There were no women athletes in the first modern Olympic games. The next time around, in the 1900 Paris games, out of 997 athletes there were 22 women, who competed in just five acceptably ladylike sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Over a century later, the introduction of women’s boxing meant that the 2012 Olympics were the first to feature women competing in all sports. But that moment of parity has been followed almost immediately by a drastic challenge to the very definition of women’s sport, as the International Olympic Committee brought out new rules last November on the inclusion of trans athletes.
My girl is eight years old. She is clever and kind and tall and strong and funny and stubborn and beautiful – well of course I think all of these things, because she’s my daughter and I love her. “Am I a girly-girl or a tomboy?” she asks sometimes, and I can never tell from the way she asks which of them she wants to be: she knows that to be a girly-girl is to belong (she has learned from experience that getting “girly” right will be rewarded and protect her from certain kinds of sanction), but she knows too that “boy” things are laudable and tomboyishness has a cachet that girliness does not. Anyway, the answer is always the same: “You’re you, darling. Whatever you like is right for you.” With her long treacle-coloured hair and her undercut, her perfect cartwheels and her graphic novels, her Taylor Swift dance routines and her speed up a climbing wall, on her rollerskates or in her football boots – yes, she is perfectly her.
Last night the conversation took a different turn. She had been watching an episode of the CBBC documentary series My Life, and the subject was a 13-year-old transboy called Leo. In an article on the production, one of the executives explains that making a documentary for children meant they couldn’t be “explicit”: in other words, if Leo has always felt profoundly that he should have a penis, the programme can’t mention that. Instead, the experience of being a boy is crystallised in an anecdote about Leo (then Lily) deciding he wanted short hair and cutting it all off, and the fact that he preferred “boys’ toys”. So I asked my daughter: “How do you know if you’re a girl or a boy?” And she said, repeating the line from the documentary: “It’s the way you feel.” Oh, my girl. How can you know “how you feel” when all your life people have been telling you what you are? When your gender has been constructed for you and your limbs and brain arranged and shaped to fit it, by family, carers and strangers, from when you were the tiniest thing?
So many things we did, none of them wicked but all of them guiding you in the same direction. As a magpie-eyed baby, women on the tram would shake their jewellery at you and then coo over you when you reached out to grab the sparkling trinkets: “Oh, she’s a real girl,” they would say, approvingly. When you toddled, you loved to play with shoes: “Just like a woman,” adults told you, indulgently. (I found a photo the other day of your big brother flapping about in a pair of his dad’s trainers. He liked shoes too – but no one told him that was the proper thing for his sex.) You loved dolls, but then so did your brother: he had to ask for his first Barbie and his baby with a buggy, though, and I felt my good liberal intent quail at the violation of the norms when I got them for him, whereas you have been given a surfeit of big-titted totems and soft-cheeked dummies to practise femininity on.
Not all the encouragement you received has been positive. You did a term of judo, then you stopped because some boys in the class began shoving the few girls who attended. They didn’t tell you this was because you were a girl, but it was because you were a girl: they decided this class was their space, so they pushed you around till they pushed you out. “Push them back, and harder,” I wanted to say – you are going to grow up tall and powerful, and right now most boys your age are smaller than you – but fighting is only going to get you in trouble, and anyway, in a few years their violence will exceed anything you can offer. It’s a fantasy, it’s not an answer. I didn’t have an answer. Dear girl, I am sorry.
The YouTubers your brother watches use “pussy” as an insult. I talk to him about this, but that doesn’t stop his friends from watching, can’t excise this disgust from your social world. You read the covers of the magazines in the supermarket, a litany of male violence and female self-loathing: all this hate for your gorgeous, compact little self, I try to keep it out and it still gets it, it gets in. A lot of it gets in through me. One day, when you were only three, you picked up my razor during bathtime, and while I was distracted, you dragged it up your peachfuzz leg just like you’d seen me do. The cut was shallow but long – your first wound of femininity, and all my fault. (It’s funny, incidentally, how shaving is supposedly masculine. In terms of area, I shave more skin than any man who isn’t a pro swimmer or cyclist. But shaving is not feminine – perhaps because it is not feminine to be hairy in the first place, so it is not feminine to shave. It is just demanded by femininity.)
