Arguing about feminism and transgenderism: an opinionated guide for the perplexed
A Gender Critical (GC) position is a metaphysical position about what a woman is. Here is one position held by many radical feminists. It holds that what it is to be a woman is to have a certain biological and reproductive nature, involving female sex organs and a female reproductive system, and to be economically, socially, politically, and sexually oppressed on that basis. This view therefore concludes (for reasons I have also outlined elsewhere, here and here, and which I do not know yet whether I endorse), that transwomen, though fully in possession of all basic human rights (obviously!), and also deserving of respectful treatment as if they are women in many social contexts, are not in fact women. Simply put: they don’t have the required biology, nor do they have the required history of oppression on the basis of that biology.
In contrast, there are those metaphysical positions which argue that transwomen are women. These usually argue that women’s biologies and reproductive capacities are not essential to their nature as women. People with penises and testicles and no female reproductive characteristics can be women.
Since I began to read up about this dispute, and started to write about it, I’ve been exposed to a lot of arguments, usually online, whose aim is to show that any GC position is not only wrong but bad, morally speaking. It seems to me that many of these arguments are not convincing. This isn’t to say that there are no good arguments against a GC position, but only that the ones I typically see aren’t particularly compelling. It’s also striking how difficult it seems for some people to see for themselves how unconvincing these arguments are, in the heat of the negative emotions, toxicity, and defensiveness that tend to accompany discussion. What follows is an attempt to work through some of these arguments, and get them out of the way. With this done, the field will be clear to have a proper adult discussion that, wherever it ends up, will with a bit of luck fully acknowledge and attempt to accommodate both sets of interests at stake in redefining the concept of woman: those of women-who-aren’t-transwomen (WNT) and those of transwomen (TW).
(NB I’m not suggesting this terminology — ‘women-who-aren’t-transwomen’ and ‘transwomen’ — should be permanent. It’s just a way of separating out the two groups conceptually, during discussion, and allowing space to talk about their distinct interests. It’s still perfectly open whether we should eventually identify only WNT with ‘women’, or both WNT and TW together.)
In articulating these arguments, I will use ‘male-bodied’ to refer to a kind of body which has XY chromosomes and for which the norm is to be born with male genitalia (penis, testicles). I will use ‘female-bodied’ to refer to a body that has XX chromosomes, and for which the norm is to be born with female genitalia (vagina, labia, clitoris), and a female reproductive system (ovaries, uterus, vagina). Obviously people can have medical conditions or surgeries which affect possession of these things: but that’s compatible with these things being the norm for the kind of body in question. (I’m not including within these categories intersex people, who are often used instrumentally and casually in this debate, in a way many dislike).
Neither of these categories — ‘male’ and ‘female’ — is ordinarily disputed in medical contexts. Nor is it disputed that TW are male-bodied, and transmen are female-bodied (notwithstanding that there seems to be increasing confusion in some corners of the public mind about this.). When I talk about TW, I mean those with XY chromosomes, and no natally-endowed element from the female reproductive system or female genitalia. Some TW are taking hormones; some don’t. Some TW have undergone surgery to remove male genitalia; other TW retain male genitalia and have no plans to lose it.
So much for the basic presuppositions. In the discussion that follows, I will assume the persona of a so-called ‘pro-trans’ ally (actually, I consider myself ‘pro trans’ too, but let that pass) and ask questions in that guise, in many cases repeating versions of points that have been made to me by others. I’ll group the questions under various headings. I’ll answer the questions as myself — a feminist who is increasingly more radical than liberal, but who doesn’t yet know exactly what she thinks about a GC position overall, and who is trying to think it through with a relatively open mind. So here goes. I’ll start with some persistently made claims in popular culture, and move on from there.
What makes a TW a woman?
“TW have female brains, and this is what makes them women”.
At this point you perhaps expect me to wheel out some data showing there is no such thing as a ‘female’ brain versus a ‘male’ brain from the perspective of neuroscience: that is, that scientists can’t tell the difference between a female and male one, just by looking at the brain. However, whether or not that is true, it seems to me completely practically irrelevant to the issue of what makes a woman, because no-one — WNT or TW — has ever identified themselves as a woman, or been identified by others, on the basis of a brain scan. Should science discover tomorrow an infallible way to identify female from male brains just by looking, and then discovered that I had a ‘male’ brain, it would not change my status as a woman, I assume. I can’t think of a credible theory of womanhood that would entail this. We don’t identify who is a woman, and who isn’t, on the basis of brain scans, and nor, I suggest, are we ever likely to.
