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Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich

Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.

Overture

We are angry with ourselves’, Suzanne Moore of New Humanist and other zines wrote this time last year of women, ‘for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ The article, on female rage, was well received barring this line; friends recommending the piece bristled at it, if only as a caveat. They had cause to: so idolised are the bodies of trans women that hundreds are murdered yearly in Brazil, among them 39-year-old nightlife figure Madona, pelted with paving bricks until her skull fractured.

Moore might have copped to misjudging a punchline. Who hasn’t? Instead she aired on Twitter her ‘issues with trans anything’, accusing trans women of ‘fucking lopping bits of your body’ and ‘using “intersectionality” to shut down debate’, adding ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’

Julie Burchill, long time colleague and friend of Moore, promptly championed her in the Observer, declaring her in a piece titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ to have been ‘driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. ‘A gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write’, Burchill continued, ‘looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.’ The two of them, she declared, were in a ‘stand-off with the trannies’ (‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims’), ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

The ensuing storm, in which the Observer withdrew the article, apologising, raged through the British press and global blogosphere. (Zinnia Jones’ partner Heather McNamara had this to say.) Days later, Soho Skeptics hosted Moore in a debate about press freedom. I arrived a quarter of an hour late, but despite the then-ongoing furore heard no mention of the issue – save Moore’s offhand quip at one point, ‘I can’t say anything.’ Laughter followed.

Elsewhere in her article, Burchill had written:

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel, picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

Bindel, whose columns on transgender themes have earned her infamy, seems as obsessed as Moore and Burchill with trans women’s nether regions, describing them in 2004 as ‘men disposing of their genitals’. (This is, needless to say, inaccurate in every possible sense. Vaginoplasty, which doesn’t discard the penis, is expensive, inaccessible and often withheld from those who want it. Many don’t.) Transitional surgery, she insists despite all this, ‘is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’, thrust globally on unwilling gays and lesbians as it is in Iran to keep everyone suitably straight.

Regarding what’s wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. It ignores:

  • the persistent denial of trans men and women’s gender, including by Bindel herself.
  • the unwillingness of countless health authorities to provide surgery or offer it at all.
  • the fact anyone might want it.
  • that seeking it is typically done after lengthy thought.
  • that not everyone transitioning does want surgery.
  • that those who do don’t always want normative-looking outcomes, or vaginoplasty specifically.
  • that not everyone trans, seeking surgery or not, identifies binarily as male or female.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, any more gender-conforming than cis people.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, heterosexual.

Like Burchill and Moore, Bindel is talking bollocks. No one with even surface-level knowledge here, and mine’s not hugely better, could think she had more to contribute than hot, poisonous air. Understandable, then, that hackles rose when Soho Skeptics – the group that hosted Moore months earlier – announced her as a speaker last September.

‘The Battle Over Gender’

‘Insults, threats and abuse have been hurled between trans activists and radical feminists for the past few years’, read their blurb promoting the event, chaired by Gia Milinovich with Bindel and trans panellists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black. ‘Neither side is innocent.’

These statements and the title suggest equivalence, like clashes between the world’s Bindels, Burchills or Moores and trans communities were arbitrary fiascos with no victim or aggressor – like trans users on the business end of their abuse, however intemperate their response, were just as much at fault. The Bindelites claim, as Piers Morgan did this month, to be under attack, but their viewpoint rests on demonstrable falsehoods. They’re as qualified to hold forth on (trans) gender as Ken Ham is to address a conference of geologists, and Ham, despite his manifold shortcomings, hasn’t victimised his targets nearly as much.

The meeting, it appears, was devised in response to anger at Suzanne Moore. ‘One female writer’ whom she knew, Milinovich wrote in October, ‘got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people’ – no name is given, but Moore’s is a likely guess. ‘After [an] explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it. When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion . . . My aim [there] was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.’

You’d conclude from this Milinovich, established in the skeptic scene, linked to Bindel apparently through Moore and with views not far flung from the former’s (see below), was the architect of the event – conflicting, seemingly, with Soho Skeptics convenor Martin Robbins’ statements that ‘trans people [were] in a key role’, ‘in charge’ and ‘helped organise and select people’, and ‘Bindel was there because the trans people on the panel [Dalton and Black] wanted it’. The Pod Delusion’s audio upload also described it as being ‘put together by Gia Milinovich’, who comments therein, ‘I thought, oh my God, I have got to have this woman on the panel.’

