Biological sex and socially-constructed gender

Since my recent lunch with my friend Graham Linehan, I have been learning more about the issues of biological sex and socially-constructed gender. Thank you to everyone who contacted me with constructive comments. In this article I am sharing my current opinions on the following topics:

  1. Supporting the rights of biological women and transgender people
  2. The contested language of sex and gender and man and woman
  3. The interaction of biological sex and socially-constructed gender
  4. The idea of gender reinforces harmful stereotypes about sex
  5. The balancing of rights regulates social behaviour, not self-identity
  6. Public facilities that are reserved to protect and help women
  7. Sports that are reserved to enable women to compete fairly
  8. Attempts to close debate by demonising people who disagree

I am happy to discuss these issues respectfully. I’m relatively new to this topic, so I have a lot to learn. If you interpret anything I write as me being unsupportive, you are mistaken. Please re-read it charitably, and I will read any constructive responses charitably. If you respond with personal abuse, I will ignore it, and I will miss any good points that you are making.

1. Supporting the rights of biological women and transgender people

I have spent my adult life challenging theocracy in Ireland and beyond, including promoting the rights of women and LGBT people. I believe we should treat every individual person with the same respect and dignity and love, regardless of their biological sex, sexual orientation, social gender identity, or any protected human rights category.

Under human rights law, we each have an unconditional right to believe and self-identify in whatever way we wish to. We should respect each other’s right to hold our own beliefs, and try to be kind to each other. We also each have a conditional right to behave in accordance with our beliefs, as long as our behaviour does not infringe on the rights of others.

How do we balance these rights with regard to biological sex and socially-constructed gender identity? The issue is bookended by such obvious injustices as transgender people being harassed or assaulted simply because of their identity, and the unethical absurdity of women in Canada losing their jobs because they refused to wax the male genitals of a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman.

In between these bookends, how do we address such questions as the use of preferred language; the self-identification by gender of children below the age of informed consent; segregated public toilets, changing rooms, dormitories, abuse shelters, and prisons; the participation of transgender women in women’s sports; and the possibility of predatory biological men abusing lenient gender regulations?

2. The contested language of sex and gender and man and woman

The words sex and gender have become ambiguous and contested. The word sex used to mean the biological categories of man and woman, and the word gender was used mostly in grammar. In the first half of the twentieth century, the word sex also began to mean sexual intercourse. So, to avoid this embarrassing connotation, polite people and official bodies started to use the word gender, instead of sex, to describe the biological categories of man and woman.

In the 1970s, feminists like psychologist Rhoda Unger suggested using the word sex to describe the biological aspects of being male or female, and gender to describe the socially-constructed stereotypes associated with each. This distinction enabled campaigners to acknowledge the (sex) differences between being a man or a woman, while challenging the (gender) stereotypes associated with being a man or a woman.

But in day-to-day language, and when filling out forms, many people still use the words sex and gender interchangeably to describe biological sex. For example, in typical public discourse, people can speak of “gender discrimination” or “gender pay gaps” when what they mean is discrimination or pay gaps that are based on biological sex rather than on gender self-identity.

More recently, when discussing the politics of sex and gender, the words man and woman have also become contested. In the language of biological sex, and in typical public discourse, a man or woman is an adult human male or female. In the language of socially-constructed gender, a man or woman can be a person who self-identifies as a man or woman, regardless of their biological sex.

But that does not mean that a biological woman is the same as a biological man who self-identifies by gender as being a woman. It just shows that the same word, man or woman, has different meanings in the different languages of sex and gender.

The slogan “trans women are women” conflates words from both languages. Using the language of gender, it could mean “trans women self-identify by gender as women,” which is accurate. Or using the language of biological sex, it could mean “trans women are the same as biological women,” which is not accurate.

We should try to address the underlying issues, rather than try to force the meanings of words in one language onto people who are speaking another language. And we should try to do this sensitively, because biological sex and socially-constructed gender can be fundamental aspects of a person’s sense of who they are.

