Why So Many Progressives Are Arguing That Biological Sex Doesn't Exist
The right doesn't have a monopoly on science denialism
|Jesse Singal||Apr 3, 2019||9||6|
(Update, 10/28/2019: Because left-of-center arguments about biological sex have only gotten worse since this post went up in April, I’ve decided to ungate it so that everyone can read it. If you find this post useful, please consider becoming a paid Singal-Minded subscriber by clicking the below button.)
(Update [from original post]: Science Vs corrected one of the two errors I pointed out last week. I laid out the basics on Twitter. In short, the producers agreed to correct the accidentally made-up desistance statistic, and as you can see from the show page and updated transcript, they did so in a transparent manner, with a lot of strikeout text on the transcript. In host Wendy Zukerman’s email to me, she said she disagreed with my claim that “being transgender” was never a mental disorder in the DSM-IV, pointing me to this document (PDF) as justification for her and her show’s claim that it was. I disagree — I don’t think the document supports her claim. But overall, I was impressed with how Science Vs handled this, and I’ll take a .500 batting average here.)
Science Denialism About Biological Sex Doesn’t Help Anyone
Most politicized science denialism follows the same pattern. Scientists claim X, X is viewed as threatening to a moral or political or religious belief held by some group, and so members of that group develop reasons as to how it can’t possibly be true. It’s a neat little pattern that shows up everywhere:
“Scientists claim we descended from ‘lower’ species. This clashes with our belief that God created us in His image, so it can’t be true that we descended from ‘lower’ species. Evolution must be false.”
“Scientists claim the earth is billions of years old. This clashes with our belief that the earth is just a few thousand years old, as it says in the Bible. It must be false that the earth is billions of years old.”
These two beliefs tend to be held by those on the political right, but the right certainly doesn’t have any monopoly on science denialism. Lately there’s been a spate of it published and disseminated by progressive media outlets and organizations. It’s part of an effort to debunk the concept of biological sex, or at least complicate it so much that it is no longer seen as a reasonably accurate model for carving up the human world into biological males and females. Sometimes this is framed as debunking the concept of “biological sex” itself, other times as dismantling the “sex binary.”
Jerry Coyne, being a biologist, can sum up the underlying issues and numbers much more concisely than I can. After noting that the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘male’ as “That which belongs to the sex which can produce offspring only by fertilization of the opposite sex (contrasted with female); characteristic of or relating to this sex” and ‘female’ as “A person of the sex that can bear offspring; a woman or a girl,” he explains:
Now of course you can find some exceptions among some species. In seahorses, for instance, males can “bear offspring” because they raise the fertilized eggs in their pouch, but nevertheless they still produce sperm. But in humans it’s rarely doubtful whether an individual is a male or a female. Males have a chromosomal constitution XY, produce small gametes that fertilize the large eggs of females, and have male genitalia (penises). Females produce fewer but larger gametes, are XX in chromosomal constitution, and have female genitalia (vaginas).
Of course there are some exceptions to all of these. We have humans with chromosomal constitutions XXY and XO; we have developmental intersexes that have characteristics of both male and female, we have females and males with all the traits above but which are sterile and so can’t produce eggs or sperm, and so on.
The point is that these exceptions are rare. I don’t know the figures for males and females that fit neatly into the classes I’ve given above, but I’d guess it would be about 98% of humanity; the Intersex Society, lumping chromosomal and developmental exceptions together, gets a frequency of non-binaries of about 1-2% (Fausto-Sterling gave roughly the same figure in 2001). So yes, sex isn’t truly binary in that every individual can’t be unambiguously slotted into either male or female—but the vast majority can.
To which the only thing I would add is that the ‘lumping’ in question is pretty significant. In a 2002 response to the 2001 Anne Fausto-Sterling paper, Leonard Sax writes:
Anne Fausto‐Sterling's suggestion that the prevalence of intersex might be as high as 1.7% has attracted wide attention in both the scholarly press and the popular media. Many reviewers are not aware that this figure includes conditions which most clinicians do not recognize as intersex, such as Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, and late‐onset adrenal hyperplasia. If the term intersex is to retain any meaning, the term should be restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female. Applying this more precise definition, the true prevalence of intersex is seen to be about 0.018%, almost 100 times lower than Fausto‐Sterling's estimate of 1.7%.