Clarity would help, but it’s easy in any case to see why giving her equal – or any – time made Twitter’s so called “trans cabal” irate. Their very existence, trans women’s especially, is in Bindel’s eyes oppressive, mutilatory and wrong, a stance whose premises have been thoroughly tanked but which she broadcasts through global media.

Milinovich and Robbins balked when critics mauled them for debating trans people’s right to such existence – as if the only obstacles to it were outright demands for killing. Milinovich, specifically, cites my tweet to that effect, one from a storm of users’, in a blog post, handle and avatar blurred out. (What for, the original being public and a Google search away, I still can’t tell.) Both have insisted the meeting wasn’t ‘a debate’; accurate but beside the point. ‘Debate’ was a verb in the tweets at hand, slamming the academic examination of trans identities’ validity and legitimisation of Bindel’s concoctions.


[Direct MP3 Link] [Podcast Feed] [Add to iTunes]

Defining terms

Milinovich is taking heat at present for insisting, since this event, on the adroitness of terms like ‘female biology’, arguing implicitly that feminism should devote itself to this by using sex-based definitions of ‘women’s bodies’, and explicitly that abortion access and vulval/clitoral genital mutilation are by definition ‘female’ issues due to the relevant anatomy. ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

‘During the [Battle Over Gender] panel,’ she wrote back in October in a post making similar arguments, ‘I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender.’ There’s already a contradiction here: if ‘woman’ is a term of identity and not anatomy, Milinovich shouldn’t refer (as she does here) to ‘women’s bodies’ as physically distinct. Regardless, here’s what she said on introducing the event.

‘Sex’: we all know what it is, but I’m talking biology, so what sex are you? This is ‘male’ and ‘female’ (so, ‘male’ has XY chromosomes and ‘female’, XX chromosomes), so I’ve gone to a book called Developmental Biology, Sixth Edition – this is for a definition. They’re talking about mammals, and I think it’s important we always remember that we’re mammals, and not something special even though we think we are. A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts and mammary glands. In many mammal species, each sex has a specific size, vocal cartilage and musculature. So we’re talking biology when we use the word ‘sex’. We’re talking biology.

Another word is ‘gender’. Quite often these two words are conflated, so I’ve gone to the World Health Organisation for a definition of this. The World Health Organisation says gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. So in our society, traditionally and stereotypically, women wear a dress . . . and have long hair and men wear trousers and have short hair. Men go out to work and earn loads of money and women stay home, and are deeply fulfilled by looking after their children. (Can you see my cynicism coming in here?) If women work, they obviously will earn less than men. Women are caring and empathic, men are rational and they’re leaders. Women can’t do maths and men can.

Now, all of these things including the maths are social constructions. If you look at different cultures, you will see different things. Now, it’s really easy to understand this when you think about clothing, right? There’s no place in the brain that makes a female innately want to wear a dress or have long hair. Or there’s no place in a male brain that they innately want to wear trousers and have short hair. So that’s quite understandable, you know – we know that these are social constructions. It’s a little bit more difficult for some people to understand that things like personality traits or maths ability and things like that are social constructions, and they differ in different cultures. Very simply, you can think of gender as masculine and feminine, and all of the stereotypes.

Does anyone find any of those two definitions controversial? Anyone?

Yes.

For a start, neither of these defines ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Milinovich states ‘sex’ to mean anatomical ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, and ‘gender’ to mean ‘roles . . . society considers appropriate for men and women’ – but doesn’t define manhood or womanhood itself.

What we have is confused and inconsistent use of several definitions.

What is consistent is her stance ‘that Biological Sex is A Real Thing and Gender is Culture’; that ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes, with ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, prediscursively exist like hydrogen or Pluto. The thought, whatever the views she draws from it, has been seconded in British skepticism’s blogosphere, amid insistence ‘discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia.’ It’s wrong: the claim gender’s between our ears and sex between our legs is one long since unravelled by better thinkers than me.

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

The status of Pluto isn’t one on which the wellbeing of millions rests. We get to choose how we frame things, bodies included. If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say. If that’s not cause enough to modify her model, surely coherence is?