3. The interaction of biological sex and socially-constructed gender

In this article, when I write “biological sex” I mean being born with a biologically male or female body, with regard to chromosomes, hormones, reproductive systems, and the impact of puberty. When I write “social gender” I mean the socially-constructed stereotypes that associate certain personal attributes, traits and tendencies, as well as social roles, with being either male or female.

These socially-constructed stereotypes are at best based on averages, and at worst based on prejudice. They include stereotypes of active boys liking football while passive girls like dolls, or decisive men liking technical jobs while emotional women like caring jobs. They result in men and women being expected to meet different social expectations and perform different social roles.

Biologically, I am a man, and not a woman, because I am biologically male, not female. Also, I do not have an intersex condition, which is something that can affect both men and women. Those are objective observations of fact. But I don’t identify with the idea of socially-constructed gender, because it reinforces false and harmful social stereotypes about sex.

So I am a man, and I am neither cisgender nor transgender nor any other variation of gender. Society associates some of my personal attributes with being male, and some with being female. I grew up as a long-haired boy reading Tiger, Bunty, Shoot, and Jackie. I am now a short-haired man, sometimes assertive and logical, sometimes gentle and empathetic, who cheers while watching football and cries while watching films.

But I don’t associate my personal attributes with being either male or female, because I don’t identify with the idea of gender itself. For clarity, I don’t mean that I have a mixture of male and female attributes. I mean, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard’s old joke about women’s clothes, that they are not male or female attributes, they are my attributes. And this is my body, not a “right” or “wrong” body for my attributes.

If I had been born with the same mixture of personal attributes, but with a biologically female body, these would still be my attributes. We should each feel safe embracing and exhibiting our own mixture of personal attributes, without having to meet expectations that society associates with our biological sex, or having to suppress or deny traits that society does not associate with our biological sex.

In the western world, we are gradually moving towards this, with the relentless advance of women’s rights and gay rights. We no longer automatically expect a man and a woman to perform different roles within the home and wider society, or to marry a person of the opposite biological sex. But there is still considerable prejudice and discrimination to overcome, and the existing defences against discrimination must be protected.

4. The idea of gender reinforces harmful stereotypes about sex

While I do not identify with the idea of gender, I support the right of any person to identify with whatever variation of gender they feel comfortable with, whether that be cisgender or transgender or any other variation, without being discriminated against on the basis of their self-identity. We are all unique, and we should try to be kind and supportive to each other, whether we be family, friends, or providers of physical and mental health care.

While I do not believe in the idea of “right” or “wrong” bodies, I support the right of rational informed adults to modify their bodies in order to match their preferred gender identity, or indeed for any other reason. This can be important for people who have gender dysphoria, in which they feel high levels of stress because their gender self-identity does not match their biological body. It can also be important for people with body dysmorphia unrelated to sex or gender issues.

I also believe that the idea of gender has evolved in a way that reinforces harmful social stereotypes about sex. When you are born, you are not “assigned” a sex or a gender. Your body is observed to be either biologically male or female, or in a small number of cases male or female with an intersex condition. That is an observation, not an “assignment,” about a biological fact related to the reproduction of our species. It has nothing to do with how you might later self-identify.

But after you are born, and as you grow up, society can effectively “assign” you a gender. On average, biological males and females can have some differences in personal attributes, traits and tendencies. Society translates these average differences into stereotypes, and describes those stereotypes as genders. This results in men and women being expected to meet different social expectations and perform different social roles. This in turn leads to prejudice, discrimination, and hostility, that is based ultimately on differences in biological sex.

But these gender expectations, and gender roles, are only socially-constructed heuristics. They do not match up with the complex reality of individual men and women. And they lead to unjust impositions on people who do not want to be put into these gender boxes. For years, feminists in particular have been trying to break down these gender boxes, so that we can see each other as individual men and women. But now some people are reinforcing the boxes, by suggesting that you should move between boxes, instead of breaking down the boxes.

Imagine you are a boy, and you have personal attributes that society associates with being a girl. Some people, using the language of socially-constructed gender, might suggest that you could be a girl who has been “assigned” the wrong gender or is in a “wrong” body. But that attitude merely reinforces the idea of sex stereotypes. Instead, if we want to challenge sex stereotypes, we should say it is okay to be either a boy or a girl who has any mixture of personal attributes.

