philiminal

A philosopher writing about the liminal spaces they occupy: between socio-economic classes, careers, academic disciplines, sexualities and gender expressions

Philosophers & lesbophobia

Homophobia—and in particular lesbophobia—is a problem within academic philosophy that often goes unremarked. I take homophobia to encompass a wide range of negative behaviors towards same-sex relationships or those persons who engage in them, and especially those persons who engage in them exclusively and those who refuse to (re)define their sexuality as ‘same gender’ attracted. Whilst I think it’s fine, of course, for those who want to re-orientate their understanding of their own sexuality to encompass e.g. men who have vaginas if one identifies as a gay man (so they are “homogenderal”), I think there have been a number of concerning homophobic developments in academic philosophy in recent years. Same-sex attraction has been erased (in Dembroff’s 2016 paper, for example), appropriated and coercively redefined to encompass male-bodied persons (and no, I don’t think there are only two sexes; but yes, I do think it’s wrong for a person with a penis to call themselves a lesbian), and talked about as if it’s as immoral (e.g. Rachel McKinnon’s tweets).

At it’s worst—and rarest—homophobia takes the form of hatred. I think this is rare in academic philosophy and academia more broadly. More often homophobia in the university takes the form of some comment or behavior that reveals some ordering/valuing, which subordinates same-sex relationships and those who engage in them to some other way of being. And becoming more common, I’d say, is a type of neglect...an indifference or lack of attention to the particularities of ways in which members of that group are mistreated by society, or the ways in which such treatment within one’s lifetime can leave lasting marks on people’s lives. This neglect can be driven, among other things, by an ignorant belief that *people who engage in same sex relations are no longer marginalized and disadvantaged*.

As an example of a homophobic action by a academic philosopher, take, for instance, this re-tweet by Sara Uckelman (Durham University, UK). The tweet that Sara has posted to her timeline says “for the problematic lesbian in your life” and then the road sign in the image underneath reads “unsafe dyke keep clear”. This is of course meant to be a bit of ‘light humor’. Maybe in the right context and delivered by the right person it would be. But shared by someone who is not a lesbian is problematic, especially given that ‘dyke’ was originally a slur but was reappropriate by lesbians for lesbians. Sara’s RT was also poor judgment in the context in which many same-sex attracted students and scholars are feeling attacked—including, I hear on the grapevine, by Sara*—in the discipline at this time.

In drawing attention to this issue, my concern is primarily for younger or newly out same-sex attracted persons, especially students studying philosophy. Many philosophers seem to have strangely double standards when it comes to calling out the poor treatment of LGBTQ people in the discipline. It would be nice to see all LGBTQ people and identities respected in the philosophy community.

*Also in a tweet today Sara notes that she’s given money to Mermaids (a British charity for ‘transgender children and adolescents’) in ‘honor’ of JK Rowling’s birthday. Mermaids was recently dropped by the BBC as a reliable and ethical source of information. It’s hard to read this decision as unconnected to the BBC’s recent Newsnight investigation into the Tavistock’s GIDS in London, where (among many issues) clinicians expressed concern that they were participating in a type of conversion therapy of same-sex attracted children and that many of their parents were homophobic. Mermaids and Susie Green, its CEO, are all sorts of shady and have expressed some very troubling homophobic views (some documented by an intersex activist here). Please see my post here on the issue of false-positives in sorting gender diverse children – the neglect by philosophers like Uckelman and Buxton of this complex issue, which disproportionately affects girls that grow up to be bi or lesbian, is in my mind an example of lesbophobia in the discipline too.

A note on the note of support from the ‘Survivors’ Network

Two American philosophers (Dembroff and Brison) have shared a ‘note of support for trans inclusion’ from a UK-based organization called the ‘Survivors’ Network’.

The ‘Survivors’ Network’ sounds rather grand, like it’s a UK-wide ‘network’ (properly speaking) of rape crisis shelters. So on first blush, this media release looked to be significant.

But a quick google revealed the ‘Survivors’ Network’ to be just one organization based in just one local government area in the UK (Brighton and Hove). I felt mislead.

If you’re familiar with the UK, you’ll know that Brighton and Hove is no ordinary part of the UK either. It’s wealthy and highly educated and home to one of the UK’s largest LGBTQ populations. The only Member of Parliament the Green Party have in Westminster is Caroline Lucas who represents the constituency of Brighton Pavilion.

A ‘trans inclusive’ statement from one shelter in Brighton, then, isn’t really a breakthrough development.

One thing I do worry about though, is the potential class dynamics that could be at work when these kind of ‘statements’ are put out into the public domain by such organizations. Are highly educated, middle-class, Good Feminists coercively imposing top-down policies about housing trans women, even trans women like this and this, onto shelters full of working- and welfare-class women? Or are shelters’ policies and procedures being democratically developed from the ground up, so when these statements are released we can feel confident that their clients wholeheartedly and voluntarily support them? If the latter, do women who use shelters genuinely feel like they can say ‘no’ when they’re asked for their feelings about such matters? Are their trauma responses and their lack of control over their responses respected and empathized with? Or are they looked down upon from women who’ve put themselves up on moral podiums? Is enough space being left to account for uncertainties in how women best recover from trauma?

I have found it baffling that so many feminists won’t grapple with these complex questions, despite there being many experts, shelters and rape crisis clinics who insist on the importance, to at least some women’s recovery, of single-sex spaces. In the UK, check out organizations like NIA in London and the campaign group Object! for a different perspective on this issue.

I’ve also found it strange that the demand many feminists (but not all) have signed up to is for all such facilities to be made open to all self-identified trans women, rather than just some or enough for a city’s population. The more just approach, i think, would be to try to work towards ensuring there are enough facilities for all traumatized people’s needs, and not dishing out any judgment about what those needs are. This would be in line with supporting, for example, there being shelters that only cater for Asian people, rather than demanding these shelters be inclusive of all minority ethnic groups. Of course, in smaller towns this may be difficult to achieve and there may be some conflicts. But in places like Vancouver, why can’t even just one facility be left in peace to serve female persons who do not want to share safe spaces with male-bodied people and whose recovery depends on that?

Empathy gaps: A reply to Rebecca Buxton

A series of tweets from Rebecca Buxton a couple of days ago left me feeling pretty depressed. Here was yet another feminist philosopher that, from my perspective, was displaying a carefactor of zero for the pain and suffering of a group of (mostly queer) women that have been the victims of deep injustices at the hands of psychiatry and surgeons. One of the most shocking aspects of how the philosophy community has handled discussions about gender-related topics over the past few of years, has been the extent to which people I thought would display a healthy scepticism about sex[gender], drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era (Preciado), have completely averted their eyes from these thorny issues and acted as if there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

The purpose of this post is to provide a brief analysis of where I think Buxton erred both ethically and epistemically. (Especially) if Buxton is going to invoke the status of her institution and title, she should be much more careful. I also hope that this post helps inspire more sympathy for the humanity and lives of neglected vulnerable minorities. One of the biggest issues, I'll suggest below, is that many of the academics jumping in to support transgender people lack first-personal experience of 'gender troubles', unlike many queer people, who know all too well that the transgender-cisgender binary is... yet another false binary. I'll also point to one way that middle-class academics are overlooking issues of socio-economic class.


Buxton tweeted:

“I shared eight peer-reviewed studies on detransition/regret rates with someone in the comments on Rowling's post. They said it was all based on data faked by the scientists. I have no words.”

“He kept saying that I was coming up with “research” to support my own view. PEER-REVIEWED LONGITUDINAL STUDIES.”

The studies Buxton links to feature regret rates of between <1% and a little over 2%.

I traced back Buxton's engagement with this person to try to understand what point she was trying to make. What was her aim in arguing that detransition and/or regret rates are in fact ~1-2% or less?

