Making sense of sex and gender: A review of Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism
By Robert Jensen
Published in Dissident Voice; Counterpunch · July, 2021
A few months after I had written an article critiquing the ideology of the transgender movement, a comrade from a progressive group told me he wanted to understand why I was challenging trans activists, whom he saw as being political allies on the left. I outlined what is now called the “gender critical” feminist argument, which rejects the rigid and repressive gender norms in patriarchy but recognizes the material reality of human sex differences. That analysis flowed from radical feminist politics, I explained, which is essential to challenging men’s exploitation of women in patriarchy, the system of institutionalized male dominance that surrounds us.
By the end of that long lunchtime conversation, he said he had no trouble following my argument and found little to disagree with. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I don’t really understand a lot of what the trans movement is saying.”
I told him I had no trouble understanding his confusion, because the transgender movement’s arguments seemed unclear, sometimes even incoherent, to me as well. Then I asked him: “Is there any other issue on which you can’t make sense of a political movement’s arguments but you still support its policy proposals?”
He winced, knowing he couldn’t think of another such case. That was the end of the conversation. At the time I was being denounced by various people on the left for my writing, and we both knew he wasn’t going to publicly support me, or even ask trans activists for a clearer articulation of their arguments.
If time travel were possible, I would beam back to that moment in 2014 and hand my friend a copy of Kathleen Stock’s new book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. It likely would not have changed his political choices, but it would have clarified why he was having trouble making sense of trans arguments. Stock explains, carefully and respectfully, why those arguments so often don’t make much sense. I mean that not as insult but as a recognition of so many people’s confusion. My friend was hardly the only person I have met who is perplexed by the foundational assertion of the trans movement: that a person is a man or woman, or neither or both, based on a subjective internal feeling about “gender” (for which no viable theory has yet been presented by trans activists) rather than the material reality of “sex” (about which we have an expansive understanding from biology and everyday life).
Stock’s book, on the other hand, is eminently sensible, in both meanings of the word. It is intellectually cogent and useful in helping us make personal and policy decisions. In this polarized political moment, she delivers her analysis firmly but politely, with none of the rancor that has unfortunately become so common in this debate, especially online.
For example, it’s sensible to define terms in a debate, although the transgender movement shies away from being pinned down on the meaning of terms and even celebrates this ambiguity as a virtue. Stock is careful with definitions, beginning with her analysis of the four ways “gender” is used these days. Once readers work through those options, it’s clear (at least to me) that the term gender is best understood as the social meaning (captured in the terms masculinity and femininity) ascribed to biological sex differences rooted in reproduction (male and female). Sex is a function of the kind of animals that we humans are, and gender is how we human animals make sense of sex differences. Sex is biological, and gender is cultural.
That’s the way feminists have used the terms since the 1970s, as they challenged patriarchal claims that men’s domination and exploitation of women is “natural” because of biology. Patriarchy turns biological difference into social dominance. Feminists have long argued that gender is connected to our sex differences but is “socially constructed” in a way that reflects the unequal distribution of power between men and women over the past few thousand years. Anything socially constructed could be constructed differently through politics.
The trans movement flips that understanding, routinely asserting that gender is not the product of social forces but is a private internal state of being, which may be innate and immutable (opinions in the trans movement vary). In other words, transgender ideology asserts that gender is something one feels and has no necessary connection to one’s body and reproductive system. Trans activists routinely assert that “sex is a social construction,” that the biological distinctions of male and female are not objectively real but are created by societies. Stock painstakingly explains why this—again I’ll use the phrase, though it sounds harsh—doesn’t make sense.
In the preceding paragraph, I wrote “routinely assert” not only because there are differences of opinion within the transgender movement (which is to be expected in any movement) but because I have heard trans activists shift arguments when asked to defend a position (which is an indication of a weak argument in any movement). I once asked a trans activist, “If sex is socially constructed, that implies that it could be constructed in some other way. Do you know of any other way for humans to reproduce other than with an egg (produced by a female) and sperm (produced by a male)? By what means would human reproduction be socially constructed differently?” The activist offered no rebuttal to that, but simply dropped the claim, moving on to assert that trans people know what sex they “really” are and that any challenge to this idea was hateful and bigoted.