There’s a pretty big difference, at the population level, between 0.018% and 1.7%. To save me the work of diving into an unfamiliar subject at the moment, let’s split the difference and say that 1% of people are intersex, which is within the Intersex Society’s range anyway. If you disagree and want to swap out 2% in everything that follows, knock yourself out — all the same arguments will hold.
Coyne, relying on the slightly higher estimate, argues that sure, maybe sex in humans isn’t binary in the sense of everyone being either male or female as we understand these terms biologically, but that almost everyone is. That is, “if you do a plot of sex versus frequency in which you combine all traits that define ‘males’ (above) at one end and those defining females at the other, and then plot the frequency on the Y-axis, you’ll get a plot with two distinct and widely-separated peaks, with a valley containing some intermediates (intersexes and the like) between them. This is what I mean by the bimodality of sex. And there’s a reason for it: having two sexes is the result of evolution in our ancestors.”
So the point is that at the end of the day, whether you talk about a binary or a bimodal distribution or whatever else, about 99% of people’s bodies can be straightforwardly and accurately categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Our species reproduces when a male mates with a female, after all, so there are good reasons for this! And these evolved differences are relevant in other ways. Men are, on average, bigger and faster and stronger than women. This too is part of the modern-day understanding of biological sex: It’s why, for example, we have women’s sports teams and women’s shelters.
A bunch of journalists and activists have lately sought to muddle all this, sometimes by misstating the science, sometimes by confusingly using different terms and definitions at different times (including in the same sentence or paragraph), and sometimes by simply taking unreasonable approaches to the question of at what level of correlation it is acceptable to posit that two things are so connected they can be seen as roughly analogous.
Let me run through a bunch of examples to show you the extent of this trend, and then I’ll explain the sort of ideological ‘work’ I believe all this is attempting to do — the threatened belief that is motivating all this.
Let’s start with a long feature in Bleacher Report about Andraya Yearwood, a trans teenager running track in Connecticut who (after this article was published) finished second in the 55-meter sprint at the Connecticut women’s indoor track and field championships, with another trans girl taking the top spot. (The two have topped certain other recent events, as well.)
The article covers a lot of ground, but it seems partially geared at convincing readers that they would be wrongheaded to believe Yearwood has any advantages over the cisgender girls she’s racing against. If you think so, you’re misunderstanding the science of sex:
There are a host of genetic factors that can give an athlete an advantage, such as fast and slow twitch fibers, height. [sic] Environmental and economic factors are at play, too, such as access to training facilities.
“A level playing field is a fallacy,” says Dr. Myron Genel, Yale professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology. He is a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission on issues regarding gender identity in athletics.
“There's so many other factors that may provide a competitive advantage,” Genel says. “It's very hard to single out sex as the only one.”
There’s a lot of confusion here. The “host of genetic factors” in question are correlated with sex, for one thing. Separating height and muscle from sex has a whiff of “My business doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race — you can totally patronize it as long as you don’t have too much melanin” to it. And the question of whether biological males have an athletic advantage over biological females is temporarily replaced, by a professor who shows up to defend the sex-skeptical position, with a different question about a “level playing field,” as though anyone involved in this debate is arguing that sports is a “level playing field” in some zoomed-out sense, rather than that there are reasons to separate male- and female-bodied athletes, and then let individual differences, unfair as some of those may be, determine who wins.
That same professor then opines that “It’s very hard to single out sex as the only” factor that gives someone an athletic advantage. It’s one of those statements that is kinda, sorta true in a too-literal sense, but also false in the broader, more useful sense that would make it relevant to this controversy. Let’s say I told you I was picking five names at random from a full high school roster, and that I would let you choose five other names non-randomly, but knowing nothing else about the kids in question. If your kids beat my kids in an athletic competition, you live. If not, you die. (Sorry, this got dark!) A thousand times out of a thousand, you will pick male names, and assuming the sex distribution in the class is 50-50ish, this will greatly improve your odds of prevailing given that my names were picked at random and will likely include two or three females as a result. So in many practical senses it does, in fact, make sense to “single out sex,” maybe not as the only characteristic that grants athletic advantages, but as the biggest and most broadly useful one in many contexts. If not, why do we have women’s sports teams at all? None of these pieces ever answers that question.
