This blog is a departure for me, prompted by the recent phenomenon of the inability of some politicians to answer an apparently simple question, “What is a woman?”; a question that for years I never expected would one day generate so much and often ill-considered, debate. It’s also a question that seems to me, is at the tip of an iceberg of often ill-tempered and ill-informed discussion related to sex and gender, mainly via social media, of which most people are probably unaware.
This phenomenon is perhaps a symptom of a deeper malaise in society and manifests our increasing collective inability to deal with sometimes complex issues. The dilution of debate to 280-character soundbites on social media is hardly helping, nor are probably, one-dimensional briefing notes politicians often receive from sometimes young and inexperienced staffers.
I also recognise that social media is not the real world, and that such echo chamber debates, which might appear like “national discussions” are often undertaken with only a very small number of participants, and so are not a true reflection of reality. Furthermore, in some heated social media discussion, I have observed some people adding layers of interpretation and meaning to what someone else has said, and using it to denigrate that person. We can do better than that.
I know this blog is a little disjointed, unacademic and definitely missing some insight and detail, so I will allow myself the opportunity to refine following comments; I’ll also copy some content from some earlier blogs which I think are relevant.
…and yes, given the subject matter, some may say, “what does he know?”, a nearly 60-year-old heterosexual, economically comfortable white man, who generally blogs on the climate emergency, transport, the economy and Wales’s constitutional future!
I work on a simple principle that we should all share the same rights and freedoms to do, to be, to act, and to say what we like, but only to the point at which in discharging those rights and freedoms we begin to restrict the rights and freedoms of another group or individual to do the same, or risk/cause potential harm to others.
I also acknowledge that in discharging such freedoms we ought to avoid causing gratuitous offence – although offence is taken and not given and should never be a reason to shut down debate – and that it is always better to “punch up” than “punch down”. For me, freedom and liberty also have to be linked to a social conscience and both collective and individual responsibility.
Most of the time, this is pretty uncontentious; however, sometimes, at the boundaries, we have issues and tough choices, and in those more contentious circumstances I often hear too much asserted, sometimes evangelical, dogma getting in the way of a reasoned debate.
To help set out why this stuff is so difficult, we have to recognise that humans can be unpredictable, emotional and sometime irrational creatures. For most of our evolutionary history we had to deal with a simpler, but often harsher world. Things were blacker and whiter; the sun comes up, you plant in spring, harvest in Autumn, don’t eat the poisoned berries, women have babies, we grow old, we die.
However, especially in the last 150 years, science & technology have presented us a more complex world that we are not evolved to deal with. So, in coming to a view, I try to follow the science, data and evidence, but nuance its application to reflect human cultural experience.
Furthermore, I try to maintain an objective and honest mindset and so am prepared to change my mind, as we all should, when presented with new data or evidence. Seems that many of our problems today stem from a populist, “we have heard enough from experts attitude” that has infected our political discourse.
Now I’d like to add three further insights for context which I think might help people understand how I approached this subject. I also expect some will not, and dismiss the perspective I offer below.
Firstly, I’ll draw upon (again!) Robert Pirsig’s famous work, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance[i]”. I’ll probably summarise this very poorly, but in his book, Pirsig explored, two world views which he manifests in his characters. One world view is the Romantic, the other the Classical. The latter is engaged and seeks to understand the components, processes and workings of the world, the former is more concerned with the lived experience. However, Pirsig ultimately embraced the middle ground and explored the need to transcend and embrace both a classical and romantic view of the world; one that combines and embraces details, rational analysis and objective knowledge with the romantic freedom of being and living in the moment.
Secondly, as individuals of an imperfect and often collectively destructive species we can never be 100% consistent in our individual beliefs. It’s a psychological reality that we all hold some naturally contradictory views[ii]. If more of us understood this, we’d be in a much better place. The fact that so much of our social discourse is mired in often fractious debate is entirely consistent with the human condition.
Thirdly, I would observe that there is an arc of progress in respect of equality, and whilst the speed of change varies (with sometimes the odd step back) progress has been and continues to be made. So yes, in the past 50 years and since the early 1960s when, for example, homosexuality was still a criminal act in the UK, we have made enormous progress. We have seen legislation in most countries across the world enhance minority rights.
In the UK, for example[iii], securing women’s rights (1975 Sex Discrimination Act), LGBT rights (2010 Equality Act), Legalisation of Homosexuality (1967 Sexual Offences Act,) and same Sex Marriage in 2012. The work of people like Leo Abse who brought the 1967 bill through parliament should not be forgotten nor those like Harvey Milk in San Francisco to normalise homosexuality.
