What I believe about sex and gender: part 4

Political implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 5 is here; part 6 is here.)