Debating gender and sex: Meaning, reality and the creation of other futures

photo: Ben Kanter

The current conflict over sex and who gets to count as a woman is also a conflict about how to understand reality and how to have a discussion. While the conflict over defining sex and womanhood has received fierce attention, far less attention has been paid, in Britain, to the relationship between sex, what counts as reality, and what we want from its discussion.

Two recent incidents sparked this piece. One was an event on the forthcoming 2021 Census guidance relating to sex, organised by Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), a body campaigning for a sex-based approach to the class “woman”. Over the past few years, WPUK have campaigned in support of organisations and speakers who believe sex is biological, binary, and evidenced at birth. In this instance, they object to the guidance, proposed by the Office for National Statistics, on the mandatory census sex question. The guidance would allow people to identify their sex differently from their birth certificate, for instance, where another sex is given on official documents. WPUK argue this will encourage responses based on self-understanding, which (in their view) misunderstands the true biological character of the category ‘sex’.  

A second recent incident involved a “gender critical lawyer” looking for people:

“on the other side of this debate to engage with me on it. To tell me why I’m wrong, so that I know what I’m up against; so that their ideas and mine can be tested by robust friendly argument. …I promise I won’t aim to choose the least formidable foe…  It’s possible that our respective bubbles will each be sure that we have ‘won’ the debate, and both of us will emerge from it claiming … ‘victory’. But it’s also possible that my arguments or yours are reduced to rubble.”

The common-sense problem

I’ll come back to the creation of rubble, and of winning and losing, but I want to turn to the account of reality hinged to this adversarial debating ethos. How to think about reality has been fighting ground for feminists for some time, particularly in relation to poststructuralism and queer perspectives. In a scathing attack on Judith Butler’s feminism in The New Republic, Martha Nussbaum criticised a “gestural”, “verbal and symbolic” politics oriented to “parody”, that was displacing a “committed practical” politics concerned with “urgent problems”, and the “material conditions” of a “fiercely unjust reality”.

We can argue here about priorities and urgency, and the way “material conditions” get framed, but what interests me is how reality gets invoked. In the 20+ years since this article was published, groups of feminists continue to use the language of reality combatively. They use it to signal what matters and what exists, but also what they deem significant, scientific, observable, and true against political projects which are read, in contrast, as trivial, deliberately confusing, overly abstract, and in hock to the vagaries of meaning and what appears.

A recent article by sociologist Alice Sullivan, arguing for a biological approach to sex in the next UK Census, illustrates this tendency. She writes:

“Data collection exercises risk being influenced by a set of inter-locking fallacies about sex which derive from a strand of postmodernist queer theory, which can be labelled ‘genderism’…. Resisting postmodernism matters for everyone who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction matters for research and policy.”

In response to the disquiet her article elicited, she added:

“To clarify, I see the label ‘postmodern’ as a polite shorthand for pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo and anti-scientific values. I have no interest in the delineation of the various strands of thought within this worldview.”

Joanna Williams has taken a similar approach in her recent, highly provocative book, The Corrosive Impact of Transgender Ideology. She quotes writer Stephanie Davies-Arai:

“Children are being confused about biological sex, we are leaving them with no grasp of what is real and what is just a feeling”.

In this fact/ fiction, reality/ feeling dichotomy, two things appear. First, the “real” world can be transparently and properly known apart from ideology, discourse or feelings about it. Second, mistaken knowledge about categories causes harm. Mistaking who is a real woman or adopting a falsely expansive notion of sex produces violence, fear, degradation and exploitation. Williams quotes a barrister who told her,

“Individual children are being sacrificed to wider queer theory. Campaigners think that they can usher in a new golden age where no one is held back by biology or assumptions – but this is crazy.”

I do not want to over-claim the power of thought – that nothing exists except for our thoughts; and that if we rethink things, they become something else. Structural harms, such as racism and poverty, don’t disappear, at least not from a critical perspective, simply through imagining them gone. At the same time, how we think – collectively, societally, in groups, and as individuals – makes a difference, not just to what we do but to what things are. For some “things”, meanings are an evident part of their composition; what gender is, for instance, includes the everyday meanings people hold about gender, as well as material practices such as unequal pay, care-work, segregated labour markets, and violence (which also have an ideational dimension). More generally, how things or processes are defined determines what counts as a part (and what doesn’t), and how the parts (at least in part) go together. Definitions are political – as decisions about what counts as poverty for statistical measuring demonstrates. They change over time and place, different overlapping definitions exist, and they are sites of struggle.

