The Illusion of “Neurosex”: Your Brain Is Not “Male” nor “Female”

There’s been an unfortunately increasingly popular tendency among many trans communities to rely on some notion of “brain sex“, “subconscious sex“, etc, to provide justificatory accounts of trans womanhood/manhood. The most obvious manifestation of this historically ignorant & sociologically uninformed way of thinking about trans-liberation is the appeal to “neuroscientific” studies that purportedly demonstrate that transness is intrinsic, “biological”, and in a way that trans people are scientifically their true gender (we are, of course, falling right into a naturalistic fallacy).

While this justificatory account of the production of scientific knowledge may be a fascinating sociology of science question, it’s more immediately a political question. The discourse about “male brains” and “female brains” has underpinned a large host of misogynist bioessentialist thought over the last few centuries, including & especially within the scientific sphere. This has elicited a quite justified* reaction from the host of radical, cultural, materialist, lesbian, queer, scientific and radical (trans)feminists who have given radical accounts of sex-gender based not in illusory biology (aside from cultural feminists), but in the material (re)production of difference.

What are the bases for this purported “neurosex”? There is a small, but growing, literature of sex difference research that is aimed at interrogating the purportedly neurobiological foundation of ‘transsexuality’. It is important to recognize that this burgeoning literature does not originate from a trans-inclusive or feminist perspective, but from a classificatory, pathologizing way of constraining trans subjectivity under the microscope of the scientific interlocutor. The transsexual becomes the subject of the scientist, for her (the subject is nearly always a trans woman) brain is a site for knowledge production. She is not considered as a person to be cared for, but as a subject to be poked, prodded & studied.

The “Science”

The ‘original’ study in the this line of literature purporting to demonstrate that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘female’/’male’ brains was a 1996 study done by Zhou et. al. It looked at the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of the brain of 6 postmortem ‘male-to-female’ transsexuals in comparison with cis ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. The way that gender norms have infested scientific knowledge production is quite apparent from the start. Brains are presupposed to be dimorphically (that is ‘having two forms) sexed as “male” or “female” so that the finding that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains is either a justificatory or delegitimatizing account of their true sex-gender. But, as we will see later, it is not obvious, and in fact false, that brains are organized dimorphically.

This initial study has been cited 872 times, including in other literatures like explicitly bioessentialist work such as Lippa’s “Gender, nature and nurture”. It is perhaps the most focused upon within the entire literature, meaning it has been the subject of a number of critiques: the horrific sample size (n=6 for the trans individuals), the comparison group(s), sexuality composition, analyzing brain structure postmortem, whether or not the subjects had taken hormones. To  me, all of these critiques have important points to them, especially situating the sample size of the group within the replication crisis within neuroscience.

Whose Science?

Here we ought to consider the parent field of this series of studies: neuroscience. Neuroscience has received increased attention & funding as a revolutionary “neurocognitive” turn in many sciences (behavioral, psychological, etc). This “turn” has been the subject of a number of criticisms, not least by William Uttal. In his book “The New Phrenology“, he critiqued the notion that we can localize psychological processes to a particular region of the brain. That is, the very  subsets of the whole brain that are being interrogated for their sex differences, may not prove very useful in determining the behavioral consequences of these differences, whatever they may be. This idea that a person’s psychological attributes (emotions, intelligence) can be “located” in a particular region of the brain reminds many of the pseudoscience of phrenology, hence the title. Not only is there a theoretical objection to the knowledge that is asserted to be produced by neuroscientific studies, but there’s an empirical one. Despite the valorization of neuroscience in the media as another “biology” to ground the “nature” of the human body, it has a lower replication rate than psychology; famously affected by the replication crisis. In Uttal’s Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta Analysis, he analyzes the findings from the field and finds them very wanting in terms of empirical support. Other works critiquing naive neuroscience are Rees & Rose’s The New Brain Sciences, De Vos & Pluth’s Neuroscience and Critique: The Limits of the Neurological Turn, and Satel & Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed.

