Gender Critical = Gender Conservative

Content Warning: The following post includes a discussion of transphobia and transmisogyny.

How has gender become a map of a moment? Why do so many movements present themselves as against gender? In a recent article, Judith Butler shows how the difficulty of giving an account of the anti-gender movement tells us something about how that movement works: “Anti-gender movement mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces. It does not strive for consistency, for its incoherence is part of its power.” Butler’s article is primarily about the uses of a range of rhetorical strategies by authoritarian regimes. They show how the term “gender” ends up being treated as a “foreign invasion” and how fields of academic inquiry including gender studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, have come to be represented as “destructive forces” that threaten the breakdown of social institutions, including marriage, the family, the nation, civilization, “even man himself.”

Many feminist scholars are writing about the mobilization of anti-gender rhetoric across the globe. Butler is thus participating in a wider feminist conversation that is urgent and necessary because the states are so high.[1] As Butler articulates, the “principal aim of the movement is to reverse progressive legislation won in the last decades by both LGBTQI and feminist movements.”  In this account of the anti-gender movement, Butler does not reference in the large part what has become known as “gender critical” feminism. In the conclusion, however, Butler suggests that “it makes no sense for ‘gender critical’ feminists’ to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people.” They then lodge an invitation or an appeal, “Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” In this article, Butler does not call “gender critical feminists” fascists but invites them not to be in alliance with fascism by making trans, non-binary and genderqueer people their target.

Butler’s invitation is also, perhaps, a provocation. It is, admittedly, rather hard to read Butler’s article and not to notice how many of the rhetorical strategies used by gender critical feminists, with all their inconsistencies, are similar (and, in some instances, even the same) as those used by fascist or authoritarian regimes, again, with all their inconsistencies. Did gender critical feminist readers notice their own arguments in Butler’s picture of the anti-gender movement?  If “gender critical” feminists saw themselves in the picture being drawn, Butler’s invitation might have also functioned as a mirror. The point might be then that “gender critical feminists” in seeing themselves reflected in this piece, did not like what they saw. That, in itself, is rather promising. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, dismissals of Butler’s article followed very quickly. One “gender critical” feminist tweeted, “I just think it would help everyone if someone sat down with Judith Butler and patiently explained what gender is.” Another “gender critical” ally tweeted, “it reads as though Butler has just started looking into these issues and is mostly relying on twitter and Tumblr.” One way of not confronting what you see when you don’t like what you see, of not learning from a reflection the need for self-reflection, is to smash the mirror.

It is hard not to read these tweets and laugh. Butler has over decades given so many of us, within and beyond the academy, vital critical tools to make sense of the complexity of our gendered and social lives. Perhaps we do need to laugh. The laughter is also a groan because the voices of “gender critical” feminists have been so amplified by the mainstream media that there are now so many distortions that it would be hard for someone new to feminism to see clearly what is going on. Many “gender critical” feminists are themselves highly critical of who they call “academic feminists” including those of us who have been part of the development and consolidation of Women and Gender Studies programmes in the UK. One “gender critical feminist” made a joke at a Women’s Place Conference, that most academic feminists are not academics and not feminists. You could hear the hum of agreement in the audience. The dismissal is not surprising; Gender Studies programmes tend to be shaped by work in Queer Studies and Trans Studies although there is much more work to be done so that theorisations of sex and gender from Transgender Studies are not added on to Gender Studies but worked from. Throughout this post, I place “gender critical” in quotation marks as most of the most critical work on sex and gender within the academy is happening in the very spaces, Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Transgender Studies, many “gender critical” feminists oppose.

