Photo by Yasin Ozturk
Artillery Row

Sex denialism helps nobody

Who is responsible for the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights?

We can’t say Laurie Penny didn’t warn us. Last week, the journalist complained that she’d “been trying to warn ‘Gender Critical’ feminists for years that their movement was being hijacked by the far right”.

“Now they’ve got dictators and religious extremists openly using their arguments to justify homophobic hate campaigns and wars of conquest,” she fretted, having earlier noted that “trans people are the wedge issue for a new, global right determined to eliminate abortion, ban gay marriage and reverse a century of feminist progress”.

While I missed Vladimir Putin’s support for female-only rape crisis centres — but not his army’s support for rape — you’ve got to admit that she has the beginnings of a point. While the Guardian warns of an impending election bonanza for Europe’s far-right populists, across the Atlantic we are seeing abortion outlawed in Texas and Oklahoma. The backlash against women’s and LGBT rights is real.

Gender affirmative healthcare relies on binary sex differences

Can it be pure coincidence that this is happening just as “what is a woman?” becomes the ultimate gotcha question for politicians? I don’t think so. The only point on which Penny and I disagree is who is to blame.

Perhaps if you’re Laurie Penny, or Owen Jones, or the CEO of Stonewall or countless other commentators eager to link far-right bigotry to JK Rowling and Mumsnet, it all seems incredibly simple. You told those witches, didn’t you? Just repeat “trans women are women” and no one gets hurt.

Alas, they didn’t follow your orders, and now look where we are. Photos of Lia Thomas, the male-bodied Ivy League swimmer currently smashing the women’s records, are all over Twitter, with Thomas’s obvious maleness being used, to quote Jones, to put activists “on the defensive”, making anyone who thought women and men were equal look rather stupid.

I agree it’s a terrible mess. Mind you, who could have predicted that making the rights of women, gay people and trans people contingent on the denial of material reality would have been so risky?

I could, for one. Call me Mystic Meg, but it’s always seemed a no-brainer to me.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in a particularly liberal household. Since the 1980s, when eight-year-old me first declared herself a feminist, I have been used to hearing what the other side thinks — which is not (as I suspect those born on “the right side of history” believe) just random, inchoate mumblings about how women are the Devil’s spawn.

Your “traditional” sexist thinks women are different to men, but also that female difference means female inferiority. The problem with feminism, I have been told time and again, is that it involves lying: feminists are sex difference denialists, because that is the only means they have of suggesting women are equal to men.

This has always been a straw man argument. As Julie Bindel argues in Feminism for Women, feminists “never denied that there are anatomical and biological differences” between men and women, instead focusing “on the socially constructed differences that we wanted to erase”. The fact that our sex class gestates babies does not make us physically or intellectually inferior to men; our reproductive capabilities do not make us walking wombs.

Sex difference denialism is not feminism. Nonetheless, it is on the rise in today’s trans rights movement, supported by women who have bought into the myth of female inferiority. The call of “stop using phoney science to justify transphobia!” has been an absolute gift to anti-feminists. To them, it proves what they have always thought: that feminists believe the impossible — that there is no difference between men and women.

Of course, no one actually believes it; the entire concept of gender affirmative healthcare relies on the recognition of binary sex differences. Trans activists demand that everyone lie, and don’t even bother to hide the fact that they’re lying.

Do I sound angry? Well, yes, I am. I’ve spent four decades arguing that no, feminists and LGBT rights activists are not demanding everyone plays pretend in order to protect people who — we all secretly know it — are inferior or abnormal. And now, along come Penny et al to say “yeah, that’s totally correct! We can’t treat women as equals without working on the basis that any one of them might have a penis, and as for gay people, let’s always assume they could be having the kind of sex that might lead to pregnancy”.

It is not my fault that the sexists I grew up with look at photos of Lia Thomas, or Laurel Hubbard, or Karen White, and think “Yes! I always knew feminists would be hoist by their sex-denialist petards!” It’s not my fault that people who are misogynistic and homophobic can weaponise reality against well-meaning liars. It’s not my fault that powerful far-right men who want to crush the rights of women and LGBT people can claim that these rights were always based on something that is now denied — the difference between men and women.

You gambled all our rights on the denial of reality

It is the fault of every single person who thought it was okay to make respecting the dignity of most human beings dependent on defending an obvious lie.

“Conservatives,” wrote Arwa Mahdawi in last Saturday’s Guardian, “are not going to focus only on trans people and leave cis gay people alone. They’re not going to focus their energies on undermining reproductive rights and ignore LGBT people […] We cannot draw lines between the struggle for trans rights or gay rights or women’s rights: we are all in it together.”

Well, you know what, Arwa? We are. But the fact that so many of your colleagues have harnessed these rights to an impossibility — convincing the entire world that no one knows what a woman is — has made it so much easier for these conservatives. Call me a basic, non-Butlerian bitch, but I always thought our humanity could be defended on its own terms.

Looking at people I thought were my allies, what I wonder is this: why did you do it? Did your willingness to lie for the cause give you an extra buzz of moral superiority? Was it fun to create a little test that only the in-group could pass? Did the counter-intuitive nature of sex denialism convince you it was probably very clever, albeit in some way you hadn’t quite grasped?

Or is this what you really think: that the only possible way to view women as equal to men is to redefine the word “woman” to include male people? That the only way not to hate trans people is to lie about their sex? That “equality” isn’t about basic human dignity, but about “being kind” to your inferiors by pretending you think they’re as good as you?

Don’t bother answering, by the way; there isn’t one response that’s any less pitiful than another.

In the meantime, yes, the backlash is here, and never has old-style patriarchy felt more vindicated. You gambled all our rights on the denial of reality and surprise, surprise, you lost. We all did.

It would be hard for me to feel more furious. Still, write another article on how the radical feminists are in the pay of the Christian Right, or tweet another thread on how Mumsnet is to blame for abortion law in Texas, and you never know — I might just manage it.

I never believed my worth as a woman was a polite lie, something others were forced to concede on the basis that telling the truth about my sex would be “unkind”. I never believed this about gay people, or trans people, either.

Self-styled trans activists and allies, I’m so sorry, for all our sakes, that you did. You dehumanised us all.

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