Scan, Compare, Contradict, Deny and Repeat

Returning back to the ‘transsexual brain studies’, a later set of studies after Zhou et. al have produced mixed findings. Some find that the sexuality composition of the ‘transsexual’ selection produces differing results as to the ‘grouping’ that ‘transsexuals’ fit into (i.e. straight [androphilic] trans women have ‘female’ brains in contrast to lesbian [gynephilic] trans women who have ‘male’ brains). Some find that it is not that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male‘ or ‘female‘ brains, but brains intermediate between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ groupings. And still others confirm the initial finding that trans women have ‘female’ brains and trans men have ‘male’ brains.

For example, a 2000 study by Krujiver et. al again studied the “bed nucleus of the stria terminalis” and discovered that, in a sample of 42 individuals total, that ‘female-to-male’ transsexuals have a ‘male’ number of neurons while ‘male-to-female transsexuals’ have a ‘female’ number of neurons. They also reported that sexuality & hormone treatment did not affect the results. This cannot be considered a replication as 26 of the patients (most of whom were not trans) came from the original Zhou et. al ’96 study. Just as in the other study, all of the postmortem brains analyzed were medical deaths: they had died from a disease or other medical condition. This makes it difficult to interpret the results, especially in light of the inclusion of a large number of AIDS patients & the complex etiology and effects of these diseases. Indeed, one trans female patient had “cytomegaly of the brain”, along with one of the lowest brain weights in the entire study! It is also unclear as to how the authors made the inference that hormone therapy was irrelevant, as they included only one individual that was not on hormone therapy. This individual also happened to be 84 years old! They reported that they did not find an age interaction in any of the numbers, but this is severely limited by the small sample size & methodological heterogeneity.

To delve into the long list of poorly conducted studies would require too much space in this already lengthy article, so I will save this task for another period. There is, however, a useful review of the heterogeneity among study results here.

The “Female Brain”?

Let’s take a moment to consider what the findings that trans women have ‘a female brain’ means. In these studies, there is a comparison group of ‘normal‘ (i.e. cis) women who the ‘abnormal‘ (i.e. ‘transsexual’) women is compared to. The variability within cis women is elided and collapsed into a single ‘average’ value, an awfully unfruitful way of thinking about differences in brain structure. If we are to call a particular brain “size” of a specific section that of a “female” or “woman”, what of the other cis women who have “male” values? By sexing/gendering quantities, we are introducing quite an interesting site of (re)sexing the body. Not only do the studies collapse variability among cis control groups, but they completely elide any variability among ‘transsexual’ test subjects. It is not obvious that every trans woman will have a ‘female’ brain: this would be very unusual given that not all cis women do. But if a justificatory account of trans womanhood is supposed to emanate from this science, then how does one consider the trans woman with a ‘male’ brain? The typical correction to the  discussion of the cis woman with a ‘male’ brain is to shy away from sexing the brain, but this response is unintelligible and out of reach for the purportedly justificatory narrative, for both cis & trans women.

2019-05-16 10_50_39-Sci-Hub _ A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality

This discussion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains is awfully reminiscent of the ways that TECFs (trans-exclusionary cultural feminists) and other transphobes have talked about sexual difference: some body part is innately sexed, producing a particular meaning of sex that includes/excludes particular groups. It is not relevant that some individuals that we ought to consider women/men are included/excluded in/out of the wrong category, because there is the presumption that this particular physiological characteristic grounds and defines sex-gender. For the TECF, the intersex body produces a challenge of classification. For trans neuroessentialist, the cis women’s ‘male brain’ is the site of failure. For the traditional conservative bioessentialist, the masculine lesbian defies a particular way of thinking about the sex-gender equivalency. United in their exclusion is the thought that there must be a physiological/physiognomic way of defining a gender-sex that provides justification for a liberatory politics.

