TERFs are Incoherent

Remember this old claim of mine?

But rather than [use] a specific list [to identify TERFs], it’s more important to look for incoherence. Take the above; if anatomy is so strongly associated with a tendency to violence, how can you hope to improve things by destroying the concept of “gender?” That list of beliefs isn’t universal or definitive, but I have yet to see a single TERF with a self-coherent view of sex/gender. That’s because their “criticism” isn’t actually a critique, based on solid evidence and analysis, but a fig leaf to disguise their bigotry. It’s very similar to the way creationists and snake-oil salesmen will invoke science without actually understanding it.

I was handed an excellent challenge to it. The primary author, Dr. Kathleen Stock, is a professor of philosophy with a fair number of publications to her name. I also recognize Rebecca Reilly-Cooper; she’s a political philosopher and also has numerous published works. This is a “dream team” of TERF philosophers, and they’re here to “challenge their opponents to avoid some obviously bad argumentative moves” in challenge-response format. You couldn’t have designed a better challenge to my claim, so how does it hold up?

[CONTENT WARNING: transphobia, TERFs]

Biological Essentialism

It’s shocking just how often this document contradicts itself. Consider their entry refuting the claim that they’re biological essentialists:

All of us reject this view as stated, though at least one of us acknowledges the possibility of more minimally described hard-wired sexed behaviours across a population. But in any case: this view has nothing to do with the view that the category of ‘woman’ is correctly defined as ‘adult human female’. Biological essentialism is a position about whether certain traits of women are biologically produced by sex category membership. Womanhood itself is not a genetic ‘trait’ and no-one on either side of the dispute thinks it is conceivably biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be. So to call the view that some of us hold ‘biological essentialism’ is a misnomer. Moreover, it is a misnomer apparently rhetorically designed to draw some of the harsh criticism which appears in progressive circles about biological essentialism, in the true sense, onto the view that women, definitionally, are adult human females.

You cannot square “we are not biological essentialists” with “women, definitionally, are adult human females.” They are defining the category of womanhood by biological sex, in an entry denying they do any such thing! Clearly they’re stung by the “what about intersex people?” line of argument, and are attempting to take a more nuanced stance in response.

None of us hold a view according to which either a woman or a female is defined as such by her current possession of a particular configuration of genitalia, womb, or any other single primary sex characteristic, for that matter. We recognise — of course — that womanhood/ femaleness is compatible with surgical removal or alteration of many morphological primary sex characteristics. We also recognise that womanhood/femaleness is compatible with Differences of Sexual Development (sometimes known as ‘intersex’ conditions) resulting, from birth, in the absence of, or non-standard presentation of, certain primary sex characteristics.

Several of us endorse a cluster account of femaleness, according to which possession of some vague number of a certain set of endogenously-produced primary sex characteristics — including vagina, ovaries, womb, fallopian tubes, and XX chromosomes — is sufficient for femaleness, though no particular characteristic is necessary or essential. We don’t think even that XX chromosomes are essential for femaleness. According to us, someone with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is correctly categorised as female, at least for most non-technical uses of that term.

The emphasis above is mine. That line was intended to head off the “intersex” argument, yet compare it with the very first paragraph of their document (emphasis again mine).

We’re a group of gender-critical and radical feminist academic philosophers. In our work, some of us argue that women, by definition, are adult human females. On this view, since no trans woman is an adult human female, no trans woman is correctly categorised as a woman.

Not even trans women who had genital surgery? Why is genital surgery in adulthood treated any differently than the same surgery in childhood? It’s very difficult to track down the sex assignment procedure used at birth, but if you read between the lines of several studies and look up the tests performed on newborns, you get the impression that sex determination begins by looking at genitals. If they fit neatly into one of two categories, an “M” or “F” is marked down on the birth certificate and no further testing is done. Only if the genitals are ambiguous do doctors carry out hormone or chromosome tests, as far as I can tell, and in some cases they pull out the scalpel before those tests even reach a conclusion. All that talk about “clusters” of sexual characteristics is meaningless, because by stating “women, definitionally, are adult human females” TERFs are really saying “women, definitionally, are people with vaginas, a urinary tract that does not pass through a phallus, and a phallus no longer than X.” That’s unambiguous biological essentialism, placed right next to a claim that they never engage in biological essentialism.