An article in The Nation about Yearwood and the broader trans-athletes debate takes things further, hammering home at the idea that only a scientifically ignorant person, likely motivated by transphobia, could have an issue with any of this, and again claiming that there’s nothing for anyone to complain about given that there was never a level playing field in sports to begin with.
And again, an expert pops up to make a puzzling claim about the underlying science:
I contacted Dr. Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport about the way ignorance fuels the fires against these athletes, who told me: “Unfortunately, the backlash surrounding both athletes is in part due to lack of education and factual knowledge about transgender individuals. Both girls are on hormone suppression, which negates any competitive advantage due to testosterone, but most people are unaware of this fact. There are many factors that go into athletic performance—for example, to name a few, physical training, conditioning, dedication, motivation, quality of coaching, nutrition, and psychological skills that get erased when the sole focus is on gender identity and hormones.”
If most people are “unaware of the fact” that “hormone suppression… negates any competitive advantage due to testosterone,” that’s a good thing, because that isn’t a fact. The Nation is spreading false information here. Some of the benefits of going through male puberty do linger even after someone no longer has the same amount of testosterone flowing through their blood, as this excerpt from a chapter in the book Transgender Athletes in Competitive Sports shows:
Male average higher performance is mostly due to the influence of testosterone during development, which causes males to develop larger muscles and a different osteology, such as larger jaws, brow ridges, and tuberosities on bones where muscles attach (Sheridan 2000). Genetic males also have relatively narrower hips, as estrogen at puberty causes a relative widening of the hips in females. The absence of testosterone in post-pubertal MtF transsexuals, while reducing muscle mass, does not reverse the developmental effects of high levels of testosterone and low level of estrogen on the skeleton. Therefore, the osteological advantages that males typically acquire by puberty are retained even after transsexual transition (Reeser 2005). This allows MtF transsexuals to retain an average advantage over biological females in the generation of power in certain specific actions.
I emailed LaVoi to ask her about her claim. “My understanding is that after a year on hormone suppression the advantages of testosterone are mitigated,” she said. “You can watch these Distinguished Lecture on the topic, this is where I learned of it myself.” That was it — she didn’t provide any physiological or anatomical explanation of how all those advantages are mitigated. The 95-minute lecture is here, and I’m not going to lie: I didn’t have time to watch it. I am willing to bet that it contains nothing that meaningfully debunks the above excerpt, or the many other accounts of the rather well-documented and -understood process by which testosterone transforms the male body during puberty. If I am wrong I will correct myself, but I’m confident about this. (Update, 10/28/2019: As I was giving this post a once-over prior to making it public, I remembered that the authors of a new study, available as a preprint, claim that “Our results indicate that after 12 months of hormonal therapy, a transwoman will still likely have performance benefits over a cis-woman.” Just one study and not yet peer-reviewed, but take it for what it’s worth.)
In a blog post on these issues published on the ACLU’s website last month, a fellow and a staff attorney there write the following, taking this argument yet further:
There is a long legacy of sex discrimination in athletics. Myths, such as the idea that physical exertion would harm women’s reproductive systems or that women were inherently inferior athletes, were historically used to “protect” women out of participation in entire fields, including marathon racing and contact sports, despite ample evidence that girls can compete and win against boys. The enactment of Title IX, the federal statute banning sex discrimination in school programs and activities receiving federal funds, was intended to end such discrimination, and it has indeed resulted in a dramatic increase in girls’ participation in sports. But girls — and particularly girls of color — still face stark inequalities in opportunities, funding, and resources.
The marginalization of trans student athletes is rooted in the same harmful history of gender discrimination and stereotyping that has impeded the achievement of gender equality in sports as a whole. Old stereotypes regarding athleticism, biology, and gender are being directed at transgender girls, who are frequently told outright that they are not girls (and conversely transgender boys are told they are not really boys). This policing of gender has been used to justify subjecting transgender student athletes to numerous additional barriers to participating in sports, from onerous medical requirements to segregation in locker rooms to outright bans on their participation. [emphasis mine]
It is fairly remarkable to see the claim that there is “ample evidence that girls can compete and win against boys” come immediate prior to a mention of Title IX, which exists in part because girls cannot compete and win against boys and therefore, to have the opportunity to play sports competitively, require their own leagues.
