Sex 1: The Labour party declares the obvious

July 27, 2023 • 9:20 am

There will be two posts on human biological sex today—at least if my exhaustion permits. Here’s the first.

I suppose this declaration by Keir Starmer will anger gender activists, especially those who insist that “a trans woman is a woman,” but it comports with common usage and avoids the fracas that the Scottish government got into last year when it declared (with court affirmation) that self-identification of a biological male as a woman, declared on a certificate, establishes the sex of a person. Here’s the declaration of Lady Haldane, a judge of Scotland’s Supreme Court, affirming the government’s decision.

“I conclude that in this context, which is the meaning of sex for the purposes of the 2010 Act, sex is not limited to biological or birth sex, but includes those in possession of a GRC [gender recognition certificate] obtained in accordance with the 2004 Act stating their acquired gender, and thus their sex,” she wrote.

Sex is not gender, for one thing, and you can’t change your gamete type by getting a gender recognition certificate, which is not about sex but about gender (see below).

Last year, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, refused to define what a “woman” was, and although she was motivated by an admirable desire to protect the rights of trans women, she got into trouble for saying “I’m not going to. I’m just not going to get into this debate at a level that’s about simplified and lurid headlines.” Shortly thereafter she resigned, but of course she’d been assailed on many issues. The refusal to define “woman” is a hallmark of extreme gender activism, a fracas that Sturgeon and the Scottish government got itself into. Your either have to say that it’s an inborn biological trait or is the result of self-identification. Waffling means that you know there’s a conflict between the two.

The Scottish declaration, however, was overturned by UK’s Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who exercised a “nuclear option” to block Scotland’s system of gender self-identification.

Now, according to the Times of London (click on screenshot, though it’s mostly paywalled; perhaps judicious inquiry will yield the piece), Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has gone along with the Tories by not only refusing to accept self-declaration of sex (or gender, if you will), but also giving its own definition of “woman”, one that, in my view, is pretty correct in a biological sense:

Here’s the central bit:

Sir Keir Starmer has said that “a woman is an adult female” as he hardened his stance on gender.

The Labour leader insisted that biological women needed single-sex spaces and ruled out introducing self-identification for changing gender.

At Labour’s national policy forum at the weekend, the party formally ditched a policy of self-ID, which would have allowed people to change their legal gender without the need for a medical diagnosis of dysphoria.

Starmer cited controversy over the Scottish government’s law introducing self-identification, which was blocked by Rishi Sunak, and said he disagreed with Scottish Labour’s decision to support the reform.

“We don’t agree, we don’t think that self-identification is the right way forward,” Starmer said. He added that he had “reflected on what happened in Scotland”.

The Labour leader has been shifting position since struggling to say in 2021 whether a woman could have a penis, before declaring this year that 99.9 per cent of women “haven’t got a penis”.

Challenged on a BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in, Starmer went further. “Firstly, a woman is an adult female, so let’s clear that one up,” he said.

The party would “keep it a medical process” to change gender, Starmer said, while adding that he wanted to “modernise” the Gender Recognition Act and “get rid of some of the indignities in the process”.

The weekend’s policy discussion has “allowed us to be clear that there should be safe places, safe spaces for women, particularly in relation to violence against women”, he added.

Citing his own experience prosecuting violence against women as director of public prosecutions, Starmer said he felt “very strongly” about the need for safe spaces and that “biological women who have been subjected to violence against women and girls want a safe space where they can feel . . . that they are properly supported and protected”.

Asked what women needed to be protected from, Starmer raised the case of Isla Bryson, a rapist who was moved from a female to a male prison after a public outcry.

Starmer’s definition comports with that of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose first definition is this one:

The statement is not perfect (Starmer could have said “a woman is an adult human female”, as we don’t speak of “women flies”; and he could have recognized the obvious earlier instead of waffling). But at least there’s a recognition that one can change gender, though Starmer says that that would require a medical process (some would disagree), and a recognition that in some cases, like prisons and safe houses, biological women need safe spaces that don’t include trans women (I would add sports).

And the concept of “gender” is currently subject to lot of debate: is it a social sex role or a self-identification that isn’t clearly connected with how you behave in society? Or all of the above?  And what does Starmer mean by “medical process”? Does a psychological analysis count as a medical process (remember, psychiatrists are doctors), or do you need hormones and/or surgery? I would, for example, avoid all this debate by calling what most call a “trans woman” as someone who has medically transitioned to living in a female sex role”. That avoids self-identification as the sole criterion for your “role”.