Whilst Buxton's motivations are still not entirely clear to me, a plausible explanation is that she thinks that The Times should not have published its photo essay on detransitioners, and JK Rowling should not have bolstered its exposure, because detransitioners are such a small minority of people, and narrating and highlighting their stories at this point in time does damage to trans people. It seems this might be it, since Buxton says in one tweet:

“This is a total distraction from the fight for trans rights and is being used as a reason to question the identities of trans people”

If that's the thought, then I think Hadley Freeman's reply is a good response:

”...acknowledging the pain of these women in no way negates the legitimacy of trans people’s lives. Anyone who says otherwise should ask themselves why some vulnerable minorities are more worthy of protection than others.”

Let's say the rate of detransition is in fact 1% (I'm not sure we have good evidence to accept that claim, but I'll get to that in another post later this week). By emphasising this figure, Buxton et al. implicitly communicate the following sentiment: I endorse sacrificing the health and wellbeing of one person, if 99 other people's health and wellbeing is improved. Buxton's and other's “only 1%” tweets are essentially telling detransitioners that they don't matter, that they're collateral damage for a greater good.

This sort of crude utilitarism is the real distraction. Both the health and wellbeing of people who benefit from various types of transition and those who don't (or we might even say, are harmed by it), warrant our moral concern. In place of the 'only 1%' variety of tweets, we could instead convey our concern for these detransitioners' lives and ask the question “how can we lower the rate of false positives?”.

How you handle inductive risks, and thus how many false positives you tolerate and how you balance those with false negatives (or in this case: implementing policies and procedures that may result in other people having to way longer periods of time to commence down certain transition paths), is moral question. The famous contemporary paper from philosophy of science on this issue is a paper by Heather Douglas (2000). It's an inescapable problem in this debate, and one that has largely been neglected.

Buxton might respond that it's not about that – she really does have a carefactor of > zero for detrainsitions (even if she's not vocal about it); what she's upset about is the balance of social and media attention on detransitioners compared with trans people who've had positive transition experiences. I think it'd be hard to argue for that, as at the moment the media coverage of trans people's stories almost certainly out-numbers the media coverage of detransitioners' stories at rates greater than 99:1. If anything, detransition warrants more coverage not less.

Someone might then claim that the problem is that we can only reduce the rate of false positives at the expense of raising the rate of false negatives. 'False negatives' here might best translate as a delay to certain aspects of other people's transitions, rather than a false negative per se, as someone who really will benefit from transition is very likely to eventually transition. I think the assumption that we can only reduce false positives by raising the rate of false negatives is a false assumption in this case though, even if it's true for other problems in science. When we obtain more accurate diagnostic tools in general, we reduce the rate of false positives and false negatives simultaneously. So what we need is better 'diagnostic tools' – more accurate ways to distinguish between people who are more or less likely to benefit from certain types of transition.

How do we obtain better 'diagnostic tools'? Gender dysphoria isn't like coronavirus – you can't see it under a microscope or in a brain scan [1]. The only thing we have, at least at this point in time, is observational studies that may give us some clues, and the testimonies of gender diverse people. But this is where, for me, the muffling of voices in discussions of 'gender' is foolish and dangerous – because maybe the people who can provide us with the biggest clues are actually detransitioners. I think we'd do well to pay detransitioners more attention if what we care about is providing the best care for all gender diverse people.

To my knowledge, gay philosopher Edward Stein is the only philosopher who has paid the issue of inductive risk in gender dysphoria much attention. His article Commentary on the Treatment of Gender Variant and Gender Dysphoric Children and Adolescents: Common Themes and Ethical Reflections, whilst not perfect, is worth reading in full. In the section 'Appropriately Distinguishing Gender Dysphoria and Gender Variance' he criticizes some of the psychiatrists/physicians for not paying this issue enough attention and suggests that they should be reporting higher rates of false-positives and that it's problematic they're not. Many of us watching over this debate are concerned that, almost a decade later, these two groups are still being conflicate and confused by medical professionals and by society more broadly (with our concern motivated by the fact that we were gender diverse children, and often remain gender diverse adults, ourselves). But Stein doesn't go far enough: he seems to imply that distinguishing between these two types of children is easy when it's far from it, especially when gender dysphoria (gender-related distress) also exists on a spectrum.

The other group of people that probably hold clues, and who detransitioners could have benefitted from hearing more from before making transition decisions, are another group of people Stein points to – desisters. Desisters are those whose gender dysphoria (distress) fades at some stage of their development. As Stein underscores, although there is some disagreement about the precise percentages, the clinical literature agrees that:

A majority of children with GID [gender dysphoria] turn out to be desisters. As adults, a majority will turn out to identify as gay men, lesbians, or bisexuals, with a significant portion of the rest becoming heterosexuals without gender dysphoria.

Many gay men, lesbians and bisexual people within academia have been trying to communicate this fact, and communicate their own gender-related challenges and experiences, many of which were also traumatic. But they're often cast aside as 'hateful', 'transphobic' or 'bigoted' when they try to talk. Again, this is regressive, as their testimonies could help to improve care of gender diverse children and young adults. Of course, the baseless accusations also wrong and harm these people too.

Another issue scholars entering this debate, either formally or informally, should seriously consider, is that it may turn out that there are class-based patternings associated with which people end up being detransitioners, with people from lower socio-economic classes over-represented in this group. This is only a suggestion, but it's one that should be subject to emprical research. Here's something from Stein's article that is the sort of thing that has lead me to thinking this could plausibly be the case:

*More importantly, from my perspective, pairing the clinical articles with ethical reflections allows parents, clinicians, and others to not only compare the treatment options but to consider their possible risks, their social costs, and some of their problematic assumptions*

Of course, highly educated middle and upper class parents will have the ability to do this, and lower-middle, working class and welfare class parents are less likely to possess these capacities. Hence, they're also less likely to be able to properly scrutinize the medical and other authorities wielding much power over their loved one's life. Similarly, the kids with these socio-economic background are more likely to lack these sorts of critical capacities too.

I'll end this post here, but in my next post i'll ask whether the current evidence base actually supports the 1% claim. In answering that question, we'll first need to clarify what the actual claim is that people are trying to make when they invoke the 1% statistic.

[1] Although some recent studies have claimed that transgender persons brains are more like the brains of persons of the opposite natal sex, we should be very careful about these claims. As far as i can see, none of the studies control for sexuality, either, which is worrying because about ten years ago the neuroscience claims of the day were that gay men had brains more like female persons, and lesbians had brains more like male persons. Compare these 2008 articles in New Scientist and National Geographic on the brains of gay men and lesbians with this 2018 article on The Scientist the brains of trans persons. Same shit, different decade! Here's another from 2006 on CBS claiming that lesbians' brains react differently to sex hormones than straight women (sound familiar?). Even more reason to be concerned about inductive risks and confounds, i think.

Evidence gaps: A reply to Buxton Part 2

In my last post I argued that those scholars and activists like Rebecca Buxton who go out of their way to emphasize the oft-cited figure that ‘only’ 1% of people who decide to undergo a sex/gender transition end up detransitioning, fail ethically. In this post I’ll argue that they fail epistemically too. This is because the evidence Buxton pointed to is not good evidence for the claim she is making.


As a reminder, this is what Buxton tweeted:

“I shared eight peer-reviewed studies on detransition/regret rates with someone in the comments on Rowling's post. They said it was all based on data faked by the scientists. I have no words.”

“He kept saying that I was coming up with “research” to support my own view. PEER-REVIEWED LONGITUDINAL STUDIES.”

The detransition rates in these studies vary from >1% – a little over 2%. I’m going to use a rate of ~1% in this blog post for simplicity sake.

I will only be able to provide a sketch here of the sorts of evidential issues I think Buxton and others are neglecting, rather than a full analysis of the evidence base using the tools of philosophy of science and science and technology studies. But before we we can start to assess, even at a high level, whether or not the evidence Buxton points to supports the claim she's making, we need to understand what, precisely, the hypothesis or claim she's actually making is.

Is she claiming that ~1% of people who, at some time of their lives transitioned in some way, either medically or socially, ended up detransitioning? Or is the claim that ~1% of people who have at some stage taken puberty blockers and/or cross-sex hormones end up detransitioning? Or is it that ~1% of people who had surgical procedures to alter their sex-based features ended up detransitioning? Or that ~1% of people who have had particular surgical procedures, like gonadodectomies, end up detransitioning?

