The real facts of life
A welcome intervention by an author determined to return some rationalism to the trans discussion
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
‘‘Are you afraid someone saw you pick up this book?” asks Debra Soh in the opening line of her new book. Personally? No, not really. But then I am a grizzled veteran of the “Terf wars” — now, I suspect, entering their final phase — having already paid the price for my opinions and come out the other side, all the stronger for it. Many of Soh’s intended readers, however, will not be well versed in the debate, and probably will feel anxious about picking up this book. And with good reason, since every single chapter contains some kind of cancellable offence.
Soh’s academic background is in sexology, and she has set herself the task of engaging with misconceptions about sex and gender from her position as a scientist. Each chapter is therefore concerned with busting some myth that cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, beginning with myth number one, “biological sex is a spectrum”, and ending with myth number eight, “gender neutral parenting works”.
This slim volume covers a lot of ground, and does so briskly, in a prose style that is matter-of-fact, if sometimes repetitive (the word “countless”, for instance, appears far too often in a book that is all about, well, counting). Soh is at her best when explaining scientific concepts to a lay audience, as for instance in an early chapter on intersex conditions:
Contrary to what is commonly believed, sex is defined not by chromosomes or our genitals or hormonal profiles, but by gametes, which are mature reproductive cells. There are only two types of gametes: small ones called sperm that are produced by males, and large ones called eggs that are produced by females. There are no intermediate types of gametes between egg and sperm cells. Sex is therefore binary. It is not a spectrum.
The chapters in the first two thirds of the book are mostly concerned with the transgender movement. Soh works through trans activist claims with admirable thoroughness — no, not all people with gender dysphoria will benefit from transitioning; yes, natal males do have a physical advantage over natal females in sports; no, not all trans people are motivated to transition for the same reasons.
This last point is particularly explosive in political terms, but there is no doubt that Soh is on firm ground scientifically. Researchers have long been aware of the existence of two distinct categories of trans women — that is, natal males who identify as women. One group — sometimes called “homosexual transsexuals” — usually transition at a young age, have sexual relationships exclusively with men, and tend to be stereotypically feminine from childhood.
Some gender-critical feminists who enjoyed earlier sections on the trans movement will find the late chapters uncomfortable
Another group — known as “autogynephiles” — have a very different profile: transitioning later, usually having sexual relationships exclusively with women, and often living as conventionally masculine men until they begin the transition process. And this second group are motivated to transition as a result of autogynephilia (sexual arousal at the idea of being a woman), a fact that trans activists are reluctant to acknowledge, preferring, as Soh puts it, “to neutralise the sexual aspect of their wishes to transition”. But she attempts an optimistic argument for tolerance:
In our sex-negative culture, trans women’s concerns are dismissed as a sexual fetish if anything about transitioning relates to sexual desire … I advocate for compassion and not being judgmental.
Soh, who writes for Playboy and other outlets, describes herself as sex-positive and supports destigmatising all discussion of sexual desire. Although I sometimes grew bored with the regular detours in which Soh writes about how much she loves going clubbing with her gay friends, or describes the confiding relationships she has formed with the parents of trans-identifying children, I understand the purpose of these sections: reassurance. This is a book written by a liberal for liberals, which prescribes a medicinal dose of yet more liberalism — more tolerance, more scientific inquiry, and more intellectual diversity. And liberal readers will no doubt be comforted that Soh’s live-and-let-live framing allows them to play the role of open-minded progressive, rather than (as trans activists would have it) bigoted reactionary.
But Soh’s focus on liberals leaves out crucial political context. When she writes, for instance, that “it seems everyone has fallen down the gender-neutral rabbit hole”, and that “wallpaper themes in a child’s bedroom forbid fire trucks, cute animals and fairy-tales because they enforce the gender binary”, she is wrongly universalising a trend that is actually confined to an elite niche.
Outside the woke-dominated worlds of academia and journalism, most parents are very comfortable with traditional gender norms, thank you very much. America may have brought us the extremes of trans activism, but this is also the country that invented “gender reveal parties”, at which expectant parents reveal the sex of their unborn baby through some dramatic means: a cake, confetti, balloons, or (in one newsworthy case) by firing a rifle at a box filled with explosives and blue dye, triggering a wildfire in Arizona that caused $8 million in damage. The gender issue is — importantly — a polarising one, and the woke narrative is nowhere near dominant.
Soh is, however, very well versed on the conflicts within the liberal slice of Western societies, and she has much of interest to say in the final third of the book, in which she turns her attention away from the trans movement, and towards the “blank slate” understanding of gender propounded by some feminists, which interprets sex differences in personality and behaviour as a product of socialisation.
Soh pushes back firmly against this claim, and does so convincingly, with a wealth of data demonstrating that men and women do in fact differ “above the neck” as a consequence of our evolutionary history. Some gender-critical feminists who enjoyed earlier sections on the trans movement will find these chapters uncomfortable reading, but Soh makes a good case for incorporating the findings of evolutionary psychology into the feminist project, rather than attempting to ignore or reject them. “The admirable goal of gender equality has metastasised into meaning that men and women are the same,” she writes, pointing out that there is no logic in using innate sex differences to justify the mistreatment of women.
For anyone of a progressive bent who is troubled by the anti-science tone of contemporary gender discourse, Soh’s book will be a cool drink of water. Calm, comprehensive, and impeccably footnoted, this is a welcome intervention by an author determined to return some rationalism to the discussion.
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