I am grateful to have spent so much of my career as an academic feminist (or probably to be more accurate a feminist academic) and by this I am not just referenced the years I spent as a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies, or the time I dedicated with feminist colleagues to developing new equality policies or to finding new ways to confront old problems of harassment and bullying in universities. I am referring to the fact that I have been systematically engaged in reading feminist literatures since I took my first feminist course in Women’s Writing in 1988. When you dedicate your life to feminism, you acquire many resources. Butler in appealing to us to participate in anti-fascist solidarity is making use of these resources. If we follow Butler’s lead, we can hear that there is more to the invitation. Butler is calling to feminists not to make trans, non-binary and gender queer people their target as this would amount to “targets of this movement” in effect “turning against each other.” To turn against each other would be to turn against ourselves. Butler is encouraging us to witness in the urgency of these times that the movement “against gender” is an anti-feminist movement.

In this post, my task is modest. I want to show how and why “gender critical” feminism becomes, or can be understood as, a gender conservative movement. If feminism gives us the resources to challenge anti-feminism, then feminism gives us the resources to challenge “gender critical feminism,” to hold up that mirror and to show its reflection. In my new project on common sense, I hope to show how gender conservative feminisms are part of the not-so-new conservative common sense, which has reweaponised “reality” as a “war against the woke,” that is, as an effort to restore racial as well as gendered hierarchies by demonizing those who question them.[2]   I will also show how much of the harassment enacted by “gender critical” feminists is made invisible by appearing to take the form of opening a debate.

When you enter the gender critical world as a feminist who is not used to being in that world, it is deeply disorientating. Let’s take the social media world. In this post, I am going to quote from tweets, which will appear as italicised sentences (I will later quote from academic articles and trade books).[3] You enter, and you will encounter twitter handles with purple and green, the suffragette colours. On the same handles, you will find utterances like, Sex not Gender or Sex is Real. You might see statements like, I stand with, and the name of such and such person who has been targeted apparently for saying something like, Sex is real. You will encounter words like adult human female, or natal woman, or even biological woman. You will encounter claims that you know have been central to patriarchal logics, for instance, women are oppressed because of their biology.

How to make sense of this?

It is hard to make sense of this.

We know that feminists have disagreed about how to understand sex and gender as social categories; we inherit them, we did not invent them. We know that part of the work of feminism is to contest that inheritance. Even the “sex-gender distinction” was not invented by feminists; it was introduced to feminism by the work of sexologists such as John Money. [4] If you are a reader of feminist literature, you will know that many feminists have problematised that distinction, precisely because of how it placed “sex” outside of history. Take for instance the work of Ann Oakley. Her classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, drawing on the work of Robert Stoller, with sex referring to biological differences, visible difference of genitalia, difference in procreative function and gender referring to “a matter of culture” and the social classification of people into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (16). However, in Oakley’s later work, she offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (30). Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who argues that “gender precedes sex.” She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). [5] Whatever we think of the feminist critique of the sex-gender distinction, most feminists will know that the categories with which we organise our lives, how we refer to our bodies and ourselves, are not neutral; the terms we use to describe ourselves, are implicated in the worlds we are questioning, which is why such descriptions are provisional as well as political.

So, why are these terms being used not only as if they are simple descriptions but as if that very usage has something to do with feminism? If the “gender critical” feminist landscape is littered with phrases like sex is real, sex not gender, we need to ask what they are doing. Let’s call them catch phrases, words or expressions that are used repeatedly and conveniently to represent or characterize a person, group, idea, or point of view. These phrases are a way of signalling an allegiance to a political movement that has its primarily velocity, it seems, in a virtual space. They are relatively new ways of using old terms. Nevertheless, despite being relatively new, to encounter these phrases is to be given a snap shot of a history. To start to try and make sense of them by starting with them, would be like turning up in the middle of a conversation, hearing a reaction, and not knowing what came before that provoked a reaction. And yet, many use these phrases as if the point of them is whether or not we can say them. They are turned into stories. Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?  But it (and with it, the term cisgender) can’t be forced on to women like me who regard questioning gender roles, while advocating on behalf of our sex, as the whole point of feminism. You might feel an outage, as well as disbelief that this is the case: we can’t even say sex is real! That phrase when used in the way is doing what it is designed to do, provoke outrage. And the outrage is how a story is carried forward, acquiring momentum. The statement that people have been forced out of the jobs for saying that sex is real is not only false (if you look at any specific instance, that is not why people are forced out of jobs, the sentence cannot be detached from a wider context), but by circulating, it acquires substance, an impression of being true achieved by virtue of its repetition. Sex is real has become a catch phrase in recent times (just like sex-based rights became a catch phrase in recent times – a quick search of the internet shows that it only began to be regularly used by feminists in 2018). Sex is real is an assertion within a horizon of assertions. Sex is real. Sex is material. Sex is immutable. Sex is biology. Sex is objective. Sex is science. With these assertation about what sex is, come counter-implications about what gender is not. Gender is not real. Gender is immaterial. Gender is subjective. Gender is stereotypes. Gender is ideology.