That bolded phrase really leaped out at me — it seems to be straightforwardly false. I’d argue that not only is there no “ample evidence that girls can compete and win against boys,” but there’s a huge amount of evidence suggesting the exact opposite. Again, that’s why we have girls’ and women’s sports. (I know that the terms boys and girls might appear to offer some wriggle room, but the blog post, and the linked-to article, are about post-pubescent competitors. I don’t think anyone involved in this debate cares about sex segregation, or a lack thereof, among prepubescent athletes.)
If you click on the link supposedly supporting this strange assertion, it takes you to an article, also on the ACLU’s website, headlined “All This National Champion Wrestler Wants Is a Chance to Compete.” It’s about a female college wrestler who wants to wrestle men solely because there are no women in her league for her to wrestle. “To be clear,” the article notes, “Marina’s case is not about women wanting to wrestle men. It is about having an equal opportunity to compete against the competition available to you.” Nowhere does the article claim that women “can compete and win against boys.” (I emailed the ACLU’s press office twice to ask if they had an actual source for that claim, but I never heard back.)
Other articles have sought to undermine the concept that we have a biological sex. Either it’s too complicated to understand and neatly define people as male and female, these articles argue, or sex itself is a “social construct” that should be understood as such (exactly what is meant by this term, in this use, is rarely laid out specifically — but Coyne has a good and empathetic rebuttal to that general claim, too).
In 2016, for example, Slate published an article arguing that there’s no such thing as a male or a female body:
At birth, we classify infants as male or female based solely on the appearance of their external genitalia. Notably, this classification serves population control and surveillance and not medical purposes. The medical experts I have spoken with could not identify a single medical purpose for assigning sex at birth and explain that the components of sex are far more complex than just external genitalia and include, at least, chromosomes, genes, hormones, internal genitalia, gender identity, and secondary sex characteristics. By embracing a narrative that one is born with a “male body,” we reinforce the idea that only the bodies we assign male at birth— bodies that have medically normative penises— are male.
Again, there’s just a lot of confusion with regard to science and language and correlation. If a baby has a penis, 99% of the time he will grow up to have a body that is, by all the definitions of ‘male,’ male. I suppose one could inflict on newborn infants more invasive testing to make super sure they aren’t intersex, but what would be the point of this? The claim that the “components of sex are far more complex than just external genitalia” is true, but it’s completely compatible with the practice of noting a baby’s sex based only on his or her external genitalia, because the presence of a penis indicates, almost always, that those other components are there, too, or will be after puberty. In what other area of science or life do we not accept 99% as an acceptable rate of correlation at which to conclude that “If X, then Y” is a reasonable approximation for everyday life?
In the episode of Science Vs I critiqued last week, there’s a similar moment of skepticism about ostensibly too-phallocentric processes for determining sex that I didn’t cover in my posts. It comes during a segment anchored around host Wendy Zukerman’s interview with Joshua Safer, Executive Director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery and a leading authority on trans healthcare (I’m editing the transcript a bit just to make it clearer who’s speaking but you can see the original here):
Zukerman: It’s estimated that more than a million Americans are trans... Which means their gender identity - that is, how they feel, doesn’t match the genitals they were born with. Like maybe you identify as a woman, but you have a penis. And that idea can be a bit hard to wrap your head around… because we often think about our genitals and our gender going hand in hand, you know just like that expert on anatomy told us in the 90s.
Kid: Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina
Zukerman: Ok… so that’s from “Kindergarten Cop”… it is essentially what Trump is saying too, though… So is it science? …
Zukerman [to Safer]: If you have a penis. Are you a man?
Joshua Safer: So your genitals never defined your sex and that, that narrow, narrow definition has not existed for decades.
WZ: For decades?
JS: Correct. That’s just so wrong.
And one of the reasons Josh says it’s so wrong is because there are people who are born without a clear penis or vagina - and yet many say they feel like either boys …. Or girls. That is, they have a sense of their own gender, even if what’s between their legs isn’t obviously a penis or a vagina. There’s also people born with no genitalia at all  and these people identify as something. So from this scientists know - and have known for a very long time - that feeling like woman - doesn’t live in your vagina.
