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On Contact: Sex, women, gender identity

Chris Hedges discusses gender identity with Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. There are few cultural debates as contentious as the one raging around gender identity. Do we have an inner state called a gender identity? Is it possible that this gender identity does not match our biological sex, male or female, originally assigned to us at birth? Does gender identity, not biological sex, make us a man, a woman, or neither? Is gender a purely social construct, without foundation in biological generalizations about men and women? Are our sexual identities, personalities, behavior, and life options determined primarily by what society projects onto us? In short, as the cultural critic Judith Butler writes, is anatomy destiny? Is gender a conditioned social performance? Are sexual orientations identities? Is sex defined by nature and gender by culture? Or are sex and gender indistinguishable from nature and culture? Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex who studied French and philosophy at the University of Oxford and received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Leeds, explores these questions in her new book ‘Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism’.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss gender identity with Professor Kathleen Stock.

KS: Removed single-sex spaces like rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters they are no longer female only because people can identify--males can identify into them, and it has, you know, the idea of those shelters was supposed to be a male-free space not because all males are attackers, but because psychologically to heal, you know, to avoid being retriggered through PTSD, you want--you don’t want to be confronted with male-bodied people, and we’ve lost that.

CH: There are a few cultural debates as contentious as the one raging around gender identity.  Do we have an inner state called a gender identity?  Is it possible that this gender identity does not match our biological sex, male or female originally assigned to us at birth?  Does gender identity not biological sex make us a man, a woman, or neither?  Is gender a purely social construct without foundation in biological generalizations about men and women?  Are our sexual identities, personalities, behavior, and life options determined primarily by what society projects onto us?  In short, as the cultural critic Judith Butler writes, “Is anatomy destiny?  Is gender a conditioned social performance?  Are sexual orientations identities?  Is sex defined by nature and gender by culture or are sex and gender indistinguishable from nature and culture?”  Professor Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex who studied French and philosophy at the University of Oxford and received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Leeds explores these questions in her new book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.  Joining me to discuss her work is Professor Stock.  So let’s begin with those questions, you open a brief history of gender identity, you number them, list them, and I think that becomes the crux of your exploration which really is a linguistic and philosophical exploration of these questions, but set up for us figures like Butler and others because they defined this current, kind of, cultural debate.

KS: Sure.  So this idea of gender identity has really emerged in the 20th century, really the second half.  Sometimes Simone de Beauvoir has implicated saying, “One is not born but becomes a woman.”  That has convinced some people that some--womanhood is something social, it’s not just what you’re born with, it’s something that you get socially inculcated into and manhood.  By the time Butler came along, Judith Butler came along, things had moved on to a point where in this academic milieu, it was thought that a woman--not only womanhood was socially constructed but femaleness was too.  So we’ve gone from a sort of straightforward ordinary conception of that being two classes of people, the human males and the human females, the adult ones are women and men, and the ones who are not adults are girls and boys, that’s the sort of ordinary person’s conception.  But the academics come in and say, “No, no, no, this is wrong.  Woman and manhood are social states.”  And moreover, femaleness and maleness, the biological substrata are also socially constructed.  So there really isn’t any reality naturally to any of this, and in fact--and then they add another layer in and say in fact, these classifications are oppressive, they’re the manifestations of power and we--really, we should be working socially towards a kind of utopia where we deconstruct maleness and femaleness, and womanhood and manhood, into something supposedly better, and gender identity then sort of emerges partly from this background, although not entirely from this background because the idea of gender identity has taken on a life of its own.

CH: I just want to go back to Simone de Beauvoir’s, her classic work, The Second Sex, because she does make a distinction between sex and gender, doesn’t she?

KS: Yes, she does.  So she, as far as I’m concerned, thinks that womanhood is only something that happens to females.  So she would be very much confused I think by the modern notion that womanhood is something that can happen to males or females.  So gender on a traditional feminist conception of gender, I should add that this word gender is used in multiple ambiguous ways, so one sense of gender, the traditional feminist sense of gender is the social meanings around biological sex, the things like femininity and masculinity which might differ from culture to culture.  And Beauvoir is concerned with that stuff and how that can disadvantage women and girls because of they’re, sort of, born into a social structure that imposes all these extra conditions on them, and also makes them the other in relation to the male center.  So she--she’s concerned with cultural construction of femininity and masculinity which she talks about as womanhood, although I’m not sure how literally she meant that.  But that’s--we’ve moved on very much from that now to the present day where it’s thought that womanhood is something that can happen to you if you’re male or female.  Manhood is something that can happen to you if you’re male or female.  And it’s not even a matter of what happens to you socially, it’s a matter of inner identity that sort of comes out of you and that is a real departure from the social constructionist position.

