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Why I Suspect Gender Is Real
And Not Just Socially Constructed
Note: This piece recently appeared in the publication Queer Majority. You can read the original here. Queer Majority is an unusual magazine: it is neither woke nor conservative. It provides a platform for writers who want to uphold sexual freedoms for all consenting adults, but who want to opt out of identity politics and the victimhood Olympics. I became a part-time associate editor for QM at the beginning of March.
Disagreements over trans issues—and especially over the rights and status of biological males who have socially or medically transitioned—have been polarising western societies more than almost any other contemporary political topic. Battles over the kind of care we should provide to gender-nonconforming children (especially girls); over who should have access to women’s prisons or be permitted to compete in women’s sports; and even over which forms of speech should be used to address and discuss trans people have been provoking vitriolic and extremist rhetoric from every direction. This is unsurprising: trans issues present us with an especially thorny dilemma because many of the debates involve a zero-sum conflict between two sets of rights: the rights of biological women and the rights of trans women.
Some of the staunchest defenders of the rights of women as a class are a group who call themselves gender-critical feminists and whose opponents refer to them as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). While the acronym TERF has become a slur, these feminists are radical—and especially in their belief that gender is a social construct with no biological basis.
I am generally sympathetic to gender-critical political analysis.
If we indiscriminately pander to the demands of trans activists, real harm to women could result. There is a reason women-only spaces, from which men are excluded for safety reasons—such as prisons and rape crisis shelters—exist. We cannot grant access on the basis of self-identification alone: the system is too susceptible to exploitation by manipulative people. When vulnerable women’s safety is at stake, we cannot simply take people at their word when they assert that they belong in those spaces. There have already been incidents in which self-declared trans women have raped female inmates.
I also agree with the gender critical feminists that, for the sake of fairness, trans women should be excluded from women’s professional sports, just as able-bodied and intellectually average people are not permitted to compete in the Para- or Special Olympics. Being a woman is a handicap in most forms of athletics, especially at an elite level, where there is no overlap between the sexes in terms of speed, power and strength.
Despite the difficulties that having gone through puberty will cause if you wish to transition later, I also believe that, with gender non-conforming children, we should err on the side of caution and extensive counselling. Many gender clinics and trans healthcare organisations have now adopted that strategy, especially in Scandinavia. And, given their potentially irreversible effects, puberty blockers should be prescribed only as a last resort. We should not be quick to assume that young girls who are uncomfortable with their bodies or sexual development must be trans.
As a staunch defender of free speech, I also believe that no one should have to state their pronouns or be forced to use any specific name or pronoun to refer to someone. The taboo surrounding deadnaming, in particular, has an unfortunate tendency to erase personal histories and enables activists to silence gender-critical feminists through social media, PayPal or Patreon bans. This is deeply illiberal. With the exception of explicit calls for actual violence, all views on this complex topic should be freely aired in public.
Still, I also firmly believe that all consenting adults should have the freedom to present themselves, and modify their bodies in any way they please. Even if the results seem bizarre or aesthetically unappealing, we always have a duty to be polite, kind and respectful to our fellow human beings. As long as they are not harming others, no one should have to change how they dress and behave to conform to societal expectations or tastes.
And most importantly, I disagree with the central belief of many gender-critical feminists that while biological sex is real, gender is a fiction.
This mistaken view not only adversely colours their rhetoric, but can stymie empathy for trans people. If gender is an illusion, many argue, the only motivations for wishing to change your name, appearance or body to match your gender identity must be sinister or foolish: a desire to gain access to vulnerable women; a wish to usurp positions that should be reserved for women—such as in professional sports; a delusional mental disorder; or a sexual perversion. In addition to being needlessly disparaging to genuine trans people, the gender-critical approach also undermines these feminists’ cause by detracting from the important concrete issues that affect women and girls.
Most of us seem to have an inner sense of ourselves as gendered individuals; a sense that is innate, pleasurable to express in appearance and behaviour, and often connected with sexuality. While most people’s sense of gender conforms to their biological sex, in some individuals, the two are at variance. Some early neuroscience research suggests that some trans women’s brains may be structurally and functionally closer to those of biological females than of males in some respects. These results are highly speculative and the methodology of the experiments has been criticised, but we certainly can’t rule the possibility out. In any case, we should not require appeals to nature to accept trans people. Everyone should have the right to decide how they want to live, whether or not they were born that way, as long as they do not harm others.