We learn about terms from what they are used to do; a story is being told in certain terms for a reason. The feminist mantra becomes sex not gender because of who is associated with gender. Judith Butler has taught us that the incoherence of the arguments of anti-gender movements are doing something. The more arguments against something are incoherent, the more what they are against becomes vague. And the vaguer the target, the more are caught up by it:  gender identity, the idea of gender, teaching gender, gender studies, trans people are not only collapsed into each other, but in being so, become all the more menacing. Another way of putting this, would be to say that the term gender has become sticky; the more gender moves around, the more are stuck to it.[5] If trans people are associated with gender, and gender is treated as immaterial, trans people or trans identities become immaterial. All you need to put on your handle is Sex is Real to indicate an attachment or an allegiance to a series of positions that do not have to be made explicit: being trans is ideology not science, feeling not fact, immaterial not material, subjective not objective.   The terms themselves can end up doing this work of de-legitimating or “de-realising” trans people.  This can be done in more or less subtle ways. When a “gender critical” feminist network was set up, it was described as being concerned with “how sexed bodies matter,” and with critiquing “constraining stereotypes of gender.” Once we have learnt what sex and gender have been routinely used to do, who they have become associated and not associated with, we can understand what is going on here. But it won’t be obvious to some what is going on here. One of our tasks is to try and make it more obvious.

It is not only that the terms “sex” and “gender” are being used to de-realise and de-legitimate trans people, but the project of trans inclusion can be framed as feminist exclusion, as if trans people are replacing us by replacing our terms with theirs. “If we replace ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ as a way of thinking about ourselves, it will be harder to tackle sex-based oppression.” So, the implicit story is that if we accept trans people, sex will be replaced, or even women will be replaced or we will lose the terms we need to talk about our history. A phrase can bring with it a history of associations. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Firstly, the sentence implies that such and such people are saying sex is not real. I don’t know anyone who would say sex is not real although I know most feminists are aware, to borrow the title of an important book by Marilyn Frye of “the politics of reality,” and that what is real, at least when we are talking about how human beings organise and understand ourselves, is complex and mediated. We will return to this. But let’s interrogate firstly the claim that unless sex is real, we cannot talk about women globally.

There are many feminists who have challenged this very idea that we can talk about “the lived reality” of “women globally.” I want to stress here that these challenges are not new. Anyone who knows feminist history, will know that even the category of “women” has always been contested by feminists; it has rarely been what brought us together.  That the category of women has been so contested has something to do with what the category of sex brings with it (although there is more to it).

Some had to insist that they were women. We can think of Sojourner Truth, speaking as a Black woman and former slave, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” As Angela Davis notes, Truth in her speech referred to the strength of her own body, her labouring body, to challenge the “weaker sex” arguments made against the suffragettes (1981, 61, see also hooks 1987).

