Sex and Gender - What's the Difference?
The 'gender debate' emits far more heat than light
This is an updated version of an article I wrote a couple of years ago, in an attempt to clarify a confused debate.
A decade or so ago, I began to write and campaign against censorship (of sexual expression, as well as political speech), which I saw as a dangerous and rising threat to democracy. I assembled a broad coalition of support, including sex-positive feminists. What I hadn’t bargained for was a widespread belief among my allies that gender was a social construct.
I was familiar with social constructionist ideas, which had been popularised in the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s. My parents’ generation - the baby boomers - often subscribed to the idea that ‘gendered toys’ and socially-constructed stereotypes were to blame for unruly male behaviours. My long-suffering mum, who produced two more boys after me, learned the hard way that gender identity isn’t something you can mould like dough. Boys - as the saying goes - will be boys. I had assumed, in the intervening years, that this view of gender identity had been quietly left behind. I could not have been more wrong.
What I hadn’t fully realised when I started writing on the subject is that, rather than remain a whimsical idea of the boomers, the belief that ‘gender is a social construct’ had become popularised, embedded in academia (via Women’s and then Gender Studies), and then become part of the education of countless young people. Many of these had gone on to become the next generations of journalists, educators and politicians. Rather than attempt to discover the realities of gender, these new ‘theorists’ simply adopted a theological approach. A recent, confessional article by a gender academic reveals the truth about gender theory: it begins from a false assumption (boys and girls are essentially the same), and then much of the rest is simply made up. As gender theory matured, so the body of work based on this false assumption grew. Social scientists cited earlier social scientists, piles of books were written, and the new religion became solid. The myth became fact, because it was built on a huge foundation of erroneous works, each one adding credence to the rest.
As I came into contact with ‘gender theorists’, I was confused by the theory I began to encounter, which seemed to clash with much of the sex science I had read, and I would ask these new acquaintances to explain their view of gender to me. I was rewarded with blank looks, or scornful ones for asking the wrong questions. Finally, I got the chance to interrogate an actual lecturer in gender studies, the husband of a friend. Over a pint, I explained my confusion regarding ‘gender theory’, and asked a simple, devil’s advocate question to get the ball rolling: surely, gender was rooted in biology? To my surprise, the man became flustered, (literally) began tugging at his his hair and became incoherently angry. He then called on a fellow social scientist to explain why my question was wrong. From this encounter, I learned little about gender theory, except one thing: gender theorists did not behave remotely like scientists. They didn’t revel in defending or explaining their field, nor in the cut and thrust of discussion. Gender theory, it seemed, was some kind of a religion.
Around the same time, I shared a story on Twitter from a scientific publication about a research paper on the mating habits of bears. The story revealed a close match between human and bear mating behaviours. I hadn’t expected any response save, perhaps, some smutty dad jokes. My tweet, however, received an outraged response from a well-known feminist sex blogger, who angrily tweeted me that BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM IS FUCKING BOLLOCKS.
Biological determinism is not a scientific term, but a pejorative to be directed against evolutionary science that threatens the religion’s belief system. This accusation was confusing: if the similarities between bear and human behaviours were not biological in origin, was bear behaviour constructed by copying mating behaviour from humans? Or were humans copying bears? The blogger failed to explain. Puzzled, I spoke to a feminist journalist who was a mutual friend of myself and the sex blogger, but she too dismissed my belief in behavioural evolution as so extreme that “not even Richard Dawkins would support that!” (Dawkins, of course does support that, but in any case, he isn’t the High Priest of Evolution). I experienced the unsettling sensation that many of my acquaintances were joining a cult.
Having inadvertently crossed swords with the fledgling Woke movement, I began to hear rumours about myself that friends had heard from their friends. By expressing the belief that male and female behaviours were rooted in our biology, I had become problematic - a heretic.