‘If you want to reclassify Males and Females, and redefine Vaginas and Penises’, she tells her critics, ‘then you’re going to have to [do so] in over 5,000 different species of animals from Mammalia on down. So… good luck with that.’ Far be it from science ever to revise its thoughts or language, but in any case, her attitude to the latter doesn’t, in my view, hold water.

Sex is derived from gender

It’s just as ambitious trying to untether ‘male/female’ from ‘man/woman’, as Milinovich declares is necessary. When she writes in her October post of ‘two male comedians [and] one female writer’, she fails at this herself. It’s difficult to blame her: broadly, these terms just are synonymous.

Zoologists didn’t coin ‘male’ or ‘female’. The argument above, and her caution to ‘remember that we’re mammals’, suggest these designations fell to us from neighbours (or ancestors) in the animal kingdom. The reality is the reverse: said designations operated for humans millennia before we studied sex – chromosomes, internal organs, gametes, hormones – or exported that study to other species.

The ‘we’ here is a specific one. The models of sex that ruled till recently, for which Milinovich argues, grew up in gender-binary cultures. Had societies of more than men and women written the papers that inform popular thought – if views of anatomy today were based on theirs – would they have spoken of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies? Would we, now?

It should be clear we’re trying, through the model of male/female sex, to describe bodies in pre-existing terms. If, as was traditionally thought and seems to be the Bindel-Milinovich view, gender evolved to regulate sexed bodies, why does it account so badly for them? Why, if it evolved to correspond with anatomic traits, are some ‘ambiguous’ – inexplicable, that is, in terms of it? Why intersex, but no orthodox ‘intergender’ to match?

‘Yes’, says Milinovich, ‘I know about intersex conditions’ – then leaves it there. She seems not to consider themes that follow logically:

  • why one anomaly makes someone intersex, another, just unusual.
  • whether if ‘intersex’ is taxing to define, sex might be too.
  • how the sex dyad, if less descriptive than once thought, became ubiquitous.
  • that the a priori (fe)maleness of body traits might be debatable.
  • why some, again, are sexed more strictly than others.

Milinovich’s stance and statements shift demonstrably. The impression I can’t help being left with is that her output, more certain of itself than it is well-informed, fits most definitions of ‘splaining’. If her goal is a feminism of ‘female’ (in her terms) anatomy, I’m further struck, she makes no obvious mention of how trans men might be included – suggesting, conceivably, that it is to her a movement for those marked physically and socially as female: that is, cis women.

The entire concept of “sex”’, to quote the Tranarchism blog, ‘is simply a way of attaching something social – gender – to bodies.’ The addendum, lastly, is quotable and appropriate:

The most sensible way to look at the question of sex now is this: a male body is a body belonging to a male – that is someone who identifies as male. A female body is a body belonging to a female – that is, someone who identifies as female. Genderqueer bodies belong to folks who are genderqueer, androgynous bodies belong to androgynes, and so forth, and so on.

Coda

Any number of thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Over the last days I got into some discussions with TERFs (and no, that’s not a slur) on Twitter.
    They are like creationists when it comes to sex: Adam and Eve FULL STOP.
    They talk about genes as a foolproof sign and when I ask if they had theirs tested (hey, could be they’re CAIS folks) they say they don’t need to, that’s ridiculous.
    And they’re like conservative christians and MRAs when it comes to anatomy. Never outside of discourses with these groups have I been reduced to a vagina and an uterus, because those are apparently the things that define me as a woman. “Women are the ones who make the babies!”
    Fuck you, too!

    I don’t “get” trans* because I’m cis. To claim that I could relate would be making this about me. But I know that I don’t have to check between my legs or touch my breasts to assure myself that I’m a woman. I’m still a woman when I’m asleep and my mind “drifts” rather disconnected from my body*. Why on earth shouldn’t I then believe other people when they tell me what they are. I suppose they know best.
    *No, not in the metaphysical sense, but, you know, when you can fly, or are suddenly 10cm taller, or skinny, you know what I mean…

  2. says

    A short comment in form mirroring the blog post

    Overture
    Last year Transgender Europe reported 95 murders of transgender people in Brazil, between 20 Nov. 2012 and 31 Oct. 2013 – not quite a full calendar year, nor quite a hundred. However, no other country exceeded Brazil in the same period (only Venezuela had a higher murder rate per capita of trans people). Being a Brazilian transsexual just for the ideal body shape doesn’t seem like such a good trade off.

