In Defense of Sex as a Category of Significance

Unpacking arguments that undermine and erase biological and physiological sex as a category of legal, medical, social, and political significance.

“But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful—and yet they are very difficult to define.”
Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women” (1931)

“There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again. […] You have been having our rights so long, that you think, like a slaveholder, that you own us. I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.”
Sojourner Truth, “Keeping the Thing Going While Things Are Stirring” (1867)

Introduction

Sex is the basis of sexual orientation. Sexism happens on the basis of sex. These simply written sentences, at their most basic, should make sense to most human beings who read them. One might think that it seems almost self-evident, indeed, most seemingly obvious, that sexual orientation is based on sex, as sex is the basis of sexism. It seems as if these two social facts should go without anyone saying so. However, presently, we live under an order of doublethink, the “unold” way to “make it new”; we live in this Brave New World, a postmodern condition, as one might call it, now becoming a paralyzing contagion.

Proving unable to provide a cure for the problems of modernism, foremost among them a sense of self-alienation, postmodernism has become a new cause factoring into the old neuroses afflicting humankind. As such, we now see it questioned, in the queerest of terms, whether or not an individual person can set unquestionable personal, sexual boundaries explicitly on the basis of sex with regard to that person’s sexual orientation. In addition, we see males not only speaking for females, as males have done for thousands of years, but also claiming to speak as “females.” Women as a sex class find their rights under attack, in a variety of ways, from the misguided idea that any person can “self-identify” into one sex class or another without infringing on the rights of other classes of persons.

Differing arguments exist, numerous as they might be, that, whether directly or indirectly, undermine sex as a category of significance. I argue, however, that we must maintain explicit sex-class-specific distinctions for legal, medical, social, and political reasons. These reasons pertain to upholding the rights of women as a sex class, homosexual people as a class of persons exclusively sexually oriented toward other people of the same sex, and intersex people who, unsurprisingly, require a knowledge of human sexual dimorphism. In this essay, I present examples of the arguments against sex as a category of significance and respond to them here, such that we might reveal problems with their reasoning.

I. “Sex Is a Spectrum”

Argument: Intersex people exist with bodies unable to be neatly classified as either male-sexed or female-sexed, meaning that they must be something other, which means not only that sex is a spectrum but also that anyone can “self-identify” into any category of sex whatsoever.

Response: Intersex people do exist. However, in most cases, their bodies can be observed as either male-sexed or female-sexed. “Hermaphrodites,” born with both sets of functional male and female reproductive sex organs do not exist, although transgender rights activists who misappropriate intersex people generally do not know this fact.

The claim that “sex is a spectrum” can only be true if one further marginalizes intersex males and intersex females who, by and large, can be classified, still, as either male or female based on the presence of primary sex traits. This claim of sex being a “spectrum,” which is the argument of “queer theory,” is a claim made at the expense of intersex people who find themselves (re)constructed as “Other,” for the sake of “discourse.”

Chromosomal and hormonal differences can coexist with a body that can be classified, based on the aforementioned primary sex characteristics, as either male or female. In addition, babies born with ambiguous genitalia constitute the minority of the minority of intersex people in existence. These cases require extreme carefulness to ensure surgical procedures are not done solely and unethically for cosmetic reasons, but rather only as a result of medical necessity if the infant’s immediate physical health and wellbeing is compromised.

These problems exclusively impacting intersex people, not trans-identified people, are not being helped at all by transgender rights activism that, as we know, pushes nonessential, invasive cosmetic procedures, even when performed on young people, as “essential,” “life-saving” surgeries.

“Sex assigned at birth,” a phrase widely used by transgender rights activists, is itself a form of misappropriation, wrongly applied to every single birth, since, in fact, for almost every birth that occurs, sex is observed, not “assigned.” For instance, I say that I am a person observed male at birth. In my case, my voice does not sound male-typical, more female-typical, and my body, in some ways, differs structurally in appearance from that of typical males. Yet, my primary sex traits indicate my maleness. Using “observed,” rather than “assigned,” constitutes the ethical choice in terminology for people who do not desire to misappropriate the lives of actual intersex people.

