The rancor of the gender wars

September 27, 2022 • 11:15 am

The one ideological area in which I get the most pushback is that comprising transgender and transsexual issues. My concern with the topic has been twofold. First, I have been critical of the assertion of activists’ (and their adherents’) claim that sex is not bimodal in humans (or indeed, in anything), as well as the claim that there aren’t really any evolved differences in male and female behavior (again, not just in humans). To me, this flies in the face of all we know about biology.  But I’ve given reasons for my views and won’t reprise them here.

Second—and again I’ve discussed this at length, adducing evidence, I’ve been worried about and critical of activists’ claims—now echoed by the Biden administration—that transsexual females (born as biological males) should be allowed to compete in most sports against biological women. This is especially worrisome if there’s been no medical intervention (hormone therapy) and if the transitioning occurred after puberty. Others feel differently, and this is a discussable issue that involves biology as well as philosophy.

That’s about it. I’m happy to treat all transsexual people with respect, including accepting that they’re members of the sex they want to be, using the pronouns they want us to use, and, in almost every case, afford them exactly the same rights as non-transsexuals. I certainly don’t want to “erase” them. And yet transsexual activism is so vociferous that even questioning issues of sports, sex differences, or sex bimodality brands one as a “transphobe.” I deny that accusation, as I deny the accusation that J. K. Rowling is a transphobe. And I am appalled at the self-righteousness of those who make flat assertions and are deaf to criticism.

In a recent article in Times Higher Education, Laura Favoro, identified as “a researcher at City, University of London’s Gender & Sexualities Research Centre”, surveyed 50 gender studies academics (all self-identified as “feminists”), trying to suss out the source of the acrimony around gender and transsexuality. Her conclusion, which those of us who have followed the “gender wars” already know, is that discussion on the issue has been severely and deliberately chilled, to the extent that most feminists who disagree with “progressive” ideology keep their mouths shut out of fear. And that fear comes from the rancor heaped on dissenters by “progressives”, who no longer want to debate—or even see the point of debate.  This assuredness and willingness to silence dissidents is a recurring theme in the woke playbook.

The original is here but paywalled (you can read three articles for free), but I also found it archived here. Click below to see if you can access it; if not, go to the archive.

Of the 50 feminists interviewed by Favoro, 14 were “gender critical feminists”, comprising those who see a difference (as do I) between “sex” and “gender”. Favoro adduces a fact I didn’t know:

For them, there is a clear difference between “sex”, which refers to biological categories that are binary and immutable, and “gender”, which describes the roles, behaviours and attributes that a given culture deems appropriate for people by virtue of their sex. Recognising this difference is important because, as well as constraining both sexes, gender serves to justify the subordination of females. This group of academics also noted that their perspective was, until recently, largely shared across feminism, as well as within many academic disciplines.

I admit that I’ve been clueless enough not to know that emphasizing “gender” might lead to pressure on biological women to adopt classical female “gender roles”—something that modern feminists have opposed, or rather favor the right to reject traditional gender roles.

These “gender critical feminists” report significant harassment that has led to self-censorship:

It was clear that the “gender-critical” feminist academics I interviewed had faced negative repercussions for years for expressing their view (now protected in the UK under the Equality Act 2010 following last year’s tribunal ruling that a thinktank researcher, Maya Forstater, had been unlawfully dismissed for tweeting that women could not change their biological sex). Among other experiences, my interviewees described complaints to and by management, attempts to shut down events, no platforming, disinvitations, intimidation, smears and losing career progression opportunities, including being blocked from jobs.

Others spoke about being physically removed from events, alongside receiving torrents of abuse online that even included incitements to murder. One criminology scholar said her experience was “a continuum of hell”, while a law scholar claimed “the impact has been huge [and] is going to last a long time”. Aware of these potential consequences, and citing feelings of fear, isolation and despair, others had decided to “hide in the shadows”.

Those in the earlier stages of their careers said that “it would just be too terrifying” to make their views public due to the threat of being “ostracised…because so much within academia depends on personal connections”, while more experienced colleagues alluded to “self-preservation”. Feared by all was the “horrible backlash” online; one sociologist worried about death and rape threats seen elsewhere stated: “I have children – I’m frightened.”

