Fourth Wave: Part Two

The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.

– The Fourth Doctor

There are so many theories.

The theories of the sexologists. Theories of the Christian right. Of the psychiatrists and psychologists. Of the academics and philosophers, even literary theorists. Of the average person watching a documentary, “here’s what I think it is…”. Of the people punching into google questions about what kinds of chromosomes or “chemicals” we have. People (without any education in biology or genetics, but who happened to catch some TV show somewhere about intersexuality) suggesting chimerism in the brain. And feminists’ theories too, of course.

The intensity with which people endlessly generate theories to accommodate the existence of gender variance rarely seems to be in any way motivated by a desire for genuine understanding. Instead, it typically seems principally about recuperation, explaining us away. These aren’t the theories of a scientist presented with a new phenomena, they’re more like Christian apologetics: how do I get this new fact to fit into my pre-defined beliefs? Oh, I’ve got it! When he said “day” he really meant “seven-hundred million years”! These mental acrobatics can be remarkably complex, sophisticated and ingenuitive, intelligent, but the whole structure is backwards. The theory is given precedence over the reality it claims to speak to. The facts are altered to fit the views, rather than the views altered to fit the facts.

Something inevitably goes wrong, though. No matter what contortions are made in one’s theoretical structures, like redefining your “gender is illusory social construct” theory to “…except socialization-from birth rigidly codifies it (even though I’ve transcended it)”, or adapting your concept of male sexuality to include a “reflexive narcissistic desire to possess the self as female sexual object”, something always gets left out. The fact of gender variance is a fact of variance. Unless your theory accounts for the principles by which gender does indeed vary, unless it accommodates the variation itself rather than simply thinking up individual explanations for individual variants, there are always going to be cracks through which the unaccommodated reality shines through, and continues to destabilize your worldview: the lack of universal socializations and the fact that socialization seems to not have much of anything to do with how a gender identity manifests, the increasing evidence of neurobiological underpinnings to gender, the presence of butch trans women, the presence of trans men, the presence of asexual trans people, the affect HRT has on the libido, non-binary transitions, trans men who cannot “pass” and thereby only sacrifice relative social privilege, etc. etc. etc.

These cracks are particularly important in feminist theory, in as much as feminist theory purports to be an explanation of the social dynamics of gender. Any theory of gender, if it’s to have any meaning or usefulness or validity at all, must speak to the actual full realities of gender. And that requires speaking to the actual realities of gender variance. All of them. Not just whichever ones you can slot into the pet theory you refuse to abandon for fear of losing a political edge, or fear of admitting to having been wrong. It requires speaking to the actual lived experiences of human beings, all of them, not telling certain people that their lives are wrong, or don’t exist, so that you can continue believing whatever makes you comfy or meets your particular political goals. Your degrees, ambitions, publications or worries over how a fact might be misinterpreted do not trump anyone else’s actual existence. Views must be adapted to fit the facts. Otherwise, yours is just another inaccurate worldview imposed by the privileged on the actual world, and the lives within it.

Otherwise, you’re not addressing the social dynamics of gender. You’re covering them up, and thereby perpetuating the problem.

This means that to create a valid trans-feminism – to create any kind of valid feminism – we need to speak to the living, breathing diversity of gender, and only assert as universals those aspects of gender that are universal (difficult, sneaky, hard-to-find little things that they are). Trans-feminism, 4th wave feminism, and the future of feminism itself, MUST be based on only forwarding those theories and positions that are inclusive, and fully recognize all iterations of gender. This furthermore demands a consistent, determined, unwavering commitment to acknowledging intersectionality, and not excluding anyone from the discourse. It demands a conversational, discursive model, in which no one from any particular position claims to be able to speak for the whole. It demands acknowledgment, perhaps based in a sort of socially conscious skepticism, that no given subject position is going to have all the facts, and therefore we need to maintain a constant hesitation, a reluctance to over-commit to any one particular position or assume things to be true simply because they, to us in our always biased and limited positions, feel true or sound true or seem like they should be true or would be awfully convenient and helpful if they were true.

If it’s not speaking to the lived experiences of gender, or the available facts of gender, it’s not a feminism worth fighting for.

This isn’t valuable just in terms of meeting the needs of those experiences and identities that are most marginalized. It’s valuable in terms of protecting the long-term interests of feminism itself. A feminism that repeatedly fails to address the realities of gender will systematically discredit itself, and consign itself to irrelevance. At best, it will end up a specialized niche in academia for die-hards who have little or no interest in engaging the realities that exist beyond the walls of their classrooms, or beyond the spines of their publications.

