A peculiar new alliance appears to be emerging between trans-critical radical feminists and liberal centrists who are normally critical of radical feminism. Radical feminists’ insistence on the biological definition of “woman” seems to align them with the anxieties of those disturbed by activists’ redefinition of “female” and “male” from objective biological descriptors to self-reported perceptions, as well as with the concerns of non-radical feminists like Helen Joyce who has written cogently on the consequences of denying sex differences.
However, radical feminists are beholden to a gender theory of their own, and it ought to be possible to reject the claims of trans extremists without entangling ourselves in another equally dubious ideology. Trans radicalism is not a war against feminism. It is a civil war within feminism, and it is not immediately obvious which side liberals should be rooting for. There is a risk of becoming trapped in radicals’ own mode of discourse. Trans activists advance dubious claims about gender behind a shield of the interests of trans people as a group. There is a temptation to respond in kind, linking criticism of such claims with women’s wellbeing. This comes naturally to radical feminists, who consider their ideology to be synonymous with women’s interests. However, this issue can be handled with more nuance—and potentially to better effect. This division within the Left provides an opportunity to expose the flaws in this group-based mode of discourse altogether.
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Trans-critical feminists have positioned themselves as a bulwark of respect for science within feminism, rejecting the postmodern denial of sex differences. However, while they endorse the hard distinctions of biological sex in the body, they vehemently maintain that gender has no basis in neurology. We are blank slates, they aver, and gender norms are merely fictions imposed on the female sex by males to their own advantage. Transgenderism—the belief that gender is in part prefigured by the brain and can be misaligned with the rest of the body by some form of innate miswiring—cannot therefore be accepted. This view has led Sheila Jeffreys, for example, to argue that the critical rejection of gender renders physical transition obsolete. Critical Sisters, a group which co-signed trans-critical pamphlets handed out at the 2018 London LGBT pride parade, claims that gender is a “man-made belief.” This denial of mounting scientific evidence has passed many by in the surrounding din of the trans debate.
Some people think that the psychologist and sexologist John Money’s belief that gender is completely constructed is a source of trans ideology. However, this would be to overlook the infamous case of Money’s tragic patient David Reimer. Reimer was raised as a female on the advice of Money after a botched circumcision left him without a penis and, at 22 months, had his testicles removed, a surgical procedure recommended by Money. Despite being socialised as a girl and undergoing hormone treatment, Reimer exhibited male-typical behavior and, when told that he had been born male, he elected to undergo reassignment surgery for a second time. His short and unhappy life ended in suicide at the age of 38.
Trans activists generally disagree with Money’s claims about the malleability of gender and cite Reimer’s case as evidence that gender identity is innate and immutable and not socially constructed. They claim the Reimer case decisively demonstrated that therapy can’t “cure” trans people by realigning their gender identity to their bodies, and compare Money’s rejection of innate gender to the position taken by trans-critical feminists like the Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy, who deride innate sex differences as “gender mysticism.”
On the basis of the weight of the available scientific evidence then, those who believe that innate psychological sex differences do exist and that they influence phenomena like the wage gap and asymmetric participation in fields like STEM have more to disagree about with trans-critical feminists than they do with trans activists. It is the incoherent assertion from some trans activists that biological sex does not exist which muddies the issue.
The origins of such biodenialism in trans discourse lie in radical feminism itself. Though recently trans-critical feminists have framed their focus on biology as a response to the ways trans ideology compromises women’s safety, their movement’s doctrines long predate such cases. The seminal text, Janice Raymond’s The Transexual Empire, was published in 1979 and, although this is disputed, there is reason to believe that Sheila Jeffreys’s work contributed to the cessation of public funding for trans healthcare in the 1980s. Radical feminists are motivated, not only by concern for women’s safety, but also by the need to defend their own ideology.
Gender identity as innate is contrary to radical feminist orthodoxy, which holds it to be purely a patriarchal construct used to oppress women for men’s benefit—nothing female or feminine can be in the brain, only in the body. Thus, radical feminists’ motives are more complicated than the straightforward defense of women’s safety and respect for scientific and biological reality. Their position is informed by a need to defend a blank slate conception of gender differences which is the sine qua non of their ideology. Only when these radical feminists made the whole biological female the only measure of woman, without any allowance for an internal gender identity, did trans activists have to start deconstructing “female” as a biological category and reconstituting it as a self-claimed status.
Without these blank slate commitments, however, we can maintain that “woman” means “female,” and that “female” in humans means the possession of XX chromosomes which produce female phenotypes. Nor is it necessary to insist that trans people are not “real” women or men. If gender has some origin in sexually divergent neurobiology forged by sex hormones, then irregular development in utero could theoretically result in a brain with a female profile in a male body, which could be made partly commensurate by transition. Transgenderism as practiced therefore inherently affirms that “woman” means female human and that trans women may alter their bodies to fit the female, XX chromosome phenotype. Those born intersex do not disprove that females have XX chromosomes and males XY, but when they live as one gender (as they generally do) we don’t consider them less “real” men and women than the rest of us—trans people require no more special consideration than this.
By rejecting both ideologies, we can refuse those forcing redefinitions of “female” whilst credibly denying that this is disrespectful to trans people. This approach could resolve the dispute about biological reality and the concept of womanhood (if not the thornier issue of sex segregation in intimate settings, for which birth sex is perhaps the only workable standard). But centrists and liberals who are normally sceptical of the blank slate have been curiously quick to commit to radical feminists’ idea of womanhood. This risks inadvertently entrenching blank-slatism and needlessly prolonging the argument.
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The difficulty seeing this potential resolution may result from the entangling of “gender identity” with “gender roles” in much writing on the matter. Hence the claim from one activist in Joyce’s piece that transgenderism betrays the “fight to smash open the pink and blue boxes of gender.” But gender identity and gender roles are not the same, even though they may correlate. An internal sense of self may be difficult to describe, not least because misalignment between body and mind is perplexing to those of us who take their convergence for granted.
Many also note that Iran performs a high rate of sexual reassignment surgeries, often coerced as a “cure” for homosexuality, and imply that transgenderism generally has the same motive. But drawing comparisons between the motives of theocrats who force surgery upon others and individuals who transition by choice is dubious, to put it mildly. Only 23 percent of American trans people in a 2015 survey identified themselves as straight (i.e., attracted to the gender they were born), and femme trans men and butch trans women are a phenomenon. Clearly, people don’t transition simply to conform their bodies to their preferred gender roles.
Perhaps the clearest indication that gender dysphoria exists is the intense distress trans people report as a result of the divergence between their self-perception and the bodies into which they are born, independent of social gender norms. Trans-critical feminists’ misconstrual of gender identity as a re-statement of gender roles is the result of their blank slate dogma. Without this dogma it is easier to accept and understand the notion of an internal and innate gender identity and its potential misalignment with the body.
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Despite these problems in trans-critical feminists’ ideology, it is right to offer them support and platforms to respond to their critics after their suppression on social media. Even by the standards of the day, they are hard done-by. Moreover, it is promising that, with Meghan Murphy’s Twitter banning, even leftists have begun taking political censorship via bogus harassment claims (and even activists’ links to social media companies) seriously. This is encouraging, if belated. The Left, normally quick to close ranks against supposed oppressors of victim groups, is divided when the legitimacy of the marginalised group is in question. This division is a great opportunity to challenge norms which claim to protect victim groups through censorship.
However, by uncritically aligning with radical feminists over an issue in which ideology disfigures and misuses biology on both sides, liberals risk entrenching the idea of online abuse as a reflection of social group oppression, reifying the basis upon which online censorship is justified rather than challenging it. Joyce’s view repeats the developing narrative that women are hardest hit. “Women experience far worse” abuse when criticising trans activism, we are told. With apparent approval, Joyce cites radical feminist Renée Gerlich who claims that trans activism is merely an “opportunity to tell women to shut up.”