Favaro also spoke to 20 “trans-inclusive feminists”, who differ from each other in their opinions, but as a group see no sharp line between sex and gender:

For some, “sex” is a construct of oppressive systems, notably Western colonialism. Others argue it is a biological spectrum that can – at least in part – change. For others still, it is both a social fiction and a biological reality. “Gender” is likewise understood in different ways: as socially or discursively constructed (performative model); as an inseparable combination of biological, psychological and social elements (biopsychosocial model); or, to a much lesser extent, as innate subjectivity, evoking notions of sexed brains (psychobiologist model). At times, “gender” is used as a synonym for “gender identity”, usually understood as an internal sense of self as a woman, a man, both, neither or something else, such as “non-binary” – which, among other possibilities, can be “plural” (“like having two or more alter egos or personas”) or “fluid” (changing “over years, months, or the course of the day”), as explained in the 2019 book Gender: A Graphic Guide.

Despite its conceptual diversity, genderism coheres around the push for gender (identity) to replace sex in most – if not all – contexts. Unlike feminism, its political subject is not female people but rather all those subjected to gender oppression – a concept that is redefined to emphasise lack of choice and affirmation relating to gender identity.

This is the viewpoint that I characterize as “progressive”, not because I think it’s connected with any real scientific or moral progress, but because its adherents see themselves as progressive, as being on the side of the angels. And, according to Favor (who’s going to get herself in trouble, even though she’s right), it’s this group that is the most censorious, the most eager to demonize their opponents as “TERFs” and transphobes. Some even reject the idea of debating:

On the issue of “no platforming”, some interviewees ridiculed the idea that gender-critical feminists were victims of it. . .

Others, however, openly embraced the “no debate” position on the basis that gender-critical feminism is “hate speech” or even “rhetorical violence [that] actually does have real-world aims”, equivalent to movements such as fascism and eugenics. One interviewee who identified as a trans woman described the current situation in academia as “a political battle over an institutional space”, clarifying that: “My political bottom line is – I don’t concede to people who are interested in the eradication of me and everyone like me in the world because I consider that a genocidal project.”

This view, together with the belief that “cis women have more power than trans people”, led genderist academics to refrain from forthrightly denouncing some transgender activists’ aggressive tactics towards feminists. These include threats and ideations of extreme violence, which, as well as being pervasive on social media, appear to be increasingly condoned at universities. For example, last year, a London School of Economics postgraduate student conference paper described a scene in which feminists critical of genderism “scream for mercy”. The paper then described the potential threat: “I hold a knife to your throat and spit my transness into your ear”, concluding: “Are you scared? I sure fucking hope so.”

Oy vey is mir! Yet some of these can’t even articulate their own beliefs: 

When asked to describe their arguments, however, she responded: “I don’t know if what I understand or what I think are the issues are the issues, I’ll be honest with you – I stay out of their way.” This remarkable coupling of condemnation and ignorance regarding gender-critical feminism was fairly common among genderist academics. Many readily admitted that they limit their academic engagements, including their reading, to their “echo chambers and bubbles” where, as one journal editor noted, “we all share basically the same perspectives”.

Many genderist academics struggled, or were discomfited, when asked to provide their own definitions of sex, gender and (particularly) gender identity, despite their research and teaching revolving around these very topics. Some acknowledged lack of sufficient reflection, while others explained this peculiar situation by citing concerns over “perpetuating harms” with their words to people who identify as transgender. For others still, the concern related to “sounding Terfy”, or was a reaction to the fact that “there is very little openness to debating certain subjects which are difficult other than being framed as transphobic”.

If you can’t define your terms, you can’t have a debate.  Among this group, Favoro interviewed 12 “genderist” feminists who were also editors of feminist, gender, and sexuality journals. Of course these journals all had the genderist perspective, but, further, all the editors they wouldn’t publish any gender-critical articles.

Finally, Favoro interviewed 16 feminist academics whose views she didn’t know. Many of them mentioned self-censorship because “we are all so afraid”. Others were in the “I’m not gender-critical, but. . . ” class, still raising issues that concern gender-critical feminists—issues like “affirmative care” for gender-dysphoric youth and the elimination of the term “sex.” Here’s a statement from one:

Are there things that I could write? Yes. Do I think that they could make a difference, that they could offer something? Yes. Will I write about it? No. Which tells you all you need to know about the current situation,” said a sociologist. “If I am scared to write about this…then I have no doubt that people who might be more easily classified as Terfs would feel afraid to speak, censored,” she added.