So in the documentary, when Leo says, “The only difference between [my] life and a born-male boy’s life is, [I’m] trapped in this awful body and [I] have to do loads of medical stuff,” I think about all the things people have done to you because of your “awful” body, the ways they’ve (we’ve) all tamed you because we’re afraid of what your rebellion might mean. And this has been a relatively gentle process so far. Leo says, “One thing that scared me was knowing my body would soon change into a woman’s,” and I think about what the advent of hips and tits will mean for you, the pinching and the pinging and appraising eyes and comments that will fill the air around you with pins and make you squeeze yourself smaller, smaller, smaller when you should be spreading out and taking all the space you need.
“Male hormones turn boys into men, and female hormones turn girls into women,” reads Leo from his script. This is not exactly true: male hormones turn juvenile males into adult males, female hormones turn juvenile females into adult females. To become a man or a woman takes the input of a million cultural prompts, the insults and the razors and the praise and the dolls, to make you what this society has determined your sex means you must be. But they are lying to you, my girl. The documentary illustrates the brain-body mismatch theorised to explain transgenderism with a cartoon: a blue, human-shaped figure with a blue brain, and a pink, skirted figure with a pink brain. As if a skirt were a part of your female body, as if your brilliant brain was rose-tinted – and this is gender. Not the way you feel, but the fact of society allocating you to one class or the other, with no chance to escape unless you deny your own flesh. My perfect girl, this hateful world.
“Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none;
If you be one, as you are well express’d
By all external warrants, show it now,
By putting on the destined livery.”
– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
Be that you are. The impossibility of that phase – delivered by the corrupt Angelo to the virginal Isabella – bit into my brain when I read the play at 16 for my A-levels. If you are something, I wondered, then how is it possible to not already be it? The answer is something I didn’t understand then, something that at 32 I am dimly beginning to comprehend; and the answer is intimately entwined with the vicious double-nature of the category “woman”.
Simone de Beauvoir grasped the same awful truth Angelo expresses when she wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In these gender-worshipping times we live in, de Beauvoir’s phrase is often interpreted to mean than the status of “woman” is something one opts into, rather than something in any way conditional on one’s body. The feminist writer and activist Lauren Rankin, for example, says that:
“Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’
Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of ‘woman’ is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?”
– Lauren Rankin, Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism
In this use of de Beauvoir’s epigram, a profound separation is made between the physical body and the social role of woman. Rankin argues not only that the physical body does not inherently determine the social role of “woman”, but that it is objectifyingly anti-feminist even to suggest a connection between the two. This is to go substantially further than de Beauvoir does; in fact it’s to go many miles in another direction entirely. This is how de Beauvoir goes on to define “woman”: “the figure that the human female presents in society.” Womanhood is cultivated rather than innate, says de Beauvoir, but there is a common characteristic among those in whom womanhood is cultivated: they are human females.
I’ve been reading a lot of second-wave writing recently, inspired by the New Statesman’s Second Wave Week (and I recommend all the essays in that series whole-heartedly). One of the things that is most shocking in reading older feminist texts is their boldness. This boldness is an insult to the contemporary Whiggism that tells us everything is getting better – continuously, gradually. The demands that boldness made have not been realised: the end to male supremacy that Dworkin imagined over three decades ago has not come about, not even close.
And feminists writing today write in different tone: we are quiescent, accommodating, almost apologetic compared to the thunder and fury of our last-century sisters. We are careful to make our case. We don’t ask more than our due (who determines our due? Presumably whoever we are asking it of). Our requests are transitional, our ends are ameliorative more than revolutionary. This is not because we are worse thinkers, or morally corrupt. It is because we have lived in a time of backlash. Those who are older than me will know the violence of the strike that pushed them down. Those my age or younger will simply know the unimaginability of anything but this wheedling state. We have learnt to be what we are.
Yet what we are, we cannot say. The condition of the human female in society is becoming increasingly one that is unspeakable. This is something that is to do with trans politics, but I want to be absolutely clear at this point: it is not something that has been caused by the existence of trans people, the vast majority of whom simply wish to live without harming or being harmed. The backlash has taken several forms. The first was the “choice feminism” of the 1980s and 90s – a decontextualised sort of anti-politics that told us whatever a woman does is good, particularly if what she does is what she would have done without feminism to tell her she can be a person in her own right. Then we had the neurosexism of the 1990s and 2000s (so deftly addressed by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender), which reassured us that whatever women choose, they choose because that is what women do.
