This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
From moral panics about readers’ ability to discern between fake news and mad opinion to legal crackdowns on protest and freedom of speech, the idea that individuals can interpret the world around them without the guiding hand of moral policemen has been called into question. Despite all today’s “awareness raising”, a belief in agency, and individual’s ability to wield it, has been maligned as either mythical or misinformed.
This feverish uncertainty about trusting others’ instincts runs parallel with the move towards the safer, more easily controlled life of the interior. Identity politics, which encourages individuals to negotiate the rocky terrain of modern society using only the lens of their own personal desires and preferences, is deeply mistrustful of other people. The feminist begins every interaction with “as a woman” in a bid to safeguard criticism of the rest of her sentence; the trans activist uses allegations of “harm” to police what discussion can take place.
Two new books reveal something about this shift away from collective, democratic moves for change towards a more insular understanding of the world. The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye aims to explain how society “often makes trans people’s lives unnecessarily difficult”, from the serious and material (access to resources) to the banal and personal (pronouns and sexual preferences). Faye’s book is not an attempt to rise above disapproving societal norms, but to argue for a whole set of new ones.
The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan is a more philosophical musing on the “politics and ethics of sex”, following a series of essays on whether the way in which we desire one another is a problem for women’s liberation. Both books reveal the core idea in contemporary identity politics: that how we feel about ourselves and the desire to protect our vulnerable sense of self should instruct the way decisions are made in the outside world.
This is not to say that there is no worth in understanding how individuals or groups experience the world. Faye’s book is a detailed exploration of what life is like for many trans people living in the UK, with accounts of bullying at school, inadequate healthcare and what she describes as a lifetime of demonisation at the hands of the press, police and gender-critical feminists.
The central point of Faye’s argument is that the “transgender issue” gets treated as a talking point, meaning that trans people’s experience of discrimination gets sidelined. She is aware of people like me who hold a sceptical view of identity politics and the seeming contemporary obsession with gender (bending it, breaking it down or writing it into law). She writes: “The idea that trans activism … is the navel-gazing ‘ideology’ of an entitled cultural elite is common on both sides of the political spectrum.” She lambasts “transphobia on the right and left alike” which suppresses trans rights through a “sustained critique of millennial ‘identity politics’”.
Faye’s claim that only “transphobes” take issue with a generation of young people being more interested in what name they give themselves than the world around them, is telling. According to her, parents who push back on their child’s demands that their teachers recognise their new gender are engaging in “non-acceptance”.
This is the central argument of The Transgender Issue, that trans debate is not an option
Similarly, feminists who raise questions about the “problem” of “trans women’s presence in women’s spaces or services” such as the much-debated changing room or the more serious realm of prisons, shelters and hospital wards are “aiding and abetting systemic transmisogyny” and patriarchy, and thereby committing self-harm. She complains that feminists such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have faced “minimal accountability for their years of unrestricted hate speech” and that the “fetishisation of ‘debate’ in British liberal media” is tantamount to “abuse”.
In putting scare quotes around the word “debate”, Faye reveals many trans activists’ suspicion that the general public who tune in to discussions about gender transitioning tend towards bigotry. A recent experience I had is a good example. While attending my first melodeon class since the pandemic, the teacher (a wonderful musician) asked our class of four if we’d like to tell her our pronouns, even though she’d taught all of us before and the class comprised of me, an older lady and two ageing blokes.
I left annoyed — not because there is anything wrong with talking about gender, but because hidden in the request was the suggestion that if we didn’t all know where we stood, one of us might have said something terrible.
This is the central argument of The Transgender Issue, that trans debate is not an option. “We are fully human … we are not an ‘issue’ to be debated or derided,” Faye writes. This is the fragile narcissism of identity politics laid bare. Unlike radical movements of the past, the trans activism she promotes has less to do with convincing people to come round to her point of view and more to do with characterising all dissent as a form of emotional abuse. This is politics as personal affront.
While Faye’s book highlights a very contemporary problem — a childish intolerance to scrutiny, Srinivasan’s book reveals how years of the original identity politics, feminism, has dented our confidence in women’s agency.