CH: You would argue like the second wave feminists that gender and sex are separate categories, can you explain why?

KS: Well, actually what I do in the book is remain neutral about the big question of whether all of femininity and all of masculinity are socially constructed because I think that’s an empirical question.  There may--as far as I know, there may be sort of on average psychological differences between males and females, and feminism has obviously been very wary of saying that for many good reasons but I think that it’s obvious that many social differences between males and females are socially constructed because they differ from culture to culture.  So there can’t be anything innate about them if they’re so very different depending on historical period or cultural location.  So girls liking pink is an obvious one, you know, in earlier centuries, pink was a color associated with masculinity, not femininity and that has changed over time.  So there’s nothing natural about women liking pink things.  That’s just a very benign example but it makes the point quite well.

CH: But talk about, you do try and define gender and define sex, and you don’t define them as the same.

KS: No, I mean, gender as a word has many different meanings like I say, so sometimes in English, people use gender when they mean sex, they just mean it as a polite word for biological sex because the word sex has connotations of sexual intercourse.  So if you’re being polite, you say gender.  Then there is this sort of--this meaning that’s attached to traditional or radical feminism that gender is the social meanings of sex and many feminists think we should try and eradicate those or at least change them.  I think you probably can’t eradicate them but you could certainly change many of the regressive ones.  The modern conception of gender identity is nothing like any of those, it was a feeling, it’s supposed to be a feeling you have inside of you as to whether you’re really male or really female that can come apart from the actual facts about your body.  So you’re male but you could feel--you could have a gender identity of being a female.  And according to the new orthodoxy, those facts are the ones that are most important about whether you are a woman or a man.  So that’s a different sense of gender.  So in my book--sorry, I was just going to say in my book, I try and avoid the word gender.  I make it very clear when I’m talking about each of these things because it causes so much confusion, this word.  So I would say let’s get rid of the word gender and let’s call these things different names so that we know that they are different.

CH: How must--how much of this is rooted in figures like Foucault, these kind of post-structuralists?  Is this where it generates from, this critique?

KS: Well, I think causally yes, Foucault has had a lot to do with it, insofar as Foucault was a strong influence on Judith Butler and other queer theorists from the 1990s onward.  But they can’t account for all of it because this isn’t just an academic movement, it’s a popular movement as well.  And so it’s got, you know, what I call gender identity ideology has got very contradictory strands within it.  So for many--you often hear especially from LGBT groups that gender identity is your essence, somehow it’s like an essential thing about you.  Now that’s not very Foucaultian at all, because Foucault didn’t think there were any essences and neither does Butler, I don’t think.  So the social constructionist doesn’t think there’s any human essences and yet the language of essences has now been thrown into the mix along with a lot of influences from social construction to come up with this rather incoherent set of axioms.

CH: You write, you talk about John Money and Robert Stoller as introducing the concept of gender identity, and this has really become the crux of the debate.

KS: Uh-hmm.

CH: It really boils down to identity.

KS: Uh-hmm.

CH: Can you talk about what they posited and how that has reshaped notions of identity, especially for women?

KS: Yeah.  Well, so these are psychologists from the 1950s and ‘60s in America and New Zealand who worked primarily with what were then called intersex individuals.  Nowadays, the right word I think is people with differences of sexual development or perhaps disorders of sexual development.  But they worked with children in particular whose bodies were to some extent ambiguous, although whose sex bodies were to some extent ambiguous because of conditions that they were born with, to do with their chromosomes, or to do with hormones.  And in the--in course of trying to conceptualize these individuals for medical purposes, they came up with the idea of a gender role which was the behavioral--what they thought of as the behavioral manifestation of whether you felt you were a female or male, but they were thinking of sort of ambiguous people, somewhat ambiguous people, and trying to classify them as well, you know, acting male or acting female basically.  And it--they really just as you’d expect appealed implicitly just to social stereotypes like, you know, does the child like dolls?  Well, then the behavioral role is a female role.  Does it like rough and tumble play?  Does--then it’s a male role.  And then gender identity was supposed to be the inner version of this outward behavioral role, like, the thing you felt.  Did you feel really like a boy or did you feel like a girl?  I don’t actually think that that whole setup makes that much sense even in the case of people with DSDs but it really does--but what happened was then that got sort of imported to people who don’t have DSDs like the vast majority of us who are chromosomally standard issue, and it was hypothesized for trans people that they had an inner gender identity that was at odds with their outward presentation physically.