We should be cautious of such claims. Men are also hounded for even moderate claims on the issue—the enraged response to Jesse Singal’s thoughtful and moderate Atlantic essay offers just one such example. As is often the case, no one cares enough when men are abused online to include such cases in think-pieces, creating the false impression that only women experience abuse for the expression of heterodox opinions. It also seems plain that many—if not most—on the trans activist side of the issue are themselves cisgender women, and it does not do to simply erase them from the discussion. After all, the scholar who has most advanced scepticism of biological sex, Judith Butler, is a natal woman. Indeed, scepticism of biological sex was as likely transmitted to trans activism by its proximity to feminism as the other way around.
Furthermore, online abuse is not a one-way street. Trans activists claim to experience online abuse as often as their opponents—the publisher of DIVA magazine made just such a claim after taking a pro-trans stance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, whilst others allege cyberstalking and public harassment. While accusations of bigotry are flung too readily these days, some of the more storied online anti-trans radical feminists indeed have an irrational hatred of transgender people (not to mention men), and some have been known to contact people’s doctors over online arguments. Extreme instances include outright assault of (natal) women who disagree with them—is this not also silencing of women? Nor is it unknown for trans-critical feminists themselves to seek to ban women from social media platforms in response to criticism and harmless ridicule.
This is not scientific; of course you could match these instances with more from radical feminists, then find more from trans activists, and so on. It could be that trans activists get less abuse than their critics—but they might get as much, or more. The most intellectually honest position to take is that we don’t know, and can’t know unless and until a proper survey is conducted. In the meantime, repeating a line from one side that they are the righteous victims being silenced by oppressors is irresponsible and unnecessary. We have happened upon a long online flame war rather late, and things are not as clear cut as they first seem. Diving into a longstanding online fracas and uncritically taking one side can make a bad situation worse. Progressives make this mistake habitually, and the rest of us should exercise restraint.
Rather than shaming Twitter for “silencing women” over the trans issue we should reject the notion that anyone’s Twitter account is the voice of a protected social group. Such claims are normally used to censor in a rightward-from-far-left direction. Meghan Murphy herself has written against free speech in instances she believes that speech reinforces women’s oppression (see my piece here for my thoughts on such claims). It appears she does agree with silencing those accused of offending the oppressed—she simply disagrees (as might be expected) that she fits that particular bill. This disagreement within the Left over definitions of victim groups and hate speech is better used as a clear demonstration of the danger in using such politically expedient notions to regulate speech at all.
Radical feminists and trans activists clash because both inhabit the same radical spaces steeped in social liberation drama, where participants self-consciously perform roles as oppressed people and compete over who is more oppressed—hence Gerlich’s indignation that a natal male might dare claim to be more oppressed than she is. It is inaccurate to see these spaces as microcosms of society, with the transgender pitted against women. Just as we can distinguish between transgender people in general and aggressively ideological trans activists, we should distinguish between women and radical feminists. Trans extremism does not stem from the mystical force of misogyny. It is the result of an ideology particular to a small group of activists pursued to its absurd end, one influenced by and not at all unlike radical feminism.
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Responding to trans extremism through a radical feminist lens risks answering like with like, framing critique as a defence of women as group from “the new patriarchy.” This is not to say that the consequences for women as a group are not real—despite activists’ assurances, trans radicalism has compromised women’s safety in some instances. But the case for the reality of biology and need for sex segregation in prisons, shelters, and sports can be made without getting bogged down in any radical ideology. Any success in enabling an effective critique of trans radicalism which depends on framing it as necessary for women as a protected class would be a success on radical activists’ own terms, leaving them free to silence others in future on behalf of other social groups.
Attaching arguments to social groups obstructs criticism of extremist claims, which is what got us into this mess in the first place. If it is made an issue of transgender rights versus women’s rights, everyone will pick their interest group, dig in, and begin a long and bloody culture war. Better to de-escalate from social group conflict and not make hasty alliances. This is an opportunity to undermine the whole mode of discourse which attributes ideologies to social groups, and perhaps help de-escalate our never-ending culture wars more broadly.
Due to an editing error, views were erroneously attributed to Dr Jane Clare Jones in an earlier version that she does not hold. We are very sorry for the error which we have now corrected.
The author has a BA in History from the University of York. You can follow her on Twitter at @lottashelton. Charlotte Shelton is a pseudonym.