These are all very different claims, which require different evidence to support them. The studies Buxton links to explore a range of different types of (de)transition, so the extent to which they even play a corroborating role for each other is unclear.

But notice that whatever the claim, these are all backward-looking time-bound claims: they refer to study populations of people who have already transitioned and detransitioned by a particular point in time. It's much easier to say that a claim is or is not accurate when we're looking only at a particular population of people, at a particular point in time, and that time is in the past.

What's much more difficult, of course, is to make an accurate prediction about the future. And it's a (forward-looking) prediction, not a backward-looking claim, that I think Buxton and others are actually performing when they emphasize the 1% claim. They're essentially accepting the following hypothesis:

1% of the people who transition today will end up detransitioning at a future point in time

But does the evidence marshaled by Buxton provide her with a good reason to accept that hypothesis?

Before we look at the evidence Buxton did point to, i'm going to make the hypothesis more specific, by disambiguating 'transition' and indexing events to a particular time period and place. This is to make it claim context-specific, which is important to evaluating evidence.

Let's only consider those who commence a medical transition, i.e. those persons who engage one or more of the following pharmacological or surgical interventions as part of a sex/gender transition: puberty blockers; hormone replacement therapy; one or more sex-reassignment surgeries. Note that it would likely be even easier to reach '1%' if social (de)transitions were counted. And let's index the hypothesis to the United Kingdom, and to the year 2020.

The hypothesis then becomes:

H: ~1% of the group of people who commence a medical transition in the year 2020 in the United Kingdom will end up detransitioning at some point during their lives

Now we can ask: to what extent does the evidence Buxton points to support her acceptance this hypothesis? I will suggest: nowhere near as strongly as she seems to believe it does [1]. In short, this is because important contextual features have changed significantly in recent years, such that there are good reasons to question the relevance of studies based on past time periods and cohorts to questions related to sex-gender transitions of cohorts in 2020.

———

One of the studies Buxton provides a link to is a 50 year Swedish longitudal study that found a 2.2% regret rate for both male and female persons who undergo a sex/gender related transition. This is an impressive data collection effort to be sure. But we have some good reasons to think that the period over which this study was conducted (1960-2010) may only be weakly relevant to more recent time periods, and to attempting to understand the range of plausible detransition rates for the cohort who commenced a medical transition in 2020.

Firstly, in many countries in Western societies, including the UK, it's only been since ~2010 that we've observed the large uptick in the number of people attending gender clinics. For instance, in 2009/2010, the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in London only had 2 referrals per week, whereas in 2017/18 it was 25 times that number, up to 50 referrals per week. The most marked increase occurred in 2015-16, when patient numbers doubled compared to the previous year. Especially given that similar trends have been observed in other Western societies, it’s likely that the context prior to 2010 was very different to the post-2010 context. It’s far from clear, then, that the extrapolation of the results of studies pre-2010 to the post-2010 period is warranted.

An important contextual feature that differs between the period prior to 2010 and post 2010 that counts against this particular study's relevance to the hypothesis of interest is the make up of the study population compared to that of recent populations attending gender clinics. Recent observed trends highlight a marked change in the numbers and proportions of those 'assigned (observed) male at birth' (A/OMAB) versus those 'assigned (observed) female at birth' (A/OFAB) attending gender clinics compared to previous eras. In the Swedish study Buxton cited discussed above, the study population consisted of 478 A/OMABs and 289 A/OFABs. Similarly, another study Buxton pointed to as evidence involved a Netherlands-based study population over the period 1972-2015 consisting of 4,432 A/OMABs and 2,361 A/OFABs. However, between 2008-2018 there was a 1,500% rise in gender dysphoria diagnoses among 13- to 17-year-olds born as girls (A/OFABs) in Sweden. The number of those born as girls being referred for treatment rose 4000% in England and Wales over a similar period. A/OFABs now significantly outnumber A/OMABs in many gender clinics in the West. Thus it's unlikely that results derived from study populations predominantly composed of A/OMABs will tell us anything about likely rates of detransition in contemporary gender clinic populations, particularly those that deal exclusively with children and adolescents.

Given that demand is currently vastly out-stripping capacity at many of these gender clinics, it's reasonable to think that under these sorts of circumstances, the rate of false-positives may increase. People with less clinical experience and expertise may be being brought on to cope with the demand and staff are pressured to get people through the system to make way for more patients. Staff at GIDS in London complained about this, among other issues, in this recent BBC investigation.

The studies Buxton links to also deal with a variety of different types of transitions – sometimes only looking at (and hence making claims about) surgical interventions, and not other types of transition. If you’re interested in detransition rates amongst those who commence cross-sex hormone use—especially given recent trends in ‘micro dosing’—then it’s not clear that the detransition rates of those who undergo surgeries is relevant to those who only take hormones, and especially those who ‘microdose’.

What’s the upshot then in terms of what the detransition rate is likely to be for the cohort of British persons who commence a medical transition in a certain direction in 2020? I don’t actually think we have good evidence, at this point in time, to be making any strong claims about that. I think we would we need better analysis of the existing data’s relevance to current populations alongside further research to fill in our gaps in understanding, to be in a position to make more confident claims in any direction. I think it’s possible that it could remain the same or be lower; I also think it’s possible that it could be many times higher.

In the mean time, scholars and activists should scruntinize the science and not just ”read the science” before they cite it. In doing so, they should reflect on the extent to which they can credibly and ethically use this research to do the (political) work they want to use it to do.

——- If you’ve never heard detransitioners talk about their experiences before, here are a couple of incredibly eloquent women talking about their experiences:

Mackenzie (USA-based) here Watson (UK-based) here

——-

Endnotes:

[1] There are further technicalities here, because a scientist is unlikely to accept a forward-looking prediction outright and make (forward-looking) assertions about it. What she is more likely to do, is assign the hypothesis a probability, based on the evidence available to her, and her reasoning about that evidence (e.g accounting for known unknowns, etc.). So, to be charitable to Buxton, let’s say what she accepts is that it’s highly likely (e.g. >90% probability) this hypothesis is accurate (to e.g. +/– 1%).

This act itself, many philosophers would argue, is equivalent to accepting a hypothesis about a probability or probability distribution, and that that decision will itself inevitably involve the use of non-epistemic value judgments (i.e. involve the use of moral, social and political values in reasoning about the hypothesis). This is because, the theory goes, the decision to accept or not accept a hypothesis about a probability will itself be underdetermined by the evidence. So, these philosophers may say Buxton’s political values (the weight she places on trans persons being able to transition as early as they would like) justify her accepting and asserting this hypothesis.

There’s a more complicated analysis to be made here about what someone is or is not ethically permitted to assert in light of the evidence base and the politics at play. For those who think that Buxton is justified in shifting her epistemic standards (lowering them) because of her political values in this way, please see my first post.

Reply to Earp Part 2

In my last post I wrote about why Brian Earp, in his YouTube (‘What is (Your) Gender?), was wrong to conflate the clitoris and penis.

In this post, I’ll point to a few other areas in Brian’s video where I think he has over-simplified things, and in doing so, has mis-characterized what is being debated and what is at stake. I hope that doing so assists the search to identify candidates for ‘lower level facts’ (as Earp calls them) over which there is common agreement, and upon which a fruitful discussion might be able to be based. This is because I agree with Brian that starting from this common ground would be a promising way to try to make progress in this debate, which is very much needed.

In a key part of Brian's video, he provides us with a fictional example of a conversation that he might get into at a bar when he's out on the town. A significant part of Brian's argument turns on how successful he thinks this conversation is in avoiding contentious questions about sex and gender. He thinks that through this hypothetical conversation he demonstrates that he and this person are able to successfully navigate a common social interaction without actually directly asking the question 'what is your sex' or 'what is your gender'?

I don't actually think the conversation is successful, however, for the following four reasons.