As you see, at least for the time being among this group—and, I think, much more widely—the trans-inclusive feminists have won, shutting down debate and chilling speech because people are afraid of being called TERFs or transphobes. (This resembles the debate about affirmative action and race-related matters, where the silencing adjective is “racist”.)

Favoro claims that she was objective in her approach, and I have no reason to doubt her, for if she had a history of being in one of the two main camps, people would know it and impugn her for producing biased journalism. Yet in the end, she herself becomes afraid for having conducted these interviews. Still, kudos toher for putting down her conclusions, as well as noting that almost all the heavy fire comes from the “progressive” side. But more than that. This side has achieved the dream of many progressives—silencing the other side:

Of course, I fear harms to my career and more for instigating, as interviewees repeatedly put it, “difficult conversations” – not least as an immigrant early career scholar with a family to support. But, at the same time, why would I want to work in academia if I cannot do academic work? Much more terrifying than being hated is being gagged.

32 thoughts on “The rancor of the gender wars

  1. Keep at it, Jerry. If we refuse to knuckle under others will take heart. North America is lagging behind Europe on this, but the tide is definitely turning there.

  2. The quote from Favoro’s article is very telling: Many genderist academics struggled, or were discomfited, when asked to provide their own definitions of sex, gender and (particularly) gender identity, despite their research and teaching revolving around these very topics.

    One of the “genderist academics” has subsequently outed herself by apologising for participating in the interviews, despite Favoro taking care to conceal the identities of her interviewees.

    1. I meant to add that someone had commented on a discussion about the THE article:

      As a former humanities academic, I don’t think I’ve ever met an academic who want ready to debate their field of interest at any moment. No prep or notice required!

      Or, in many cases, to debate, pretty much anything. Whether they had anything useful to add or not!

      1. One might ask how many academics in Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, Marine Biology, Ophthamology, or Slavic Literature would “struggle” to define the subjects of their own research and teaching. The quote Jez reproduces in bold shows the corruption of the academic enterprise by mock “academic” subjects, just as the Boghossian/Lindsay/Pluckrose experiment with their mock journals did. It is no surprise that the consequences of fakery in academe ramify outside of campus. If nominally reputable universities had established Departments of Astrology 40 years ago, we would now be awash in discussions of divination and horoscopes.

        1. “One might ask how many academics in Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, Marine Biology, Ophthamology, or Slavic Literature would “struggle” to define the subjects of their own research and teaching”.

          Or Chemistry (my former discipline)! And I was therefore delighted and reassured to learn that the top two honchos at the U of C are both chemists. No problem with defining their (our) subjects of research and teaching!

      2. Just spotted that there was a typo in the comment that I quoted – it should, of course, be “who wasn’t ready to debate…”. The error was in the original source, but I should have noticed it sooner.

  3. Thanks to WEIT for helping to make the issue better known. I have been looking out for reviews of the recently published Oxford UP book by Holly Lawford-Smith, on Gender-Critical Feminism. This is a good scholarly work. So far only one review, and that is in The Critic magazine, and not by someone in an academic position. Employees of Oxford UP and many of its authors published a letter, without having seen the book, objecting to its being published by the Press. Thanks to the Press for not backing down, but it’s awful that that needs to be said. Interestingly, publicity was given to the review by Alex Byrne, of MIT, who has not hesitated to write non-kosher material on women being adult female human beings.

  4. If you can’t define your terms, you can’t have a debate.

    Indeed. And when there are definitions they tend to be vague — too vague to provide examples. What sorts of elements might be involved in a putative “sense that one is a woman?” Being a people pleaser? Liking shoes? Feeling pain in a (phantom) uterus? Having a nurturing attitude towards children? Anything? Anything that’s not either a sex stereotype or trait overlapping with “being a man?” I can’t seem to get an answer.

    I know I’ve complained about this before, but this is all supposed to be scientific. Scientific terms can be unpacked. “Oh yeah? Give me an example of ‘speciation’ then.” Never a problem.