Clearly, some of the trappings of masculinity and femininity are historically and culturally specific. While a woman of today might put on a pair of stilettos to feel more feminine, in past centuries, it was men who wore high heels and whose legs were thereby shaped to advantage (men’s calves were visible in doublet and hose, while women covered their legs in long dresses). Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically feminine about the colour pink or masculine about blue. And in some cultures, men wear what we might otherwise consider skirts—except that we refer to them as lunghis, kilts or sarongs. The ways in which gender is encoded change with the times, and once-rigid distinctions may be gradually relaxed (it is now commonplace for women to wear trousers) or become completely outmoded (women no longer ride side saddle).
In addition, there are many situations in which one is not acutely conscious of one’s gender. As I write this piece, I do not feel particularly feminine because there is nothing intrinsically female about writing an essay. The sensation of being gendered is most salient in erotic and quasi-erotic situations. It is closely tied to sexuality and to our sexual relationships. Most of us are attracted to those whose sexual characteristics are the opposite of our own. We heighten our sexual appeal by playing up our own sexed traits. This may partially explain why gender nonconformity is higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
Of course, biological sex is primary. There are only two human sexes and almost every member of our species can be easily classified as one or the other. Among the tiny percentage of people who are intersex, there are occasionally complex mismatches between physical appearance, hormones and chromosomal makeup. But they do not constitute a third sex, nor are they hermaphrodites (they don’t have two sets of functioning gametes). Sex is an extremely conspicuous feature: we are strikingly good at sexing other human beings. And—except in Iain M. Banks’ fantasy worlds—we cannot, for better or worse, change sex.
But the call to express what one feels to be one’s gender can also be very insistent. We can see it manifest in many situations: for example, in straight women’s almost universal preference for lovers who are taller than them, who make them feel smaller, daintier, and more feminine. This same phenomenon may perhaps also explain why some gay men adopt effeminate speech patterns, mannerisms and behaviours, even though camp men are generally considered less attractive in gay circles than more masculine-presenting men. This seems unlikely to be the result of self-interest, so I can only assume it feels more authentic to them. Ray Blanchard’s controversial idea that autogynephilia—sexual enjoyment of oneself as a woman—motivates many of the heterosexual men who transition later in life need not seem so shocking in this context. It is not a perversion to closely connect one’s sense of one’s own gender and pleasure in expressing that gender with sexual enjoyment. In fact, the two things cannot, I believe, be disentangled.
An understanding of how gender consciousness affects men and women differently can also help us bridge the empathy gap between the sexes. Men and women have different sensitivities. For example, men often playfully tease their male friends for being overweight. In Argentina, it’s not uncommon for men to have nicknames like el gordo (“fatso”), for example. But even obliquely hint at a woman’s objectively high BMI and you risk deeply upsetting and offending her. By contrast, men’s emotional responses to something as seemingly trivial as losing a chess game can seem overblown to women. Women’s sense of self-worth is more tied to appearance, while relative status is more important to men. It’s important to understand these average differences, rather than trying to make men more like women or vice versa.
The masculine conception of gender has always been partially based on a sense of what men don’t do—they don’t cry, wear dresses, or decorate their bedrooms with Laura Ashley prints, for example. And while men can and do pick and choose which of these cultural prohibitions they follow, this sense of what is unmanly prevents many men from doing things that would be in their own best interests—taking up dancing, for example. Many straight men who are unhappily single and have never even attempted to dance feel that it is not for them—even though they know that women outnumber men in most dance scenes and that men who can dance are, therefore, extremely desirable. Once again, the felt sense of gender is a powerful motivator—even more powerful than the desire for a sexual partner. (The neurodiverse may perhaps be less aware of or governed by gender consciousness than normies—a fact that would explain the high proportion of computer programmers, geeks, nerds, and high-functioning autists among male tango dancers outside Argentina.)
I dance Argentine tango: a dance that is highly sexually dimorphic.