Some had to insist they were not women. We can think of Monique Wittig, speaking as a lesbian feminist to the Modern Language Association conference in New York in 1978, saying “lesbians are not women.” This audacious claim was necessary for Wittig to show how the very category of “women” has historically functioned as a heterosexual injunction, how “women” came to exist, or was required to exist, in relation to men. [6] 

The fact that a single term “sex” does not bring us all together might even have been the reason we enter in conversations with each other to work out what we have in common, however we come to define ourselves. Although there are many different viewpoints within feminism about the status of categories like sex and gender, critiques of the very idea of biological sex have been consistently made. Black feminists, for instance, have challenged not only the category of “women,” but also the naturalness of sex and gender. As Che Gossett powerfully summarises, “from the Combahee River Collective (a collective of Black feminists meeting since 1974) and its critique of biological essentialism as a “dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” to trans genealogies of Black feminism — Black feminism as always already trans — many writers have problematized and troubled the categories of binary gender and of binary, medically assigned sex.”  Even feminist traditions assumed to be untroubled by the category of sex such as radical feminism have in fact been so. Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, for instance, offers a radical feminist challenge to what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186).

I will return to this critical feminist history of questioning the category of sex as it will help me to explain how critiquing gender but not sex leads in the direction of gender conservatism. To point to this feminist history is to get in the way of the story being told as a story of the erasure of sex. In fact, it is this critical feminist history that has to be erased in order to tell the story as a story of the erasure of sex.

The claim that sex has been erased is not only endlessly repeated and given a cause (queer theory, trans ideology, trans people, gender queer people, non binary people, people with blue hair, snowflake students; yes, the more there are, the more of a menace), but is often the basis of another even stronger claim of prohibition. The story goes something like this: we have to say sex is real, because gender (that fiction, that feeling, that ideology) has been imposed upon us, which means we are not being allowed to talk about sex or to talk about women (the slide, to make this point again, matters, the story being told is that women would disappear if sex is not material or if biological sex is not immutable). A claim to prohibition also involves a claim that somebody is being prohibited by somebody: so, the story goes, it is because such and such group has an agenda that we are not allowed to talk about what we want or need to talk about. Historically, feminists have often been positioned as those who are imposing restrictions upon others because they have an agenda or because that’s their agenda (we can’t call women darling! We have to say Ms! We can’t use men to describe everyone!). In fact, anyone involved in trying to challenge norms and conventions to enable them to be more accommodating, we will know how quickly you will be judged as imposing restrictions on the freedom of others. A norm is a restriction that can feel like freedom to those it enables. To challenge a norm is thus almost always treated as restricting other people’s freedoms.

It is not only a bitter irony that tactics so often used against feminists are being used against trans people by “gender critical” feminists. It is telling us something about “gender critical” feminists that they are willing to use these tactics. Why has sex has become a tactic, not just a position but a project? By using sex as if sex was natural, material, and gender as if it was not, some people become “not,” not natural, immaterial, not real even, unreal.  Danger can be located in the “not.” When sex is used tactically, turned into a project, trans people are treated not only as not natural, as immaterial, but as being powerful and dangerous.

In my own work, I have focused a lot on stranger danger, how some bodies become “matter out of place,” and how danger (and violence) is located in those who are deemed not to belong. Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[7] I have focused primarily on racism. Stranger danger often works by making violence intrinsic or expressive of a group (so if someone from a Muslim background commits violence, this violence becomes expressive of Islam).  Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[8] Much transphobic harassment works through the logics of stranger danger: trans people are positioned as strangers not only as “out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racializing discourses (extremism as a term always tends to stick to some bodies more than others).  Note the common use of terms like “the trans lobby,” or even “the trans Taliban” to imply a powerful agent that is behind this or that action. Transphobia does not mean that a necessarily person feels personal animosity towards, or fear of, trans people. They may or may not: that is not the point. Transphobia describes the process whereby trans people are constructed as dangerous, as those who are to-be-feared. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, often by inflating the power of those whose exclusion is deemed necessary, it also creates the figure of the endangered, most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (One headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children).

