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For womb the bell tolls

We know what sex is when men want something from women

Biological sex is, as we all know, a total mystery. After a baby has emerged from the womb — whatever and wherever that is — a doctor or nurse makes a random guess as to whether it’s a girl or a boy, usually based on the shape of its genitals. They do this because babies can’t talk yet, and hence are incapable of telling you whether they’re hardwired to prefer dinosaurs or Barbie dolls. Later on, it might transpire that a mistake has been made, not that this is very important. After all, what’s a penis, but a sticky-out vagina? What’s a vagina but an inverted penis? It’s all the same, anyway.

This is the way we have been encouraged to think about sex differences in recent years: as something sort-of aligned with gender stereotypes, but also random, only of social and political importance to bigots. Articles such as Scientific American’s “Here’s Why Human Sex Is Not Binary” provide lectures on why, because some fish can switch reproductive roles and some women like sports more than gossip, you can never really tell what sex other humans are. It’s really quite amazing, especially since no one noticed this until about five years ago.

Since then, the idea that one sex produces ova and gestates babies whilst the other sex does not has acquired the status of yet another stale stereotype. “At birth,” declares Amia Srinivasan in The Right to Sex, “bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’”:

This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned. Some of these bodies are for creating new bodies, for washing and clothing and feeding other bodies (out of love, never duty), for making other bodies feel good and whole and in control, for making other bodies feel free. Sex is, then, a cultural thing posing as a natural one.

Having a body “assigned” the purpose of “creating new bodies” is apparently no different to having one “assigned” the purpose of making tea or doing the washing up afterwards. I wish someone had told me and my “assigned male” partner this. We’re generally good at dividing the household chores, but muggins here ended up giving birth three times and he’s never done it once.

Maybe he’s never done it because, actually, when it comes to male people not being able to gestate babies or give birth, there are exceptions to the “let’s all pretend we don’t know what sex is” rule. I’ve noticed this over the past week, with the news that UK’s first successful womb transplant has taken place.

It turns out that everyone know who has babies and who doesn’t

Alongside various ethical questions ensuing from this new possibility, there’s one that keeps coming up: what about the male people? When do they get a womb of their own? Debates are now taking place as to whether it may be “technically feasible” for biological males to get pregnant, with particular attention paid to trans women. Speaking to the Telegraph, Professor Richard Smith, a consultant gynaecological surgeon at Imperial College London, claims “equal treatment for cisgender and transgender women” would mean the latter would be just as deserving of a transplant: “But that assumes technical feasibility. And in this case, there is not technical feasibility.” His guess is that it would take at least 10–20 years.

Whilst we’re waiting, Pink News has run articles on trans womb transplants, and the Huffington Post has been asking, “What does the UK’s first successful womb transplant mean for the trans community?” “Cis woman womb transplant opens the door for trans women birthing kids,” trumpets LGBTQ Nation.

Let’s set aside for one moment the crassness of all this “yay! A new way to use the menstruators/gestators/birthers for spare parts!” triumphalism. That’s not what I’m annoyed about (okay, I am, but it’s further down the line). What really gets me is that this comes after several years of women being told that reproductive difference is irrelevant, unidentifiable, meaningless, utterly unrelated to our sex, a burden that renders us “walking wombs” (should we mention it), so randomly allocated it makes no sense to organise politically around it.

It comes after several years of being told, every time we suggest that patriarchy is rooted in male appropriation of female reproduction, that we’re excluding infertile women, post-menopausal women, women who don’t want children or women who’ve had hysterectomies. It comes after several years of being forced to pretend that thinking there is a class of people who gestate babies is equivalent to thinking there is a class of people hardwired to do the ironing. Women have been encouraged to think that the belief that female people give birth — and that male people envy this, and wish to control this function — is some weird fetish only “terfs” have.

It turns out that, not only does everyone know who has babies and who doesn’t, but that those who have been pretending not to know cannot even be bothered to keep up the pretence, at least not when there is something they want (I fully expect a return to “but womb-people don’t even exist as an identifiable political group” come the next pro-choice march).

It’s not that I ever believed the gaslighting. The history of patriarchy is a history of men struggling against their own alienation from the reproductive process. “Male reproductive consciousness,” writes Mary O’Brien, “is a consciousness of discontinuity”:

Underlying the doctrine that man makes history is the undiscussed reality of why he must. The alienation of his seed separates him from natural genetic continuity, which he therefore knows only as idea … Men must therefore make, and have made, artificial modes of continuity.

Male control of female sexuality is about men seeking to establish that babies are biologically theirs. Men have invented creation myths, naming traditions, marriage rituals, scientific mythologies in which they are the producers of new life, with women merely functioning as potting soil. “Sex is a spectrum and we don’t really know who has babies” has been an extension of the need to deny that female people have this most fundamental capacity and male people do not.

It shouldn’t be front page news that males can’t get pregnant

Men are not indifferent to or unaware of the fact that women can get pregnant whilst they can’t. It is not some minor difference which is only noticed when a colleague with a big round tummy suddenly takes nine months’ leave from work. So much of our world is organised around compensating men for their alienation from the reproductive process. As O’Brien puts it, “In a very real sense, nature is unjust to men. She includes and excludes at the same moment. It is an injustice, however, which male praxis might reasonably be said to have overcorrected.”

Publications and activists who have insisted female reproduction is not only irrelevant to gender politics, but practically indefinable, are suddenly happy to state which class of people gestates babies and which class does not. Were one to behave in the same unprincipled way they have done, one might say, “Why can’t trans women just try harder to get pregnant? You know, like cis women just need to try harder in sport? Isn’t ‘you need a womb to get pregnant’ a bit biologically essentialist? What does having external, dangly genitals have to do with whether you have a womb? Isn’t that judging on external appearances, which is really prejudiced?”

I realise what I’ve just written sounds silly, but it is no sillier than everything that has been written, sometimes in scientific journals, to persuade us that sex is far too complex and mysterious for anyone to organise around politically. We know what it is when men want something from women. Then we forget as soon as women — menstruators, vulva owners, whatever — wish to talk about reproduction on their terms.

It shouldn’t be front page news that members of the male sex class can’t get pregnant. A true miracle would be them finally learning to deal with it.

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