Consider, for instance, the ongoing insistence within unnervingly large swathes of feminism on an absolutist view of gender as a social construct. This principle has long been used to invalidate trans people and support transphobic, cissexist and exclusionist attitudes within certain branches of feminism. It’s a perfect example of people saying “So what if your lived experience and actual existence contradicts what I’m saying? I’m a grad student and I have BOOKS!”. In other words, a perfect example of feminist theory failing to address the realities of gender and thereby failing to live up to its own mandate.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that the social-constructivist viewpoint has persisted in feminism as long as it has, despite the ever-increasing weight of that which contradicts it, is because so much has been invested in it. So much of feminist discourse has leaned on this premise, that gender is purely and wholly an arbitrary social construct that could be totally remodeled or done away with entirely if we were able to remake our culture from the ground up, that now there’s a whole house of cards built on top of it that will collapse if it gets pulled away. This creates an immensely heavy bias, and creates a situation where people just won’t accept anything, theory or fact, that contradicts this belief because there’s just too much at stake, too much to lose. It’s exactly how beliefs almost always work: not in accordance with evidence (we’re NOT rational creatures, us humanses), but in accordance with what we most want or need to believe, in accordance with a subconscious cost/benefit analysis.

This would be fine for feminism, even if certainly not fine for the numerous gender minorities this theoretical structure excludes and fucks over, if the premise were sustainable (like belief in God is: there will ALWAYS be gaps to fit Him in, so people will ALWAYS find ways to believe in Him). But it’s not. Feminism requires maintaining a presented ability to speak to what’s really going on with gender in order to maintain its credibility. It’s not a religion, and can’t rely on faith, gaps, or the ineffable. Meanwhile, science, and evidence, marches on. And bit by bit, more and more scientific evidence pours in, with increasing certainty and decreasing deniability, that gender is partially based on innate neurobiological structures and predispositions. John Money has been utterly discredited and died in shame. Milton Diamond now enjoys enormous respect amongst his peers. The facts, like trans people ourselves, aren’t going away, and eventually, one way or the other, will need to be addressed.

If feminism doesn’t find a way to account for that, if it continues leaning so much of its discourse on the premise of hard-line social-constructivism, it will not only condemn itself to irrelevance, it will be utterly discredited in the process. And this would be just fine for the other gender minorities, even if certainly not fine for the feminists themselves, if it weren’t for the fact that we have an intense interdependence. We need feminism. If it allows itself to become an irrelevant, discredited joke that no longer accepts the proven scientific realities, if it allows itself to become comparable to flat-earthers, climate-denialists, 9/11-truthers and David Icke, then we’ll ALL be fucked. The doors will be flung wide open for the MRAs and bio-gender-essentialists to come marching on in saying “Neener neener! We told you so!” and it will be even harder than ever to effectively address their misogynistic, cissexist, patriarchal idiocy.

What helps is that trans-feminism already has the theoretical and political structures in place to accommodate this apparent contradiction between feminism and the “nature vs. nurture conflict”. We’ve already been addressing, and resolving, this issue for a long, long time. We’ve moved past it. We’ve acknowledged a stochastic interplay between a variety of factors, that may vary in an individual between the rigidly deterministic and the fluid. We’ve been able to discuss how an underlying predisposition can be socio-culturally mediated, and that challenging and deconstructing those socio-cultural mediations doesn’t require ignoring or denying the existence of the predispositions. Just trust us. We’ve got this. But we can’t handle everything.

The world needs feminism. It really, really, desperately does. But the feminism it needs must be a credible feminism, and a feminism that speaks to the actuality of gender, in all its rich diversity. A feminism that doesn’t position theory or political convenience above the lived realities of gender. A feminism that is skeptical in nature, willing to adapt to changing landscapes of what we understand about how gender operates. A feminism that speaks to all iterations, etiologies and experiences of gender, and holds them to ALL be equally valid and deserving of acknowledgment, free expression, and basic human rights and dignity. An inclusive and intersectional trans-feminism. A feminism for everybody.

A fourth wave.

(to be continued in part three)


  1. says

    I have been so kindly* informed that my genderqueer identity is my personal solution to not have to deal with the patriarchy by attempting to step outside of it. Because apparently I have the charisma necessary to trick everyone into treating me like one of the guys even though my body displays the most common effects of female puberty – how could I possibly lose?

    And of course my genderqueer friends who were raised as boys (and thus still have male privilege) are highlighting their disrespect for women by embracing femininity which is the codification of the subjugation of females as “other”.

    *sarcasm may be found within this comment

  2. Ruth says

    Cogent and compelling as usual. You always give me plenty to think my teeth into. Satisfies cravings for reason.

  3. karmakin says

    To intersect, or not to intersect, that is the question. There’s a part of it that’s trying to thread a needle, to be sure, as often intersectionality is something that can be used against us, or at the very least, can be used to annoy us greatly (see all the various what about the menz posts), but it’s so crucial at the same time to understand the big picture.

    I’m just not a fan of identity politics. I don’t think this is because I’m a cis male or that because I’m a fan of the patriarchy..I’m not..and my wife rages harder against identity politics than I’s just that I don’t think it’s helpful, either from a framing/messaging point of view, or from a policy/idea point of view. It’s pushing for power for its own sake, and not for the sake of equality.