Stranger danger also creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside that is seen as necessary for protection. This is how some can be judged as imposing on others; sometime by virtue of existing in the way they do. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. It is important to add that closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; the creation of new terms if the old ones are being drawn in a way that includes those you don’t want to include (woman becomes adult human female). This is how opening a debate in certain terms can be how some are shut out. Of course, we should not enter a debate in those terms.

Gender too can be turned into a stranger (yes, a category of thought can be treated as a stranger), framed as an imposition on nature or biological reality (women become natal women).  Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or as natal or even as native as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them [9] When the category of gender becomes a stranger, those who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence become strangers too.  A category is turned into a conspiracy. As case in point would be how the group LGB Alliance finds the use of “gender” by Stonewall, for instance, as evidence of a conspiracy to erase sex and with it same-sex attraction. So, if people talk about being attracted to people of the “same gender,” that can then be read as a conspiracy to force lesbians to have sex with trans women (who are really “biological men”). It is hard to imagine that anyone concerned with equality and social justice can take such viewpoints as evidence of anything but bigotry. But they can and do, they even publish newspaper articles based on them.

The distinction between sex and gender, remember, has only been made relatively recently. It is a line we sometimes draw for convenience. It is a line that some feminists have used and other feminists have challenged (some of these feminists are the same feminists). In the UK, in the law, sex and gender tend to be used interchangeably. If a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (to use the terms from then 2010 Equality Act), then they have changed sex.  To follow words is to learn from them. Gender is often used rather than sex in ordinary discourse. I remember when I first came out as a lesbian in 2001, a member of my wider family using that term “same gender.” He said, “so what, you fell in love with someone of the same gender.”  In fact, it is hard not to notice how gender is sometimes used rather than sex on equal opportunities forms to refer to “men” and “women.” My own suspicion that people often use “gender” as a kind of polite way of not talking about sex, which evokes bodies and desires in a way that gender does not. I think in everyday life, many use sex and gender vaguely. And they may do so because sex and gender are vague, which is why any attempt to be clear about what they are, to create a line, takes us further away from everyday use.  The idea that gender is being imposed by trans activists is not just plain wrong (a mistake that is easily evidenced by following the word across space and through time), it is strategic. It allows the figure of the “trans extremist,” to circulate as those who are imposing that restriction.  In other words, the idea that gender is being forced upon us by a trans lobby is repeated because it allows the fight for equality for trans people to be framed as the formation of an industry. It allows trans people to be positioned as holding or wielding a power they do not have.

There is no clearer evidence of transphobia than the use of terms like “trans extremist” or “trans lobby.”[10] Of course, if you even use terms such as transphobia to describe these discursive mechanisms you will be judged as trying to impose a restriction on free speech, to return to an earlier point. There is another point I want to make here. I have already noted that words like “extremism” stick to some more than others. Remember: the vaguer the target the more can be caught by it. A stick becomes a slide. The trans extremist becomes the gender identity extremist. The gender identity extremist’s do not seek trans equality, the public are onboard with equality for all. The master manipulation has been to turn it into a trans supremecy [sic]. A propaganda machine together with institutional capture has rendered it dangerous to speak of reality. And then the gender identity extremist becomes the gender extremist. The pressure is so severe in gender extremist circles that using sex-based pronouns is considered hateful and treated as a hate incident. People who announce their pronouns are pandering to this extremism. The term “gender” itself comes to carry the implication of extremism without the need to use the word extremist. Indeed, making gender itself extreme can be linked to how gender is made immaterial and even then, can be the basis of a call to stop trans people from existing at all. So, a “gender critical” feminist at the recent LGB Alliance conference objected to the use of the term “gender extremist” because she said the term implied being trans was not, in itself, an extremist position. For her, it is extremist to say that trans people exist. For her, trans people do not exist. She said this. When she this, she was applauded by the audience.  We need to hear the violence of that applause. “Gender critical” feminism, however diverse and incoherent, gives this kind of hate speech somewhere to go.