“TW are women because they like and/or are good at doing ‘feminine’ things (e.g. long shiny hair, ‘girly’ fashion, make up, the colour pink, a ‘femme’ aesthetic, cooking, cleaning, crying, dancing, being sexually passive etc. etc.)”.
Liking ‘feminine’ things can’t be a necessary condition of being a woman, because so many women don’t like ‘feminine’ things, and they are still unambiguously women, Everybody knows this, or should do. Equally there are many men who like those very same things. The highly plausible explanation of why these ‘feminine’ things got — completely contingently — culturally associated with ‘woman’ (and ‘masculine’ things got contingently culturally associated with ‘man’) is that our society is sexist. That is, our sexist society falsely tells us that women count as ‘proper women’ only if they prettify themselves for men, focus on domestic skills, and are sexually submissive to men’s needs. In fact, this is false: you can be a ‘proper women’ (whatever that is) without doing any of these things; and a man can be a ‘proper man’ (whatever that is) by doing them all. The upshot is: fulfilling a sexist, culturally imposed stereotype does not make you a woman.
All this suggests that academics need to actively and vocally fight this harmful view of what a woman is, repeated by many TW in the media and often broadcast uncritically, even if they thoroughly reject GC views. It hurts women to think of themselves as ‘supposed to be feminine’ because they are women, so that they feel deviant and imperfect if they are not. It hurts men to think of themselves as ‘supposed to be masculine’ too, for similar reasons. Moreover, since children are suggestible and highly influenced by popular culture and the social pressures derived from it, is reasonable to think that this misconceived association of femininity with womanhood and masculinity with manhood is partly — I said partly — behind the spectacular recent rise in numbers of ‘transitioning’ children in the UK.
“TW are women because they have body dysphoria and feel like they are in the wrong body”
It’s important to note here that not all TW have body dysphoria, and not all people who have body dysphoria want to transition. But secondly, in philosophy and in life generally, we distinguish between feeling that something is real, and its reality. It is not true that TW are actually “in the wrong body’” in any medically recognised sense. The best sense to be made of the talk of “being in the wrong body” is that people with dysphoria are miserable with the bodies they have, and that this is severely impeding their living the lives they want. This seems obviously true and is to be highly regretted. But this in itself doesn’t make males with body dysphoria women (and indeed, how could it, since most WNT don’t feel like this at all, and are still women).
“If you make biology and reproduction essential to womanhood, you are doing nothing more than ‘fetishizing body parts’. In fact, female biology and reproduction are only contingent features of womanhood. Not all women have them.”
This is an implication of the view that says transwomen are women. Now, for most WNT, it’s central to their sense of self-identity that they’re women, not men. For many, it’s equally central to their self-identity that, as a woman, they have a female body. Women are socialised into the world as a certain kind of entity, with a certain kind of body, and taught to relate to themselves as such — a body whose shape and age can determine perceived worth in their own and others’ eyes; a body that can cause desire in both lovers and sexual aggressors; a body that bleeds once a month and often causes pain and tension in the process, or doesn’t bleed and causes anxiety on that account; a body that can produce children, both desired and unwanted, or a body that cannot, and is judged defective for that reason; a body that is constantly monitored by the self and by others for shrinking and growing; a body which can be sexually entered, or photographed, or filmed, for money; a body that can causes feelings of shame, or happiness and pride, when one looks in the mirror; and so on.
If, contrary to the GC view, women are to be encouraged to view their identity as women as divorced from such bodily facts, then conceptual and discursive space needs to be aggressively maintained by academics, simultaneously, to allow WNT to carry on talking confidently about these things that matter to them, and for academics to carry on researching them. If a philosopher or other theorist wishes to pursue an abstract position, according to which biology and reproduction are merely contingent to womanhood, then they at least owe female readers an account of how this leaves everything they care about with respect to their bodily lived experience intact; or shows them that what they care about, with respect to this, can be left behind without genuine cost. Telling them they should just accept it, or that their attachment to their body is a “fetishization of body parts”, is neither a helpful or an effective political strategy.