    The Battle Over Gender
    ‘Neither side is innocent’ – but it would be utterly foolish to imagine an equivalence in terms of media influence, social status, or the dreaded ‘p’ word, now wouldn’t it?

    Defining Terms

    ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she [Milinovich] states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

    Since Milinovich doesn’t seem to understand the full ramifications of the science, as she has mischievously misrepresented it on multiple occasions now in a way which provides a superb dogwhistle for transphobic feminists, that seems a rather better reason for thinking she’s transphobic in practical effect. If this isn’t being done intentionally nonetheless it still constitutes ‘standing on the feet’ of everyone who suffers from the misconceptions about biology which she’s responsible for disseminating to the public.

    A framework, not a fact
    One other sexual organ of fairly important significance – the brain has testosterone and oestrogen receptors, and is capable of rewiring itself in response to variations in those hormones. And there’s things such as fMRI studies that have been attempted in limited way which tentatively have found differences in the brain structures of transgender people.

    The multiple phenotypic expressions of genetic sex can often be expressed in cross-sexed fashion in the one individual, but no one in the world asks for a person’s karyotype before deciding whether they’re male or female. As the Sex is derived from gender section suggests, sex and gender in human culture are not absolutes; their attributes interplay in language as well as biology. Since Milinovich’s writings show she can’t keep a consistent definition, why should anyone accept her as an authority on matters transgender? Just who went and made her the boss?

    Coda

    Milinovich’s latest on Twitter, speculating hypothetically about the ethics of aborting foetuses if there a prenatal test that could detect a propensity for being trans to save them a ‘hard life’, sounds like any old dogwhistle that could easily have been uttered by the people who hate trans people and would wish them exterminated. In a world where annually there are hundreds of murders of a tiny marginalised minority based on a non-conforming gender identity it’s hard not to agree with Janet Mock’s aphorism of ‘misgendering is violence’ and to regard Milinovich’s twitterings as part of that violence. She has apparently decided that transgender people are a convenient target to tread underfoot.

  3. Ben Mason says

    The distinction here between inscription and description is untenable.

    Okay, let’s start from first principles.

    No semantic system perfectly captures reality. Take any predicate that you might assign to a thing, there will be borderline cases which challenge its validity: Keep adding grains of sand, at what point does it become a “heap” of sand? At dusk, at what precise point does the sky become “black”? There are no useful answers we can give to this kind of question.

    So if the same is true of all of our concepts and predicates – including “woman” or “female” or “planet” or “vagina” – where does that leave us? To refrain from using imperfectly defined concepts (“vague predicates” in the jargon) is to refrain from speaking at all.

    (1) If we can’t demand of a conceptual scheme which neatly divides all reality into categories with no borderline cases, the most coherence we can hope for is to be able to identify clear-cut cases on either side of the divide. I can tell you this thing is red and that thing is not-red, even if I can’t tell you where the boundary for redness actually exists.
    (2) No conceptual system has any ontological priority over any other. There are no objective criteria by which we can judge one to more “correctly” describe the “actual nature of the universe”. So which systems we choose use must ultimately be a *pragmatic* matter, depending on whether it lets us communicate and act in some useful way. They reflect our intentions and social norms.
    (3) As such, these are also the only coherent grounds to reject a scheme too. To finally refer back to the article, it says: “If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say.” But this misses the point – what trans people may object to is the project of trying to assign people into sex categories depending on physical traits. It’s not that the terms are being used incorrectly, but rather they are per se objectionable.
    (4) Our semantics are determined by our pragmatic purposes. And they shift too as our purposes do – we do not use the same systems in every context. It is useful for a doctor to know who has a cervix because if they do then they require smear tests. I think the strongest claim you can make is that, in the context of public discussion, the implicit discrimination and feelings of alienation that the binary sex discrimination brings with it outweigh whatever usefulness it might have in communicating, and as such we should not use it. Consensus has widely been reached that this is the case for gender.
    (5) Note that these is an ontological cost to discarding the concepts of sex completely, and relying solely on gender as a self-ascribed category. Most obviously, “trans” and “cis” become more or less meaningless terms.

  4. says

    Ben, I don’t see Alex saying there is no usefulness to the terms “man/woman” or “male/female”. What I see him saying is that the realities of the development of those terms and the inconsistencies with which they’re applied do not and cannot support the arguments being made based on that terminology. In other words, someone who claims to know better than the possessor (for lack of a less dualistic term) of a body whether that body and, thus, that person is male/female and man/woman is engaging in shenanigans for the sake of claiming a superior position–when that supposed superiority has strong negative implications for the person being erroneously sexed and gendered.

