will, and nor does it become retrospectively the case that, having decided to transition, the person was somehow “always a woman“. It makes no sense to say that someone who transitions to live as a woman after living a certain number of years as a man has “always been a woman“; if that were so, there would be no reason to embark upon physical or social transition. It makes even less sense to say, as has frequently been said, that a trans woman’s body is female and has always been female, just because it is hers and she “identifies” as female. As already noted, the word “female” refers to a biological category that one cannot identify or transition one’s way into. And further, if one’s body were already female, there would be no reason to modify it in any way. It is the fact of sexual dimorphism and the anatomical differences between the sexes that creates the need in those with dysphoria to modify their bodies. Trans women have male bodies, which they may choose to modify to resemble more closely female bodies. And trans women were raised as boys and often lived as men, and will have to undergo a social transition from that role to the role of woman. It is therefore clearly absurd, once a person comes out as trans, to insist that we must now believe that they have always been a member of the class into which they are moving. If Kellie Maloney, who transitioned at age 60, has always been a woman, then the word woman becomes meaningless, as it refers to literally anything and everything a person wants it to refer to. And her efforts to live as a woman and pass as a biological female become incomprehensible, because unnecessary.

27. For those who subscribe to the notion of gender identity – and in contrast to the radical feminist analysis – gender is not inherently oppressive. While radical feminists consider that gender is inherently oppressive because it is a system that embodies a hierarchy of male over female, man over woman, masculine over feminine, for the proponent of gender identity there is nothing oppressive or restrictive about gender norms in and of themselves. Hence there is often resistance to the radical feminist critique of femininity as submission and subordination, because the person who believes they have a feminine gender identity may enjoy performing and enacting femininity, and so resents being told that this is an expression of female weakness and passivity.

28. So for many of those who endorse the idea of gender identity, the oppressive thing about gender is not that it is a hierarchy; it’s that it is a binary. Once you detach the notion of gender identity entirely from both biological sex and gendered socialisation, there is in principle no reason to limit the number or genders that are purported to exist to just two. Hence the emergence of individuals identifying themselves as “non-binary” or “genderfluid”, some of whom claim to variously experience “male shifts” and “female shifts“. We now have fifty-six different genders recognised on Facebook, though if you go roaming through the wilds of Tumblr you will find many, many more, along with a whole range of special pronouns. The logical question to ask the proponent of gender identity as a spectrum is: how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? And the only consistent answer that can be given to that question is: 7 billion. We would have to acknowledge that each individual can have their own unique gender identity. But if there are 7 billion different genders, a unique one for each of us, then it’s not clear that it makes any sense, or adds anything to our understanding, to call this “gender” at all. Gender is a system that ties certain desirable personality traits and behaviours to reproductive function. As soon as we detach these traits, behaviours and forms of appearance from biological sex, what we have is simply human personality, in all its variety and complexity. For this reason, every single one of us is non-binary. None of us is a walking gender stereotype. Gender is not just the name we give to the set of tastes, preferences, and dispositions that an individual happens to have. It is a system that ties biology to personality and behaviour, and puts people into pink and blue boxes according to the set of genitals they possess. The solution to that is not to create ever more boxes, nor to allow that some special non-binary individuals get to be gender revolutionaries who are able to move between the boxes at will, while the rest of us must stay put, and are told that we like it that way. The solution is to get rid of the boxes – to abolish gender altogether.

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here.)

What I believe about sex and gender: part 2


10. The oppression linked to sex begins at birth, operating through the social imposition of gender. Gender is the label that feminists use to describe the value system that prescribes and proscribes forms of behaviour and appearance for members of the different sex classes, and that assigns superior value to one sex class at the expense of the other. (That’s the same link as the one I said to bookmark in the previous post. I really, really want you to read it.)