    In this, I can see a lot of the opposition to gender variance (I like that term. It’s nice and inclusive) as being identity politics. Or at least to me, it FEELS like it. I could be entirely wrong, of course, my definitions and understanding of the greater socio-political landscape could be wrong…I tend to be woefully inept at these things..but I do feel like this is familiar, in a bad way.

    It’s almost painful for me to read this blog (and your Twitter, Natalie) as a whole as it reminds me of conflicts that I’ve seen and been in (to me there’s little difference between the two.) an awful lot. So thanks for doing all this..I guess? Don’t really know what else to say. It’s a hell of a headwind you’re running into, tackling all these things head on.

    • says

      I have seen people’s entire gender experiences dismissed as “identity politics”. My question would be, so what if it is? Which part of myself am I then supposed to lay down at the feet of someone else’s ideology?

      • karmakin says

        See, that would be not how I would define identity politics, but again, as I said I’m really inept with these things. It seems to me, as an outsider, that the problem here is that people are constantly dismissing any experience that doesn’t matches theirs or doesn’t match all the simple buckets that we want to throw people in.

        Identity politics, at least to me, is wanting to make your particular bucket as large and as powerful as it can be. At least that’s how I define it. Instead of understanding that there’s almost an infinite number of buckets, that life is really messy and the best we can do is try to find a way to make it the best we can.

        • says

          I think you’re right. Ideally, identity politics is about uniting around common political needs of people with similar identities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In reality, people seem to end up doing what Sinead said: making teams and excluding other people. And more insidiously, creating a standard for what it means to be on such-and-such team. And then not working well with other teams. That’s why we need intersectionality, isn’t it? (Am I making sense?)

      • Dalillama says

        @ the nerd
        I kind of see that sort of thing as another case of projection. That is to say, the people that I most often encounter complaining about “identity politics” are basically denying privilege due to their own sense of identity. Privileged people whine about ‘identity politics’ when ethnic minorities assert themselves, because they strongly identify as “Real/Regular/Normal Americans/People” and they feel that identity is threatened when people who aren’t like them also stake a claim to being real people, genuine citizens, and in fact a normal part of the fabric of human life. So you get Christians whining about being called on their bullshit because they identify as Christians and so attacking Christianity is an attack on them, but then turn around and complain about ‘identity politics’ demanding ‘special rights’ when LGBTQ people try to assert themselves as being who they are.

  4. Sinéad says

    Social constructs are a dangerous thing. It’s one thing to acknowledge that something is a social construct, and another to claim it doesn’t exist. The gender abolitionists all too often believe that by denying the reality of gender identity will somehow create a post-gender society, an attitude all too much uncomfortably echoing post-racial politics.

    The problem, as I se it, is that these people are coming from a tabula rasa sort of reasoning. The brain is not a blank slate, there is hard wiiring for language (body language especially). I used to be chiefly a Lockean empiricist, but I have revised my interpretation since.

    You know, for me, my real life experience is what I have to live with, not a theory. In many ways, who we are is a product of how society treats us. And that’s the existentialist concept of identity, much like de Beauvoir’s ‘becoming a woman” all of or identities are a delicate interaction between who we are as we define ourselves and how we are treated by other people.

    I see internal identity as fans of a sports team, those who like the same team rally together, form bonds and create a common language around their team, and are defined by their antagonisms from those other teams who are the object of competition.

    In essence, I see the variation of gender identity as being something like lots of tiny tribes who use symbols to articulate who they are and what makes them independent of other tribes.

    Okay, more coffee.

  5. says

    Very minor quibble as I agree with the article on the whole.

    You can still have a useful theory even if it has areas it doesn`t address or cover very well. The flat earth theory can be useful over short distances, or Newtonian physics which works well in most day to day situations. I freely admit I`m not well read on feminist theories of gender but I can at least see how you could have one that can be useful for many aspects of gender but be inadequate at explaining transgender.

    Course that`s not to say that another theory isn`t needed or that current ideas fit this kind of situation.

    • says

      Well, sure, so long as such theories openly own to their limited nature. Like, “Newtonian physics isn’t absolute, but it works just fine for basic engineering projects”. So if someone were to say “Most of the time, gender operates in a male/female relatively binary dynamic” that would be okay, just like saying “Most of the time, men are attracted to women and women are attracted to men”. But it’s when those rough, approximate theories are positioned as universals, and positioned to be THE explanation for a given phenomena or dynamic, without owning their status as approximate and non-absolute, that we run into problems. ESPECIALLY when used as a basis for prescriptive ethics, prescriptive politics or prescriptive social roles.

