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When it comes to defining gender and sex, politics not truth is at stake

Professor Davina Cooper

Research Professor in Law

23 February 2021

In recent days, the fight over sex and gender in Britain has once more flared up over two recent decisions. Sex-based rights feminists, who tie women’s oppression to their reproductive sex, have attacked the guidance decision issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on defining sex for the 2021 census.

The final guidance for the “what is your sex” question states, “If you are considering how to answer, use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, Gender Recognition Certificate, or passport.” This is narrower than the rehearsal guidance which included the phrase “whichever answer best describes your sex”. But for sex-based rights feminists whose preference is for sex to be restricted to biology, the reference to passports allows lived gender to enter through the backdoor.

Meanwhile, in Southern England, controversy has ignited over Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust use of gender-neutral terms in conjunction with sex-based ones to talk about pregnancy and lactation. A statement from the NHS Trust, quoted by the BBC, states, "We are taking a gender-additive approach to the language used to describe our services… this means using gender-neutral language alongside the language of womanhood, in order to ensure that everyone is represented and included".

These developments provide fresh terrain in the escalating war over sex and gender. But while feminists, trans activists and others fight over the policy details, a core underlying driver of the conflict remains ignored.

This is not a driver that is specific to sex or gender. Instead, it concerns broader understandings of the relationship between language and meaning, on the one hand, and the things that make up everyday life, on the other.

Many of those arguing for sex to be linked to a fixed biological divide, and for pregnancy, lactation, vaginas, and uteruses to be explicitly labelled as women’s things, treat language and meaning as having a one-to-one correspondence with the stuff of life. Things drive meaning and language; and they can be properly and correctly understood within language’s terms. Anything else is a dangerous misuse.

Madeleine Kearns makes this point in the conservative National Review. She writes, “Trans-skeptical feminists have long complained that this Orwellian word abuse amounts to the ‘erasure of women.’ They are right to object to such policies on the grounds that they undermine the very existence of women as a distinct class with specific characteristics and needs… Despite what transgender activists insist — language does not actually have the power to change reality. Words merely reflect or distort facts.”

But the relationship between things, such as sex and gender, and what they mean is more complex. We understand sex and gender through frameworks of meaning, and these meanings shape the contours and composition of what counts. They determine where the ‘cuts’ are drawn so that something is understood as being part of one thing rather than another. For instance, the term sex may include or exclude psychological self-perception; gender may include or exclude societal processes – where gender is approached as something that is made rather than found. Sex and gender can be understood in multiple ways and there is no single, fixed, right answer to what either is.

This position is sometimes ridiculed for seeming to suggest that when definitions or names of things change, the material thing itself changes as well. That if a woman calls herself a man, for instance, her experience and place in the world becomes that of a man’s. This is something many feminists are sceptical about.

At the same time, what it means to be a woman or man does and has changed as both feminist and trans politics recognise, and these changes have material effects. To understand this better, we can distinguish between two different ways that words act. There are some expressions which, when made by authorised people in authorised contexts, bring what they assert into being – most famously, “I pronounce you married”. Other uses of words are less constituting of specific outcomes – they may have social consequences, but this is something that is less instantaneous, depends on different intervening factors, and is unpredictable.

In the case of gender-neutral terminology for body parts, calling breast milk human milk or chest milk does not immediately transform what it is. The chemical composition of the milk is unlikely to change simply because what it’s called changes. But, over time, renaming body parts may lead people and governmental bodies to reconsider the relationship between gender, sex, and the human body. And if body parts are no longer easily divided between women and men -- if uteruses or penises, for instance, no longer belong exclusively to women and men, because what it means to be a man or woman is no longer determined by having specific body parts -- social, economic, and cultural changes may follow. Will this diminish gender inequality? Perhaps. After all, feminists have long argued that if men became pregnant, pregnancy would be treated with far more economic respect.

The complexities in what words do suggests we need to talk far more about the political hopes and stakes that motivate our use of words and what we take them to mean. Many trans activists and allies, for instance, have attacked sex-based rights feminists for their definition of sex, because a definition which denies the possibility of sex changing causes harm. The counterargument that this definition of sex, and this definition alone, reflects reality is a poor one since sex can be cut in different ways, depending on the weight given to psychology, hormones, and body parts (all of which can and do change). Feminists rightly want to reveal the extent of gender inequality when it comes to work, poverty, care, violence, and other matters, but biological sex is a poor proxy for this. The challenge is to find ways of evidencing gender inequality which make explicit the strategic or pragmatic choices about terms that do not treat the terms used as the only rightful options.

Demonstrating what is wrong in our society is important, and statistical data can do this powerfully. However, as a change-strategy, it needs to be accompanied by other measures that put new progressive ways of thinking into action.

Support for agender identities is a good example of this. Feminists are right that agender-identified people today will be subject to gendered regimes and to other people’s gendered perceptions, regardless of how they identify. Defining gender to make agender a meaningful concept does not eliminate gender from social life. But if increasing numbers of people live as if it is possible to live outside of gender, just as atheists live as if it is possible to not believe in God or have a religion, this may reduce the power of gender’s male-female hierarchy. Whether this happens is an open question as is the contribution of new understandings and ways of doing gender to it. But the important point is that language and its meanings do far more than reflect a distinct and separate reality laid out before them. Language does not determine reality – at least not exclusively. However, understanding their more complex interrelationship is a key task that this conflict over sex and gender continues to throw up. 


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Davina Cooper

Davina Cooper

Research Professor in Law & Political Theory

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