11. Gendered socialisation is a lifelong process of inculcation into the gender role for your sex. It begins at birth, is imposed and enforced consciously and subconsciously by us all, in myriad ways, large and small, and operates to enforce certain forms of behaviour deemed desirable for members of the different sex classes and to prevent those deemed undesirable. This is what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she told us that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To occupy the position of woman is to be socialised over the course of a lifetime into membership of the inferior sex class. Gender prescribes submissionweakness and passivity as desirable female traits, and dominancepower and aggression as desirable male traits. The way in which gender is expressed will vary according to culture and context, so different times and places will impose different norms of appearance, behaviour and comportment for males and females. But the underlying values are the same: females are supposed to perform gender in ways that signal their inferiority and submission; males are supposed to perform gender in ways that signal their superiority and dominance. The function of this system of oppression is to make female weakness and dependence on males seem natural and inevitable, and therefore to facilitate the exploitation by males of female emotional, sexual, domestic and reproductive labour.

12. It is perceived reproductive capacity, not actual reproductive capacity, that determines the sex class you will be assigned to, and therefore the form your gendered socialisation will take and the oppression you will experience. It doesn’t matter if you are actually infertile, and therefore incapable of performing the reproductive function of your sex. Nor does it matter whether or not you are inclined to perform that function. The fact of sexual dimorphism means that you will be socially read as belonging to one sex class or the other, and will henceforth be subject to the gendered socialisation, and sanction for non-compliance, deemed appropriate for your sex. Women in their twenties and thirties will experience workplace discrimination on account of their appearing to be potential mothers, even if as a matter of fact they could not conceive or have no desire to conceive.

13. Crucially, gendered socialisation and gender oppression happen regardless of how the individual happens to feel about herself or her identity. The injustices that are inflicted on girls do not occur because those individuals happen to know that they are girls and to think of themselves as girls. They occur because those girls inhabit female bodies, and so were placed into the inferior sex class at birth. To deny this fact is not only to fail to understand how gender operates; it is also to engage in a form of victim blaming, where girls and women who suffer gender-based violence and oppression are assumed to have identified with this subordinate social position, and to recognise and endorse their own inferiority and submissiveness.

14. Many individuals of both sexes are uncomfortable with the constraints that gender places upon them. All women who call themselves feminists are. The reason we come to feminism is because we feel that gender is an oppressive hierarchy that limits our potential, and we want to be liberated from the demands of femininity, which just is the expression of female submission. Similarly, many men feel uncomfortable with the norms of masculinity, which requires the expression of dominance, often in the form of aggression and violence. Males who find masculinity painful and intolerable, and who choose to rebel against its strictures, face prejudice and discrimination, and we should want to end this. But it’s worth remembering that gender punishes females whether they conform or not. Non-conformity is punished and socially sanctioned for both sexes, but for females, conformity is also a form of punishment, since compliance with femininity is in itself submission and subordination.

15. The degree of distress and discomfort individuals experience trying to conform to the appropriate gender norms will vary from person to person. There are very few, if any, persons who conform perfectly to the gender ideals prescribed for their sex. We all of us make compromises to survive, and to flourish as best we can, under the constraints that gender imposes upon us. We all of us actively endorse some bits, passively acquiesce with some bits, and positively rail against some bits, and the balance we eventually settle on will be an individual, personal matter. While we should be prepared to critically examine and reflect upon our choices, and to scrutinise our complicity in the perpetuation of gender, no individual is to be blamed for the choices she makes in order to survive living under an oppressive system.

16. Wanting to abolish the oppressive and limiting effects of gender does not mean that radical feminists want to stop anyone expressing their personality in the ways that they enjoy. Feminists do not wish to ban make-up or high heels, or to prevent girls from playing with dolls and dressing up like princesses. All feminists want is to liberate all of this stuff from perceived reproductive capacity, so that boys and girls, men and women, can dress however they like, play with whatever toys they like, perform whatever jobs they like. Men and women would be free to develop their capacities and reach their full potential, free from the constraints imposed on them by powerful social norms prescribing submission and passivity to females and dominance and aggression to males. The ideal world would be one in which one’s perceived reproductive capacity has as little bearing on one’s social treatment and expected achievements and outcomes as blood group or dominant handedness currently does.