But as the discussion of the trans woman with the ‘male brain’ shows, none of these discussions of physiological grounding of sex-gender actually hold up theoretically. The anti-trans cultural feminist has provided a litany of valid objections to the ‘neurosex’ framework, the transfeminist an account of intersex bodies in sexual difference to object to the genital/chromosomal formations of sex-gender, the liberal feminist objects to the conservative account on the questioning of the connection between their theory of ‘sex roles’ and ‘sex’ (this of course may not be a useful distinction after all). If a neuroessentialist account provided meaningful justification for trans womanhood, one ought to see trans women getting their brains tested & compared to ‘female’ values. But we do not see this form of self-validation: scientific knowledge in the form of averages (i.e. the average volume of trans women’s brain structures in comparison to cis women/men) is assumed to apply to all trans women, regardless of what type of ‘bell curve‘ brains are supposed to be distributed on. A trans woman with SD=2 away from the mean is assumed to have just as much of a ‘female’ brain as a trans woman with SD=-2, despite one falling right as ‘hyper-female’ and another as ‘male’ in the original account of ‘brainsex’ (the one formulated by academic institutions).

Do trans women have “female brains” or simply “female ratios”? Often forgotten is that there is an average (as always, the reality of average sex differences exists on a continuum) difference between the size of the brains (and heads) of ‘males’ and ‘females’. On this account, trans women have ‘male’ brains: their average head (and thus brain) size would be firmly within the ‘male’ range, whatever this is supposed to mean. But the cited studies don’t compare total brain volume, but rather the size of particular brain structures corrected for total brain volume. This is supposed to fix the issue about whether sex differences in brain volumes are simply an artifact of total body size. It’s not entirely clear why the neuroessentialist ought to use this ratio standard rather than the ‘total volume’ standard.

The Male Brain is Empty

It must also be questioned what, exactly, a “male” brain is supposed to represent. If, for instance, the finding that trans women have a “female” brain is purportedly not neuroessentialist or reproductive of the gender roles trans people often deconstruct, then it begs the question of what does a ‘male’ brain mean? The typical meaning of ‘male’ brains within scientific spheres is typically within the framework that men & women have different brains, causally related to prenatal hormones & chromosomal differences, which then produces distinct behaviors. If this essentialist formulation of “male” brains is rejected by the trans affirmationist, then it seems there is not much left to a ‘male’ brain. If it is simply a quantitative average, then it is unclear why this would be in any way constitutive of trans women as women & trans men as men any more than the finding women are, on average, shorter than men is constitutive of tall women as ‘men’ and short men as ‘women’. It is interesting to note that the portions of the brain studied by scientists in (in)validating trans gender-sexes are typically the ones involved in the discussion of ‘innate’ gendered preferences: bed nucleus of the stria terminalis INAH3, etc. This review of the “trans brain” literature is filled with claims that sexed behavior is innate, specifically affirming the misogynist “brain organization hypothesis” that has been debunked time and time again.

The Queer Feminist Scientist’s Objection

Even more, the entire concept of a ‘male’ / ‘female’ brain must be questioned on more empirical grounds (rather than the theoretical objection that it provides a basis for pro-trans attitudes). There have been a litany of feminist empirical works seeking to question the mainstream narrative that ‘male’ brains produce ‘male’ behaviors, and ‘female’ brains ‘female’ behaviors. One of the first books (I skip over Ruth Bleier’s important work) attempting to debunk this idea is Anne Fausto-Sterling (whose name one might recognize for producing a book Sexing the Body that is commonly cited & discussed by the very same people trying to push neuroessentialism) and her Myths of Gender. Although the book is partially devoted to disproving the oft-cited ‘greater male variability’ hypothesis that has been revived (in James Damore) and other silly arguments about IQ, innate differences in aggression, it also has an addendum to the second edition discussing sex differences in the brain. She (FS) discusses the aforementioned issue of total brain volume corrected for body size & the illusory corpus callosum. The numerous methodological choices one makes in measuring the body have a profound influence on the results obtained: a point obvious to any scholar of the sociology of science. The particular way that one cuts the corpus callosum will affect the presence or absence of sex differences, the size of the difference, and the qualitative differences one finds. Whether one “scans” the brain with an MRI or “photographs” and “dissects” it with a postmortem analysis is also important. But a point Fausto-Sterling makes earlier in the book, in the chapter on genes, seems most important & most fruitful to me: that brains developed at the interaction of a complex system of genes, cellular environments, biological and social environments. As more & more research has demonstrated, the biological and social are not easily separable, and the ontogeny of found differences, whether or not they meaningful exist, cannot be assumed from the existence of the differences.