CH: When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about gender identity and biological sex, and what really matters for feminism with Professor Kathleen Stock.

CH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about gender identity and biological sex with Professor Kathleen Stock.  So let’s go back to what we were discussing before the break and then go into how this has affected the way people study these issues because you write in the book that all the women studies departments found in the ‘70s and ‘80s have renamed themselves as gender studies.  So go back to the issue you were discussing before the break, and then the consequences for the orientation, especially the academic orientation towards these issues.

KS: So as traditional and I would say accurate notions of womanhood and manhood in terms of connection to biological sex, as they were seeded and as social constructionism and as gender identity became more and more important, it was--it was thought that womanhood and manhood as traditionally conceived were regressive categories.  We shouldn’t be doing anything to promote their further entrenchment in the culture.  So what we should be doing is getting rid of reference to women and men, and instead talking about either through deviant or queer versions of women and men in terms of sexuality or presentation, you know, drag or gay, manhood or lesbianism.  Or we should--we talk about identities.  So the knock-on effect was, as you just said, that women studies departments, which were only started in the last--in the second half of the 20th century, all got renamed gender studies, because now the study isn’t really--we’re not just focusing on women, womanhood itself, it’s probably a sort of regressive category anyway, so we should expand, thinking about gender in this kind of amorphous way, which could include gender identity or it could include sort of social construction of womanhood and manhood.  But that means--just that one example means that women’s interests because women haven’t gone away.  They’re still there, they just don’t have a name for themselves anymore, or they don’t have the departments that might be spoken out for their particular interests, so they’ve lost something permanently, I think.  And that’s just one example, I mean, this happened…

CH: Can you talk about--can you talk about the concept which you write about in the book, standpoint of histomology?

KS: Yeah.  That’s another influence, and I think it increases the toxicity of this whole area.  It comes, as I understand it, from Marxism, and the idea originally was that workers had insight into their own experience and situation that bourgeoisie or the bosses could not have.  That’s, you know, in itself, that seems to me to be true.  But it’s kind of metamorphosized into this general idea that--so it’s being popularized really and also being used as--and be weaponized to say that you don’t have a right to speak about such and such an issue unless you’re talking from a position of lived experience, and people who do not have that lived experience should shut up, and they have nothing to say of relevance to this.  And that’s being weaponized in this--in the area of trans activism because the claim is now, you know, you all are cis people, as in you are not trans, even if you’re a woman who’s saying, “Hang on a minute.  Where did my women shelter go or, you know, where did my women’s studies department go?”  You don’t have a lived experience of a trans person, these are only issues that--allegedly, these are only issues that are relevant to trans people, so you should have nothing to say.  So it’s--it might be a good idea in theory, and I think there is some truth to standpoint of histomology, but when it gets weaponized as a kind of way of shutting up your opponents strategically, then it’s not helpful.

CH: You write that--you extrapolate that the natural consequence of this confusion of gender and sex is, and you’re kind of pushing their argument, there are not two naturally pre-given, stable biological sexes, but also there are no pre-given facts about natural selection.  There is no sexual reproduction.  There are no pre-given chemical elements or biological species.  There is no climate change, at least not as commonly understood.  There are no molecules, atoms, or quarks.  There are no viruses and no bacteria; no successful drugs nor placebos.  Talking about oxygen as a cause for combustion is ultimately no more rationally justified than talking about the eighteenth-century concept of--you’ll pronounce that for me.  What--

KS: Phlogiston.

CH: Which was thought to--thank you, was thought to reside in every flammable substance and be released as it burned.  Talking about neutrons as causes of behavior is neither more or less accurate, ultimately, than talking about bodily humours.  Creationism is neither worse nor better a theory than Darwinism.  There is no ahistorical, non-relative truth, in fact, nor accurate scientific theory or representation.  Expound on that.

KS: Well, this is, again, an engagement with the Judith Butler’s view influenced by Michel Foucault, although I think there are differences between them but--so if you think that everything is taxed or everything is discoursed, so this is the way that some social constructionists will talk, you know, you can’t really, on this view, get to an outside, or the full, or the natural world because it’s always constructed.  We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t think about it.  Everything we can think about is socially constructed, so there’s just nothing underlying it that we can reliably say exists independently of us and all thought about it.  Now, that’s a very general position, that’s like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  So Butler goes from this massive metaphysical position, you know, there is--as I say, you know, if you follow that through, you can’t really say that there are such things as neutrons, or climate change, or dendrons, or neurons, or anything, really.  But she then goes from that massive metaphysical position to a very specific focus, which is there are no males and females.  And so I’m just drawing out the point that, like, look, if you’re right about the metaphysics, the fact there are no males and females is the least of our problems, you know, there’s no science.  There’s no difference between reality and culture.  There’s, you know, there’s nothing noncultural, there’s nothing nonsocial.  So it’s--and I think it’s an incoherent metaphysical position.  But even if it was right, it wouldn’t really license the specific focus on biological sex as the problem, as opposed to all sorts of things.