1. Simply asking someone “are you capable of engaging in penile-vaginal intercourse” tells us absolutely nothing of interest

Brian says that a potential sexual partner at a bar might ask him the question “are you capable of engaging in penile-vaginal intercourse?” Brian's answer is “yes”, because under the right conditions he says that he would indeed be capable of this activity. But does this question and answer give us any meaningful information about Brian? No, it doesn’t. I too can engage in penile-vaginal intercourse, but this statement alone leaves you none the wiser as to the genitalia I possess (or that Brian possesses). For all Brian’s imaginary interlocutor knows, Brian might be a trans man with a vagina, who could engage in penile-vaginal sex with a person who has a penis. Everyone who has some form of penis or vagina (which is almost every human) has the capability to engage in penile-vaginal intercourse. Saying they have this capability doesn’t tell us which genitals they have, nor what they like to do with them and with which other type/s of genitals, which are important questions for many people when assessing their potential sexual compatibility with another person.

For instance, let’s say this imaginary interlocuter is a non-trans male person and is looking for a sexual hook-up that evening in the bar. Furthermore, let’s say this person is exclusively into having sex with people with penises regardless of their gender or gender expression (e.g. he is opening to having sex with other male persons, as well as AMAB non-binary persons and trans women who have penises). What a person in this situation therefore wants to know is, firstly, what type of genitals Brian has, and second, what type/s of genitals Brian himself is into engaging with sexually (i.e., in short, whether Brian is a potential for a hook up, or whether Brian is just at this gay bar with one of his gay mates).

It was once very easy to signal to potential partners what external genitalia you have (which we for the most part generally accurately read off each other) and that you are sexually orientated to in sexual partners, or that you are simply looking for in terms of a sexual experience that evening. If you were male and were looking for sex with other male persons who enjoyed sex with male persons too, then you went to certain clubs rather than others, and, unlike in our predominantly heterosexual world, you could safely assume that the other male persons present were also interested in sleeping with male persons (this is partly why these places are called ‘safe spaces’). Or you told female persons who hit on you “sorry, I’m gay”, meaning same-sex attracted. Those social signals are now breaking down because our language around sexuality has not changed despite the increasing diversity of bodies that have emerged with technological advances, as well as the move amongst establishment LGBTQ organisations to re-cast sexualities as 'same gender’ sexualities rather than 'same sex’ sexualities.

But we need not be so squeamish about talking about genitals! You will generally find on LGBTIQ dating apps, for example, trans-women informing potential sexual partners that they have had ‘bottom surgery’ or that they have a penis; you will find non-binary persons who describe themselves as ‘AFABs’ looking for other AFABs, etc. And most trans persons tend to say they are trans in their dating profiles and are happy to have those discussions rather than risk awkward situations for both persons at some later stage if the person is same-sex (i.e., monosexual but possibly attracted to multiple genders) rather than same-gender attracted (and attracted to people of multiple sexes or with various configurations of primary and secondary sex characteristics).

So the question Brian suggested here needs to be revised to get at the information relevant in conversations between potential sexual partners (and importantly, possibly for there to be full consent to sexual engagement). Questions about genitals and bodies need not be awkward and can be done sensitively. It's strange that there seems to be a push now to return to our societies previous prudish ways when we avoided any open talk about bodies and the sort of bodily (including genital) configurations we do and don't enjoy in bed.

2. Questions that invoke stereotypes also tell us nothing at all about a person’s sex or gender

Another question that Brian suggests would be asking a person a question relevant to their ‘gender’ without asking about it directly is whether they are:

“...intuitively and irrestably drawn towards, and resonate with, ways of behaving, dressing, interacting with others, engaging with cultural artefacts and so forth that are stereotypically and characteristically 'feminized' or seen to be feminine in nature (or masculine) in that culture”

Before I look at what feminists of all stripes (including many trans people) would object to with such a question, the notion of there being ‘a’ culture needs to be problematized. Whilst Brian notes at the beginning that by his culture he means 'the United States in 2020', it’s not clear to me that what is stereotypically and characteristically masculine or feminine is the same in all areas of the United States. What is coded feminine or masculine can differ depending on one’s family, one’s community, one’s socio-economic class, what generation you’re from, whether you live in an urban or rural area, etc. To give just one example, getting one’s hands dirty, or using tools might be coded ‘masculine’ in many urban environments, but in rural areas where it’s common for girls who grow up on farms to do jobs around the farm alongside their brothers, these tasks and what they result in (muddy clothes, dirty hands), won’t be coded masculine in that community or geographic area, or at least as strongly as it is in many urban areas.

More importantly though, I would never ask someone this precise question and assume that it told me anything at all about their ‘gender identity’ (their 'gender'). All this question seems to do is use and entrench stereotypes instead of uncoupling them from bodies. I know many gender non-conforming trans-women who are in no way drawn to any of the stereotypes associated with ‘women’. I know several straight male persons who identify as men who are though! I don’t think this question is helpful – I would prefer just to ask about that person’s interests, and not assume that it tells me anything about their bodily features or their psychology. This is similar for the questions Brian encourages us to ask about each other’s childhoods. Whilst we may be able to plot the degree to which a person was ‘gender non-conforming’ or 'gender variant' in their childhood, we should be wary about using that as a heuristic that tells us anything at all about a person’s gender identity.

3. One’s pronouns don't necessarily tell us about a person’s gender identity either

The pronoun/s one requests others to use is, as Brian notes, a significant indication of a person’s gender identity. But it need not be. Firstly, some people may not possess a gender identity. Although its quite a standard assertion from trans groups that “everyone has a gender identity”, it's not clear to me that they do. What empirical evidence do we have to support this assertion? I don't think we currently have any. Furthermore, it's not clear to me that simply knowing a material and empirical fact about yourself (that you are fe/male, or intersex) can be equivocated with positive possession of a psychological state about a 'gender identity'. Here are two reasons why. Firstly, I know with a high degree of confidence that I am one of the two main sexes; but I have never possessed the gender identity said to 'align' with that sex. I have always felt a sense of incongruence, albeit mostly likely a weaker one that trans persons who decide to transition. This incongruenced distressed me when I was younger but it no longer does. Second, given that Sophie Grace-Chappell has fathered four children, it's beyond reasonable doubt that Sophie Grace Chappell is a male person (or at least was a male person at the time she fathered children and still is unless she's materially invened on her biology in a way that would render her no longer male). But Sophie Grace Chappell asserts she has the gender identity 'woman' (and I believe her testimony). So here are two examples of sex and gender/gender identity coming apart.

Secondly, and following on from the above example, my pronoun does not reflect my gender identity, partly because I feel that it's a private matter that I don't wish to draw attention to or reveal to those i'm not intimate with (similar to my sexuality, which i also don't advertise through a pronoun or marker on my identity documents). I allow others to attribute my ‘sex’ to me, which is something I can't hide, and feel no need to hide (though I understand why others may). Humans attribute sex to others with a very high degree of accuracy and have done so since the dawn of time, I'd say. It's racist to suggest that sex was a 'Western invention' and that no other culture engaged in sexing others within their societies before colonialism. Similar understandings and uses of 'sex' have been widespread geographically and temporally. Many other [cultures] (https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/) recognise more than two genders, but as one will notice if they give these cultures due attention, sex is generally still acknowledged alongside gender, and genders are often still sorted by sex. For example, the Bugi people of indonesia recognise five genders, among them calabai, who are males who embody a feminine gender identity, and calalai, who are females who embody a male gender identity. You can not be calabai if you are female.

