Here’s the second sex post of the day.
Yesterday’s New Statesman, a liberal UK paper, has dueling essays by Richard Dawkins and Jacqueline Rose on whether there’s a sex binary (Dawkins says “yes,”, Rose “no”). I won’t go into into Dawkins’s background, as he’s a familiar figure here, but will note that Rose is a linguistics professor at Birkbeck College and “is known for her work on the relationship between psychoanalysis, feminism and literature.” One could argue that that’s not a background that allows one to pronounce on biological matters, but I’ve never been a big one for using bona fides as arguments.
The paper’s intro to the two essays is just this:
Note: We asked two thinkers to address one of the most vexed questions of our time: “What is a woman?”
Here, Richard Dawkins argues that biological sex represents a “true binary”. See here for Jacqueline Rose on why that binary should be challenged.
That’s not exactly two essays that answer the question, but who cares? Whether or not sex in animals is binary—and it is—is indeed a “vexing question,” but not because the biology is ambiguous. It isn’t. It’s vexing because people refuse to accept the binary nature of sex in animals (and nearly all plants) because it is wrongly seen to cast aspersions on people whose gender (note: not sex), does not conform to a
binary of gender, in which there is more variation than in sex. This is something that Luana Maroja and I discuss in our Skeptical Inquirer paper (point 1), and I won’t go into it further, except that the biological definition of sex rests solely on gamete size, with males having small, mobile gametes and females large immobile gametes. Our paper also discusses why this distinction is made, and its biological implications. It also discusses why the sex binary has nothing to say about the societal aspects of gender.
If you think Richard has lost his elegance both prose and biological explanation with age, this article should dispel it. Click to read (it’s free):
It’s a succinct but engaging discussion of why the sex (gamete) binary evolved, the various mechanisms (environment, chromosomes, temperature) that lead to the binary, and the confusion around gender, a confusion between its linguistic and sociocultural uses, on top of which is extra confusion that I discussed in the last post—about what gender even means as a human behavioral/mental phenomenon. But he insists on a sex binary.
There’s only one small slip-up I found, and that’s where Richard says this (my bolding):
Obviously, Klinefelter (always male) and Turner (always female) individuals must be eliminated from counts of intersexes, in which case Fausto-Sterling’s estimate shrinks from 1.7 per cent to less than 0.02 per cent. Genuine intersexes are way too rare to challenge the statement that sex is binary. There are two sexes in mammals, and that’s that.
But genuine intersexes don’t challenge the statement that sex is binary. They aren’t classifiable as “male” or “female” (the author whose figures we relied on uses morphology or chromosome constitution as the criteria for “intersex”) but nor do they constitute a third sex. They are developmental anomalies that are not exceptions to the male/female binary. As Luana and I wrote:
Further, developmental issues can sometimes produce people who are intersex, including hermaphrodites. Developmental variants are very rare, constituting onlyabout one in 5,600 people (0.018 percent), and also don’t represent “other sexes.”
The binary abides.
But except for that quibble, the essay is on the money. Read it for yourself, learn some biology, and I’ll reproduce the ending:
. . . gender dysphoria is a real thing. Those who sincerely feel themselves born in the wrong body deserve sympathy and respect. I was convinced of this when I read Jan Morris’s moving memoir, Conundrum (1974). As what she called a “true transsexual”, she distanced herself from “the poor cast-aways of intersex, the misguided homosexuals, the transvestites, the psychotic exhibitionists, who tumble through this half-world like painted clowns, pitiful to others and often horrible to themselves”. Under “misguided” she might have added today’s unfortunate children who, latching on to a playground craze, find themselves eagerly affirmed by “supportive” teachers, and au courant doctors with knives and hormones. See Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (2020); Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (2021); and Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (2021). Many of us know people who choose to identify with the sex opposite to their biological reality. It is polite and friendly to call them by the name and pronouns that they prefer. They have a right to that respect and sympathy. Their militantly vocal supporters do not have a right to commandeer our words and impose idiosyncratic redefinitions on the rest of us. You have a right to your private lexicon, but you are not entitled to insist that we change our language to suit your whim. And you absolutely have no right to bully and intimidate those who follow common usage and biological reality in their usage of “woman” as honoured descriptor for half the population. A woman is an adult human female, free of Y chromosomes.