  5. says

    Ben – the problem is that the terf crew are essentially misusing 7th grade biology to deny the validity of trans identity. It’s very similar to how christofascists misuse “biology” to disbelieve the existence of homosexuality.

    The argument is: “MALE” and “FEMALE” are terms for things = variance doesn’t really exist and your right to self-determination is invalid.

    It’s really that asinine when you boil it down. I attempted to explain that here: http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/holes-are-female-because-science/

    But Alex did a much more thorough job of it than I did.

  6. says

    I think that quote from Burchill really captures how TERFs don’t get it. She seems to think that this is a minor point and the real feminist issues are the ones she cares about. It makes me wonder what she thinks of conservatives who say they support women’s right to education and projects to get women involved in STEM fields and political leadership and can’t understand why feminists ignore all that and keep harping about their opposition to abortion

  7. hjhornbeck says

    It’s very weird to shift from spending two weeks arguing against people who furiously disagree with me, to having two high-profile bloggers agree with me without realizing it.

    Thibeault played up the anti-MRA side of my lecture on sex and gender, but a careful look at the full script reveals I had another target in mind:

    They are many feminists who still assert that while there are no gender differences, there are differences of sex. To name one branch, the aptly titled “difference feminism” argues that women and men have inherently different ways of understanding the world, which are separate but equal.

    “Egalitarian feminism” goes a step further and argues that the inequalities between sexes are not due to inequalities in society, but due to different values and choices each sex makes. Trans exclusionary radical feminism argues for an inherent biological difference between the sexes, immutable and absolute.

    So far as I know, no-one’s done a poll to figure out the share each view has within feminism. Based on my peers and my readings, however, the transfeminist view seems to be the majority one, so it’ll be the view I defend.

    Those branches of feminism have always seemed… wrong, to me. It took me quite a while to put my finger on why, but eventually realized it was sexual essentialism. They proposed a sharp, absolute division of sex, even as they proclaimed gender to be a social construct without objective division. That just didn’t seem right to me, even with my limited knowledge of biology.

    So I’ve been very happy to see the increasing push-back against those forms of feminism, by other feminists. You in particular, Gabriel, have written the best and most eloquent argument against TERFs and company I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’ll be sharing it around, and I hope it makes an impact.

  8. says

    @M. A. Melby (#8)

    I don’t actually have a problem saying he/him/his, if those are the pronouns Milinovich requests. It’s not that context doesn’t make it dazzlingly obvious it’s a facetious ‘Aha!’ tactic that derides and devalues other people’s gender, but in fact, it doesn’t work: why is the idea of dropping the ‘s’ from someone’s pronoun’s when they state they identify as male really so radical? This is not even remotely the unfeasible, ridiculous consequence to trans politics Milinovich implies it is.

  9. says

    ‘When women’s bodies are under attack . . . it’s important that we are able to define our bodies.’

    This is very wrong. What’s under attack is our autonomy – our freedom to make significant decisions, including those related to biological reproduction, about how to live our lives. In fact, their identifying us with (portions of) our bodies is very much part of the attempt to limit and circumscribe the matter, to hide its real scope. What’s important is that people recognize this and how it relates to the oppression of trans people, whose choices to define themselves and the paths of their lives are similarly obstructed, and understand the need for solidarity. The last thing we should do is reproduce oppressive rhetoric in our struggles against oppression.

    from Mammalia on down

    Mamm! Al! Ia! Mamm! Al! Ia!

  10. says

    I loved your lecture hjhornbeck! Too bad I didn’t watch it live or I would have had questions for you. :)

    I don’t think you are quite characterizing the TERF crew ideology correctly, though.

    They don’t believe that sex is infinitely binary. Instead, they believe that AFAB (assigned female at birth) are female (always) and that females have certain qualities based on their (supposed) socialization as women and AMAB (assigned male at birth) are male (always) and that they have certain qualities based on their (supposed) socialization as men.

    This would include intersex people who are AFAB. They see intersex people as victims of gender. Trans activists are seen as supportive of gender (using their broad absolutist definition). TERFs often accuse trans activists of appropriating intersex issues. (Though intersex and trans are not, at all, mutually exclusive.)

