Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism - a review

Julian Baggini reviews Kathleen Stock's controversial new book.

Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, by Kathleen Stock (Fleet), $26.99/£16.99

Kathleen Stock believes that trans people “deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the same life opportunities as non-trans people do.” So you might be surprised to find out that Stock, a gender critical feminist, is regularly denounced as a transphobic “TERF” – trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

Such is the tangled and fractious nature of the current debate over trans rights. Even to describe it as an argument with two sides provokes outrage, for there are many who insist there is no debate to be had. For them, trans women are women, trans men are men, period. People who deny this deserve no more respect than climate change deniers, anti-semites or homophobes.

The trans philosopher Sophie Grace Chappell, for example, has tweeted “‘Gender critical’ beliefs are worthy of respect in a civilised society. Just like young-earth creationist views are,” and that the gender critical view is a “legitimate alternative … no more than anti-semitism is a legitimate alternative to the acceptance of Jewish people.”

On this view, the only acceptable review of Stock’s book can be one that denounces it. Anything less than outright rejection proves that the reviewer is either unqualified or bigoted.

After reading Material Girls, I remain baffled by this Manichean orthodoxy. Stock and those who agree with her might be wrong, but why are so many convinced that not only are their errors obvious, they are also hateful?

To understand this, we have to understand one of what Stock calls the key “axioms” of modern trans activism: “Gender identity, not biological sex, is what makes you a man or a woman (or neither)”. Gender identity is how you feel about yourself and gender is something everyone has absolute first-person authority on. So if you question someone’s own gender identity, you are refusing to accept a truth that only they have access to, denying their reality when this is all the reality that there is.

Chappell summed this up quite neatly in another tweet, in which she said “In general, people are who they say they are. Trans people too are who they say they are. Let us speak, be prepared to learn something new, and don't gaslight us, believe us. #TransMenAreMen.” And similarly, trans women are women.

Anyone familiar with the now standard distinction between gender and sex might assume there is an easy way for everyone to understand this, agree, and carry on merrily. Gender is socially constructed, while sex is biological. If this is the case then trans people can indeed be whatever gender they feel, irrespective of their biological sex. Trans men are indeed men, and they are also biological females.

But such a claim is incendiary to the many trans activists who argues that gender identity is all that matters. As Stock says, if gender identity is what makes you male or female then “The existence of trans people generates a moral obligation upon all of us to recognise and legally to protect gender identity and not biological sex.”

This is the nub of the issue. Is gender identity really all that should be taken into account when categorising people as male or female, men or women? Or does biological sex sometimes matter too?

All advocates of the primacy of gender identity agree that we do not need to appeal to biological sex to distinguish between men and women. A large proportion, maybe even the majority, believe this because they reject the legitimacy of the category of biological sex altogether.

This line of argument came to prominence in Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler denied that there was an objective reality underpinning the division between the sexes. “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender,” she wrote. “[I]dentity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions' that are said to be its results.” The radical corollary of this is that the sex/gender distinction collapses on the side of gender: “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”

Butler’s ideas have been hugely influential, but they are not without obvious difficulties. Once you start denying that biology picks out real categories in nature, Stock argues you have to also conclude there “are no pre-given facts about natural selection,” “no sexual reproduction” and even “no climate change, at least as commonly understood.”

She takes many pages to defend the idea that biological sex is real. That she does so is itself startling. No biologist could do without the concept and since human beings are mammals like any others, it cannot be that they alone can leave behind such a brute distinction.

It’s also hard to see how we can make sense of sexual orientation without reference to biological sex. Do away with biological sex and the definition of a heterosexual is a person who is attracted to someone with the opposite gender identity to them. But this is empirically false. Most heterosexuals are not sexually attracted to people with the same genitalia as them, however they identify. This has implications for dating websites, for example, where Stock argues “A person’s right to privacy doesn’t beat another person’s right to choose their sexual partners in line with their basic sexual orientation.” Stock argues that those who deny the biological basis of sexual orientation are forced to assert things like “the main reason for a lesbian refusing to sleep with trans women, or a gay man with trans men, could only be bigotry and disgust for trans people.”

Many who would not go as far as to deny some link between biology and sex still find the latter a problematic basis on which to divide populations. One key driver of this is the widely accepted view that sex is not a binary but a continuum. Stock disagrees, arguing that “A ‘continuum’ suggests adjacent entities that are only subtly distinguishable from one another, which is not the case here.”

The existence of people who are intersex is no objection to this. As Stock says, “hard cases are not a special fact about the categories of male and female,” and italicising seemingly in exasperation for emphasis, “difficulty about borderline cases is absolutely standard for biological categories”. This is true even if you accept Professor of Biology and Gender Studies Anne Fausto-Sterling’s argument that 1.7% of the population is intersex, when Stock says it is more like 0.018%.