Let’s say I claim to you that “People with penises are men.” In light of how language is used in 2019, there are two interpretations of that sentence that matter for a conversation like this one. One is that I’m saying that people with penises are biologically male — that the penis indicates they’ll have all that other biologically male… stuff. The other is that they identify as male. A fair amount of online culture-warring going on at the moment stems from the gap between these two definitions. So Person A, usually a progressive using the gender-identity definition, will say, “Trans women are women!” Person B, usually a conservative or trans-skeptical feminist using the biological-sex definition, will say, “Uh-uh!”
Anyway, in this case we’re being told by a scientific authority that it is not just wrong, but so wrong to say that having a penis indicates that someone is a man — that this idea is decades out of date. But the same numerical logic holds by either definition: The intersex rate and the trans rate are both around 1%. In either case, if someone has a penis, there is a 99% chance they are a man (in the biologically male, not-intersex sense), and a 99% chance they are a man (in the gender-identity sense). Does any of this mean that trans women shouldn’t have their pronouns respected, or shouldn’t be treated as women? No! But the claim here is much stronger than that — the claim is that it’s outdated and silly and so wrong to treat a penis as a sign of maleness. Again, I ask: Are there other areas in which, when X and Y are correlated at 99%, we are told that it is so wrong to understand X as implying Y, almost always? Is this clear and accurate science communication?
People are more and more willing to acknowledge the reality of nonbinary and transgender identities, and to support those who courageously fight for their rights in everything from all-gender bathrooms to anti-gender-discrimination laws. But underlying all of this is the perception that no matter the gender a person identifies as, they have an underlying sex they were born with. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of biological sex. Science keeps showing us that sex also doesn’t fit in a binary, whether it be determined by genitals, chromosomes, hormones, or bones (which are the subject of my research).
Again, it’s just serious confusion stemming from someone asking one question and answering another. Here, the question is whether people have an underlying biological sex, and the answer is that… no, they don’t, because sex has lots of very different components and doesn’t always fit a neat binary. That isn’t answering the question! The two claims — people have an underlying sex they are born with, and sex is complicated and not a strict binary — are compatible. You are born male or female or, more rarely, intersex. The presence of unusual cases that give the bimodal distribution its middle doesn’t mean that anyone on that distribution isn’t born with a biological sex — it’s just for people in the middle their sex defeats any easy categorization as male or female. They still have a sex!
Later, the article makes an even more radical claim:
For generations, the false perception that there are two distinct biological sexes has had many negative indirect effects. It has muddied historical archaeological records, and it has caused humiliation for athletes around the globe who are closely scrutinized. In the mid-1940s, female Olympic athletes went through a degrading process of having their genitals inspected to receive “femininity certificates.” This was replaced by chromosome testing in the late 1960s and, subsequently, hormone testing. But instead of rooting out imposters, these tests just illustrated the complexity of human sex.
There are clearly two distinct biological sexes. That’s how humans reproduce. The presence of intersex people, who constitute a third category with its own subcategories nestled underneath it, doesn’t mean we no longer have males and females, even if some people thought to be straightforwardly female end up being a bit more biologically complicated than that, sparking sports controversies. And again: Of course the fact that there are distinct biological sexes doesn’t mean anyone should be treated in a humiliating or unfair way. That’s a separate issues — a values issue that can’t be addressed by pretending there aren’t distinct biological sexes, or by making any other empirical argument, in fact.
I could go on forever — there have been so many of these claims. But I’ll end this rundown with a video put out by Teen Vogue last week. In “5 Common Misconceptions About Sex And Gender,” the magazine tells readers that the following claims, in bold, are misconceptions. Underneath most of them, I’ll roughly transcribe some of the most noteworthy specific claims
“The body is either male or female”
“We all have characteristics that are typically male and typically female, and it is really about political choices, social factors, ideological forces, that we assign meaning to different parts of our body. So the meaning may be the thing that most of us are taught, that if you have a vagina, you’re a girl, or if you have a penis you’re a boy.”
“Over history the location or the idea of what determines one’s true sex shifted. A hundred years ago it used to be whether you had ovaries or testes, then it shifted to what kinds of chromosomes you had. But the body doesn’t just have one place where you can sit there with a microscope or something else and say Wait a second, this is really who you are, this is your true sex. In fact, who you are is who you say you are.”