17. The behavioural choices that any individual makes, their tastes and preferences about dress and appearance, and how they choose to express their personality, are independent of biological sex and – quite obviously – have no impact on it. People can dress however they choose, behave however they choose, modify their bodies however they choose, as long as these choices do not harm non-consenting others. This is to be encouraged, and indeed is an important part of the project of liberating humans from the oppressive constraints of gender. But none of this alters the underlying biological fact of their maleness or femaleness. No amount of challenging and modifying gender norms – or “queering” gender – will make a male person female, because to be female just means to be a member of the class of humans capable of gestating a child. Challenging and playing with gender norms in one’s behaviour and presentation, so that one appears androgynous, is a valid and useful tool in dismantling the structures of gender; but on its own it can never liberate females from the oppression that accompanies living in a female body. You cannot identify your way out of an oppression that is material in basis.

(Part 1 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here.)

What I believe about sex and gender: part 1


1. Humans, like the vast majority of species, reproduce sexually. This means that the reproduction of our species is achieved through the fusion of a female gamete with a male gamete to produce a new organism. In normal cases, each organism produced will be unambiguously either female or male, and will produce the appropriate gametes for the purposes of sexual reproduction.

2. The categories of female and male are thus general biological categories that apply to all species that reproduce sexually. Humans are not special in this regard. While the language we use to describe these biological facts, and the values we attach to these facts, will be shaped by culture, the facts themselves exist independently of culture or our social understandings of them. Whether or not we have the language with which to describe it, females will continue to produce large, non-motile gametes (ova), and males will continue to produce small, motile gametes (spermatozoa).

3. Humans, like the majority of species and like all mammals, are sexually dimorphic. This means that female and male organisms of the same species are distinguishable from one another, due to differences in their anatomy and physiology: their primary and secondary sex characteristics. In female humans, relatively higher levels of oestrogen will lead to the development of a vulva, vagina, ovaries, uterus, breasts, and a range of other physiological markers. In male humans, relatively higher levels of testosterone will lead to the development of a penis and testes, deepening of the voice and growth of facial hair at puberty, and a range of other physiological markers. Again, humans are not special in this regard. While the language we use to describe these biological facts and the values we attach to them will vary with culture, the facts themselves exist independently of culture or our social understandings of them. Whether or not we have the language with which to describe it, at puberty female humans will begin to develop breasts and to menstruate.

4. As mentioned in point 1, in normal cases, the child that is born as a result of human reproduction is unambiguously female or male and easily recognised as such, as a result of the visible sex organs that develop in utero. In a small percentage of cases, the child is intersex. This means that the sexual characteristics the child displays are such that it is not possible to make a simple classification of female or male. While it is difficult to make a clear determination on the prevalence of intersex conditions, due to the range of different biological factors that may cause it, it is estimated that around one in 2,000 children will be born visibly intersex. The fact that some humans are intersex in no way diminishes the truth of sexual dimorphism, any more than the fact that some humans are born missing lower limbs diminishes the truth of the statement that humans are bipedal.

5. In all of those cases where the child is unambiguously male or female, the biological sex of the child is recognised at birth: female children are called girls, male children are called boys. Correctly identifying the genitals that a child possesses and therefore the biological sex to which they belong is not a matter of assigning gender to the child; it is simply to recognise the biological facts and to give them the correct biological label. Whether or not we have the language with which to describe it, male and female humans will exist. Children with vulvas will continue to be born, and children with penis and testes will continue to be born, whether or not we call them girls and boys (and whether or not we call those organs by those labels. A penis is anatomically a different organ from a clitoris, no matter what name you give it).