4. Who is a recipient of male privilege or female disadvantage is unclear and therefore, not much help, when it comes to questions of ‘gender’

Brian then says that another question that could be asked to understand someone's gender is: are you a recipient of 'male privilege' or 'female disadvantage'? I think this question is very interesting since it is one that is in hot dispute in the debate. Whilst gender critical feminists often seem to cast their charges of male privilege too wide or too deep, trans activists often seem unable to admit that some people who identify as trans-women absolutely do receive and have access to privileges vis-a-vis female persons and other trans-women in some contexts. For example, Sophie Grace Chappell, who is a trans philosopher in the UK, admitted at a philosophy workshop in Manchester in May 2019 that when she arrived into Manchester by train late the previous night, that she transitioned back to 'being a man' to walk from the station to her hotel so as to make the journey safer. Of course, I support Sophie doing what she needs to do to keep herself safe. But what needs to be acknowledge is this: because Sophie does not materially intervene on her body, she is easily able to move in and out of being perceived in different ways – notably, as either a man or a trans woman (as Sophie doesn’t ‘pass’ as a female person, she’s read as a male person still, even if she’s read as a 'trans woman' rather than a 'man' – that she doesn't pass is one of the reasons why it would be unsafe for her to walk to the hotel as such, and perhaps more unsafe that it is for women). Transitioning back and forth, however, is not something that female philosophers and many of trans-women in the discipline have the ability to do. That they cannot reduce their risk of attack in this way is a type of disadvantage relative to those who can. Whilst Sophie is potentially in greater danger than a female person (who is read as such) when she's obviously a trans woman, she's in less danger than female persons when she transitions back and is read as a man.

And what about non-binary male persons in philosophy? Do they have male privilege? Those I’m aware of are often no different, on the outside, from other male persons in philosophy (and that’s totally ok of course – you don’t need to take hormones or dress in a particular way to count as a member of the gender group ‘non-binary’). I also know male philosophers, both gay and straight, who are much more ‘feminine’ than many of the AMAB philosophers using ‘they/them’ pronouns. From my observations within the queer community, it’s quite common for non-binary males to deny and neglect their male privilege. So say they answer Brian’s question: “no, I’m not the recipient of male privilege”. Are they correct? How would a non-binary male person even know, in many cases, or judge this accurately? For example, perhaps they were in fact hired over a female person because the department had had lots of female staff have children recently and the panel were sub-consciously looking for someone who was very unlikely to have this capacity. The non-binary AMAB philosopher wouldn’t know that when they successfully landed that tenure track position. Sometimes (many times) we not in the best place to evaluate the privileges and disadvantages working upon us.

What should a stone butch female person who passes as male provide as an answer to Brian’s question? Perhaps she is the recipient of male privilege in some contexts. For instance, perhaps she’s at less risk of attack on the way from the train station to a hotel at night because she’s ‘clocked’ as male rather than female. But in other contexts she’s surely not a recipient of male privilege – for instance when people yell “dyke” at her across the street, or when she's not hired for a customer-facing position due to prejudice about how female persons 'should' look. The same can probably be said for gay men and feminine male persons – sometimes they will be the recipients of male privilege, sometimes they won't be (and although they're probably subject to other types of poor treatment or disadvantage, it won't be 'female disadvantage'). Whether or not you’re the recipient of male privilege is generally not an ‘all or nothing’ or nothing thing – it’s something you have more or less of if you’re a male person, or pass as a male person in society. Similarly, despite many trans men passing as male people, it’s not clear how they fare over the course of their lifetimes, especially if they give birth at some stage, since this fact is one of the most powerful explanatory features causing the ‘gender pay gap’.

It remains to be seen as to whether trans women or trans men, or non-binary AMABs or AFABs, are more or less disadvantaged in comparison to each other, and in comparison to non-trans males and females, with respect to different social outcomes.

The bottom line is: the search for the 'lower level facts' all can agree on continues....

#Earp #gender #pronouns #maleprivilege

The Clitoris: Why Earp Doesn’t Hit the Spot

What’s more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated. – Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

Brian Earp has just put up a really nice clip on YouTube (‘What is (Your) Gender?), which is his attempt to offer solutions for how progress might be made in the #genderwars on the left.

I like Brian, and I like his video. I like Brian and his video despite disagreeing with, and even being a little bit offended by, Brian's defence of conversion therapy for same-sex attracted persons under some circumstances (I prefer Aas and Delmas on this issue).[1] I also appreciate his attempt to try, through this clip, to take some the heat out of a debate which has become extremely toxic for multiple disadvantaged groups (and multiply disadvantaged persons) in academic #philosophy.

In general i like the approach to the problem that Brian sketches in this clip and what he's trying to do. I take him to be attempting to move away from the tendency for both sides in the debate to be all encompassing and rather context independent. There are a few things, however, that I don't think Brian has got quite right, or that I think he's a little too optimistic about. This is the first of a series of posts on each of those things.

Let’s start with the clitoris.

——-

When Brian talks about genitals, he claims that we all have what he calls a ‘cliteropenis’. This is the first time I've heard this word used for all genitalia, rather than genitalia that is not determinatively a clitoris or a penis, as with some differences in sexual development/intersex variations that influence a person's genitalia.

Brian states that the length of this organ (the clitoropenis), differs and clusters into two main groups:

“If you have a long version of this organ we call it, by convention, a 'penis', and if you have a short version we call it, by convention, a 'clitoris'”

I think what Brian means to refer to here is how long or short the external or visible part of the organ is, because the clitoris and the penis are actually approximately the same size on average; it’s just that most of the clitoris is not visible, like an iceberg. So any measurement would have to be in relation to the external part of the organ only, if this variable was to be in any sense a meaningful contribution to the upshot of Brian’s account, which is that we can all position ourselves in some sort of 'multi-dimensional gender space'.

But I see three important problems with Earp's proposal.

  1. Encouraging us to think of this organ as essentially the same organ rather than >2 different organs threatens a return to our predominately-penised past.

  2. Genitals have important differences and those differences are not random or arbitrary or inconsequential. Our knowledge or lack of knowledge about these differences can lead to inequalities in health outcomes and sexual satisfaction, among other things. Those with penises have fared better so far vis-a-vis those with clitorises, given the enormous ratio of research done on penises vis-a-vis clitorises; we should avoid similar problems in the future by making sure we do not inappropriately conflate and/or centre clitorises and penises at the expense of people who have genitals that are not determinatively either organ.

  3. Using size as a variable and plotting this feature on a two-dimensional spectrum has problematic consequences. It has the upshot of marking those with longer penises to be more male and/or masculine (and male persons with shorter penises to be more feminine/woman-ish/female-like than males with longer penises), and those with shorter clitorises to be more female and/or feminine (and female persons with longer clitorises to be more masculine/men-ish/male-like than females with longer penises). This only serves to further entrench already present social anxieties.

I'll expand on these points roughly in turn below.


A clitoris is not a 'little penis'

It's true that our genitals, no matter which ones we end up with, all evolve from the same embryonic structure, the genital tubercle. Structures that share an evolutionary or developmental ancestry in this way are called 'homologues' by biologists. It's also true that there is broad agreement among scientists that there are no systematic differences between the genital tubercles of those embryos that will eventually come to have a penis, and those that will eventually come to have a clitoris or another sex organ, until about the 9-10 week mark. At this point, what was the genital tubercle undergoes differentiation in response to the presence or absence of androgens, and development of this organ generally diverges along one of two key and very different pathways (but in rare cases diverges down others).

What's not clear, is why after all of these chemical reactions and changes, we have good reasons to think that what we still have at the end of that process is essentially the same organ as we started with?

I don't think we do.

I think we have material and moral reasons to recognise >2 distinct sex organs, and to use distinct language for these organs. Words matter. They shape and mould our ideas and beliefs, and others' ideas and beliefs, about our bodies. And that itself matters, as the history of medicine with respect to the clitoris shows, and why feminists, for the longest time now, have admonished researchers that a clitoris is not a ‘little penis’.

Now Brian might reply at this point that he's not saying a clitoris is a little penis; he's saying that a clitoris is a little cliteropenis and that a penis is a big cliteropenis. But does this attempt at a sort of neutrality work, or does it have, or will it likely have, pernicious unintended consequences?

Notice that Brian chose to call it a 'cliteropenis' and not a 'clitoris-penis', 'penis-clitoris' or 'penoclitoris', etc. Cliteropenis still makes it sound, to my mind, like the clitoris is a type of penis – a clitero one. The structure of this word continues to centre the penis and view female and other bodies through the male lens; it will not, in most people's minds, lead them to thinking of the clitoris and penis as just 'the same', which seems to be Brian's hope.