However, it seems to me that trouble is brewing and that some sort of schism has occurred resulting from a clash, in some circumstances, of two “world views”. One, and most widely understood, where one’s view of oneself is based on physical sex and attraction thereof, both hetero and homosexual. Another and less common view, is based on a more fluid definition by those who manifest a more gender-based persona. It looks to me that differences in definitions and use thereof, is at the heart of the current difficulties. Perhaps a little of Pirsig’s Classical Vs Romantic conflict is playing out and which is over complicating the simple question of, “What is a woman?” More broadly the conflict is generating calls for greater equality and inclusion, most of which are uncontroversial.
However, we need to be careful if in providing rights for one group, we are not diminishing someone else’s at the same time. In relation to the sex/gender debate, one needs to ask how the unarguable rights of an individual to be how they feel and/or want to be, are to be reconciled with legally enshrined and societally important sex-based services rights and protections, and biology.
I also suspect this can’t be resolved 100% in all cases for all people and, as is true in some other circumstances, the need for collective rights and freedoms may, on occasion, clash with some personal freedoms and liberties. Any functioning society has to be able to accommodate these uncomfortable exceptions and provide mitigations and compensations where it can.
The collective quest for equality, trans rights and the need to protect women’s rights risk being impeded by a degree of evangelism that in some circumstances, erroneously:
- Views all trans rights arguments as a threat to women’s rights
- Uses intellectually compromised slogans like “transwomen are women” to support an argument
- Exploits often very selective academic views and interpretations thereof; some of which deliberately and unhelpfully in my view, conflate gender and sex.
It seems to me those afraid of, or unable to accommodate, a different world view (from both sides) are perhaps encouraging and enflaming the outrage. The debate has to improve and the need to listen emphasised.
So back to the question that politicians are struggling with “What is a woman?”; and in so doing I will start with some simple biology as I understand it, and the lens through which I see the world – which leans toward Pirsig’s classical view.
I know I can and will be “corrected” – that’s not the point. Please don’t comment with selective literature reviews and with papers lacking objectivity. Climate change deniers can find papers from the less than 5% of scientist who disregard the climate emergency; it does not validate that view given the 95% that take human induced climate change very seriously.
So, for me, a fact: The human species is sexually binary and has evolved into males and females; yes there are genetic, physiological and other variations and exceptions but this does not detract from the lived reality of most people, nor should it prevent us from treating everyone, especially the small number of people who don’t easily fit into this binary sex model, fairly.
Sexual attraction is, in the vast majority of circumstances, just that, sexual and is for most people deeper than looks or how one wants to express gender, it relates to millions of years of binary evolution focussed on reproduction. Also, worth noting that much sexual attraction is related to smell (not just looks) given that smell can be viewed (at least according to some papers I have read) a proxy for the configuration of the immune system, and we tend to be attracted to partners with immune systems that result in offspring with even more effective immune system.
Our sexual identity, for the vast majority (so over 99%) of people, is defined by our XX or XY chromosomes and a system of primary and secondary sexual characteristics, hormonal systems, etc that collectively have evolved to support male and female reproductive systems. Yes, there are clearly (a small number) of chromosomal exceptions, and variations in how these components present and function, and so at a unit level suggest a more graduated spectrum of male and female characteristics. However, no one is defined by the existence or not of a particular component nor its function or efficiency.
From an evolutionary and a societal perspective, these “components” are combined into one of two systems, male and female; one is evolved to produce big eggs, ovum, and the other lots of smaller eggs, sperm. We are evolved to reproduce; and in the vast majority of everyday circumstances, we instinctively know the difference between a man and a woman. We also know that homosexuality is, whilst less common, natural and has been observed in other species; and that gender dysphoria is real and presents all sorts of life challenges to some people most of us can’t begin to imagine.
It’s also worth setting out my recent insight re: gender. It’s not something I really thought about. I always equated gender with sex and so essentially the same thing, as I suspect most people still do. However, it is clear that whilst sex is innate and physiologically and genetically, part of what we are, gender appears to me to be a lot more complex (and getting increasingly so), perhaps even socially constructed in some circumstances, (albeit much evidence to show correlations with certain aspects of physiology and especially the influence of pre-natal testosterone on the developing brain[iv]) and open to variety and multiple definitions. In that vein sex and gender are clearly not the same.
However, for the overwhelming majority of people, sex is male or female, men and women, is innate and not something assigned at birth. We also know that some behaviours and social phenomenon strongly correlate with sex. For example, most prisoners are men, most wars ( I assert) are caused by men, men on average are stronger, and of most relevance perhaps, men are more violent than women.