The speech acts that are represented as the most prohibited are often the most promoted; this is true of racism as well as transphobia. To say, sex is real or the stronger statement I am not allowed to sex is real, or I was targeted for saying sex is real, and you will end up being a platform; the more you say it, the more platforms you will be given. You will not only be promoted and platformed, you will be protected, with that protection usually taking the form of a defence of free speech or academic freedom. In other words the prohibited is incited. And those who understandably feel unsafe or harmed by these views, not only from how they are expressed but how they are incited, will typically have their concerns disregarded as immaterial.

This is how seemingly simple utterances like Sex is Real or Sex Not Gender can be snap shots of a longer history, a violent history, a history of how some people are made dangerous, or how some people are made to disappear.[11] To participate in this discursive regime, to use those catch phrases, to position yourself as being silenced because of that use, is to be involved in a project that is making it harder for trans people, non-binary people, gender queer and gender non-conforming people, to survive on their own terms.  It is to be involved in a project that contradicts the aspiration for trans, queer and feminist liberation from coercive sex-gender regimes. Yes, I say trans, queer and feminist liberation because our liberations point in the same direction.

I noted earlier that the terms that have been questioned by feminists can only be elevated into catchphrases, as if they embody truths, by erasing so much of a more critical feminist history.  In other words, the project of removing trans people from feminism has ended up removing feminism, too. Let’s return to Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist critique of the biology of sexual difference. She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that a transsexual in a culture of “male-female discreteness” is in “a state of emergency,” and stated that transsexuals should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival on his or her own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, this was only in the context of her view that discrete sexes would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we learn from Dworkin that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, must have a radical model of sex and biology.

I think again of Dworkin’s emphasis on survival, on the right of trans people to survive on their own terms. I think of Audre Lorde’s words (1978, 31): “Some of us were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde (1984, 112) also suggests that “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women” know that survival “is not an academic skill.” Perhaps if those “outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” those who have to fight for survival, were those whose theories of sex and gender mattered, who were being heard for how they were interrogating the terms, questioning what was acceptable, we would not be here, having to do this, having to say this.

Survival within a coercive sex-gender system can be an ambitious project for some people, including trans people as well as queer people. So much of our politics  derives from what we need to do to survive a system that is not intended for us. Perhaps to survive a system we have to dismantle it, the master’s house, to borrow again from Audre Lorde, to chip away at its foundations. We can begin to understand why gender critical feminism ends up as gender conservative and indeed as socially conservative, not dismantling the master’s house, but becoming his tool. If gender creates the effect of two discrete biological sexes, to make sex into a cause would be to reproduce the system we are trying to dismantle. In other words, to critique gender but leave “sex” in place, or treat “sex” as if it was outside of a man-made history, would be to preserve the system by turning its effect into our cause. To argue that spaces should be for different “sexes” is, in other words, is to replicate a sex-gender system. When “sex” is enlisted to do things, “sex” is organising rather than originating. To use “sex” as if it is the origin of the organisation is to disguise the organisation; and that, too, is how the sex-gender system works.  And this is how as soon as sex is treated as outside of history, gender norms, somatic norms, this is how women are, men are, who they are, what they are, will be exercised and made to disappear. And this is why we are now witnessing increasingly conservative judgements about women and men in terms of what they are like or how they appear being made in the name of feminism.

These judgements are organized around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear.  Here are some quotes from trade books by “gender critical” feminists. “Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible.” This is very old-fashioned and simplistic understanding of the nature of social perception, which does not seem to be informed by any engagement with the critical or feminist literature. The author then writes, “it is disingenuous of our critics to suggest that the only means humans have of identifying other people’s sex is by the ‘checking of genitalia’, and that this is what is needed to maintain sex-separated spaces. If this were true, dating would never get off the ground (and neither would sexism).” I can’t quite believe that somebody could claim that sexism would not “get off the ground” unless you could see the difference between women and men. Feminists have shown how sexism is about the consolidation of that very distinction. The stability of perception points not to nature but to history. Ideology is history turned into nature.