    I’m happy to treat all transsexual people with respect, including accepting that they’re members of the sex they want to be…

    I suspect the GC academics would agree with the first part, but exclude the second part. From their perspective, it would be like accepting that, out of respect for the Māori, Mātauranga Māori is science … just not the sort of science that should always be included with other sciences. An academic in science might guess there’d be trouble down the road with this concession.

    It’s not just defining terms that’s a problem. Sometimes the terms used in a debate can weigh the outcome one way or the other. When the high school girls on the track team who’d been bested by the trans-identified tried to sue the school, the judge refused to allow their attorneys to refer to them as “males.” They were “trans girls.” Apparently acknowledging that they weren’t female was deemed prejudicial.

    1. “The judge refused to allow their attorneys to refer to them as ‘males.'”

      A heterodox academic on twitter emphasized how important this is. He called these efforts to codify language use “trump cards”, and noted that if the Civil Rights Act or other laws are amended to include trans or NB self-ID as a protected class, then it will be a serious violation to misgender a transgender athlete or exclude him from a women’s competition. And my guy noted this is an explicit goal of advocacy groups.

  5. Jerry, you say “to treat all transsexual people with respect, including accepting that they’re members of the sex they want to be, ” Serious question is there any other mental illness where the perscrption is to treat the individual as if their delusion was true, and indeed, force all of society to confirm their delusion?

    1. What that means to me is simply not contradicting what they say about themselves out of civility, not agreeing with “Yes, transwomen are women” and the like. It’s not treating the delusion as a truth, as I wouldn’t affirm it, but there’s nothing to be gain by contradicting it to a transsexual person. I’m happy to say in general that a “transwoman” is not the same as a “biological woman”. And if I meet a Catholic or a Jew, I don’t go out of my way to tell them that they’re deluded. I would save that for general writing or speechifying. So no, I won’t affirm what I think isn’t true, but I don’t go out of my way to offend people when there’s nothing to be gained from it.

      1. I agree with you on this point, and on most everything in this debate, and on most other topics as well. All the same, isn’t using the preferred pronouns the start of a slippery slope? Using the wrong pronoun (in the biological sense) supports the claim that people can actually change sex. It’s becoming normalized. There is pressure on people who don’t specify their pronouns.

        I don’t tell religious people that they are deluded. But neither do I pray just because they do.

        Of course, people would notice whether one uses their preferred pronouns only if one speaks about them in their presence or writes about them and uses the pronouns. In some cases, such as referring to male sex offenders as “she”, using their preferred pronouns can obscure an important point.

        More and more, specifying the pronouns is virtue-signalling, saying that one is better than those who don’t specify them. And there IS pressure on people to specify them.

        1. Before this all became personal, I would be perfectly happy to call people whatever they want to be called.
          Because it did not matter.
          This has changed in the last couple of years. I have found myself in the position to think long and hard about how I personally address the subject, with the highest of stakes for my family.
          I finally concluded that using pronouns I know to be false would make me complicit in the “affirmation”, and thus also partly responsible for any negative eventual consequences.
          I try to be as supportive and loving to my kid as I can in every other way. But I can’t use fake pronouns. I think it would break me.
          If I won’t do it for my own kid, I am certainly not going to do it for others less important to me.
          But as Dr. Coyne asserted, such personal beliefs are no excuse to be rude or uncivil. There are almost unlimited ways to be polite and sincere while not compromising one’s core principals.

            1. To me, the ‘literal violence’ comes in when we let kids barely into puberty choose to be sterilized (because that’s what the puberty-blocker, cross-sex hormone, surgery train goes, and you can’t get off and regain future fertility once you’ve been on the blockers for a year or so). Contrast that with adults going to see a gynecologist or urologist and asking for a tubal ligation or vasectomy. First question is always how many kids have you got? If none, the next question is how sure are you, as this must be considered irreversible? I’ve worked for a surgeons of both kinds who absolutely refused to operate on childless people, as the risk of them regretting and taking it out on the surgeon was too high. And yet we let a Tanner stage 2 child make that choice? Nuts.

            2. You don’t have to “misgender” them. I have a person in our household who I talk to and about all the time, and with whom I have a fairly good relationship, but who I never address with gendered terms.
              The art of it is to make it seem natural.

              1. > who I never address with gendered terms.

                What has been your biggest challenge?

                I stumble over complex sentences with subordinate clauses with multiple pronouns (She said that she and her friend would come: it’s easy enough to swap out one pronoun in a clause, but not two) – and sentences referring to multiple people (my friend, her wife, and the latter’s child).