  6. Violet Stamper says

    I feel like I just listened to a speech! Yeah! Let’s do this thing!
    How can we start? It seems like we would need to break into the academic sphere and get people’s attention who have funding to publish. If we have the science behind us, we will be able to make the case. My school’s women’s studies program has guest talks every Friday, maybe one near you has the same. If we could establish a group of people willing to go to the academics and sit them down for a discussion, we could get their attention. Then we could start the fireworks and take them to the politicians and the doctors and the thinking public. Some people will be against 4th wave simply because they’ve decided to be closeminded, but they’ll die soon and young people today are more accepting of gender varience than ever before. (Not that that’s a lot of acceptance, but it’s better than it was.)
    I am lucky (priviledged) enough to be loud about this without threat of violence and I have been unofficially, but I think I can do better. I think we can be loud enough that they can’t can’t to plug their ears any harder for fear of going through their tepanum.
    I have a final exam in Latin 3 tomorrow, but right after I can start compiling evidence. Speaking of which, can you share your sources for the evidence that gender is neurobiological? My school’s in the bible belt and all the papers I could find are that Bailey guy you critisized and some peditricians waffling about whether child GID is real. :I

    • Eva says

      I had kind of the same reaction, there should be a fourth wave feminism forum where we can fashion some new structures for our thought foundation.

      I think one of the most important parts of starting a new movement is educating the first followers on the new ideas.

      Can we get a book/blog list?

      • says

        I whole-heartedly second (third?) this idea. Wish I knew code; I would love to put a website together. Unfortunately, keeping my blog up stretches the limits of my computer literacy.

        • Ahamblin says

          Luckily there are great push-button web site builders(like wordpress, and BBboard) that can be set up to make this happen.

  7. says

    So, um, hi.

    *sheepishly looks around*

    I am a trans feminist but not an atheist and I’m never quite sure whether to offer my thoughts here. I think we definitely need to bring trans feminism into fourth-wave feminism, but we need to recognize the obstacles here:

    For one thing, there’s the lack of a common language. In much of feminist discourse, ‘gender’ means ‘gender roles,’ and for many people gender roles are oppressive. In much of feminist discourse, for example Shulamith Firestone’s work, ‘sex’ means ‘reproductive sex,’ or is at least rooted in apparent reproductive sex, and patriarchy is rooted in the vulnerability to rape and pregnancy. And the need for hormones and/or surgery does not fit into these two categories.

    For another thing, most feminists are rarely affected by the social-constructivist gender theory one way or the other. It’s people who are more connected within the feminist movement and more affected by the feminist gender theory who tend to shape feminist gender theory. It’s mostly faab transitioners, and faab detransitioners, and faab folks who are solidly female-identified and not at all gender-conforming. A lot of the transitioners embrace the social-constructivist model. Maybe it works better for male/non-binary [gender default] folks than for female [gender marked] folks? A lot of the other folks reject the social-constructivist model but most can fall back on bio-essentialism. And some are bitter and/or hateful towards the trans community.

    • says

      Hi Marja!

      Everyone, meet Marja. One of the world’s only transgender radical-feminists. She probably knows the grim details of rad-fem transphobia better than anyone on the planet. 😉

      Welcome! You don’t need to be an atheist to offer your thoughts here. Just understand that if you advance truth claims about metaphysics they’ll be held to rigorous standards of evidence and reason… or at least the same standards as any other truth claim. But other than that, no worries. There are no ideological pre-reqs for commenting here. 🙂

        • says

          Well, I’m not an orthodox radfem. I just think too many feminists are too quick to distance themselves from radical feminism instead of, well, taking the good, and leaving the bad, and trying to continue the radical feminist movement.

          Some trans feminists use radfem as an insult, some anti-trans feminists use radfem as a shibboleth, and I don’t think either one does justice to radical feminism or other feminist movements which have grown out of it. I want to reclaim radfem, and recover some of the insights that get lost. I sometimes use badfem as an insult, because frankly, when some of them work to marginalize trans folks, or work to continue criminalizing sex workers, they’re doing it wrong. epically wrong. they’re ignoring the people in the state of atrocity. and sometimes they’re collaborating with patriarchal power structures in the process.

          A lot of feminists also use lesbian separatist as an insult, and some people take separatism in the wrong directions, but there are NO lesbian spaces where I live, there are NO womon-centered spaces I can find, and it looks to me like separate space would be a good thing and separatism shouldn’t be taboo.

          • says

            To be honest I’m never really sure what the definition of a radical feminist is, given that so many radfems use the term in different ways, to refer to people with very different views (though I guess you could say the same about the term ‘feminist’ itself). Many people seem to see me as a ‘radical feminist’ but then they tend to be non-feminists who think all feminists are radicals. Within feminist groups in meatspace, I haven’t found that it’s a term that gets used a whole lot.

    • says

      Ummm, yes. We need a common language to move forward, and so many debates accomplish nothing as we talk past one another because we’re not talking the same thing at all.

      Short of sticking everyone in a room and locking them in until we can hammer out what words mean, I think this is a problem without a solution. I think it’s important, especially when you feel a conversation is going nowhere, for each person to explain exactly what they’re talking about. (This is also helpful, because I know for myself, sometimes I don’t even know what I really mean by a word, because I’ve just absorbed someone else’s definition without thinking it through myself.)

