The three books under review tackle an issue on which there is no agreement in the debate or even whether there should be one. No agreement on the terms used and no agreement on the facts, no agreement on what the status of the terms employed have in relation to the facts and which are relevant to the issue.
Making resolution much, much harder is the conviction that what is involved are not only conflicting views but conflicting interests, and although there are some claims to these overlapping to some degree, both sides see the fundamental issue as one that cannot be resolved given the differences; what is therefore involved is a conflict that must be won. What one side considers as philosophical critique the other identifies as physical intimidation and threat.
So, even to assert that there is a debate is seen as taking sides. This review cannot help but notice that there is a debate so will even by this fact alone be taking sides; already we are into disputed territory.
The author of the first book, Kathleen Stock, has been in the news recently because trans rights protesters at the university she taught in demanded she be sacked for being transphobic, with the statement that “until then, you’ll see us around.” The New Statesman summarised the situation:
“Stock – who believes that biological sex is immutable and occasionally takes precedence over someone’s gender identity – told me that a campaign has been waged against her since she raised concerns in 2018 over a shift away from sex-based rights to a world where any male could identify as a woman through self-declaration alone (a process known as “self-ID”). “This month is just the endgame. Some of my colleagues have been spinning a line against me for a long time,” she told me.”
“I asked Nehaal Bajwa, the diversity officer at Sussex Students’ Union, how Stock was contributing to the “dire state of unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole”, as the leaflet put it. Stock’s views created “an unsafe atmosphere” for trans students, Bajwa said, as protesters overtook the campus square, setting off pink and blue flares, while Stock cancelled her courses and followed police advice to stay off campus and secure her home. I asked a protester whether the demo was designed to be intimidating. “We’re standing still,” they said. “Her presence to us is intimidating.”
Not long after this she resigned from her post at the university.
* * *
Stock begins by explaining how we got here – ‘a brief history of gender identity’ – from what gender identity theory is to the eight intellectual steps taken to its current status. The idea that gender identity, not biological sex, makes you a man or woman; and that this identity is an inner state that we all have, but that the identity some have – trans people – does not match their biological sex. In such cases everyone has a moral obligation to recognise and legally protect rights and claims based on gender identity and not biological sex.
Stock explains the different ways in which the word gender is used, which are absolutely necessary to follow the debate, and identifies four:
1. A polite expression of the biological difference between the two sexes, males and females; what might be called the traditional understanding.
2. Social stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
3. The projection on to males and females of the social roles of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ respectively; historically endorsed by feminists as explanations of roles performed by the sexes that were not determined by biology (or at least not alone) but by social imposition.
4. Finally, the definition employed by ‘gender identity’, which Stock describes as a “private experience” or “roughly, whether you relate to yourself psychologically as a boy or man, girl or woman, or neither, in a way that has nothing directly to do with your sex.”
Having defined gender Stock goes on to explain what sex is in terms of an account based on gametes, an organism’s reproductive cells, small in males and large in females. She then explains the chromosome account based on the XX chromosomes of women and XY of men, including the situation of those where this is not the case due to some disorder of sexual development (DSD), which in the majority of cases will still lead to a “clear answer as to whether someone is male or female.” The third “cluster account” identifies morphological characteristics relevant to identifying people as male or female and can be employed where there is not a clear answer.
This can lead to a small number of difficult borderline cases but Stock argues that “hard cases are not a special fact about the categories male and female” and that “difficulty about borderline cases is absolutely standard for biological categories.”
On this basis she critiques views that the sexes are social constructions (and not biological constructs) such that language and the words we use don’t refer to an independent and prior reality but are ‘productive’ or ‘constitutive’ of that reality. Marxists are conscious that there is an independent reality – we are materialists – but aware that humans are also a part of that reality and that their thoughts and actions interpret and shape that reality.
Stock is referring to Judith Butler for whom “there’s nothing ‘underneath’ or ‘before’ language that would secure linguistic reference to something ‘outside’ of it.” For Marxists there is something ‘underneath’, ‘before’ and ‘outside’ that make their understanding of the world and political programme to change it relevant and realistic. The importance of this link is why regular readers of this blog will see the long series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism justifying these claims.
Stock therefore states that “over 99 per cent of humans fall unambiguously into one category or the other,” that is, male or female, with this categorisation being “one of the most stable and predictable there is . . . sex is not ‘assigned at birth’ but detected . . . sex cannot be ‘reassigned’ through surgery or a change in legal status, nor ‘changed’.”
Her next step is to explain why sex matters – for medicine, sport, sexual orientation and the effect on heterosexuality, including the need for reproduction of the species. So, only females are capable of pregnancy, and whatever the generally greater strength, speed and power of men, only women can grow another human being inside them and give birth to that human being (as pointed out by the author of the third book to be reviewed).
Stock then refers to the problems of downgrading sex when it comes to data collection, including crime statistics, and access to certain single sex facilities, which are also addressed extensively in the second and third books reviewed.
Most of the rest of the book goes deeper into the concepts she has defined in the first chapters – what is gender identity and what makes a woman, as well as an extension of the story of how we got to where we are.