One reason why people are attracted to the idea that we should do away with categories of sex is that they are persuaded by Butler’s claim that, in Stock’s formulation, “any binary theory of the sexes must inevitably be ‘normative’ and therefore ‘exclusionary’”. But any category whatsoever – carbohydrate, liquid, spheroid – “excludes” in a trivial sense and so simply accepting that some people fall into different categories “is not a value judgment about superiority or inferiority, or any other positive or negative connotations.”

It is astonishing that Stock’s conclusion “As binaries in nature go, the sex division is one of the most stable and predictable there is” is now considered by many not only to be outrageous but prejudiced. If the argument that the gender critical position is transphobic rests on the denial of biological sex, it must surely collapse.

A more reasonable position is that biological sex is real but just doesn’t matter in all, or almost all, social contexts. Sure, a doctor may need to know your biological sex in order to decide what tests and screenings you should have, but that’s about it. And even here, it can be argued that the doctor doesn’t need to know your sex, just some anatomical facts about you, such as whether you have testes, breasts, a cervix and so on.

Stock argues that sex cannot be so easily set aside. For example, she argues that it is important that certain women-only spaces exclude people with penises, even if they self-identify as women. “Are you saying all or most trans women are predators?” she (correctly) imagines her critics saying. “No, obviously not,” she emphatically replies, “just as to say that males generally shouldn’t be excluded from women-only spaces isn’t to say all or most males are predators. They aren’t.” Her worry is not that trans people are demonic but that “it would be easy for badly intentioned males to take advantage and so expose females to risk.”

She also thinks that allowing trans women to compete in women-only sports would put cisgender women athletes at an unfair disadvantage, and in some contact sports such as rugby, under threat of physical injury.

Stock makes a strong case and while it is conceivable that the benefits of allowing self-assigned gender to determine access to everything outweigh any risks and harms, that would not make Stock transphobic, merely wrong.

The most convincing evidence that there is nothing hateful in Stock’s position is that she cites several trans people who agree with it. “I am a trans woman, I am a man, I can’t be one without the other,” said the trans woman Fionne Orlander. Similarly, the trans man Buck Angel said “I had a legal sex change and now live as a male. All male pronouns. I am a transexual and will never be biologically male. But I do live as a male”. Such testimonies rather deflate the idea that the only thing decent people need to do is to listen to and believe trans people, as they say and believe different things. And if many trans people can happily accept that there is a difference between their self-assigned gender and their biological sex, the distinction cannot be bigoted, unless, Stock says, you dismiss such witnesses as “self-hating” or in a state of “false consciousness.”

Why then has the gender identity narrative become so dominant, to the point of being the only acceptable one for many? Stock believes a laudable concern to do the right thing by gay people has made many too willing to buy into whatever line the most vocal advocacy groups propound. Their rhetoric often implies that those who go against it are an existential threat, such as the campaigning group Stonewall’s talk of the “erasure” of trans people.

This has also been stoked by fear that any questioning of the infallible truth of gender self-assignment leads to terrible mental health and even suicide. “There’s a very strong narrative that if you don’t transition you are going to kill yourself,” says one trans person, who is now detransitioning. “I genuinely thought it was the only option.”

Stonewall has helped create this impression by citing a fundamentally flawed survey which claimed to have found that two in five young trans people had attempted to take their lives at some point. A more accurate picture is painted by the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) which says that “many young people who present to gender services are not necessarily distressed” and that “suicide is extremely rare.”

Perhaps one of the most provocative parts of Stock’s book is her idea that gender identity can and should sometimes be accepted as a “legal fiction.” Such a fiction is created “when the law acts as if something is the case, for certain defined legal purposes, when it in fact isn’t,” such as when it treats a corporate entity as an individual. This might sound insulting but Stock believes fictions can be meaningful and helpful, saying “there’s often a rational point to immersing yourself in a fiction that people can change sex.” But it is important that we know at some level that it is a fiction, and that is something many trans people outright reject.

But making gender identity everything seems to require ignoring brute facts. It also has the paradoxical consequence that it denies the reality of a physical, objective biological reality but elevates a subjective conviction to certain, unquestionable truth. As one destransitioner Stock quotes put it, “Everybody says that gender is a social construct, but we also act like it’s somehow an innate part of a person’s identity.”

Stock’s book is not the last word in this debate. But it is surely a legitimate contribution to it. Comparisons of the gender critical position with racism and homophobia are at worst slanderous and at best a strategic mistake. If self-assignment really is the only legitimate criterion for identifying sex or gender, it is far from obviously so. Those who don’t yet accept it need to be taken seriously, not denounced as bigots. 

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Julian Baggini is the author of The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well (Princeton University Press).