But despite this quibbling, Starmer’s statement is a good one, particularly the emphasis on using the definition to provide safe spaces for women.

And I would add that I don’t consider this discussion transphobic, though some will. I agree with J. K. Rowling’s statement—except of course for the last two sentences:

I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” she tweeted. “The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women—i.e., to male violence—‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences—is a nonsense.”

She continued, “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”


h/t: Pyers


22 thoughts on “Sex 1: The Labour party declares the obvious

  1. Well thanks to discussion here, I know what gender is now – or rather, realize I know little about it. But gender has everything to do with only certain languages.

    A crude / non-expert / hasty example would be “Une voiture”, “Un cravat”, “Il est”, “Elle est” – that is showing two genders, masculine and feminine, in French.

    The words “he”, “she” in English (though I do not know the origin), show two genders, selected to match the sex of the animal – lion, human, bird.

    I think that’s it. Only in the corporate world was the word “sex” is too hot to handle, so bathrooms got “gender” on them – making complete corporate sense. Likewise, in schools, so the word “sex” doesn’t provoke the eros.

    Nobody “has a gender”, like nobody has a predicate – is my attempt to make it concise.

    Hopefully some readers can cut up what I wrote so I understand it better.

  2. There’s an archived copy of The Times article here:

    Whilst Starmer’s apparent change of heart is welcome, he needs to go further:

    1) Labour’s proposal is to remove the need for an independent panel of doctors to confirm a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, instead allowing a single doctor of the patient’s choosing to do that. We know that there are many activist doctors who will simply affirm someone’s gender identity without asking the necessary questions needed to prevent people, especially children, with autism or other comorbities, from making a huge mistake.

    2) Labour has expelled and vilified women making the same statement that Starmer belatedly has. He needs to offer them an apology and ensure that Labour Women’s Declaration are able to attend this year’s party conference. (Labour branded them a “hate group” for saying precisely what Starmer now acknowledges.)

    3) It’s not very long ago that Starmer said it was “not right” to say that only women have a cervix, and it was earlier this year when he said that “99.9% of women don’t have a penis”. He therefore needs to say very clearly that he was wrong and also, although in a sane world it shouldn’t be necessary, spell out that by “woman=adult female” he means people with XX chromosomes / a reproductive system designed to produce large immobile gametes. Until he does, many won’t trust him.

  3. Dear Professor Coyne,

    You say, “I would, for example, avoid all this debate by calling what most call a “trans woman” as someone who has medically transitioned to living in a female sex role”. That avoids self-identification as the sole criterion for your “role”.” You are correct in that it rules out self-id, but at the same time, you appear to be contradicting yourself. What does it mean to “medically transition to living in a female sex role”? What defines a sex role? Are reproductive organs irrelevant to a sex role? Is it already possible to have female sexual organs implanted? I can see the goodwill in your statement, but not the logic.

    With my best,

    Sergio Mariscal

  4. I am cautiously hopeful that Labour is getting to a sensible place on this issue.
    No sooner had the Scottish Government introduced Self ID than we were faced with the spectacle of Holyrood Government ministers floundering and unable to say whether a shaven headed double rapist was a man or a woman.

    The Tories predictably (and rightly) made considerable capital out of the mess and hopefully it has now dawned on Labour that their previous policy of Self ID could be politically very damaging.

    There are some real concerns about the details of Labour’s new policy such as whether an applicant for a gender recognition certificate could manipulate the system by choosing an ideologically aligned doctor. Currently an independent panel makes the assessment and Labour wants to remove that safeguard.Hopefully these potential flaws can be addressed.

    The Tories have meagre achievements after 13 years in Government and Labour will be rightly (and ruthlessly) exposed if they remain incoherent on this point.

  5. This is getting hopelessly muddled. “Woman” as adult female is a step in the right direction although yes, adding human person or being is not just a pedantic point because person and human being are included if law on homicide, medical ethics, and many other places. And stopping puberty blockers was a bold decision in the name of child protection. Full marks there.

