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On Gender Categories
a gender abolitionist critique of gender critical ideology
A number of months ago, I wrote a generalized critique of what was going on in gender critical spaces, laying out an explanation of why the ideology effectively revolved around perpetuating transphobia. As clarified there, I’m someone who was once gender critical, grew disillusioned by what I witnessed, and finally drifted deeper into radical feminist theory. I’ve done little more than hint at why engaging with this school of thought revolutionized the way I thought about this issues, since it’s difficult to summarize something that took me at least half a year to begin to work out, but I think it might be useful to provide a more substantial analysis of why the gender critical focus on sex categories is in fact not conducive to its alleged end goal, gender abolition. My reasoning is grounded in the work of radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon, Monique Wittig, Christine Delphy, and Colette Guillaumin, as well as radical transfeminists like Cristan Williams, and I hope will be of use both to people looking to deconstruct or argue against gender critical views and to any GCs who, as the movement becomes more obviously aligned with conservatism, might be seeking out alternative ways to conceptualize matters.
To begin, at the heart of the gender debate is a metaphysical dispute masquerading as scientific one. The gender critical position begins with a fairly straightforward claim concerning natural kinds; namely, sex is to be understood as a phenomenon whose defining feature across all species is the ability to be classified into one of two reproductive categories, that which produces large gametes (female) and that which produces small gametes (male). Technically speaking, this is actually true—gamete size is the only distinction that holds up across many sexually reproducing species—but GCs imbue what would otherwise be a meaningless fact about taxonomy with intense ontological meaning and become fixated on it. They claim to be materialists, but what they actually end up seeking is an essence of sex—something closer to a property of the universe that is manifested in all sexually reproducing species.
This is a difficult position to argue against, because attempting to do so will almost always cause people to dig their heels in more deeply, granting even more meaning to metaphysical sex categories. They view it as mere common sense, but what it actually is, unfortunately, is a form of naïve realism. One of the most serious problems is that despite their claims about being critical of the gender system, the deep sense of gender polarity they end up embracing is in fact a product of it. The intense meaning we give to sex difference, often to the point of considering men and women essentially distinct types of beings (see some Catholic theology), doesn’t arise from nature. It’s a product of society, and one historically linked to maintaining male solidarity. What would have been a single neutral trait is blown up into a defining characteristic, to the point where it can sometimes be easier for people (especially men) to identify conceptually across species lines than with the other sex. A key example is video games, where men are often more comfortable taking the role of anthropomorphic animals, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, as long as they are coded as male, than playing as any female character. This temptation to emphasize the category of sex, which forms the basis of all gender critical thought, is not a neutral or scientific one—it is intensely patriarchal, both in origin and in effects.
A second issue involving gender polarity is that humans are not particularly sexually dimorphic at all. What physical differences exist have been enhanced by culture in order to prop up the illusion that there are two opposite sexes with corresponding contrasting traits. Much of the radical feminist critique of beauty practices is aimed at this reality—women are expected to remove body hair (and especially any facial hair) because they must be unlike men. Women are kept artificially weak because muscular bulk is only appropriate on men. Sexologists spent so much effort on stigmatizing the clitoral orgasm in part because it was conceptually too similar to the male orgasm; only the vaginal orgasm followed the logic of male supremacy, being complementary in nature. Most women with an interest in radical feminism can identify how these practices are hierarchical in nature, being built around sculpting women into a passive object for men, but what those who are immersed in gender critical thought tend to miss is that they are also oppositional—they serve to reinforce the boundaries between sex categories, to assuage the male ego by reassuring men that they are utterly different than the subordinate class.
My purpose in the past two paragraphs has been to demonstrate that the focus on easily distinguishable gender categories that GCs take for granted is seldom anywhere near as innocent as they might assume. Sometimes it is not even scientific at all—the prime example is DSDs, where the gender critical response is to either stress chromosomes above all else and kick people out of their assigned sex category or (more sympathetically) to construct elaborate metaphysical justifications as to why the assignment is correct. The possibility that the categories themselves are abstractions that sometimes say more about how we think nature should work than how it actually does work is usually lost upon them. They might claim to be gender abolitionists, but what they are really trying to do is erase whatever problems material reality poses to their totalizing metaphysical project of imposing the category of sex in all conceivable circumstances. Their obsession is with legitimacy—both the legitimacy of the sex class system and legitimacy under it—and they are largely blind to the fact that this is an intensely patriarchal impulse, and one that can’t be easily separated from the desire to stamp out non-conformity entirely. The result is, of course, a near total derangement about the existence of trans people.