Again, try to square up “women, definitionally, are adult human females” with this:

At the risk of repeating ourselves, we don’t think there is any normatively right way for females or women to be. We reject societies’ constant attempts to suggest that there is.

This time, the emphasis is not mine. Those authors themselves wanted to stress that they are not imposing any norms on “females or women,” in a document where they indirectly impose norms on how women’s genitals should look.

Does Appearance Matter?

Or square “women, definitionally, are adult human females” with their section on segregating people by appearance:

Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID. … To say that all non-passing trans women should be socially permitted into women-only spaces, as a matter of course, is to invite a problem for women which we discuss in section 6 above: namely, the consequent reduction in women’s ability to confidently exclude any male from those spaces.

TERFs are fine with trans women and cis women mixing, provided those trans women look cis enough to fool people at a casual glance. Yet in the same document they argue that no outward change to their appearance is sufficient for trans women to be considered women! This document also spends 725 words scare-mongering about how trans women might be inherently violent.

… what, we judge, is likely to happen, over a period of time, in a culture where it becomes increasingly widely known that sex-self-ID (with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate), rather than birth sex, is the determiner of entry/ lack of entry for biological males into woman-only spaces where females undress or sleep, and so are particularly vulnerable. We predict that, in such a culture, social norms which currently stop many predatory men, generally, entering these spaces will be eroded. … We take seriously the testimony of the many experts working professionally with sexual offenders who describe the persistence and opportunism of these offenders, and we see no reason to be confident that no-one will take this opportunity in future.

If violence is correlated to the sex you were assigned at birth, that sex cannot be changed, and people can misjudge sex when only using secondary cues, how can you enforce sex segregation without relying on genital checks? You can’t. And yet this document argues you can.

Evidential Problems

It’s also worth highlighting the evidential problem here. We have no record of a trans woman assaulting a cis woman in a bathroom, yet we have several cases where people assaulted cis women in bathrooms because they looked trans. This is entirely predictable; for argument’s sake, let’s say that 2% of the population is transgender, 80% of transgender people appear transgender, and 5% of cisgender people appear transgender. Plug those numbers into Bayes’ theorem, and you find that roughly 75% of everyone who appears transgender is actually cisgender. Those numbers get worse in spaces where transgender people are less likely to tread, and in the case of bathrooms we know transgender people avoid them out of a fear being abused, assaulted, or worse. Yet these authors consider the assault of cisgender women “a regrettable cost” that is “smaller than the greater harms to females,” in clear contradiction of the evidence.

The authors also place too much emphasis on hypotheticals. Here’s the finale to that 725-word section implying transgender women are violent:

Even so, we also argue that both sides of the dispute would be well-served by a serious empirical investigation into whether trans women tend to commit sexual and violent offences at the same rate as biological males, or whether this offending rate lowers on transition (perhaps to the level of biological females, as has been claimed by some of our opponents).

Everything prior to that paragraph hinged on the notion that cisgender men and transgender women are equivalent, so that the ample evidence relating to violence among the former can be extrapolated to the latter. The authors have no direct evidence about rates of violence among transgender women, and repeatedly concede that, but nonetheless believe hypotheticals are sufficient to exclude transgender women from a variety of spaces. Yet when it comes to lesbians, they apply different standards.

We aren’t arguing for the exclusion of lesbians from women-only spaces, because as far as we know, there is no documented statistical pattern of lesbian violence or aggression towards other females, whereas there is such a documented pattern of male violence. Even if there were such a pattern of lesbian violence — which, to repeat, there isn’t — ‘lesbian-free spaces’ would be impractical as an imposed social norm, since there’s no even roughly reliable way of visually identifying lesbians and differentiating them from non-lesbians.

There’s no evidence? They should tell that to the authors of these studies.

