What I believe about sex and gender (and what I don’t)*.
I recently published an essay which, in the context of discussion of proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act, called upon fellow academics to cease treating any ‘Gender Critical’ position as automatically ‘transphobic’ and to recognise that it is a theoretical position worth of respectful examination, even if it turns out to be false. One Gender Critical position says that, focusing on the concepts of womanhood and woman, the class of women is defined as such by the occupation of an oppressed role in a patriarchal society. This oppressive role is theorised as being based on certain biological and reproductive characteristics, or the perception of them based on external appearances (e.g. intersex people with external female genitalia). To put it in plain terms, this view thinks that it is inherent to the structure of womanhood to be someone targeted for abuse on the basis of a perception of biological characteristics. On this view, women as a class have been historically raped, used as prostitutes, trafficked, expected to do the majority of domestic labour, paid less than men, treated as ‘baby machines’, excluded from Universities, denied the vote, married as children, had their wombs hired out, and so on, based on the perception of their possession of having wombs, vaginas, ovaries and breasts, as well as presumed associated ‘weak’ constitutions and inadequate brains. This sex-based oppression, the view says, is what defines them as ‘women’.
This view looks like it straightforwardly entails that biological males — those with XY chromosomes, and male-associated genitalia — cannot usually count as women, since they can’t normally be subject to this kind of sex-based oppression in a systematic way. Those who hold the view are radical feminists, many of whom are also socialists, Trade Union members, Marxists, anti-climate change and anti-nuclear campaigners. In the popular and broadsheet press, with some honourable exceptions (here and here, for instance) this view is largely reductively treated as automatically ‘transphobic’, ‘disrespectful’, and ‘abusive’.
I am asked whether I hold this view. I honestly can say that I do not yet know whether I endorse it or not. I am currently weighing it up. I have been for a while. I feel absolutely no external pressure to reach a view; it is a matter of private conscience what I think about this, as it is for everyone else. People are entitled to affirm it, and deny it, in a free society. Whether or not I hold it, will make absolutely no practical difference to the way I interact with trans people. I’ll continue in all circumstances to treat them with respect and sensitivity and a complete lack of any discrimination.
I am also asked, more generally, what I think being a woman is. I’m fairly sure it isn’t a feeling in the head, or a set of ‘feminised’ preferences and behaviours. I don’t feel like a woman, particularly, and most of my preferences and behaviours are not remotely feminised. I am nonetheless a woman. For the rest, I am still thinking about it. I severely regret the list of restricted options available in the academic literature. Philosophers who in other contexts are highly creative in theorising about ontological matters tend in this area to state certain rather simplistic mantras dogmatically, no doubt partly out of fear of criticism. (Indeed it is not clear that any other sort of claim would be published).
In contrast, here is a list of other things I am more sure of. I believe that philosophical and ethical discussion is impoverished if matters such as those below are left out. What follows, then, is not for people already immersed in the debate: those who occupy a Gender Critical position, or who are ‘pro’ trans (itself a false dichotomy, at least in theory). They, unlike us, are already thinking about all this. It’s for fellow philosophers, in an attempt to point out some things which seem obviously relevant to any view they take on gender or related applied issues.
NB There will no doubt be many who object to me ‘speaking for transwomen’ in what follows. I’m not trying to do this. Wherever I make an empirical claim, I’ve attempted to link to a relevant source, though it is rarely totally authoritative (see below for some reflections on the absence of real data). Since it is part of my argument that the current state of the debate is misogynistically skewed towards the interests of transwomen, to the exclusion of voices of women-who-are-not-transwomen, I have tended to mostly focus on sources which represent the material interests of the latter group, primarily, and I make no apology for it. I’m a feminist after all.
Here then are the points I wish to make.
1. I take the following to be axiomatic. Transwomen should be treated as women in nearly all social contexts (though see below for questions about woman-only spaces, and medical contexts). They should always be called ‘she’ and ‘her’ if that is their preference. They should never be deadnamed. They should never be subject to physical violence, mockery, discrimination, or contempt. Adult transwomen should be allowed to wear whatever they want, and do whatever they want with their bodies, medically, surgically, or not. It is very important — essential in fact — to try to build a society which removes all physical violence, mockery of, and discrimination (e.g. in the workplace, in medicine) against transpeople for being who they are.
2. It is not ‘transphobic’ to hold the Gender Critical view (nor, even more clearly, is it transphobic to say that this view should be respectfully treated, even if false). A ‘phobia’ suggests a view grounded in fear, hatred or disgust. A phobia is manifested in a pattern of behaviour that goes beyond a single theoretical position. Generally, to say that someone is phobic about something suggests that they either consistently feel threatened by its presence (which will then be manifest in behaviour in a generalised way e.g. fleeing it, displaying extreme anxiety in its presence); or hatred or disgust of it (which will also then be manifest in behavioural patterns that also extend beyond a single kind of word use e.g. physical violence, action motivated only by a desire to harm the entity in question, and so on). This is absolutely blindingly NOT what is going on when most people argue for a Gender Critical position and deny that transwomen are women. They are angry, certainly. See for yourself, by taking some time to browse the discussions here and here. You may find many things you disagree strongly with, but I think it is hard to argue that the sole motivation is fear and hatred. It is first, a concern for biological females and the things that happen to them, or don’t happen to them, on that basis, and only subsidiarily the claim that transwomen cannot be women. It does not start at the negative conclusion, based on fear and hatred, and work backwards.