    If you mention ppl with intersex conditions – their ideology isn’t challenged. However, if you point out that some trans women are socialized as girls from a very young age – that just derails them completely.

    Because their rhetoric is composed almost entirely of the idea that men are socialized toward a tendency of “male violence” and male entitlement. So, to them, a trans woman is someone who harbors a tendency toward violence and entitlement; and is essentially a threat, yet lives “as a woman”. This is unacceptable to them – and they often characterize trans women as “fake” or “play acting” or “appropriating”, etc.

    This is how they justify (in their minds) being raging transmisogynists – they peg trans woman as “male” and therefor automatically members of the oppressive class due to their socialization as boys.

    So when you do mention – hey, what about trans women who are raised as girls and socialized as girls – their true colors come out and they ACT like bioessentialists, even though they claim not to be. They claim to be describing the oppression that society visits on AFAB – but it really is about hating transgender women regardless of who they are as individuals.

    Since they equate gender COMPLETELY as socialization, this seems consistent to them. They characterize trans activists as “not understanding the difference between sex and gender”.

    They see sex and gender as these completely mutually exclusive concepts – where “gender” is redefined as the social roles that oppress AFAB due to their sex. “Gender” itself is vilified as the thing that justifies atrocities toward “females” – and “queer theory” or “trans theory” (that supposedly supports gender as they define it) is viewed as therefor supporting those atrocities.

    What threatens their ideology the most is the idea that ANY aspect of gender is innate and neurological – and not a “social construct” in need of dismantling. (Unintended pun.)

    For those who KNOW that gender orientation (I’m using this framework: http://www.transadvocate.com/gender-orientation.htm) is real and denying it can be life-threatening (leading to acute anxiety, depression, and suicide); the idea of destroying gender essentially means destroying trans gender people.

    It is a VIOLENT rhetoric.

    Of course that crew doesn’t GET that – at all – and views the push-back against their violent rhetoric as “male entitlement” or “male violence” on the part of trans activists (ALL trans activists – I get accuse of being male all the time by this crew, because it’s such a damn trope they don’t even skip a beat.).

    Here’s a smattering of what I’m talking about: http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/group/

    (Apologies in advance of any typos or language mistakes.)

  11. says

    #9

    It just reminds me of when the MRA sent in a bunch of false assault reports to a college as some sort of object lesson or something. RUDE.

    But yeah, if that’s what he wants, it’s not going to make the sky fall – which, yeah, is a falsification of his contention that it will.

    (That was hard to write.)

    What upsets me the most about it though – is that it’s so incredibly belittling. To so many people, being misgendered (sometimes purposefully with intent to harm) is a form of abuse. TERF use misgendering, as well as dead naming (using someone pre-transition name – sometimes dug up somehow) constantly in order to bully and harass trans women. It isn’t arbitrary or trite – like Gia (and all) seem to think. Making some sort of joke about it – is rude as hell. It’s infuriating, really, but yeah, many of the TERF crew really like pushing buttons like that.

    They ENJOY knowing that it makes some people suffer. They think it’s hilarious.

    *sigh*

    I wish that your piece (and others like it) would be taken seriously by TERFs and would actually have an effect on them. It won’t though. They might use “reason” and “science” and “theory” to justify their actions and rhetoric – but in the end, it’s just deep-seeded irrational hatred based on the “ick” factor.

    Other people though – who don’t know that much about trans issues and might be tempted to listen to the TERF crew though? They are the ones who will benefit from this.

    I’m so glad you wrote it. It’s a good summary of the best arguments against TERF rhetoric. I’ll be linked it a lot, I’m sure.

  12. says

    So when you do mention – hey, what about trans women who are raised as girls and socialized [intentionally] as girls –

    And even those who weren’t, I would expect. I’d think that as soon as you begin to identify as a girl, it’s the messages sent to girls that you’ll be attending to and in terms of which you’ll be seeing yourself.

  13. says

    #13

    Exactly.

    There is no singular experience of being transgender. Some realize very young, some during puberty, and some later in life. It’s common for some trans women to feel the need to be hyper-masculine for a time. Just mentioning that, so as to not over-generalize.

    But absolutely – this is something the TERF crew doesn’t get. The messages we internalize concerning cultural gender norms are about how “girls/women” and “boys/men” are supposed to behave and what their worth is. How much we internalize those messages is strongly dependent on how much we feel they pertain to us.