A further related point is this. If WNT are brought, over time, to relate to their bodies as only contingent features of themselves, then this process needs to be managed exceptionally carefully. Given the widespread social and cultural pressures already producing, in young women, negative feelings towards their bodies — partly contributing to disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, and self-harm, and the increase in popularity of plastic surgery — an additional cultural message, derived from including TW within the concept of woman, and which tells young females that their bodies are contingent to ‘who they are’, is bound to be prone to misunderstanding. Academics should actively and vocally fight to produce a public narrative and vocabulary that denies any implication that women’s bodies are mere costumes, or material to be physically altered to better ‘fit’ what is ‘inside’, or which otherwise casually aestheticizes the surgical manipulation of flesh. (A vivid example of the opposite: at a recent exhibition in Brighton Museum about ‘transology’, which I attended with my kids, surgically detached female breasts were displayed in a jar of formaldehyde alongside clothes and other items of costume. My children were slightly bemused).
There is no genuine conflict of interests between women-who-aren’t-trans and transwomen
“Many transpeople indisputably suffer enormously from body dysphoria. You, a non-dysphoric WNT, can’t imagine the suffering of feeling like you are born in the wrong body. If we can do something small to alleviate that suffering, by recognising and validating their status as women, shouldn’t we try do it?”
There are a number of relevant things to say here. The first is obviously, to acknowledge the intense pain of body dysphoria as absolutely tormenting. The second is to say that there are many types of severe and distressing unease, but we do not automatically act to change the world to fit the object of those feelings, in other case. Such change is not a given; there have to be good socially useful reasons for it. A third thing to say is that nonetheless, the intensity of body dysphoria is clearly one important factor to be considered; but that there are other feelings to take into account too.
For instance, a result of the changing conception of ‘woman’, legally and socially, the following social changes are already beginning to be discernible in the UK, and I reasonably assume — in fact, I know — that many WNT have negative feelings about them. (This list isn’t supposed to be exhaustive).
· Formerly single-sex wards in some UK hospitals are increasingly mixed gender, despite worries about loss of privacy and the danger of sexual assault.
· Male-bodied TW, nearly all of whom were also originally socialised as men during childhood and adolescence, are allowed on ‘all-women’ shortlists for selecting a Labour Party Member of Parliament. Many doubt that as such they are properly able to represent WNT interests. All-women shortlists were originally designed to increase WNT political representation, which is low.
· TW are competing — right now — in formerly WNT-only sports. This is at both elite and at club level. This has consequences for WNT playing against them. For instance, it has consequences for the (decreasing) likelihood of team selection of a WNT in a sport where strength and large size is prized, and where TW are also available; and in contact sports, it has consequences for the (increasing) likelihood of injury of opposing WNT players. (This last point was reported to me by a current player in a UK women’s rugby league, currently facing TW players in another team in the same league).
· In work domains where excellence is correlated with physical strength (e.g. the fire brigade; the army), and where WNT have worked hard historically to stand proudly beside male colleagues in exactly the same situations, there are also potential negative consequences — for WNT — of TW being available for the same jobs.
· As this video and this article and this article suggests, young WNT lesbians are increasingly being socially pressured by TW “lesbians” to consider having sex with them, since the latter are allegedly women too.
· As the last point suggest, some TW who retain a sexual preference for women post-transition are calling themselves “lesbians”.
· WNT lesbians who date online on the basis of photographs and emails have lost the security of knowing for sure they are going on a date with someone without a penis. Unsurprisingly, this matters to them.
· Formerly WNT-only lesbian bars and clubs now have TW in them, with associated complaints that the atmosphere has significantly changed, since TW, who were originally socialised as ‘men’, tend as such to behave differently to WNT.
· Gender-correlated official governmental and other data about women in the workplace, home, the legal system, and other areas include data about TW people in an undifferentiated way.
How do we accommodate all this? Not by ignoring it, or saying that these feelings don’t matter, or that no conflict is perceived. We should be talking about it all, properly documenting WNT’s feelings and experiences about all of this, as well as TWs, and then finding workable practical solutions in areas where there is apparent or genuine conflict. Where there are clear harms being done to WNT, as in — in my view — the effects on lesbians, and the effects on women’s sports — philosophers and other academics should articulate those harms properly and work towards alleviating them. The general tendency towards silencing this discussion in academia does no-one any favours.