Attempting to understanding gender theory from academics or feminists had failed. Transgender friends turned out to be more enlightening. I observed over a period of time as a trans friend transitioned from female to male, and saw the remarkable effects of testosterone in altering his personality (surely a clue that gender is not something we simply learn in childhood). A trans woman in her 60s explained her journey to me in language that was refreshingly clear, if not politically correct: she was born, she told me, with a ‘defect’ in her brain that did not recognise her male body. Surgery, hormones, a new name and living as a woman had allowed her to be comfortable in herself, for the first time in her life. Her harrowing story helped convince me that trans people should be accepted as the gender they choose rather than the sex they were born as.
The existence of trans people (which refers to people born with gender dysphoria) creates a problem for social constructionists. If gender is a social construct, then how can one be born believing one is the wrong gender, with such distressing consequences? Social constructionists are forced into a position of either surrendering their belief system, or suggesting that gender dysphoria is a social creation. The latter explanation both belittles the traumatic experiences of trans people, and suggests their condition might be ‘curable’ by therapy alone. This puts social constructionists in a similar position to American Christians who advocate for a ‘gay cure’.
Science clearly backs the idea that gender identity is innate. Neuroscience has only recently begun to mature as a discipline (this is easily explained by the fact that an adult human brain is almost unfathomably complex, and is formed of almost 100 billion neurons), but it is clear that most brains are identifiable as male or female. The puzzling word in the last sentence is ‘most’. Gender identity isn’t a single, binary brain feature with two settings, but appears to be a combination of features. In a 2015 study (‘Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic’ by Daphna Joel and others), 29 regions of the brain were scanned in multiple people, and each region was a different size depending on the person’s sex. However, in only a small proportion (no more than eight percent) of brains were all 29 regions either typically male or female. The vast majority of us show some combination of the two.
Nobody should be too surprised by this finding. After all, while most people show fairly typically gendered behaviours, most also show some atypical ones. As Joel’s paper states in its introduction: ‘… human brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males’.
Based on this mosaic model of the brain, it becomes easier to understand that a more typically male brain might (somehow) occur in a female body, and vice-versa. It also becomes clear why some people feel ‘non-binary’, meaning they don’t identify strongly as either male or female. Gender is therefore a spectrum rather than ‘binary’ — however, brains are not evenly distributed across the spectrum. Most people fall within the ranges of typically male or typically female.
Unfortunately, gender politics misses any such nuance. Feminism has a history of dividing deeply over controversial issues. The subject of pornography split the movement in the 1980s; gender dysphoria is another such issue. The appalling ‘debate’ over transgender rights has broadly split the discourse into two dogmatic tribes, each with its own set of simplistic positions and slogans. While it seems an obvious ethical point that transgender people should be recognised as the gender of their choice, there are caveats and exceptions to be considered.
One such exception is in sport, where (despite loud insistence to the contrary), it is possible that trans women may have an advantage over cis women. Although sporting performance is heavily based on testosterone levels (which are heavily reduced in trans women) this does not mean that trans women do not have any residual advantage: height, musculature, bone density or lung capacity, for example. Female athletes are increasingly challenging the inclusion of trans women in elite sport as unfair, but in turn they face accusations of ‘transphobia’ for raising the issue. Other controversial (but easy to solve) issues involve choices over gym changing rooms and prisons. These should be interesting and complex discussions, but gender politics is often so polarised that nuanced points become unsayable if one is determined not to be labelled problematic.
On one side of the argument are trans-exclusionary radical feminists (often referred to as TERFs, though they generally refer to themselves as ‘gender realists’). These take what is essentially a gender-nationalist position, and refuse to accept trans women into the sorority. TERF behaviours appear to be heavily driven by spite, though are typically couched as a defence of women’s rights against the invasion of men into women’s spaces. Many TERFs appear to enjoy misgendering trans women as ‘he’, or yelling that ‘women don’t have penises’. These behaviours shed little light on why TERFs care so much about how trans women choose to define themselves. Beyond exception cases, there is little evidence that trans rights impinge on women’s rights, and yet this is the central claim of TERF arguments. There is also the complex matter of how transgender children and teenagers should be treated, but TERFs offer no deep insight into this, and this seems to be a matter for medical professionals, researchers, parents and the children themselves, rather than for political point-scoring. Referring to the acceptance of transgender children as ‘child abuse’ may be useful for stirring up rage on social media, but does not add to useful discussion.
A case in point is that of Meghan Murphy, the founder of Feminist Current, who (like so many other radical feminists) apparently became bored of campaigning to get genitals deleted from the internet, and turned to the anti-trans cause. Murphy was banned from Twitter in 2018 for referring to a trans woman as ‘him’. This level of petty bullying appears to be the norm for TERFs, who have little to contribute beyond endlessly repetition of ‘you’re not a woman!’ Ironically, Murphy had, for years previously, been a strident campaigner for bans against pornography and other form of sexual expression, but this didn’t prevent her being lauded as a free speech hero by others in the anti-trans movement. While I oppose social media censorship of this kind, Murphy is certainly no defender of free expression.
The brutish arguments of TERFs should be easy to oppose in debate, if it wasn’t for the equal intransigence of many of those claiming to represent transgender interests. The pointless ‘Women don’t have penises!’ is met with the equally vapid ‘Trans women are women!’. There is nowhere to go from here other than a loop: ‘No they are not!’, ‘Yes they are!’, “TERF scum!”, “Misogynist!”, and so on. This bald statement (that trans women are women) is designed to close down discussion, rather than illuminate, advocate or educate. To illustrate how far the rot has spread, consider the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which once had such a deep commitment to free speech that it defended the Ku Klux Klan. Now, the ACLU appears to have succumbed to the Woke authoritarianism that has torn through the Left, and shuts down speech by tweeting “Trans girls are GIRLS. Period”
To be a labelled a TERF is (among the woke) roughly akin to being called a Nazi. Just as political violence against (alleged) Nazis is now acceptable on the far-left, so is the advocating of violence against TERFs — as a quick Twitter search on punch a terf demonstrates. As with all censorious and threatening behaviour, this simply encourages sympathy for people who don’t deserve sympathy, and who would be easily defeated in debate. Debate is, however impossible in this climate. Leading TERFs such as the Guardian journalist Jule Bindel are routinely no-platformed, and clearly enjoy this treatment.
While trans people have often had traumatic life experiences, and deserve heartfelt support and solidarity, neither side in this debate does. TERFs tend to deny the biological roots of gender dysphoria, and dismiss trans women as ‘deluded men’. And yet gender dysphoria isn’t ‘delusion’. Trans women appear to have brains that are more female-typical than male. This is not a delusion or a mental illness, but biology. The TERF response — refusing to honour a person’s choice of pronouns — is pure, malicious spite, designed to cause individuals pain.
While each side shouts slogans at each other, a third group muddies the waters still further. ‘Coming out as non-binary’ has become a trend, as illustrated by the singer Sam Smith. Unlike coming out as transgender (which typically means a person will start living as the opposite sex, take hormones and possibly prepare for surgery), coming out as non-binary means little to the observer. Other than refer to Smith as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’, how is one supposed to respond to such an announcement?
There’s nothing especially wrong with people posturing in this way. ‘Gender bending’ (as it used to be known) is a perfectly good challenge to rigid gender stereotypes. But to compare this attention-seeking behaviour with the suffering experienced by people with gender dysphoria is ludicrous, and somewhat akin to a gender version of blackface… ‘You’re trans? I feel a little bit trans too, sometimes…’
Transgender people (at least in the vast majority of cases) don’t come out for publicity, or to ‘bring attention to an important issue’. They do it because they have no choice, if they want to lead fulfilled lives. Because they need to express as their chosen gender before they can receive the medical treatment they need. Far from bringing understanding and support to trans people, the ‘coming out as non-binary’ trend suggests to the uninitiated that gender dysphoria is a fashion statement, and a choice. Furthermore, one suspects, the adoption of the awkward ‘they’ formulation, is often done simply as an excuse for bullying, a chance to attack people if they accidentally misgender as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘they’.
All sides — the social constructionists, the anti-trans activists, the self-appointed trans rights activists, and the I-feel-a-bit-trans-today fashionistas are guilty of misrepresenting gender, or of trying to suppress discussion, or both. The losers are scientific reason, public understanding, and transgender people seeking support.