The Gender Wars and Academic Freedom

Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan elucidate the costs of curtailing academic freedom in debates over sex, gender and gender identity.

Philosophical arguments regarding academic freedom can sometimes appear removed from the real conflicts playing out in contemporary universities. This article focusses on a set of issues at the front line of these conflicts, namely, questions regarding sex, gender and gender identity. As a philosopher and a sociologist, we aim to elucidate the costs of curtailing discussion on fundamental demographic and conceptual categories. We argue that these costs are educational in the broadest sense: constricting the possibility of shared learning and knowledge production, which in turn are vital to a functioning democracy.

SEX, GENDER IDENTITY AND “TRANSPHOBIA”

For gender identity campaigners, simply asserting that sex exists as a meaningful category, distinct from people's self-declared ‘gender identity’, is transphobic. Lobby groups such as Stonewall demand affirmation of the mantra ‘Trans Women Are Women’, with explicit and repeated calls for ‘No debate’. The slogan functions as a demand to adhere to the ontological position that claims about people's ‘gender identity’ trump claims about their biological sex. Gender identity ideology is in this sense, absolutist, demanding that we ignore material evidence of the relevance of sex in any context. Repetition of the mantra ‘Trans Women Are Women’ obstructs any attempt at a nuanced discussion about the circumstances under which sex might be relevant. The view that it is transphobic to acknowledge natal sex as even potentially relevant has led gender identity campaigners to demand that social and human scientists must not collect data on sex, and philosophers must not use sex as a conceptual category. Such demands are fundamentally antithetical to academic freedom.

In practice, the kinds of statements that routinely lead to people (overwhelmingly women) being denounced as transphobes include: that humans, like all mammals, have two sexes, male and female; that females are the sex that produce large immobile gametes called ova; that males are the sex that produce small mobile gametes called sperm; that women are adult human females; that women do not have penises; that homosexuality is same-sex attraction; that only women have cervixes; that a transwoman who transitions as an adult has not always been female; that non–gender-conforming young children should not be encouraged to believe that they may have been ‘born in the wrong body’ and that they can change their sex.

Most people could in principle fall foul of the charge of transphobia, but in practice it is most commonly applied to women who have articulated and defended an account of women's rights that assumes the biological reality of the male/female distinction and, accordingly, defines women as a sex class. Many of these women are also feminists, in that they believe that gender is a socially constructed system that maintains male privilege and oppresses females on the basis of their sexed bodies, primarily through controlling their reproductive capacity. This theoretical position, which conceptualises hierarchical systems of gender as historically and socially contingent, rather than as an innate feature of individuals, is at odds with the view that everyone has a personal gender or gender identity, and they must be categorised based on their gender identity, rather than their sex, for all purposes.

The denial that humans are sexually dimorphic mammals appears, at the very least, problematic for a range of scientific disciplines, and the belief that sex is not real and determined at conception but merely ‘assigned’ at birth as a social label, whereas gender identity is real and innate, has implications for a range of social and political questions. Yet, these beliefs are so fundamental to the orthodox gender identitarian position that merely to point out the contentious nature of the ontological claims on which they rest is to attract accusations of transphobia.

The absolutism of the orthodox genderist position militates against reasoned debate. If the campaigning slogan ‘Trans Women Are Women’ is taken as true in an absolute and literal sense, then there can be no scope for discussion of the ways in which the possession of a male body may be relevant in different ways in different contexts, from sex-segregated sports, to changing rooms, to prisons, to lesbian relationships, and no scope for compromise regarding women's concerns and boundaries.

It is against this background that current concerns over academic freedom arise. Academics who have questioned the above orthodoxies have found themselves targeted in various ways, as we now explain.

THE SUPPRESSION OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM ON SEX AND GENDER

Suppression of Research

The extreme tactics used by gender identity campaigners to suppress research, including the use of defamatory allegations against researchers, have been described by social historian Alice Dreger. Dreger documents the campaign against psychologist J. Michael Bailey, which included targeting his family, and false allegations that he sexually abused his children. For exposing the abuse of Bailey, Dreger was targeted by the same group of activists. She received threatening messages mentioning her family, and referring to her five-year-old son as her ‘precious womb-turd’.

Whereas research on gender identity may have seemed a niche interest in 2003 when Bailey was writing about adult male transsexuals, the stakes are now much higher, as the number of young people expressing trans identities has risen. The first research paper to examine the broader social and psychological reasons for the surge in gender dysphoria among teenage girls, Lisa Littman’s “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Young Adults” (2018), prompted protests from gender identity campaigners. Brown University bowed to pressure by removing publicity on the paper from their website, while the journal which had published the peer-reviewed paper, PLOS One, carried out a post-publication review. This vindicated the analysis and results, yet the journal insisted on some ‘reframing’ of the paper in a corrected version. In the UK, proposed research on people who ‘de-transition’ has been blocked by Bath Spa University, apparently due to concerns about potential reputational damage to the university.