But it shouldn't be our hope because the history of medicine shows us that humans have conflated the penis and the clitoris (and other sex organs) in the past and this conflation resulted in unjust and undesirable consequences for subordinately situated persons (in the examples I provide from history below, persons with clitorises). We should avoid moves that do the same. We should not think that penises, clitorises, and the sex organs persons with variations that influence the anatomy of their genitalia, are 'the same'.


The long history of penis-izing clitorises

Since its first historic mention, the clitoris has almost always been spoken about with reference to the penis, and often as if it doesn't exhibit any significant difference to it.

Claudius Galen, a doctor in the Roman Empire between 130-200 AD stated that:

“...all the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, namely, that in women the parts are within, whereas in men they are outside.”

Similarly, in 1844, German anatomist George Ludwig Kobelt conducted a study of the clitoris with the aim of demonstrating that “the female possesses a structure that in all its separate parts is entirely analogous to the male” (my emphasis).

Even today, the U.S. National Library of Medicine defines the clitoris as homologous with the penis, but it does not define the penis as homologous with the clitoris.

This perpetuates the powerful myth that the existence of female and body parts, and the body parts of persons of sexes other than male more broadly, depend on the validation provided by the existence, understanding, and recognition of male body parts.

Conceptualizing the clitoris as being essentially 'no different' to the penis discouraged society from obtaining a greater understanding of it. Studies of historical anatomical textbooks have shown that depictions of the clitoris were significantly limited and often omitted completely. In 1947 it was even erased from the 25th edition of Gray’s Anatomy by its editor at the time, Dr. Charles Mayo Goss. In 1981 the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Clinics created more anatomically accurate images of the clitoris and published them in A New View of a Woman’s Body. But it wasn't until 1998 that the external and internal anatomy of the clitoris was mapped by Australian urologist Helen O’Connell, demonstrating its immense size and innervation, and challenging nearly every belief about clitoral anatomy to date.

O’Connell was partly motivated to study the clitoris when she noticed that when male persons undergo procedures like prostate surgery, they're hooked up to a myriad of machines and devices designed to keep surgeons far away from the nerve endings of male sexual anatomy. She wondered why there was no equivalent to help protect the female sexual anatomy during surgery? Without these precautions, how could doctors know they weren’t cutting into clitoral nerves during routine procedures like hysterectomies?

The article about O'Connell linked to above underscores that ignorance about the clitoris persists today, including amongst medics, researchers and sex educators. As the University of Western Sydney clinician and physiotherapy researcher Jane Chalmers explains, the subject of the clitoris is still avoided or ignored. “Several major medical textbooks omit the clitoris, or label it on diagrams but have no description of it as an organ,” she says. “This is in great contrast to the penis that is always covered in-depth in these texts.” Considering the fact that clitoral pain (as well as infections, inflammation, and disease) are quite common, Chalmers contends that better understanding of the clitoris is essential. She adds that as the clitoris is closely tied to the sexual pleasure of those who possess them, the lack of knowledge about the clitoris amplifies sexual inequalities between those with penises and those with clitorises and other sex organs.

Progress may not even have stalled so much as worsened. In a 2014 article in PLoS One Biology titled Genital Evolution: Why Are Females Still Understudied?, gender studies scholar and evolutionary biologist Malin Ah-King and colleagues conducted an analysis of the literature which showed that research exploring genitalia exhibited a “strong male bias” which has “worsened since 2000, despite the fact that this bias has been explicitly pointed out in the past.” Whilst researchers often protest that this is simply because male genitalia is larger and therefore more ’accessible’, Ah-King et al. argue that the persisting male bias in these studies cannot be explained solely by anatomical sex differences that influence accessibility. Rather, they argue that the bias reflects “enduring assumptions about the dominant role of males in sex, and invariant female genitalia.” A 2005 article in the Journal of Urology by O'Connor and colleagues concurs: “The anatomy of the clitoris has not been stable with time as would be expected. To a major extent its study has been dominated by social factors.”

Some of the worst effects of the analogizing of clitorises with penises and not treating them as separate organs has been that the clitoris came not to be seen as simply 'the same' as the penis, but an inferior version of it. The male body and organs came to be viewed as the ultimate ideal, and female bodies and organs simply fell short of this perfection. This encouraged contempt of, rather than indifference to, the clitoris. When the first dissection of a clitoris was conducted in 1545, Charles Estienne called the clitoris women's “shameful member.”

Freud viewed the clitoris as a such a pitiful version the penis that he came up with the idea that the: “Elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity...since it is immature and masculine in its nature.”

He urged women to undergo a transition in their sexuality from their clitoris, to their vagina:

“With the change to femininity the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina”

Freud's false beliefs (of both descriptive and evaluative kinds) and his normative advice, was almost universally adopted for decades by health practitioners, researchers and sex educators. And female persons today are still robbed of orgasms by cultures of sex and sexuality that neglect the clitoris, and over-emphasize the vagina (thanks to philosophers like Elizabeth Lloyd, artists and progressive sex educators, there has been huge progress in much scholarly and popular culture, at least, in breaking that misconception down).

But to be fair, and also to illustrate how patriarchy works, it hasn't just been men who focus on the penis and who continue to make these analogies: in 1671 English midwife Jane Sharpe called the clitoris “the female penis.” Even as recently as 2014 a father-daughter pair of academics published a paper on the existence of the “female penis” in a special edition of the journal Clinical Anatomy. The paper argued that today’s sexologists are using the wrong terminology; the paper suggested, instead, new terminology that re-centered the terms of the discussion around existing male nomenclature. The researchers argue that most of the female sexual arousal area, instead of being referred to as the internal or external clitoris and attendant glands, should be called the female penis because the clitoris and the penis develop from the same undifferentiated cells in a blastocyst. Similarly, a female doctor on Twitter once corrected Earp that the 'ambiguous' genitalia of some persons with intersex variations was not actually rightly called a cliteropenis; rather, the correct medically terminology to use is 'phallus', she said.

In conclusion to this section, just because some structures are homologues does not mean that they are indistinguishable or that we should call them the same thing. The bones of humans, bats and birds in these species forearms and wings are also homologous because they share a common ancestry. But we recognise all sorts of differences and we don't say that wings are 'really arms' or that bats have 'wing-arms'. We also recognise that the bones of humans and birds, although homologues, are very different materially in all sorts of ways, e.g. that birds have less dense bones which aids flying. So too with the penis and clitoris, the most obvious being that the urethra does not run through the clitoris, and so it has not role in urination or the through-pass of gametes.

We need to de-penis-ize our language. Doing so will be better for female persons, as well as intersex and trans persons.


A big clitoris is not a 'less female' clitoris

Another unintended consequence of Earp's proposal to measure the size of our sex organs and then to plot this measurement on a scale that would then be used to position people in multidimensional gendered-space, is that the prospect that the size of our genitals vis-a-vis others' genitals should have anything to do with our 'sex' or our 'genders' should make us all pretty uncomfortable.

Say we take the following measurements of the external parts of people's sex organs: 1/ Marsha: 0.5cm 2/ Jan: 1.5cm 3/ Bobby: 8cm 4/ Greg: 12cm

This implies that (for this feature): 1. Marsha's is the most female. 2. Marsha's is more 'female' and 'feminine' than Jan's. 3. Jan's is also more 'masculine' than Marsha's. 4. Greg's is the most male. 5. His is more 'male' and more 'masculine' than Bobby's. 6. Bobby's is more 'feminine' than Greg's.

But if two people are in fact female, it's problematic and pernicious to say that one is more female than the other female person, ceteris parabis, because her genitals are smaller.

For similar reasons, it's problematic to even say that Marsha's genitals are more 'feminine' than Jan's. Labiaplasty, which aims to reduce the size of the labia minora (the 'inner lips' of the vulva), is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world. Women are often motivated to go under the knife by their anxieties that their vulvas are 'too big'. Earp's proposal seems to play into that for both women (and for men – that their penises are too small).