Whilst men are more likely to be victims of crime, they are also far more likely to be the perpetrators – depending on the data set and the nature of crime, typically between 60~80% (and at the high end of this range for violent crimes). The data on crimes where woman are victims of male violence is stark as an analysis by Women’s Aid[v] and that from Criminal Injuries Helpline[vi] both demonstrate. An estimated two women per week were killed by current or former partners in 2019. The 2021-22 End Violence Against Women snapshot report[vii] is also depressingly illuminating and found that in the UK, it has been reported that in 2021 at least 141 UK women were killed by men (or where a man is the principal suspect); an increase on the previous two years.
That report further found…
….“ONS data showed that 1 in 2 women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home, compared to 1 in 7 men. 1 in 2 women also felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a busy public place, compared to 1 in 5 men. Alongside this, the data revealed the extent of public sexual harassment that women had experienced, with 2 out of 3 women aged 16 to 34 having experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months. 44% of women aged 16 to 34 years had experienced catcalls, whistles, unwanted sexual comments or jokes, and 29% felt like they were being followed.”
It seems pretty clear that some, even many men, can be a real problem!
So, sex matters and we have necessary legal protections for women associated with work, earnings, opportunity, access to services, etc. Sex also matters medically as, for example, some diseases present and develop differently in men vs women; and in the discharge of some treatments, it is right that women are treated and dealt with by women.
There are evidently very clear differences between Men and Women, again, this should not be hard for politicians to state.
However, we also have to reflect a reality that supports equality and inclusivity; that people have a right to be what they want to be and especially where one’s innate feelings of oneself are in conflict with their physiology – and note that this can in some circumstance lead to psychological issues and depression if unresolved.
So, there needs to be a little more room in our inclusive world to accommodate some contradictions. Nor can we define and ensure rights and protections for trans men and trans women by diminishing the rights and protections of gay people (homosexual and lesbian) or heterosexual men and especially women and vice versa; albeit it seems to me that there will always be some grey “at the edges” and so a need for respectful accommodations.
To conclude, I have some observations, that I hope for most people after some consideration would be uncontroversial. I would also guess that these issues are probably not even noticed by the majority of people.
#1 Accept the two world views and their contradictions
I’ll start for me with the most obvious and a perhaps more Pirsigist classical world view; Sex is binary, Men and Women are different, Transwomen are not Women – to insist that they are is logically compromised assertion anyway. I was not assigned sex at birth and I don’t really consider “gender” of relevance to who I am, nor should it be conflated with sex.
I get it that men vary greatly in their physiology, attitudes and behaviours – as do women (and some of these some interpret as different genders). This for me is not evidence of sex being a spectrum.
We have to build our protections for minority groups, including trans, non-binary, around a basic appreciation of these physical realities. I would also observe that for those who view the world through the sex and sexual attraction lens ( so not gender), the idea lesbians should be prepared to have a sexual relationship with transwomen is inherently wrong. Demonising those that state this, as some more radical voices are, is wrong. It is also true that a small number of people don’t neatly fit into this binary sex world view because of some rare genetic or physiological presentations. Sensitivity is needed here and accommodations.
Despite my assertions, we also have to accommodate a more pirisigist romantic world view for those who see themselves and other people, through a gender lens, based on an innate view of themselves that may also be in conflict with their physiology. This perhaps is a more gender fluid persona and yes, does perhaps for some present on spectrum. Whilst this is not a world view I really understand and certainly not its complexities, I do accept, that in some situations their treatment by others, requires that their gender definition has primacy over “sex”.
These two world views have legitimacy, need to able to co-exist and in so doing not be exercised in a way that unnecessarily restricts the rights of those with a the other “view”. No one should suffer prejudice because of their sex OR gender or which of these “views” they associate with. There will inevitably be some contentions.
In summary how we treat people should have nothing to do with sex, gender, looks, skin colour, faith, etc.
#2 Provide safe spaces for those that need them
But there are some physical realities, and in some cases data demands, we establish safe spaces for those that need or want them (as we have in law already) or avoid conferring an unfair advantage on some. So, no, it isn’t right for transwomen to compete in some professional women’s sports. Surely the equitable answer that protects fairness for female athletes is that we have women’s categories and “open” categories.
I think we all need to chill out over toilets! It doesn’t bother me who uses them. However, in some circumstance it may other people…so why not like sports, a women’s facility and then everyone else? Too often I see a male toilet and then everyone else! In stating this I don’t wish to underplay the real fears of the evident male violence in society and that transwomen and gay men are also at risk of male violence as well as women.
So, yes, in some, cases, female spaces and services need to be protected, especially in a medical or penal setting where women maybe, or are, exposed/vulnerable. In those circumstances, vulnerable women often need to be treated and/or dealt with by women (not transwomen). And actually, the women affected get to decide. The key is we need to ensure protection for those that need it – including trans men and transwomen – in life and in the workplace but not at the cost of women’s rights and protections.