Another infamous book on the sex differences in the brain is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender [apologize for the link]. While her focus is mostly on the connection between purported sex differences in the brain & the behaviors they are supposed to be causally connected to, she does talk about the complex ways that social learning & socialization can manifest themselves literally as biology. In chapters 15 and 16, she discusses the now seemingly obvious finding that behavior, the social world, environmental factors influences development, including of the brain: neuroplasticity. This novel concept is used to help explain sex differences: perhaps it isn’t that sex differences in the brain are determined by one’s genes at birth, but rather by a complex interaction between genes & environment, nature and nurture. Or perhaps, as developmental systems theorists put it, there is no distinction between nature and nurture.

The most recent magnum opus (skipping over Lise Eliot’s Pink Brains, Blue Brains) on “brains” is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain. I have unfortunately been unable to obtain a copy, but she repeats and elaborates on the many arguments formed within Cordelia Fine & other’s books. She argues that brains cannot be gendered dimorphically (or sexed in most cases) because there is more variation within ‘sexes’/’genders’ than between. This is reminiscent of the Lewontin argument against the existence of races on genetic grounds: there is more genetic variability within races than between them. While we may be able to “statistically distinguish” brains based on some overfit machine learning algorithm, how is that supposed to tell us anything about the differences between brains other than that we can create all sorts of hyperpredictive models. That is, statistical abstraction doesn’t inform us about the ontology of sex differences. Most often cited is a 2015 study done by Daphna Joel (who is very trans-affirming: see my post here) that purported to show that brains are not ‘sexed’, they are intersex. In her study, she demonstrated that most brains are not ‘extreme’: they don’t have all of the ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics on each side of the ‘dimorphic’ spectrum. Most brains are a heterogeneous composition of differently ‘sexed’ portions: someone may have a ‘male’ amygdala, but a ‘female’ hypothalamus.

Who Benefits

Now we have to return to the issue at hand: whether “neurosex” exists & supports trans narratives. If someone can have parts of their brain that are differently sexed, then how does one “sex” the brain as a whole? Do we privilege specific parts of the brain that we think are most relevant to ‘determining’ sex? That seems like an inevitably social decision that won’t satisfy any critics. I think it has become clear that not only does the neuroessentialist narrative of “trans women have female brains” & “trans men have male brains” not justify a trans-affirming narrative, but that brains aren’t dimorphic enough to even justify classifications of ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains.

Next, we must turn to the consequences of adopting this narrative: how the entire trans community is supposed to fit within it. Obviously, this discussion of ‘male’ brains and ‘female’ brains has already started to adopt an exorsexist conceptualization of gendered difference, privileging binary gender legitimacy over that of nonbinary people. But how are nonbinary people supposed to fit within this “male brain” – “female brain” conceptualization. Some people have suggested we ought to conceive “brainsex” as yet another spectrum. This may seem plausible at first: nonbinary individuals are neither “male” nor “female”, but it immediately raises a few questions. First, what of the nonbinary identities that exist outside the already exorsexist framework of a gender ‘spectrum’ (presuming polarity and opposition)? The myth of nonbinary as “between” male and female has been the subject of numerous critiques for not only being explicitly misrepresentative of nonbinary identity, but exorsexist/transphobic for imposing a particular view of transness onto nonbinary identity. Are agender & bigender people supposed to occupy neither ends of the ‘brainsex’ spectrum or both, respectively? Or are they to be thrown under the bus in a respectability politic in the goal of transsexual legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public & medical establishment? Second, if we are appealing to a spectrum to legitimize transness, then how are we to pick where “male” starts & “nonbinary” begins. If there is a range from -1 to 1, where 1 represents maleness and -1 represents femaleness, then where does femaleness end, nonbinary begin & end & maleness start? Do ‘female brains’ go from -1 to -1/3, nonbinary from -1/3 to 1/3, and ‘male brains’ from 1/3 to 1? This would divide up the spectrum evenly. But then we encounter our earlier objection: given that brains don’t exist in dichotomies, they exist in distributions within groups, there are going to be trans women whose brains are “nonbinary” or “male”, nonbinary people with “male” or “female” brains & trans men with “nonbinary” or “female” brains. Here we have just legitimized a privileged few whose brains were lucky enough to be the “right” size and/or “right” proportions.