Conceiving of genitals as being more or less male or female, and/or masculine or feminine, and the idea that this variable can and should be placed on a sex and/or gender spectrum, likely affects trans, non-binary and intersex persons too. Say a trans woman finds herself in a place in Earp's multi-dimensional gendered space that is still socially perceived as too masculine for her liking: her voice is deep, she likes to still shop in the men's department for clothes, she detests make up, and likes her hair short. Earp's account suggests that she could become more 'female' and/or 'feminine' in gendered space if she reduces the length of her genitals...and severely reduced their length at that.

These implications, I hope you agree, are undesirable. And I can't see any way for Earp to escape these consequences. It seems to me that the size of genitals (at the very least), if not genitals altogether, need to be given up as contributing to his multi-dimensional 'gendered space'.

Conclusion

When Virgina Woolf wrote “What’s more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated”, she was writing in the context of a letter sent to an imaginary male recipient. Her comments were intended as an ironic quip on patriarchy's simplification of the term. She concludes with a faux naif suggestion that destroying the words 'tyrant' and 'dictator' would be a good idea too.

The suggestion that we can and we should make progress in this debate by simplifying, conflating and replacing words that have been important to the liberation of a social group, and that continue to be important to that group's liberation, is a naive and dangerous one. What we should do instead is learn from the history of the clitoris, and ensure we don't merely visit the same injustice upon persons with genitals that are neither penises or clitorises.

Endnotes:

[1] The existence of Brian's defence of a position that many same-sex attracted persons find unacceptable, but the absence (to my knowledge) of any bad blood between Brian and same-sex attracted persons, is itself interesting to think about.

Tags: #clitoris #genitals #penis #cliteropenis #gender #sex #intersex #transgender #history #genderwars #philosophygenderwars #feminism

Thoughts on #istandwithmaya

I'm a philosopher who believes that biological sex is mutable and that there are more than two sexes.

But I think that the way that some people (including many of my colleagues in academic philosophy) have treated those they label 'T*RFs' has, for the most part, been misguided, unjust and dangerous. Below I'll explain some of the reasons why, but others will be topics of future posts.

I'll also suggest in the last part of this post that trans activists should be just as worried about the Judge's opinion in the Forstater case as gender critical feminists, because the Judge's arguments can be applied in the other direction too: to some of the speech acts of trans activists.


To begin, it's worth clarifying a few things.

Firstly, while I accept that there are more than two sexes, I don't accept that male persons can literally become female persons. I think male persons can, with certain types of material interventions, move out of the male sex class and into another. But I don't think that they can move into the female sex class. When male and female persons uses exogenous interventions on their material bodies, I think they create new categories of (biological) sex by doing so. This is why I think some of Maya's assertions—and the philosophical scholarship and writings they're based on by Alex Byrne, Kathleen Stock, and others—are much too strong: I think it's highly unlikely that all trans-women are still in fact 'males'. Though some (like Alex Drummond) almost certainly are, of course, since the category 'trans-woman' is such a broad umbrella these days, encompassing everyone from the person who was observed male at birth but who has been on HRT for decades and who has undergone sex reassignment surgery, to male persons who have never suffered from 'gender dysphoria' nor materially intervened on their bodies in any way.

Whilst I have not seen evidence and arguments yet that would convince me that trans-women, or even some subset of trans-women, are in fact female, I remain open to being presented with such evidence and arguments. However, I'm not confident that such evidence and arguments will be forthcoming, or compelling if they are. I also think that the belief that male persons can literally become female persons is uncomfortably close that false belief that some parts of the left held in the early-mid-20th century and which only lead to mass devastation: that wheat could literally become rye, and vice-versa.

I've found it deeply disturbing that many philosophers of science who are very familiar with the horrors of Lysenkoism are now supporting the assertion that 'transwomen are female'. Similarly, some of those I have learnt much about the value of pluralism and dissent in science from were, I noticed, surprisingly quick to propagate the claim that there is a 'scientific consensus' that 'biological sex' is a 'spectrum'. As far as I am aware, there is no such consensus, and the only articles defending the notion of sex specifically as a spectrum (e.g. the article in Nature, and one in Scientific American that links back to the Nature article) are not peer reviewed journal articles – they are pieces of science journalism expressing a view/opinion/idea, not discussing an established scientific fact.

I don't think that a necessary condition for granting respect for trans-women's rights, their dignity, etc. is that they are female (and that trans-men are male), and there being no significant differences between trans-women and say Kathleen Stock or Holly Lawford-Smith. I think there are many practically and politically important differences. In fact, I actually think it's much more trans-positive to 'see', acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in such differences, as well as how not acknowledging such differences could one day lead to a book needing to be written called “Invisible Trans-women”. I've often wondered how much the drive for people to accept TW = F actually stems from transphobia itself (amongst both trans persons and their supporters who want to be good people, but who are struggling on some level to be properly accepting/embracing of trans people), rather than it coming from a genuinely trans positive place.

At the same time, I also believe that there is a sense in which the phrase 'trans women are women' is coherent. Though I do think that many theories that defend the position TW=W have the upshot of excluding some female persons from being W, such as some butch lesbians, female persons who do not have a gender identity, or those whose gender identity is not 'woman'. For instance, whilst Sally Haslanger's 2012 ameliorative account was engineered to ensure that those trans-women who 'pass' as female persons were counted as women, those stone butch lesbians who are frequently mistaken as being male persons seem to be excluded from such an account. Similarly, the upshot of Katherine Jenkins' 2016 modification of Haslanger's account to include non-passing trans-women as women by focusing on a person's 'gender identity' is that those who do not have the gender identity 'woman' will be excluded from the social category 'woman', even if they are exclusively read as women because they are female. Many female persons do not have the gender identity 'woman', including some butch lesbians, androgynous female persons, female persons with a history of gender dysphoria, some second wave feminists, agender female persons etc. This is a bullet those scholars are going to have to bite if they want to hold onto a theory of what a woman is that is inclusive of all persons who self-identify as TW. In other words, i think certain types of trans inclusion in this debate come at the cost of the exclusion of certain female persons. I think biting this bullet could be problematic...though it might not be. It depends on how the conclusion that some F persons are not W is understood by the author/s and readers of that theory, and its practical consequences, i.e. what it's used to do in law, policy, and other social practices (which we should remember could be out of the control of the original author). But in my opinion, most of the more recent 'ameliorative' or 'conceptual engineering' projects that try to make it true that e.g. Alex Drummond is a woman, are deeply problematic and it's hard to see how they are progressive and how they actually enhance, rather than erode, social justice.

I also think that there are many practical contexts in which TW and female persons should share spaces and solidarity, and many contexts in which female persons, TW and other trans, gender diverse and LGBTIQ persons (e.g. gay men) should all join together to fight against a regressive system of gender that holds us all back, as Robin Dembroff has argued. Though, that some people will want to centre different demographics in that fight is reasonable and healthy – those labelled 'T*RFs' are often best understood as female-centering feminists, and the segment of trans activists who take issue with these female-centering feminists' positions are often best understood as 'trans-centering feminists'**. I also think there are other practical contexts in which TW and female persons should have different spaces/be treated differently, as gender critical feminists have argued; I am particularly convinced by spaces like prisons, domestic violence and rape crisis shelters, and certain sports, though I think it's possible that, in some contexts, some TW may qualify for these spaces too. I also think gender critical feminists' arguments on statistics and political and other shortlists are similarly convincing, because in these situations we can often make a new type of shortlist for trans and gender diverse persons, with the result that even more spots/opportunities are taken away from the demographic found at the top of the hierarchy (i.e. gender conforming male persons...though it's important to note other intersecting axes of oppression here, like race, class and sexuality).

I think to solve practical moral and political dilemmas—and I think that some of the interests- and rights-clashes are best thought of as tragedies, where either way a decision will have undesirable consequences—we need theoretical work that is much more nuanced and context-dependent than the overly-simplistic and over-extrapolated theories scholars on 'both sides' have given us to date. When it comes to biological sex, neither a theory of self-identification (i.e. I am what I say I am, and I have a legal right to have that assertion recognised and respected in all contexts...there are no spaces or entitlements for 'Fs' that I am not permitted in or to have), nor one that is the other extreme (people are immutably the sex they were observed at birth, and should always/everywhere/in all contexts be treated as that sex) is, in my opinion, correct, or even pragmatically appealing for the purposes of law and public policy.