    2. We don’t really know how the human brain (or the brain of any animal) somehow knows (feels?) what their gender should be. But I think it reasonable that there is something structural about the differences between male and female brains. But some biological males say that they know they should be female, much like how most biological females know the same for themselves. I think this is real for them, and we should take their word for it.

      1. I want to agree with you, because that would be a kindness to trans people who suffer from gender dysphoria. But I don’t think anyone has an innate gender soul that’s fixed and knowable only by introspection. I think gender is a made-up concept without any substance.

        A different view that I see often and think is more helpful is that there are two sexes (males and females) and a few different sexual orientations (focused on sex not gender). The rest (queer, NB, trans, two-spirit) is variation in personality and aesthetics.

  6. “But I’ve given reasons for my views and won’t reprise them here.” I’m relatively new to your blog – could you link to two or three of your best posts on this? Thanks.

  7. Wow. This sounds like one big mess that could benefit from a symposium. I can imagine a Snowbird conference (pick your favorite venue) on sex and gender that starts with first principles and has a goal of getting people onto the same page—at least where that is possible. But who would even organize it? Would the organizers be ostracized for admitting that there are questions that need to be resolved? Are the fear and anger so deep that there’s no way forward? Perhaps with some of the issues better defined, participants might turn their attentions to the intellectual matters at hand, and away from identifying allies to embrace and enemies to defame. As with negotiations between countries at war, it would seem that some trust-building measures are in order.

    1. No question: organizers of such a conference would be denounced as transphobes, bigots, right-wingers, and fascists—and if the symposium nonetheless managed to take place, it would be labelled as “genocide”. All of which, of course, explains why the perfectly reasonable symposium you propose is a fable, as you no doubt meant.

  8. Zooming out to view this situation with a wider perspective, I have come to believe that this progressive ideology of transgenderism is cruelly antisexual, crypto-Puritan in its disgust and condemnation of sexual pleasure, in particular that pleasure that is, for many humans, the greatest they will ever experience, namely, orgasm. This new Puritanism is more insidious than the old because it is pseudoscientific.

  9. Gender behavior seems to be a spectrum, unlike sex. There are girls who are very girly, and others who are tomboys. Everybody is different. Such differences have been at least accepted even if not always encouraged. “Tomboy” is not a pejorative term. Very girlish boys have received more scorn, but there has always been a wide spectrum of male behavior between the extremes that has been considered normal.

    Scout Finch, of “Mockingbird”, was very uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a dress for the first day of school. She was a fictional character, but a familiar and believable one. If Scout went to my kid’s school, staff there would be relentless in their push to convince her to take hormone blockers, to change into trousers at the beginning of the school day, and to keep all of it a secret from Atticus, Jem, and Calpurnia.

    In the fictional 1930s Alabama, Scout is made to wear a dress to school and possibly to church, but it does not change who she is fundamentally. Pressuring her to take a bunch of drugs and change her name would not allow her those opportunities.
    One must now be made to conform to gender norms, apparently.

    1. Agreed! As someone who grew up as a tomboy, I always felt in tune with Scout. As an adult, the attitude I take is that I am a biological female, and therefore everything I do is womanly by definition, even if it contradicts stereotypes. The implicit sex stereotyping required to decide that one is nonbinary has always bothered me.

  10. I’m still waiting for coherent, non-circular definitions of the words “woman” and “female”. All further discussion should be paused until everyone can agree on those.

  11. This is what happens when colleges & universities have willfully mixed the meaning of “sex” & “gender”, for ideological reasons, for the past 40 years. Now we have two generations of people who have no idea that these words are not, in fact, synonyms, and have radically different meanings, & have no idea that this mixing of terms was for ideology and nothing else.

    I hate to demonize upper education, because I come from a family of academics & I love learning, I loved every minute at UB. I hold two degrees. I really wanted to go back & take classes in Women’s Studies, which I had in 1979, my second semester at UB, but UB got rid of their Women’s Studies college back in the early 80s, changing it “Gender Studies”, which is now “Global Gender Studies”. The classic Women’s Studies classes I once enjoyed are no longer offered. I know that the world has changed since I was 18 years old, but women seem to have been erased out of the curriculum.

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