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Sex, New Scientist and me

How I learned to stop worrying and criticise the magazine

I blame New Scientist for my unwavering conviction that humans have two sexes and that this matters. Humans are a gonochoristic species: each individual produces gametes of only one of two distinct sexes — male and female. We are also sexually dimorphic, with males and females tending to exhibit numerous differences in secondary sex characteristics. As a subscriber to New Scientist, I have had access to a reliable and rational source of information on these differences and why they matter. For example, in April 2022, New Scientist published the following:

It’s one small step for a mannequin, one giant leap for womankind. Mannequins designed to represent female bodies will be sent into space for the first time on NASA’s Artemis I mission later this year to study how radiation affects women in space. [ … ] Organs such as breasts and ovaries are particularly sensitive to radiation, putting women at a greater risk of cancer caused by radiation than men.

I believed it was self-evident that sexual dimorphism lies at the heart of female oppression, and that it is the foundation for feminism — yet it is now controversial to claim that the oppression of women is sex-based. It contradicts the idea that women are not oppressed because they are female (many now consider it neither necessary nor sufficient to be female to be a woman) but on the basis of an internal gender identity. I have never understood how such oppression could work but felt that saying so would cause pain. So I remained silent and continued to read New Scientist, sure that the truth would clarify the conversation and heal the hurt.

Unfortunately, “the truth” has done no such thing, and New Scientist is no longer the safe haven it once was. I did not realise how much of my sanity relied on its recognition of the existence and importance of two sexes in humans until articles began to appear which seemed to deny this entirely.

The first of these stated, “menstrual cycles may be 1.6 days longer in people who identify as Asian and 0.7 days longer in those who identify as Hispanic compared with their white non-Hispanic counterparts.” It defined a period as “when a person bleeds from the vagina” and did not use the words “female” or “women” once. Once I’d finished grumbling to myself about how I wished I could “identify as Asian” for an extra 1.6 pain-free days each month, I rationalised that if that was how scientific papers were now being written, then there was not much New Scientist could do about it. It probably finds it hard, too, I thought.

Science had not changed; New Scientist had

For several months, I assumed that New Scientist was doing what it had always done: synthesising and disseminating research findings in a way that was easy to understand, situating them in the context of the real world. It describes itself as “a trusted, impartial source of information about what is going on in the world, in a time where facts are in short supply”, and I had believed this without reservation. It was the voice of reason in my life. After reading one article in which miscarried male foetuses were given a sex (“boys”) but the women who had suffered miscarriages were not (“pregnant people”) I wrote a long and passionate letter to the editor about how it had made me feel (not good). I received no reply, and I began to wonder if my strong belief in the significance of sexual dimorphism in humans was inaccurate and hateful after all. This was the most popular weekly science publication in the world, and it was reporting science as it was. I must be the problem.

Then I encountered the most befuddling article yet. A new form of contraception “for people” had been discovered. After a minor brain adjustment, I established from the sentence “a gel that is applied inside the vagina has been shown to block sperm injected into female sheep”, that this was a new contraception for women. The article was so strange to read that I sought out the original journal article to witness this bizarre wording in situ. When I read the first sentence of the abstract, “Many women would prefer a nonhormonal, on-demand contraceptive that does not have the side effects of existing methods”, I was astonished. Science had not changed; New Scientist had. It had lied to me. (Gaslighting is an overused accusation but resonates here. I intend to avoid one-sided love affairs with magazines in future.)

I looked back at all the New Scientist articles that had confused me and found the original publications. They had been altered, too: every time only women or men (i.e., males or females) were being referenced, they said so, in stark contrast to New Scientist’s interpretation.

Essentially, New Scientist is blithely misreporting published research to remove any implication of two sexes in humans. Presumably the purpose of these scientifically inaccurate linguistic gymnastics is to include those with alternative gender identities without causing offence. New Scientist has yet to respond to a request for comment, so I can’t be sure.

Why does it matter if New Scientist is doing this? Perhaps an alien happening across the publication would class humans not with other mammals but with snails and slugs, merrily churning out children all by themselves. Most readers are human and can work out for themselves which sex is being referred to, however. If certain language choices make some people feel happier and safer (again, I can only assume that this is the goal) why ignore this in the name of accuracy?

There is nothing trans-inclusive about pretending humans are a hermaphroditic species. If we were, trans people wouldn’t exist. Perhaps New Scientist, if it wants to include trans people in future(for example, trans men in a study on female contraception) could do so by writing about them? Just a suggestion! Accuracy does not have to mean using the words “women” and “men” — “males” and “females” would include those with all gender identities, including non-binary people.

If there’s a rally for feminist robins, I’ll be there

The alteration of scientific studies to avoid naming the demographic previously known as “women” has serious consequences for anyone female. Returning to the example of the new form of contraception for women, New Scientist’s wilful misinterpretation ignores the positive consequences of the study for women globally, because it cannot name the group it is discussing. These consequences — social and economic liberation through reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies — are discussed in the original paper, which I found fascinating and enjoyed reading. Meanwhile, New Scientist contents itself with informing us that researchers “inserted the gel towards the backs of the vaginas of sheep, which are similar to those in humans”. New Scientist was founded in 1956 for “all those interested in scientific discovery and its social consequences”. Now, female readers interested in studies affecting themselves must read the original academic papers to gain a full picture.

When the same approach is used with studies concerning only men, women are still adversely affected. In a lengthy article on urinals, New Scientist indulges in blatantly false statements such as “for the average human the magic splash-reducing angle is 30 degrees”. The original patent application, of course, discusses the “male’s urine stream”. The real-world consequences are still discussed in New Scientist, but in a way that falsely implies every human is affected. The article reads as if we have openly regressed to when the only “human” studied in science was male. “I think most of us have been a little inattentive at our post and looked down to find we were wearing speckled pants.” Not most of us, actually. Being female, the only “speckling” I’ve experienced at my “post” is when forced to hover over an inevitably urine-covered gender-neutral toilet.

There is a peculiar constricting of scientific horizons when the wider demographic is not acknowledged. The article about which I wrote to the editor is titled: “Fewer boys were born in England and Wales in early stage of the pandemic”. Miscarried male foetuses are given a sex and make it into the headline, but the only mention of the women suffering these miscarriages is indirect: “stressful events may activate non-conscious evolved mechanisms in pregnant people to spontaneously abort fetuses that have less chance of thriving in tough environments”.

Presumably, anyone female has these “non-conscious evolved mechanisms” if they exist. As always, when I first read the study, I thought about my own body, and I learned something else about it that I hadn’t known about before. Beyond empathy for the women suffering miscarriages, I don’t really care that the birth sex ratio was temporarily skewed during Covid-19. Why this was the case, however, is extremely interesting to me. Due to stress, my body might choose to abort a male foetus? Yet my demographic, women — or female people of all gender identities — are not even mentioned. By reducing the sphere of relevance of the study to imply it only applies to those who are pregnant, its reach is narrowed. New Scientist can only discuss the phenomenon of skewed birth sex ratio, not the implications of this hypothetical evolved mechanism. One example would be, should women undergoing IVF treatment choose a female foetus if they want to maximise their chances of carrying the pregnancy to term?

I look forward to a day when I have a place to read about the physical and social implications of research into women’s bodies and health, without limitation. In the meantime, I note that New Scientist remains happy to acknowledge gonochorism in other animals; it recently rejoiced over a study of female robins that discredited the sexist theory that only male robins sing. Maybe I’ll support the liberation of female songbirds until I can read about my own species. In fact, if there’s a rally for feminist robins, I’ll be there with a placard the size of my thumbnail, desperately seeking a new safe haven of sanity.

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