‘Biological sex is real – not psychological’

Kathleen Stock on why biological sex matters for women.

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Topics Feminism Politics UK

Gender identity is everywhere. In recent years, countless celebrities have come out as trans or non-binary. Public and private institutions have signed up to schemes promoting trans pride and visibility. Numerous academics and public figures have been cancelled for questioning trans dogma. Kathleen Stock is professor of philosophy at Sussex University and author of Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. She joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: ‘Gender identity’ has become such a dominant term. People see it as a kind of inner psychological state, a feeling or a sensation. There are now efforts to make it a legally protected category. What does gender identity mean to trans campaigners, and why do you have an issue with it?

Kathleen Stock: The way it’s most frequently talked about by trans activists (as distinct from trans people in general) is as a fundamental part of the self. They say it’s your authentic self, your real self, the true you, who you really are. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the idea that your body is wrong, or your outside doesn’t match your inside. This is highly metaphorical, but it’s taken literally. And it’s often seen as innate. It’s like something inside all of us, waiting to burst out.

Once you become aware of having a misaligned gender identity, it would be morally wrong for anyone to tell you what your gender identity really is, or to try to suppress it on your behalf. It should be marked on your passport and birth certificate. That’s how it’s seen by trans activists.

I think there is such a thing as gender identity. But I don’t think we all have one. What it actually is, is a kind of strong psychological identification with an ideal of the opposite sex – or with androgyny if you are non-binary. It can be meaningful and valuable for you, or it can be distressing. It can last your whole life, or it can be temporary. But either way, it’s psychological. It doesn’t make any sense to say it’s a fundamental part of the self. And it’s certainly not innate.

O’Neill: There are growing numbers of people who claim to have a gender identity that misaligns with their biological sex. Or rather, they say that their gender identity is differnet to the sex they were assigned at birth – as if their sex was picked for them by a doctor. In your book, you describe how it’s gone from being something a few thousand people did a decade or so ago, to something tens of thousands of people do now. And it’s growing among young people. What’s driving this? Is it a fad? Is there an element of hysteria?

Stock: The idea of gender is vague, ill-formed and changeable. Many people don’t know what the hell it is. And if you don’t know what it is, then it’s easy to think you have one, because there are no tests you can run to disprove it. There’s lots of evidence that in the adolescent population there are increasing mental-health problems. There’s been a rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among girls, which you can partly trace to the rise of the smartphone and social media. What that tells us is that kids grab on to the tools that the culture offers them to express their distress.

Ten years ago, I was teaching classes where there were a lot of kids with scars all over their arms – there was a trend for self-harming. Now, there’s a trend for breast-binding. I don’t stand in judgement over that. But part of the problem with trans activism is that it shoves lots of different phenomena like these together. Obviously, there’s something very different between a married, 47-year-old male deciding he wants to wear dresses and be a woman, and a 15-year-old girl with a history of anorexia saying she wants to be a boy. But we can’t analyse these differences if we are told that we aren’t allowed to question any of it.

O’Neill: Gender identity now has primacy over sexual reality. That is pretty clear from the efforts made to shift the language away from sex and towards gender. It’s also clear from how protections for sex differences are seen as inappropriate, but protections for gender identity aren’t. And the language used by health services and other institutions shows that gender identity is now sacred, whereas biological sex has been downplayed. How do you understand the difference between sex and gender, and why is it important to talk about it?

Stock: Sex is the difference between males and females. It’s one of two material states in sexually dimorphic species like humans. It’s real, not psychological. In the book, I give three different accounts of sex. I don’t choose between them because I want to be maximally inclusive. But whichever one you go for, sex is not just in your head and it’s not something that you can just identify into.

It’s also something that has social impacts. That’s the bit that I’m particularly interested in. Obviously, it has medical impacts – you don’t want to be given the wrong drugs. It has consequences in sport, too. It has consequences for how we safeguard women from sexual assault. And it has consequences for sexual orientation and how we talk about it. There are people attracted to the same sex, but not attracted to a male with a female gender identity, for example.

O’Neill: It’s become accepted very rapidly that gender identity should be valued more highly than biological sex. This is true in numerous institutions and among politicians and even feminists. How did this happen?

Stock: It’s complex. Part of it is that Stonewall has a massive ‘Diversity Champions’ campaign, which huge numbers of institutions are signed up to. That includes universities, police forces, prison services, politicians and more. That means propaganda is being thrown out at people – and it’s all about gender identity.

People have taken it on board uncritically, because Stonewall has a stellar history of standing up for gay people. I also think a lot of people just don’t understand what this gender-identity stuff is about. They think it’s something to do with being gay and it’s something to do with sticking up for vulnerable people – so it’s commendable. They trust what Stonewall says.

There are other reasons why feminists have gone along with it, but I still struggle to comprehend that to this day.

Kathleen Stock was speaking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: Laerke Olsvig.

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