3. There is a strong strain of misogyny running through this discussion, which automatically treats the experiences of transwomen as more worthy of attention than the other, much bigger set of women who are materially affected by the expansion of the legal and political category to which they belong. This is fuelled by the popular media and press, which knows that transwomen are more attention-grabbing than boring old biological females, on the whole (after all, there are so many of the latter! They are not in the least ‘exotic’ or ‘interesting’). If, for instance, you read this article and come away thinking that the social and political issues I mention below on behalf of women-who-are-not-transwomen are made-up problems to prove a point; if you can empathically identify more easily with a vulnerable transwoman in a men’s prison than you can with the vulnerable females this changing cultural paradigm also affects (in prison and elsewhere); then, I submit, you are likely to be a misogynist, no matter how you present yourself to the external world. That’s OK — most of us are. Patriarchy made us this way. But like it or not, there are two sets of interests here, not one (actually, many more than that). They each need careful and sensitive treatment. Moreover, if you capitulate to the easy sentiment that all Gender Critical views are transphobic, you are automatically going to rule out properly talking about what many women-who-aren-not-transwomen are concerned about, since it will then constitute a social taboo to do so.
4. Philosophers would apparently prefer to talk about this in the absolute abstract, without considering messy empirical reality. Here are just a few relevant facts, among many others, one might think, when trying to decide what cultural change should occur with respect to the concept of a woman. There are many, many others. In no particular order:
a) As I discussed in my original essay, the proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act will allow biological males to be legally recognised as women without any medicalised or psychological confirmation from professional bodies. They will simply be able to ‘self-declare’. They will be able to do this without any i) surgery or hormone-taking ii) change in dress iii) visible period of ‘living as a woman’; the law will not concern itself with such matters.
b) Historically ‘women-only spaces’ were created on the assumption that women (as was understood then) were vulnerable to violence from biological males (people with penises, testicles, and largely superior strength) who had a sexual or other interest in biological females. These spaces don’t just include changing rooms, gym locker rooms, and multi-stall toilets, but also dormitories, youth hostels, hostels for homeless people, women’s prisons, and domestic abuse shelters (which are in any case being starved of funding in the UK). They include places where biological females sleep and are naked. If the law changes, then over time, it is a reasonable concern that males will be able to self-identify into these spaces, for whatever motive, and no female will be able to confidently challenge them there on grounds of appearance.
c) There seems to be a lack of good, respectably sourced data to help understand how the interests of women-who-are-not-transwomen and transwomen might or might not compete, or otherwise interact, in real terms. Take one example: there are few sources of statistics on the number of biological males, dressed as women or not, (not just transwomen: males generally, some cross-dressing, some not) who enter woman-only spaces to do harm. This harm extends beyond physical assault to voyeurism, public masturbation, harassment and flashing, in the context of women-only spaces particularly. This lack of funding is in keeping with the widely reported underfunding into female experiences generally: see for instance here or here. The lack of information is very likely made worse by the reluctance of women to report sexual misdemeanours against them. Individual emotive anecdote or isolated newspaper reports are no substitute for proper, neutrally observed academic data. Generally, this debate, on both sides, seems to be fuelled by emotive anecdote and individual report, not data.
d) Most people now coming out as transwomen will not have surgery on genitalia; if they have it at all, they are more likely to have it on facial features and upper bodily features, and a substantial proportion will not have any. This seems important to at least mention when discussing what is at stake for women-who-are-not-transwomen.
e) There are a variety of motivations for coming out and living as a transwoman. One is gender dysphoria — the overwhelmingly strong and distressing feeling of living in the ‘wrong’ body. But not all transpeople experience gender dysphoria. Another motive which used to be commonly cited was ‘autogynophilia’. Here is an opiniated explanation by transwoman Miranda Yardley. Here is another opiniated analysis of a different view point, which vigorously rejects the phenomenon. Here is historian of medicine and science Alice Dreger’s take.
f) Some people with gender dysphoria will not transition, and do not see themselves as genuinely in the wrong body. They reject this impression as an artefact of a patriarchal society which associates being a woman with stereotypically feminised or masculinised characteristics.
g) Philosophers are fond of bringing in intersex people when discussing transgender people. They would rather you didn’t.
h) There is a posited non-coincidental link between being autistic and being transgender. It seems to me this is relevant information when negotiating the exceptionally difficult and sensitive question of the approach to be taken to children and teens who want to transition. It settles nothing; no one factor settles anything in this difficult terrain. But it should also be mentioned, not left out.