CH: I want to talk about what you write, which I found really interesting, immersion in the fiction.  Spin that out for us, because that becomes a very fundamental cornerstone, I think, of your argument within the book.

KS: So what I’m doing at that part of the book is trying to negotiate, really, between the people who say you must--you know, there’s trans people and their allies who say, you must believe identity claims.  You know, if I tell you I’m a woman, I am a woman.  And then there are people on the other side that say, you know, that--I think wrongly, that trans people are lying, or deceiving us, or duplicitous, and I think they are equally wrong.  So what I think is happening here, and I’m drawing on my previous work in mostly fiction, really, is to say, “Look, what we’re being asked to do is immerse ourselves in the fiction that this person is a woman.”  And that’s not the same thing as being asked to believe it, that’s--you know, and it’s not the same thing as being fooled or deceived.  Because when we engage with fictions, we do so knowingly, you know, I watch my favorite soap opera, I know it’s a fiction, I know it’s not real, I know these are only actors, but I immerse myself imaginatively in it, I feel, you know, I can laugh and cry, and I can have very valuable experiences, and I’m not under a delusion.  So that--you know, immersion in fiction, I just gave an example of a soap opera, but there’s actually very serious ways in which we immerse ourselves in fiction, so thought experiments and philosophy, that’s another example, or reading a brilliant, serious--politically serious novel, you know, so there’s lots of ways, all the time, where we immerse ourselves in fiction and it’s a valuable thing to do.  And I think we can analyze lots of people’s claims about having changed sex or, you know, saying I really am a woman even though I have male genitalia.  You can analyze--they are more profitably analyzed as claims about, you know, what is fictionally true than claims about which is literally true.  And so I introduce that notion in a way to kind of deescalate the standoff that seems to have emerged because I say, sometimes it’s appropriate to engage in fiction, it can be valuable.  But equally, there are times when you really need to say, you know, this isn’t true.  And for the purpose of feminism, you need to be able to say, we need single-sex spaces, we need sports, women’s sport, there are times when the fiction is just not going to help, but there are other times when it would.

CH: So you’ve had this battle for several decades when my own mother was caught up in, a college professor who couldn’t get a job because she was a woman in the 1950s, eventually, you know, several--a couple decades later, she was an English professor.  But she and all these other women have fought for this space, which was denied to them.

KS: Uh-hmm.

CH: What does this new orientation, this new ideology do to those, let’s call them, second wave feminist, Andrea Dworkin, who I admire very much?  What has it done to what they have built?

KS: It has been devastating.  It has removed single-sex spaces like rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters.  They are no longer female-only because people can identify males, can identify into them.  And it has, you know, the idea of a shelter was supposed to be a male-free space, not because all males are attackers, but because psychologically to heal, you know, to avoid being retriggered through PTSD, you want--you don’t want to be confronted with male-bodied people, and we’ve lost that.  We’ve also lost straight female-only changing rooms, female-only dormitories, female-only prisons, you know.  There are males identifying to prisons, violent males identifying into prisons, and getting in.  I don’t just mean they’re trying, they’re actually getting in because the idea is your identity is more important than your sex.  So really, those women were fighting about the importance of sex, you know.  It has an effect.  Sexual violence is the obvious one.  Women are by far the--you know, proportionally speaking, they are the victims of sexual violence and males are the perpetrators.  Every society reflects that fact, so we need--a progressive society puts in arrangements that protect vulnerable women, where they undress, where they sleep, where they’re in prison, from predatory men.  And that’s what the second wave feminists gave us.  Also, another thing the second wave feminists gave us in [INDISTINCT] any way is data collection.  Like, it convinced the authorities that women have their own needs and that we needed to gather information about the female sex, for medicine or for social policy.  And we’ve lost that too because most data collection now is on the basis of identity.  So you’re asked, do you identify as a male or a female, and then the survey or the study proceeds.  So, you know, we’re losing lots of information about women, so--and that particularly affects younger demographics because in those demographics, they’re more likely to be females identifying out their sex and males identifying in.  So, it’s been devastating and enraging.

CH: We’re going to--we’re going to have to--we’re going to have to stop--we’re going to have to stop there.  That was Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex and author of Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.