  14. hjhornbeck says

    M. A. Melby @11:

    I loved your lecture hjhornbeck! Too bad I didn’t watch it live or I would have had questions for you.

    Aww, thanks! I haven’t received any good questions yet, for the past two weeks it’s been nothing but “here’s the part of my lecture where I already covered that.” If you do have any good ones, share ‘em on Thibeault’s post for the talk.

    I don’t think you are quite characterizing the TERF crew ideology correctly, though.

    True that, your description is quite a bit better. It’s a weird sort of essentialism, isn’t it? Gender is constructed, and men are socialized to be violent and domineering, but rather than fight the construct… they chose to accept it as immutable fact? Wha?! My view of TERFs was strongly shaped by this post, which I should have used as reference when writing that line. Oh well, hindsight and all that.

    What threatens their ideology the most is the idea that ANY aspect of gender is innate and neurological – and not a “social construct” in need of dismantling. (Unintended pun.)

    That, I think, encapsulates one of the biggest areas people disagree on or get confused on the terminology. A social construct is just a model or explanation that many people agree with; it has no more reality than Newtonian Mechanics or Quantum Field Theory. What these constructs attempt to describe is very real, though, as real as gravity or electromagnetism. So when I say “gender is a social construct,” people think I’m saying “gender is arbitrary” or “gender has no basis in reality,” which isn’t the case.

    Gender, as an explanation, is a social construct through-and-through. Genes and body parts are immanently real, as would be brain wiring that effects behavior, if it existed. Unfortunately, we tend to confuse the description with the described, and think that our model isn’t a description of reality, it is reality.

  15. says

    The TERFs essentially take the mainstream feminist ideas to some absurdest extreme.

    You illustrated nicely that the sex differences between men and women (especially those involving cognitive ability) are not between some demonstrable and separate class of “men” and “women” – but consist of two little peaks, usually with very little separation with large portions of over-lapping distributions. I think you did a great job of showing how these statistically significant “sex differences” are completely and utterly inadequate to judge an individual and only constitute a “difference” on the population level.

    When arguing with male supremacists or ultra-traditionalists – I often get the argument that somehow women and men who don’t fall into those narrow typicalities are freakish exceptions to natural rules. This is similar to “race realist” arguments and that sort of B.S.

    The TERF crew will often accuse trans feminists (which they think is an oxymoron by the way) of believing that there is such a thing as a “lady brain” (bringing to mind this male supremacist argument).

    They associate body modification that is the essence of self-determination and bodily autonomy – with “corrective” torture and invasive procedures imposed on someone to force them to conform to heteronormativity. (Not acknowledging that denying care is imposing cisnormativity – because to them, cisnormativity is “natural” and anything else is artificial.)

    When I was arguing with E. Hungerford on twitter, @ool0n and @aratina accused Hungerford (a TERF who was the co-author of Brennan’s UN letter, but is now on the outs with her), of being a dualist. It didn’t quite click with me at first, but that’s the real philosophical heart of their argument. “Sex” = the body and “Gender” = the mind; to them, and (to them) those two are completely mutually exclusive.

    So, the idea that someone can outwardly have a very typically “male” body and perceive themselves to be female (APART from culturally imposed gender expectations) simply destroys their model of reality. Many TERF (and even some non-TERF RadFems) have this idea that if cultural gender were abolished, that the self-perception of one’s sex would never be incongruous with your physical appearance (trans gender people would simply not exist). Essentially – in a RadFem utopia (supposedly) – there would be no such thing as gender angst or gender dysphoria.

    I personally think that’s ridiculous. Most animals are not self-aware. However, almost all animals who have sexual dimorphism have an instinctual sense of their own sex, as evidenced by their behavior. I mean – there are animals that exhibit sex-typical behaviors that can’t “sex themselves” because they can’t see down there. How does that work – if there isn’t a fundamental neurological basis for gender orientation?

    O.o

    Of course, when you point out sex and gender variation among animals (growing up on a farm, the go-to example is the “hen that crows”) – the TERFs will point out that we’re talking about humans and not other animals. That’s reasonable, I suppose. Humans are not seahorses or hyenas; but if you point to studies on humans concerning any sort of dimorphism that involves the brain – they will FLAT OUT just reject it, accuse it of being faked, etc.

    Why?