Given that I think that we ought to record relevant data using both sex AND gender, and not a single category that conflates the two,
#3 Be careful in redefining language
The introduction of “gender” into our language as distinct from “sex”, I would guess for most people is/was pretty irrelevant given, as I did, many associated with their sexual identity and uncritically conflated that with more recent “gender” language. This conflation I think needs to be unravelled.
What I don’t think is helping is the insistence on the use of new language and the re-definition of existing language. For example, terms like cis, chants like “trans women are women”, the appropriation of language, pro-nouns and more sinister, the accusation of transphobia if people don’t subscribe to this language and new definitions. This all seems rather Orwellian to me. In fact, basing policy around populist chants like “Make America Great Again” or the empty Brexit, “take back control”, leads to dark places and disappointment. The impact of the rapid spread of this “new language” into corporate life has not, I suspect, been fully appreciated.
Rather than load existing words with multiple meanings we need new words. Clarity and honesty in language is important and no one has an ownership of language and how it is used and in some cases weaponised.
#4 Conversion Therapy
I think it is uncontroversial that most people agree that conversion therapy is inherently wrong; but I think some people, as I did, assumed this was just the therapy that tried to correct gay people into the “right sexual attraction”, often via medical treatments and drugs. A broader definition perhaps (from Stephen Fry I think) which again I think is uncontroversial is “any attempt to change a person sexual or gender identity is unethical”.
Another definition I came across, is that Conversion therapy (or ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’. These therapies are both unethical and harmful.
However, I don’t think I fully appreciated, as probably most don’t, the very difficult matters associated with being trans Vs gay and what that means in terms of medical procedure to enable any gender affirmative sex change. I don’t and can never really understand how difficult this is for those in that situation.
But there is a challenge it seems to me and perhaps increasing pressure in some circumstance to “encourage” young people especially who may be comfortable in being gay to undergo gender affirmation sex change procedure and adopt a trans persona. This phenomenon also seems more prominent for men and less so for women. Is that correct? Some also argue that this is a form of gay conversion therapy. The counter description sometimes discharged, of “preventing the adoption of gender affirming sex change treatment” as the “conversion therapy” is also raising the temperature of the debate.
In fact, such language from either perspective is not helping people deal with what are complex emotional questions rooted in how one feels about oneself.
It must be hard enough as a young person to deal with one’s homosexuality in an often-hostile world, to then complicate ones emerging appreciation of one’s identity with the further or alternate lens, of a trans persona and gender dysphoria – or vice versa. This is beyond my ability to comprehend, and I can see this is not easy.
For an adult it really is up the individual, but the sense of being trans or being gay is reflective in some cases of two different paradigms and whether one associates innately more with one’s physical sex or something a little less binary and definitive which one may feel is in conflict with one’s physiology, leading to dysphoria. I don’t think we understand this anywhere near enough at the moment – both physiologically and psychologically – so the challenge of enabling personal freedoms at the same time as providing societal protection is even harder.
So, we have an obligation to support those who wish to “transition” – none of us have the right to prevent people being who they want to be. However, we have an obligation to apply more stringent tests for children. So, the framing of the prevention of gender affirming sex change treatment (esp. irreversible) for minors/children as the “conversion therapy” is deliberately misleading and I think divisive.
Making irreversible and fundamental changes to your body should never be taken lightly, needs expert medical support and counselling in all cases. However, nothing I have seen tells me this kind of sex change procedure should be made available for children. I understand the argument re: need for puberty blockers and likely irreversible transition pathways, etc but I am not convinced we know enough about the subject matter. Furthermore, the behaviours and cases coming out of places like the Tavistock Centre do demand we pause and consider the procedures, cases and evidence. We really don’t know enough about the impacts, risks and unintended consequences Yes, in some case this may seem unjust for a particular individual….but the overwhelming need is to protect – esp. potentially vulnerable children.
In that vein we have also have to avoid over sexualising the debate and introduction of inappropriate subject matter this into schools too early – certainly not in junior or infants with pre-pubescent children. Let children be children.
I have to say we also need to be better in stating that no-one can ever be born in the wrong body….we need to be on our guard if such pressure to change sex is societal and not innate.
Given the above, the complexities and the different world views, we need to be able to deal with all this with compassion, understanding and make room for reasonable accommodations where appropriate; and do so with much less evangelical chanting and insistence people subscribe to particular ideologies.
In relation to the question…for me, my earlier classical systemic binary sex analysis applies.
Finally, the biggest rule I would ask we all follow in this space is, don’t be a C###!
[i] Robert M Pirsig, 1974, “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
[iv] Dr Deborah Soh, 2020, “The End of Gender”