  8. blogromp says

    Amazing post! I’ve been working to root out my unacknowledged cissexism, and your blog has been helping me do so. This post felt like another breakthrough to me. Thank you.

  9. John Horstman says

    We’ve acknowledged a stochastic interplay between a variety of factors, that may vary in an individual between the rigidly deterministic and the fluid. We’ve been able to discuss how an underlying predisposition can be socio-culturally mediated, and that challenging and deconstructing those socio-cultural mediations doesn’t require ignoring or denying the existence of the predispositions. Just trust us.

    I’m not following your reasoning here. I certainly don’t deny the evidence for biological predisposition to identify with a given gender, but that doesn’t mean gender isn’t culturally constructed. What, precisely, is the objection to terming those structures (and those alone) that you identify as mediating the biological structures “gender”? Why should “gender” be extended to categorize the biological structures as well? Defining “gender” as referring only to the constructed aspects (performativities that are understood – sometimes falsely – to correlate with a set of biological structures) allows one to account for persons who lack the given biological structures understood to correlate to a given gender but still identify as and perform that gender. Doesn’t insisting on the inclusion of biological features in “gender” marginalize/exclude such people (almost all of whom are trans)?

    If this is in response to a specific incident or article or book, I’m not sure what it is, but my experience with postmodern feminisms is that they view gender as a social construct precisely because of the imperfect correlation of any given physical structures to read gender/gender self-identity/gender performativity drawn from the lived experiences of people. I feel like you may be using “social constructivist” with too narrow a definition; that is, there are some social constructivist theories that don’t do what you’re saying all of them do.

    • says

      The term “gender” refers to all aspects of what we classify as male, female, masculine, feminine, cis, trans etc. that aren’t morphological in nature. It does NOT simply refer to those aspects which are social, because it also encompasses the psychological and neurobiological. Besides, I fail to see any aspect of gender that is a social construct, only socially mediated aspects. There are social constructs OF gender (like classifications such as “transgender” or “cisgender”, or what things are termed “masculine” or “feminine”), but those constructs aren’t within gender itself, they’re constructed around and in reaction to gender as a means of accommodating (or constraining) it. Social construct implies something just wouldn’t exist in the absence of certain social conditions, but there is NOTHING about gender itself that I believe ever would cease to exist regardless of social conditions. It would simply exist in different ways.

      Also, please note that nothing I said here is about all theories of social-constructivism. It is specifically about “hard” social-constructivism, the “blank slate” theories (which you can contrast to “hard” bio-essentialism, the theories that men and women have “evolved” to be fundamentally distinct). The flaw in those theories is precisely their “hardness” and absolutism, their inability to accept an interplay between a variety of contributing factors, and their refusal to address the lived realities of gender variance in their full diversity (rather only ever addressing particular gender variants within the context of their predetermined theoretical framework, exploiting them as “supporting” evidence rather than adapting their theories to the fact of gender variance itself).

  10. says

    I tried asking some questions about your stand on constructivism earlier on this blog, but suffice to say that I learned my lesson then. Instead I’ll just leave this as feedback.

    I see from the comments that your cheerleading gallery is 100% behind you, but for the rest of us, you’re really going to have to argue this a lot better. As someone working with academic feminism (you know, the one with the degrees and books that you scoff at) and constructivism, the cavalier way in which you equate constructivism – a powerful, useful theory that is creating very valuable results – with flat earth theory and David Icke actually makes you come off like a 9/11 truther (your comparison!). If you really think constructivism is as flawed as the flat earth theory, then I at least need a lot more than this to convince me that it needs to be discarded wholesale. If some people use it to justify their transphobia, that’s not a reason to throw away the whole theory as worthless.

    Furthermore, you’re going to have to articulate more specifically what it is that you want to replace constructivism with. You seem to be arguing that constructivism is not accepting enough of gender difference, and this can be fixed by replacing it with essentialism. At first glance, this is completely absurd. In fact, in your insistence that third-wave feminism is contradicted by science and gender isn’t a construct, and with the “academics with books lol” fling, you’re almost echoing the “men’s rights” position that feminism is pseudo-science that “ignores biology”. As with them, none of the science I’ve seen that purportedly contradicts constructivism actually seems to do sk.

    I’ve read this blog enough to know that you’re not in the business of arguing absurdities, and I’m absolutely convinced that you’re a hell of a lot smarter than I am, and that you’ve thought about this stuff for much longer than I have. So in all likelihood, whatever it is that you’re arguing is probably more right than wrong. But I’m not willing to accept an argument from authority, which is basically what that is, on a subject I’m personally involved with.

    If you’re going to write a manifesto for a new feminism, you have to write it for the people who aren’t already drinking the Kool-Aid. I’m sure this piece, and the previous part, work as pep talks, but for me at least, the way you’re arguing this really isn’t working. It’s especially jarring when you throw out stuff like David Icke, which, frankly and perhaps paradoxically, makes you sound more like him than a skeptical reformer to be taken seriously.