When transgender rights activists argue that intersex people exist in other sex categories aside from male or female, even when they are observed male or female at birth, the activists effectively “missex” intersex people. Transgender rights activists talk about the “erasure” of the so-called “womanhood” of trans-identified males (“MtFs”) and then, lacking self-awareness, they erase the womanhood of intersex females, whose very lives the activists misappropriate to claim that “sex is a spectrum.” Activists claim that they speak for intersex people and then, by misappropriating their experiences, they further intensify the marginalization of intersex people.

Intersex people existing, even so, does not rationalize the idea that people observed one sex at birth can “self-identify” themselves into either of the two sexes. Anyone who attempts to draw an analogy between intersex people and trans-identified people, whose lived experiences contrast quite significantly between both groups, as such constructs a false analogy.

Now widespread, the misappropriation of intersex people’s lived experiences, instrumentalized to assault sex as a category of significance, counts among the great shames of modern liberalism.

II. Humans Need a Comparison to Clownfish “Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle

Argument: If a species of animal, aside from the human species, can change sex naturally, in biological and physiological terms, usually for the purposes of reproduction of the species as a function of evolution, then these otherwise natural processes, among other animal species who change sex, can be compared to human beings taking artificial cross-sex hormones and undergoing invasive cosmetic surgeries to approximate the appearance of the opposite sex. If true and not false, then this analogy would present a reasonable, naturalist argument for the notion that human beings can change sex.

Response: This argument could be called the clownfish conundrum, since, for the most part, we see the clownfish, misfortunately all too misappropriated, as an example of an animal that can change sex, which, for some reason, means that humans can do so, too. Indeed, I find it to be rather a fishy fallacy.

To be sure, many argumentative appeals exist in their collective aim to support the absurd notion that humans can change sex, based on other animal species doing so. Yet, even these comparisons seem insufficient upon scrutiny, since animals change sex biologically and physiologically, due to evolution and reproduction. Being a sexually dimorphic species, as we know, human beings do not change sex biologically and physiologically. Nor, as a matter of fact, should natural processes among other animal species be compared to humans taking artificial cross-sex hormones and undergoing invasive cosmetic surgeries to approximate the appearance, albeit a sexually stereotyped version, of what is thought to be a living portrait of “the authentic self” as “the opposite sex.”

This argument derives from preceding arguments, over time, about the natural occurrence of homosexuality and bisexuality in other animal species, which, it seems, would indicate that human sexuality, likewise, is not biologically determined as heterosexual. So, if we see sexualities that diverge from heterosexuality exhibited in other animal species, then we could reason, as we very well might, that there is a naturalist argument for both homosexuality and bisexuality. I find this point of view reasonable.

However, where the mistake occurs, now, is in the false analogy between homosexuality and “transgenderism.” Sexual orientation is based on sex, which is rooted in the material state of sexual being for one’s biology and physiology. Whereas socialization does impact the development of the self, even pertaining to sexuality, one’s sexual orientation, at its most fundamental, is rooted in factors of biology and physiology. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality all exist in this way, contrary to what any religious or nonreligious ideology says about mind as self over body as matter.

“Transgenderism” poses a problem to the significance of sexual orientation being on the basis of sex, because, as an ideology, “transgenderism” argues that one’s “gender identity” is one’s sex. This antagonistic relationship of “transgenderism” to human sexuality pertains to the propagation of a mind-body dualism, akin to some more so unhealthy religious beliefs. As such, it dislocates sex and sexuality away from the body and displaces them into the mind, subordinating human sexuality to the abstraction of “gender identity.” Such dualism, done in the name of “self-actualization,” as we see, tends to advance one toward self-annihilation. “Gender identity,” seen as a “true” body waiting beyond the present “false” body, an ascension of the self from the mere body as matter, presents more maladies than remedies. [1]

