This is an excellent book: clear, thorough, convincing and, in context, brave: Kathleen Stock is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Salem but has failed to answer with an unequivocal “Yes” the Witch Question, “Do you believe trans women are women?” (p 142). As a result, trans-activist students (not to be confused with trans-people) are calling for her dismissal: in the pages of Pink News they tell us that they’ve paid their money and don’t expect to have to share their campus space with a transphobe ("No TERFS on our TURF"" reads a banner held by two students, clearly inspired by their parents' suburban NIMBYism).
It’s unlikely that many of the protesting students will read Professor Stock's book, though - to be fair -
reading books is not their favourite pastime anyway; the favourites are Salem’s
distance learning platforms, Facebook and Twitter. Is that not so?
Stock faces more than a
local challenge to be heard. There are now tens or even hundreds of thousands
of people in the UK and USA with a direct investment in Gender Identity Theory
(or Theories) and careers and future careers are at stake: not only do we have
the faculty of hundreds of Gender Studies departments and programmes, together
with their students. There are the senior university administrators who have
fallen over themselves to adapt to Facebook norms and officially recognise a
veritable sweet shop of student gender identities: demifluid and demiflux at
Kent, for example. (p. 34. Facebook itself offers seventy-one and counting). If
only it were some wonderful prank, like the old US Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINNA) which had
enthusiastic, donation-offering supporters, and kept going for several years
until the founding-prankster decided to ‘fess all. The name should have given
the game away since the object of the society was to compel diapers and modesty
clothes for cows, dogs, horses, etc. It remains true that if you want to
encounter truly wacky beliefs, look to the USA.
Also with skin in the
game of Gender Identity Theory are the “charities” which under light-touch UK
Charities regulation can function pretty much as cause-promoting commercial
organisations with large salary budgets. Stock very pointedly skewers them for
misuse of statistics at pages 220-24. These pages ought to make tough reading
for those responsible. Why should we regard their Fake News as any different to
Donald Trump’s? These pages also remind us of the fact that activist
organisations have a bad history of cutting and pasting individual tragedies
onto standard issue placards to serve their own purposes, misrepresenting the
original history to fit.
Then there are the
columnists and commentators and even leading (though not always very bright)
figures in major political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish
Nationalist) up to their necks in commitments to trans activist demands. None
of these people, any time soon, is going to declare that the Emperor Has No
I have never read anything by a Gender Identity Theorist - and I include in
that Judith Butler - which has not struck me as flimsy or confused or both,
excepting some early work before Orthodoxy imposed its dead hand. As it
happened, faculty at what was then the University of Sussex were responsible for some of the
most interesting of those early contributions though they labelled it Queer
Theory (Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, etc).
But it is the current
state of intellectual weakness in gender identity theory, and lack of
intellectual grasp by students supposedly studying it, which I believe leads to
the offence, outrage and punitive reaction to any reasoned criticism. Put on
the defensive, the advocates have nowhere else to go; it is as if pointed
criticism has punctured a fantasy, not damaged an argument.
Insofar as there is
supposed to be some kind of foundation to the claims made about gender
identity, then it is usually social construction theories which are invoked.
But I find little evidence that they have really been studied, understood, or
critically appraised. How many have read, say, Alfred Schütz The Phenomenology of the Social World dating from 1932 but only translated into
English in 1967? (Maybe I cite that work because I recall asking my mother to
buy me the expensive North Western University Press translation as a birthday
present, in 1967. For my own non-technical critique of social constructionism
in general, go to https://www.academia.edu/45141890/Social_Construction_De_Constructed
There is a fall-back position from social constructionism
which simply says that people are who and what they feel they are, which in
short order reduces simply to what they claim they are. So if you feel you are a woman
trapped in a male body, then that’s what you are until you decide to claim, “I’m a woman”
as if it was in the same performative category as the “I do” in the marriage ceremony. Once you say the necessary words, trans activists reckon that a woman has been born and that we should open any doors hitherto closed.
But the claim “I’m a woman” contains no more guarantee of longevity than does
the claim “I do”. Likewise, "They/Them" claimed as pronouns may last no longer than this year's Facebook account. Mere declarations, however decorated with the word "performative" (and who has actually read J L Austin ....), are not always as robust as they really need to be.
Second, from a distance the gulf which supposedly separates Trans activists from their targetted enemy, the TERFs [Trans-exclusionary radical feminists] is just a small piece of disputed territory. As I understand it, most or all TERFs (an unpleasant term, largely applied to older, female Second Wave feminists in ways which sometimes suggest misogyny) are at least fairly accepting of transgender people and are happy to support measures which make life easier for them. They simply draw the line at some very specific areas which over long decades of hard work have been constructed or retained - and with very good reasons - as Women Only spaces: women’s prisons, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, women only sports, changing rooms, and toilets. (One never hears any discussion of the situation of trans men in these contexts, which must be either because trans men aren’t rattling the door or because admission is allowed because it is felt or assumed that trans men are safe in a way that trans women aren’t - Stock briefly discusses this).
It is important to note that trans-activists call for self-identification as the sole criterion for admission to Women Only spaces; no evidence of surgery or use of hormones. Likely results are already known from cases like that of Karen White, a self-identified transwoman assigned to a woman's prison who promptly began to sexually assault female prisoners. Back in court, the prosecution was obliged to follow the guidelines and refer to "her penis" in outlining the assaults. Stock discusses this case.
I recall the moment in 2018 when I decisively lost sympathy
for trans-activist demands. I saw in the news a photograph of beaming trans woman
Rachel Mckinnon having just won a major US and world women’s cycle race.
Mckinnon stands with the two females who had come in at 2nd and 3rd
. As one of the runners-up, Jennifer Wagner, later tweeted, it “definitely
wasn’t fair”. No, it fucking wasn’t fair, but just as in the USA here in the UK
we have thousands of middle-class Neville Chamberlain intellectuals ready to
declare how wonderful, how inspiring, and any other Pseuds' Corner claptrap
which occurs to them as likely to pay the rent. Stock makes rather more polite
remarks on this example at pp 87-88. In the current climate, she has little
choice but to remain polite though she occasionally allows herself a “bonkers”.
I found the photograph deeply dispiriting, as the display of a hugely misplaced sense of entitlement and as a put-down for female athletes.. You can easily Google it.
Stock focusses initially on a defence of the permanent (life-time)
importance of biological sex and of the sex binary, even when all necessary
qualifications about intersex persons and so on are added. I found the defence
impeccably argued. Then she turns to what one might call the predictive value of
knowing a person’s sex which is strong even if there is little biological determination
of behaviours - socialisation will do the trick even if nature doesn’t. Either
way, it’s important to know how biological males and females differ in the long
run. Thus it is (as I discovered when I joined this select class) that 83% of
UK speeding convictions are collected by males. (The Driver and Vehicle Licensing
Authority used to classify drivers by “Sex” which they asked me to supply many
years ago; they now classify by “Gender” and have switched me - this is what Stock
calls GENDER in sense 1; really, it’s just a euphemism (American?) for “Sex”.)
Then she pulls apart Gender Identity theory and sets out her own stall on “What makes a woman?”There follows a very interesting chapter which seems in one way meant as a concession to Identity theory but which would come at the price of conceding that it has an “As If” fictional or imaginary character which is nonetheless important.
Then we get to the grim bits: the recent history of LGBT and
feminist organisations. I think I am entitled to pass over these chapters, and
return to my initial recommendation.
See now also my review of Zoe Playdon's The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, published 1 December 2021