Sex and Gender

A certain thesis is reasonable to me, and yet it would seem to anger persons whom I wish to respect. I am trying to understand why it does.

The hypothesis of the homunculus in the sperm
by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, 1695

Perhaps the manner of expression of the thesis is the problem. Thus one person tweets:

JK Rowling is an illustrative example transphobic feminism bc she writes determinedly from the standpoint of ''kindness.'' She would allow us to wear "whatever we like" and "sleep with whatever consenting adult will have us" so long as we don't ask for equality w cis women

— Kai Cheng, Priestess of the Old Religion (@razorfemme) December 20, 2019

There is also a thread beginning as follows.

JK Rowling hates trans people, but I want to talk a little bit about the *way* she hates them so you can recognize it in the wild

— new year’s .exe (@alicegoldfuss) December 19, 2019

The tweets are in response to an infamous one, the first that J. K. Rowling had written since November 6, and at present (December 30) the most recent she has written:

Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 19, 2019

Perhaps unlike many of the persons upset with her, I have not read any of Rowling’s books. I would not want to draw negative conclusions from an isolated tweet. Rowling’s tweet does seem to blame trans people en masse for Maya Forstater’s loss of her job. Rowling might thus be likened to one of my childhood friends (in a white residential neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia), who wanted to go beat up black people after some of “them” had put a friend of his in the hospital.

Maya Forstater lost her job in the sense of not having her contract renewed, as Forstater herself explains in a Medium post of May 5, 2019:

It was eventually found that I had not violated the organisation’s bullying and harassment policy, but nevertheless as a result of expressing my belief, in March this year I was told my appointment as a Visiting Fellow at [the Centre for Global Development] would not be renewed, even though I was named in a successful funding proposal for a two-year research project, building on the work I had been developing over the previous two and a half years working as part of the team at CGD.

Earlier in her post Forstater notes:

The thing that made me really pay attention was the attack on Maria MacLachlan in September 2017. As video footage showed, a women in her 60’s was kicked and punched by a group of what looked like young men in the midst of a small demonstration. This attack was celebrated by ‘trans rights activists’ on social media, and by organisations such as Action for Trans Health, who argued that beating up this woman was a legitimate part of their struggle because she was a ‘TERF’.

The links are Forstater’s (and I have followed them all).

The Thesis

Each of us humans has gonads. These develop, in the individual person, into one of two kinds, ovaries and testicles, producing respectively eggs or sperm. This is the idea of the Project Nettie statement, as I understand it.

An ovotestis is possible in humans, but according to the Wikipedia article “True hermaphroditism,”

There are no documented cases in humans in which both types of gonadal tissue function, contrary to the common misconception that hermaphrodites can impregnate themselves.

A paper is cited, “Pregnancy in a hermaphrodite with a male-predominant mosaic karyotype” by Shoenhaus and others, about “the 11th reported case of fertility in a true hermaphrodite”; the subject was pregnant twice, and according to a biopsy of her left gonad,

The testicular component of the tissue was composed of well-formed seminiferous tubules. No spermatogenesis was identified.

Even had spermatogenesis been identified, this would evidently be distinguished from oogenesis. It seems there is no “spectrum” or “continuum” of variation between the the two kinds of gamete.

There are many ways of being intersex, but there does not seem to be a meaningful linear ordering of them, despite the attempt made to impose such an ordering in Scientific American (Amanda Montañez, “Beyond XX and XY: The Extraordinary Complexity of Sex Determination,” September 1, 2017). Particularly with its suggestion of an analogy with the spectrum of visual light, the attempt recalls to me Nicolaas Hartsoeker’s attempt (shown above) to see little people inside individual sperm, to corroborate the theory of preformationism.

There may be spectra of other aspects of humanity, such as hormone levels, the size of a body part, or sexual orientation. For the last though, a measure such as the Kinsey scale assumes that there are two kinds of person towards whom one could be sexually oriented. Those kinds are the sexes, called female (ultimately from the Latin femella) and male (from masculus).

The female has ovaries; the male, testicles. At least, this is usually so, but perhaps not always. Moreover, the distinction between female and male is not always easily made, and some societies may recognize third kinds of persons.

Physically mature females are commonly called women; males, men. (I took up the etymologies in “Math, Maugham, and Man” in September.) If one distinguishes sex and gender, then perhaps a male in sex can be a woman in gender. This is a contentious point, because some places—public toilets, political offices, prisons, athletic competitions, refuges from rape and other violence, bedrooms of persons who favor intercourse with a certain kind of anatomy—some places are reserved for women. Reasons for reserving these places are belied if each of us can decide for ourself whether we are man or woman.

I conclude that whether one is woman or man should not be understood as a matter of personal choice. It may be a matter of personal “gender identity”; but then, for legal purposes at least, the determination of that identity cannot be left to a person’s word.