III. “Ain’t I a Woman?”/“One Is Not Born, But Rather Becomes, a Woman”

Argument: Simone de Beauvoir writes: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” So, according to Beauvoir, somebody observed male at birth can “become a woman,” since womanhood does not derive from “being sexed,” but rather from “becoming sexed.” Before Beauvoir, in fact, Sojourner Truth, a Black feminist foremother, argued, in “Ain’t I a Woman,” that Black females are women as white females are women and should not be excluded from womanhood. Therefore, people observed male at birth, whether white or Black, should not be excluded from being female. To tell people observed male at birth that they are not female is to be both sexist and racist, because white females are seen as the standard for femaleness.”

Response: Simply put, this argument, quite clearly, misappropriates the words of both Beauvoir and Truth, taken out of context, in an attempt to rationalize the absurd notion that males can become “female.” Transgender rights activists, especially males who “self-identify” as “female,” enjoy quoting Beauvoir at women whom they see as “TERFs” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists). Misinterpretations of Beauvoir, like the one above, however, conflate “femininity” with “femaleness,” which, in fact, reinforces women’s oppression on the basis of sex as “natural,” therefore unchangeable.

Instead of questioning the presumed “naturalness” of the social, presumably defined by the biological, such a misunderstanding roots the social in the biological. The two states become seen as interchangeable as such, which, it seems, has contributed to the present problems with “gender identity” undermining sex as a category of significance. Indeed, people observed male at birth can be as feminine as they please, but they cannot become “female,” as neither maleness nor femininity are “femaleness.” To state otherwise is to engage in the conflation that Beauvoir criticizes.

Misinterpreting Beauvoir as conflating “femaleness” with “femininity” seems mistaken, given that Beauvoir herself does not insist upon the two being the same concept at all. Beauvoir writes, earlier in The Second Sex (1949):

These biological considerations are extremely important. In the history of woman they play a part of the first rank and constitute an essential element in her situation. Throughout our further discussion we shall always bear them in mind. For, the body being the instrument of our grasp upon the world, the world is bound to seem a very different thing when apprehended in one manner or another. This accounts for our lengthy study of the biological facts; they are one of the keys to the understanding of woman. But I deny that they establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny. They are insufficient for setting up a hierarchy of the sexes; they fail to explain why woman is the Other; they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role for ever.” (emphasis mine)

As we see here, Beauvoir emphasizes the materiality of the female body as it exists, in her words, “in the bosom of a society.” Women being oppressed on the basis of sex matters to any analysis, feminist or otherwise, of sexism across human societies. Females beyond the West have known the materiality of their own femaleness under male supremacy without the white paternalism of any Western theorists of either sex. It is not “white feminism” to state that females are oppressed on the basis of sex, because plenty of women of color, even beyond the West, know what femaleness is, since they are, in fact, female. Radical feminists of color from countries in Africa and Asia, as examples, have seen sex as the basis of sexist oppression, without themselves being “white feminists” in any sense. So, the charge of “white feminism,” in this case, seems to misappropriate an otherwise sensible critique of white supremacy as a means to attack feminism itself in defense of male supremacy. Such a false charge, far from being a critique of racist ideology, made in bad faith, can be weaponized to support sexist ideology under the appearance of anti-racist activism.

When Beauvoir speaks of “becoming a woman,” she does not simply mean a person of either sex choosing to put on an outfit or wear makeup. The fact that this misinterpretation is widely accepted as both theory and practice on the left indicates the trivialization of oppression on the basis of sex. In Beauvoir’s book, with close attention to detail, she discusses all of the ways in which women are socialized as women on the basis of sex in sexist society. Critiques can be made, as they have been, that Beauvoir does not write about the specific lived experiences of every single subclass of the female sex class ever to have existed on the face of the earth. “Gender identity,” however, replacing sex as a category of significance negates any sex-class-specific analysis and hides the very structuring of sexism itself.