It is an incontrovertible fact of nature that matter is mutable. This includes many sex characteristics, and with futuristic medicine could potentially include most or even all of them. Gender critical ideology resists this conclusion—ostensibly in order to maintain a coherent analysis of women’s oppression, but their actual commitment is to the notion of immutability. Their obsession is with the natural, something that can be seen in the widespread insistence that the results of medical intervention are counterfeit (even if similar procedures are sometimes necessary for cis people as well). One interesting aspect of this fixation is that it’s not wholly unlike the requirement that beauty be “natural” for cis women—makeup is compulsory but also regarded as “fake” and a matter of “tricking” men, breast enhancement and pushup bras draw scorn, hair removal must be perfect enough to grant the illusion of never having existed in the first place, and so forth. What is in the cis context a demand that women embody the sex stereotype in a way that suggests it’s natural rather than artificial becomes, in the trans context, much uglier, since it’s the sanctity of the sex binary itself that is under threat. Every effort is made to frame trans bodies as almost ontologically different from cis ones—the focus is on artificiality, and at the end of the day, I don’t believe that what is going on here is a matter of GCs expressing the view that sex is immutable. What they’re expressing is their deep-set fear that it actually isn’t immutable; people do not react this way if they do not feel threatened.
GC women resist viewing trans women as women, even “fully” medically transitioned ones, because they argue that doing so reduces women to a sex stereotype, even if the “stereotype” in question is hormone profile and sex characteristics. What they fail to realize is that it is the category of sex itself that reduces everyone to a stereotype, and that the more you try to define “womanhood” in terms of abstract, essentialistic qualities instead of in terms of people’s actual material reality, the more legitimacy you grant to the entire system of gender classification. When confronted with the reality that trans women often inhabit the category of womanhood in a way analogous to infertile cis women, the response is always to double down on the validity of the category itself with accusations of not viewing certain types of cis women as “real” women. This is a very sore spot for many GCs and radfems who don’t conform to sex stereotype of womanhood, both because it’s an understandable instinct to cling to a category you have been unjustly excluded from and because they feel like they are being tokenized and discarded, but what they are actually doing, unfortunately, is buying into one of the deepest lies of patriarchy: that the fact that we feel the need to be “validated” as male or female is a neutral aspect of nature, rather being than one of the mechanisms by which the gender system perpetuates itself.
One difficulty is that once someone gets caught up in the question of metaphysical truth claims, it can be very challenging to break free of that mentality again. The need to view sex as an ontological category overwhelms any understanding of the social meaning of sex, the latter is either naturalized or erased, and the person may not even be aware that this is what they are doing. My suggestion for anyone willing to break themselves of a rigid metaphysical understanding of sex would be to make use of thought experiments to challenge their understanding of what is actually going on. The one that started me down the road away from GCism was this one: imagine a person, perhaps with an intersex condition, who was incorrectly assigned female at birth. Imagine this person growing up, living, and finally dying, thinking of herself as a woman all the while. Imagine her struggling with infertility issues the same other women might, never guessing the true cause of her difficulties. Imagine her society never knowing her to be anything other than a woman, and that whatever genetic truth might be encoded in her DNA is eventually lost to time altogether. Does it make any sense to say that despite her self-understanding, despite the way both society and history understands her, she is not a woman?
It does not make sense to say that she is not a woman, and I hope this example can help to clarify why it is the social meaning of sex, rather than the abstract, ontological understanding of sex, that governs how gender actually functions in society. This realization can open the door to a genuinely materialist rather than metaphysical picture of sex categories, which I think is necessary both in terms of engaging with much of radical feminist theory and for even beginning to be able to talk about trans issues constructively. One final thing I believe worth commenting on in this section is the phenomenon of people abandoning gender critical ideology after getting to know trans people better—many GCs view this as a matter of emotionalism, of privileging kindness over “truth,” but I would suggest that what is really going on is that people’s highly abstract view of what sex and gender are supposed to mean begins to crumble upon contact with reality. What gender critical views truly represent is an overly simplified picture of how sex and gender appear to function from a generalized cis perspective, clumsily (and often maliciously) applied in a context too specialized to support any such attempt at universalization. Whatever the word for this type of maneuver may be, it is not “truth.”
A significant part of the resistance to social constructionist views in gender critical circles is tied to a very emotionally charged awareness of the reality of reproductive oppression. I find much of the discourse around this issue problematic in general, since there are equal and opposite tendencies to either minimize the fact that reproductive exploitation is likely the sine qua non of the patriarchal system (something Marxist feminists are often good at demonstrating), or to naturalize it as an inevitable consequence of biology. There is also the overwhelming sense in gender critical circles that if trans women are to be considered women (and especially if trans men are to be considered men), an analysis of how women’s oppression functions to facilitate reproductive exploitation will fall apart. I do not think this is at all true—a bigger picture analysis of the mechanisms at play does not require this sort of fixation on categorizing individuals. Genuine materialist analysis of the way patriarchy functions, including criticism of tendencies towards idealism, does not need to be trans-antagonistic; it can be found in the works of radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon or much of the French materialist feminist school.