5. The balancing of rights regulates social behaviour, not self-identity

When we move beyond self-identity into social behaviour, we sometimes have to balance the rights of some people against the rights of other people. Here are some of my current thoughts on this, with particular regard to biological women and transgender people.

Every individual has the right to be treated with dignity as a person. A biological woman or a transgender person can face prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence, simply because of their biological sex or social gender identity. They can face this at home, school, work, in healthcare, and social occasions. We should remain alert to these injustices and crimes. We should challenge this prejudice and discrimination, and arrest criminals who harass or assault a biological woman or a transgender person.

Everyone has the right to describe their beliefs about their own identity using their own preferred terminology. So transgender people have the right to describe themselves using their preferred pronouns, and biological men and women have the right to describe themselves as adult human males or females. Nobody should be coerced to use other people’s preferred terminology. And when listening to others, we should take into account whether they are speaking in the language of biological sex or the language of socially-constructed gender.

Liberal thinking about bodily autonomy is based on two principles. One, consenting rational adults should be free to use or modify their own bodies as they choose. And two, we should protect children, until they reach the age of informed consent, from significantly modifying their bodies in ways that have long-term or irreversible consequences. I believe that both of these principles should apply to people who identify as transgender. Also, they should apply to people, whether they are biologically male or female, who have an intersex condition.

Two issues seem like obvious unjust impositions on biological women. Drew Deveaux, a Canadian transgender woman, coined the phrase “cotton ceiling.” It refers to a situation in which a biological man with a penis, who identifies as a transgender lesbian, finds that a biological lesbian does not want to have sex with them, and labels the biological lesbian as transphobic. This notion undermines years of gay rights campaigns to defend the concept of biological same-sex attraction. It is unjust to try to shame people about their sexual orientation.

Indeed, it is unjust to try to shame people for who they are or are not sexually attracted to, for any reason. As subsidiaries to their sexual orientation, each individual has many sexual preferences, including body shape, physical fitness, hair or eye colour, personality, age, social status, sense of humour, shared interests, or just an indescribable personal chemistry. But shaming people about their sexual orientation has an added dimension, because it is a category protected by law.

More recently, Jessica Yaniv, a Canadian transgender woman with a biologically male body, has taken legal human rights cases against several women, because they refused to wax Yaniv’s male genitals. This is clearly a political campaign, not a genuine desire to obtain a waxing service. Some of the women lost their jobs. This is disgraceful behaviour. Nobody should be coerced into touching another person’s genitals without their consent.

The big concern here is not Yaniv, who is a disturbed outlier with several other behavioural alarm bells, including worrying communications with children and support for topless pool parties involving adults and twelve-year-olds. The big concern is the credibility and support that this behaviour has been given by media reporting restrictions, some online platform providers, and seemingly reputable publications and advocacy groups.

6. Public facilities that are reserved to protect and help women

Biological women have campaigned hard to obtain single-sex spaces to protect them from some biological men who are stronger, more aggressive, or even predatory. These spaces include public toilets, changing rooms, dormitories, abuse shelters, and prisons. Society should find ways to enable transgender people to live safe and fulfilling lives, without undermining these protections that have already been won for biological women.

Transgender women do not pose a particular danger in any of the above facilities. Transgender people are as loving, caring, and law-abiding as any other random person. But some predatory biological men could take advantage of lenient gender-based regulations. So there should be safeguards that do not allow people with biologically male bodies to use these facilities, simply on the basis that they self-identify as a woman with regard to gender. For clarity, this problem is not caused by transgender women. It is caused by some predatory biological men.

I believe that these facilities for biological women should remain, and they should be supplemented by extra single-use spaces, or shared spaces segregated by gender, or universal spaces, depending on the circumstances. This would enable every person to access these services with dignity, without undermining the protections that already exist for biological women. Reaching this balance would be different for different types of facilities.

Public toilets involve public hygiene issues regarding frequent and sometimes urgent bodily functions. They were first introduced during a more sexist era to maintain sexist stereotypes. Today they cause problems for opposite-sex parents and carers, as well as transgender people, who of course include parents and carers. So until recently I believed that segregated toilets should be replaced by universal toilets.