i) Being a transwoman does not correlate with any one sexuality. Many transwomen, who formerly ‘passed’ as heterosexual men, continue to exclusively feel attraction to females (people with vaginas, etc). Some of these transwomen self-describe as ‘lesbians’. Some of these also think it is a morally suspect, ‘transphobic’ decision of female lesbians not to sleep with them. This is the phenomenon dubbed colloquially as ‘the cotton ceiling’ (an analogy to the ‘glass ceiling’ which women face in the workplace and which prevents them achieving promotion or equal pay). In lesbian communities, it is reported from many sources that some young lesbians are feeling social and moral pressure to consider transwomen with penises and testicles as potential sexual partners. There is discussion of this on the Gender Critical subreddit linked to above. A recent article in a popular website aimed at young ‘queer’ women explained how to have sex with a woman with a penis.
j) The presence of transpeople within the LGBT and ‘queer’ grouping is controversial. I am a lesbian. My own view, for what it is worth, is that there should be a separate political and charity-based movement for transgender people, which is not attached to those people defined by sexual orientation. The two categories are distinct. The disproportionately visible presence of transpeople and particularly vocal transwoman in the LGBT movement is misogynistically drawing attention and funding away from the problems and concerns of female lesbian and bisexuals in the group. A vivid example from the time of writing: two days ago, the highly corporate and visible ‘LGBT awards’, sponsored by the British Security Services (!), gave an award to Playboy for featuring a transgender woman model.
k) Not all transwomen think alike. (I know this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it apparently is!). Here is Miranda Yardley again; Kristina Harrison; and Debbie Hayton. All are transwomen and proudly so; all argue that transwomen are not women and attempt to create a different popular narrative.
l) The word ‘TERF’ is a slur, used by those in the ‘pro trans lobby’ to aggress the Gender Critical position. This website documents some highly salient typical contexts of use. This term is sometimes uncritically adopted by academics in peer reviewed journals when talking about the issue.
m) Much of the discussion has centred around toilets in terms which discuss violence and danger (either to transwomen or to women-who-are-not-transwomen). But there are many other social aspects to the ‘toilet issue’ which affect women-who-are-not-transwomen and which are currently being ignored in popular discussion. This article, hosted on a Gender Critical website, brilliantly explores some of them, with a lot of relevant independent evidence. When thinking about this issue and the interests involved we should also remember the concept of the (admittedly unfortunately named) ‘urinary leash’ and how it has historically interacted with women-who-are-not-transwomen’s ability to be mobile.
n) Some transwomen argue for a conceptual revision, not just of the term ‘woman’ but also the term ‘mother’. The social implications of this, if successful, are unknown and under-theorised.
o) There is evidence that transwomen are less likely to report diseases connected to male biology. ‘Delayed diagnosis could account for the fact that many of the reported cases of prostate cancer among trans women appear to reflect a higher-grade (more aggressive) cancer”; from this article here.
p) The UK Labour Party, one of the two main political parties in the UK intends to allow biological males to self-identify onto ‘all-woman shortlists’ for candidacy as a Member of Parliament, originally introduced to increase female political representation, which is generally very low.
q) Transwomen are increasingly politically representing women generally. The most obvious case is Lily Madigan, a 19 year old transgender woman. She is a constituency women’s officer for the Labour Party. She is currently organising a party to celebrate the resignation of 300 Gender Critical women from the Labour Party at because of the shortlist issue (see above), entitled ‘Ta Ta Transmisogynists’.
r) Transwomen are also increasingly talking for, or over, biological women in the media. On the Channel Four show ‘Genderquake’ last week, non-transwomen were given less talk time proportionately than the two transwomen present.
s) Two highly visible transwomen in the media, Paris Lees and Karen Jones have prison records for violence. It is highly unclear whether their redemption narratives would have been as easily accepted, and even celebrated, were they non-trans, a point made effectively in this this tweet.
t) The political climate in Britain is now such that anyone who expresses a Gender Critical view faces some sort of sanction, potentially. At the moment a Green Party parliamentary candidate has been suspended for shouting ‘you’re a man’ at the Channel Four Genderquake debate (the audience had previously been encouraged to be ‘vocal’).
u) In the absence of fair representation in the popular media, a grassroots organisation of women is emerging to try to force all these issues to public attention. The meetings of the organisation A Woman’s Place have been met with protests and a last minute venue cancellation. A different group We Need To Talk has been met by hostile masked crowds who have attempted to stop entry into the building.
I could go on but you get the point. I have included links for those genuinely interested in exploring the issue from a wider range of perspectives than are usually heard. I don’t intend this essay to be the end of any conversation, but only the beginning. All is up for debate. This is not a simple set of issues, and I don’t have answers to any of it. But pretending it is simple and all already sorted out is wilfully blind. Philosophers have a unique set of skills to negotiate this complex terrain. They won’t do satisfactorily if they start from the position that any Gender Critical position is morally abhorrent. Nor will they do so if they largely ignore, or pay only a very hedged lip service to, the material reality, for half the human population, of changing the public cultural and legal concept of womanhood.
A correction to ‘u)’ in this essay was made on 14/05/18. I originally misdescribed the name of the group that had faced masked protest.
Editing of a bad link, and a change of terminology i.e. ‘women-who-are-not-transwomen’, introduced on 11/7/2018.
*Embarassingly, after writing this, I realised I had unconsciously plagiarised the title of Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s excellent series, the first part of which is here. I recommend you read her too if you haven’t already.