What I believe about sex and gender: part 6

How did we get here?

50. We have sleepwalked into a situation where the reality of female biology is routinely denied; the lived experience and the oppression of female-bodied persons is rendered invisible and unspeakable; and women are regularly harassed, threatened and defamed as bigots for continuing to insist that female biology exists, and female biology matters. Female-only spaces are under threat, as gender identity laws are enacted in many jurisdictions, granting any person the right to enter such spaces solely on the basis of self-identification as a woman. This leads to situations such as male-bodied, male-socialised persons having a legally protected right to enter female changing rooms, and rape crisis centres coming under attack and facing legal action for refusing to employ male-bodied members of staff. Lesbian women are criticised and accused of transphobia if they refuse to consider male-bodied people who identify as women as potential sexual partners. Children whose behaviour and preferences do not conform to traditional gender norms are being referred to Gender Identity Clinics and diagnosed with gender dysphoria in increasing numbers.

51. Any person who expresses unease or discomfort about any of this will inevitably attract accusations of transphobia, as well as potential threats to livelihood and even threats of violence. Many liberal, progressive-minded people – often men – who are not fully immersed in the huge complexity of this debate are willingly participating in the labelling of women as bigots and TERFs, and are perpetuating the idea that women who insist on the need for at least some female-only spaces are just nasty bigots who need to stop being unkind to transsexual women.

52. There are numerous reasons for this. First, to an outsider to these debates, much of this sounds simply too absurd to be believed. Unless one has witnessed it personally, it seems utterly inconceivable that some people might sincerely argue that sexual orientation ought to be matter of being attracted to someone’s internal sense of their own gender, rather than to specific body types, or that the simple performative utterance of saying “I am a woman now!” and fluttering his eyelashes is sufficient to transform this person from male to female. Feminists who express the kinds of concerns I am raising here are then easily dismissed as exaggerating the situation and engaging in hyperbole to try to undermine the transgender movement. The only way to avoid this is to litter one’s writing with extensive links to evidence, which are both cumbersome and distracting, and unlikely to be followed. (If the reader is sceptical about my portrayal of the situation, links to lots more evidence can be found here.)

53. Second, this issue is incredibly complex and difficult to understand, as the previous five posts in this series demonstrate. Very few people understand how the term “transgender” is now being used in leftist political discourse: that being transgender is apparently entirely a matter of self-defintion; that one need not have dysphoria nor any intention of permanently transitioning to live in the other sex role to call oneself trans; that any man can simply declare that he identifies as a woman now and he will be permitted to speak over women and to enter women’s only spaces. Very few people have any concept of what “gender identity” means, or that the logic of transgender identity politics demands that we take a person’s self-definition as the sole necessary and sufficient condition for their belonging to the class of “woman”. The vast majority of people understandably assume that the word transgender refers to transsexual people, i.e. people who experience sex dysphoria and who are undergoing some form of medical and social transition.

54. Third, this is a confusion that proponents of “gender identity” have traded on and exploited. Liberals and progressively-minded people will naturally and rightly feel empathy and compassion towards people suffering a painful and distressing condition like sex dysphoria, and will therefore want to ensure that they have access to whatever facilities and treatment they need to live safe, happy, flourishing lives. Defenders of gender identity exploit this justified concern and compassion for transsexual people by wilfully appropriating their terminology and hijacking their cause, encouraging those who cannot make sense of these complicated questions to believe that empathy for transsexual people must require support for the notion of gender identity and all that that entails – namely, a denial of the reality and importance of biological sex and gendered socialisation.

55. Fourth, this justified empathy and compassion works in tandem with other features of a liberal/leftist moral psychology. The leftist prides himself on his low levels of prejudice and disgust, and his tolerance and acceptance of all forms of behaviour that cause no harm to non-consenting others. The leftist desires to signal publicly his lack of bigotry and prejudice towards any traditionally marginalised and stigmatised group, and present himself as an ally to the most oppressed, whoever the most oppressed may be. Since time is limited and this issue is incredibly complex, the leftist will typically not have time to examine it in too much detail. Instead he adopts a knee-jerk progressivism, taking whatever he assumes to be the proper leftist stance, without taking the time to carefully reflect upon either its coherence or its political implications. Many proponents of transgender identity politics are especially vocal about the discrimination and marginalisation members of their community face, and about their belief that it is feminists who are the prime perpetrators of this discrimination. So then the quick and easy progressive position for the leftist who doesn’t have the time or inclination to read up about gender identity politics is to assume that the complexity of this issue can be boiled down to “radical feminists are prejudiced and bigoted towards trans women”. Not only does this allow the leftist to publicly align himself with the seemingly correct progressive position on the issue without having to give it much thought. It also enables him to present himself publicly as an ally and champion of an oppressed group, and to congratulate himself on not being motivated by bigotry, prejudice and disgust, unlike his opponents.