One of the central problems, however, and something I think would be useful to explore further here, is the fact that GC women often feel that the only liberation that a social constructionist view offers is the freedom to identify out of the category of womanhood, or perhaps to transcend gender oppression altogether through sheer willpower. Gender self determination is of little apparent practical value if you don’t wish to leave your assigned sex category, and the promise of not being defined by your body looks like a mirage when you aren’t assured bodily autonomy under patriarchy. This is almost always compounded by a deep disillusionment with mainstream feminism, which is seen as being more interested in pretending that aspects of oppression can be empowering than in producing material change. Part of what is going on here is just the blind spot that comes with having a cis perspective—I may not personally wish to transition, but the most immediate concern for anyone who does is having the means and ability to do so. I do not need to be directly benefited by the concept of gender self determination for it to matter to other people, and the fact that the boundary between sex categories is not impassable doesn’t mean that the source of cis women’s and trans people’s oppression in general is not the gender system itself.
One complication, unfortunately, is that GC women are not always wrong to assume that self determination is being presented as a more comprehensive answer to gender oppression. It’s not terribly uncommon to come across bemused if not outright scornful comments about how GCs view womanhood as a prison of sorts: “Why don’t they leave womanhood if they hate it so much?” people sometimes ask, as if the only reason someone could feel trapped in a sex category is internalized transphobia. They are also sometimes derided for not having a positive view of womanhood, as if the answer to social subordination is to change one’s attitude towards it. I think this phenomenon is part of the reason GCs tend to naturalize misogyny so intensely—they feel, sometimes correctly, that they are being told that misogyny is more a mental state than a material condition, and as a result, they stress its materiality. Their focus is often on things such as stigmatized bodily processes, pregnancy and its aftermath, the challenges of motherhood, or the erasure of older women, and the more they feel they’re being told to simply get over the social pressures attached to all of this (even if it’s often just the GC echo chamber pushing the idea that nobody else cares about this stuff), the more they conceptualize it as an inescapable part of their own nature.
The result is one of the most self-destructive aspects of gender critical ideology: it actively encourages cis women to take whatever oppressive content of womanhood they consider sex-specific, reify it, and then focus on using it to prop up a definition of “woman.” An analysis of women’s oppression isn’t done in the hopes of eliminating it from society; the entire purpose of the ideology is instead to reinforce the notion of pure, discrete gender categories, by whatever means. It’s not uncommon to get drawn to gender critical thought due to a heightened sensitivity towards certain stigmas, but the ideology effectively encourages women to cling to internalized misogyny as part of their identity. This is part of what happened to me—awareness of the possibility of pregnancy has always been fairly central to my gender identity, and the fact that this vulnerability is an objective reality made it hard to conceptualize a relationship to womanhood that hadn’t at some point included this type of awareness. What I ended up doing was naturalizing a certain experience of vulnerability that, rather than being an inevitable consequence of fertility, is a product of what reproductive capacity means in a patriarchal society that has stigmatized abortion. In the process, I temporarily reinforced the psychological burden tied to gender oppression.
I don’t believe that I have any obligation to “rise above” this psychological burden, so to speak—patriarchal pressures in society need to be torn out at the root, not treated as a private matter that individual women ought to overcome through self-help. GCs often assume that social constructionist views entail the second option, that if women’s oppression is not deeply grounded in an objective biological vulnerability, this makes it less real. Unfortunately, an insistence upon viewing the vulnerabilities associated with reproductive capacity as inherent tends to frame the patriarchal mechanisms that are built around it as somewhat inevitable as well. In a world without sexual violence and exploitation, without stigmas tied to contraception and abortion, and where pre-natal care was of optimal quality, would the possibility of pregnancy carry the same type of social weight? Gender critical ideology purports to be about highlighting the importance of reproduction in understanding women’s oppression, but the actual commitment is to the idea that at least some element of the obsessive focus we put on reproduction under patriarchy is a biological inevitability. Indeed, the true aim is to declare the social category of womanhood eternal by establishing reproductive vulnerability as the essential aspect of women’s nature.
On a final note, I find it ironic that gender critical ideology so often purports to be gender abolitionist, since in reality, it is almost the exact opposite. A genuine project of gender abolition would not focus on the question of whether or not people would ever seek to change sex characteristics in a world without gender, but in gender critical circles, this becomes a central fixture. Over and over again, rather than engaging more deeply in an analysis of how gender actually functions, it projects a current, highly patriarchal fixation on sex categories onto a distant, post-gender future, showing that its aim is to eternalize the very gender system it claims to be trying to dismantle. Its battle cry may be “sex not gender,” but it is consistently too hostile to the notion of social constructionism to do much more than clumsily naturalize things that feminist theory has revealed to be a product of social conditions as somehow inherent to biology. Back when I was still gender critical myself, I remember a trans activist with whom I was on good terms telling me that even if GCs might be right on any individual issue, the entire ideology was effectively just radicalized transphobia, and it has become clear to me that this is the case. For anyone clinging to this because they feel alienated from mainstream feminism—there are better forms of radical feminist theory out there. I suggest you explore them.