What I talk about when I talk about sex, and gender

It used to be incredibly difficult to talk about the female body because patriarchal logic considered it a disgusting aberration, a nasty cavern of bloodiness into which one might thrust pleasurably (one being a man, of course – the essential subject has been imagined as male for almost all history) and from which one might receive a child, should the thrusting result in a pregnancy. The attitude that female is a secondary, subsidiary, unmentionable type of human persists, and it does so at the expense of medicine’s ability to heal the female body – to mention just one monumental example of this manifest injustice.

However, there’s now another reason that it’s incredibly difficult to talk about the female body – because almost any formulation one might use leads to accusations of bigotry from people who claim to be defending trans rights. Over the last few days, I’ve been upbraided for using all the following phrases in a discussion of the right of female people to assemble on some occasions without the presence of male people: “non-trans women” (“cis” is the only acceptable term; I have issues with cis), “male women” (transphobic), “penissed individuals” (super transphobic), “female human” (taken, inexplicably, to imply that trans women are not human), “female” (ESSENTIALIST!).

The upshot of this is that there is currently no uncontested language with which to describe the specifics of having a female body. And that is an extraordinary problem for anyone attempting to describe and confront misogyny (which means, literally, the hatred of wombs) and sexism (which means, literally, discrimination on the basis of sex). There’s a well-intentioned logic here, which says that as people shouldn’t be defined in totality by their physical characteristics, we therefore shouldn’t give moment to those characteristics in our own speech. But this is faulty besides being well-intentioned. Human society as we now live – as, so far as it is possible to know, we have always lived – has been divided along the lines of sex, and without the ability to describe sex, we have no hope of opposing the oppressions based on it.

To sustain and propagate the division of sexes, a system known as “gender” has been put in place. Like sex, gender consists of two categories. Where sex has male and female, gender has man and woman. In the biological reality of sex, there is no inherent superiority or inferiority vested in either of humanity’s reproductive forms, though there is an asymmetry: females invest a disproportionate amount in gestation, males win in the sense of not having to use their own physical resources to ensure continuation of their line but lose the certainty that this will in fact be their line. Gender, however, has a clear winner and loser. In de Beauvoir’s terms, there is a Subject, and an Other. Men are complete, leaders, owners, actors, thrusters; women are lacking, submissive, possessions, reactors, permeable.

Evolutionary biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues persuasively (in The Woman That Never Evolved) that gender is a reproductive strategy, benefitting male humans. Within it, males behaving like men are able to control the reproductive resources represented by the females who behave like women, while also ensuring the paternity of the offspring they invest in. It is, for all its savagery, a strikingly efficient system, and one in which females have an incentive to cooperate both for their own safety and because it serves them to know their relationship to secondary and tertiary kin. Importantly, though, Hrdy is clear that her study of how humans have behaved says nothing about how they should behave. As creatures of culture, we are constantly inventing our own modes of living. Or as Alasdair Gray has his eponymous hero pronounce in the novel Lanark:

We have no nature. Our nations are not built instinctively by our bodies, like beehives; they are works of art, like ships, gardens and carpets. The possible shapes of them are endless. It is bad habits, not bad nature, which makes us repeat the dull old shapes of poverty and war. Only greedy people who profit by these things believe they are natural.

However, Lanark is not quite right that we have no nature. We ourselves are the wood of our ships, the soil of our garden, the yarn of our carpet: whatever endless possibilities we have, they are still somewhat constrained by the materials with which we work. Or as Janet Radcliffe Richards writes in The Sceptical Feminist: “finding out as much as possible about the world as it is is the only thing which can give us any reasonable hope of success.” We start from where we are, and where we are is a bunch of sexually dimorphic primates with a historical inheritance of iniquity. To pretend we are anything else is to surrender any possibility of transformation.

Bluntly, sex is the fact that I (female) got pregnant and my male partner impregnated me. Gender is the fact that my partner was given two weeks leave in which to adjust to parenthood, while the structures in place enabled (or forced, because no one else could look after our baby) me to take more than a year. Sex is the fact that females have vaginas and males have penises. Gender is the fact that men rape women. But under the sway of trans ideology, it is astonishingly hard to say such things without committing a terrible faux pas. What about women with penises? What about pregnant men? Isn’t it appallingly essentialist to use concepts such as “male violence”? And so we are left in a situation where we can say nothing and do less.

None of this means that I won’t call trans women “she” or trans men “he”. None of this means that male humans are inevitably violent. Gender is a vicious framework, and few of us can survive as complete people within it. Of course there will be escapees, refugees, self-fashioning radicals who make their own existence – and I support them and embrace them, if they will embrace what gender means and acknowledge the harms which feminists seek to dismantle.

But what it does mean is that female humans who seek to live as humans (rather than an inferior, subsidiary addendum) have every reason to be cautious, sometimes, of males who have almost certainly been taught the behaviours of men – and of our own tendency to act in learned submissiveness to those we perceive as masculine. The violence of gender cannot be undone by pretending that sex doesn’t exist, and when we deprive women of the language that describes the nature of their oppression, we deprive them of the means to resist that oppression. And that is something that patriarchy has always done.