The dislocation of reality continues apace, helped by academics who think renaming things can induce the physical world to alter its course. On the Women’s Studies List, which has existed for more than 25 years and has over 5,000 subscribers, yet another acrimonious discussion recently unfolded about who is excluding whom.
Turns out some trans feminists don’t understand why some women don’t embrace their new label of “cisgender.” As one post helpfully explained: why should anyone object? “Cisgender” merely means “non-transgender.” Those objecting are seen as determined to conform to the dominant society. Evidently, margins and centers still exist, but their occupants are to change places. A reversal of privilege, as Katharine Burdekin, the British feminist writer of speculative fiction, characterized many revolutions. She warned that such a reversal in the case of gender might get no nearer to producing a better society than the old male privilege did, and might possibly be worse.
Today, for all the academic talk of “diversity”—written into all levels and aspects of American universities, with growing numbers of administrators and officers designated to oversee it—a new and rigid orthodoxy is upon us. This was adumbrated a few years ago when Women’s Studies Programs underwent a sea change, renaming themselves with some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) Studies. Not surprisingly, the change accompanied the ever greater emphasis on queer theory, transgender studies, masculinity (as in the currently popular term “toxic masculinity”), and other overarching interpretations of the world according to new dogma.
Not that this is new. When I was in Women’s Studies in the 1980s and early 90s, a certain apologetic tone had already spread among heterosexuals, and major quarrels over the meaning and place of lesbian identity had gone on since the 1970s. But in those medieval times, male and female were still understood to refer to biological realities (sex), while masculine and feminine were the social roles (gender) to be dismantled. Over the years, however, the antagonism toward heterosex increased, promoted by ever-looser definitions of “sexual harassment” and ever more exaggerated claims of the unrelenting injuries done to women by the white heteronormative patriarchy of the United States. This is what has led us to “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings.”
Some retrograde heterosexual women objected to the redefining of heterosexuality as craven conformity or Stockholm syndrome – though not many within the feminist cadres that quickly multiplied in the university world. Interestingly, women who thought biology was pertinent found unlikely allies among radical feminists, who, while promoting lesbianism, believed profoundly that male/female differences existed and, indeed, explained much about the horrors of life: wars, violence, “rape culture,” ceaseless sexual harassment, pornography, environmental degradation, and the numerous other problems that were laid at the door of the capitalist/ imperialist/western patriarchy.
These radical feminists were highly critical of the sudden vogue for transsexualism. They did not believe that a man’s claim to feel, or to have always felt, that he was really female compensated for a lifetime of male privilege and magically turned him into a woman. Janice Raymond, for example, in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She Male, argued that transsexuals believed so profoundly in gender roles (the very thing feminists were supposedly combatting) that they were willing to mutilate their bodies in order to live out the other role.
Decades later, the debate continues, but some things have definitely changed. Those who dare make criticisms of the transsexual phenomenon are now labeled TERFs [Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists], clearly intended as a slur. The proper attitude is obligatory acceptance of each new sexual redefinition and the new regulations (such as Obama’s bathroom edict) that accompany it.
By now even formerly all-female schools such as Smith College are accepting applications from individuals who “identify as female,” regardless of what sex they were “assigned at birth.” As Smith’s FAQ on the subject explains:
Are trans women eligible for admission to Smith?
Applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as women are eligible for admission.
Are trans men eligible for admission?
Smith does not accept applications from men. Those assigned female at birth but who now identify as male are not eligible for admission.
Under this newly clarified policy, what is required of applicants to be considered for admission?
Smith’s policy is one of self-identification. To be considered for admission, applicants must select ‘female’ on the Common Application.
These phrases reveal how far the new identity game has gone. It is not those undergoing “sex reassignment surgery” who are exempted from the horrors of sexual dimorphism. Rather, all infants, even the vast majority born with no sexual anomalies, are now supposed to have been “assigned” a sex at birth, just as they were “assigned” bipedalism so they could adapt to a world of sidewalks and staircases….
Sexual dimorphism is passé. Yet, at the same time, quite paradoxically, it is everywhere affirmed and corrective measures are required to overcome the arbitrary categories imposed by the patriarchy—a rather circular argument once one disconnects it from biology. Forget that sexual dimorphism is, in fact, universal, found in all cultures and in most of the animal world – of which we are a part. The existence of some anomalies (e.g., intersexed individuals, or babies with chromosomal or other variations) does not alter this.
Five Sexes, Or Is That Too Few?
As Richard Dawkins once said, in criticizing Anne Fausto-Sterling’s argument (much lauded in feminist circles) that there are five sexes, the existence of dawn and dusk does not cast doubt on the reality of day and night. Regardless of what we call them, day and night are natural phenomena explained by something outside of ourselves. If primary sexual characteristics are socially imposed, shouldn’t The Vagina Monologues be banned for being exclusionary?
Surprise! That is, in fact, happening (e.g., at Mount Holyoke College, which in 2015 canceled its tradition of annual performances of the play). Not, of course, because men are objecting that they don’t get equal time to celebrate their genitals. The problem, it seems, is that the play offers a narrow and reductionist view of what it means to be a woman, and thereby excludes transgender women who don’t have vaginas.
But some reprobate events go on, such as the Women’s March on Washington, in which hundreds of thousands of women participated wearing pink “pussyhats,” and evidently believing they had pussies. Leaving aside the various hysterical speakers at the March, a notable presence who merits more attention than she has received was Donna Hylton, a black activist and prison reformer. She always brings up the years she spent in prison (27, to be precise) as if this bolsters her credentials as a member of an oppressed minority group. But she fails to mention what she was imprisoned for: participating in the kidnapping, rape, torture (for more than two weeks), and murder of an elderly white man in 1985.
One of the better-known organizers of the Women’s March is an unapologetic promoter of hate. Linda Sarsour, a Muslim supporter of Sharia law, wrote on Twitter that critics of Islam such as Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are “asking 4 an a$$ whippin’’ [sic] and “I wish I could take their vaginas away—they don’t deserve to be women.” She obviously hasn’t grasped the current orthodoxy by which anyone can “identify as” a woman–and vaginas have nothing to do with it. For her part, Ayaan Hirsi Ali criticized the March and wondered why hundreds of thousands of women do not mobilize in the U.S. to protest the actual sexual enslavement of girls in various Muslim countries, along with the reality of female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other assaults on basic human rights.
But in the happy world of American academe, categories of sexual and gender identity just grow and grow, and acronyms along with them. Today we have not only the labels, but courses and administrators devoted to LGBTQIA (the A, for asexual, is merely the latest accretion). In recent years, the proliferation of identities has gotten completely out of control and the game is openly played in hiring and even in the exercise of free speech–who is entitled to teach, to speak, to pose challenges, and who had better shut up if lacking the requisite identity.
And this political brow-beating isn’t changed by the vogue for “intersectionality”—the study of the interactions of multiple oppressed identities, which has allowed the politicization of academic life to continue unabated. Today, laying claim to an oppressed identity (and there are many beyond race) automatically justifies the demand for capitulation and redress. In our book Professing Feminism (1994), Noretta Koertge and I labeled this unseemly competition “the oppression sweepstakes.” At my university, a recent survey designed to gauge how welcoming campus life is of diversity included a page on which people could identify their sex. About ten categories were provided from which to choose.
Of late, even anti-biology feminist Judith Butler is having second thoughts about the matter of sexual identity. Decades ago, she famously insisted that gender — by which she meant sexual identity — is pure “performativity” or “performance” (confusingly, she used both terms). There is no preexisting subject, she said; no “I” before discourse. But the trans fad has caused her to reconsider. In a 2014 interview, she confessed that in her 1990 book Gender Trouble she did not think “well enough about trans issues.”
When it comes to the authenticity of trans identity, she no longer doubts the reality of the subject or insists that discourse creates people who “perform” gender. She never intended to suggest that gender is a fiction or that a person’s sense of gender was “unreal.” Instead, she now sees she should have paid more attention “to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported.” Note again the conflation of sex and gender.
Butler, in other words, has had to alter her line a bit, to stay in step with current orthodoxies. She certainly does not want to say that trans people are into the “performativity” of the sex they want to be or claim they really are – though she had no problem saying that about most people born male and female.
So quickly do redefinitions of reality become entrenched these days that the British Medical Association was recently reported to have sent out directives to doctors to use the term “pregnant people”—rather than “expectant mothers”—so as to avoid offending trans folks. The BMA also suggested adopting the language of “assigned male or female” rather than “biologically male or female.”
Alas, reality is not that malleable. Females give birth, males do not, in all mammals, regardless of what the individual mammal may do. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there it is. Such is the state of weirdness these days in academic feminism, and elsewhere.