Who is “neurosex” serving? Not women, not men, not trans people, not nonbinary people, not feminists nor transfeminists. The only people it “serves” is the academic misogynists, the “sex difference” evolutionary psychologists, the right-wing reactionaries. It’s time for transfeminists to abandon this model.


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Correcting the Record on “Rape Racks”

Vegans and anti-vegans have disputed the origin of the term “rape rack” (see e.g. here) – animal torture/murder apologists claim vegan and animal rights activists invented the term “rape rack” out of thin air (Lindquist 2020), while many vegan activists claim it is colloquially used in the industry (Humane Myth, n.d., Shuchat 2016).

For example, Lindquist (id.) says:

Did you know that the only sources which I found the term “rape rack” to be so freely used? That’s right, vegan animal activist websites, vegan animal activist blogs, and social media posts

The term rape rack did not originate in the vegan community or from animal activists smearing the dairy industry, but rather by comparative psychologists, specifically Harry Harlow (Harlow & Soumi 1970) studying monkeys.

We wanted to test the effect of social isolation on maternal behavior, but no one can study maternal behavior unless someone has babies. Actually, for about 50 percent of our isolated females we eventually found ways to breed them under controlled conditions. The technique we devised in desperation was a rape rack.

When motherless monkeys that had been raised in total isolation for 6 to 9 months became mothers, at least twothirds of them turned out to be inadequate or evil mothers. They tended to show one of two syndromes. One pattern of the motherless mothers was to pay no attention to their infants. (Any normal monkey mother hearing one cry from its baby would have clasped the baby to its breast in no time flat.) The other mothers were brutal or lethal. One of their favorite tricks was to crush the infant’s skull with their teeth. But their really sickening behavior pattern was that of smashing the infant’s face to the floor, then rubbing it back and forth.

Harlow & Soumi 1970, above, page 10

(see also Stephens 1986, VeganRabbit n.d.)

The earliest application in print of the term to the animal agriculture industry that I can find is David Coats 1989’s book Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm: The Myth of the Traditional Farm and the Shocking Truth about Animal Suffering in Today’s Agribusiness, on page 34:

Sometimes a boar is let loose among the tethered sows, the so-called rape rack, but most larger operators consider artificial insemination a ….

And soon after, the term saw widespread use in academic animal rights publications, particularly feminist and ecofeminist works (e.g. Adams 1991, Francione 1991, Slicer 1991).

I am not a dairy farmer (for good reason). I have no clue whether it’s used in the industry – it could have been used once. But the term “rape rack” was first used by psychologists who abused monkeys for scientific gain – the extension of the term “rape rack” to the devices used in the dairy industry is not a stretch at all and to accuse vegans of being dishonest for this language reeks of half-baked ideology.


Definitions and the Unbearable Entitlement of Cis People

A consistent demand of so-called “gender critical” feminists has been to posit that a definition for “woman”. “How can trans women be women?” they ask. At first, one might consider this an eminently reasonable demand. If woman is to mean somethingobviously, then it must have a definition. If we don’t, well, how are we to fight the oppression of women? And those evil transactivists have refused, positively refusedto provide a definition, or at least a coherent definition. 

There are several layers to the actual question at hand. First, the question of whether a definition is even necessary. For me, I see two plausible answers. The first is that while it may seem intuitive that a definition is necessary to actually liberate women, it may be more deleterious to the cause to actually fix the subject. This is one of Judith Butler’s main points in Gender Trouble – it actually starts the book off! I’ll now quote quippets of the first section at length

Recently, this prevailing conception of the relation between feminist theory and politics has come under challenge from within feminist
discourse.The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable
or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of “the subject” as the ultimate candidate for representation or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women


If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation
of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of
representational politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to
facilitate its emancipation.This becomes politically problematic if that
system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine. In such cases, an uncritical appeal to such a system for the
emancipation of “women” will be clearly self-defeating.

