Some basic questions about sex and gender for progressives

1. Do you believe that being born with the kind of body that has the potential to gestate children – a body with a uterus, ovaries, and a vagina – is of any political significance? Does having that kind of body have any bearing on a person’s likely opportunities and outcomes?

2. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies have historically been subject to any distinct forms of injustice, oppression, exploitation or discrimination? Have they historically been subordinated to the people with penises and testes?

3. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies continue to be subject to any distinct forms of injustice, oppression, exploitation or discrimination?

4. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies often suffer physical and sexual violence, abuse and harassment perpetrated by the people with penises and testes?

5. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies ought to have a label with which to define themselves? Does our language need a word to refer to the people with uteruses and ovaries?

6. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies have a right to organise politically around their shared experiences, and to campaign and work for policies to secure their own interests?

7. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies have a right to associate freely with other people with those kinds of bodies, and to have some separate spaces for their safety, privacy and dignity? Do people with those kinds of bodies have a right to some spaces where people with penises and testes are not permitted to enter?

8. Do you believe that people born with those kinds of bodies sometimes have a right to policies and resources designated towards rectifying their historical and continued marginalisation and oppression?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes”, you should reject the ideology of gender identity, and policy proposals based on that ideology such as the self-declaration of legal gender.

The word ‘TERF’

The word ‘TERF’

The label ‘TERF’, or ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’:

  1. Is not a meaningful description of any feminist politics.
    Radical feminism is an approach to analysing the oppression and exploitation of the class of female people by the class of male people. It seeks to uncover and challenge the root causes and origins of that system of oppression, which it labels patriarchy. Different radical feminist analyses will emphasise different elements – access to female reproductive labour, sexual access to women’s bodies, compulsory heterosexuality, male-dominated religion – as central to understanding the function and continued maintenance of patriarchy. So we should not assume that there is unity or homogeneity among those whose views can be called radical feminist. However, a key assumption underpinning radical feminist analyses is that the word “female” denotes a biological category, referring to the class of persons capable of menstruating, ovulating, gestating, and lactating. Radical feminist analysis starts from the assumption that living in a sexed body brings with it particular experiences that are of social and political significance, and that if we are to explain and dismantle patriarchy, we need to be able to describe and understand those experiences.

    For this reason, it makes little sense to describe, and still less to criticise, a radical feminist approach as “trans exclusionary”. Radical feminism seeks to make sense of the social and political reality of living in a particular type of body – a female body – and to eradicate the oppression and exploitation associated with the social relations between female-bodied people and male-bodied people. Therefore, its analysis of patriarchy as a system of sex-based oppression has little to say about the experiences of people who identify as women but do not inhabit female bodies. This is not an oversight or an illegitimate act of exclusion. It is simply not the aim or purpose of radical feminist theory to seek to analyse or explain the specific experiences of transwomen, which will, necessarily, be importantly different from those of female people. None of this is to deny that transwomen will experience marginalisation, discrimination and injustice. It is merely to note that these injustices are not rooted in biological sex, unlike the oppression of female people. Insofar as they are not, they are not intended to fall under the purview of radical feminist analysis. To criticise radical feminist analysis for being trans-exclusionary is to operate under the false assumption that the aim and purpose of radical feminism should be to explain and dismantle all forms of injustice and marginalisation, rather than to limit its focus to the sex-based oppression of female people. It is legitimate and reasonable for radical feminists to focus narrowly on analysing and dismantling sex-based oppression, and therefore criticism that their efforts do not also explain and challenge other unrelated social ills is misplaced.

  2. Is rarely, if ever, accurately applied, even if it were a meaningful label.
    Many of the people who are labelled TERFs do not meet the description of any of the words included in the phrase. The label TERF is often applied to men, to people who are not feminists of any kind, radical or otherwise, and even to anti-feminists. You can be called a TERF for believing that female and male are biological distinctions, rather than identities. Statements such as “only female people can get pregnant”, or “the penis is the male sex organ”, will frequently attract accusations that the speaker is a TERF. One need not subscribe to the analysis of sex-based oppression outlined in point 1 to be called a TERF. It is sufficient that one believes that female and male are real biological categories, and that there are genuine differences between the two that cannot be reduced to identity or feelings, to be labelled a TERF.

    Furthermore, the first half of the phrase is equally ill-defined, and inaccurately applied. It is not clear what, exactly, transwomen (or transpeople more generally) are being excluded from. Many people would argue, quite reasonably, that male-bodied people who identify as women should not have an absolute and unqualified right of access to all women’s spaces, where this includes women’s prisons, refuges, or changing facilities. It does not follow from this that those people think all transwomen should be excluded from all women’s spaces, or from all feminist projects and activism. Add to this the vagueness and lack of clarity about what the word “trans” actually means, and what criteria a person has to meet to be defined as “trans”, and it becomes even more apparent that the description “trans-exclusionary” is so vague and ill-defined as to be incapable of being applied meaningfully and accurately.