Another writer describes the ability to judge the sex of another person as “exquisite,” a word that suggests not just precision but beauty. These are the author’s exact words, “Since evolution has equipped humans with the ability to recognize other people’s sex, almost instantaneously and with exquisite accuracy, very few trans people ‘pass’ as their desired sex. And so to see them as that sex, everyone else must discount what their senses are telling them.” This is like reading a bad version of evolutionary psychology (are there other versions? probably not). Feminism is a pedagogy of the senses: we learn just how our senses are trained, what are senses our telling us, from our political effort to unlearn them. Those who appear to confound the senses, to create confusion (are you a boy or a girl, who are you, what are you?) are those who fail to reproduce a history. Queer and trans feminisms find in that failure, a revolutionary potential. We learn not to make assumptions. We ask each other how to address each other –to ask not to assume is not only kind but key to our liberation. To be not at home in a word or a world is not only how we come to know that word or world, it is how we open up other possibilities for arranging ourselves and our worlds differently.[12]

When we treat sex as natural, we don’t see the norms through which we see the world, including other bodies with whom we share a world. [13] That’s how norms work, by not appearing as norms.[14] So much violence follows the norms we do not see, which also means there is so much violence we do not see. So many bodies, our bodies, will end up appearing wrong, strange, odd, out of place, because they do not line up.  Many cis women as well as trans women have been told they are out of line; told they have entered the wrong room; told they are not really women because of how they do or do not appear.  Of course, much of the violence I am describing here is a product of the sex-gender system. This is why the feminist project is to challenge that system.  Instead, some “gender critical” feminists have justified the violence against those who are gender non-conforming as necessary to protect women. They write, “Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID.” The argument for “same-sex spaces” requires those who use facilities to be become the police. To enforce the boundary of same sex spaces is then to enforce the boundary of womanhood. Sarah Franklin has usefully described “gender critical” feminists as “feminist Brexiteers.” She writes:

Promising to protect the sanctity of the female toilet as the guarantor of gendered justice is, like the Brexiteer’s promise to save the United Kingdom from economic ruin, a symptom of reactionary panic and confusion. It is not a remotely credible promise, but an embittered form of nostalgia driven by myopic indignation. Like the Brexit leaders who promised to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s borders, feminism’s Brexiteers promising to rescue true womanhood are using gender as a proxy for a past they imagine they have lost, an identity they feel is threatened, and a battle in which they see themselves as both victims and as visionaries.

Like all nostalgia, the nostalgia of “gender critical” feminism misses the point, what they want to return to, did not exist in the way being imagined. It is nostalgia for a lost object that can give the impression that the object was real. A nostalgia for what is lost can turn quickly into a promise of protection. There is a connection, then, between that promise of returning a lost object, policing and violence. Protection is often justified as protecting women from violence. For many women, protection is violence. Violence against gender non-conforming women, cis or trans, is deemed a cost of a system of policing that is presumed to follow from biological sex. And note as well how the regrettable cost sends a message to those who bear that cost, who are stopped, questioned, and harassed. Perhaps you are also being told, that if you don’t want to be in harm’s way, you should change your ways, that if you don’t want to be questioned about your right to be in a women’s space or facility, you should try to appear more like women are meant to appear. This is an argument for gender normativity even if it is not put in those terms, a claim that it would be safer and thus better for girls to be girls (and for us to be able to tell that the girls are girls) and boys to be boys (and for us to be able to tell that the boys are boys).

