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.)

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.)

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)

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.

What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

As a couple of recent articles have perfectly illustrated, whenever feminists try to talk about the issue of sexual harassment – be it the catcalls and leers that women commonly experience while minding their own business walking down the street, or just good old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment – they are inevitably met with the supposedly killer objection: “but isn’t a lot of this just harmless flirtation? What’s your problem with people trying to flirt with you?”

The power of this response comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the frigid old prude who objects to friendly, good-natured, charming men paying you a well-intentioned compliment. We all enjoy being flirted with, at least sometimes. But if you say that men shouldn’t make advances towards women they find attractive, aren’t you in effect saying that we should prohibit flirting?

I think this response is usually rather disingenuous, because it’s pretty clear that objections to workplace and street harassment have got nothing to do with objecting to flirting. This is because harassment is categorically not a form of flirtation, or an instance of well-intentioned flirtation gone wrong – and we all know this. There’s an important difference being flirted with, even where that flirtation is unwelcome and inexpertly executed, and being harassed. And both subject and object know what this difference is. We all know flirting when we’re on the receiving end of it, and we all know harassment when we’re subjected to it, and we can all tell the difference between the two.

The key feature of flirting, that makes it flirting, is that the person doing the flirting – The Flirt – is acutely sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person with whom they are flirting. Flirting is a process of sending out careful, subtle, micro-behaviours signalling one’s attraction: slightly prolonged eye-contact, a quick touch of the arm, an exaggerated laugh at a joke that was really not that funny. And, crucially, flirting also involves having a heightened awareness to the micro-behaviours being displayed by the other, to try to interpret their signals about whether this attraction is welcome. Does he maintain the prolonged eye-contact, or he does he quickly look away? Does she return the playful arm touch, or does she subtly inch further away to discourage further touching? Of course, this can all be done badly, with comic, embarrassing, or even distressing consequences. Some Flirts are terrible at reading other people’s body language, and blunder on, oblivious to the discomfort and awkwardness of their target. This is unfortunate, and it would be better for everyone if the useless Flirt would desist. But nonetheless, we can all recognise that this behaviour is largely harmless, causing not much more than some mild irritation or social embarrassment. When someone proceeds in flirting with us, despite our trying to make it clear that this is not welcome, we feel awkward and embarrassed, but not usually threatened or intimidated.

Harassment is different, predominantly due to the intentions of the Harasser. The Harasser, unlike the Flirt, is not sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person he is harassing. Usually, he is not sensitive to these, because he does not care about them. He is going to proceed with his sexual advances, regardless of whether these are welcome or desired by the object of his attentions. I have written on this blog about my experience of being harassed at a conference I attended. Someone reading that account could easily respond: but isn’t that just harmless flirting? But as the object of the behaviour, I can say with utmost certainty that it was not flirting. It was harassing, for this reason: the Harasser was oblivious to, and uninterested in, my very obvious distress. Had he been flirting, he would have been making some attempt to read my body language, which was sending out very clear and loud “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME” signals. So loud and evident were these signals, that I was rescued from the situation by two friends who, witnessing my distress, intervened and whisked me away. Yes, they are my friends, and they know me. But if they could observe and correctly interpret the panic and distress in my eyes and demeanour from a distance, I think it’s reasonable to say that the Harasser could have done so – and indeed, would have done so, had he been a Flirt. But the thing that made this experience so distressing at the time, and so rage-inducing later, is that it was clear to me that he had no interest in my attitude or response to his advances. He did not care whether he was upsetting me or making me uncomfortable. Indeed, in his eyes, I was not really a person at all. He had no interest in my feelings and desires whatsoever. And it was this realisation – the realisation that he did not care that I did not want him to touch my neck – rather than simply the fact that I did not want him to touch my neck, that made the experience so profoundly dehumanising and objectifying.

Harassment is distressing and degrading precisely because the Harasser demonstrates so little concern for the wants and interests of the person he is harassing, and in so doing, treats them as not fully human – in Kantian language, as a means for the fulfilment of his own desires, rather than as an end in herself, a person with her own desires and goals and purposes. And that’s different from flirting, because even in cases where the Flirt is just not very good at this, he is at least still trying to interpret the motives and intentions of the object of his advances correctly. Presumably, if the useless Flirt had any idea about how unwelcome his advances were, he would be mortified, and withdraw them. But the Harasser would not, because he does not care. Harassment is a denial of one’s personhood and one’s agency, and as such, is a distressing and dehumanising experience. But more than that, it can also be frightening. For if someone has shown themselves to be so utterly uninterested and unmoved by your wants and desires, and proceeds to behave in a way that treats you as a mere means for the fulfilment of their own, then who knows what else they might do?


Woman Shaming: the scourge of the public eater

In the days following my first ever lecture to an audience of several hundred students, I was struck by an unsettling realisation. Suddenly, there were people living and walking in my city that knew who I was and would recognise me, while I would not be able to do the same. This was entirely new to me. Up until that point, I had always taught small seminar groups, so if I bumped into one of my students at the pub, I would know who they were, and could modify my behaviour accordingly (or, more likely, go to another pub). But then after one of my lectures, a student I didn’t recognise said hello to me in the street, and it occurred to me that now that I was lecturing to such a large group, things had changed. I felt a bit exposed, and unpleasantly visible. I couldn’t possibly know who they all were; but they would all know me. It felt like a tiny, microcosmic glimpse into what it must be like to be famous. For a few days, I walked around town slightly warily, wondering if the people who made eye contact when I passed by them had been in my lecture.