    But I’m confused about the medical process for gender recognition. Gender is imaginary, like a delusion or a belief in UFOs. It’s a product of the mind which may or may not have anything to do with one’s sex. How can there be a medical process to register a change in one’s gender status? “I hereby attest, as a legally qualified member of the GMC, that the person named in this certificate who was formerly registered as an adherent of the Church of England is now a Rosicrucian.”? If this means anything applied to gender it means that a person registered in Vital Statistics as a male birth (i.e., a baby boy) is now to be registered as female on government identity documents like drivers’ licences and passports. But this is sex, not gender. Border security doesn’t care what gender you are. It only cares that you are who your passport says you are. Sex is one immutable way to vouchsafe that. So we are really talking about changing the recording of sex on the strength of non-stereotypical gender identity. That’s a separate issue from the psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

    Much more in accord with biology would be to say, you can live and dress however you like. But you can’t change your sex, no matter what gender you adopt. A gender recognition certificate doesn’t get you into women’s spaces because a piece of paper doesn’t make you a woman…an adult female human being..

    There is much left to be done.

    1. “Gender is imaginary, like a delusion or a belief in UFOs. It’s a product of the mind . . .”

      Specifically, “gender” was the product of the minds of academic and feminist activists. It was not discovered; it was invented. Fifty or sixty years ago there was some value less to the word than to the distinction that some aspects of how we understand “man” and “woman” are sociocultural rather than biological. (Set aside the degree to which some of those sociocultural differences might arise from the biological.) It was accepted that a man is necessarily a male, but that there is much more to being a man than just being a male. This could be the superficial elements of dress and appearance. It could be occupations and interests. It could be the more burdensome weights of other social expectations: a man does not cry in public; a man takes responsibility for his children, which he should only have within the bounds of marriage; a man demonstrates courage; and so on. There was value in emphasizing that these other elements of manhood are, at least in part, culturally bound—they can differ over time and place. To the degree that we have moved to a culture in which men and women can now more-or-less freely cross over into roles once thought by some to be the province of one sex or the other, then I think most here would find that a welcome change. But we did not need to speak of “gendered” roles for that change to happen; indeed, most of the population remained oblivious to this use of the term even as social expectations changed and accepted roles for women expanded vastly.

      But something else changed. Rather than the differentiation of “gendered” roles—the sociocultural roles that in a particular time and place are more likely to be associated by the general public with one sex rather than the other—we began to “gender” the people. The nonsensical “my gender is” formulation arose. My guess is that we are seeing the unintended consequences of the relentless propagandizing of the general public—with the education, media, and entertainment industries pushing the word into public space. The public was not attuned to the original ideological use of the word; it was most easily (mis)understood as a synonym for sex. And a synonym it became. Once that species of word was released to the wild, it evolved in uncontrollable directions, with many variants now expressed in public—some increasingly ideological, some not.

      In short, we now struggle to define “gender” because it does not exist except as a word. (Contrast this with the biological phenomenon of “sex” which exists whether we had a word for it or not.) It is like so many other ideological, mythical, and religious concepts: it evades clear definition because it is made up. It becomes many things to many people. I refuse to be drawn into the doctrinal debates and denominational divisions about “how many transgenders can drag dance on the head of a pin” because the word evolves within belief systems that I do not share. It is now a nonsense word. But like many nonsense words over which men and women have (literally) fought, it will do much damage before sense prevails.

      1. “Specifically, “gender” was the product of the minds of academic and feminist activists”. I am not sure that this is true.

        In English, the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are quite distinct. Historically, they meant the same thing. To some extent, they are used interchangeably, even today. The idea that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean completely different things, can be traced back (to a significant degree) to Dr. John Money. Money was a Canadian who ‘treated’ the Reimer’s. He was a monster, to say the least. A book was written about David Reimer (“As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl”). Money thought that ‘gender’ can be completely separated from ‘sex’. He was wrong.

    2. Responding to Leslie, in the UK the Gender Recognition Act was written in 2004 when the distinction between gender and sex hadn’t really been argued over much. As a consequence the GRA now looks rather a mess, because it is unclear on this point – it conflates sex and gender. In those days many people used gender as a polite or prudish way of saying sex. This feeds over to the Equality Act 2010 which uses the word sex, but doesn’t define it (probably because it was thought obvious). Because of this it has become unclear whether a Gender Recognition Certificate qualifies as changing sex for the purposes of the Equality Act. This is rather crucial for single-sex spaces and is why there is a campaign to get the definition of sex in the Equality Act formally defined. It’s a rats nest, but for some of the details go here

    3. BIRTH CERTIFICATES are being falsified by the STATE to declare a person has “changed sex”.
      This is something that needs to be stopped. No one – not even the state, using pretty words such as “legal fiction” should be permitted to change a document that was created by OBSERVATION at birth.

      Getting a GRC with or without a medical board involved, allows that individual to change the sex marker on their birth certificate.

      Indeed, the passports/NHS records/driving licences/marriage certificates – ANY document that can be used as official ID, can have the sex marker changed without a GRC. Its been happening all ready.

