Artillery Row

The new network for gender-critical academics

Welcome news for radical feminists and supporters of free speech

Yesterday, with nothing fancier than a podcast and a new twitter account, a research network with strongly positive implications for academic freedom in UK universities was born — and immediately assigned controversial at birth.

Based at the Open University, the Gender Critical Academic Research Network, in its own words: “brings together a range of academics and scholars, all of which share a common interest in exploring how sexed bodies come to matter in their respective research fields and a common commitment to ensuring that a space within academia is kept open for those explorations”.

In other words, this network — of which I’m an affiliate member — will be talking about how human sex interacts with social conditions to be a predictor of certain outcomes: in the workplace, criminal justice system, accident and emergency room, sports arena, or any other place where human biology and the physical attributes it brings make a systematic difference to what happens next.

In the last twenty years, this has become increasingly difficult to do in a university setting. Traditionally the remit of academic feminists, the analysis of how and why biological sex matters has mostly been abandoned, replaced with a worldview in which the sexes are pernicious and “exclusionary” social constructs.

Dissenters are castigated by true believers for being transphobic and out-of-touch

In a startling sea change, many academic feminists now see themselves as building a better world for all by denying the relevance of sex, or at least ignoring it completely. Feminism, we’re told, is no longer a political movement for women and girls, but is open to “everybody”: as is, by common agreement, the category of women itself. Dissenters, including radical feminists, historical materialists, and puzzled holders of Biology GCSEs, are castigated by true believers for being transphobic and out-of-touch.

Instead of talking about sex, academics now talk about “gender”, a dazzlingly polysemous concept which apparently means whatever you want it to at the time of discussion. Occasionally “gender” means sex, but in a helpfully obscure way designed to stop you being denounced by your colleagues; at other times, it designates the social meanings attached to masculinity or femininity. Most often these days, though, it means gender identity: an inner feeling of being male, female, or neither, potentially detached from the material facts about your body.

In universities — no doubt fuelled by contact with trend-gripped students — gender identities are hot right now and biological realities are not. In particular, anyone trying to pursue female-focused research has to do so surreptitiously and hope that nobody asks any awkward questions about your “privileging” of “cis” women over trans women. Meanwhile, explicitly gender-critical academics, who emphasise the immutability and explanatory importance of sex and who tend to critique stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, are treated as pariahs.

One obvious outcome is that valuable information about causal effects of sex on social life is lost, to the detriment of the general public. This is a particular loss to women, whose interests are so often viewed as indiscernible from those of men. But it’s also a loss to men, who, in areas such as mental health, have sex-based interests of their own. It’s equally a loss to trans people, because systematic sex-based differences between trans men and trans women cannot be robustly tracked.

Meanwhile, back on campus, conference speakers continue to proselytise medical interventions for trans-identified children; research grants flow towards law reform projects in favour of gender identity; and departmental seminars about supposedly evil academics like me and my fellow network members are more reminiscent of Mao’s “speak bitterness” sessions than of sober evidence-based discussions.

Gender identities are hot and biological reality is not

In this overwrought atmosphere, it’s the self-described mission of Criminology Professor Jo Phoenix and other founder members of the network to “be as boring as possible”: that is, to focus on the bread-and-butter business of supporting research, applying for grants, and holding a variety of seminars and conferences. No-one who knows the background thinks this will be easy. It’s symptomatic of the times that yesterday’s announcement was shortly followed by a Twitter thread from an Open University colleague of Professor Phoenix’s, comparing gender-critical thought with anti-Semitism — a comparison also recently made by the head of Stonewall, Nancy Kelley.

Stonewall’s revenue stream apparently now depends on making it very difficult for people within institutions to talk about the importance of sex — even in the context of discussing its former core business, sexual orientation, which it now defines as an identity rather than as a material attraction between members of particular sexes. Most UK Universities are still Stonewall Diversity Champions, and last month’s Reindorf report, produced partly in response to harassment of Professor Phoenix at Essex University, suggested that membership of the Stonewall scheme “appears to have given University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution”.

Retaining academic focus in the wake of such intense hostility will be an understandable challenge for the new network. So too will getting research money. Successful funding applications require positive peer review, which can be difficult for any project running against the grain of an academic trend, let alone one badged as heinously evil by its many detractors.

There is now space, for the first time in years, for radical feminist ideas in academia

Still, there is much to celebrate. A positive presence on a university webpage confers legitimacy for the network’s female-focused research, something which no doubt partly explains the feverish attempts of critics to rubbish it. Ensuring academic spaces where open critique of ideas about sex and gender can happen is a good thing, not just for the future of empirical work in this area, but also for gender-critical thought itself, which requires the invigoration of lively debate to avoid turning into an echo chamber of its own.

There is now space, for the first time in many years, for unashamedly radical feminist ideas to be brought into the academy on equal terms with other theories of social justice — and for them to be critiqued where necessary on genuinely intellectual grounds, rather than quasi-moralistic ones.

Finally, for those interested in free expression, the fact that an anti-intellectual, totalitarian tendency within UK universities is at last being resisted by a university itself should be welcome news.

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