There’s no genuine worry about predatory men posing falsely as TW
Background: At the moment the UK legal requirement for a male-bodied person to be recognised as a woman is that you’re over 18, you’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a medical professional, you’ve lived ‘as a woman’ for 2 years and you intend to do so for the rest of your life. Living ‘as a woman’ means wearing women’s clothes and changing your name legally to a woman’s one; it doesn’t mean surgery or hormones. Under proposed changes to UK law, currently under review, all this will be done away with; all that will be required is that a male-bodied person ‘self-identifies’ as a woman — so no living ‘as a woman’ and no medical diagnosis. Many WNT worry that the ease of self-identification and the lack of any required feminised appearance will make it even easier for men intent on harming women to pretend to be TW, in order to enter ‘women-only’ spaces unchallenged.
“You are using the trope of ‘the deceiver’ to implicitly profile the class of TW as a whole as predatory, by association”
The worry about all-woman spaces is not just a worry about a small proportion of TW replicating larger societal patterns of male violence. It is also a worry about bad men visually indistinguishable from TW (since, in turn, many TW will be visually indistinguishable from men). These are not the same.
It’s an empirical matter, not an article of faith or wishful thinking, whether any men would falsely pose as TW for nefarious purposes to enter women-only spaces. It seems that they would. See the recent attempts of child killer Ian Huntley to be acknowledged as a woman. See also this extract from the largely positive report ‘Written evidence submitted by British Association of Gender Identity Specialists’ to the UK Government’s Trans Equality enquiry (my emphasis):
“The converse is the ever-increasing tide of referrals of patients in prison serving long or indeterminate sentences for serious sexual offences. These vastly outnumber the number of prisoners incarcerated for more ordinary, non-sexual, offences. It has been rather naïvely suggested that nobody would seek to pretend transsexual status in prison if this were not actually the case. There are, to those of us who actually interview the prisoners, in fact very many reasons why people might pretend this. These vary from the opportunity to have trips out of prison through to a desire for a transfer to the female estate (to the same prison as a co-defendant) through to the idea that a parole board will perceive somebody who is female as being less dangerous through to a [false] belief that hormone treatment will actually render one less dangerous through to wanting a special or protected status within the prison system and even (in one very well evidenced case that a highly concerned Prison Governor brought particularly to my attention) a plethora of prison intelligence information suggesting that the driving force was a desire to make subsequent sexual offending very much easier, females being generally perceived as low risk in this regard. I am sure that the Governor concerned would be happy to talk about this”.
‘You are using anecdote and scare stories to incite public opinion against TW’
No, I’m not. I’m linking to what seem to me to be well-sourced stories that seem relevant in forming an impression of the likelihood of vulnerable WNT in women-only spaces being harmed by the ease with which, soon, self-identification as a TW may occur. I would like to be able to link to academic data representing a more general picture, but there isn’t any that I can find. In the absence of such, these stories and sources are relevant, just as news stories about TW in men-only spaces are also relevant, and frequently used to inform debate.
“There is a reliable procedure for identifying genuine TW from those who are only pretending’
Ok, well, let’s look. This is one such popular tool: ‘the Gender Identity/Gender Dysphoria Questionnaire for Adolescents and Adults’ or GIDY-QAA. Look at the questions. Presumably the assumption is that anyone who answers them in the strong affirmative will be doing so in good faith. I am sure the vast majority do. But I am equally sure, given the available evidence, that some don’t, and those who apply this test will not be able to tell the difference indisputably. Psychologists and psychiatrists are not literal mind-readers.
“The State will sort it all out somehow, and stop vulnerable WNT getting harmed, without us having to think about it”
Er.. really? You think it’s got a good track record there?
How do we sort out this mess? One way would be to legislate properly to protect certain areas of female-bodied life from male bodies; but if we do this, legislators will need clear conceptual distinctions and adequate data, and the media and public will need a clear narrative about how this is not, despite appearances, a way of promoting unequal rights, or a message of “hate”. Academics can help with this, and should not hinder this work by promoting the view that anyone who raises these questions is a hate-monger.