And from these, in the late-00s and 2010s, has been birthed the rhetoric of trans advocacy (which, I reiterate, is not the same as trans people themselves), a chimerical compound of the two previous strands of backlash. Within the lore of trans advocacy, as seen in the extract from Lauren Rankin above, the individual’s stated choice is always the ultimate arbiter, to the point that physical sex may no longer be considered as a material condition: “male” and “female” are said to be “assigned”, and should the individual disagree with their “assignation”, the individual’s judgement is sovereign. This leads us to a situation where, counter to all that is known about mammalian biology, it is possible for trans theorist and activist Julia Serano to claim that the presence of a penis is perfectly consistent with a state of “femaleness” (Whipping Girl, p. 16).
So if trans ideology holds that “femaleness” is not determined by our sex organs, where does this mysterious quality spring from? This is where neurosexism makes its contribution to the anti-feminist monstrosity. In Delusions of Gender, Fine meticulously delineates how neurosexism fails to question the conditions of sexism in which we live, while it simultaneously reassures us that the sexist outcomes of our society are the unavoidable expression of inherent male and female natures:
“Is it realistic, you will begin to wonder, to expect two kinds of people, with two such different brains, to ever have similar values, achievements, lives? If it’s our differently wired brains that make us different, maybe we can sit back and relax. If you want the answer to persisting gender inequalities, stop peering suspiciously at society and take a look right over here, please, at this brain scan.”
– Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Trans ideology has pretended to break the relationship between the “two kinds of people” and the two kinds of body, male and female. But in actuality, what it has done is simply reaffirm the “two kinds” while denying the possibility of identifying a reproductive framework that might explain why those kinds have been culturally constituted as they are. Here is Serano, distinguishing between “socialised” and “innately” feminine traits:
“Evidence that [feminine aesthetic preferences and ways of expressing oneself] may be hardwired comes from the fact that they typically appear early in childhood and often in contradiction to one’s socialization. […] This indicates that some aspects of feminine verbal and aesthetic expression precede and/or supersede gender socialization.”
– Julia Serano, Whipping Girl
I would like to know very much where Serano has found these individuals who manage to reach early childhood free from the gendering influence of socialisation: Fine describes experiments showing that mothers are more attentive to baby girls’ emotional states and more applauding of baby boys’ crawling abilities, despite the fact that the male and female infants were identical both in demonstrativeness and motor skills. From the very smallest stage, parents are assisting their children in the process of becoming what they must be, woman or man. The girls are taught to be feeling and receptive, the boys to be active and powerful. In fact, what is being established is a class system – for that is what gender is.
It is rare to hear gender spoken of as a class system now, when we have learnt to think of it instead as an “identity” with infinite permutations all made sacred by the neoliberal spirit of individuality. That sounds more nuanced, doesn’t it? Much more sophisticated. It is an obfuscation. To learn what gender truly is, we must dig back, into the prehistory of humanity and into the second-wave writings that are so little regarded now as to seem practically prehistoric:
“[T]he natural reproductive difference between the sexes led directly to the first division of labour at the origins of class, as well as furnishing the paradigm of caste (discrimination based on biological characteristics).”
– Shulamith Firestone, Dialectic of Sex
The biological characteristics Firestone refers to are, of course, the sexual characteristics that decide our likely reproductive role. In the asymmetry of mammalian reproduction, control of the resource-rich female body is highly prized. Among humans, gender is the social system that gives males that precious power. It is not natural for men to be dominant and women to be submissive, but it is naturalised by the norms of patriarchy.
Where Firestone’s radical feminism sought to expose and disentangle this relationship between what one is and what one is supposed to be, the trans advocacy of Serano reaffirms its inherency – for when trans people are a minority of less than 1%, what Serano’s claims about gender really amount to is the assertion that gender has got it right for the more than 99% of us deemed to be “cis”.
Denying the connection between reproductive sex and socialised gender is a way to make gender appear innocuous. Serano even denies that femaleness is of much moment at all to misogyny these days: “much of the sexism faced by women today targets their femininity (or assumed femininity) rather than their femaleness,” she states in the essay Empowering Femininity. If only we could let women put on their destined livery of lipstick and prettiness without condemnation, the suggestion seems to be, then all would be well.