    • says

      HARD, ABSOLUTIST social constructivism. The intensity with which people seek to defend the theory, such that critique of even if its most indefensible fringe elements is taken as this horrible affront, is indicative of exactly the problem.

      Those who think social constructivism is so useful will need to do a much better job of arguing that to me before I buy the validity of a theoretical framework that repeatedly rejects or ignores my existence.

      Furthermore, it should be pretty damn clear I’m not taking an anti-intellectual stance here, or even a stance opposed to theory. It’s a stance asking for theories that more capably speak to lived realities.

      I don’t want to throw away as worthless “hard” constructivism because it can be used to justify transphobia. I want to throw it away as worthless because it fails to accommodate and speak to the full lived reality of gender, and therefore fails to live up to its own stated mandate (that is, providing a theoretical framework for understanding how gender operates).

      Finally, I OBVIOUSLY AND EXPLICITLY did not advocate replacing constructivism with essentialism. I warned of the dangers of leaving the doors open for essentialists to take over, and explicitly stated that their absolutist positions are just as inadequate and dangerous. If you read an advocacy for essentialism in this piece, you REALLY weren’t reading it very well, and again, I’d say the reason for that is likely a biased tilt towards defending constructivism. When I critiqued absolutist constructivism, you went on the defense, and began perceiving an expected attack rather than what I was actually writing.

      The idea that construvism and bio-essentialism, nature vs nurture, is some kind of black/white, either/or issue is one of the deepest problems running through the current discourse of gender, and something that definitely needs to be rejected. Trans-feminism, as I’ve said, has ALREADY figured out how to do that, and provided the means of moving past that false dichotomy.

      • says


        From my particular vantage point, I don’t see all that much meaningful difference between the essentialists, constructivists, MRAs, rad-fems, Christian right and “progressive” left. ALL of them tend to ignore, deny, invalidate, marginalize, hate, misrepresent, commodify or exploit our existence, and NONE of them seem to care all that much about our lives, needs, experiences or what happens to us. Why would I support any one “team” over another? Honestly, I’d almost be content to just sit back and watch them tear eachother apart if I weren’t afraid of how much power would be left in the hands of the “last one standing”, so to speak, and how dangerous that would be. At least they disagree with each other on HOW we should be marginalized, and there’s some level of stability that arises from that. Still, though, I don’t buy the notion that the enemy of my enemy immediately becomes my friend. As a trans person, I have too many enemies to roll with that.

    • Vicki says

      She’s not even close to echoing the Men’s Rights stance against academic feminism. I just did a search on the Men’s Rights subreddit for the word “constructivism” to find out what their position on it is.

      For the record, they don’t have one. I’d like to say there weren’t any hits. I really wish that were the case. I’m not even sure why it was a hit, somebody in the comments must have used the word.

      Some guy was pretending to be a transgender male, or, as he put it, a transgender female living as a male. He shares his experiences pre and post transition, and apparently women feel much safer walking the streets at night because they have big strong men that will come to their aid and protect them. I can’t even understand how a cisgender male could get that impression, it’s like that Oatmeal comic about how nicely women gamers are treated when they make a mistake.

    • says

      To use the truther analogy, this is like going from “the government sometimes does bad things, then lies and spins to evade responsibility” to “the government did 9/11. Sure, they say they didn’t, but you’d have to be a sheep to trust them.” Or, you could use the various hard science analogies that Natalie used right in her article. Just because a theory gives useful results doesn’t mean it is entirely true. In fact, if it also gives bad results in some circumstances, that’s a good indicator that it’s partially true, at best.

  11. says

    If there’s one thing that feminism has educated society about, it’s the reality that men and women are 99% the same, and that a whole bunch of patriarchal sexist bullshit was in fact merely self-perpetuating social constructs that don’t have anything to do with biology. Maybe that’s two things.

    Where the social constructivists part ways with science and reality is in thinking that it somehow follows that the 1% that separates the two poles of the gender spectrum is also socially constructed and not, at heart, biological.

    One book on my shelf that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to grapple with the nature of consciousness is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio. In a nutshell, what science has discovered is that we are all, at core, driven by emotion and not by our intellects.

    The part that’s relevant to this discussion is the concept that our consciousnesses rest on top of lower level parts of our brains that we don’t have conscious control or awareness of. And one of the most important functions of those unconscious parts of our brains is communicating the really important messages about ourselves in the form of emotions, such as hunger, pain, tiredness, etc.

    Sexual motivations are critical to the survival of our species and many others, and is included with the famous 4 F’s that species are evolutionarily adapted to be successful at: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual behavior, as the joke goes.

    The thing about evolution is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. We don’t all have to be heterosexual parents of 2+ children in order to perpetuate the species, and in fact it would be better for the planet if we all did not do that. So of course there are gay people and bi people and asexual people. And trans people.