Blacklisting, Harassment and Smear Campaigns

Several academics have faced attempts to get them sacked for writing on sex, gender, and gender identity. For example, philosopher Kathleen Stock faced calls for her dismissal by student activists angered by her articulation of concerns about the conceptual assumptions behind the slogan ‘Trans women are women’, and about the potential effects of allowing males to claim the status of women based on self-declaration. This ongoing campaign of bullying and harassment escalated in October 2021, leading Stock to resign from Sussex University as she no longer felt safe on campus. Attempts to remove academics from their posts can take the form of co-ordinated campaigns of (often anonymous) complaints to university administrators, which, though they may fail in the goal of getting the target fired, often trigger a stressful and time-consuming administrative process.

Another tactic is to launch a petition calling for an academic with dissenting views to be fired. This technique was deployed against disabilities scholar Michele Moore in an attempt to remove her from the editorship of the journal Disability and Society for expressing concern about the narrative that children can be ‘born in the wrong body’, and the fact that vulnerable and autistic children are disproportionately likely to be referred to gender identity services.

Physical threats and intimidation are also part of the gender identity activist arsenal. The History faculty at the University of Oxford has received credible threats against the historian Selina Todd, forcing them to provide security at her lectures. There are many lower profile cases of (mainly) female academics facing campaigns of defamation and campaigns to have them sacked. The personal costs of such processes, in terms of mental and emotional stress and financial insecurity, especially for those on precarious contracts, should not be underestimated.

‘Cancel culture’ on campus is often characterised as a conflict between students and academics. The truth is more complex. A small minority of students and university staff are active in the harassment of their peers, and students are also targeted. For example, Bristol University is being sued by a student, Raquel Rosario Sanchez, who has experienced over two years of harassment by transactivists. Neither are non-academic staff exempt from persecution. Kevin Price, a college porter at Clare College Cambridge, resigned from his role as a Labour councillor rather than support a council motion containing the slogan ‘Trans Women are Women’. For this principled political action, entirely unrelated to his duties as a porter, the Students’ Union called for him to be sacked.

No-Platforming, Disinvitations and Shutting Down of Events

Public attention is often focussed on the no-platforming of individual speakers including well-known figures such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Jenni Murray. But activists have also targeted events organised by individuals with gender-critical views, even where these views are not the topic of the event, as in the case of a planned Open University conference on prison reform which was cancelled after pressure from activists, or a talk on women's art by the artist Rachel Ara. Events discussing the consequences of changes in policy and practice have been targeted. For example, the criminologist Jo Phoenix, from the Open University, had a planned talk on trans rights in prisons cancelled by the University of Essex following protests from activists who objected to her raising questions about possible tensions within the criminal justice system.

Activists have attempted to silence discussion of women's rights in the context of proposed legislative change within universities as well as without. An event at Edinburgh University to discuss women's sex-based rights in June 2019 was subject to a campaign of intimidation, including attempts to sabotage the booking system, defamatory allegations against the speakers, a petition to get the meeting shut down and a rally outside the event with banners showing misogynistic slurs. The university was forced to provide a high level of security. One of the speakers, Julie Bindel, was assaulted by a transactivist when leaving the venue.

WHAT IS ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

While the conceptual distinctions involved in any account of academic freedom and its relationship with associated ideas about free speech are complex, the legal framework governing practice in this area is clear.

In the UK, the main relevant legal context is the Education Reform Act 1988, section 202(2)(a) of which states: ‘[A]cademic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions’. This formulation is included verbatim in the statutes and charters of many UK universities. The Education Act (No. 2) 1986 (Section 43) also enshrines a positive and proactive legal duty on universities to promote and protect freedom of speech on campus, by requiring that universities ‘shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’.

Academic Freedom and the Possibility of Learning

The role of an academic involves more than just designing and carrying out research, writing papers and presenting well worked-out positions. Academics do not speak only to people who are already immersed in their disciplinary frameworks. Underpinning academic life is a form of thinking aloud; putting forward ideas which conversational companions—whether students, colleagues or members of the public attending academic events—engage with and may disagree with. In the course of such conversations, people may express ideas that are not fully developed or defended. They may say things that we disagree with, but we try to make sense of the disagreement, clarify what we mean by the terms and positions we describe, explore their implications and reach towards a common understanding, or, at least, a shared view on what it is we disagree about and why.