There is no scientific or magic solution to the question of how to define sex. Different overlapping responses exist as different definitions include or exclude specific elements. Court cases dealing with discrimination against trans women show how judges grapple with definitions of sex, and how their “solutions” vary, according to the policy issue at stake, the jurisdiction, and the era. Alex Sharpe’s book, Transgender Jurisprudence: Dysphoric Bodies of Law provides a rich analysis of these processes.

What these sex definition cases also reveal is the importance of purpose – what are terms like sex or gender for? Definitions are not randomly imposed on social life, but they also don’t simply and transparently derive from it. In any given context, some definitions will seem to more closely fit what things seem like, but this does not mean they are the best definitions. Feminism has long provided a space for critical reflection when it comes to definition, recognising how relations of inequality shape them. If mainstream accounts of sex consider it to be the natural, binary, reproductive ground on which gender is installed, a feminist attitude inserts a critical distance – creating space from such taken-for-granted notions to reflect on the interests and ways of living they support and normalise.

Of course, some may decide, on reflection, that understanding sex as binary and reproductive makes sense given the work they want their definition of sex to do. But they could be upfront about the pragmatic choice they are making. The definition of sex can include self-perception or exclude it; include social recognition or exclude it; privilege a snapshot moment (such as the utterance, “it’s a girl” at birth) or treat sex as capable of changing based on bodily and other factors; it can have a single logic (such as reproduction) or constitute a more provisional set of features. There are many choices about how we define sex. Rather than arguing as if a single definition captures reality, we would be better off focusing instead on what different definitions accomplish and are intended to accomplish.

Embodying hoped-for meanings in the present

Progressive politics tends to focus on material change. But how we understand terms – sex and gender, but also property, the state and countless others – shapes the changes we can imagine.  Elsewhere, I have explored a conceptual approach I call conceptual prefiguration – where people incorporate those meanings they would like to see prevail within everyday contemporary practice. For instance, in the case of the state, activists, officials and politicians can (and sometimes do) act as if the state defined a governmental formation oriented to welfare, horizontal decision-making, and concern about others – including those at a distance. In the case of gender, they can (and sometime do) act as if gender defined a social ordering that could and should be relinquished.

Reimagining what concepts, like the state and gender, mean – whether as concepts to retrieve or abandon – is not simply, then, about what goes on in our heads. It is also about what people do. Didi Herman and I recently explored the legal and political consequences that followed local councils, in Britain, imagining themselves as entitled to engage in international affairs and so legitimately able to engage in the boycott of Israel in solidarity with Palestinians – an imagining of their role and authority which Conservative central government and some activists opposed, including through the courts. Imagining gender as renounceable likewise assumes and enacts a particular understanding of what gender is – that it is social, non-natural and without value. But, since gender is understood in different ways, what is done to these other meanings and understandings (for instance, that gender is an intrinsic and important aspect of who we are), if we act as if gender can be renounced?

Does it depend on how negation is done?

In the case of atheism, there are ways of acting as if there is no god which discount the experiences, vulnerability, and richness of people’s lives within marginalised religious communities, and there are ways of acting which recognise and attend to them. Similarly for feminism, gender can be treated as a social hierarchy that can and should be eradicated in ways that recognise and attend to people who experience gender as a terrain of misrecognition and erasure, and ways that dismiss such experiences. Going one step further, just as atheists may recognise the social value of some religious traditions, gender can be understood in terms that make its abandonment – as a material social order – imaginable and desirable, while recognising its contemporary capacity to give positive expression to transgressive, oppositional, even feminist, ways of living.

And so, to argument…

Opposing sides making arguments constitutes the standard hallmark of productive and good debate, as in “this house believes that…” or through the legal ritual of cross-examination where each side seeks out weaknesses in the other. But adversarial structures offer flawed frameworks for developing new understandings that might contribute to new kinds of practices. By taking the meaning of terms as settled, debate-as-contest constrains what is thinkable. With positions assumed to be predetermined from the outset, outcomes are limited to victory for one or other side.

Questioning the meaning of terms animating a conflict isn’t about quibbling – it isn’t about mystification or being obscure. It isn’t even just about the political and social legacies attached to specific ways of knowing, as women become again defined (this time by feminists) according to their reproductive capacity. It is also about concepts’ potential. Bolting concepts to a single meaning, and then defending its importance, as is currently happening with sex, clips terms’ capacity to evolve. Certainly, meaning isn’t everything. But allowing it breathing room through collaborative rather than adversarial processes helps turn things, like sex, gender and the state, towards other futures.



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