“Intersex people are not common”
[Interesting and worthwhile stuff about the terrible medical treatment and procedures intersex people have been subjected to over the years, but fewer claims that are directly relevant here]
“If you have XY chromosomes, you are male”
“Chromosomes are not the sole determinant of your sex or your gender.”
“When I say I’m a woman, I don’t just mean that I identify as a woman, I mean that my biology is the biology of a woman, regardless of whether or not doctors agree.”
“Human beings are so complex that each person has the right to define who they are, and X and Y can’t define who you are in your heart, in your mind, as you’re growing in life.”
“Too many people still believe that here’s such a thing as a true sex, and that it comes from your chromosomes. It’s not the case. Science has known this for decades and it’s actually a consensus in science and uncontroversial.”
“Testosterone is a male sex hormone”
“It’s really a misnomer to keep calling it the ‘male sex hormone,” because everyone has some of it.
“Trans women are biological men”
“We should never talk about any woman who is trans as a man. Not a biological man, not a natal man, not really a man.”
“The reality is that a trans woman’s biology is a female biology.”
“A trans woman is a woman. She is not tricking anyone. All of her body parts are female body parts.”
Okay, so there’s clearly a lot going on in that video. In certain ways, it nicely sums up all the arguments that have been put forth in this subgenre over the last few years — it’s sort of a buffet of confusing and confused claims. Perhaps most noteworthy is the idea that people get to define their own biology. If you are a trans woman, you have a “female body” and “female biology.”
I guess there’s one element of truth here, at least regarding those who transition physically — if a trans woman goes on hormones or gets surgery, she isn’t, strictly speaking, “biologically male” anymore, at least not in the same way she was before she physically transitioned. These medical interventions can greatly reduce people’s dysphoria by, in fact, partially changing their biological sex. That’s why I never really get the claim, which I see online a lot, that “You can’t change your sex.” You sort of can! You can’t change your chromosomes, but you can change things like your secondary sex characteristics and your hormone levels. Biologically speaking, people who transition are somewhere in the middle, with a mix of male and female biological characteristics. Of course, none of that changes what their bodies would do or produce if they went off hormones — that’s what it means to have a biological sex — but still, thanks to medicine they are able to have some of the biological characteristics of the sex they identify as.
More broadly though, I just can’t imagine a clearer example of progressive science denialism that won’t help anyone in the long run than the claim that people get to define whether, based on their own identity, they are biologically male or female. Imagine if someone really believed this: It could cause them to seek out the wrong health services, to not understand what biological, well, stuff, they can expect at different stages in their lifespan, and on and on. This also undermines the case for expanding access to hormones and surgery itself. If there aren’t biological sexes, why do trans people need either? What are some of them attempting to get to match up with their gender identity, as much as possible, if not their biological sex? The traditional argument for trans rights and healthcare, that some people just can’t live with their biological sex and will endure great harm if they aren’t allowed to alter it, is perfectly coherent, and is part of the reason there’s such a strong, clear moral imperative to treat trans people with dignity and afford them access to care. Important foundational arguments for not just women’s sports but for trans rights, too, go out the window if you start pretending there’s no such thing as biological sex.
Setting aside the politics, the argument that as soon as you identify as a woman, you have female biology… that’s science denialism. Female biology means a very specific thing, and it’s scientifically and diagnostically useful. I think a subset of advocacy groups, and the journalists who take their cues from them, have decided that the way forward for securing and expanding trans rights is not to focus on the traditional argument, but to convince enough people that male and female were never legitimate biological categories to begin with. Once you break that down, anyone who calls a trans woman a man won’t just be a jerk, but a scientifically illiterate jerk.
This strikes me as a dead end. Biological sex is such an obvious, visible, intimate part of everyday life, and everyone understands so deeply that there are important differences between (biological) men and women, and that most people fit neatly into one category or the other, that to hinge the success or failure of a big rights movement on this sort of mass re- or un-learning is just a bad idea.