Almost the first thing I felt self-conscious about, and decided I would now need to be more vigilant about, was public eating. My main concern about being recognised by my students was not that they might witness me being drunk and rowdy, or that I might inadvertently push them out of the way to get served at the bar. The thing that made me really uncomfortable was the idea that they might spot me walking down the High Street stuffing a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch into my mouth. I got over it, of course. Despite this initial flurry of unwarranted vanity and self-importance, I quickly realised that the likelihood of any of them caring enough about my snack choices to take to Facebook to discuss them was very slim indeed. But that my first concern was with being observed – no, caught – eating in public reflects something I have long suspected and have now had confirmed: women are not supposed to be seen eating. Because really, they are not supposed to eat.

I’ve just read this interesting piece by Sophie Wilkinson about the relatively new trend of ‘stranger shaming’ – taking photos of people in public spaces, in order to mock, embarrass or humiliate them. Sophie herself has been the victim of this, having undertaken the provocative and threatening gesture of eating a pasta salad on the tube, and subsequently finding a photo of her taken without her consent on Facebook. Naturally, the picture was accompanied by a range of derisory and vicious comments, many of them suggesting that Sophie’s public eating displayed a lack of etiquette or decorum: “I would like the name of her finishing school”, said one particularly droll commenter.

Of course women aren’t the only victims of stranger shaming, and I find the practice extremely disturbing whoever is the target. It’s nasty, bullying behaviour to mock strangers who are innocently and obliviously going about their lives, and a huge violation of someone’s privacy to take a photo of someone without their consent and publish it online. I think this is a pernicious trend that needs to stop, whoever the target, and whatever their alleged misdemeanour. But we can learn a lot about the kinds of behaviour our society considers unacceptable, and therefore deserving of public ridicule and humiliation, by observing the types of behaviour that will leave you vulnerable to stranger shaming. One of the most noteworthy stranger shaming sites is Men Taking Up Too Much Space on Trains, the content of which is self-explanatory. In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I was once sat next to one of these men, whose legs were so far apart that I was basically pressed up against the window to avoid our thighs touching; and in my annoyance, I did take a photo of him with my phone, which yes, I then tweeted. In my defence, the photo was only of the man’s legs, so that he was not in any way identifiable from the picture. And I hadn’t given this issue as much thought back then. I probably wouldn’t do the same now. But the reason I felt this behaviour was so outrageous as to be worth sharing with my friends was because he was, objectively, taking up more than his fair share of the space. I was squashed into the wall, while his legs were splayed at a ninety degree angle, as are those of many of the men who feature on the website. While I don’t condone these men’s pictures being published without their consent, especially those whose faces are clearly visible and who are therefore identifiable, it’s interesting to note that the kind of bad behaviour that gets men publicly shamed is, arguably, objectively objectionable behaviour. The men in question are taking up more space than they are entitled to, and in so doing, causing inconvenience and discomfort to others.

But as the Facebook group that Sophie’s picture appeared on tells us, for women, one of the biggest crimes is to be observed eating in public.  Perhaps you didn’t already know this. But I had clearly absorbed this message somewhere along the way, because I knew I didn’t want my students to witness me eating. I think I have absorbed the message particularly effectively because I went to an all girls’ school that had a rule to the effect that sixth formers in the town at lunch time must not eat as they walked, because that would present a bad impression of the school. But this is clearly a rule that many people endorse on some level, or the Facebook group would not have thirteen thousand members, and many hundreds of photographs submitted.

As a currently slightly overweight woman, I am especially aware of the social unacceptability of being seen to eat in public. Women should not be seen eating, because women are not supposed to eat. Whatever else they are, and whatever else they do, women must first and foremost be beautiful. What it means to be beautiful is to be thin; and to be thin, one must not eat. Therefore, the woman who eats in public is flouting not only a convention of etiquette. She is also brazenly, shamelessly showing her disregard and contempt for the rules governing women’s proper social conduct and appearance.

Of course, the woman who should be shamed for her public eating must still be objectified and treated as a target of sexual aggression. Because food isn’t the only thing women can put in their mouths, amirite guys? By daring to satisfy her hunger, the woman who eats in public has shown herself to possess lascivious and insatiable bodily appetites of other kinds too, and has thereby invited all the inevitable “open wide, gobble down on this, she looks like she enjoys swallowing, the greedy bitch” comments. Moreover, many of the comments on the Facebook group show their thinly-veiled disgust and contempt for women’s bodies: witness their being likened to animals, engaged in “feeding frenzies”, or, as happened to Sophie, her mouth described as a “gaping orifice”. Just by existing in a public space and daring to nourish herself, a woman apparently makes her animal nature and the material reality of her body too visible, too real to be ignored. And this, as we know only too well from our societal fear and disgust of menstruation and lactation, is immensely disturbing for many people, and must therefore be discouraged through the use of social sanction – such as the stranger shaming Facebook group or Tumblr.

This is a profoundly depressing and dispiriting conclusion to arrive at. But the upside is that by simply daring to walk down the street while feeding ourselves, it turns out we are doing something surprisingly rebellious and transgressive. I hadn’t realised radical political action could be achieved so easily. So on that note, I’m off to buy a packet of Monster Munch and walk down the High Street.