6. To summarise points 1-5: despite the existence of some unusual cases that deviate from the norm, the vast majority of humans possess the anatomical characteristics of either one sex or the other. These characteristics determine the reproductive function the individual can go on to perform. Biologists use the labels female and male to refer to these sex classes. Whether we retain these labels to refer to these sex classes, or whether we allow those labels to be co-opted to mean other things and thereby lose our language to describe these basic biological facts, these basic biological facts will remain. Every human being that has ever existed was created through this mechanism, and it took a lot of arduous and dangerous reproductive labour on the part of their mothers to get them here.

7. There is nothing remotely oppressive or unjust about correctly labelling a child’s biological sex on the basis of their genitals, and therefore correctly identifying their potential reproductive role. Neither is there anything essentialist or determinist about this classification. To acknowledge that on the basis of their biology, only one half of our species is potentially capable of conceiving and gestating live young, neither reduces female persons to that reproductive function, nor prescribes it as necessary for them. However, to deny this basic biological fact renders female biology unspeakable, which in turn makes it impossible to describe and analyse the oppression that accompanies living in a female body (such as rape and sexual violence, lack of access to contraception and abortion, provision of maternity healthcare and maternity employment rights, lack of investment and research into female illnesses and diseases…)

8. Women’s oppression has its historical roots and its ostensible justification in female biology and the exploitation of female reproductive labour. Altering the definition of the word ‘female’ so that it now means ‘any person who believes themselves to be female’ is not only conceptually incoherent (more on this in a later post); it also removes the possibility of analysing the structural oppression of female persons as a class, by eradicating the terminology we use to describe the material conditions of their existence. (Bookmark that link for later if you must, but do read it. Read it more than once, ideally. It’s worth it.)

9. Furthermore, for those who feel strongly that they should have been born female but were not, changing the definition of the word female so that it also applies to them will bring only a temporary alleviation of their suffering. It is not the existence of the words ‘female’ and ‘male’ that persons with dysphoria find distressing. It is the underlying biological facts to which they refer, as well as the socially constructed gender roles that are associated with being a member of that sex class, that they find intolerable. Neither of these sources of pain will be remedied by changing the label we use to refer to them. The words female and male are neutral descriptors, and there is nothing pejorative about being classified as male. Any negative connotations the words female and male bring to mind are caused by the social construction of gender norms associated with the sexes, in the form of femininity and masculinity; this will be the subject of the next post.

(Part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here.)

Am I cisgender?

I am a woman. This is something I have never questioned. It is something I know with almost complete certainty.

A couple of years ago, if you had asked me how I know that I’m a woman, then – after I had stopped looking at you in bewilderment at being asked such a daft question – I am pretty sure that I would have given you an answer that made reference to facts about my physical body, my biology. I would have mentioned my secondary sex characteristics: the fact that I have breasts and a vagina; the fact that I menstruate, and from this can infer that I have ovaries and a uterus; the fact that I tend to carry my body fat on my buttocks, thighs and hips. This would have been an answer that is in part empirical, appealing to a scientific account of what features define females of the human species, and in part linguistic, relying on an assumption that the word “woman” has a widely shared, collectively understood meaning: an adult human female.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more feminist writing than I had previously, and become much more immersed in contemporary theories of gender. And I now know that for some people, such an answer to the question “how do you know you’re a woman?” would be unacceptable. It would be pointed out that these biological facts are neither necessary nor sufficient for me to conclude that I am a woman, because some women do not have breasts or a vagina, and some people who have breasts and a vagina are not women. So what other answer might I give? The only other response that makes any sense to me is to say that I know that I am a woman because everybody I meet treats me as if I were a woman, and they always have done. When I was born, my parents gave me a name that is only ever given to girls. They referred to me using feminine pronouns, and others followed suit. They dressed me in clothes that our culture deems appropriate for girls, and let my hair grow long. As I grew older, those I met took those markers as evidence that I was a girl – and later, a woman – and treated me accordingly. I was praised and rewarded when I acted in ways deemed typically feminine, and faced social sanction and recrimination when my behaviour was more masculine. This is what feminists call female socialisation, and its manifestations are myriad and ubiquitous. So if I had to explain how I know I’m a woman, without making reference to my female body, I would say “I know I’m a woman, because everyone treats me like one”.