Thus for example the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter seems within its rights to have denied Kimberly Nixon training for being a volunteer counselor. Maybe she should have been allowed to train anyway; here I am not equipped to give an answer; again it seems to me that courts of law should not be giving an answer either.

Since it has received funding from Vancouver for ten years, I don’t find it right that the Vancouver shelter should now be denied funding for making its own determination of who is a woman.

Neither do I find it right for Jessica Yaniv to sue women who perform Brazilian waxing at home when they decline to perform the service on a person with testicles.

I say these things about Canadian examples that have come to my attention, while thinking it right that, by American law, “public accommodations must be accessible to the disabled and may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.” I would add sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity to the list of forbidden bases of discrimination, but it still seems there needs to be an exception for such places, mentioned above, as may be set aside for women to prevent the kind of abuse that might be called the worst form of discrimination.

Such places may exclude trans women, and they may be offended if, like one whose tweet was quoted above, they “ask for equality w cis women” in all things. All I can do for now is say that somebody will be offended in any case, and I am not in a position to tell cis women that they have to suck it up and deal with anatomical males in all intimate conditions.

At a conference last summer, a person whom I had always known as a man, usually bearded, was now clean-shaven and wearing such clothing as a man was unlikely to wear. Though I did not see this person enter a bathroom, I thought it would be a difficulty to choose between the men’s and women’s rooms. A neutral room would solve the problem, while creating others if it were the only choice. Holly Lawford-Smith takes up this mundane but essential topic in an extensive (and fascinating) account, “Should companies install gender neutral bathrooms?” (Medium, January 3, 2019).


Elizabeth Warren saw herself as American Indian; Rachel Dolezal, as African American; but their doing so was an offense to persons whose right to those descriptions is unquestioned. One need not fit those descriptions to perceive the offense. It is offensive to me when abuse is thrown (in word, not to mention deed) at persons who question gender self-identification. At least it is offensive insofar as I have hoped to hear reasoned argument instead.

A common term of abuse seems to be TERF, originally an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” That the term has become a slur is the cautious suggestion of Deborah Cameron in a post called “What makes a word a slur?” from November, 2016, in her blog language: a feminist guide:

TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

Cameron cites a blog (also linked to above) that documents what its name asserts: TERF Is a Slur. She does note, “this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term.” I would go further and question whether the site offers authentic samples of uses of the term. Some of the samples could be intended merely to stir up violent emotion, regardless of subject. I recall from the original Star Trek series the episode called “Day of the Dove,” in which an incorporeal being tried to induce humans and Klingons to fight endlessly, so that it could feed on the energy of their hatred. Many Twitter accounts today are effectively run by the Beta XII-A entity.

I do however see supposed TERFs shunned and damned by Twitter persons whom I recognize as genuine and think well of. These persons may have corroborated what Holly Lawford-Smith refers to as

the claim that trans people are one of the most vulnerable social groups in society; and that one of the most humane and effective means we have for lessening their vulnerability is to affirm their gender identity, and thereby lessen the suicide risk associated with dysmorphia and dysphoria.

There would also seem to be a risk of being murdered. I note a sad recent event: “Activist who raised awareness about transphobia murdered in Toronto” (Maan Alhmidi, Globe and Mail, December 26, 2019). The activist was Julie Berman.

People like Lawford-Smith are apparently thought to increase the vulnerability that she herself refers to. I was following her on Twitter, until she was banned. (I recently found a long thread about how to get people banned.)

I agree with Lawford-Smith that an assertion such as “Trans woman are women” ought to be questioned. She says also that “establishment feminist philosophers” are not interested in arguing about the assertion, only in making it, in order “to provide succour to a vulnerable community.” In that case,

there’s literally no way they can communicate their real argument—namely that we should act as if trans women are truly women, even if we know they are not—because if this argument were said out loud (or, worse, stated in print or online), the whole project would collapse. Transwomen would know what even their most vocal allies secretly believe.

If people are not interested in the truth as you understand it, what do you do? Do you argue for it anyway? What if the truth is about, say, the current president of the United States, and the people you are worried about are his supporters? Perhaps then what is urgent is not so much what they think, but what they do (as with their right to vote or their right to bear arms).

