Artillery Row Books

Breaking down the gender wars

Kathleen Stock’s new book is exactly the kind of forensic, generous intervention the ongoing trans debate sorely needs

Entering into the debate on trans is not for the faint hearted — especially if you’re a public intellectual. Speaker invites, endorsements, book deals, scholarships and other opportunities have been whipped away in the name of “inclusivity” when individuals refuse to repeat mantras about trans women being women or denounce the realities biological sex are not make believe.

Despite representing the views of a minority of (often online) activists, the contemporary trans debate has come to dominate discussion among media types and politicians, so much so that its extreme views about sex and gender have been allowed to pose as the norm, instead of the fashionable.

It takes someone with balls (and brains, and patience) to rise above the cacophony of Twitter spats to make sense of this bizarre new world of gender wars. Kathleen Stock might laugh — or balk, as a feminist — at the suggestion that she has the gonads to take on the challenge of understanding the rise of trans politics and its implications for women. But her new book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, is exactly the kind of forensic, generous intervention this toxic debate sorely needs.

Like any good philosopher, Stock begins by stating her aims — to understand what she calls the philosophical theory of “gender identity” that “gripped public consciousness” to the extent that laws, language and societal relations suddenly became subject to change. This isn’t Stock’s first foray into the subject. In fact, she is considered a hate figure by many trans activists for her commentary on the issue of gender-neutral spaces, women’s rights, and her criticism of concepts like self-identification relating to the UK Gender Recognition Act. Indeed, so awful is Stock in the eyes of some that over 600 philosophers signed an open letter objecting to the British government awarding her an OBE, claiming that the state had mistaken “transphobic fearmongering for valuable scholarship”.

I must admit, the current state of the trans debate has often left me feeling queasy. While inane trans activists shouting bigot at anyone refusing to “see them” by giving in to their every linguistic and regulatory whim is infuriating, the opposition from some alarmist feminists panicking about being in the same room as a penis is just as grating. It’s a common refrain from dismissive trans activists that those who don’t agree with them either haven’t “educated” themselves when it comes to gender theory, or that they are wilfully complicit in attempts to keep marginalised trans people downtrodden. With this in mind, I decided to approach Material Girls with half the mindset of one of Stock’s fiercest critics, looking out for evidence of unfair characterisations, lazy straw men and what’s now deridingly described as “TERF” behaviour.

There is none. Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Material Girls is its generosity towards the subject. As a philosopher, Stock is unafraid of her thesis — that being clear about the reality of sex difference is crucial for human relationships — but she spends more time getting us to understand where the other side is coming from than anything else.

Stock’s exploration of the rise of gender politics cuts through contemporary hyperbole like a knife through butter

Moving through the theory of gender identity from Judith Butler to Judith Serano while tracking its formalisation in history from the Yogyakarta Principles to contemporary demands from charities like Stonewall, Stock’s forensic exploration of the rise of gender politics cuts through contemporary characterisations and hyperbole like a knife through butter. In some places, she invites us to revelation — trans people who claim to believe that one can actually change sex are not delusional, but “immersed in a fiction”. In other places, she puts things in terms of common sense. When attempting to describe what it means to be a “man” or a “woman”, Stock reminds us that “you aren’t being invited to stipulate some arbitrary standard, you are not that powerful”. Instead, she says we should look at how we “employ” these terms in a “range of contexts”. In other words, human beings are complicated, and our understanding of each other must relate to our ability to communicate and share meaning.

Stock is careful to show the possibility of explaining her opposition to gender theory and its dismissal of sex as “wholly socially constructed” while at the same time as consistently reminding us that she has no objection to a trans individual’s equal treatment, protection under the law and independence to call themselves what they like. It is hard to not sound defensive, given the fact that any dissent from the idea of gender-neutralising all public space is taken as a signifier of disinterest in the quality of life of trans individuals. But by taking us through the science of sex, its relation to gametes, genes, hormones, differences in sex development (DSDs) and data — lots of it — Stock succeeds in carefully outlining why it is important to acknowledge that however fluid we might feel about our identity, that potential for subversion cannot exist without acknowledging the reality of sex and biological difference.

Compromise often sounds like a lame word, and it can feel unsatisfactory to suggest that we should all just relax a little bit when it comes to wars over school uniform, toilets in clubs or kids’ changing rooms. But much of what Material Girls highlights is the way in which human beings continuously engage in informal compromise and reconciliation.

