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A story about sex

Tuesday 27 April 2021

The basic biological distinction between a woman and a man is too important to our conceptual ordering of the world to be ditched in order to soothe the feelings of trans people

Here’s a simple story about the English words woman and man, and the concepts attached to these words. This story goes: many species produce two differently shaped participants in reproductive processes, each with a distinctive gamete (sexual reproductive cell) to bring to the mating table. 

That is: in sexually dimorphic species, there are females and males. For the species that humans have most to do with in everyday life – which, in the animal kingdom, are usually vertebrates – it’s helpful to have distinct concepts to distinguish the females in a given species from the males. So: we have doe and stag, cow and bull, lioness and lion, hen and rooster, vixen and fox, and so on. In the human species too, there are females and males. For practical purposes, we need identifying concepts for them as well. 

In English, we simply tend to use the words female and male to fulfil this need. But we also need concepts distinguishing male and female children from their adult counterparts, given the broad range of situations in which this distinction is relevant. So we have the English words woman and man, girl and boy. Other languages have equivalent words, each referring to the same underlying concepts.

Our story continues: the concepts associated with woman and man are, like many such concepts, shared cognitive tools, helping us to refer to aspects of the surrounding world in satisfyingly fine-grained ways. We can use these concepts in thought, speech, and action to make useful generalisations. For instance, we can use them to investigate what sexed bodies tend to be like and what physical challenges they particularly face; or to see whether there are patterns in the way each group encounters the social world, which we might then choose to enhance or to mitigate. That is, we can gather useful data about women and men respectively. 

The findings we collate can then feed into policy decisions, in any area where being a human member of one sex rather than another is likely to make an important difference to a particular situation, on average: for instance, in medical policies (women and men tend to be affected differently by some diseases); sporting policies (women and men tend to perform differently in sport); employment policies (women’s pregnancies make a difference to career progression); or in policies designed to reduce characteristic harms to one particular sex at the expense of the other (women are mostly the victims of sexual assault and men are mostly the perpetrators).

We can also use the concepts of woman and man in relation to other important concepts, each with multiple social ramifications of their own: woman in relation to the concepts of mother and daughter and grandmother and aunt and wife, for instance; or to the concept of a lesbian, understood as a woman sexually attracted only to other women.

Though somewhat simplified, in its basics I see nothing wrong with this story. Yet in the late 20th Century it started to be rejected in certain branches of the humanities. Like a stone dropped at the centre of a pool, the ripples began to radiate outwards. Thirty years later, they are now reaching shore, and the result is the toxic row we see between those fond of the old story and those in love with an apparently exciting new one.

This second story says that sex is a “spectrum”; or a “social construct”; it is “assigned at birth”, relatively arbitrarily. Simultaneously, a new concept has entered the stage, assumed by many to serve just as efficiently purposes that were formerly served by woman and man

This is the concept of gender identity. With tangled roots in 20th century radical feminism, psychology, post-structuralism, and popular culture, having a gender identity is defined as an inner feeling, or “sense”, or “personal conception” that one is female, or that one is male, or that one is both, or neither. Thanks to the influence of groups like Stonewall, in 21st century Britain it is assumed by many progressive organisations that gender identity – sometimes known as “self-ID” – is more important than biology when it comes to data collection and policy-making. 

Bizarrely, this assumption is now widely regarded as especially applicable to formerly single-sex spaces such as changing rooms, hostels, refuges, and prisons, originally organised in such a way as to reduce the exposure of women in vulnerable situations to violence at the hands of physically stronger males and to make women feel generally safe and at ease. 

Indeed, it’s now even assumed by some progressives that the concepts woman and man no longer refer to biology at all, but to the psychological possession of a female or male gender identity. This happens in two steps: first, if you were assigned “male” at birth but now have a female gender identity, you’re a trans woman; second, trans women are women. 

Not just this, but also: trans women who are parents are now mothers; trans women attracted to women are now lesbians; and so on. If your head is spinning at these rapid conceptual changes, organisations such as Stonewall have no sympathy. Their slogan is: get over it.

One obvious problem with all this is that the new concepts cannot hope to serve the still-pressing purposes of the old. Psychological states are potentially temporary, subject to self-interpretation, and often invisible to the eye. None of this is true of biological sex.

So the policy shift from biology to psychology is potentially catastrophic for areas where physical sex still matters, such as: safeguarding vulnerable women – in the original sense – from male violence; women’s sport; women’s public health; and data collection about both sexes. It’s also terrible for public understanding about biology, including the understanding that children have about their own sex, and their feelings about it.

All this is bad enough, but it becomes even worse when you grasp the astonishing thinness of the intellectual reed upon which the new story actually rests. Some academics originally rejected the simple story about biology because of a dubious background view about concepts generally. According to this school of thought, language wholly produces the world, rather than reflecting what is already there. The world is “socially constructed”, not just in the familiar sense that it has various social meanings, but in the sense that there is literally nothing stably material there to which we can meaningfully refer. There are simply various contingent social meanings. 

This adolescent metaphysics is then given a political twist: the construction of concepts when applied to humans inevitably inserts a boundary between “Us” and “Them”, often perniciously “excluding” those not deemed to fit the normative requirements of a particular category. 

For American gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler and her acolytes, woman and man – and indeed female and male – are key examples of concepts erroneously considered to be “prediscursive”: that is, having an existence outside of what we say and think about them. Instead, Butler and co. contend that such concepts are actually constructed through language, in an oppressive, artificially binary mould. But in real-world linguistic contexts, beyond the fever dreams of humanities seminars, this is obviously not how the concepts are applied.

A different but equally dubious view about these key concepts is that, if any fuzziness or complexity affects their boundaries, they must, by definition, be fatally deficient. So, it is frequently claimed, the existence of a relatively small number of people with Differences of Sexual Development (sometimes called “intersex” people) puts the very concepts of woman and man in mortal jeopardy. 

Leave aside for a moment the fact that the number of people with truly ambiguous DSDs is often exaggerated for rhetorical purposes. The more important point is that all concepts have a measure of fuzziness at their boundaries. Think of the distinction I used earlier, between an adult and a child. Noticing the inevitable fuzziness that one sometimes confronts in distinguishing between the two – is an immature 18-year-old really an adult, or a very self-reliant 16-year-old truly a child? – does not mean that the categories are completely useless.

But let’s move on from this old (and stale) philosophical argument. One should acknowledge that most people who embrace the new story about women and men in preference to the old one aren’t doing it for academic or theoretical reasons. They reject the old story because they think it hurts dysphoric trans people to hear it. And this argument about individual hurt and upset sensibilities has become extraordinarily pervasive and persistent, not least because of the turbo-charging effect of social media. 

Before pursuing this new path, as we are daily and vigorously urged to do, we need to think hard and reflectively upon the consequences. The trouble is that what may be a useful fiction for interpersonal purposes can wreak havoc, when introduced at scale at institutional level. 

The concepts of woman and man, in their original and literal guises, still do essential cognitive work for the human race.They are at the centre of a web of meaning extending out into thousands of social domains. They enable us to negotiate the reality we find there and to communicate about it effectively. 

Ripping these concepts out of this web, we are told, is so necessary to the emotional wellbeing of trans people that there is no alternative but to do so. Yet a sensible, pluralistic world should always be wary of such haste, and conscious of the damage that can arise from such reckless linguistic demolition. Before sleepwalking into a world that makes no sense, we urgently need to take stock of these costs. Is that so unreasonable?

Photograph by Jonathan Knowles/Stone/Getty

Kathleen Stock is a professor of philosophy at Sussex University. Her book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism is published by Fleet on 6 May.