Where one publishes

Lawford-Smith’s article is in Quillette (September 20, 2019). This is a suspect publication, by the account of Donna Minkowitz in “Why Racists (and Liberals!) Keep Writing for ‘Quillette’: The online magazine of the ‘intellectual dark web’ is repackaging discredited race science” (The Nation, December 5, 2019):

What Quillette is essentially doing is repackaging these white nationalist ideas in milder, pseudo-intellectual form and selling them to liberals who aren’t reading closely …

Another fault line on which Quillette is pushing hard is lingering anti-trans views among the left. Like much of the right, Quillette has eagerly welcomed anti-trans feminists. Kathleen Stock, a British anti-trans feminist philosophy professor, has published two articles in Quillette claiming, among other things, that trans women will attack cisgender women if they are allowed into women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, and prisons. Honoring trans women’s self-identification “puts females in those spaces at risk,” she declared. Quillette has also published other articles hostile to both feminism and trans people, warning, “If society denies biological differences and does not rigidly enforce gender roles, then the way is cleared for transgenderism.” Stock told me by e-mail that she was willing to publish in Quillette despite its racist and antifeminist articles, because “few of the left-wing publications toward which I would normally gravitate will touch such issues.”

An article should be judged for itself, not its publisher. However, one may not have time to check whether a particular article fits the stereotype of the journal publishing it. I have taken the time to examine a particular Quillette article on race: “Superior: The Return of Race Science—A Review” by Bo Winegard and Noah Carl, June 5, 2019. The book reviewed in the article is by Angela Saini and was excerpted in the Guardian, May 18, 2019.

Audra J. Wolfe outlines the problem in a thread of tweets from June 5, 2019: Saini’s book is a work of journalism; the reviewers in Quillette treat it as a work of science, intended to defend scientific claims. Thus Winegard and Carl think Saini’s book has four theses:

  • ‘Race’ is not a meaningful biological category

  • Genes can only contribute to population differences on certain “superficial” traits

  • Studying whether genes might contribute to population differences on non-superficial traits is tantamount to “scientific racism”

  • Almost everyone interested in whether genes might contribute to population differences on these other traits is a “scientific racist”

The last two of these are historical claims; the first two may be presuppositions, as the historical occurrence of the Holocaust might be a presupposition in a study of what has happened to fascist ideas since then.

Saini says in the Guardian excerpt,

I have spent the last few years investigating the tumorous growth of … intellectual racism. Not the racist thugs who confront us in plain sight, but the well-educated ones in smart suits, the ones with power … I’ve encountered tight networks, including academics at the world’s leading universities, who have sought to shape public debates around race and immigration, gently nudging into acceptability the view that “foreigners” are by their very nature a threat because we are fundamentally different.

Though he does not admit it, one of those academics is one of the reviewers in Quillette. Writes Saini,

Earlier this month Noah Carl, an Oxford-educated social scientist, saw his prestigious fellowship at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge terminated after an investigation confirmed that he had collaborated “with a number of individuals who were known to hold extremist views”. A contributor to Mankind Quarterly, Carl had argued in another publication that, in the interests of free speech, he should be able to say that genes might “contribute to psychological differences between human populations”.

He and Winegard argue just that in their review:

The single most controversial area of “race science” is research into population differences in cognitive ability. When dealing with this topic, it’s useful to step back from any definitive assertion to contemplate a less divisive question: is it possible that human populations could differ in cognitive ability, at least in part, because of their different evolutionary histories?

Perhaps it is useful to step back from any definitive assertion, if your purpose is to soften people up for your racist ideas. There is a more detailed refutation, “Undead Race Science,” by John Jackson in his blog Fardels Bear: A History of the Alt-Right, June 5, 2019.

I will note an interesting observation by Winegrad and Carl, that you would not be able to distinguish men and women by size of nose, but with a look at the whole face, you usually can. A friend of mine in college had a book of photographic portraits of hairless persons (by nature or razor), and he would remark on the mystery that we could tell the women from the men.

The example of Winegrad and Carl is supposed to illustrate the following.

Lewontin’s paper did show that human genetic variation is mostly within and not between human populations. But …

… Lewontin ignored the fact that differences among human populations are correlated.

No one trait may determine a person’s race, but still races exist.—Such is the argument in Quillette.

No one trait may determine a person’s sex; but still, not only do sexes exist, but they are distinguished by physical features. That is how I understand an argument of Kathleen Stock in “Can You Change Your Gender?” (originally in The Philosopher, summer 2019; posted also on Medium):

biological sex, as we traditionally understand it, isn’t determined by any single, unitary set of essential criteria …

… you don’t need to possess all of the “female” sex characteristics to count as female. However, you do still need to possess some of them. This is a real, material condition upon sex-category-membership. (This isn’t a radical suggestion, by the way: some philosophers think that many natural-kind concepts pick out clusters of properties, in a way compatible with realism about their referents).

What is to be changed

Of the two articles (mentioned in the Nation article by Donna Minkowitz) that Stock has published in Quillette, one had been commissioned by the New York Review of Books. It was edited “so that it turned out to be a lot more hard-hitting than she had first intended,” but then not published: this is by the account of “Triumph of the trans lobbyists: Julie Bindel on how transgender ideologists are winning the battle for media hearts and minds” (The Critic, January 2020).