Something I’ve learned from the frontlines of the contemporary gender wars is that I’m not just a woman; I am apparently a “cisgender” woman. Being cisgender, or cis, is considered a form of structural advantage, and therefore I have privilege over those who are not cis. When I first encountered this word, I was informed that it simply means “not-trans”, and performs the same function as the word “heterosexual” does – it serves to give a label to the majority group so that they are not the norm against which others are defined as a deviation. Everybody has a sexual orientation, and so we should all have a label to describe it, not just the people whose orientation makes them a minority. It seems a reasonable and laudable aim to have such a word, and so when I first encountered it, I was happy to call myself cis. But am I really cisgender? Is this a term that can be meaningfully applied to me – or indeed, to anyone?

I was happy to call myself cis, if what this means is not-trans, because I assumed that I wasn’t trans. I assumed that I wasn’t trans because I have no dysphoria about my sexed body – I can live in my female body without discomfort, suffering, or anguish. Actually, that isn’t true, and I suspect it isn’t true for most women. As a woman raised in a culture that constantly bombards women with the message that their bodies are unacceptable, even disgusting, I feel an enormous amount of distress and dis-ease living in my female body, in a way that has shaped my life and continues to do so every day. What I really mean is that I have never felt that the discomfort and unhappiness I feel living in a female body would be eased if that body were male instead. While my female body is a continual source of shame and suffering for me, I’ve never felt the desire to alter it to make it less female, to undergo treatment or surgery to make my body more closely resemble a male body. Therefore, I assumed that I wasn’t trans. And so if I’m not trans, I must be cis.

But for many people, this is not actually what it means to be cis, because this is not what it means to be trans. I had incorrectly assumed that to be trans, one must to some degree experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be better called sex dysphoria – a feeling of distress and anguish caused by living in one’s sexed body. However, changing discourse within transgender politics insists that dysphoria should no longer be considered necessary for a person to be trans; you can be trans, even if you are perfectly comfortable and happy in the body you were born in, and have no desire to change it. This came as a surprise to me, and it’s obviously hugely significant, because if cis means not-trans, then we need to know what trans means. And I suspect most people will have shared my assumption that it involves dysphoria about one’s sexed body. So what might it mean to be trans, if not this?

The term “transgender” seems to be used in a variety of different ways and understood by different people to mean different things. One popular definition states that “transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth”. This posits the existence of something called a “gender identity”, which is usually defined as something like “someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman”, or “a person’s private sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender”. So then trans people are trans because there is a mismatch between their internal sense of their own gender and the gender norms typically associated with the sex they were born into.

Perhaps some people have a gender identity. Perhaps some people do have an internal sense of their own gender, a subjective, personal feeling that they are a man or woman, and perhaps they can describe and make sense of this without reference to either their physical bodies, or the socially constructed norms about how people with those bodies should behave. But I honestly don’t have this. I don’t have an internal sense of my own gender. If you ask me how I know that I’m a woman, I have to make reference either to my female secondary sex characteristics, or to the social implications of being read as a person who has these characteristics. I don’t experience my gender as an internal essence, a deep and unalterable facet of my identity. Maybe some people do, although I am sceptical as to how they could describe and explain that without reference to socially constructed gender roles. But I can concede for the sake of argument that some people might experience a form of subjective mental state that I don’t.

That would all be ok, if I were actually permitted to deny that I have a gender identity. But I am not. The purpose of the label cis is to demonstrate that being trans is not abnormal or deviant, but just one of the many gender identities that all people have. In order to perform the function it is supposed to perform, cis must be a label that refers to the presence of a specific gender identity, not just a lack of one. To be trans is to have a gender identity, one that differs from those typically associated with the sex you were assigned at birth. And if you’re not trans, then you are cis, which is also a gender identity. And so if trans people have a gender identity that differs from the gender norms for their assigned sex, then presumably cis people have an internal sense of their own gender that is largely aligned with the gender norms associated with the sex they were born into.