[A necessary footnote: There is an extremely small percentage of the human population born “intersex,” with what are called DSDs (either Disorders or Differences in Sex Development; terminology preferences vary) that involve anomalies in genes, hormones, and reproductive organs. One of these conditions is hermaphroditism, which is still occasionally used as an umbrella term for DSDs. Stock explains those variations, noting that such conditions have nothing to do with transgenderism. Gender dysphoria (discomfort or distress when a person’s internal gender identity differs from their biological sex) is a psychological not physiological condition.]
Stock’s emphasis on precise language continues throughout the book. For example, she explains why the term “sex assigned at birth” is deceptive in light of the stability of the categories of male and female, evidenced by the success of human reproduction over millennia. In the vast majority of cases, everyone agrees on the sex of a newborn, which is observed not assigned. These questions about words are not trivial; how we talk about the world can change how we understand the world. Stock rejects replacing “breastfeeding” with “chestfeeding,” for example, because the trans-friendly term undermines our ability to name reality. Babies nurse at the breast of a female human, and the existence of women who identify as men (transmen is the common term used today) or as non-binary (rejecting an either/or choice) but still nurse a baby doesn’t change that.
Stock also offers sensible analysis of policy debates, most of which focus on the demands of men who identify as women (transwomen is the common term). For example, should transwomen be allowed into female-only spaces, such as bathrooms, changing rooms, hostels, or prisons? Stock explains why such a policy creates anxiety and fear for women, who live with the everyday reality of the threat of male violence, especially sexual violence. The problem is not that every transwoman is physically or sexually aggressive. But when claiming membership in the other sex category requires no explanation or evidence, the likelihood of abuse increases as predators find openings to target women when they are vulnerable.
Stock also explains why allowing transwomen—again, males who identify as women—to participate in women’s sports will undermine and potentially eliminate sex-segregated activities that create opportunities for girls and women to thrive. Separate athletic competitions for males and females exist because of the physiological advantage males have over females, and those advantages don’t disappear by identifying as a woman.
Does any of this really matter? Well, it matters to teenage girls who may not want to change clothes in a locker room next to a boy who identifies as a girl. It matters to women at a health club that allows transwomen in a “women only” space. It matters to clients in a women’s homeless shelter that refuses to restrain sexually aggressive behavior of transwomen in order to be “inclusive.” It matters to the woman who is bumped from a country’s Olympic weightlifting team when a transwoman is allowed to compete as a woman. It matters to the women who were sexually assaulted by a transwoman who was housed in a women’s prison. It matters to the lesbians who choose not to date transwomen—because their sexual orientation is toward female humans and not male humans who identify as women—and are then called bigots and ostracized. And it matters to the woman who had to fight to get her job back after being fired for publicly stating that she believes “that sex is immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity.”
Trans activists’ responses to these challenges vary, but they can be reduced to a trans slogan so popular that an LGBT organization in the UK put it on a t-shirt: “Transwomen are women. Get over it!”
To say the least, the meaning of the statement “transwomen are women” is not obvious, either intuitively or logically. It’s a claim that many people find hard to understand, not because they are bigots but because it seems at odds with material reality. It would be more accurate to say: “Transwomen are transwomen, which raises many complex intellectual, political, and moral questions. Let’s work out solutions that respect everyone’s rights and interests!”
Not the catchiest slogan, but accurate and honest. It’s a t-shirt that I think Stock would be comfortable wearing. She doesn’t condemn or mock trans people but rather seeks deeper understanding to make public policy choices as fair as possible for all.