Stock notes that throughout the book she uses the preferred pronouns of the trans writers and thinkers she is exploring, a point that might “confuse” or “upset” certain feminist purists who go around wearing t-shirts with dictionary definitions on them. But this is no capitulation; Stock is actually arguing that colloquialisms, shorthands and common concepts are what citizens generally refer to when relating to each other, rather than relying on academic pedantry. It’s this very point that extreme trans activists don’t seem to get. Unsatisfied by the idea that gender identity isn’t so important to most people (mostly cisgender individuals, as they would point out), the majority of society must immediately and artificially change its terms of reference to fit make a minority “feel seen”.

The old “live and let live” motto has been replaced by a new, radical demand to codify the way in which we interact with each other along strictly regulated lines. It’s no longer acceptable to believe that trans women should be treated with the same respect, dignity and independence as women (or trans men and men), we must now believe and repeat when prompted that the latter is indistinguishable from the former.

Stock points out that this not only causes great confusion, from medical provision to child development, it also denies the one positive aspect of gender fluidity — that difference and differentiation is nothing to fear, but rather can be the spice of life. The moments in which Stock refers to her feelings about her own personal identity are important. There is a tendency on both sides to want to reduce our understanding of gender to being regulated by strict gender norms.

As a young, tall girl who was desperate to hang out in the macho atmosphere of Brick Lane on a Sunday morning, watching her builder Dad buy tools (but also coveting her Polly Pocket and hair straighteners while trying to fit her size eight feet into heels) the idea of “traditional” or fixed gender roles have always seemed totally undesirable to me.

Material Girls is essential reading for anyone on either side of the gender wars

Material Girls is essential reading for anyone — on both sides of the gender wars — who wants to get a grip on what the other side really thinks. Stock makes a compelling argument against the censorious and cynical moves by what she calls “propaganda” groups and attention-seeking commentators looking to reduce discussion about gender to a fight between good and evil. She also, crucially, spells out the ways in which women and women’s politics have suffered at the hands of contemporary gender politics, by asserting that biological difference and its links to historic sexism is crucial for understanding the areas in which women are still political discriminated against.

But where Stock and I begin to part ways is in her assessment of where the phenomena of gender politics and obsession with personal identity over social reality has come from. Though she links the origins of gender identity to an early feminist desire to move away from biologically deterministic views of women being better suited to childcare and kitchenware, Stock seems unwilling to make the crucial link between feminism and trans politics at root. To me, they are one and the same — two tenets of identity politics (feminism being the original form) cementing an individual’s relationship to the world around them as being solely understood through the lens of their identity.

Feminists might tussle between themselves over whether women are determined by their social surroundings (oppression by men) or their biological circumstances (oppression by nature), but either way they demand that the sole way in which a woman interacts with the world is through her identity as WOMAN. The uncomfortable reality that many feminists won’t own up to is that the recent madness of a trans obsession with subjective feeling is merely an extension of this narcissistic demand for recognition.

Stock’s bravery in calling out the reactionary tendencies of gender-obsessed activists is a welcome intervention

“Speaking as a woman”, as many feminists begin their criticism of trans orthodoxy, is simply the mirror image of “speaking as a trans woman” — both suggest that our ability to act in the world is hemmed in by an identity that is forced upon us and outside of our control. The politics of victimhood, long adopted and nurtured by feminists, has led to the monstrous idea that misgendering someone, even accidentally, is tantamount to violence. It was Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon that asserted that words can “harm” in relation to sexist portrayals of women in pornography. It’s only logical that trans activists would take the torch of the oppression Olympics and run with it.

Stock suggests that we become less “binary”, more “intersectional” and more “data driven” when it comes to our assessment of the gender wars. Perhaps a more radical solution is that instead of spending so much time looking inwards for political meaning, be it gender, sex or a bit of both, we encourage people to turn their gaze away from the narcissism of their own identity.

Stock’s bravery in calling out the reactionary tendencies of gender-obsessed activists is a welcome and necessary intervention into a toxic debate. But the “solution” to today’s fractious political climate will take more than an understanding of terms. We are living in the nightmare of the middle-classes, in which endless battles over who gets access to what spaces, how many so and sos are on what board and who is trending on Twitter is the subject of serious political debate.

It’s notable that solidarity gets few mentions in the book — a political ideal that is rendered impossible under contemporary identity politics be they feminist or trans. If we’re to really tackle the root cause of contemporary politics’ obsession with the self, and wake up from this never-ending bad dream, we must start asserting that human beings shape the world we live in, as much as it shapes us. Identity is important, but it’s nowhere near the most interesting or powerful thing about us.

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