One “gender critical” scholar cites in her book a blog that suggests that preferred pronouns are like a date drug. The suggestion is that if those who do not conform to a narrow idea of how women appear asked to be addressed as “she,” then this is confusing to the senses, making other women’s reactions sluggish. The writer of the blog suggests trans women intentionally use that sensory confusion to take advantage of cis women. The stereotype of the trans woman as sexual predator is a deeply disturbing and explicit form of transmisogyny. I suspect some “gender critical” feminists would not go along with it. But that association between trans women with danger to cis women can be preserved without using this stereotype – and can even be preserved by appearing to challenge it. Although the book author does not go along with blog author’s assumption that trans women are sexual predators (she even describes it as fearmongering), she still cites the blog as a credible source thus lending it credibility as source. And she still preserves the core assumption of the blog that compliance with preferred pronouns would be dangerous for women. The cognitive disadvantage for those who try and comply with pronouns will be the same. When talking about “cognitive disadvantage” she is talking about physical danger. Something that slows down the cognitive processes of women in relation to potential aggressors may turn out to have very serious ramifications for them. Note the danger here is implied to follow from compliance, by complying with preferred pronouns (pushed by “trans activism” to use the term used by this author in the same paragraph), women will be at a disadvantage, suffering very serious ramifications for their health, safety or well-being.

This association of compliance with preferred pronouns and danger suggests that safety depends upon clarity, that bodies need to line up, or be accurately sexed. Those who are not clearly men or women, who do appear how “he” or “she” should appear, are in other words, dangerous. Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.


Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela (1983). Women, Race and Class.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Franklin, Sarah (forthcoming). “Gender as a Proxy: Diagnosing and Resisting Carceral Genderisms,” European Journal of Women’s Studies,

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1978. Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1] See for example the very helpful series of blog posts by LSE Gender Studies,

[2] A contribution to the book produced by the Conservative Common-Sense Group discusses attacks on Britain as attacks “not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense.” In addition to how immigration has rendered people feeling like strangers in their own country, or how activists are challenging how British history is narrated, there are vague references to the gender agenda. Words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous. The fictions of binary sex and racial purity exist in close proximity, which is also how policing the borders of sex can be about policing the borders of the nation. See Franklin (forthcoming) for a discussion of how anti-gender feminism can be understood as feminism’s Brexit.

[3] For an explanation of my citation policy please see my earlier post, Killjoy Commitments. I am not citing individual authors by name as I have no wish to enter into a dialogue with “gender critical” feminists. I am just offering instead a diagnostic of how the effort to exclude trans people from feminism (and with it from the many public services that trans people, especially trans women, may need to survive) has led to the contradiction of core feminist principles. I know from experience that “gender critical” feminists if they read this, will caricature and dismiss my work. That is of no concern to me.

[4] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[5] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values.

[6] The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  Wittig argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[7] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[8] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[9] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[10] If gender is a moving target, so too is transphobia.  At this present moment, “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by trans theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities by using gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[11] I put it the following way in an earlier post, You are Oppressing Us! “There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.”

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because that’s about feelings and she is a materialist!  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical, visceral as well as being about judgment; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or how wrong feels, I do think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I think of the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful, palpable, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realise from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical as well as anti-feminist.

[13] Gender and sex work habitually, as a series of background assumptions. This is why phenomenology is so useful for feminism. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. For Beauvoir, “woman is not a fixed reality, but a becoming.” For Beauvoir, the “body is our grasp on the world and an outline for our projects.” What this means is that yes, Beauvoir does acknowledge the body and its limits. She might even talk about women’s bodies as having such and such qualities, but as she describes “they do not carry their meaning in themselves.” Even matter is made to matter.  We can thus denaturalise the category of “biological sex” and talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact, we have more, not less, to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is and is not “women.”

[14] A project is thus to show the norm, make it appear. This has been important linguistically. Man is operating as the norm when you say a woman bus driver but not a man bus-driver.  Man is often unmarked, so we mark the man as norm, we begin to say, if we need to say anything, the man bus driver. Whiteness is often the default, which means that when race is mentioned, it is used to refer to people of colour. We mark the unmarked by making it appear. The word “cis” is another attempt to mark the unmarked, to make a norm be visible. Saying “cis” is a slur is a bit like saying “white” is a slur, or “man” or “heterosexual.” That people do respond to being positioned in that way is telling us something about how norms work.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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