vrijdag 17 september 2021

The battle between sex and gender

What are the consequences if the difference between man and woman depends only on how someone feels? Peter Vasterman discusses three critical titles about the rise of gender identity

This review should have appeared in NRC Books on 3 September, but was cancelled at the very last moment after it had been approved as "an extremely good piece"-. For this online version, some paragraphs have been rewritten or extended.

For the Dutch translation click here

New transgender law
Soon everyone will be able to change their gender with a simple signature at the town hall. That is the essence of the new transgender law which the Lower House is currently debating. Previously, there were strict requirements such as operations, but since 2014 all it takes is a medical declaration of ‘gender dysphoria’: a condition in which someone suffers from the discrepancy between their own 'gender identity' and their sex. That condition will now also be abolished because the right to self-determination transcends everything. Physical characteristics no longer play a role, the only thing that counts in the new law is the ‘perceived gender identity': whether someone feels like a man or a woman inside. 

Although it is a remarkable step to give a subjective feeling an objective legal status, there is a broad consensus in parliament that this new law contributes to the emancipation of transgenders. It affects the recognition of a relatively small group in society, but this new law and the legitimisation of the concept of 'gender identity' does have major social consequences. For, if feelings become the decisive factor in distinguishing between men and women, then this will de facto mean the end of any social environment that is now accessible only to women or only to men. But there are many more negative consequences and they are the focus of a series of so-called 'gender critical' publications that have appeared in the past year. In writing on the issue, these authors are entering a minefield, for any criticism of gender identity is considered within the consensus to be a direct attack on transgender persons themselves and thus a reprehensible 'transphobia'.

Deplatforming and intimidation

Kathleen Stock (1972), professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex who published Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism this spring, knows all about that. Earlier this year, 600 fellow philosophers sent an open letter objecting to her appointment as Officer of the Order of the British Empire because of what they saw as her 'transphobic' ideas. This was no surprise to Stock because, after an appeal in 2019, she had received dozens of reports from scientists who, like her, had experienced various forms of deplatforming and harassment.  

That academic freedom is under pressure when it comes to gender issues has also been experienced by the Canadian Debra Soh (1990), author of the book The End of Gender. Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, published last year. As a neuroscientist and sexologist, she did research into the biological determinants of gender behaviour but opted for a career in journalism when it turned out that numerous subjects and fields of research had by now been declared taboo and she also had to deal with accusations of transphobia. 

The third author, Helen Joyce (1969), a mathematician with a doctorate and now an editor at The Economist, has written perhaps the most critical book of the three: Trans. When Ideology Meets Reality. There was not a single publisher in the US who dared to publish it in the US. Trans reads as a major indictment of what she calls the 'gender-identity ideology', which not only damages the social position of women but also has a stifling effect on science, journalism and social organisations. Joyce emphasises, just like the other two authors, that it is not about criticising transgenders and their choices, but about questioning the 'gender ideology' that trans activists want to impose on others. Their books are therefore not an attack on trans rights, the legal protection of trans people against discrimination.  

Kathleen Stock provides a conceptual analysis of the debate in her book, while Debra Soh approaches the discussion from the perspective of sexology and what is known from research about the influence of biological sex on behaviour, sexual orientation and 'gender identity'. Her book is not called The End of Gender for nothing, because according to her, gender cannot be defined as a mere social construction, but has its roots in biology (in the sense of male and female characteristics and behaviour). 

Gender identity separate from biology
The three authors try to bring back biological sex - the 'reality' of the two titles - into discussions on gender, without lapsing into a classic kind of biological determinism that states that all male or female behaviour can be traced back to biology. Because that was precisely what the feminists of the second wave -- from the 1960s onwards -- were fighting against, under the motto of Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman"'. 

Gender-identity theory has given this idea a completely different meaning. Who you are is determined by your 'gender identity', an inner and unchanging essence. A kind of soul that resides somewhere in the body, but which is also distinct from that body. The assignment of gender at birth on the basis of genitalia is actually arbitrary; only you yourself know who you really are inside. This is also expressed in the required terminology: girls are 'people who were assigned female at birth' (abbreviated to AFAB).

For some people, this inner essence does not correspond to the male or female body. This is called 'gender dysphoria' and requires transition. This is the well-known 'born in the wrong body' story, whereby this dysphoria may not be seen as a psychological disorder. In this reasoning, sex, like gender, is an idea, a product of Western society that only classifies people into men and women on the basis of sex, but has no eye for all those other genders. Gender is not binary but forms a broad spectrum of dozens of identities: man, woman, non-binary, queer, gender fluid, pangender, etc.

Contradictions "trans ideology”
The three authors reject this unverifiable constructivism and conclude that the idea of a 'gender identity' that is separate from the body is unrealistic and unscientific - a denial of evolution. They also expose numerous contradictions. For if the female body no longer matters - a female 'gender identity' is enough to be a woman - why change the body? And if neither socialisation nor gender has any influence on this 'gender identity', how is it created? And how does a child know what is typically male or female behaviour? Surely only through education and influence from the environment? And if there is influence, how authentic and unchangeable is this 'gender identity'?  