      Self ID is effectively in place in this country. It needs to be stopped.

      Anyone saying they are the opposite sex is lying. That’s fine if the rest of us and society can simply collectively shrug and say “That’s nice dear” and challenge them if they access spaces they should NOT be accessing.

      What’s NOT fine is that the STATE then forces everyone else via law and policies, to outwardly (albeit silently) to accept that LIE. Eg when being pressured to use opposite sex “pronouns” or allowing a man to go into a women’s space without challenge.

      That is state sanctioned lying and state enforced compulsion of thought and speech of society for the sake of a tiny few.

  6. “… except of course for the last two sentences.”
    I didn’t see any objectionable sentences. Which are you referring to?

    1. JK’s last two sentences are: “At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.” I don’t think Jerry is objecting to them. He is saying he couldn’t say them – because he isn’t female.

  7. The word “human” could not be included in Sir Keir’s statement because that could be described as “hate speech”—it would exclude individuals who were assigned to the human species at birth, but self-identify as a panda, a wallaby, or a shrubbery.

    I think the only interesting aspect of this weirdly comic issue is its sociology: how did insistence that a delusion be validated in law become conventional on the pop-Left? Surely it cannot stem from the clarity with which Queer Theory has been presented in academia. Come to think of it, a similar question can be asked about how the validation of Indigenous folklore as “science” also came to be conventional on the pop-Left. Here is a rich field of investigation for cultural anthropology of the Anglosphere.

  8. The refusal to define “woman” is a hallmark of extreme gender activism…

    The refusal to define “woman” is the result of gender activists realizing that what passes as perfectly sufficient to people eager to affirm trans identities won’t stand up to any critical scrutiny. Same with “living as a woman” or “living in the female sex role.”

    This is partly due to the fact that definitions of “woman” and/or her role and/or her “way of feeling” which bypass biology have nowhere to land but on assumptions about what’s “feminine.” Gender activists reject this because 1.) they think a woman is still a woman no matter how she thinks or behaves and 2.) they want to recognize/embrace gender-nonconforming transwomen, such as the transwoman who is a butch lesbian. No definition which leaves out a transbian who has no interest in gender-confirming surgery will ultimately be acceptable, even to the gender moderate. They’d be telling someone no, they don’t have the right or ability to know that they’re a woman. That can’t happen: it undermines the fundamental premise.

    So we’re left with the circular “a woman is someone who feels they are a woman,” the vacuous “a woman is someone with the internal sense that they’re female,” the sexist “a woman is someone presumed to belong to the class of people assumed to take a passive position in sex, and a reproductive role in the economy,” or the hopeful “oh, there are just so many ways to define ‘woman’” which tries to position those who disagree as narrow-minded while avoiding an actual definition. None of them have the clarity or sufficiency of “adult female.”

  9. The “what is a woman?” question from the anti-trans mob reminds me of the “what is a species?” question from creationists. The minute you start to say, well it’s complicated they get all smug and say “See you don’t know. Your ideas are a mess.”

    1. I didn’t know there was an anti-trans mob. The only mobs I’m aware of are the pro-trans variety who go around trying to intimidate protectors of women and children into silence by beating them up or getting them fired.

      To the question, “What is a woman?”, the only waffling comes from people afraid to annoy the trans mob. The rest of us are quite comfortable saying, “an adult female human being….and transwomen aren’t.”

  10. From the earliest murmurings of this kind that reached me across the Internet or in person, I’ve used the term “abstract gender” to refer to gender in the societal or inward-perception sense, and people who embrace that realm of terminology as “abstract gender enthusiasts.”

    I like this because it clarifies a distinction from “gender” (whose commonest definition historically, and perhaps today, is still simply “sex”), and it frames that individual embrace as something positive, chosen by the individual, respected as their choice, but not to be imposed on others or required from everybody as some extremists have pushed for. Overall, not unlike Dennett’s likening of rationality-proof religious belief to knitting.

  11. Never underestimate the fanaticism of the TRAs (Trans Rights Activists). Some far, there have been two attempts to show that movie ‘Adult Human Female’ in Edinburgh. Each time the TRAs have been successful in blocking the movie

  12. The problem is, does Starmer mean anything when he says “A woman is an adult female” or are we being strung along? Alright, he says a woman is an adult female. But if you were to ask him “Is Eddie Izzard (to take one example) an adult female?”, what would his answer be? He could say yes to that, and then we’re back to square one.

Leave a Reply