With these clarifications in place, I shall now describe and discuss my thoughts on the Maya Forstater case. The Judgement can be found here.

I find it strange that the trial focused on Forstater's beliefs, but I guess this is what her legal team thought was the best tactic to take. It seems to me that what is really at issue, however, is not Forstater's beliefs, but rather whether Forstater's speech acts in the context they were made in were reasonable, and relatedly, whether an employer has the right to end* an employment agreement with someone for the speech acts they make on social media as a citizen. This can be complicated by the fact that many people include their employer's details on their Twitter account, often to bolster their credibility, and/or many people can be quite easily be traced back to their place of employment with a basic google search. I do think organisations have some good reasons to not want their employees to say certain things online, given the impacts this can have on their organisation's perceived reputation, as well as how such speech might affect other employees' wellbeing in the workplace, or that of their clients, supporters, etc. But this is of course dangerous territory, since the freedom to express reasonable views within public debate is fundamental to living in a democratic society (and some scholars, like Jewish gay philosopher Eric Heize, think that even the freedom to express unreasonable views is fundamental to a democracy properly counting as a democracy). It's quite easy to imagine—especially after the Judge's conclusion in this case—a situation in which democratic discussion suffers from widespread stifling because many have developed reasonable fears of losing their livelihoods and self-silencing. I think this is already happening on a worrying scale in the philosophy community, and that this is an issue that needs more attention.

The better question then, is whether Forstater's speech acts were reasonable ones to make in the context she made them in, or whether they instead constituted a type of speech act that can be reasonably perceived as harassment/bullying and/or bringing her employer into disrepute. If her speech acts, in their context, were reasonable, then Forstater's claim to having been discriminated against on the basis of her sex might also hold given the motivation and content of her speech acts (i.e. defending the rights of female persons, a socially disadvantaged group and one to which Forstater belongs to), since it's possible that making a poor judgment about whether or not her speech acts were reasonable could be, in a large part, down to sexism and misogyny (i.e. being treated unfavourably on the basis of her sex). That the Judge in this case was a male person is worrying, since he, like Forstater's employer, could be enacting sexism and misogyny against Forstater.

Forstater's beliefs, expressions and concerns are at least intelligible. As the Judge even noted, they are also largely consistent with current British and EU laws. These laws generally lack clear guidance as to how 'sex' and 'gender' and 'transgender' are to be interpreted for the purpose of applying these laws, because the law frequently lacks definitions of such terms. Additionally, given the relative newness of many of these terms (e.g. 'non-binary'), as well as their ambiguity and contested nature, and the ongoing evolution of self-understandings of various trans phenomena, I think we need to be patient with ordinary citizens' use of language, and their potential misunderstanding that they are in the 'right' and the other person in the 'wrong'. But it may also be the case that they are not in the wrong, and our own perception that they're being immoral, is incorrect.

Even in his judgment, the Judge's own comments with respect to the U.K's Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act (and the laws themselves) are contradictory, as gender critical feminists have pointed out. Here's what the Judge says (comments in brackets are mine).

At #79: “Many of concerns that the Claimant has, such as ensuring protection of vulnerable women, do not, in fact, rest on holding a belief that biological sex is immutable (I agree, see my reasons above). It is quite possible to accept that trans-women are women (it's unclear what 'women' refers to here – no definition is provided and this ambiguity is traded on) but still argue that there are certain circumstances in which it would be justified to exclude certain trans women from spaces that are generally only open to women assigned female at birth because of trauma suffered by users of the space who have been subject to sexual assault. This may be lawful under EqA where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

But at #70 the Judge provides the wording from Section 9 Gender Recognition Act which reads: “(1) Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman)” (emphasis added).

Note that the Act makes sex and gender inseparable and effectively identical in meaning, since if a person has a 'gender recognition certificate' they are “for all purposes” to be understood as their acquired gender. So it's been very unclear whether or not one can legally exclude a person whose documents say 'F' from e.g. a rape crisis shelter for female people because the Gender Recognition Act says one thing, and the Equality Act says another, and it's not clear how these two pieces of legislation interact. This is unacceptable, and in practice many organisations have just decided not to try to exclude even when they deem it would be proportionate, because the law is so unclear, and erring the other way presents the greater risk (e.g. given what has happened to the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter for one). At points #83 and #84 the Judge faults Forstater for “refusing to accept that a Gender Recognition Certificate changes a person’s sex for all purposes.” But how could one not refuse to accept that when another piece of legislation says something else?

It's deeply unfair to make a British citizen trying to point out such a flaw to be held responsible for the flaw; that flaw is the responsibility of the British state, and it would do well to listen to the women who have been trying to raise this issue—which could have, and has had, grave practical consequences—with the powers that be in the British government, only to have been harassed themselves for doing so.


But the following is, perhaps, the most important thing about this case – there are various things the Judge concludes that should make trans persons and their allies concerned for their own beliefs and speech acts too.

For example, at point #84, that Forstater's view about biological sex is “absolutist” in nature is, the Judge finds, “incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others”. But aren't those whose views are that “transwomen are female”, or that “if a transwoman with a penis asserts she's a lesbian, then she's a lesbian”, also equally 'absolutist' beliefs? And aren't those beliefs the kind of beliefs that are arguably also “incompatible with the human dignity and fundamental rights of others”, namely, female persons and lesbians?

The Judge also concludes (#85) that (my comments in brackets): “The Claimant's position is that even if a trans woman has a Gender Recognition Certificate, she cannot honestly describe herself as a woman (read 'female' here). That belief is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. It is incompatible with the human rights of others that have been identified and defined by the ECHR and put into effect through the Gender Recognition Act.”

Here, again, there could be similar reasoning. You could imagine a Judge concluding the following, with respect to a trans-woman with a penis who continually asserts in her workplace that she's in a lesbian relationship, and does so especially when two female employees who are in a relationship together are within earshot. This trans-woman says things like the following: – “lesbians who won't consider dating me are transphobes!” – “same-sex attraction is transphobic!” – “the only morally defensible sexuality is pansexuality” – “when I married my female partner in Britain in the year 2000 (i.e. before same-sex marriages were permitted in the UK), we were really marrying as a lesbian couple...we've always been a lesbian couple” – “I have a penis and I am a lesbian...and I think Leo on the original L-Word was too”. – “You must believe that lesbians can have penises, otherwise you're a transphobic cis-c*nt who should die in a greasefire” – “most lesbians I know are T%RFs”

The Judge says that “Calling a trans woman a man is likely to be profoundly distressing. It may be unlawful harassment.” I think that this could be harassment in certain situations, yes. But given that people with penises claiming they are literally female persons has profoundly distressed many female persons, I think that one could make a strong argument that trans activists continually asserting that trans-women are literally female, and that trans-women who have penises can be lesbians, also constituents harassment of these minority groups, and deprives them of certain types of dignity. Whose distress is more warranted? Whose distress matters more?

These actors in philosophy—who I note have mostly been male persons, trans-women or others observed male at birth—have created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for female philosophers and students, and especially female philosophers and students who are same-sex attracted. Whether or not this is 'worthy of respect in a democratic society' it's certainly not worthy of respect within the philosophy community.

End notes:

*Those who point out “they didn't terminate her contract, they just decided not to renew it” are avoiding dealing with the issue, and also implicitly supporting the gig-economy and powerful employers' abilities to wave insecure work contracts around as threats in an attempt to get their employees to submit.

**The use of the word 'T%RF' by trans activists has frequently been associated with threats of violence and even death against female persons. I find it doubtful that such persons are truly feminists. Of course, this applies in the other direction too, to those who threaten similar acts against trans persons. From my observations, however, threats of physical violence and death from trans activists towards gender critical feminists dwarf those I've seen in the other direction. The persons who threaten and enact physical violence against trans and gender non-conforming persons in our society are generally men.

Tags: #genderwars #philosophygenderwars #biologicalsex #gender #mayaforstater #jkrowling #feminism #transgender #transwomen

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.