    We’re not all wired up as perfect little specimens of maleness and femaleness, and it’s a good thing too, because it’d be pretty boring if we all looked the same. And we’re not all wired up to be comfortable in our assigned genders. Admittedly, it’s a feeling I can only grasp conceptually, but with the enormous burdens (and loss of privilege, especially for trans women) that transitioning puts on people, who in their right mind, knowing the facts of the situation, would think that this was some mere psychological hang-up that someone could just snap themselves out of? Like you are all just trans* to be obstinate or something. It’s bad science and it’s not even common sense.

  12. says

    A feminism that repeatedly fails to address the realities of gender will systematically discredit itself, and consign itself to irrelevance. At best, it will end up a specialized niche in academia for die-hards who have little or no interest in engaging the realities that exist beyond the walls of their classrooms, or beyond the spines of their publications.

    Insofar as this happens, it discredits academia. All of the things you say about the importance of making theory follow the evidence are exactly what academia should be doing if it’s going to claim to be (as it should be) an institution of learning.

  13. says

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, hallelujah, shout it from the rooftops, amen.

    Brilliant post, as always.

    I can overlook some of the transphobia in early feminist writing. One reason is because there is no holy writ and no prophets from on high; we’re not dependent on infalibility and we know everyone fucks up, so because someone is terribly wrong in one area doesn’t devalue everything that person ever wrote (see: why I can enjoy some of Christopher Hitchens, even though he was a misogynistic, racist asshole).

    The second reason is that I think that in the early days, there really wasn’t a clear understanding of gender. (There still isn’t.) Early feminists looked at their own lives and the lives of those around them and came up with the best working theory they could based on the available evidence. We owe many of these women a great debt both for their marginal politcal acheivements (which unfortunately often only help a small sliver of the population, but still, it’s better than it was), and for giving us a language to talk about these issues.

    But you are absolutely, 100% right: feminism must evolve, or it will die.

    I think it’s like deists a couple hundred years ago…they looked at the major religious, especially Christianity, and realized what a load of crap it was. They threw off the unscientific, unethical baggage of traditional religion. But they still looked around and decided (based on the evidence available) that there still needed to be a Creator. Then Darwin came along, with other scientific advances, and that theory of the universe became obsolete. I think many of the famous deists would, in light of new evidence, be the atheists of today. And we recognize that those people who are still stuck in light theism today just need to open their eyes to rational thought and the wonder of science, and make that little leap to a more evolved understanding of the world. Many of the early writings of deists and pantheists are helpful to us today, and created much of the philosophical backbone of modern atheism. But out of necessity, we’ve moved beyond that.

    I appriciate early feminist theory, and I still study in extensively. But whether out of comfort, or misplaced loyalty, or the fear of being wrong, we can’t stay there anymore. It’s just irrational, and ignores reality. And irrational thought and willful ignorance annoys me like nothing else, so I’m sorry if I’m talking too much.

    • says

      Oh, crap, I screwed up my tags, sorry. HTML fail. I was trying to quote you at the top, and ended up with…well, that. Again, sorry!

  14. Jean-Yves says

    That’s the thing that makes me laugh! or cry… About feminism,

    its not a science, it doesn’t even try to be like sociology or psychology (which also mostly fail as sciences because of severe deficiencies in methodologies). When do you see an hypothesis about the world as seen by a feminist, put to the test? Can it even be put to the test even if they wanted to? That doesn’t stop feminist of whatever wave of building “theoretical (used in derision here)” structures build mostly on anecdotes, opinions and a few polls and stats. Yes, I have a very low opinion of the field.

    Its basically all about rhetoric. Who can argue better whatever constructed position will be “on top” of the feminist heap ;-). So, is the prevalent feminist position relevant enough to the love’s of trans to really want to get involved in this bull crap festival?

    • Cipher, OM says

      It would be nice if you’d use specific examples rather than abstract claims about “feminism” so that we could nail down what you’re trying to say.

  15. Cipher, OM says

    I’m trying to wrap my head around this right now. My current position is that the concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” are the things that are socially constructed. They are groups of ideas that are bundled up semi-arbitrarily together into big piles and purported to define what it means to be a man or a woman, and further they are assumed to be opposites, and assumed to be inherently connected with genitalia.

    You don’t seem to be arguing that that is not the case. The argument is about separating gender roles from gender identity, and understanding that while those assumptions of what it means to be a man or a woman are socially constructed, the underlying fact of people having genders at all is not. Do I have it?

    • says

      Pretty much. However, I would also say that there may be underlying, innate drives for people to express themselves as “masculine” or “feminine” within the definitions and understanding of their culture or sub-culture, whatever those may be. This, however, would also be primarily independent of gender identity, morphological sex, sexual orientation, etc. and, of course, how “masculinity” and “femininity” are conceptualized in a given cultural context can shift dramatically (though perhaps not entirely). Making them mostly, but not necessarily completely, arbitrary signifiers for a nonetheless phenomenologically valid signified.