While popular same-sex and queer tango events also exist, most dancers choose to dance with people of the opposite sex. Women often wear floaty silk skirts and dresses and, almost always, high heels. In general, men lead (by initiating and suggesting movements), and women follow (by reacting intuitively to the men’s signals). Even though every follower has her own unique way of moving and can subtly influence the man’s choreographic decisions and punctuate the dance with her decorations, following is primarily responsive.
While the imposition of gender stereotypes by society can feel oppressive, playing at those same gender roles by choice on the dance floor feels intuitive, sexy and delightful. And the two contrasting roles within the dance are so strongly associated with their respective sexes that dancing in the opposite sex role can encourage gender-bending.
I studied the tango lead with legendary teacher Ariadna Naveira. At my first class, Ariadna, clad in a T-shirt that mendaciously proclaimed I Love Ballet, gave me the low down. “Dancing with another woman should never be girly,” she told me. “Not like this.” She skipped around the room, intoning in a high-pitched cheerleader voice: “Oooh, aren’t we two girls having fun together!” She recommended, instead, just walking straight at my partner with determination as if I intended to travel right through the centre of her body. With a flat hand, Ariadna sliced vertically through the air from her solar plexus to mine, staring intently at me and making a drilling sound. “Like this,” she said. Over the course of our lessons, she tried hard to instil in me the importance of presence, groundedness, and intensity in my dance as a leader.
Leading other women had interesting psychological effects on me. It gave me a taste of the appeal that stereotypically masculine dress and hairstyles seem to have for so many lesbians. Having another woman in my arms made me feel more manly, as did leading itself. A good leader is a protector as he (or she) steers the follower—trustingly nestled in his (or her) arms, often with closed eyes—safely around a floor filled with moving bodies. And good leading is very giving. It is the followers who have most of the showier moves and more intricate footwork. A leader is often more like a facilitator. I sometimes felt as if I were displaying the lovely, swooping movements of my partner’s feet to a room full of admirers, as if I had a trophy wife on my arm at a dinner party: me in an anonymous black penguin suit; her in a jewel-toned ball gown. I was occasionally struck by an urge to slick my hair back with gel and my chin felt naked without a goatee. It gave me a thrill to feel that my partner was enjoying the music and her own movements and that I was the cause of her pleasure—or, at least, not an insuperable obstruction to it. And I recognised that feeling primarily from a sexual, not dance, context.
Gender is an emergent phenomenon: a consciousness of the sexed aspect of oneself, usually (though crucially not always) corresponding with one’s biological sex, clamorous in some situations, quiescent in others. But I don’t believe it is merely performance or the result of socialisation. I think the sense of oneself as masculine or feminine is deep-seated. We ignore this at our peril.
We humans are adaptable. I agree with the physicist David Deutsch on this: we are certainly not blank slates, but much of what is inscribed upon us at birth is written like chalk on a blackboard. We can erase it and write something else—as we do when we choose to habitually fast or to be celibate, ignoring the body’s demands for sex and food.
No one should be hasty in deciding to transition, given the difficulties of passing as the opposite sex (especially for trans women) and of creating fully functional genitalia surgically (especially for trans men) and the ramifications of a lifetime on cross-sex hormones. Given that we cannot actually change our sex, transitioning may not cure all cases of gender dysphoria, nor will it always make the individual happier. It therefore seems preferable to broaden societal expectations of men and women than to encourage people who do not conform to our gendered stereotypes to drastically alter their bodies.
But people are not infinitely malleable, and not every aspect of gender is purely the result of socialisation. Some of this stuff runs deep and may create needs that can only be satisfied by transition. Some people can only truly flourish if they can live as the opposite sex. We must honour their freedom to make that decision.
Activists on both sides of trans issues will naturally push for the greatest concessions they can obtain and paint the consequences of not granting their wishes in the bleakest terms possible, just as a vendor will try to obtain the highest prices for her wares. That is the job of an activist. But we should not allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed by such campaigners. To resolve the conundrum of how to respect the rights of trans women without infringing on the rights of biological women will necessarily involve difficult choices and decisions that will enrage hardliners. There are no easy answers here, but honesty about the issues and compassion for the people involved provide a good place to start.