56. Fifth, to these factors we can add the good old-fashioned misogyny of the leftist man. Many men fail to acknowledge the significance of biological sex as an axis of oppression, simply because it is a form of oppression that is not shared with males, and thus is more easily dismissed as trivial than those “real, serious” forms of oppression that men experience too, such as race or social class. Furthermore, it’s reasonable to hypothesise that many leftist men simply cannot countenance the possibility that this issue might be more complex than they understand, and that the women they are calling TERFs might be more informed and knowledgeable on any political question than they are.

57. Sixth, the rise of transgender identity politics is a product of a more general shift in leftist politics, away from class-based analyses of oppression which seek to understand injustice in structural terms, and towards an individualistic politics centred on the recognition and validation of identities. On this view, the primary form of oppression – perhaps the only real form of oppression – is “erasure“, understood as a societal failure to accept a person’s self-definition and to validate their identity and self-perception. Whether or not one agrees with the idea that lack of recognition is a form of injustice, what should be clear is it cannot be the only form of injustice, or the source of all the injustices that oppressed groups experience. No amount of “identifying as a man” can render the female-bodied person immune to the various forms of oppression that being female brings. Despite its obvious implausibility, this version of identity politics is popular with a certain strain of social justice activist, in part because it appeals to their narcissism and desire to adopt an interesting, misunderstood, marginalised identity. Especially for those who do not experience any material forms of oppression, such as white, middle-class, heterosexual males, the label “genderqueer” or “non-binary” provides a convenient and attractive way to differentiate themselves from the rest of their class, and to distance themselves from the systems of oppression from which they benefit. It is very convenient and appealing for a male person to call himself genderqueer or non-binary, as it allows him both to continue to benefit from his male privilege when it suits him, and to launder himself of that privilege by claiming to be more oppressed by gender than females, because his gender identity is so marginalised and misunderstood.

58. The above factors explain why gender identity politics is so attractive to the young, progressively-minded political activist, and explain why so many liberals are encouraging and supportive of an ideology that is both incoherent and operates to harm women. These factors are compounded by a worrying tendency towards ideological totalism and purity politics on the part of some social justice activists, including trans activists and their allies. Anyone familiar with recent trends in online social justice activism will recognise the methods used to stifle dissent and enforce conformity:

  • Milieu control and the maintenance of a uniform intellectual culture, through ostracism of anyone who questions any aspect of the doctrine, casting them as a dangerous non-believer. This takes the form of casting anyone who questions any aspect of transgender identity politics as a transphobic bigot, for instance through No Platforming and boycotting campaigns. Fear of this defamation and ostracism operates to silence even the most modest of objections.
  • Increasing demands for purity, so that any belief or association that brings taint must be excised. We see this in the ever increasing rigourism of the gender identity doctrine – ideas that were acceptable and were expressed by trans activists themselves in the very recent past, such as the belief that trans women were born male, have now come to be seen as heretical – and also in the continual demands to denounce, or “call out”, those who deviate from the ideology.
  • A cult of confession, whereby revelation of one’s sins and transgressions, and self-flagellation for one’s privileges, is the only possible path to personal salvation and redemption. Hence the need for constant performative privilege checking, for non-trans women to confess to their “cis privilege” and to accept that they represent an oppressor class over trans women, if they wish to avoid the taint of transphobia.
  • Dogmatism and a refusal to countenance any criticism or challenge of the doctrine, even when the doctrine flies in the face of scientific facts and social reality. Hence the denial of biological sex, as its existence is at odds with the doctrine that asserts that trans women are female.
  • Loading the language, through incredibly complicated terminological rules and constantly shifting jargon, endless policing of minor linguistic infractions, and the use of thought-terminating clichés designed to mask complexity and prevent critical thought and rational examination. Example of this include the anger directed towards people who use the phrase “transgendered” rather than “transgender”, or in the oft repeated thought-terminating mantra “trans women are women”.
  • The elevation of doctrine over persons and the belief in a noble cause, so that any behaviour, no matter how abusive or objectionable, is justified as long as it is committed by “our side”. This is seen in the view that threatening to set women on fire or posting pictures of oneself holding a knife while talking about TERFs is justified, because radical feminist analysis threatens to undermine the ideology of gender identity, and is thus equivalent to hate speech.

59. The above psychological mechanisms by which ideological purity is created and maintained were first catalogued by Robert Jay Lifton in his famous study of brainwashing and thought control in Chinese re-education camps. So this tendency towards a cult mindset and totalist thinking is not unique to transgender identity politics, nor indeed to feminist politics. This slide towards totalism and purity politics is a danger to which all social justice movements and leftist political activists must be alert and on their guard. However we can see that this tendency, in conjunction with the complexity of the issue and the liberal’s desire to signal his empathy and progressiveness (as well as perhaps a healthy dose of leftist misogyny) have combined to get us here: the absurd situation that women are no longer permitted to assert that female biology exists, that female biology matters, and that female people might need some safe spaces from those born and raised male.

I am hugely indebted to my undercover feminist comrade, the author of The New Backlashfor inspiration and guidance in making sense of this incredibly complicated and convoluted issue. I have learned a great deal from her writing, and although none of these posts could have been written without her, this one especially draws heavily on her insights. I highly recommend anyone who wants more detailed arguments, or more evidence for the claims I’ve made, to read her blog. 

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here.)

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