The political assumption that there must be a universal basis for
feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist
cross-culturally, often accompanies the notion that the oppression of
women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination

My suggestion is that the presumed universality and unity of the
subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of the
representational discourse in which it functions. Indeed, the premature
insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the
category. These domains of exclusion reveal the coercive and regulatory
consequences of that construction, even when the construction has
been elaborated for emancipatory purposes

Indeed, the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from “women” whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics.The suggestion that feminism can seek wider representation for a subject that it itself constructs has the ironic consequence that feminist goals risk failure by refusing to take account of the constitutive powers of their own representational claims. This problem is not ameliorated through an appeal to the category of women for merely “strategic” purposes, for strategies always have meanings that exceed the purposes for which they are intended.

In the course of this effort to question “women” as the subject of feminism, the unproblematic invocation of that category may prove to preclude the possibility of feminism as a representational politics. What sense does it make to extend representation to subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject? What relations of domination and exclusion are inadvertently sustained when representation becomes the sole focus of politics? The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation. Perhaps, paradoxically, “representation” will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of “women” is nowhere presumed.

Butler’s argument here is multifaceted and could serve as the subject of entire essays and even a class, but the gist of her point is that the destabilization of the concept of woman threatens to force us to reconceptualize the relationship between “women” and feminism as a political project itself. If we recognize that “woman” does not exist independently of a sociohistorical process, then what does it say that feminism is a “movement for women”? Moreover, how can feminism claim to “speak for women” or “represent women” if the progenitors of feminism as a particular social movement come predominantly from a particular background, geographic location and social class – does it make sense to say that “feminism” can be found in pre-modern China? If feminism no longer requires the type of proclaimed universality critiqued in “Under Western Eyes“, then what does the alleged universality of womanhood or a single subject “woman” do for feminism either?

A similar line of questioning the necessity of such a feminist politic can be found in Richey (n.d.), who, following Haslanger (2000), identifies a normativity problem for definitions of gender terms, but sees it as fatal to the project in and of itself. 

The second answer to our first question that I find myself considering is that some sort of ‘definition’ could be employed, but that it be processual, dynamic, and denying of fixity. There are several ways of doing this, and I’ll examine a few in this post. 

One alternative to the typical way of thinking about defining womanhood is to see womanhood as continuously reconstituted – who is a woman is not fixed and changes from moment to moment based on factors like perlocutionary utterances. Deleuze begins such an analysis with his concept of “becoming-woman” (Dawson 2008), which makes heavy usage of Deleuze and Guittari’s thick and idiosyncratic analyses, concepts and modes of thought, while Butler’s expansion upon Austin’s theory of speech acts has been considered foundational to the field of queer theory (Butler 1988).

Consider the example of sports teams. When you are playing baseball with a group of friends and need to divide that group in half to create two teams, what are the definitions of “Team 1” and “Team 2”? Clearly, at least for the critics of self-ID definitions, we can’t define “Team 1” as “anyone who joins Team 1” or “the group of individuals who were assigned to Team 1”. But in virtue of what are members of Team 1 … members of Team 1? When we’re playing baseball, we can quite clearly distinguish members of Team 1 from members of Team 2. And this membership isn’t fixed or static – it can change. If there were initially 10 people on each team, but 2 people from Team 1 have to leave for an appointment, they are often no longer members of Team 1, and now teamless. To even the odds, you might even move someone from Team 2 to Team 1 – they changed teams. There are a number of things we might appeal to here: recursive definitions, social knowledge and performative reconstitution. 

Perhaps it is a dead end to seek an intensional definition that attempts to list the factors common to women than to create ways of identifying people who are women – does it not count as a definition when one is able to identify those individuals who are women? If we go back to the typically mocked and allegedly circular “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman”, what is the issue with the definition beyond its circularity? We are able to identify individuals who are women on this definition – they identify as women. I know I am not a woman – I do not identify as a woman. I know my brother is not a woman as he does not either. Similarly, I know my mother is because she does identify as a woman. 