In yet another act of misappropriation, transgender rights activists sometimes invoke Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851) speech to argue that males can be “females.” Clearly, they misappropriate this text, even Black feminism itself, to argue that any woman who opposes males being “female” is a “white feminist,” comparable to anyone who thinks Black females are not females.

Coming from one of America’s Black feminist foremothers, Truth’s speech, based on the Gage version, appears to draw attention to the differential treatment Black women received in contrast to white women. In truth, there has been stereotyping of Black females as less feminine, presumably more masculine because of their race, than white females, but none of this stereotyping negates the shared sex of Black females and white females. While American society, being both male supremacist and white supremacist, has treated white women differently from Black women, even if they share a sex, Truth does not herself engage in sex denialism. We know that Truth, in her own words, saw sex as strictly biological and physiological, because she explicitly describes women as the sex class possessing the capacity to give birth. Truth says:

“And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man [the white man]is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.” (emphasis mine) [2]

Only people observed female at birth can give birth, although not all of them must give birth in order to be female, therefore Truth’s use of “woman” inherently excludes any person observed male at birth. So, Truth’s definition of woman refers explicitly to womanhood as being defined by biology and physiology, on the basis of sex, not by how one “self-identifies” with one’s own sex. Although it is not discussed as much in public discourse, even the sexual and social conditions of the Black female slave differed markedly from those of the Black male slave as a function differences on the basis of sex. To argue that racism negates the category of sex is to erase sexism itself. It is seen as “divisive” to say that, although Black males and Black females share a race, as a common condition, their lived experiences have differed due to their respective sexes. This social fact must be acknowledged and addressed.

To add, it has been argued that calling women the slaves of men, on the basis of sex, is “white feminism.” However, Black feminist foremothers, like Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), have analyzed sexism as a form of enslavement to an oppressor in the parallel sense to racism. Of significance, too, sexism, as a system of oppression, rooted in mankind’s abuse and exploitation of womankind, which has been worldwide, preceded colonialism, racism, and capitalism, all of which have spread sexism.

IV. Enlightenment or Bust!: Or, Postmodern Deconstructive Philosophical Discourses on How Human Beings Probably Did Not Know How Sex Worked Before Both the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Enlightenment

Argument: Seen in terms of society, culture, and politics, sex, as a category, only exists, socially constructed, as a function of colonialism and racism, which, by default, makes gender identity, also socially constructed, somehow, the neither colonialist nor racist, “sex-free” alternative for human sexuality.

Response: So, this argument claims that “sex,” as a category based on biological and physiological sex traits associated with either maleness or femaleness, exists not as naturally occurring, by any means, but rather as an invention of colonialism and racism. If proven as true, then such a claim would mark biological and physiological sex as only a few centuries old, meaning that, before a few centuries ago, human being, as a species, everywhere on earth, could not distinguish between males and females.

Lacking the invention of sex would have deprived us of such sex-based distinctions that would allow us to know who is male-sexed versus female-sexed, differences presumably not produced, it would seem, until the start of the transatlantic slave trade. However, this claim can be disproven simply by the fact that humans existed as a sexually dimorphic animal species prior to colonialism and racism.

Since the beginning of humankind, human sexual reproduction, which also coincidentally preceded colonialism and racism, has depended on the union of the sperm and the ovum to form a zygote. As such, in the human species, the male has produced small gametes—known as sperm—and the female has produced large gametes—known as ova. No other means of reproduction among human beings has existed in the entire existence of humankind except the process in which the sperm fertilizes the ovum. The male of the species produces sperm, while the female of the species produces ova; males and females can be male-sexed and female-sexed without themselves being fertile. People observed either male or female at birth, unable to produce viable gametes, are not some other sex because of infertility.

