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  1. Ideas
26 July 2023

The gender binary is false

We should question a mindset that viciously excludes whole groups of people.

By Jacqueline Rose

Note: We asked two thinkers to address one of the most vexed questions of our time: “What is a woman?”
Here, Jacqueline Rose argues against the claim that sexual differentiation is “reality”. See here for Richard Dawkins making the case for biological sex as a “true binary”.

“What is a woman?” The formulation has the merit of suggesting that to be a woman, far from being obvious, is a question, and one susceptible to more than a single reply. This is encouraging at a time when the fight over the definition of what a woman is has taken on such virulence. Being a woman is at risk of becoming a protected category, as the binary man/woman hardens into place. This is happening even though it has always been a central goal of feminism to repudiate the very idea of womanhood, as a form of coercive control that means the end of freedom.

Ironically, this appeal to the category of woman as pre-given, unquestionable, is being made in the name of women’s safety, another core objective for feminism over the centuries. Except that now it seems any question about what a woman is, or might be, must be dropped the moment the threat of sexual violence rears its head (which suggests it is the category of woman, as much as the safety of women, that needs protection). In the most prevalent version of this argument, trans women, who were once men, must be excluded from women-only spaces – which they threaten by dint of being, deep down, still a man – regardless of the lengths to which they have gone to leave that identity behind. They are frauds whom women should fear. But the case only holds if we are confident that we know what a man or a woman is in the first place.

[See also: Susan Sontag’s women problem]

It was Simone de Beauvoir who famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Whatever biology may dictate, becoming a woman is something that society, not nature, enjoins on all humans biologically classified as female, as it casts its oppressive diktats over them, mind, body and soul, layer upon layer. But the still-radical edge of de Beauvoir’s statement conceals its more conservative premise – “they become one” – which implies that “becoming a woman” is something that biological females, one way or another, manage to do, however restrictive their lives then become (de Beauvoir’s crushing account of those lives remains unsurpassed). Meanwhile, the idea that “female” is some kind of primordial condition remains, as if it were the bedrock of all the limitations to follow.

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In fact, the term “female”, as distinct from women, has its own tale. As the New York Magazine critic Andrea Long Chu has written in her book Females (2019), the biological category “female”, as it is understood today, was developed in the 19th century as a way of referring to black slaves. A female black slave was someone refused “the status of social and legal personhood”. To that extent, Chu observes, “a female has always been less than a person”. To assume that “female” is a neutral biological category is, therefore, historically naive and racially blind. It not only drastically limits the options, but trails ugly histories behind it. The point is not to deny biological difference, but to refuse to wrench the term from the historical forces through which it takes on its myriad lived shapes.

There are other paths we might follow. For example, if we start by acknowledging that some humans are born with ovaries and others with spermatozoa, the journey from that incontrovertible biological fact to seeing oneself as a woman, or a man, is rarely a straightforward affair (sometimes it isn’t clear at birth). Sigmund Freud described the forced march from what he believed to be universal infantile bisexuality to what passes for normality as “unjust”, because it clamps down on the far more playful and experimental, sensuous life of the child. From the day we lose that early riotousness of our sexual being, untold facets of the lives we might have lived are swept at great cost under the carpet of the so-called civilised mind, only to reappear in our psychological symptoms and dreams.

To this way of thinking, we are all comfortable and uncomfortable in our own skins. Women come off worse: they are meant to swap libidinal activity for passivity, clitoral pleasure for vaginal receptivity, passion towards the body of their mothers for socially sanctioned love of men. Freud himself describes these transformations as ruinous for the little girl (as feminists have also stressed, not one of these changes ever definitively takes place).

Far from being inevitable or always welcome, rigid sexual differentiation is one of the most insidious features of our social/sexual arrangements, grafting itself on to the biological body like a parasite. Challenging the binary by transitioning becomes one of the most imaginative leaps in modern society. Research published this June found that roughly 7 per cent of people changed sexual identity and/or orientation in the course of a six-year period in the UK. And that proportion is rising. According to the same study, the impulse to change sex does not show any sign of declining with age. People over 65, especially women, are almost as gender-fluid as the young. This suggests that the neat division of humans into women and men for most of a life is deferred by youth for as long as possible. Change then becomes permissible in old age when the individual has fulfilled the task of sexual conformity, which can then be left behind.

[See also: What Gen X feminism forgets]

Perhaps there is no bedrock, anatomical or psychic, on which sexual differentiation can securely ground itself. I have lost count of the number of times, in recent debates about sexual transitioning, I have heard the assertion, “A woman is someone with a uterus,” in order to dispatch the category of “trans women” as a contradiction. The uterus is the gatekeeper. No one born biologically male can ever enter here.

Where does that leave the women who, for reasons of illness, have their uterus surgically removed, or the trans man who retains his at the same time as presenting, to all other intents and purposes, as a man? Who can decide these quandaries on behalf of anyone else? Who can finally say whether anybody, trans or not, fully and exclusively acquires the sexual identities conferred upon them? “One is not born a woman but becomes one (or not),” might be a better recasting of de Beauvoir’s words for the contemporary world.

Illustration by Cold War Steve

If I call myself a woman, I may be referring to anything from my biological make-up to the utterance “tu me fais femme” (“you make me woman”), which is what one particularly attentive and passionate lover made me feel myself to be. Regardless of sexual orientation, the felt experience of being a woman can be revelation and pleasure. But it is also for many – most – women the mark of oppression, prejudice, low pay, the burden of domestic labour, violence in the home and on the street. For many trans women, it is a claim that arises out of the feeling that biology and a core, lived, sexual identity have been woefully misaligned. These women surely deserve respect as women, not least for discarding the straitjacket of masculinity.

This is why the suggestion that trans women are all potential abusers invading women-only spaces is so misguided and cruel. There are, it is true, trans women who assault other women in prisons – though, in one of the most notorious UK cases, contrary to the press reports, the most violent acts of abuse occurred outside prison before transition took place and included an assault against a man.

Most troubling, as the legal scholar Sarah Lamble has argued, is how such cases are being used to assign all trans women to the category of predator in a way reminiscent of the “mugger” in Seventies Britain, as identified by Stuart Hall and others at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The “mugger” created an indelible link in the popular imagination between crime and young men of colour. Likewise the economic migrant, another figure of hatred and dread who serves to cover up a multitude of government sins.

Instead, we should be questioning the social mindset, characteristic of some of the most reactionary politics of our times, that viciously excludes whole groups of people. As with the “mugger”, we might ask: what does the whipped-up frenzy about trans identities allow us not to see? The yawning gulf between rich and poor, the escalating brutality of racial and gender inequality, the advancing climate catastrophe, the accelerating rates of prison violence across all genders in our increasingly incarcerated world, would each be a good place to begin.

In my readings of trans narratives, I have come across many trans women who are happy to concede that their experience of life cannot be the same as that of women who were biologically defined as female from birth. There are others for whom being a woman, and all they will do in order to secure that outcome, is destiny. There are also trans men and women who will feel, retrospectively, that their transitions were a mistake. (Risk, it might be said, is at the core of any fully lived life.)

But to claim that sexual differentiation is “reality” surely ignores that “reality” for feminism is something to be negotiated, struggled over, fought against. To claim the right to dictate on this matter is oppressive and omnipotent, and uncomfortably like the patriarchal order that feminism seeks to dismantle.

“What is a woman?” Speak for yourself. Who on Earth can presume to answer the question on behalf of anyone else? In the end, it is a matter of generosity and freedom.

This article appears in our Summer Special

[See also: Why biological sex matters – Richard Dawkins]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special