Transpeople suffer far more than any other group, including WNT, and so their interests should be prioritised over other groups, including WNT.
“Transpeople suffer immensely from social stigma”
I am sure this is true, and it is deplorable. But so do “effeminate” gay men, “butch” lesbians, drag queens, and others whose gender presentation is seen as deviant from the norm associated with their sex. This suffering is all relevant to any proposed social changes, and not just the suffering of TW people.
“Transpeople suffer more than any other group from violence”
Transgender people certainly suffer significant amounts of violence, as evidenced here and here, for instance. Lesbians and gays also suffer violence. And WNT suffer large amounts of violence too, as we all know from sources too numerous to mention, as well as the #metoo movement. I know of no serious academic study that tries to measure up violence against TW to violence against WNT, and nor should there be, since comparison like this would be completely odious. But still: when a ‘pro trans’ ally tries to influence a debate about a conflict of interest between WNT and TW — e.g. re. woman-only spaces — by saying that “transpeople are more vulnerable to violence than any other group” it is worth asking: more than WNT? How do you know? (And citing a ‘factsheet’, without scholarly attribution, from Stonewall or GLAAD won’t do it, since they clearly have a vested interest). Both WNT and TW are likely to be reluctant to report crimes against them, which makes it even harder to establish.
It’s also surely relevant — though again settles nothing — that 8 transgender people were murdered in the UK between 2008 and June 2016, which is an average of 1 per year over 8 years. (Table 10 on this pdf from a ‘pro trans’ source). This is unacceptable but not obviously disproportionately high compared to other groups, though it depends on the background numbers. Equally, it is worth pointing out that 85% of murdered transpeople in Europe from 2008–20016 were in the sex trade (Table 16 and Chart 5, same pdf). Given what we know of the sex trade, this suggests that there might, at the very least, be complicating reasons for trans murder rates that aren’t exclusively about the victims being trans. So once again: if the comparison is being implicitly made in an attempt to argumentatively justify TW’s unfettered access to women-only spaces, it should be at least scrutinised in more depth.
“Female-bodied women may suffer from violence, but they don’t suffer from hate crime”
Define hate crime.
“Transpeople have a higher suicide rate than any other group”
Again, I looked for data. Where claims like this are routinely made to make a political point, it’s worth checking. Though my search was by no means exhaustive, I found some interesting things. One was this sentence from this paper from 2010 (my emphasis at the end):
“Little research has compared prevalence of suicidal behavior in transgender people to other population groups. One study using a nonclinical sample of over 40,000 largely U.S. volunteers who completed an internet survey (Mathy, 2002b) found 73 individuals who identified themselves as transgender. This group’s responses related to suicidal behavior were compared to those reported by six other groups.. Transgender respondents had a higher rate of reported suicide attempts than any group except homosexual females.”
Another thing to note is that, like the study just quoted from, many studies gather their data as self-reports from a self-selecting group of people, and so cannot be taken as representative of the population as a whole.
A final one is that most studies discuss several causal factors for transgender suicide attempt rates, of which being trans is only one. In this one, for instance, it is claimed that: “of those who had thought about or attempted suicide, 65 per cent felt that there were trans related reasons while 61 per cent identified non-trans reasons as relevant”.
In other words, a complete picture is uncertain. Again, I don’t discuss this in order to suggest that transpeople don’t suffer, or that their suffering is not important. They do and it is. I mention it because time and again, in ‘pro trans’ popular literature and arguments, the suffering of transpeople is presented as disproportionate to other groups, and in a situation where there is a conflict of interest between TW and WNT, and the interests of TW are being prioritised, that impression is doing justificatory work. It therefore needs careful scrutiny.
“All desire is political. WNT lesbians should consider TW as potential sexual partners or else be revealed as transphobic”.
It’s true that sexual desire may very well be formed in a political context (e.g. it presumably partly depends on our emerging psyches being exposed to certain environmental factors in early formative development, where the exposure to those factors, and not others, is partly a result of political factors generally in play in society at the time). And it’s also true that patterns of sexual desire in the population as a whole have political effects. But no-one should confuse this with the idea that it is incumbent upon one to try to somehow change one’s sexual desires to fit with one’s political convictions. The thought of forcing oneself to have sex with a person one doesn’t fancy on the grounds that, one believes, it is morally unacceptable to exclude them (or even worse, because one dreads the social stigma if one doesn’t), is just about the most grim and joyless kind of sex I can think of. That’s not what good sex is. And lesbians deserve good sex.