I now believe that solution is too simplistic. Public toilets are not merely functional. They involve a mix of human factors, including embarrassment and desire for privacy and safety. Women use public toilets for reasons related to menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy. Also, in practice, women’s toilets have evolved to have an additional function, which is to provide a space where biological women can feel safe and comfortable in the absence of biological men.

So now I believe that segregated public toilets for biological women should remain, and should be supplemented by extra universal toilets. There should be a mix of single standalone toilet rooms, and shared toilet spaces with rows of cubicles. This would enable everyone to use the toilet with dignity, while retaining the extra protections and benefits that women’s toilets have evolved to provide.

By contrast, questions about single-sex public changing rooms, showers, dormitories, abuse shelters, and prisons are more clear-cut. These facilities are more obviously segregated for the purpose of protecting biological women from some biological men, as well as making it easier to manage the facilities. People in shared changing rooms, showers, and dormitories undress or sleep in sight of each other; abuse shelters contain vulnerable women who are escaping from or recovering from abuse; and prisons contain criminals. The need to protect women in these facilities seems more compelling than in public toilets.

7. Sports that are reserved to enable women to compete fairly

The safeguarding of women’s sports as a protected category exists because of differences in biological sex, not social gender identity. In many sports, athletes who have gone through male puberty have physical advantages over athletes who have gone through female puberty.

This can cause serious physical injury in combat sports, where biological men could be literally fighting biological women, and in contact sports like rugby. It also causes competitive injustices in other sports, as recently highlighted by sportswomen like Martina Navratilova and Sharron Davies.

The current practice in some sports of measuring levels of testosterone at least has the merit of being based on some biological factors. However, it is arbitrary, hard to comply with, and hard to monitor. It is also an invasive imposition on the lives of some athletes.

I believe that, in sports where biological sex makes a sufficient difference, there should be a protected category for biological women. In some sports, the men’s category could be replaced by an unprotected category in which anybody can compete, regardless of their biological sex or social gender identity.

8. Attempts to close debate by demonising people who disagree

Some of these questions can be difficult to address, and I don’t claim to have all of the answers. But it is neither reasonable nor acceptable to address this difficulty by closing down discussion. So I want to conclude by addressing the false idea that my friend Graham is a bigot who is so cartoonishly evil that his friends should not have lunch with him.

Graham is a good man, who has used his influence to defend the British National Health Service. He and his wife Helen exposed their private family grief to support abortion rights in Ireland. On a personal level, he was supportive when my wife Anne died of cancer, a disease from which Graham later suffered.

Graham supports the rights of transgender people, and he opposes the policies of some activists where they infringe on the rights of biological women. It is of course fine to disagree with Graham about the underlying issues, or to disagree with his choice of language in response to repeated, vitriolic personal abuse. But the idea that Graham is a bigot is simply not credible to those of us who know him.

There are many actual bigots, who harass and assault people for being biological women or for identifying as transgender, or for being a target of any number of other prejudices. These bigots should be challenged for their prejudice, and arrested for their criminal behaviour. But these bigots do not include Graham, or Martina Navratilova and Sharron Davies, or the many other people who are raising important questions about the balance of rights on this issue.

Lumping good people in with actual bigots just makes the word bigot meaningless, and leaves us with no useful words to describe actual bigots. As Jack Appleby put it on Twitter: “What’s more likely: that a load of life-long left-leaning LGBT-supporting women have inexplicably and uncharacteristically all suddenly become bigots, or that one might be missing something here?”

I hope and suspect that most of the people attacking Graham and others are nicer in real life than they are behind a keyboard. I hope and suspect that most people who are concerned about this issue would prefer to tease out how to balance everybody’s rights in a just way, rather than trying to unjustly infringe on the rights of others.

But a small number of vocal activists are using undue influence to inhibit this debate. Online platforms have removed people from using their services, the police have called to people who have committed no crimes, and media reporting restrictions have until recently protected Jessica Yaniv in the Canadian genital waxing case. Fortunately, this tactic will have a limited shelf life, particularly as the issues enter mainstream discussion.