This activity is precisely what is enabled when the university is really an environment bound not just by the principles of academic freedom, but by a broader commitment to free speech. Free speech is the foundation of all serious thinking. In the words of Hannah Arendt:

If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he [sic] can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.

On this view, it is not only truth about the world which we are striving for, but the viability of the world as a shared place to create, to improve and to live in. As academics, we already share this world with students and colleagues whose experience of it is often different from ours. In coming together in a spirit of intellectual enquiry, we are not engaging in abstract theoretical debates or trying to defeat opponents with knock-down arguments, but trying to make sense of this world, to offer explanations that make sense of our lives within it and help us think about how we can change it for the better. It is this ability to conduct such forms of thinking aloud that is frozen out in the current climate. When students and staff have whispered exchanges in corridors rather than thinking out loud in seminar rooms and lecture halls, we all lose out, because these seminar rooms and lecture halls become places where ‘the world as that about which we speak’ is less likely to emerge as a shared place.

In a context where shared understanding of basic concepts such as sex and gender has substantive implications for a range of social issues, one might think that the existence of widespread and deep disagreement would call for more, not less, discussion. Opposition to gender identity ideology comes from a range of perspectives and is not limited to feminists. Yet, the effective silencing of voices and self-censorship is now common-place, as reflected in our own frequent experience of being contacted by students and colleagues who say they agree with us, but are too frightened to express their views in class or in public.

The refusal to engage with ‘offensive’ views directly, reflected in the tactics described above, means that certain views are widely available only in a misrepresented form. The historian Mary Beard provides an example in a recent review of Germaine Greer's book On Rape. Beard shows, with careful quotes from the book, how a lot of what Greer is accused of saying about rape completely misrepresents her arguments. Beard notes that perhaps ‘Greer is being punished for her much-quoted remarks on the trans community’ and that ‘the anger at what she has said on that topic has clouded fair judgement of her arguments on rape’. A vicious circle of ignorance and offense follows: Once an individual has been denounced, her work can be freely misrepresented, since her opponents will not give it a fair reading (or any reading at all).

If statements, claims, theoretical positions and conceptual definitions are denounced as transphobic by definition, irrespective of the actual views or theoretical arguments that the speaker is trying to articulate, these arguments are never heard, and never engaged with on anything other than the most superficial level. Thus, the discursive realm in which anyone can make any useful social or political argument about sexism, gender roles or sexuality is narrowed. This state of affairs is not only profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-democratic, but educationally disastrous.

Academic Freedom and Democracy

The ability to engage the public beyond the university lies at the heart of the connection between academic freedom and democracy.

It should be a basic right for all workers to take part in the democratic process without fear of losing their livelihoods. But for academics, public engagement has a special importance, because it is essential that policy discussions, in the widest sense, are informed by reasoned argument and evidence. Free speech and academic freedom are conceptually distinct, yet interdependent values. In a climate where discussion is being shut down, and threats are used to silence opponents, it is particularly important that universities provide a space where discussion can occur without fear.

These debates about sex and gender are not abstract. In the UK, they have been triggered partly by proposed legislative change, in the form of changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act which would allow individuals to change their legal sex on the basis of self-ID, without meeting any diagnostic or other criteria. Beyond this proposed legislative change, gender identity lobby groups are campaigning to remove the existing legal protections for single-sex spaces, and for the effective erasure of sex as a category in language, law and data.

The need for academic freedom to research and discuss sex and gender identity seems clear-cut given the wide range of questions at stake, and the implications of these questions for policy and practice. Gender self-ID has implications for equalities monitoring and women's legal rights to sex-based protections, for single sex services, and girls’ and women's sports.

Women who have attempted to discuss girls’ and women's rights and their experience as a sex class in this context have faced concerted attempts to have their meetings shut down and to silence them. Woman's Place UK was formed after a meeting to discuss proposed legislative reform was targeted for harassment, and a 60-year-old woman was assaulted by a male gender identity activist. Yet, women's organisations that campaign within the law to protect women's existing rights, such as Woman's Place UK and Fair Play for Women are slandered and denounced as ‘hate groups’. Accusations of fascism abound, directed at life-long socialists and trade-union activists, in order to justify denying these women a platform by any means. None of the feminists who have been no-platformed for gender-critical views have committed or incited violent acts or called for the removal of the existing rights of trans people. Accusations of fascism and ‘literal violence’ levelled against these women may appear comical, but have real consequences in dehumanising and monstering them, thereby justifying harassment and even violence against them.