Human beings, like other animal species, have been able to differentiate between the sexes, in the absence of the last few centuries of philosophy, even before the existence of ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

V. “Queering” Homosexuality into Compulsory Heterosexuality: Or, He Told Her, a Lesbian, That Sex Is “Socially Constructed,” That It Is All Sexually and Socially Relative Anyway, and That Boundaries Need To Be Broken, So, He Continued, She Should Shut Her TERF Mouth and Sleep with Him, a Lesbian Like Her Except Observed Male at Birth, Submitting Herself to His Demands for Her Sex, All Said and Done in the Shining Name of “Social Justice”

Argument: On the subject of sex, when lesbians decline “transgender women” or gay men decline “transgender men,” on the basis of sex, it can be compared to white people discriminating against Black people on the basis of race. It is “transphobic”/“cissexist” for anyone to decline sex with trans-identified people on the basis of sex.

Response: Homosexual people, including lesbians and gay men, are exclusively sexually oriented toward people of the same sex. Transgender rights activists argue that homosexuality, defined on the basis of sex, constitutes both “discrimination” and “oppression” against trans-identified people on the basis of “gender identity.” These arguments weaponize the concept of “gender identity” to negate the category of sex and its corresponding protections for both women and homosexual people.

In any case, the analogy that activists make between “race” and “gender identity,” which they make very selectively, undermines their argument. “Race” is not—nor has it ever been—the basis of sexual orientation. This simple concept seems self-evident to anyone able to distinguish between “race” and sex. Perhaps, without even thinking about it, most readers can recognize that maleness and femaleness are not qualitatively the same as “whiteness” and “Blackness.” “Whiteness” being seen as “superior” and “Blackness” being seen as “inferior” pertain to racism as an ideology, that is, white supremacy. White supremacy, being the perceived superiority of “the white race” over “the Black race,” which, in fact, can influence how people see each other sexually, does not originate in any sexual orientation akin to heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Racism can be sexualized as sexism can be racialized, although, with regard to human sexuality, sex is the basis of sexual orientation.

No other social movement in the history of humankind has argued that declining sex with somebody, on the basis of sex, constitutes “discrimination” or “oppression” except the modern transgender rights movement. As far as I know, demands for sex on demand, aimed at already oppressed classes of people, do not come from actually oppressed classes of people. Trans-identified people, who are heterosexual and bisexual males and females, should not be shaming homosexual people into sex with members of the opposite sex in the name of “social justice.”

Conclusion

I do not “self-identify” into either of the two sexes, using the abstraction of “gender identity,” because it does not make sense for anyone of either sex to engage in sex denialism. In simplest terms, I am sexed as I am. Likewise, as a person observed male at birth, I neither “self-identify” as a feminist nor do I wish to colonize feminism in the social, political, economic, and sexual interests of men. I do not wish to be seen as a feminist by anyone; rather, I am most pleased with simply being seen as a writer, which is all I have ever wished to be. I write as I please. And, indeed, I do not think that anyone observed male at birth should position himself as someone who authoritatively defines feminism for women as a sex class. He certainly should neither speak for women nor as a “woman.” These methods for the male colonization of feminism, it seems, have brought us to this point.

When we think about such factors as sex, race, and class, their corresponding oppressions explicitly depend on one’s social being under peculiar social conditions. Such oppressions, which are historical and material, principally rely on the external perception of these social facts of one’s being in existence. As a subjective sense of self, “gender identity,” however, cannot be perceived, except if one “self-identifies” as such. That is, somebody observed one sex at birth must “self-identify” to make “gender identity” known to others. Otherwise, if unspoken to “change” one’s sex, one cannot know the “gender identity” of another person. One could argue that “gender identity” can be compared to sexual orientation, although oppression on the basis of sexual orientation is oppression on the basis of sex. The oppression of women and homosexual people, including lesbians and gay men, across societies and cultures has happened on the basis of sex, not “gender identity.” “Gender identity,” however, can be used, in both theory and practice, as it has been used, to undermine sex as the basis of both sexism and homophobia.

