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Artillery Row

Schrödinger’s sex binary

We have to resist the mass gaslighting of women and girls

Towards the end of Trans, her patient dismantling of contemporary gender ideology, Helen Joyce presents the following thought experiment:

Picture a person who insists that transwomen are women in every circumstance. If transwomen commit crimes, they belong in women’s prisons; if they play sport, they belong on women’s teams. If they are attracted to women, lesbians must regard them as potential sexual partners. Such a person will accept no distinction between sex and gender. Transwomen differ from ‘cis women’ only in having been mistakenly ‘assigned male at birth’. Now, what will our true believer do if they need a gestational surrogate?

All of us know what the answer to this will be. No one would invite a transwoman to gestate a baby for them, because who does and does not get pregnant has nothing to do with who does and does not identify with a feminine gender identity. 

Only members of the class of humans “assigned female at birth” — we can call them “female humans”, or “women”, for short — carry and give birth to new humans. So socially and physically significant is this that we have generally felt it useful to have terms and concepts that refer to these people in particular. When the class of humans who never get pregnant — let’s call them “men” — have chosen to exploit and abuse those who do, the latter have also called on these terms and concepts in order to organise and resist. 

Until very recently, all of this would have seemed rather obvious. Not today, however. Today, I can already hear the bad faith objections coming: so you define women as baby-making machines! So you think infertile women aren’t women!  It is not particularly difficult to deflect these — only someone who sees all female people as baby-making machines would think the word “woman” shouldn’t be wasted on baby-making machines, and while not all women can get pregnant, no men can — but this doesn’t tend to make much difference. If you don’t want to be called a transphobic (and who does?), it is best to keep quiet about female reproductive biology. It’s the kind, inclusive way. 

The kindest, most inclusive people have even taken things a step further. Rather than merely pretending female reproduction is of no great physical, social or political importance, they enjoy suggesting that it is in fact a very recent invention, a racist, colonial construct, in fact. In 2023’s No Offence, But the campaigner Gina Martin declares that “many pre-colonial societies had an expansive understanding of gender, and as the historian, sexologist and writer Thomas Laqueur outlines in his book Making Sex, it was the West that first introduced a “binary sex” model in the eighteenth century. Before then, apparently, no one connected “how babies are made” to the concepts “man” and “woman”  (it is beyond me how anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of any human history can think this argument valid. Beyond me, too, how this new variation on the “noble savage” trope is not universally recognised as racist itself). 

Progressive people no longer talk about there being a class of humans, women, who have babies

In any case, progressive people no longer talk about there being a class of humans, women, who have babies. Unless, as Joyce points out, these progressive people happen to be men who want to buy babies of their own. A case in point would be that of the gay couple currently suing New York city leaders over their alleged right to IVF benefits. Although this is presented as a gay rights battle, it is actually a men’s rights one. The policy Corey Briskin and Nicholas Maggipinto object to provides IVF coverage to straight couples, lesbians and single women. The people excluded are male-only couples and single men. 

Briskin and Maggipinto wish to present this as prejudice against gay fathers, claiming that they are viewed as “not fit to be parents, while single women, women in different-sex or same-sex relationships, and men in different-sex relationships are”. I am sure there are people who harbour such prejudices (though I’m less sure that some would not also hold them against lesbians and single straight men). There is, however, an enormous, womb-shaped hole in this argument. How does IVF coverage work if none of the people applying for it has a uterus in which to implant the embryo? Where does the embryo go? Again, I’m sure we all know the answer to this: some faceless gestator for hire. Given the incredibly dodgy ethics involved, why should any employer be providing coverage for this? 

The side-stepping of surrogacy here, in order to misrepresent one’s desire to exploit a more marginalised person as one’s own liberation from oppression, is frustrating enough. What I find remarkable, though, at a time when so many women are hounded for stating sex matters, is the ease with which, as soon as men want something which being biologically male puts out of reach, they are happy to admit that it does. Suddenly, it is fine to talk about “same-sex” rather than “same-gender” relationships. In the Guardian report on the New York case, it is stated that under the American Society of Reproductive Medicine definition of infertility “all gay men and lesbians are infertile”. But why would that follow, if sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether or not a person is biologically male or female — if, indeed, to even consider this makes one “genitally obsessed”?

I find it hard not to compare the way in which “men can’t get pregnant” is so readily accepted by progressive types whenever men demand wombs for rent with the way in which “women can’t compete with men in sports” is mocked and vilified whenever women want sports of their own. Let’s just imagine if we treated the former in the same way. Were I inclined to do so, I’d probably start by writing a lengthy article explaining how in pre-colonial times, men were always getting pregnant, but then the colonialists (whichever ones they were, doesn’t really matter) imposed the gender binary, which made men believe that getting pregnant was an unmasculine activity which would detract from their manhood. At the same time, I’d argue that women — especially white ones — were policing the boundaries of getting pregnant, in order to feel feminine and cling on to their own cisheteronormative privileges. Having established my mythology, I’d then take to social media and send a series of mocking messages, encouraging cis men to “just try harder” at carrying babies and giving birth. 

Of course, there are limits to how far this comparison goes. Women who want sporting categories of their own have no objection to men having their own categories. These women are not demanding special accommodations — perhaps drugging male athletes, or giving female ones significant head starts — which would allow women to pretend that specifically male capacities were “theirs”, too. They are consistent in their recognition of difference, even if it highlights there are some things men can do better than women. 

I would never, in real life, tell a man who desperately wanted a baby of his own to simply make more of an effort to conceive

When it comes to commercial surrogacy, on the other hand, the denial that those giving birth are even mothers, or that the babies they are carrying are in any way theirs, facilitates a swift return to not-knowing. Sex difference is recognised — at least until the contract is signed — but vanished again in an instant, so that men may once again believe that they, too, are the givers of life (which, if I’m honest, I would say is a bit more significant than being good at running fast or kicking a ball). 

Hypocrisy is always irritating. This hypocrisy, though — which involves the mass gaslighting of women and girls, and the repackaging of sex- and class-based exploitation as social justice — is particularly galling. I would never, in real life, tell a man who desperately wanted a baby of his own to simply make more of an effort to conceive. It would be cruel, and we would both know the futility of it. Yet right now, in real life, women and girls are told the equivalent when it comes to our spaces and safety. Just run faster! Just try harder! Don’t be such a victim!  

Everyone knows what a woman is when a man wants something only a woman can provide. No one knows what a man is when it inconveniences men. Truly, we are living in a Schrödinger’s man’s world.  

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