43

8 comments

She gets the bit about Simone de Beauvoir wrong, and I wouldn't say she does full justice to Barthes or Derrida either, but overall this is an excellent piece.

The Sussex University academic was harassed out of her job last week, but Emma Duncan is won over by her well-argued book

There’s nothing like a bit of persecution to boost a book’s sales: look at what it did for the Bible. After the news that Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at Sussex University, has resigned after months of harassment by trans activists, her publisher is reprinting her book Material Girls. The Hachette imprint Fleet no doubt reckons that lots of people who would not otherwise have bought it will conclude from the fuss that the woman had something important to say. I did, and I heartily recommend it, not just because it is a clear, easy read, but also because it made me understand the trans issue better and see philosophy in a different light.

It must be a very long time since a philosopher was harassed to the point of losing their livelihood in the UK. We tend, these days, to regard philosophy as a marginal, rather self-indulgent pursuit. Arguing about language and meaning is seen as something for those who hang around in universities, not those who get on with more important, worldly business. The row about Stock’s resignation shows that we mind more about these matters than we think we do.

The passion that the trans issue arouses is otherwise hard to explain. The number of people directly affected is unclear, but is a tiny proportion of the population. So far as non-trans people are concerned, the practical issues involved are fairly modest. They mostly concern the question of whether people with men’s bodies should have access to spaces previously set aside for women. Personally, I cannot get in a stew about the risks of occasionally seeing a man’s body in a public loo. And yet when trans issues are debated, I, like pretty much everybody else I know, get worked up.

That is because the central issue in the argument is core to my identity and the way I understand the world. The trans lobby’s mantra is “transwomen are women”. That includes those who have not had gender reassignment surgery, and whose bodies therefore remain male. The route to this counterintuitive position is the distinction between sex and gender identity. Sex, in the view of trans activists, is what you are born with, and is — or should be — irrelevant. What matters is gender identity — what you feel you are. This view is now widely accepted by public bodies in the UK, although the government is rowing back on it. It is opposed by a lot of feminists — including Stock — and, according to some opinion polls, by most British people.

Stock’s book explains how we got here, philosophically and politically. Ironically, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the 20th century’s most influential feminists, is in part responsible. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she wrote in her book The Second Sex in 1949, encapsulating her argument that conditioning turns girls into the submissive creatures that society wants them to be. In freeing women from biological determinism, de Beauvoir accommodated the idea that anybody could become a woman.

Feminist ideas melded with developments in philosophy and biology in the 1970s and 1980s to create the modern idea of trans rights. French philosophers — post-structuralists such as Barthes and Derrida, in case you want to flourish their names at the dinner table — argued that language does not describe the world we experience but creates it. Biologists discovered that the notion of two sexes was too simplistic: although the number of people with differences in sexual development is small, the range is wide. Putting these ideas together, thinkers such as Judith Butler, an American feminist who is a big noise in the area of queer theory, argued that the categories of male and female are arbitrary and artificial. The purpose of these categories is not to reflect reality, but to entrench power relations — and to exclude people whom in-groups wanted to keep out.

From the idea that male and female are not real but invented it is but a short step to the idea — which got going this century — that what matters is not the sex that you were born with but the gender with which you identify. In her influential 2007 book Whipping Girl Julia Serano, an American biologist and transwoman, argued that “trans” before “woman” should be treated as an adjective, much like “Catholic” or “Asian”.

For Stock and her fellow gender-critical feminists, this argument is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways. Male and female may not be sharply defined categories, but neither are lots of the ways we talk about the world. Many of our concepts — such as “planet” — are a bit woolly, but they’re still useful. We can argue about whether a Jaffa cake is a cake or a biscuit — indeed, the matter was at the core of a legal case — but we know one when we see one.

The sex we are born with is not irrelevant to our existence for it shapes our experience — having periods or not, having the possibility of giving birth or not. In Stock’s view the notion that gender identity is all that matters is a fiction in which people become immersed. That’s dangerous, especially in the case of adolescents who, in the course of the normal questions about identity that people ask themselves as they grow up, get swept away by the idea that their gender is different from the sex they were born with and set off down a route that leads to surgery that they may regret.

So how did the ideas of trans activists spread from the gender studies departments of American universities to the loos of British schools? Largely, in Stock’s view, through powerful lobby groups and progressive guilt. Stonewall, the most important of those groups, having won its long campaign for gay rights, was casting around for a role. Trans rights provided one, and the shameful history of prejudice against those who don’t fit into conventional sexual norms meant that progressive people were disinclined to argue with the trans lobby. When parliament’s women and equalities committee investigated the trans issue, for instance, most of the evidence it took from non-parliamentarians came from trans lobbyists. The rest was from neutral experts. Feminists did not get a look-in.

In its campaign to further trans rights, Stonewall’s principal achievement was its Diversity Champions programme, which gave organisations that signed up to it the protection of Stonewall’s branding. Many blue-chip companies, government departments, universities, schools and so on did so. That meant accepting that people should have access to public spaces on the basis of their gender identity, not their sex. By extension, it also meant buying into a bunch of questionable notions such as that transphobia includes “denying [somebody’s] gender identity or refusing to accept it” as well as the mantra that transwomen are women — from which follows a bunch of absurdities, including referring to natural-born women as “cervix-havers”, the substitution of “pregnant women” with “pregnant people” and the idea that lesbians who don’t want to sleep with transwomen are bigoted.

Thus we arrive at a position in which lots of institutions buy into a set of ideas that aren’t just nonsense to many people, but are also rather threatening. The idea that the sex you were born with matters is pretty fundamental to the way we see the world. When government bodies deny that the words “man” and “woman” mean what most people think they mean, the effect is not to change the meaning of words, but to undermine trust in those institutions — and trust in institutions is essential to our society. Language is important. Ideas are powerful. Philosophy matters.

Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock, Fleet, 320pp; £16.99

[–] overanddone 6 points Edited

The sex we are born with is not irrelevant to our existence for it shapes our experience — having periods or not, having the possibility of giving birth or not. **

Stonewall's Diversity Champions created a climate where **we arrive at a position in which lots of institutions buy into a set of ideas that aren’t just nonsense to many people, but are also rather threatening. *

The idea that the sex you were born with matters is pretty fundamental to the way we see the world. * Good words, concepts so hard to argue if these truths are denied.

[–] DoomedSibyl 5 points Edited

Ok, so why don’t all of us AFAB people just identify as male? That would fix everything right? We’d be treated as full human beings and no more sexism? Right? Right? Oh and we’re all going to have to get hysterectomies as part of our transition. I’m sure that won’t make any difference or cause the men that control our bodies and reproduction a moment’s worry. In point of fact, I thought some version of this as protest might realign people from a propaganda point of view. If biological sex no longer matters and one can identify however one likes than let’s all become men. We will all just leave the stain of being female behind. After all that is what all of those poor adolescent girls are trying to do, escape the horror show of being female in a misogynist patriarchy. Let’s all do it. This is how to protest. I just can’t figure out the details.

It wouldn't make any difference as we wouldn't make any gains or threaten men or the status quo in any way.

This is a really encouraging review. Thank you. I've had three potential friends in their twenties already tell me their friend is transitioning as a way to test whether I, a lesbian, is transphobic. I'm glad reason, feminism, and these brave women, most of all, are speaking out.