Even though there are a few studies on Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence (SSIPV), they highlight that the phenomenon occurs at a rate that is comparable (Turell, 2000) or even higher than heterosexual IPV (Messinger, 2011; Kelley et al., 2012; Barrett and St.Pierre, 2013). It can be difficult to identify LGB IPV prevalence rates due to the different methodologies used in the researches. However, according to one of the most recent and representative study reports, almost one-third of sexual minority males and one-half of sexual minority women in the United States affirmed they were victims of physical or psychological abuse in a romantic relationship. …

Life-time prevalence of IPV in LGB couples appeared to be similar to or higher than in heterosexual ones: 61.1% of bisexual women, 43.8% of lesbian women, 37.3% of bisexual men, and 26.0% of homosexual men experienced IPV during their life, while 5.0% of heterosexual women and 29.0% of heterosexual men experienced IPV. When episodes of severe violence were considered, prevalence was similar or higher for LGB adults (bisexual women: 49.3%; lesbian women: 29.4%; homosexual men: 16.4%) compared to heterosexual adults (heterosexual women: 23.6%; heterosexual men: 13.9%) (Breiding et al., 2013).

Rollè, Luca, Giulia Giardina, Angela M. Caldarera, Eva Gerino, and Piera Brustia. “When Intimate Partner Violence Meets Same Sex Couples: A Review of Same Sex Intimate Partner Violence.” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (August 21, 2018). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01506.

We have more evidence for lesbians engaging in violence than we have for transgender women, and said evidence weakly suggests they’re more violent than their heterosexual peers. Yet the authors ask us to ignore or discard that because of practical considerations. At the same time, they ignore or discard the practical considerations of increased violence against non-conforming cisgender women, and treat hypothetical harm from transgender women as the more important consideration.


I could easily double the length of this blog post with more examples; section 5 alone would have added another thousand words. But by now, you get the point. TERF philosophy is incoherent, even when you only listen to the smartest and most intellectual rigorous TERFs. It is riven with contradictions, routinely ignores contradictory evidence while elevating hypotheticals, and is actively harmful to women however they identify. As for the latter, these authors wash their hands of all responsibility.

We doubt that any actual transphobes are led to a path of violence by reading our relatively esoteric pieces. But in any case, given the care with which we articulate our views in our published writing, we don’t consider that we are morally responsible for any radical misreading of our work, which might then cause someone to be violent to a trans person, deplorably.

TERFs actively pair up with far-Right organizations, and their bathroom fearmongering is echoed by the far-Right echo chamber. Has anyone injured someone else based on TERF writing? Not that I’m aware of. In an age of stochastic terrorism, though, academics who promote poor arguments and falsehoods about a minority must bear some moral responsibility for any harm that comes to that minority. We can quibble over how much, but denying all responsibility is no longer an option.

Further Reading

[2019-06-10 HJH] One flaw with the above is that I never properly define biological essentialism. I just assume you’d either intuit the meaning as you read along, or would go check a secondary source such as Raewyn Connell.

According to this ideology, the social arrangements that feminism challenged expressed differences in character (emotion, intellect, attitude, etc.) between women and men, which were rooted in biological sex differences. […] Curiously, whatever biological mechanism was appealed to, the argument always ended up in the same place: Conventional sex roles, gender divisions of labour, and inequalities of power, were biologically determined and therefore could not be challenged. Feminist activism was coming up against nature and so, ultimately, it was futile.

Fortunately, Crip Dyke spotted my flaw and did a deep dive on the subject.

… they do try [to square two contradictory assertions] by putting forth what I believe to be a definition of biological essentialism (hereafter BEm, because whew, that gets tiresome) that is in my view bizarrely idiosyncratic, erroneous, and deceptive. … BEm is not a position that relates only to “certain traits of women”. It can, of course, relate to “certain traits of space aliens” or “certain traits of dolphins” or “certain traits of members of the genus homo“. The point here is that by defining BEm in the manner that the authors do, they put the classification of women qua women outside of the possibility of consideration. Even defining BEm as regarding “certain traits of members of homo sapiens” or “certain traits of persons” would allow us to question whether or not womanhood is assigned based on biological essentialist (hereafter, BEt) criteria.

It is odd, then, that the excerpt even attempts to defend its authors definitions of women and womanhood as non-BEt. But accepting that they do, bizarrely, go ahead and attempt a defense, one would like to see a coherent one that at least makes a logical case that the authors should not be seen as biological essentialists unless and until some successful rebuttal is mounted. This is not what is presented.

Give her post a shot if you want something more philosophically rigorous.