In The Right to Sex, she uses five essays and a series of responses to examine how feminist divides in approaches to sex, relationships and men stand in the way of liberation. There are moments of real insight, including pointing to the way in which gender-critical feminists who (rightly) complain about the censoriousness of their trans activist political opponents fail to “recognise the irony in objecting to the same tactics that … anti-porn feminists pioneered 40 years ago”.
But like Faye, Srinivasan’s conclusions seem to be allergic to any sense of a celebration of power and agency. After a chapter exploring the effects pornography might have on sexual relations, she concludes that: “women need more, and better, sex education”. Her only caveat is: “who teaches the teachers? If teachers are anything like ordinary people, a lot of them watch porn … are we surprised when teachers have difficulty talking about the patriarchal construction of sex? Will any amount of ‘teacher training’ — short of a full feminist consciousness-raising — change that?”
Here, too, there is a real lack of empowerment: women’s only hope of combatting power-imbalances in the adult world of sex and relationships is to give kids a few extra classes. Despite her lengthy and very interesting moral pontificating about politicising desire, or using the law to combat political problems, Srinivasan comes to a run-of-the-mill feminist line: the patriarchy is the problem.
This reliance on the idea that the control and oppression of women by men frames women’s experiences and ambitions, and colours everything we do remains one of the biggest roadblocks to women’s liberation. This is not because we have to un-brainwash ourselves by asking, as Srinivasan does, “what does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy”, but because feminists seem to cling on to the idea that women can overcome sexist societal trends by their own efforts.
In an essay on erotic pedagogy and “not sleeping with your students”, Srinivasan’s lack of belief in women’s autonomy becomes crystal clear. She gives the example of a female student who, after shacking up (willingly) with a womanising professor, realises he was not in love with her but merely passing the time until the next hot student came along. She quits because she “can no longer take his classes” and suspects her “academic successes will be chalked up to her relationship with him”.
A focus on a narcissistic identity politics is really saying that other people and public life are dangerous things
Srinivasan asks us to see how the “psycho-sexual order into which men and women are inducted” means that while not abused, her imaginary student has been “denied the benefits of education ‘on the basis of sex’”.
She chalks this up to the undeniable power of the patriarchy. The rest of us might merely have advised the student to not shag her lecturer. Any woman who kids herself that sleeping with her professor will bring eternal happiness and a fulfilling academic career has been reading too many Mills & Boon stories. This is not to let badly-behaved academics off the hook, but reliance on the external powers of the patriarchy robs women of the ability to own their decisions. The ramifications such abdication of responsibility has for other areas of women’s oppression — such as abortion law and access to contraception — can’t be overstated.
While both The Right to Sex and The Transgender Issue claim to dig deeper into issues more often engaged with at a superficial level, there is only so far one can go with pointing out moral conundrums: the point is to change them. The narrative both subscribe to, a patriarchy-choked trans activism or feminism, argues that the only way to change the world is to recognise our inherent vulnerability.
Thus, women should push back against pornography because it teaches us to feel bad about our pubic hair. And trans people should interpret protests to the Gender Recognition Act as bullying, rather than a societal conversation about sex and gender. Everything must relate to “me” and my fragile sense of self; debate is not only dangerous, it is harmful. More importantly, people can’t engage in such contentious topics without a heavy dose of prescriptive education, regulated language and cap-doffing to each other’s identity.
Reading these books together gives a good perspective on the continuum of identity politics, how the censorious, touchy nature of contemporary trans activism was born out of streams of feminist theory. But what this focus on a narcissistic identity politics is really saying is that other people and public life are dangerous things that need to be restricted and controlled by benevolent activists who “get it”.
For all their talk of class, both authors engage in an exceedingly bourgeois reliance on the need for codes and laws to manage the tricky mess of public life, a proposal that silences dissent and inhibits new ideas. If we are to reclaim a sense that humans are capable of rising above make-believe hierarchies and change the world, we must start believing we can trust one another to think about these things out loud.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe