Sex and Social Constructionism

Dr Em demolishes the idea that feminists should adopt the views of social constructionism and demonstrates the importance of understanding biological sex.

Figures: Tweets by Professor Sally Hines, University of Leeds.


Professor Sally Hines frequently expresses the problems surrounding sex and social constructionism. Her arguments that sex is no longer applicable to feminism or that a feminist can subscribe to queer theory do in fact have a grounding in philosophical traditions. Luce Irigaray claimed that ‘Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age’.1 Science, sociology and philosophy have all grappled with the question of the differences between males and females and feminist theory has provided an analytical framework to challenge the subjugation of women based on these differences. Biology is the fact, social construction around biology is the means of oppression. Linda Bellos has succinctly explained that ‘social construction is the creation of the idea and an ideology that justifies the domination of one group of people by another group of people’. 2 Bellos claims that ‘the reason that women are routinely paid less than men or are pushed aside in favour of less competent men is that of the notion of gender. Gender assigns particular characteristics to men and to women, just as race assigns particular characteristics to White people and the Black peoples’.
3 ]The debate around sex and social constructionism is thus of extreme importance to women. This paper is intended as a brief introduction and summary of the positions. It shall begin with a consideration of how we have arrived at the point that the reality of biological sex is in question, the challenges posed by the social sciences and the parallel developments in the discipline of philosophy. The different feminist positions shall then be summarised.

How Have We Arrived Here

The current tangled knot surrounding sex and gender is one of patriarchal reversal and a smug ‘gotcha’ by men and anti-feminist women built on feminist works ‘pre’ and post gender’s entry as a term into feminist theory. Gender as a term wasn’t used beyond philology (la or le for example) until the sexologist John Money utilised it during his examination of transsexualism to describe different general behavioural traits and the social construction (dresses, make-up, hair) between men and women. 4 Robert Stoller, the psychologist focusing on sexology, then began using the terms ‘sex’ to describe biological traits and ‘gender’ to characterise the feminine and masculine traits exhibited by an individual. 5 Feminist texts borrowed from these works in terms of language as before the 1960s and 1970s they employed terms such as femininity or ‘woman’ as a social construct to describe the cultural trappings and stereotypes imposed on the female sex. As Mari Mikkola has argued, ‘one way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour’.6 Catharine MacKinnon utilised not just the language of the sexologists but also their focus on sexuality as the locus of gender. MacKinnon developed a theory of gender as a theory of sexuality, that the social meaning of sex (gender) was created by the sexual objectification of women and the eroticisation of dominance and submission.7 It was during the backlash against feminism in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s that ‘feminist’ academics began to assert the supposed naturalness of a system of male dominance and female submission (gender). It was building on the works of Judith Butler that one strand of ‘feminism’ started to claim that sex was either undeterminable or unimportant and gender was in fact supreme.

Human epistemology has come under enormous pressure in recent decades. Tandem challenges to philosophical learning and biological science are threatening to cast human understanding of lived reality a drift. So I must begin at the basics. The science known as biology has established that humans are sexually dimorphic mammals normally with 23 pairs of chromosomes per cell and sex determined at conception. In general, twenty-two autosomes are the same in both males and females while the 23rd pair, the sex chromosomes, differ between males and females. Usually females have two copies of the X chromosome, while males have one X and one Y chromosome. Every person must have at least one X chromosome but it is the Y chromosome which contains the SRY gene which determines gonadal sex in that it is the gene that encodes the human testis-determining factor. The organisational hypothesis was developed by biologists to explain intersex conditions.8 ‘Every year in the UK, approximately 150 children are diagnosed with Different, diverse (or as doctors might say, disorder) of Sex development (DSD). That means there are approximately 2,300 children living with DSD conditions in the UK’.9 There are a variety of conditions of diverse sexual development covered by the umbrella DSD or ‘intersex’. The intersex advocate writing under the pseudonym ‘Mrkhtake2’ is clear on the science outlining how ‘Another important gene in sex determination is SOX9. XX humans who have an extra copy of SOX9 develop as males, even though they have no SRY gene’.10 She has further clarified that

even a person with XXXXY chromosomes would be male because of the Y. Someone with only one X (XO) chromosome would still be female and their body would begin making ovaries (although they would not develop fully as the second X chromosome is needed).11

Indeed, there are a range of intersex/diverse sexual development conditions and genetic combinations, however these do not suggest that sex is a spectrum in humans as all are either male or female. Diverse sexual development occurs while the embryo is developing into a foetus and the ‘body parts to do with being a boy or a girl are affected by chromosomes that give the body messages about how to develop and by hormones… that come from certain tissues in the body’.12 The intersex advocate provides an example to illustrate which looks at the two hormones responsible for the biological combination known as AIS. She outlines how

The first of these hormones is AMH, the hormone that causes the degeneration of the Müllerian duct. The second is the steroid testosterone. This hormone causes the urogenital swellings to develop into the scrotum and penis. The existence of these two independent systems of masculinisation is demonstrated by people having AIS. These XY individuals have the SRY gene, and thus have testes that make testosterone and AMH. However, they lack the testosterone receptor protein, and therefore cannot respond to the testosterone made by their testes. Because they are able to respond to oestrogen made in their adrenal glands, they develop the female phenotype… These people develop as normal but sterile women, lacking a uterus and oviducts and having testes in the abdomen.13

Intersex conditions and the people who have these different genetic combinations have been used to push an agenda which denies science and casts their reality as socially constructed. The leading U.K. charity advocating for people with DSD states categorically that DSD and transgender are not the same thing.14 Accord Alliance, an organisation intended to promote comprehensive and integrated approaches to care that enhance the health and well-being of people and families affected by DSD, supports dsdfamilies claim and argues that ‘DSD is about physical sex development (how a person’s body formed), not about gender identity (who a person feels himself or herself to be)’.15 Intersex Human Rights Australia is similarly adamant and assert that ‘Intersex is not a part of the trans umbrella (such as transgender or transsexual) nor is intersex a form of gender diversity, because intersex is not about gender, or transition. Intersex is about bodies; about congenital physical differences in sex characteristics’.16 The treatment of intersex people has been a medical scandal and they deserve redress and practices must be changed.17 These medical conditions and peoples’ lives are being weaponised as a poor ‘gotcha’ argument while intersex advocacy is silenced. Professor of philosophy at MIT, Alex Byrne, has authored a critique of this exploitation of medical conditions as ‘misguided’ and evasive.18 Nevertheless, science denial has become widespread and the social sciences such as sociology and gender studies are usurping the place of fact and material reality.

The social sciences and gender studies, in all its various names, began their land grab against the discipline of biology in the early part of the twentieth century. Scholars of gender studies such as Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University, used the fact that sexed bodies have been altered due to different social conditioning to argue that biology is socially constructed. Fausto-Sterling applied the idea that females are smaller than males because over time male and female exercise and diet has been socially shaped to argue that if males and females had the same encouragement to the same exercises then bodily dimorphism would decrease.19 There is a ring of truth to this argument however Fausto-Sterling over-extends it. She moves from a position that bodies are effected by cultural ideas over time to the notion that one can exercise away sex differences, one must presume this includes gamete production? Fausto-Sterling then attempted a different means of attack, to claim that sex is a spectrum. She brought this to the general public in in her New York Times article ‘How Many Sexes Are There?’20 In this article Fausto-Sterling made the extraordinary claim that ‘if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are defying nature’. 21 She then went on to argue that ‘biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; along that spectrum lie at least five sexes — perhaps even more’.
22 Throughout the article and without signposting Fausto-Sterling jumped between sex meaning biological sex, gender meaning biological sex and sex meaning desire or practice of sexuality. A clear red flag was when Fausto-Sterling used the Bible as a source for an intersex condition, relating that ‘Intersexuality itself is old news. Early biblical scholars believed Adam began life as a hermaphrodite and later divided into two people — a male and a female — after falling from grace’.
23  Still this destabilisation of knowledge and methods for understanding the material world continued apace. In October 2018 the formerly reliable Nature Magazine argued that ‘A move to classify people [as male or female] on the basis of anatomy or genetics should be abandoned’.24 The editorial writer made the bold, and, I would argue, unfounded claim that ‘The idea that science can make definitive conclusions about a person’s sex or gender is fundamentally flawed’.25 Science investigates and explains material reality, the physical world, not an idea based on sex role stereotypes (gender).

Alongside this challenge to the sciences there were parallel moves in philosophy to prioritise idealism over materialism as the best means to understand the human condition and our place in the world. Dr Jane Clare Jones has outlined a ‘rough sketch’ of how we have reached this position philosophically. She has delineated how

Early post-structuralism/ deconstruction argued that everything was ‘discursive’ or ‘textual’ and didn’t believe in material reality. Postmodernism is all about the ‘play’ of signifiers and how everything is ‘constructed’ through discourse. Then Butler comes along and invents queer theory by arguing, in essence, that bodies are discursively constructed, and we end up where we are now, and it’s probably, in origin, all Jacques Derrida’s fault. 26

However, as Dr Jones once scolded me: don’t blame the French. The history of the collapse of post structuralism, post modernism and queer theory into one unholy reality denying pickle is one of mistranslation combined with shady opportunism.27 Post structuralism, particularly when engaged with by second-wave feminist such as Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, furnished important analytical ideas about female erasure. Cixous emphasised that women had been violently driven away from the materiality of their bodies and characterised our epoch as being governed by phallocentric values. That this phallocentricism regime is reproduced again and again in writing and thus knowing. 28 The notion that nothing exists in isolation but that meaning is given through its relational context and that material reality is interpreted and communicated through texts which then reproduce and reinforce oppressive systems through their discursive construction was invaluable. This is what we are employing when we criticise, for example, Hollywood only showing one type of woman or the media only presenting women as superficial decoration. Cixous was adamant that she refused ‘to confuse the biological and the cultural’.29 She articulated how gender (cultural) is a road block to the liberation of women and that it is this cultural interpretation of biology which has oppressed women as a sex-class. From this, analysis was subsequently built which enquired into the erasure of male violence. Contemporary (radical) feminist analysis, whether conscious or not, engages with these ideas when we point out that, for example, male perpetrators of crimes against women become ‘people’ in the press. Or when we critique headlines such as ‘woman ran over by Ford Fiesta’ because the car didn’t murder her, the abusive partner driving it did. We discursively deconstruct the texts and their relational meaning.

Sex is real and social constructs do have a reality. When one experiences discrimination based on one’s sex, race or disability for example social constructs are acutely felt. As Sally Haslanger has posited ‘traditional efforts to justify racist and sexist institutions have often relied on viewing women and people of colour as inferior by nature. There is an unmistakeable pattern of projecting onto subordinated groups, as their “nature” or as “natural”, features that are instead… the result of social forces’.30 Yet Haslanger argues that ‘to have a race is not to have a certain appearance or ancestry, and to have a gender is not to have a certain reproductive anatomy’.31 How then are individuals chosen to have a subordinate status imposed on them? Is it luck? Haslander later claims that ‘sex and color have social meaning to the extent that the interpretation of someone as male or female, white or Asian, has implications for the social position: the roles they are expected to play’.32 This is contradictory of her previous statement and is a prime example of the knot created when social constructionism is applied to biological sex. Proponents of gender ideology are arguing that women’s oppression is innate and thus natural, this is neither progressive nor correct.

The French post-structuralists were overtaken in popularity by a cluster of ideas known as postmodernism. It is important to note that the main propellants of this change in philosophical tastes were literary, and later sociology, departments not the academic discipline of philosophy. This is why it appears that postmodernism and queer theory has a stranglehold in academia, philosophy debates whereas modern sociology mandates. Stephen R. C. Hicks explains that ‘metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a socio-linguistic, constructionist account of reality’.33 As Somer Brodbribb has charged, ‘postmodernism is an addition to the masculinist repertoire of psychotic mind/body splitting and the peculiar arrangement of reality as Idea: timeless essence and universal form’34 The founding father of postmodernism, Michel Foucault, proposed that no essential or real structures underpinned events or materials such as texts. One of Foucault’s major contributions was a re-thinking of the triad — discourse, power and knowledge. From here in Discipline and Punish and his History of Sexualities Foucault reconsidered resistance and transgression in response to punishment and classification. The socio-linguistic construction of the subject became prime and it is within this construction that a dialogue occurs between individuals and oppressors. Following the postmodern philosophical school of thought ‘many deconstruct reason, truth, and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth and reality Western Civilisation has wrought dominance, oppression, and destruction’.35 This has caused postmodernists to be accused of aesthetic toying rather than real challenge to power structures. Indeed, Duke University Professor Stanley Fish stated in a revealing confession around postmodernism that it ‘relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting’.36 Postmodernism provides the philosophical underpinnings for the post truth-era.

However, the current state of affairs, particularly with regards to feminism, is not the fault of postmodernism alone. Judith Butler coupled postmodernism with queer theory in her impenetrable waffle that is Gender Trouble.[J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London, Routledge, 2007).] Butler’s verbosity in her magnum opus first published in 1990 cloaks the fact that it contains little original thought or any means to actually challenge power other than a playful individual tinker with expression. Professor Martha Nussbaum has assessed that Butler’s text ‘bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on… When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think… they will see that the ideas in these books are thin’.37 On the ability of postmodernism and queer theory to neuter feminist action Nussbaum dryly commented that ‘these symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly’.38 Although I agree with Nussbaum’s critique I have, shockingly, discovered a few sentences written by Butler that I subscribe to. For example, Butler outlines how ‘gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gender’.39 I also concur with Butler’s argument that the ‘authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness’.40 Nevertheless, this uneasy truce with Butler did not last long. Butler continued to posit that ‘if gender is the cultural significance that the sexed body assumes, and if that significance is codetermined through various acts and their cultural perception, then it would appear that from within the terms of culture it is not possible to know sex as distinct from gender’.41 Butler did reflect on the implications of her theory, and commented that ‘Feminists might well worry about the political implications of claiming that women do not exist, especially in light of the persuasive arguments advanced by Mary Anne Warren in her book, Gendercide‘.42 This is the crux of the problem that social constructionism creates. By claiming that sex does not exists one cannot analyse and then address sexism. Furthermore, the Butlerian ideas of performative signifiers have been garbled, deliberately or not, to produce the argument that sex-role stereotypes which enforce women’s oppression (gender) are innate and override biological sex as the means to classify women. This is the contemporary philosophical clash, less a clash between Titans and more a conflict between principled materialists and ‘quackademics’.

To add to this messy jumble of ideas there has been a departure from Butler by some transgender activists. These activists argue that gender is not performative but an inner natural essence which supersedes sex and should become the basis of our understanding and law. Julia Serano is a prime example. Serano argues that gender, i.e. women’s oppression, is natural, just ‘something you are’. Serano has asserted that the ‘primary assumption driving most “biological sex” myths is that there are two discrete mutually exclusive sexes that are immutable (i.e., once born into a sex, you will always be a member of that sex)’.43 The use of quotation marks around the term “biological sex” should give one pause for thought. Although Serano claims that ‘there are a number of sexually dimorphic traits — such as chromosomes, gonads, external genitals, other reproductive organs, ratio of sex hormones, and secondary sex characteristics ‘, Serano is of the opinion that DSD prove that biological sex distinctions are neither real no useful.44 Serano uses variations within sexual dimorphism to argue that sex is a spectrum but unimportant. A thorough critique of Serano’s ideas has been produced by an author writing under the pseudonym ‘Logical Marcus’ who points out that ‘Serano claims sex is socially constructed, which is to say, following the Wikipedia link Serano gives for the definition, “the natural world has a small or non-existent role” in the construction of sex’ but ‘if biological sex is socially constructed, why has no transwoman ever given birth?’.45 With biological sex discarded Serano posits that it is a love of make-up, or wearing a dress, which makes one a female and these desires are hard wired into girls and women like the flight or fight response to danger. In the work Excluded Serano claims that ‘As a self-declared femme, she says that feminine gender expression — wearing make-up, or a dress, or crying — is not artificial, but rather natural to her. And as a biologist, she’s saying that gender isn’t performance, or isn’t only performance; it’s not (just) something you play at, but something you are’.46 Nevertheless, despite attempting to make the case for a female or womanly gender identity, in a different work Serano declared it sexist to believe that males or females had some kind of inner male or female essence. Serano argued that ‘The “male energy” claim seems especially sexist to me, as it implies that men have some kind of magical or mystical life force that women do not or cannot possess’.47 Serano is consistently inconsistent and adopts a position of kitchen sink philosophy.

What are the positions?

Radical feminism posits that women are oppressed as a class on the basis of their biological sex and presumed reproductive capabilities. This structural oppression of women as a sex-class is known as Patriarchy and is imposed through gender. As Simone de Beauvoir argued in The Second Sex, ‘the division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history’.48 In this seminal work de Beauvoir traced how the concept of femininity has weakened girls and women and has been used to oppress the female sex and Other them across history and cultures. Shelia Jeffreys has argued that gender should be understood as a political category that signifies caste status.49 A woman may not move out of this caste status, she may change her economic position but she will always be a woman and thus subject to a subordinated status compared to a male. Jeffreys has explored how postmodern and queer theorists ‘share with transgender theorists the idea that ‘gender’ is a moveable feast that can be moved into and out of’.50 However this is not how the system of women’s oppression operates and makes the argument that women have chosen their subjugated status. Radical feminists reject biological determinism, the notion that we can or cannot partake in something because of our sex or that we are hard wired to enjoy caring for others because of our reproductive possibilities. Radical feminists argue along similar lines as non-radical feminist academic Linda Alcoff that ‘women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body’.51 On the basis of this differentiation females and males will encounter a different set of social practices and expectations (gender). Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, ‘there is no gender essence all women share’.52 Gender is externally imposed, on both the macro and micro level. Individual men oppress women using gender — such as women doing the ‘double-shift’ because ‘women are natural carers’ and the state oppresses women using gender — examples in the U.K. include the inability to adequately prosecute rape and achieve convictions because of notions that ‘women like it rough’ or women are likely to be lying. Julie Bindel has reiterated the radical feminist position that ‘Genitals determine our physical, biological sex, and indicates whether we are male or female, not whether we are destined to like pink or blue. No one, medic or otherwise, can ‘determine’ gender because it has no basis in material reality’.53 Gender is a socially constructed set of stereotypes foisted onto individuals based on their biology and includes ideas of heterosexuality as the normal and natural way of sexual orientation. As Catherine MacKinnon argued, ‘Gender and sexuality… become two different shapes taken by the single social equation of male with dominance and female with submission’.54

Similarly, socialist feminism recognises the reality of biological sex and women’s oppression as a sex-class and contends that this oppression began when the class system was implemented. This view of women’s oppression is contained within the founding texts of socialism. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State published in 1884 Friedrich Engels maintained that

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up…they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual — and that will be the end of it. 55

Marx took a similar view to women’s oppression. In On the Jewish Question, published in 1843, Marx argued that ‘the relation between man and woman… becomes an object of trade! The woman is bought and sold’.56 Marx continued this line of argument in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and reasoned that ‘the general position of women in modern society is inhuman’.57 It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that a distinct group emerged which could be described as socialist feminism. This strand of feminism shares many ideas with radical feminism but changes in its priorities and organisation. Whereas radical feminists focus on the destruction of male supremacy and a rebuilding of social organisations socialist feminists focus on the destruction of capitalism as leading to women’s liberation. Alison Jaggar maintains that ‘Socialist feminism makes explicit commitment to the abolition of both class and gender’.58 The structure of the sentence — class then gender — may be illustrative of the underlying priorities of socialist feminism. Barbara Ehrenreich has asserted that ‘there is no way to understand sexism as it acts on our lives without putting it in the historical context of capitalism’.59 Ehrenreich points out that across history and cultures, it ‘is, above all, women who are encouraged to be utterly passive/uncritical/dependent (i.e. “feminine”) in the face of the pervasive capitalist penetration of private life… because women are the culture-bearers of their class’.60 However this does not explain male violence or male violence within the family. How can misogyny be explained in terms of capitalistic dominance? The labelling of radical feminist and socialist feminist suggests alternate positions, two groups. In reality this is not the case, it is more a mixed-left wing feminist alliance with both radical and socialist feminists learning from each other and sharing analysis. Both are also clear that women’s oppression is based on their membership of a sex-class which is subject to social interpretation which constructs a system to exploit.

In contrast, liberal feminism is rather confused on the issue of sex and social constructionism. This is what has led Saray Ayala and Nadya Vasilyeva to argue in Hypatia, the academic journal of feminist philosophy, that

Current sex categorization practices according to the female/male dichotomy are not only inaccurate and incoherent, but they also ground moral and political pressures that harm and oppress people. We argue that a new understanding of sex is due, an understanding that would acknowledge the variability and, most important, the flexibility of sex properties, as well as the moral and political meaning of sex categorization. 61

Ayala and Vasilyeva reason against understanding biological sex distinction on the basis of gametes and reproductive potential because ‘Successful reproduction involves a wider range of things, such as providing food, care, and stimuli, things that do not require particular biological (chromosomal, and so on) properties on the part of the provider’.62 I think they have missed the point. The authors then present an argument which exhibits the confusion of biological sex and gender before alleging that ‘categorical perception of sex can create sex differences by promoting differential treatment and punishing deviations from the dichotomy’.63 It is not clear if the authors are claiming perceived differences in biology, such as does the person have a penis or vulva, creates biological differences such as the penis and vulva or if they are reiterating the argument of Beauvoir, Fausto-Sterling, and many neuroscientists since that gendered treatment creates changes over time and brain plasticity responds to social teaching. Either way, it is clear sex role stereotypes (gender) and sex have been blurred by the authors. This leads Ayala and Vasilyeva to assert that ‘Sex categorization does not merely respond to natural facts of the world; it creates a morally problematic phenomenon’.64 Following their line of argument, oppression of the female sex does not follow by how the sexes are culturally interpreted and therefore treated, it is merely acknowledging that males have penises and females have vulva which creates a moral problem. On top of that biological sex distinction is presented as a phenomenon and thus defined as extraordinary. Does pointing out that there is variation in height, that some people are taller than others, create a moral problem? Under the subheading ‘Harms and Oppression’ the authors exhibit how they believe that gender is actually a natural feature in biological sex — they wish to destroy/re-interpret the sex differences rather than the cultural stereotypes imposed on them. They are almost at a reasonable and feminist understanding when they state ‘The moral charge comes with the prescriptive force of sex categories: once people are sex-categorized (usually as either a female or male), they are expected to adhere to a series of sex-appropriate norms and expectations’.65 It is not biology or the observation that males and females are biologically different which is resulting in the oppression of women it is the social role imposed on women because of their sex caste. Like clockwork the authors claim that they ‘talk of the oppression of sex classification because the assigned or perceived sex is part of the explanation of certain cases of injustice’.66 Sex is not assigned but observed. Do they think there is some kind of biological sex tombola on maternity wards? A subjugated status is assigned based on biological sex, women aren’t oppressed through bad luck. Ayala and Vasilyeva state that their goal is, ‘like Haslanger’s, to develop a theoretical account that can be effectively used to fight injustice. But whereas she seems willing to keep females and males, we propose to construct nonhierarchical sexes, focusing our intervention on the concept of sex’.67 The concept of the social constructivism of biological sex is what has enabled Ayala and Vasilyeva to have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex where sex can be altered by external tools. To explain, just as particular tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains, such as external memory drives, the authors argue that other tools like a dildo can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. In light of this the authors propose that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. They claim that ‘Extending sex can be seen as both an individual, personal move, and as a political action’.68 One wonders how the authors propose an individual using a dildo to extend their (biological) sex will address the global femicide which is estimated to have claimed the lives of 87,000 women last year alone.69 Pray tell. In the next paragraph Ayala and Vasilyeva redefine social meaning and the concept of ‘relational’ to mean nothing. They assert that the ‘(social) meaning of an agent’s act is neither exhausted by that agent’s intentions, nor determined by what a particular audience takes the act to be’.70 This guts their argument of any possibility of enacting social change to challenge the oppression of females, yet, they claim it will create a better world.

This concept of biological sex being socially constructed through external signifiers (such as clothing, make-up and mannerisms) is what has enabled liberal feminists to redefine the categories woman and female to include males. Lorna Finlayson, Katharine Jenkins, and Rosie Worsdale asserted that ‘Some feminists see no difficulty in reconciling a commitment to feminism with a commitment to the rights of trans people. Feminists of this persuasion tend to take the view that trans women are women and that, as such, they — like cis (i.e. non-trans) women — are part of the ‘constituency’ that is feminism’s primary concern’.71 (I shall use the term cis in this essay but would like to note that I find it and the notion that I agree with a system intended to oppress and exploit me highly offensive.) Social constructionism of sex has moved to self-identifying sex and this entails a breakdown in the coherence of liberal feminist arguments. The article written by Finlayson, Jenkins, and Worsdale illustrates the contradictions which undermine every argument produced. They first contended that

The argument against trans-inclusivity starts from the observation that men pose a heightened risk of violence to women, compared to other women. We do not dispute that this is so. What we take issue with is the argument’s next move, which is to assert that this heightened risk is due to features which trans women, or many of them, share with cis men: namely, being biologically male (i.e. having a penis, testes, and higher levels of testosterone), and having a history of male socialisation.72

Yet they then

dispute the claim that these features — either singly or in conjunction — are the correct basis for determining the risk that an individual poses in terms of violence against women. Although we do have overwhelming evidence that men commit violence against women at much higher rates than women commit violence against either women or men, this evidence does not establish that the basis of this heightened risk is, as critics of self-ID claim, male biology and/or male socialisation.[74]

They openly admit to denying the ‘overwhelming evidence’ of male pattern violence and then the existence of male pattern violence as a reality. This cannot be coupled with either reason or feminism. The 87,000 women murdered last year by men globally, how is that to be explained? Or, should we ask are women raping themselves? They then argue that this evidence should be ignored because ‘trans women are different from cis men. The definitive difference is that trans women see themselves as women or even as female, and feel most comfortable navigating the social world with this gender presentation’.73 Men’s feelings, it is claimed, override biological sex and gendered socialisation based on this biology. Talia Mae Bettcher has attempted to dictate that ‘Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start’.74 Bettcher does not offer an explanation as to why a male’s self-identifying feelings should be taken at face value by feminists. This appears to be a dictum the authors are adhering to. Finlayson, Jenkins, and Worsdale make the suggestion that even if male’s identifying as females are more violent they shouldn’t be excluded from female single-sex spaces, violence against women is a price worth paying for these self-identified ‘feminists’. They claim that

if we think of trans women [males who identify with sex stereotypes associated with females] as one among many groups within the larger group ‘women’, then it becomes unclear how their exclusion from women’s spaces could be justified even if there were compelling evidence that they were more prone to violence than cis women are.75

The authors express pure social constructionism when they posit that ‘the question of who counts as a woman is a political or ethical question, not a scientific or ‘metaphysical’ one’.76 Why deny biology when one can just discard it? Why do they think 11–13 women are raped per hour in England and Wales, is it because of what they were wearing (social constructed signifier)?77 Mary Daly has conceptualised this anti-feminist backlash termed ‘liberal feminism’ as ‘pseudo feminism’ which has been actively promoted by male controlled society’ in order to drive the real feminist challenge away from power.78 Certainly, it defangs feminism by forcing arguments to become contradictory, it prioritises male feelings over women’s safety, and claims women’s oppression is something one can rub off at night and reapply in the morning.

Liberal feminism denies that women are structurally oppressed as a sex caste and, in order to support its concept of female agency, has been backed into a thought corner — that bad things just happen to individual women. This prevents liberal feminists from drawing connections and answering important questions and brings them to the position of victim-blaming. For example, in order to have hyper-individualised female agents that would mean individual women didn’t succeed in the workplace because they didn’t try hard enough. Liberal feminism has adopted the position that gender is innate. Their parroting of the mantra ‘trans women are women’ necessitates a view of womanhood as socially constructed through sex role stereotypes, dress and mannerisms which overrides and negates biological sex. One consequence of this is that liberal feminists are now arguing that women are born with a socially constructed system of oppression. It is a woke way of saying ‘she wanted it, they all do’. Butler purported in Gender Trouble that ‘if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all’.79 Here Butler collapses a social construct into a biological reality, sex stereotypes become natural, oppression thus becomes the natural way. Butler then proposed that conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male) should ground feminist practice.80 If one was being cynical one could interpret this as redirecting women’s energies and resources from challenging their oppression towards a fruitless enterprise akin to searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Sex is not assigned at birth but rather secondary sex characteristics are observed. Alison Stone has critiqued Butler and asserted that it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms.81 As a response to biological essentialism Butler and liberal feminists deny that there are real ontological kinds that correspond to the categories “women” and “men”, however, this comes at a cost as they cannot answer whose autonomy is denied by androcentric norms. Whose identity is irreducible to primary and secondary sexual characteristics? Bach calls this the Representation Problem: if there is no real group “women,” then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women’.82 This highlights how liberal feminism is actually the anti-feminist backlash and works to dis-empower women and fracture the women’s movement.

Conclusion: Why is this important?

These arguments have moved out of the seminar rooms of universities and into policy making and legislatures: they are having a real and dangerous impact. Firstly, the notion of the social constructedness of sex and inability of women to be defined has defanged feminism. Liberal [anti]feminists slur and silence women who will not bow to their ideology or men’s desires.83

Our tools of analysis to comprehend and combat the subjugation of females and the epidemic of male violence have been cast as bigotry. Unable to proffer a coherent argument liberal [anti]feminism has become a token, a tote-bag and a fashion statement. Liberal [anti]feminism’s stranglehold on the media and in student unions and their refusal to debate other points of view means that a generation of young women are growing up without feminism. All this is happening as some women cheer the removal of single sex spaces for women and the loss of women’s resources. Liberal [anti]feminists subjugate women’s privacy, safety and dignity to the pleasure of men. Remember menstruators, just smile and be nice!85 As Amy Dyess has argued regarding the term TERF, men and liberal [anti]feminists ‘disguise their misogyny and homophobia as social justice in order to gain support from people who are misinformed. So-called “progressives” are openly oppressing and condemning the homosexual community, primarily the lesbian community86. Miranda Yardley contends that

There should be a place where bad ideas go to die, and the first idea to be shipped there on a first class, one-way express journey to abyssal depth should be what is colloquially known as “the Cotton Ceiling.” The Cotton Ceiling, coined by a male “lesbian” pornographer, refers to the barrier trans women face when denied access to sex with lesbians.87

Pink News’s reaction to lesbian protests at London Pride in 2018 is a rewording of ‘how dare women have sexual boundaries or their own sexual tastes and sexuality’.88 More depressingly, Pink News’s attack on women daring to draw their own sexual boundaries which excluded penetration by a penis was led by a woman, Hazel Southwell.

The notion that lesbianism includes ‘girl d*ck’ is being taught in schools under the guise of being trans inclusive. Indeed, that sex is socially constructed and biology is wrong is being taught throughout the education system.89 Children are being instructed that a system which oppresses women and positions heterosexuality as the norm (gender) is innate and natural. Pink News and liberal [anti]feminists are leading this regressive charge. For example, Pink News celebrated GLAAD’s ‘Incredible new children’s book’ in which Susan knows Jackie is really Jack because Jackie likes to play in the mud.90

The claim that sex role stereotypes (gender) are innate is leading to the medicalisation of children and the next big medical scandal of our age. In America doctors are performing mastectomies on girls as young as 13.91 In the U.K. Dr Helen Webberley prescribed cross-sex hormones to a 12 year old child.92 Trans rights activists and liberal [anti]feminists argue that it is worth it to sterilise children so that they conform to opposite sex role stereotypes.93 The term ‘puberty blockers’ doesn’t quite capture the extreme nature of these drugs. Lupron, the current most popular puberty blocker, has been banned by the FDA and class-action lawsuits are underway.94 Preventing puberty also hinders sexual functioning. For example, the doctor ‘treating’ the celebrity transgendered child Jazz Jennings revealed that ‘Jazz does not know what an orgasm is and it’s very important when expressing intimacy’ and ‘although it is not something that’s going to delay surgery, it’s not going to be any easier for her to have an orgasm after surgery’.95 Jazz Jennings will never have an orgasm, she has been sacrificed to the idea that sex is socially constructed.

  1. L. Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (London, Continuum, 2004), p. 7.
  2.  L. Bellos, ‘The Social Construction of Gender’,Linda Bellos OBE (13 September 2018)’,<>[20 March 2019].
  3. ibid.
  4. J. Money, ‘Linguistic resources and psychodynamic theory’, British journal of Medical Psychology, vol. 28 (1955), pp. 264–66.
    For a critique of the sexologists *content warning* please see

  5. R. Stoller, Sex and Gender: The Development of Masculinity and Femininity (New York, Science House, 1968). Stoller argued that by two years of age children had an immutable and innate gender identity. Yes, an innate man-made construct, and it was of course all the mother’s fault.
  6. M. Mikkola, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017)

  7. C. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of State (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 113.
  8. A. Soble (ed.), Sex from Plato to Paglia, Volume 2, M — Z (London, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p. 691.
  9. ‘About Us’, dsdfamilies,[Accessed 21 March 2019].
  10. @Mrkhtake2, Twitter, 6:43 PM — 2 Sep 2018. [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  11. @Mrkhtake2, Twitter, 6:38 PM — 2 Sep 2018. [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  12. ‘What is DSD?’, dsdfamilies [Accessed 21 March 2019].

  13. @Mrkhtake2, Twitter, 6:44 PM — 2 Sep 2018 [Accessed 15 March 2019].
    T. M. Wizemann & M. L. Pardue (eds.), Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter?, Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Understanding the Biology of Sex and Gender (Washington DC, National Aademic Press U.S., 2001), S. F. Gilbert, Chromosomal Sex Determination in Mammals, Developmental Biology: 6th edition (2000).
  14. ‘FAQ’, dsdfamilies, [Accessed 21 March 2019].
  15. ‘F1000 Commentary: Treatment of adults with complications from previous hypospadias surgery / Is DSD the same as transgender?’, Accord Alliance, [Accessed 21 March 2019].
  16. ‘Basic differences between intersex and trans’ (3 June 2011), Intersex Human Rights Australia, [Accessed 21 March 2019].
  17. A. Soble (ed.), Sex from Plato to Paglia: Volume 2, M-Z (London, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), pp. 690–694. F. Kirkland, ‘Intersex patients ‘routinely lied to by doctors’, BBC News (22 May 2017).[Accessed 16 March 2019].

  18. A. Byrne, ‘Is Sex Binary?’, Arc Digital (2 November 2018) [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  19. A. Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, 2nd edn. (New York, Basic Books, 1993), p. 218.
  20. A Fausto-Sterling, ‘How Many Sexes Are There?’, The New York Times (12 March 1993) [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  21. ibid.
  22. ibid.
  23. ibid.
  24. Anon., ‘US proposal for defining gender has no basis in science’, Nature Magazine, 30 October 2018, [Accessed 15 March, 2019].
  25. ibid.
  26. J. C. Jones, ‘Post-Structuralism, Butler and Bodies’, Jane Clare Jones [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  27. ibid.
  28. H. Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen (trans.), Signs, Vol. 1, №4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875–893.
  29. ibid., p. 875.
  30. S. Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 5
  31. ibid., p. 7.
  32. ibid.
  33. S. R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Tempe, Scholarly Publishing, 2004), p. 6.
  34. S. Brodribb, Nothing Matters: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism (Melbourne, Spinifex, 1993), p. xvi.
  35. S. R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Tempe, Scholarly Publishing, 2004), p. 6.

  36. Quoted in S. R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, p. 3.
  37. M. Nussbaum, ‘The Professor of Parody’, Cet article a été copié sur le site du magazine américain, The New Republic Online[“”] (22 February 1999), p. 3.
  38. ibid. p. 2.
  39. J. Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, №4 (Dec., 1988), p. 519.
  40. ibid. p. 522.
  41. ibid. p. 524.
  42. ibid. p. 529.
  43. J. Serano, ‘Transgender People and “Biological Sex” Myths’ (17 July 2017), [Accessed 22 March 2019].
  44. ibid.
  45. L. Marcus, ‘Is Julia Serano right that transwomen are female?’, Medium (26 August 2017) [Accessed 22 March 2019].
  46. N. Berlatsky, ‘Gender as Non-Fiction A Q&A with Julia Serano, author of Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive’, The Atlantic (25 September 2013 [Accessed 21 March 2019].
  47. J. Serano, ‘Debunking “Trans Women Are Not Women” Arguments’ (27 June 2017) [Accessed 22 March 2019].
  48. S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London, Vintage Books, 1997), p. 19.
  49. S. Jeffreys, Gender Hurts: A feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (London, Routledge, 2014), p. 101.
  50. S. Jeffreys, Gender Hurts: A feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (London, Routledge, 2014), p. 5.
  51. L. Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 172.
  52. ibid., pp. 147–148.
  53. J. Bindel, ‘What does gender have to do with genitals?’, Unherd (21 December, 2018) [Accessed 15 March, 2019].
  54. C. A MacKinnon, Towards A Feminist Theory of State (1989), p. 143.
  55. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York, International Publishers, 1972), p.145.
  56. ‘Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Third Manuscript: Private Property and Labour’ [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  57. ibid.
  58. A. M. Jagger, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield, 1984), p. 317.
  59. B. Ehrenreich, ‘What is Socialist Feminism?’ [Accessed 17 March 2019].
  60. ibid.

  61. S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’ (Penultimate draft),, p. 1, Published as: S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’, Hypatia, Vol.30, №4 (Fall 2015), pp. 725–742.
  62. S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’ (Penultimate draft),, p. 3.
  63. ibid. p. 5.
  64. ibid.
  65. S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’ (Penultimate draft),, p.5, Published as: S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’, Hypatia, Vol. 30, №4 (Fall 2015), pp. 725–742.
  66. S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’ (Penultimate draft),, p. 5.
  67. ibid. p. 6.
  68. ibid. p. 8.
  69. D. Cole, ‘U.N. Report: 50,000 Women A Year Are Killed By Intimate Partners, Family Members’, National Public Radio [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  70. S. Ayala & N. Vasilyeva, ‘Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society’ (Penultimate draft),, p. 9.
  71. L. Finlayson, K. Jenkins & R. Worsdale, “I’m not transphobic, but…”: A feminist case against the feminist case against trans inclusivity’, Verso (17 October 2018) [Accessed 18 March 2019].
  72. ibid.
  73. ibid.
  74. T. M. Bettcher, “Trans Women and the Meaning of ‘Woman'”, in: N. Power, R. Jalwani & A. Soble (eds.), The Philosophy of Sex(Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2013).
  75. ibid.
  76. ibid.
  77. ‘Statistics — Sexual Violence’, Rape Crisis England & Wales [Accessed 15 March 2019].
  78. M. Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston, Beacan Press, 1978), p. xv.
  79. J. Butler, Gender Trouble, 2nd ed. (London, Routledge, 1999), pp. 10–11.
  80. ibid. pp. 28–29.
  81. A. Stone, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007), p. 70.
  82. T. Bach, “Gender is a Natural Kind with a Historical Essence”, Ethics, Vol. 122, №2 (January 2012), p. 234.
  83. J. Bindel, ‘No platform: my exclusion proves this is an anti-feminist crusade’, The Guardian (9 October 2015)[Accessed 19 March 2019].

    S. Little, ‘Feminist speaker deemed ‘anti-trans’ by critics speaks at Vancouver Public Library’, Global News (11 January 2019)[Accessed 19 March 2019]

    Editorial: Difficult issues need open debate, New Zealand Herald (21 December 2019) [Accessed 19 March 2019].

  84. [‘Why ‘Menstruator’ Should Be in Your Vocabulary’, Glad Rags (18 August 2016)[Accessed 19 March 2019].

    ‘The Guardian called women ‘menstruators’ and these are the only responses you need’, The Poke[Accessed 19 March 2019].

    N. Firsht, ‘I am not a walking cervix or a menstruator. I am a W‑O‑M‑A‑N’, The Times (31 October 2018)[Accessed 19 March 2019].

    The notion of the social constructedness of sex and the ideology pushed by liberal [anti]feminists poses a direct challenge to the reality of same sex attraction. If sex isn’t real or is fluid how can one be same sex attracted? Lesbians are under particular attack as coercive control is exerted in an attempt to force them to accept penises into their sexuality.84M. Yardley, ‘Girl Dick, the Cotton Ceiling and the Cultural War on Lesbians, Girls and Women’, After Ellen (5 December 2018) [Accessed 19 March 2019].

  85. A. Dyess, “TERF Is Hate Speech and It’s Time to Condemn It”, Medium (25 October 2018) [Accessed 19 March 2019].

  86. M. Yardley, ‘Girl Dick, the Cotton Ceiling and the Cultural War on Lesbians, Girls and Women’, After Ellen (5 December 2018) [Accessed 19 March 2019].
  87. H. Southwell, ‘Anti-trans group allowed to lead Pride in London march after hijack’, Pink News (7 July 2018) [Accessed 19 March 2019].

  88. ‘Teaching Transgender Doctrine In Schools — ”A Bizarre Educational Experiment”, Transgender Trend (18 December 2016) [Accessed 19 March 2019].
  89. [N. Duffy, ‘Incredible new children’s book tells story of transgender boy’, Pink News (10 October 2018)[Accessed 19 March 2019].

    Dr Em’s thread on the ‘Magical Haircut’, Twitter[Accessed 19 March 2019].

  90. J. Robbins, ‘U.S. Doctors Are Performing Double Mastectomies On Healthy 13-Year-Old Girls’, The Fedralist [Accessed 19 March 2019].
  91. ‘Transgender specialist Dr Helen Webberley ran unregistered clinic’, BBC News (5 October 2018) [Accessed 19 March 2019].
  92. ‘Better Sterile than Dead’, Fourth Wave Now [Accessed 19 March 2019].
  93. L. Millican, The Lupron Money Trail, Hormones Matter [Accessed 19 March 2019].

  94. N. Stone, ‘Jazz Jennings Discusses ‘the Sexual Stuff’ with Her Doctor Ahead of Gender Confirmation Surgery’, People Magazine(1 January 2019) [Accessed 19 March 2019].

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