  3. Is inextricably associated with misogynistic, abusive, violent rhetoric. 
    The vast majority of people who use the word TERF intend it to be an insult, and apply it indiscriminately, frequently accompanied by threatening, aggressive and abusive language. Those who label women TERFs routinely threaten violence, employ misogynistic slurs and anti-lesbian rhetoric. There is no shortage of evidence of this; there is far, far more evidence of the word being used as an abusive slur, than there is of it being employed as a neutral description of a political position. Given that it is overwhelmingly used as a term of vitriol and abuse, and often accompanied by violent threats, it is not a term that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a credible political commentator should be using, or attempting to rehabilitate.

    Furthermore, commonly invoked attempts to present it as a neutral descriptive label fall flat when it is compared with other comparable slurs. It is often said that it cannot be abusive because it is merely an acronym; however, few would suggest that the word “tranny” is not a slur, because it is merely an abbreviation. Context, intent and actual usage matter hugely, as do the perceptions of the person to whom the label is directed. Most transpeople justifiably perceive the word “tranny” to be more than just an abbreviation. It is an offensive term of abuse intended to belittle, demean and dehumanise, and as such, it is perceived as a slur by those subjected to it. Those people may or may not choose to reclaim it and refer to themselves by that term, but those who are not subjected to it have no authority to tell transpeople that they ought not to find the word offensive, or ought not to feel threatened and dehumanised by those who use it. The same considerations apply to the word ‘TERF’. No feminist, radical or otherwise, adopts the label as a description of herself or her politics. Most if not all to whom it is applied perceive it as a slur, and given its connotations, will feel threatened or belittled by it.

    It is sometimes claimed that the word cannot be a slur because it was allegedly coined by self-described radical feminists who wanted to distance themselves from other radical feminists who they perceived to have the wrong politics. It’s not clear if this is true, since various trans activists have claimed that they are responsible for coining or popularising the term. But it makes little difference, since the history and etymology of the word does not determine its current usage. What matters is the context in which the word is now used and the connotations it currently has, and those are undoubtedly abusive and misogynistic.

    All those who perceive themselves to have progressive politics and to be allies to women should stop using the word TERF immediately.

ABC Radio Philosopher’s Zone – Interview on Gender Identity

ABC Radio Philosopher’s Zone – Interview on Gender Identity

I recently recorded an interview with ABC Radio in Australia for their Philosopher’s Zone programme, on the topic of gender identity. We discussed the radical feminist analysis of gender, how this in tension with the view that gender is innate and essential, and the resulting conflict between feminists and gender identity activists.

You can listen to it here.





Is a female Prime Minister good for women?

A quick thought experiment. Imagine two possible worlds:

In World A, all the income and material wealth is owned by men. Women have no right to earn money or to own property of any kind. They are given the use of resources by the men in their lives, but they have no legal right to this. It is always done at men’s discretion, and men retain the power to take back property they have given to women at any time. However, it so happens that the men in World A are all perfectly just and compassionate, and always use their income and wealth wisely and judiciously. They never squander their resources or use them in ways we might consider immoral. They ensure that women and girls, while having no legal right of their own to control property, nonetheless have all their material needs met, and are provided with everything they need.

In World B, both women and men have a legal right to earn money and to own property, and the income and wealth of that world is equally distributed between men and women. However, the women in world B are not perfectly just and compassionate women, and frequently use their share of resources unwisely or immorally. They sometimes squander resources through foolish gambles, and sometimes spend money on immoral projects, such as buying weapons to pursue imperialist conflicts.

Let’s leave aside the question of which world, all things considered, you prefer, or which world, all things considered, you think we ought to bring into existence if we had a choice. My question instead is this one: is there anything at all to be said for World B? Is there any respect in which World B is better than World A? Or, to put the question slightly differently, is there any reason at all – no matter how weighty or decisive you may deem that reason to be – to criticise World A? Is there any reason at all – no matter how weighty or decisive you may deem that reason to be – to praise World B?

As someone who endorses both feminist and egalitarian principles, I think the answer to all these questions is straightforwardly “yes”. World B is better than World A in at least one respect, namely, that income and wealth are equally distributed in that world, and there is no unjust division of resources in accordance with the morally arbitrary characteristic of sex. Of course, you don’t need to be a feminist to think that. You could swap the sexes around in the examples and come to the same conclusion – that World B is in one respect better, because in one respect fairer, than World A. It is unfair if some people are denied the right to own property or acquire resources while others enjoy this right, and this unfairness is not dependent on how wisely or judiciously they might exercise that right. And since fairness is of value, one thing among many others that we have reason to care about and to promote, a world in which income and wealth is distributed unfairly is in one respect worse than a world in which it is distributed fairly. There is something to be said for World B. There is at least one reason – fairness – that counts in its favour. This doesn’t tell us very much about which world we should prefer, because fairness is just one value we need to weigh up against others. Depending on many other things, including how costly the effects of women’s irresponsibility would be in World B in terms of overall utility, we might decide that on balance, all things considered, World A is preferable. But even so, we could still criticise World A, and still point out that with respect to one important criterion, World B fares better.