According to both Stock and the other two authors, 'trans ideology' uses classic gender stereotypes to prove that a child is actually trans, thereby reinforcing those stereotypes. Girls should play with dolls, boys with cars. According to neuroscientist Soh, there is no such thing as a transgender child: exposure to different levels of testosterone in the womb not only creates sexual orientations, but also causes girls to be born with more masculine and boys with more feminine behaviour. These are normal variations that do not mean they were born into the wrong body. Nor do they mean that they should immediately be put on a path towards medical transition if they show forms of gender discomfort. This is also the case with children who later become gay. Medical transition disturbs this normal development. And thus, according to Soh, is comparable to the classic 'conversion' therapy, which aimed to cure homosexuality. That is why some LGB organisations oppose this treatment of gay youth.

Treatment of gender dysphoria

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), gender dysphoria occurs when the experienced discomfort with one's own body becomes severe. An important criterion is the strong desire to have the characteristics of the other gender and to be treated as that other gender. According to the authors, proper treatment is of great importance to this group, but not with complete transition as the inevitable outcome. Not only is diagnosing gender dysphoria problematic, because everything depends on what the person says, but there are often other characteristics such as autism, depression and eating disorders. Moreover, we are dealing with very different groups with different causes for the experienced dissatisfaction with their own sex. 

In addition to the group mentioned earlier, mainly boys, who show atypical gender behaviour from an early age and the vast majority of whom grow out of it, there are two other groups. The second group consists of heterosexual boys and men who would like to transition because they are sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman themselves. The scientific term is autogynephilia, and this can sometimes lead to a strong desire to actually change gender. This phenomenon has remained completely unknown because trans activists condemn this link between sex and trans as 'transphobic', and there are hardly any scientists left to research it. Trans as a paraphilia - an unusual, atypical sexual interest or preference - would obviously detract from the classic 'born in the wrong body' narrative. 

Increase in teenage girls attending gender clinics
And then there is a third, entirely new group: teenage girls who have started to report to gender clinics in large numbers in recent years. This is the group about which Joyce, Soh and Stock are very concerned. For most girls do not have a history of gender atypical behaviour or gender dysphoria, but 'discover' within a short time that they are in fact male. They can get puberty inhibitors in gender clinics, then hormone treatments, possibly followed by operations to create a male appearance. The scant research so far suggests that social influence, especially through social media, plays an important role. Being transgender offers young women the option to escape from 'being a woman' and that says something about how they experience the world. Often, they do not want to transition to be a man but to be non-binary. This issue, too, is immediately declared taboo by the trans activists. 

Post trans booklet

And that also applies to the detransitioners whose existence is denied.  These are trans men and trans women who regret their transition and often have to carry on with a damaged body. For Joyce, meeting these people was the reason to write her book and to warn about the risks of only confirming young people in the idea that they are trans. And the risk is present when the treating psychologist does not dare to ask critical questions for fear of being accused of 'conversion therapy'.

Negative impact on women
Like Stock and Soh, Joyce devotes considerable attention to the negative consequences of the gender identity ideology for women, for the consequence of deciding for yourself whether you are a woman is, of course, that all spaces that are only accessible to women can now also be entered by men with only an inner female 'gender identity'. It is not only about separate toilets, but also about changing rooms, prisons, women's refuges and, of course, sports. Poignant are the stories of convicted sex offenders who go on to re-offend in women's prisons, as in the case of trans woman Karen White (who has not undergone any operation), AKA David Thompson.

The fact that the 'gender ideology' leads to the erasure of women as a social category is also expressed in the required 'inclusive' use of language. In it, the word 'woman' should be avoided in every context where it might exclude trans people. Such as: 'people with a uterus.' This is what the international fuss about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was about last year when she tweeted: "People who menstruate. I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?" According to Stock and Joyce, this use of language erodes the concept of 'woman' in the sense of a group with the same body, the same existential experience and a shared social position. 

State religion with blasphemy laws
Helen Joyce reconstructs in detail how the gender ideology has become successful in a short time and has penetrated into all sectors of society, from health care, human rights organisations, universities, journalism, to the legislature. This is mainly done top-down using lavishly financed campaigns and by putting pressure on anyone who doubts this new state religion, including blasphemy laws.

The Open Society Foundations 
Although the three titles provide largely the same analysis, they differ in approach. Debrah Soh very smoothly interweaves her own experiences with scientific controversies and also deals with other themes such as gender-neutral parenting and the differences between men and women when dating. Helen Joyce's Trans is an exciting journalistic book with many examples, while Kathleen Stock's Material Girls uses a very matter-of-fact approach to dissect and refute the gender identity theory step by step. Stock enters more into debate with her opponents -- is there another way to define the concept of 'woman'? -- and also tries to bridge contradictions.  

More research is needed but taboo
These three publications are well written and accessible and are extensively documented using all available research. And yet, for many subjects, more scientific underpinning is desirable. Is the rapidly growing group of girls suffering from gender dysphoria, or is their desire to transition the expression of an entirely different set of problems? A complication is that research is lacking because many subjects have been declared taboo. Recently, for example, a neurobiological study in the US was cancelled under pressure from trans activists who argue that the search for a cure for gender dysphoria could lead to limiting access to gender-affirming treatments. 

Whether the transgender law will pass in the Netherlands is still uncertain, but abroad, such as in England, similar proposals have been rejected or shelved. If there is to be a debate in the Netherlands -- which remains to be seen, given the low level of interest in this issue -- it will certainly not be rubber stamped. 

Helen Joyce: Trans. When Ideology Meets Reality. Oneworld Publications. 320 pp. €21,23.

Kathleen Stock: Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. Fleet/Little Brown. 312 pp. €20,99.

Debra Soh: The End of Gender. Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society. Threshold Editions. 322 pp. €23,99.