Anyone who is gender critical is by definition morally suspect
I conclude with some easy ones.
“Why can’t you people leave TW alone to live their lives? Why do you keep picking on them?”
Please remember my original statement of a GC position. Many who endorse this GC position think that TW should be treated as women in most ordinary social contexts (and I certainly do, though not in e.g. women’s prisons, spaces where women get naked or sleep, or women’s sport). They think TW should be able to be called what they like, dress as they like, wear make-up if they like, behave how they like, have whatever surgery and hormones they wish to have, and have sex with whatever consenting adults they like. They should be protected from mockery or insult or violence (many radical feminists are often highly critical of prejudice based on stereotypes of gender presentation, after all). They are (and I am) arguing that there are conflicts of interest between TW and WNT in certain areas which can’t be ignored, and that the interests of TW should not automatically be prioritised in that conflict. It isn’t “picking on” TW to bring these issues up, unless you somehow also think WNT’s experiences are utterly irrelevant and frivolous.
Isn’t it better to be “inclusive”?
The whole point of the GC position is that, if you include TW in all contexts, you potentially run the risk of harming WNT in some of those contexts. “Inclusivity” isn’t always the best strategy, for every situation, though it is desirable for many.
“You’re just like those racists during the civil rights movement who wanted to deny personhood for people of colour”
I’ve had several variations of this, all from fellow philosophers. Like all bad analogies, they just need a bit of prodding for further detail to see they don’t work. First, people who endorse the GC position genuinely insist on human rights for all TW; I don’t remember racists doing that for people of colour. GC theorists are not arguing about personhood or human rights, they are arguing about womanhood, and the right to self-identify into a gender, and gain legal recognition for it; and that’s not the same thing.
Second, GC theorists raise these issues, and adopt their view, rightly or wrongly, on the basis of a genuine and urgent concern for the interests of an oppressed sex class: female-bodied people. White racists aren’t a genuinely oppressed class in any recognisable sense, and nor are they acting on behalf of any such class.
Third, just to be pedantic, I’m not arguing directly for the GC view here, but only that it should be aired and discussed properly, taken seriously, and not mischaracterised. So strictly speaking, for the analogy to be apt, I should be more like those people arguing that racists should be freely allowed to argue that people of colour are not persons. Which I’m not, in any case (see above).
“Are you saying… we should check people’s genitalia before they enter woman-only spaces?... that Caster Semenya shouldn’t compete in women’s sport?” ..that you need to have a uterus to be a woman?” (Insert further wild alleged implication of choice here).
Er.. no. Next!
“This is just an ‘abstract puzzle’ or ‘a fun thought experiment’ for you; you don’t care about the effect this has on real people’s lives”
This one really amazes me. The motive of the GC theorist or radical feminist is quite clearly a concern for real people’s lives: female-bodied ones, primarily. They aren’t doing this for some kind of intellectual “fun”, and nor are the conditions under which they do their activism particularly enticing: social censure, threats of violence, and so on. (I’m not doing this for fun either; I’m furious about the state of the discussion in feminist philosophy; and I want to do something to help alleviate this impasse). Moreover, any radical feminist or GC theorist I know spends a lot of time, as I have also tried to do here, seeking out relevant real-world empirical facts to illuminate the position, albeit usually with a female-body-centred slant. In contrast, some academics I’ve seen arguing against a GC position online seem to do it almost entirely on the basis of a priori intuition, or what they ‘can imagine’ as the case. Arguably, there’s only one party here treating this like a thought experiment, and it isn’t the GC person, or me for that matter.
NB: I don’t pretend that many of the points I make here are particularly original to me. I’m indebted to the people I’ve been reading online for the past several months, and in particular Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Victoria Smith , Miranda Yardley, and, more recently, Helen Saxby . Please follow the links and check out their writing if you wish to find out more.
Edited slightly 19/5/2018 to correct a few things, and make a few things clearer. Edited again on 11/7/2018 for similar reason.