    Because they think that ANY admission that there is any such thing as “brain sex” will give ground to male-supremacists and ultra-traditionalists.

    So, if “being a woman” has to do with how one feels – and therefor has an association with the brain – that is an incredible challenge to their ideology as far as they are concerned.

    This is such simplistic thinking – it really does amaze me – and it’s not only abusive and oppressive and violent rhetoric toward trans people; it’s self-defeating and toxic to radical feminism.

    In the next few years, there is going to be a large public discussion concerning the rights and well-being of trans gender people. This conversation will shake our cultural concepts of gender, gender roles, and bio-essentialist ideas to their very foundations; but the TERF crew cares more about their worn-out prejudices, bigotries, and pet theories; and they are going to fight tooth and nail, with ethical blinders on, because they have very strong emotional investments in their ideology. (Not to mention the christofacists – coming to the same conclusions for different reasons.)

    And trans gender people are fighting to survive.

    This is going to be a goddamn war.

  16. hjhornbeck says

    This is going to be a goddamn war.

    Yeah, essentialists do not go down without a fight. I’m fairly optimistic, though, as I just don’t see that and other essentialist feminisms occupying the mainstream or gaining traction. When we fight over this online, we also bring attention to the issue and sway those who don’t know about it to pick a side. We’re creating allies to trans* people, and as nasty as things will get in the short term, I figure it’ll pay off in the long run.

    Of course, when you point out sex and gender variation among animals (growing up on a farm, the go-to example is the “hen that crows”) – the TERFs will point out that we’re talking about humans and not other animals. That’s reasonable, I suppose.

    The best legit complaint I got to my lecture was that I never backed up some assertions I made about Trivers’ work. As I’ve been fixing that, I’ve been returning to kin selection and realizing it’s more powerful against essentialism than I realized. An individual in a social species can pass on their genes by looking after their kin. In a species with culture and tools that’s DAMN effective, as learning in groups is almost as efficient as learning in pairs. Kin selection predicts we’d have an even fuzzier sex/gender divide than nearly every other species!

    I mean – there are animals that exhibit sex-typical behaviors that can’t “sex themselves” because they can’t see down there. How does that work – if there isn’t a fundamental neurological basis for gender orientation?

    And the converse of my argument is that other species would have a stricter sex/gender divide, as they aren’t as tool-reliant/cultural, or social. Which means that invoking other species demonstrates a minimum level of variance, and thus the great variation we see there is nothing compared to what a heavily cultured and social species should be like.

    In theory, and from a gene’s eye view of course, but there’s something quite satisfying about using the tools essentialists love to invoke to refute their claims.

    When arguing with male supremacists or ultra-traditionalists – I often get the argument that somehow women and men who don’t fall into those narrow typicalities are freakish exceptions to natural rules. This is similar to “race realist” arguments and that sort of B.S.

    I’ve gotten quite a bit of that; intersex people are “exceptions,” “disordered,” “not natural,” according to most of the people I’ve argued against. But they don’t think negatively of intersex people, oh no (and would probably let them use their bathrooms, too). I’ve tried poking at their definition of “natural,” at whether or not their boundary between “natural” and “not natural” is an artificial construct, so far with little success.

    About 1/(sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)) times more real.

    I LOLed, then kicked myself for not using GR or better yet SR. It would have made for a better joke. :P

  17. Peggy Colebank says

    There are two things about this, one already covered, you said Milinovich moves inconsistently between ideas, that’s mistaken. She moves entirely consistently and with intent – it’s easy to follow her argument if you know what her intent is. It’s not 100% accurate but this has happened before. She’s constructing an updated form of radical trans exclusionary feminism. The apparent inconsistencies are irrelevant to that. TERFs, don’t care about logical consistency.

    This is about attacking trans inclusion in feminist spaces and strengthening the reasons exclusionary spaces already use to keep trans women excluded. I don’t think she even considers trans men as serious social entities and that as form of ersure goes far above and beyond so much previous TERF dogma. Does she ever discuss trans men?

    This whole mess is painful and I can’t always put that aside when I’m confronted with discussions. In fact I rarely can.

    I expect an organised campaign to come along any time soon and it’s going to have two key fronts. The extension of exclusions applying to trans women from feminist spaces and the health care intervention for trans children of any expressed gender identity. They see that as akin to child abuse or FGM.

Trackbacks

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