Ultimately, as with so many contentious issues, we should try to judge each other charitably, using the standards that we would like others to apply to us. That can seem hard when some people are eager to believe the worst about us, but if we maintain our integrity we can move a little closer every day to a kinder, more just world.

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6 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Nugent,

    I think you’ve genuinely tried to be thoughtful and fair here. I agree with some of the points you’ve made, too; You sound just like me when you say “Society associates some of my personal attributes with being male, and some with being female.”

    I am not here to argue all of your points, nor am I entitled to. I am still learning. Neither of us are experts on this topic, but there are many people with lived experience, and organisations, and experts, who know better. I hope you will take their perspectives and research and testimonies into account, as well as those of your friends. I hope you can remain open to diverse perspectives on this topic.

    I found this recap enlightening and hope you find it useful, or maybe interesting, too:

    https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/identities/2019/9/5/20840101/terfs-radical-feminists-gender-critical

  2. Thank you, Michael. You are obviously coming from a good place and have already given a lot of consideration to the issues raised by transgenderism. You are roughly where I was at about two and a half years ago.
    Graham is indeed a good and courageous person – as is every other high-profile individual who is prepared to raise their head above the parapet.
    Only one small bit of what you have written here jars a bit:
    “Transgender women do not pose a particular danger in any of the above facilities.”
    Some do. Violent, predatory men who “transition” do not become less violent or predatory after doing so. I know this from personal experience. Check out the Crime page of my website for evidence.
    Trans people are, of course, individuals like anyone else. Some are indeed loving, caring and law-abiding and I am happy to count a number of suchlike as friends. But in my experience, those who actively promote gender ideology on social media are overwhelmingly nasty and hateful and some of that hate spills over into real life, with campaigns of harassment, doxing and, as you know, even lawsuits. It is the most toxic and misogynistic movement I have known in six decades of life.
    Being assaulted then suffering an ongoing campaign of defamation and bullying by trans activists has had a profoundly negative effect on my life and for the sake of my own sanity, I have to keep fighting to hang to the rights won by my generation of women and the generations that went before us but which now feel like they’re being flushed away as every wing of the establishment kowtows to the trans ideologues.

    I still dream of a world where people are free to express themselves however they choose without fear of discrimination and violence but without feeling the need to claim to be what they are not. Alas, it won’t happen in my lifetime or in yours.
    I have linked to your piece from my website, which may find a useful source of further reading. Thanks again.

  3. Michael, I see a lot of similarities in your thinking with my own. However, there is an element to this blog which I think undermines quite a bit of your thought here. Your section 3 discusses your experience of the interaction of sex and gender. But it is all too easy to dismiss the intrinsic impact of gender assignment on the self, when that gender lines up with your biological sex. I too reject the idea of socially constructed gender, but that’s easy for my as a cis person. I have no way to understand what gender means to a person whose gender does not line up with their biology, and neither do you. This problem of perception I think leads to errors in some of your later conclusions.
    On a separate note. I can see your attempts to to be considerate and balanced here, and I appreciate it, but I have seen Graham Linehan attack people for the same kind of considerations. He is vitriolic and abusive on this topic. His behaviour is completely unacceptable.

  4. You write: “While I do not believe in the idea of “right” or “wrong” bodies, I support the right of rational informed adults to modify their bodies in order to match their preferred gender identity, or indeed for any other reason… It can also be important for people with body dysmorphia unrelated to sex or gender issues.”

    So here’s a conundrum. There are people who insist they want perfectly healthy limbs amputated. (This is not a trans thing; there really are. Might be a leg, arm, whatever.) Should that be treated as a mental abnormality, which might respond to some form of non-amputative treatment, on the Hippocratic principle? Or should one just go ahead and lop off a limb? Similarly, there have been historical figures (at least one French king) who firmly believed they were made of glass, and would shatter if treated too hard. Was that mental illness? Where does “dysphoria” end, and illness or disorder start? And if we can answer that, where does the desire of some people to have the opposite sex’s physical characteristics fit?

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