I think another part of what’s going on is that some advocates and sympathetic journalists are hoping to dissolve, by eliminating the concept of biological sex, certain rights conflicts they’d rather not see treated as such. I’m using the term dissolve intentionally here. To resolve a conflict is to acknowledge that it exists and to talk through the claims of each side and come to some sort of agreement enough people view as legitimate that everyone can mostly move on. But at the moment it is pretty much verboten within progressivism to acknowledge that any trans rights claims could cause rights conflicts. A great example of this came when the Guardian ran a pretty down-the-middle editorial about these controversies in the U.K. in October that acknowledged instances in which trans women’s rights claims might conflict with cisgender women’s. In response, a group of journalists from the publication’s American offices wrote that they were dismayed that their colleagues across the pond had presented things in this way, but without really addressing the arguments themselves.
This idea, that it’s bigoted to even acknowledge that there could be any competing rights claims here, is really unfortunate. Now, many of these perceived points of conflict are, in my view, overstated, like the idea that if trans women use women’s rooms it will put cisgender women at risk. That doesn’t really make sense: If a man really wants to dress up like a woman to assault someone in a women’s room, he’ll do so regardless of what the law says. The idea of forcing trans women to use the men’s room is something that would inflict a lot of hardship for little to no real gain in terms of safety for cisgender women. That’s a case where I would argue that we can safely say biological sex doesn’t matter that much when someone’s gender identity differs from their sex.
But it’s undeniable that there are at least some instances of genuinely competing rights claims here. Sports are a prime example: Until recently, “natal sex” was the only real criterion used to determine who competes with whom in competitive sports. Changing that to “natal sex, except when someone’s gender identity conflicts with their natal sex, in which case gender identity should be deferred to,” is, in fact, a meaningful change! No amount of definitional fuzziness or postmodern whatever changes the fact that in altering the criteria, you are changing who will and won’t win certain races, be eligible for certain scholarships, and so on. All of this is readily apparent to everyone with a stake in this controversy, including, in the long run, millions of people who don’t, and are never going to, accept radical claims about biological sex being some sort of oppressive fiction.
So yes, there is some conflict between trans women who want to compete against cisgender women, and cisgender women who want to only compete against their fellow natal females. It is, in fact, a zero-sum sort of thing: Some potential resolutions will exclude trans women from competitive women’s sports, while others will exclude marginally competitive cis women athletes who might get knocked off a team by the increased competition brought on by newly included trans women, or highly competitive cis women who might get knocked off a medals podium or out of the running for a coveted college scholarship. This needs to be talked about openly if it’s going to be addressed in a way that doesn’t leave a lot of people feeling frustrated and cut out of the process. Pretending what’s being proposed isn’t a different approach to women’s sports, or that there hasn’t been a long and mostly successful struggle to weave women’s sports (as defined by biological sex) into the fabric of society, isn’t going to fool anyone.
I don’t know nearly enough about the underlying science to offer any substantive ideas about what the answers should be, and I imagine they will be different in different sports (that seems to be what’s going on). I do know enough, however, to view it as profoundly silly to pretend that being biologically male grants no advantages in sports, that this is a scientifically silly claim to make for obvious reasons, and that this is a politically silly claim to make because of the backlash it will engender and because it rather directly undermines the case for women’s sports. (If you disagree with that last part, try to make an argument for women’s sports that doesn’t rest on biological sex differences. I’ll wait.)
The strategy so many activists and journalists are taking, either assuming anyone with any questions about this is a bigot or, as this post shows, pretending biological sex isn’t a thing or is too complicated to be useful, is, again, a dead end. It’s science denialism geared at attacking a claim — “There may be some settings where biological sex should be seen as mattering more than gender identity” — that many progressives view as deeply threatening to their view that trans people should not only be treated as members of their sex and gender, but are them in some essential way that brooks no exceptions. So they’re fighting back against this belief with science denialism. That’s what this is.
I’ll leave the last word to a good article in the New York Times about the debate over trans and intersex athletes: “Pretending that the female body doesn’t exist or that we can’t define the boundaries between men’s and women’s bodies is a bad idea for many reasons. Replacing traditional sex classifications with classifications based on gender identity certainly has steep costs in contexts like competitive sport, where the likelihood of success is precisely about sex-specific biology.”
In other words, none of this is going to be resolved through science denialism.
Questions? Comments? Highly personal stories about your unusual chromosomes? I’m at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Photo of a sex-essentialist “Boys and Girls Brigade” is from here.