Income and wealth are not the only goods which a political society must distribute among its citizens. Political power and access to positions of office and influence must also be distributed, and one of the values we want this distribution to realise is fairness. A world in which women are systematically and structurally excluded from positions of power and influence is unfair. It is more fair, and so in one respect better, if women also have access to those positions. Crucially, this argument from fairness is not contingent on what women actually do once they get that power. If it turns out that women in positions of authority use that authority badly, or use it in ways that make people worse off, and even in ways that make women worse off, that does not make the argument from fairness evaporate. The value of fairness might be outweighed by other values, such that all things considered, we might decide it is preferable to have a socialist male Prime Minister than a conservative female one. But the value of fairness does not disappear. And so in the current context of men continuing to possess a disproportionate amount of political power and influence, the arrival of a female Prime Minister is in one respect good, and we can celebrate the realisation of that one type of value, while simultaneously wishing that we had a different Prime Minister, one who embodies more of the values we care about.

You might hope that this would be such a trivially and obviously true claim that it would not be worth saying, and yet within hours of the news emerging that our next Prime Minister would be female, up sprang the inevitable comment pieces castigating those imaginary feminists who had apparently heralded the dawn of a feminist revolution. This struck me as strange, since I hadn’t actually seen any feminists doing that. Rather, I had seen feminists making the much more modest but still important point that while a female Prime Minister might be bad for women in many, many ways, depending on her politics, there is at least one way in which she is good for women – and that is simply by virtue of the fact that women as a class have a right to an equal share of political power with men. And further, each woman who holds power makes it a little bit easier for the next, by normalising the fact of women with power, and through her visibility publicly cementing our claims to have a right to it.

I made this point on twitter, perhaps clumsily because of the character limit, but I stand by the basic point:

I do not believe that feminists should be elated that we have a Conservative Prime Minister just because she happens to be female. I do not believe that we should expect Prime Minister May to be overall a positive thing for women, or even overall better for women than many male politicians might have been. But when I say it’s a feminist victory, I mean it: it is one of the gains of the feminist movement that women can access the highest positions of political power and influence, without condition, and it should be a basic tenet of any feminist politics that our right to such positions is not contingent on our using power better than men have traditionally used it. Some feminist goals, especially those related to welfare provision, might be better realised by other governments, with other Prime Ministers, who might very well be male. But at least one important feminist goal – the goal of women exercising power, for its own sake, just because it is something we have a right to – has been realised for one woman, and made a tiny bit easier for all the women that follow. And perhaps one day we will have so many senior female politicians that we are no longer surprised to discover they are just as capable of being incompetent, corrupt and self-serving as men are, and no longer demand they demonstrate their moral and practical superiority before acknowledging their right to hold office.

That would be a cause for a feminist celebration. If only a small one.




L’idée que le genre s’échelonne sur un spectre est un nouvel enfermement


(Note: someone has very kindly translated my post, Gender is not a Spectrum, originally published at Aeon, into French. My high school French is exceptionally rusty, and so I cannot cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translation. But since this post has been read so many times and has clearly been useful to many people, I am posting the translation here so that French can benefit from the hard work of the translator. Merci beaucoup, Martin!) 

Qu’est-ce que le genre ? Cette question touche au cœur même de la théorie et de la pratique féministe, et joue un rôle central dans des débats qui animent actuellement la militance pour la justice sociale en matière de classe, d’identité et de privilèges. Dans le langage de tous les jours, le mot « genre » est devenu synonyme de ce qu’il serait plus exact d’appeler le « sexe ». Cela reflète peut-être une vague sensiblerie à proférer un mot qui décrit également les rapports sexuels, mais le mot « genre » est maintenant utilisé comme euphémisme pour désigner le fait biologique qu’une personne est une femme ou un homme. Cela nous épargne la situation légèrement embarrassante d’avoir à invoquer, aussi indirectement que ce soit, les organes et les processus corporels qu’implique cette bifurcation.

Continue reading “L’idée que le genre s’échelonne sur un spectre est un nouvel enfermement”

“Gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”: some problems

An oft-repeated mantra among proponents of the notion of gender identity is that “gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”. The basic idea is that what makes gender oppressive is not, as the radical feminist analysis would have it, that it is an externally imposed set of norms prescribing and proscribing behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary biological characteristics, and coercively placing them in one of two positions in a hierarchy. Rather, the problem is that we recognise only two possible genders. Thus humans of both sexes could be liberated if we recognised that while gender is indeed an internal, essential facet of our identity, there are more genders than just “man” or “woman” to choose from. And the next step on the path towards liberation is the recognition of a range of new gender identities, so we now have people referring to themselves as “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or “pangender” or “agender” or “demiboy” or “demigirl” or “aliagender” or “genderfuck” or “trigender” or “neutrois” or “aporagender” or “ectogender” or “veloxigender”…I could go on.

genderbread-638x444There are numerous problems with the logic of this view, that render it both internally inconsistent, and politically unattractive. Continue reading ““Gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”: some problems”