Under the engendered order of things, this “new” way of knowing and being, a person observed male at birth, who “self-identifies” himself as “female,” can speak and write about his so-called “femaleness,” as perfectly as he pleases. However, a person observed female at birth, no matter how she is, can speak and write only on the terms of the male who “self-identifies” himself as “female,” lest she speak out of turn. She follows his terms that he sets on her female existence for fear of her factual femaleness infringing on his own so-called “femaleness.” Indicative of the subjection of women on the basis of sex, his very identity as “female” is itself a fictive role manufactured in the man’s own mind. He enforces this gendered role, still on the basis of sex, to which he demands that the woman herself, observed female and not male like himself, must submit her entire life.

Transgender rights activists use terms like “gender” and “gender identity,” in place of sex, because, socially and politically, they desire to erase sex as a category of significance. This framing, on the part of most activists in the mainstream, undermines the human rights of women as a sex class, homosexuals as a class of persons exclusively sexually oriented toward people of the same sex, and intersex people as a class of persons whose conditions, which need to be known to them, depend on an understanding of sex. As we know, sex remains significant in both legal and medical terms. To say otherwise, which is to prioritize “gender” and “gender identity” over sex itself, is to subordinate the interests of the aforementioned three classes of persons, all presumably for the sake of trans-identified people. Sex differences themselves, in essence, do not equate to sexist oppression, as it seems, rather, the social being of the sexed body in existence that matters. We must, therefore, protect sex as a category of significance.

Note

[1] “Transgenderism” appears as it does, in quotation marks, because every ideology, whether right-wing or left-wing, needs a name, especially this one. I define it, simply, as the use of “gender identity,” as a concept, to undermine sex as a category of significance in legal, medical, social, and political terms. Some people also refer to this system of beliefs as “gender identity ideology.” I do not see trans-identified people as the problem, per se; rather, I see this ideology, as remarked upon, so conceived in society today, as a powerful threat to the rights of women as a sex, homosexual people as a class of persons exclusively sexually oriented toward people of the same sex, and intersex people for whom the sex of the body matters. Social and political circumstances, in their concreteness, existing as they do on the basis of sex, must not be colonized by the abstraction of “gender identity.”

[2] This text of Truth’s speech comes from the Marius Robinson transcription, published on June 21, 1851, in The Anti-Slavery Bugle. Although the Frances Gage version, dated April 23, 1863,  is the most common version of the speech, it is also an inaccurate rendering of what Truth said in full. The Gage version is the most anthologized version, even if, as of recently, it has been understood as highly inaccurate and even, quite frankly, racist in its distortion of Truth’s own typical way of speaking. Born into chattel slavery in New York, enslaved from childhood onward, with Dutch as her first language, English being her second, Truth did not sound the way Gage rewrites her voice sounding as if it held a stereotypically Southern dialect. Truth and Robinson were friends, and it has been noted that she approved the transcription of that version before publication. The same cannot be said for the Gage version.

In addition, the Robinson version gives more justice to Truth, whereas the Gage version misrepresents her words, therefore, it seems, also potentially miscommunicating her ideas on equality. Significantly, in the Robinson version of Truth’s speech, which is, at present time, the more accurate version, contrasted to the Gage version, we see no such expressed concern from Truth over men not helping her into carriages, lifting her over ditches, and giving her the best place everywhere. These sentiments, which emphasize the paternalism of men in taking care of women, seem inserted into Truth’s speech by Gage, ideas unable to be found expressed anywhere in the text of the Robinson version.

“Ain’t I a woman?” does not appear asked in the Robinson version, in any form; indeed, the truth of Truth’s sex, as a Black female, seems to go without her feeling the need to ask her audience. Even so, when Truth’s womanhood did come under question, she referenced her female biology and physiology as her response to those who questioned her femaleness.

About Donovan Cleckley 7 Articles
Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and is completing an MA in English at Tulane University. His research focuses on sexual politics and the history of the global women’s movement. Learn more about his work at donovan-k-cleckley.com.

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