      • Cipher, OM says

        I just want to tell you, Natalie, that your blog makes me have strange dreams. May be triggers in there? I’m not sure.

        I went to bed thinking about the question of how gender role works. I was thinking maybe people have innate tendencies to behave in certain ways, then those are identified as gendered, and some of them are suppressed or modified by societal pressure, and then I think I fell asleep.

        I proceeded to have a dream in which a number of people I know, trans and cis, were being “re-educated” to behave in “gender-appropriate” ways, with the trans people being misgendered. The excuse for this was that there was a killer on the loose who was identified as experiencing gender dissonance, and since the plots of my dreams are never terribly logical, the people in charge decided the best way to deal with this was to identify everyone who was not behaving perfectly in line with their gender as assigned by the people in charge, then to put us into re-education environments where we were closely monitored in very meticulous and deliberate ways to try to make us perfectly fit the gender role associated with the gender we were assigned. Things like how we ate and how big our steps were. …It was very uncomfortable for everybody.

  16. says

    Occasionally my vocabulary is insufficient to the task of reading your blog. This is one of those times. I’m unsure of the meaning of the word ‘ineffable.’ Is it a synonym of ‘unfuckable?’

  17. Sarah says

    thank you again for doing this work, I have been reading your posts backwards mostly, which I think answered my earlier question about intersectionality to some degree. if it means anything, this is a topic that I have not written on for a few years, but reading your posts has sparked my interest (or perhaps more accurately my inter-esse, my desire for dialogue) once again.

    while I love science and find its epistemology fascinating, I am a bit uncomfortable with an alliance with the notion that “Meanwhile, science, and evidence, marches on.” science seems to have quite an ambivalent relationship to this topic, and I do not see the enterprise (especially due to the nature of inductive and abductive inquiry) ever overcoming this ambivalence, though I agree that it could be very helpful. thus, I tend to prefer an intrinsic value approach instead (which I think that you are also advocating for to a large degree).

    additionally, I’m not sure what feminism is. I think that there are feminisms, and that some have become/been more hegemonic than others

    Finally, I think that a lot of the theorists who get taken up as hard-line social constructivists are not as extreme in this regard as people take them to be, especially as embodiment has become more and more of an important topic in academia. A lot of people who gravitate towards these thinkers and mistakenly follow vulgar constructivism (as Kimberle Crenshaw refers to it) can thus luckily be shown to be wrong (even though they likely refuse to admit it).

  18. Poor Lurker says

    I am very disappointed to see anti-science gossip on FreeThought Blogs. When you say “John Money has been utterly discredited and died in shame” I do not at all believe you know anything of the work of John Money except for propaganda pieces written based on the David Reimer case. Money did groundbreaking work in human sexuality that continues to define how researchers, and least of all Feminists and the LGBT, discuss human gender. Sadly ironic is how you immediately mention climate denialists, who are infamous for publishing personal attacks and libel against scientists in the same way that so many psychologists and sexologists have been libeled on the web.

    • says

      It’s true that I don’t know much about Money beyond the horrible work he did regarding Reimer and promoting a constructivist view of gender, and misreporting his own results, and lying about his failures, to help maintain that theory despite the numerous lives it was ruining. But I think that’s enough to consider HIM anti-scientific, not his critics.

      Seeing what John Money did, how he distorted his results and ignored evidence that counter-indicated his position… that was actually an extremely important step forward in my learning how important skepticism and good scientific practice is. It’s fair to say that maybe I’m not as knowledgeable about Money’s body of work as I should be, and it’s fair to argue that I’m being a bit unreasonable in focusing only on the worst things he did while ignoring his valuable contributions to scientific understanding of sex and gender, but it’s not fair to say that I’m promoting anti-science.

      • Poor Lurker says

        Not promoting anti-science. Sharing gossip. But look at how you replied: You justify an attack against a scientific theory entirely with attacks against a scientist. The theory was not made from a single star child. When people even consider a single piece of evidence to be sufficient argument for or against a theory it is anti-science.

        Money’s “constructivist view of gender” was wrong. He even changed his views in later years. And still he was probably wrong. His early work and the foundations of his academic career are decades out of date and cannot stand up to the findings of modern research techniques.

        None of this implies that it is good practice, the wholesale dismissal of his work based on personal attacks and single incidents. None of this implies it is good, the personal attacks and actual harassment lodged against modern academics like J. Michael Bailey (and even his graduate students). None of this implies that it is good, the rigid anti-psychology sentiment at large in LGBTQ activism.

        Scientific skepticism is, yes, looking a the assumptions and methods and data-crunching for conclusions. But it’s not uncovering conspiracies perpetrated by scientists. That’s Hollywood skepticism. It works 1% of the time, and results in “global warming email-gate” 99% of the time (yes, raising that analogy again). And that’s why I get mad when I see it. Especially when it’s used in situations that are (sort of) right: situations lauded as the great successes of the scientists-might-be-evil worldview.


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