Yet another solution to the ‘problem’ [1] can be grown from the seeds Tomas Bogardus sows in his polemic. In his discussion of potential ways of read Katherine Jenkins’ definition:

Someone is a woman if and only if she takes (a sufficient number of) norms about women to be relevant to herself, i.e. to be about herself


Bogardus considers the possibility that her definition has two meanings of woman. The first sense is the word in question, what she is defining – the concept on the left side of the “word equation”. The second sense is what he attempts to inquire as to its meaning – exactly what does that mean? He considers several options: that the “woman” in the definiens is the “traditional sense”, which implies that trans women can only be women in virtue of making a mistake. The second is to insert her definition as the meaning of woman in the definiens, introducing an alleged vicious circularity. He considers several others, like using Haslanger’s original ameliorative definition or becoming quietists about the meaning. To combine Bogardus’ way of specifying differing meanings of a concept to avoid circularity with the processual thinking outlined above, we can begin the construction of a non-problematic definition. 

If we define womanhood recursively, by indexing acts of “womaning”, the process of becoming a woman, we can avoid circularity, and trans-exclusivity. For example, let’s consider the traditional pro-trans definition:

A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman

If we accept Bogardus’ charge that this is circular, and viciously so, to keep the “womans” the same in both uses, then we have to come up with another meaning for the second one. If we consider a recursive definition, then:

A \text{woman}_{\text{n+1}}\text{ is anyone who identifies as a }\text{woman}_{\text{n}}

It may seem a bit confusing, and I admit this is a very rough sketch. But let’s consider a few examples. If we consider a trans woman (let’s call her A) at the moment she first realizes she considers herself a woman – at that moment, she is supposed to become a woman for trans-inclusive feminists. The moment before she does so, “woman” does not include her, but the moment after, it does. So the best way of resolving this is to say that at the moment of A’s first identification, she is identifying with the collective of individuals who were all women before her realization (let’s call this \text{woman}_{0}. Because of that identification [3], the concept of womanhood is “updated” and then includes her – \text{woman}_{1}=\text{woman}_{0}\cup A. The next person to realize their womanhood then identifies (at the moment of this identification) with the “new” concept of woman, \text{woman}_{1}. [4]

Bogardus’ loop is thus broken – the concept in the definiens is not the same as the concept being defined, and it doesn’t seem to be trans-exclusive in any way. 

Certainly this may introduce problems of its own. For example: on this concept of womanhood, are trans women women prior to their first moment of identification? It may seem like the easy answer is no, but I have not done the groundwork to read my own words carefully enough! Regardless, it seems that such an issue could easily be rectified by including ethical considerations in our decisions to apply gender terms (Dembroff 2019). 

There are also some temporal issues to consider here. One might want to stay truer to the dynamism avowed above and claim that A is identifying as \text{woman}_1 at the moment of her identification and that her act of identification ‘updates’ womanhood. But then we get stuck back in the circularity – our definition would be, for example:

A \text{woman}_{1}\text{ is anyone who identifies as a }\text{woman}_{1}

I think this may be a fault of the English language and the way that we conceptualize changes in time. In programming, it is quite easy to update categories or lists. In R, one can extend a vector by combining them:

list <- c(list, addition)

One will note that list is used both in the “definition” (list is being reassigned here) and the definiens (it’s what is being combined with “addition”). Different programming languages handle this sort of reference differently – but these differences are what make each language distinct. 

So perhaps it is coherent to say that one can reconstitute womanhood by identifying as a woman – that the very act of identification modifies womanhood, but that the subject of identification is itself already the modified womanhood. Perhaps what might seem like a problematic circularity ends up being the result of a flaw of natural language. 

To return to the baseball team analogy, let’s consider the three proposed solutions presented earlier. Number one was recursive definitions: Team 1 is defined in terms of the previous members plus the new addition. Number two was social knowledge – perhaps we know who the members of Team 1 are … Number three was performative reconstitution: the very act of a coach saying “Team 1” to a prospective player reshapes the boundaries of “Team 1”. 

One motivation for even abandoning the static, discrete definitions (Aristolean definitions as Baker (2008) points out) is that they do not comport very well with our intuitions and actual linguistic experience. Cognitive scientists have moved beyond the simplistic ways of defining concepts that involve an allegedly comprehensive list of necessary and sufficient conditions, exceptions, checking boundary cases, etc. Alternative ways of instantiating concepts (Murphy 2002) and designing social inquiry (Ragin 2008) allow us to escape analytic philosophy hellhole while retaining use of our social concepts

Perhaps instead of Aristolean definitions, we could proffer some sort of family resemblance concept (Nicholson 1994), or a “fuzzy model” (Tauchert 2002; c.f. Joaquin & Biana 2019). The options are limitless. 