Whether or not one embraces Stock’s conclusions, she argues with precision and follows the widely accepted rules of intellectual engagement that require evidence and logic to establish a proposition. If that’s the case—and I can’t imagine any open-minded reader accusing her of intellectual fraud or bad faith—then why have Stock and many others with similar views been denounced on either intellectual, political, or moral grounds? She writes:
“I find it particularly telling that academics who are strongly critical of views like mine, as expressed in this book, tend not to address them with argument or evidence—as would be expected, given disciplinary norms—but often instead resort, relatively unusually for such norms, to complaints about my presumed motives or personal failings. They also tend rhetorically to collapse criticism of the intellectual tenets of trans activism into moral criticism of trans people.”
Stock points out why this should worry everyone, even people who may never have direct experience with transgender policies or are not interested in philosophical debates:
“treating males with female gender identities as women in every possible context is a politically inflammatory act. In effect it sends a contemptuously dismissive message to women already conscious of unequal treatment of their interests. This message says: the interests of males with female gender identities are more important than yours.”
In short: Many of the demands of transgender politics are anti-feminist. If that’s a plausible claim, then why have so many feminists and feminist organizations embraced the transgender ideology? Stock suggests one factor is “the current cultural mania for ‘diversity and inclusion,’ taken as some kind of mindless mantra without genuine thought being given to what it actually means or should be doing.” The struggle for social justice is impeded, not advanced, when transwomen can insist that they must be included in any space on their terms, without explaining or justifying the policy and without regard for the effects on girls and women. Stock points out that just as replacing “Black lives matter” with “all lives matter” undermines anti-racist campaigns by ignoring the specific threats to Black people in a racist society, demanding that transwomen always be included in the category “woman” undermines feminism’s ability to advance the interests of girls and women, who face specific threats in a sexist society.
It’s easy for people to get confused by, and frustrated with, the debate on this issue, which is too often weighed down by jargon and abstract theory. So, let’s get back to the core questions:
• Is gender an internal subjective experience, the origins of which have yet to be explained, or is it produced by social and political systems, which can be analyzed and put in historical context?
• Is gender immutable and private, or are gender norms open to change through collective action?
• Is institutionalized male dominance best understood by analyzing individuals’ internal sense of gender identities, or is patriarchy rooted in men’s claim of a right to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality?
The reference to “reality” in Stock’s subtitle suggests that absent a clear and convincing account of sex, gender, and power from the transgender movement, the feminist and gender-critical perspectives offer the best account of biology and history, of psychology and society.
Since that first article I wrote in 2014, I have talked with steadily more and more progressive people who feel pressured by the transgender movement to embrace trans policy proposals without asking questions. Too often, that pressure works. Are we creating a healthy political culture on the left when people and organizations believe they have no choice but to adopt policy positions they either don’t understand or disagree with? Are progressive politics advance when legitimate differences of opinion are muted because people fear being accused of bigotry?
Stock’s work—along with other books such as Heather Brunskell-Evans’ Transgender Body Politics and websites such as Fair Play for Women—is a valuable resource for people who want to work their way through these questions rather than simply accept the ideology or policy proposals of the transgender movement. Even if Stock’s book doesn’t change trans activists’ minds, it provides a model of principled intellectual engagement with compassion.
I say “compassion” because Stock is trans-friendly, as are most of us who hold feminist and gender-critical positions. Stock doesn’t condemn or attack trans people but instead offers a different way to understand the experience of gender dysphoria and a different politics for challenging a patriarchal system that is the source of so much suffering and distress.
Feminist politics is not a denial of trans people’s experiences but an alternative way to understand those experiences that does not involve drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgery. Feminist politics is an embrace of our differences and a way to live with those differences collectively, as we struggle to eliminate the hierarchies that impede our ability to thrive.
[Note: Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism was published in the UK in May and is scheduled for release in the US edition in September.]
Robert Jensen, Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021). His other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
Jensen is host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Wes Jackson and associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected]. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw