The Question Isn't the Reality of Biological Sex; It's How and Whether We Can and Should Talk About It
On the Use and Meaning of the Word "female"
Content warning: Politics.
I have dedicated several essays (and parts of many others) to pleading for dialogue, respectful listening, engaging. But, of course, engaging isn’t easy. It’s not only emotionally difficult, and not only inevitably done in a swarm of bad-faith trolls from both sides, and made incredibly difficult by the ground our contemporary fora are based upon; it’s hard because we each live in our own umwelt, and what we hear is often not what people mean to say.
So today I am going to try an unraveling of a debate, to tackle an issue where both sides are talking past each other. I’m going to suggest a new line of debate which would (if followed) be at least clarifying. I’m not trying to solve the debate; just make it more productive. So here goes.
One of the current lines of debate (as I alluded to last week) is on the question of whether “sex is real”. A lot of GC feminists—most famously J. K. Rowling—have suggested, or outright said, that that is all they are trying to maintain; a lot of trans activists have denied that anyone is questioning that fact. There is truth in what each side says; they’re talking past each other. Here’s what I mean.
When gender critical feminists say that “sex is real”, they don’t just mean the biology accurately describes the world; they mean that that is the case, and that that distinction is meaningful in other ways, and needs to be talked about. When they say that trans right activists deny that sex is real, they don’t mean that they disagree about the biology, but that they are preventing (through social pressure) discussing it in non-strictly biological contexts.
When trans rights activists say that “of course we know that sex is real”, they mean that they are perfectly aware of the biology, thank you, but they think (in part correctly) that it is being referred to for non-biological purposes.1
The way this has played out, imperfectly and in a forward-and-back dance, is like this: for a while, the fight was over the word “women”. TRAs said that trans women were women; GCFs said that women were “adult human females”. (Already the seed of the future conflict was sown!) But eventually the TRAs, at least some of them, made a tactical retreat: they would now start talking about females.
Embracing the gender/sex distinction, rather than insisting that women’s spaces needed to be for women, they need to be for females.
What this did, however, was simply restore the initial conditions of the debate, like rebooting a game and starting over. Just now the word “female” was what was used. TRAs, understanding that what was at stake was their being treated as women, began to claim the word female.2
So when GCFs say “they’re denying the reality of sex”, TRAs replying, as many have (here’s an example I saw within the day or two, but there are countless3 more), “of course we believe in the reality of sex” is not actually germane. The issue isn’t people’s biological beliefs (let alone their stances on technical issues of the philosophy of language); it’s whether we have, and can have, a word which applies to the sex class as opposed to the gender category.
Now, as is my wishy-washy wont,4 I have some sympathies on both sides here.
On the GCF side, this really does seem to be an example of TRAs getting something to be not discussed. This is a very different technique than canceling and shunning (although as it probably requires the implicit threat of those to be effective, it’s not unrelated either). But removing the words people use to talk about something, saying they don’t mean what most people think they mean,5 seems like a genuine effort to shut down debate. Trans Rights activists have won—or at any rate I think they are winning, and at a more rapid pace than they are winning everything—the debate about gender and sex. But that simply bumps up the debate to another level: who belongs in women’s spaces? Women? Or females?
And I have a lot of sympathy for TRAs who feel that, somehow, they have ended Sisyphus-like at the bottom of the same damn hill. Further, some people on the GCF side can be genuinely obnoxious about it: calling trans women “trans identified males” is a particularly nasty bit of labelling. A fair number of talking points seem to just have been control-H’d to swap ‘women’ for ‘females’.
As usual, I think the answer is more dialogue—and more frank dialogue, and more dialogue said without fear (on both sides).
I know that trans rights activists feel, not incorrectly, that they’ve been over this. But of course the obvious, undeniable fact is that not everyone is convinced. Part of the problem, I think, is that people were convinced in the first place back when “trans” usually meant “transsexual”, with the assumption either of surgery or that surgery was forthcoming as soon as circumstances permitted (hence the term “pre-op”), but that now they are being asked to agree about people who have no interest in having the surgery, and some of whom (how many is an important & to my knowledge unresolved question) don’t make any efforts to keep the “transition” in “trans” at all, but are merely declaring identity.
Personally, I think the solution here is that we ought to6 agree to keep the word “female” for the biological class (and simply not using either “male” or “female” for cases which are sufficiently in-between), but at the same time agree to minimize its use: not to gratuitously say “female” when honestly what you mean is “women”.
But of course that’s the rub. Is it reasonable for lesbians to want to date not only only women but also only females? (I think the answer is clearly yes but there is obviously no consensus here.) Is it reasonable for women to want to have not only only women but also only females in women’s bathrooms? (I think the answer is clearly no but there is obviously no consensus here.) But now we’re getting into issues about when and how trans women become women, which is another (albeit tightly linked) debate.
But at least can I ask this: can we not pretend to be arguing about biology when in fact what we are arguing about is when biology matters, how it should matter, and when it is or isn’t appropriate to talk about it?
Because there are GRFs who are saying (as if it is obvious and it is silly to deny it) that sex is obviously real, when what they really mean is “and we should therefore use the word ‘female’ for that, and use it freely & often & in a great many contexts”. And there are TRAs who are saying (as if it is obvious and it is silly to deny it) that sex is obviously real, when what they really mean is “but we don’t think it should be used in any context, or even referred to, outside of a medical setting”.
What they are disagreeing about is not what a particular trans woman’s biology is. It’s about whether, when and under what circumstances we should call her male, and what follows from that.7
There are certainly trans activists who want to make the biological-based distinction only in (say) medical circumstances: who think that trans women should always be treated as women, and that referring to their sex is bigotry. There are certainly gender critical feminists who only want to make the biological-based distinction, and who thinks that trans women should never be treated as women, however much transitioning has gone on. I, as my faithful readers know, am in-between those two poles; I think that neither everyone nor no one, and neither always nor never, is reasonable.
But most of all I think we should talk about it—and talk about what we’re really talking about, and not get sidetracked into pointless non-discussions.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends. So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.
If you liked this essay well enough to read this far, you should browse the archives. That link will send you to them in reverse chronological order (most recent first); this link will show them to you in proper chronological order. Or just browse.
If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick.
Next week: Maybe one of those other posts I’ve been promising for weeks? But maybe not, I seem to be chasing a lot of shiny, fast-moving objects lately. I think I should stop predicting my topics; I’m bad at it. Update: Yeah, I went with the shiny object.
There are exceptions to these two characterizations. For instance, some people on the TRA side of the debate—probably not many, but definitely some—really do say that sex is socially constructed (or even: a notion created only by (white) imperialist colonialism) in a way that seems to deny biology, although what they’re saying is complex, confused, and really belongs in the weeds of a philosophical debate on nominalism vs. realism. Much as I’d dearly love for it to be the case that what the culture really wants to do is sit down and have a grand seminar on the philosophy of naming and entities and science and all sorts of good stuff like that, I think people who take this position are mostly trying to be dismissive for political reasons.
Although there is also some genuine, albeit most often deeply unsophisticated, metaphysical claims here: the left has gotten itself tied to a nominalist position as a political matter which, aside from everything else, is just weird. (See previous footnote). Does anyone really care about metaphysics and philosophy of language that much?
I mean, I’d love to be wrong. If the entire country got consumed in a debate about technical philosophy rather than trans politics, it would not only be better for us, but it would be the most awesomely wonderful thing ever. Just imagine: strangers yelling at each other on twitter about the views of Occam versus the views of Acquinas, op-eds in major newspers hacking out the finer points of the views of Susan Haack and Ian Hacking, bars from coast to coast getting in near-brawls wrestling with the difference between early and late Putnam…
It’s a lovely dream, but unless you actually care that much (and if so, please tell me, because I wanna be your friend), why not just make politics, not metaphysics, the basis of your politics?
I will admit that every time I say something like that (“countless”) I feel a stab of guilt, hearing in my head the admonition of the philosopher J. L. Austin:
I think we should not despair too easily and talk, as people are apt to do, about the infinite uses of language. Philosophers will do this when they have listed as many, let us say, as seventeen; but even if there were something like ten thousand uses of language, surely we could list them all in time. This, after all, is no larger than the number of species of beetle that entomologists have taken the pains to list. (Philosophical Papers, "Performative Utterances")
And he’s right! But then, entomologists have grants and grad students and things like that. So I guess all I can say is: NSA, give me a bunch of money and a lab and some help, and I will be delighted to put some hard numbers on that for you. In the meantime, Mr. Austin, let us not confuse underfunding and inattention with laziness and despair.
I adamantly deny the rumors that I began this entire substack just to have an excuse to use that phrase. Really! Also, Nixon wasn’t a crook, Clinton didn’t have sex with that woman, and Donald Trump once told the truth about something.
Please spare me your Princess Bride jokes (much as I love that movie). The whole point is that Vizzini was using the word not as everyone else does. Although many people seem confused on this point, you really can’t make words mean whatever you want them to mean, because that way doesn’t communicate. That doesn’t mean that words never get redefined—of course they do. But here it is an attempt to remove a concept lots of people think they have a good use for.
Said “ought to”. Didn’t say “will” or even “are remotely likely to”.
Again, this is complicated by the fact that, in the inherently nutpicking netverse, there are in fact some extremists on both sides who do argue against what I am saying is the mainstream consensus. They in particular will not listen to me, but if by some strange messianic miracle they are, let me just say: I really, honestly don’t think your helping. On the contrary.