But the destined livery of women is too often violently imposed. Forced marriage, domestic violence, FGM, rape, sexual harassment, the denial of abortion, the compulsion to sacrifice oneself to the care of others – these things are not imposed on women because we are feminine, they are imposed because we are female. By enforcing our inferiority to male needs and male desires, these forms of violence enforce our femininity – the signs and symbols of which change, but the meaning of which is always to be less than the man. (“[I]f you be more, you’re none,” says Angelo. There is no escape for Isabella.)
Once we accept that trans ideology does not alter the sex-class system, we can begin to understand why the flash points of trans activism so often seem to be around female resistance to male supremacy. Campaigns for reproductive rights are attacked for being triggeringly objectifying when they are anatomically precise (as Night of 1,000 Vaginas was described) or transphobically essentialist when they refer to women as a whole (a charge aimed at the group Lady Parts Justice by trans writer Parker Molloy). Meanwhile, men’s health campaigns are placed under no such pressure.
Domestic violence shelters are charged with transphobia for exercising judgement on whether they can provide services to trans women along with their other clients; men-only enclaves such as the tech industry, politics or sports are left uncriticised for their exclusion of trans men. At the end of Michelle Goldberg’s article What is a Woman?, she quotes interviewee Sandy Stone’s injunction to radical feminists: “I am going to have to say, It’s your place to stay out of spaces where transgender male-to-female people go. It’s not our job to avoid you.” Women’s self-defined space is made permeable, penetrable, borderless – just as the female body is held to be in the patriarchal imagination.
This is the replication of old habits of male supremacy, made fresh by the new jargon of trans advocacy. This is the backlash, lashing still. Our sex does not decide what we will become, but society, speaking with the patriarch voice of Angelo, continues to tells us to be that which we are in its eyes. Our bodies are a material condition of our lives: we cannot free ourselves from tyranny by identifying it away. The control of bodies is the object of gender: again, we cannot resist that control by pretending not to recognise it. Instead of wishful thinking and faith in a vague sort of general progressivism, we need to deploy the radical analysis of gender to understand how male and female humans are coerced into masculinity and femininity. And we need to do it urgently: there are trans people who know they need a form of politics not moulded by the dull shapes patriarchy, and the backlash against women has gone on too long.
My sexuality is not fluid. I know it is meant to be – I know that, as a woman, the ladmag diktat that “female sexuality is fluid” is supposed to apply to me, and mean that pressuring me into having a girl-girl-guy threesome would be merely unleashing my buried erotic potential, should any male partner wish to do such a thing. But my sexuality is not fluid. It cannot be poured into a cup by someone else, made formless and amenable, consumed by anyone who wants to drink it.
My sexuality is not fluid. There are things I like, and things I do not like; things that incite me to pleasure, and things that do not. My sexuality is not fluid, even though it took me a remarkably long time to recognise this, to accept that my desire has validity and positivity, that I am not just composed of responsive matter but that I have a lust of my own (what is that lust for? That is my business). My sexuality is not fluid, though that doesn’t mean it is fixed: I enjoy meat but I could be a political vegetarian, and gorge joyously on fruits and grains, so why couldn’t I find different sexual pleasures as my ethics direct me?
But that does not mean my sexuality is fluid, does not mean it is a liquid that other people (male people) can decant to serve their own pleasure. When it comes to the boundaries of my own person, my wants are the absolute law: to say, as has been said, that it is “rooted in cissexism and general poor sex education” for a woman to reject those with penises as sexual partners is to say that women (female women) may have no boundaries, it is to say that the female libido is simply a formless puddle for others to plash in. (Who are these others? They are solid, they have form – they are, implicitly, male. While political heterosexuality may be demanded of women, aparently men are not required to swear their fealty to penetration. Funny, that.)
But my sexuality is a part of me, and it has edges and boundaries, inlets and recesses, all of which are my dominion. My sexuality is not fluid. And anyone who says it must be is trying to melt me into liquid nothing, watch me soak into the cracks of my own life, remove me from existence.
My sexuality is not fluid.
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.