It’s immediately obvious that Rose and Dawkins are talking at cross-purposes, with Rose willing to accept transgender women as equivalent to biological women, and asserting that the denial of this is harmful. She takes the ability to change genders as somehow casting aspersions on the sex binary. Rose also layers all kinds of historical arguments on the word “woman,” none of which do anything wotjh refuting Dawkins’s arguments. It’s as if we have two different essays addressing two different questions. I’ll give some of Rose’s statements to show this (the bold headings are mine):
The argument from feminism:
Being a woman is at risk of becoming a protected category, as the binary man/woman hardens into place. This is happening even though it has always been a central goal of feminism to repudiate the very idea of womanhood, as a form of coercive control that means the end of freedom.
“Womanhood” here is clearly not the same thing as “biological woman”, but a gender stereotype. And there are plenty of feminists who accept the sex binary, even today! Finally, at least in the U.S. “sex” is a protected category.
The argument from societal pressure and aging:
It was Simone de Beauvoir who famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Whatever biology may dictate, becoming a woman is something that society, not nature, enjoins on all humans biologically classified as female, as it casts its oppressive diktats over them, mind, body and soul, layer upon layer. But the still-radical edge of de Beauvoir’s statement conceals its more conservative premise – “they become one” – which implies that “becoming a woman” is something that biological females, one way or another, manage to do, however restrictive their lives then become (de Beauvoir’s crushing account of those lives remains unsurpassed). Meanwhile, the idea that “female” is some kind of primordial condition remains, as if it were the bedrock of all the limitations to follow.
If a woman is an “adult human female,” then “becoming one” simply means becoming an adult. But what Rose is talking about here appears to be women conforming as they grow up to stifling social expectations. Again, this has nothing to do with the sex binary. In fact, note that Rose alludes to a sex binary here when saying “all humans biologically classified as female.” She reinforces this shortly thereafter:
To assume that “female” is a neutral biological category is, therefore, historically naive and racially blind. It not only drastically limits the options, but trails ugly histories behind it. The point is not to deny biological difference, but to refuse to wrench the term from the historical forces through which it takes on its myriad lived shapes.
What, then, is the biological difference she’s talking about? Isn’t it the sex binary?
The argument from transitioning. To Rose, changing genders, or “transitioning”, is more evidence against the sex binary. But in fact it isn’t, as transitioning usually means members of one biological sex adopting the traits of another. The question isn’t whether you can do that, but whether humans fall into two discrete classes at birth:
Far from being inevitable or always welcome, rigid sexual differentiation is one of the most insidious features of our social/sexual arrangements, grafting itself on to the biological body like a parasite. Challenging the binary by transitioning becomes one of the most imaginative leaps in modern society. Research published this June found that roughly 7 per cent of people changed sexual identity and/or orientation in the course of a six-year period in the UK. And that proportion is rising. According to the same study, the impulse to change sex does not show any sign of declining with age. People over 65, especially women, are almost as gender-fluid as the young. This suggests that the neat division of humans into women and men for most of a life is deferred by youth for as long as possible. Change then becomes permissible in old age when the individual has fulfilled the task of sexual conformity, which can then be left behind.
Transitioning may be challenging the binary, but it in no ways effaces it.
It’s very clear that Rose seems to accept that you’re born as male or female, but then society puts all kinds of complications on that fact, like sexism, the desire to transition, and patriarchal expectations. Yet none of this does anything to refute what Dawkins says. These are not dueling essays, but essays that have their swords pointed in different directions. One more quote from Rose:
But to claim that sexual differentiation is “reality” surely ignores that “reality” for feminism is something to be negotiated, struggled over, fought against. To claim the right to dictate on this matter is oppressive and omnipotent, and uncomfortably like the patriarchal order that feminism seeks to dismantle.
Here we have the postmodern conception of different realities: the reality of the sex binary that somehow is in contrast with the reality of womanhood as feminists conceive it. But Dawkins isn’t dictating the latter; he’s simply pointing out that people are born into one of two biological classes. If that truth is oppressive to Dr. Rose, well, it’s too bad. At least it gives her a lot of grist for her obscurantist mill.