But I do not have a deep, personal sense of my own gender. I have things I like to do and to wear. And of course, many of the things I like to do and wear are things that are typically aligned with womanhood. But I didn’t come to like those things in a cultural or social vacuum, but against a backdrop of powerful social messages about what kinds of things women ought to like, so it’s no surprise that I should come to like some of these things. And anyway, I don’t feel that these things reflect anything deep, essential or natural about my identity. They are just my tastes and preferences. Had I been raised in a different culture, I might have had different ones, but I would still have been basically the same person.

Furthermore, just like all other persons, a lot of the stuff I like to do and to wear is not stuff that is stereotypically feminine. A lot of the things I like and enjoy are things that are usually regarded as masculine. Just like everybody else, I’m not a one-dimensional gender stereotype, and while there are some aspects of what is traditionally associated with womanhood that I enjoy and participate in, there are many others that I reject as painful, oppressive and limiting. Even on those occasions when I consciously and deliberately participate in performing femininity, by wearing makeup or typically feminine clothes, I don’t see this as me expressing my gender identity; rather, I am conforming to (perhaps even while simultaneously modifying and challenging) a socially constructed ideal of what woman is. And furthermore, once it’s decoupled from traditional, restrictive notions about what it is appropriate for people of different sexes to do, it’s not clear why it makes sense to call any of this stuff “gender”, as opposed to just “stuff I like” or “my personality”.

It’s presumably due to the realisation that many people do not wholeheartedly and unquestioningly identify with the gender norms typically attributed to their sex that a whole range of other gender identities has emerged – if you don’t have a deep internal sense that you are either a man or a woman, you can identify as “non-binary” or “genderqueer” or “pangender”, which allows you to identify with those aspects of both traditional masculinity and femininity that you endorse and enjoy, and to reject the rest. (It’s not clear whether non-binary or genderqueer people are to be considered as coming under the trans umbrella or not: opinions seem to differ on that score). Again, I am sceptical as to how the case could be made that this is a deeply held and unalterable identity, because any description of one’s non-binary gender identity will inevitably make reference to socially constructed gender roles (and it’s notable that most non-binary males express this by experimenting with feminine clothing and appearance, rather than by an insatiable desire to do the domestic chores typically associated with womanhood). But perhaps there really are people who have a deep, personal, internal sense of their gender as an essence that is both masculine and feminine, or neither, in a way that is meaningfully something different from just “not being a one-dimensional gender stereotype”. But I’m not one of them. Despite the fact that I endorse some bits of masculinity and femininity and reject others, I don’t call myself genderqueer or non-binary, because none of this represents a deep, unalterable essence or facet of my identity. So since I’m not trans, and I’m not non-binary or genderqueer, then I am told I must be cis, by default.

So the only option available to me, if I want to reject the label cis, is to pick some other gender identity. I am not permitted to deny that I have a gender identity at all. But this is in itself oppressive. It makes false assertions about the subjective experience of many people – people like me who do not feel as if we have a deep, internal sense of our own gender, and whose primary experience of gender is as a coercive, externally imposed set of constraints, rather than an essential aspect of our personal identity. It forces us to define ourselves in ways we don’t accept (and, as I’m now learning, if we refuse to define ourselves in this way, this is attributed to bigotry and a lack of empathy for trans people, rather than a reasonable rejection of what being cis entails). If “cisgender” were a description of a medical condition, characterised by an absence of sex dysphoria, then I would accept that I am cis. But if cisgender is a gender identity, which it appears to be, then I am not cis, because I do not have a gender identity. I am a woman. But it’s not because deep down, I feel like one. Because deep down, I just feel like a person.