Stock’s suppressed article is presumably “Ignoring Differences Between Men and Women Is the Wrong Way to Address Gender Dysphoria” (April 11, 2019); it tries to find common ground between two factions. First:

What kind of society, then, should we attempt to build, to help gender-dysphoric people? In contemporary public discussion and practice, two competing approaches can be discerned, each with different social consequences. (In what follows, I deliberately articulate extreme versions of both …).

The first approach—what I’m calling sex eliminationism—says we should remove any social practice whatsoever that would serve to differentiate trans people from those who are born into (or, if you prefer, “assigned at birth” into) their preferred (i.e., self-identified) sex category …

The second approach—which I call gender eliminationism—argues that we should instead get rid of gender, as that word is understood to encompass sociocultural norms and stereotypes …

There is a later summary:

Sex eliminationists want to help individual people “identify out” of a particular set of gendered norms, by eliminating talk of sex; gender eliminationists want to get rid of the norms that cause discomfort in the first place, for everyone. Pragmatists should try to draw upon this limited common ground, constructively.

Finding that common ground may be difficult, since Stock rejects sex eliminationism. We cannot eliminate biological reality. We can embrace the fiction that trans women are women; and trans men, men; but not always.

We’re generally very familiar with the social practice of acting: consciously inhabiting a role for a limited amount of time, and living “as if” something were true. When we watch a tragedy, we might laugh, cry, and cower in fear, but we don’t run onto the stage to save the protagonist … there are contexts where reference to reality is still needed. To help her recovery, I may act as if a loved one isn’t ill; but not when the doctor visits.

On Wikipedia, the first example of a legal fiction is the birth certificate of an adopted child. I was such a child, and it bothered me that my birth certificate did not reflect the whole truth. It even lied, by suggesting that my parents were present at my birth. I never had any question that my parents were my parents though. Holly Lawford-Smith takes this up in “The Adoption Analogy Revisited” (Medium, June 21, 2019):

both biological and adoptive parents actually parent

But what is supposed to play the role of raising children, when it comes to thinking about transwomen and women? That is, what is the common project in which both transwomen and women are engaged, which there are simply different routes we can take to? … Gender critical feminists, like me, think that there’s nothing more to being a woman than being an adult human female. But if that’s right, it’s not a thing that transwomen and women have in common because transwomen are male.

I might ask, with this understanding of womanhood, why one would feel a special solidarity with one’s fellow women.

I return to Stock’s article in The Philosopher, where Stock opens by saying, “there’s a furious public argument around whether you can change your gender.” But perhaps what a person wants to change, if anything, is others’ understanding of what the person’s gender has always been. According to “Understanding Gender” on the site of Gender Spectrum:

“Transitioning” is a term commonly used to refer to the steps a transgender, agender, or non-binary person takes in order to find congruence in their gender. But this term can be misleading as it implies that the person’s gender identity is changing and that there is a moment in time when this takes place. More typically, it is others’ understanding of the person’s gender that shifts. What people see as a “Transition” is actually an alignment in one or more dimensions of the individual’s gender as they seek congruence across those dimensions. A transition is taking place, but it is often other people (parents and other family members, support professionals, employers, etc.) who are transitioning in how they see the individual’s gender, and not the person themselves. For the person, these changes are often less of a transition and more of an evolution.

However, while Kathleen Stock usefully distinguishes five senses of the word “gender,” Gender Spectrum seems to confuse gender with sex, although I have seen Maya Forstater faulted for doing just this:

Most societies view sex as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, based on a person’s reproductive anatomy and functions. But a binary view of sex fails to capture even the biological aspect of gender. While we are often taught that bodies have one of two forms of genitalia, which are classified as “female” or “male,” there are Intersex traits that demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities. This biological spectrum by itself should be enough to dispel the simplistic notion that there are just two sexes. The relationship between a person’s gender and their body goes beyond one’s reproductive functions. Research in neurology, endocrinology, and cellular biology points to a broader biological basis for an individual’s experience of gender. In fact, research increasingly points to our brains as playing a key role in how we each experience our gender.

As far as I know, intersex traits do not show that there is a continuum of possibilities; for there is not a continuum of possibilities between ovum and sperm. There may however be a continuum of possibilities for what we do.

As for what we do (if only in words), there is often a difference, at least, if not a continuum, between that and what we are trying to do. It can be a problem to jump from the former to conclusions about the latter.

A day after initially posting this essay, I am adding a reference to the spectrum in Scientific American, the image of Hartsoeker’s animalcules, and further remarks on shared intimate spaces, including the reference to Lawford-Smith’s article about bathrooms

10 Trackbacks

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