Stock challenges the view that everyone has a gender identity, as many non-trans people “report no particularly strong sense of one.” She recognises that trans people do but also that many women “are unhappy with their sex – but without making them trans.” She then explains what she means by “lots of women don’t enjoy being female”, in terms of “greater or lesser feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness.” Nevertheless, her focus is on the experience of trans people and she interrogates three models of ‘gender identity’.
The first is the ‘stick of rock’ model (like lettering through one) – a fundamental part of the self, innate, or ‘a core part of who we are’ according to one mental health counsellor quoted. It states that it is there even if the person isn’t aware of it, although it is something you can become aware of. Only that person can know what it is so no one else can, except by being told by that person, so that ‘whatever a trans person says about their identity is true’.
This can lead to some trans people stating that they were ‘born in the wrong body’ but this is not necessarily the case and the author of the second book who is trans does not.
Stock concludes that “when trans people say that they ‘know’ their gender identity or have ‘discovered’ it, or that their gender identity is their ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ self, it’s highly unlikely to be because they somehow gained privileged access to some prior brain fact about themselves which justifies this attribution directly.” She therefore argues that it is not innate.
She then looks at what she calls the Medical Model, which essentially sees a misaligned gender identity as a mental illness or disorder, the main symptom of which is a condition called ‘gender dysphoria’. Stock is also critical of this for a number of reasons and believes that the treatment trans people receive on foot of it can be harmful. “Unusually for a psychiatric diagnosis, sanctioned treatment aims to change the body first, and not (directly) the mind.”
In the third, queer theory of gender identity, she sees an almost opposite problem, that it is not psychological, or any sort of physical issue, but is a political question and its assertion a political act.
Instead, she sets out what she thinks is a “more helpful and detailed account” that involves, for a misaligned female gender identity, a strong psychological identity with a “particular female or with femaleness as a general object or ideal.” This, she says, “fits well with first-hand testimonies about experiences of gender dysphoria.” She argues that it does not then have to result in the medical and surgical intervention demanded by some trans activists.
She defends the traditional concepts of what a woman is and its necessary employment for how we live, including its importance for other concepts that are important, such as mother, daughter, lesbian etc. She notes the radical revision to our understanding of concepts if adult human males could be considered as mothers, sisters and daughters, and adult human females considered as fathers, brothers etc (although some advocate removing words such as mother).
But in order to be trans-inclusive this would have to be the case. And if this was the case, it would require new words, for example, for those who are not only mothers but also adult human females etc., although these new words would also necessarily be trans-exclusive. A new word for lesbian would be required not only to denote same-sex attraction (if ‘sex’ is understood as equated to gender and not biological sex) but sexual attraction to those with a female body.
Again, this too would exclude transwomen. Eveyone, including trans activists, would have to become accepting of concepts that are trans-exclusive, without this automatically being characterised as transphobic. If not, then the charge that the activist project is really the erasure of women would more justifiably stick.
However, it might still be the case that a parallel series of words denoting concepts that identified biological females and excluded transwomen would still be unacceptable for some activists, who believe that the existing definition of woman as ‘an adult human female’ does include transwomen (see the second book to be reviewed).
Stock thinks it is preferable to retain the existing concepts and therefore the meanings of man and woman and to have separate concepts, and therefore names, that might encompass women and transwomen, and men and transmen; although her proposals are hardly pithy, as she admits. These would not however have automatically built into them the concepts of MAN and WOMAN. She is quite clear that “If trans women are women, they are not ‘women’ in the same sense in which adult human females are ‘women’.” And the same applies to trans men. Membership of TRANS WOMAN does not entail membership of WOMAN; and the same for TRANS MAN.
She is well aware that in saying this she is challenging key claims of some trans people so she immediately states what she is not saying. As we have noted above, criticism of some transactivists’ claims are treated by some as attacks on the people themselves. So, for example, she is not saying that it is never reasonable to alter oneself physically to look like the opposite sex, or that trans people cannot get relief from thinking of themselves as members of the opposite sex.
What she does go on to say is that “at least some of the time many trans and non-trans people alike are immersed in a fiction: the fiction that they themselves, or others around them, have literally changed sex . . .” Having explained what she means by this fiction she then sets out some of the consequences.
She looks at state action that supports the demands of some trans activists and the sympathy that exists in broad sections of the population for trans people. In explaining both she says that “one important factor, I think., is public awareness of a history of prejudice against sex-nonconforming people, plus a commendable desire to be (seen to be) on the other side of it.” She also thinks that trans activist’s propaganda has been important, and quotes what she sees as misleading and misrepresented statistics employed within it, an issue arising within the other books reviewed.
She concludes with hopes for a better activism in future, including her belief that trans people are not well served by current trans activism, and calls for all sides to be “more non-binary” and to look for areas where “common cause might still be found.”.
She opposes the expansion of feminism to include opposition to almost all oppression – “in other words, feminism is now supposed to be everybody’s mum”, and bemoans that “gay activism has, relatively recently, become ‘LGBT’ activism and so has merged with – and arguably been taken over by – trans activism. In some parts of the culture, this has expanded yet further into ‘LGBTQIA+’ . . . “
In response she advocates more intersectionality, although it is not at all obvious that this is a solution since it could be argued that intersectionality does not guarantee harmonious congruity of the demands of the oppressed and has in fact led to the cannibalisation of many, with the rise of arguments by some trans activists as evidence of this.
Forward to part 2