The need for academics to communicate evidence and rigorous analysis is all the more apparent when political discussion is constrained by fear and intimidation. Yet, dehumanising name-calling, mindless slogans and associated threats are not restricted to Twitter, but appear in peer-reviewed journals and in teaching materials. The lack of a vigilant and robust defence of a positive conception of academic freedom in universities risks allowing those engaged in what amounts to bullying to set the parameters of what can and cannot be discussed.

Academics have both a right and a duty to engage in research and discussion which illuminates questions of public and policy importance, and which enables students to approach contemporary issues equipped with a broad range of intellectual resources and critical capacities. To stifle such intellectual activity risks real harm, particularly in a climate of post-truth politics, polarisation, and intolerance.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND ACCEPTABLE SPEECH: WHERE DO THE BOUNDARIES LIE?

Academic freedom is often described as a ‘foundational value’ in higher education, yet is it is important to note that this value is not synonymous with the right to freedom of speech. Significantly, while the concepts of free speech and academic freedom are ‘symmetrical and overlapping, not synonymous’, neither of these principles translates into an unrestricted right of individuals to say whatever they like.

The Education Act (No. 2) 1986 (Section 43) requires universities to ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’. But as the phrase ‘within the law’ indicates, there are significant constraints on these freedoms, in line with existing legislation on the prevention of disorder or crime, protection of the reputation or rights of others and protection of national security and public safety. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) expressly forbids communication which is ‘threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone’, and similarly the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) forbids the harassment of individuals and incitation to racial or religious hatred. But these unlawful acts are narrowly defined and require in general either ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ or conduct that ‘creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ for another individual, with particular reference to the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

Discrimination and harassment directed at trans students or staff should of course be treated with the relevant disciplinary procedures, and the Equality Act lists gender reassignment as one of the nine protected characteristics. But while judgements about unlawful discrimination and harassment may not always be straightforward, the existence of legal restrictions on free speech cannot be allowed to undermine the fundamental commitment to its central value for universities.

CONCLUSION: WHAT CAN UNIVERSITIES DO?

The defence of academic freedom is the collective responsibility of the academic community. Current challenges to upholding this value include a marketised system in which students are seen by university leaders primarily as customers rather than learners, encouraging an instrumentalism at odds with educational traditions which strive to teach how to think rather than what to think. Increasing precarity among academic staff makes the exercise of academic freedom, both in teaching and research, too risky for many colleagues to contemplate. The trend for university administrators to police the boundaries of academic freedom within the parameters of ‘risk assessments’ and ‘reputational damage’, rather than seeing academic freedom as a matter for the academic community, is central to the problem. In our experience, there is a lot more that universities can do to ensure that an understanding of what academic freedom means and why it matters is well embedded throughout all campus-based teaching, procedures and institutional culture.

Academic research undertaken in good faith and by experienced researchers can be, and regularly is, criticised for its methodology, for its underpinning assumptions and for what it does not say, as well as what it does say. But in an era of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, it seems imperative to be careful and accurate in distinguishing rigorous academic research from dogma and ideology. The language of harm and safety must be treated critically and seriously. While we should all be vigilant in addressing the disadvantage and discrimination faced by various minority groups, students and staff should be able to distinguish between the expression of dissenting views, and actions and speech which constitute overt forms of harassment, intimidation and threats towards individuals.

A commitment to free speech and academic freedom does not and should not constitute a defence of harassment or attempts to close down the speech of others. Universities must take appropriate disciplinary action against students and staff who engage in campaigns of harassment against other students and staff.

Opponents of free speech and academic freedom in some sections of the Left increasingly assume that there is something right wing about upholding these values, which they see as elitist. Yet, this is both historically illiterate and grossly short-sighted. It perversely ignores the power dynamics at play, and the fact that abandoning academic freedom as a value to be upheld by the academic community means ceding decisions about what can and cannot be said to administrators who may equally be swayed by government, financial donors or social media mobs.

As this article focusses on academic freedom, we have emphasised the case of academics and quasi-academic workers, but there is also a complementary case for strengthening free speech as an employment right for all workers, given that the absence of such protection tends to expose organisations to policy capture, weakens democratic discourse and can only be detrimental to the ability of policymakers to know the views of the people they represent. Universities are not ivory towers, and our ability to defend academic freedom, and to deliver knowledge as a public good, is undermined by a wider climate of censorship.

A longer version of this paper was originally published as SUISSA, J. and SULLIVAN, A. (2021), The Gender Wars, Academic Freedom and Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 55: 55-82. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12549

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Judith Suissa is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the UCL Institute of Education. Her work focuses on the intersection between political ideas and educational practice.

Alice Sullivan is Professor of Sociology at the UCL Institute of Education. Her research looks at social and educational inequalities in the life course. She was Director of the 1970 British Cohort Study from 2010-2020.