[1] The idea that the inclusion of trans women in our concepts of womanhood is a “problem” in need of solving should be critiqued, as my friend Leah does so eloquently here

[2] I should first note that I think Bogardus’ reconstruction of Jenkins’ definition to be grossly misrepresentation, erring on the border of libel. 

[3] We should be more specific by what we mean by identification. It is less that identification means equation than it is a form of social expression in and of itself. To identify with a group is to join a social community, to claim membership in that community to express a desire. Personally, I am a critic of identity itself (Brubaker & Cooper 2000; Butler 1999; Moran 2014), so I don’t defend this account except provisionally.

[4] A commenter on this post mentioned that this account may rest on the assumption that all women will identify with \text{woman_n}, which is not going to be a part of reality. They more likely will identify with a subset of the women that they consider to be true women. This reply can be accounted for by considering a two-step reply – first we introduce the idea of the collective (Haraway 1985; Marion-Young 1994) and then connect it to our account of identification. If we posit that the collective we’re talking about needn’t be directly identified with, but connected to the perlocutionary act of identification via paradigm cases, then we can allow disparate individual concepts of womanhood to be connected to the abstract social womanhood collective despite the variability in each idiosyncratic concept’s extension. 


(Cis)sexing the body to transfigure the monster

The image in the header is from a trans-inclusive body-positive underwear modeling shoot. The modeling industry is exploitative and the inclusion of the picture here is intended not as an endorsement of its practices or creation, but to construct a polemic.

CW: Exorsexism, transmisia, dyadism, racism.

Discussion of the body is very common in transcourse [1]. The body has become a site of contention, not because of the dispute over features of the body, but because:

the notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a universal signified

Foucault (1979)

This assemblage of features and characteristics into a single causal feature has sowed the seeds of a politic – a politics centered around the primacy of this so-called ‘biological sex’. This politics finds itself in grounds like “Sex Not Gender“, the “LGB Alliance“, and “Woman’s Place UK“. These groups posit that “biological sex” is a uniform causal attribute that affects not only our phenotypic characteristics, but our position in society, in almost a deterministic way. It is because Angel Carlick was female that she was murdered, rather than anything else, to these groups. Aubrey Dameron, on the other hand, has become missing thrice. First, her life was stolen by the colonial genocide the AmeriKKKan state allows to continue, second by her erasure in AmeriKKKan activism to fight against the ongoing genocide, and third by the the white British groups who erase trans women in their quest for women’s liberation. Aubrey Dameron went missing because she is a woman – because she is an indigenous trans woman.

Image result for Aubrey Dameron"

Aubrey Dameron

The politics of the body has a long history, in queer, feminist, trans and radical activism. Feminists have sought to problematize the way that the body is philosophized (Prokhovnik 1999), employed in political discourse (Phipps 2014), conceptualized in science (Oudshoorn 1994; Wilson 2004), and regulated by society and the state (Bordo 1993). Trans, queer and intersex theorists have sought to polemicize against the binarism in mainstream body talk (Carpenter 2018; Lane 2009; Preciado 2014), while others attempt to introduce a discussion of race into sexual difference research (Bloodsworth-Lugo 2007) and radicals seek to abandon static biological thought and instead move towards processual biology (Dupre & Nicholson 2018; Rose 2005). That it has become an active site of contest in transcourse should not be seen as surprising, but as expected given the history of feminist debates over the body and its relationship to society.

One active area of research for feminist theorists is how our bodies become seen as irrevocably “male” or “female”. It is not a necessity that our phenotypic characteristics be organized into pair of complex conglomerations of traits labeled (in the English language) “male” and “female” (Dupre 1986), nor is it a necessity that we define these agglomerations such that they are static or fixed (Heyes 2006). By analyzing the way in which intersex bodies “become” male or female, or how this contingent categorization changes over time, feminists have deconstructed the idea that sex must be binary as a matter of the facts about our bodies (Heller 2019). Indeed, feminists question the idea that our bodies are sexed at all (LaBrada n.d.), outside of the sexing that is necessary for bodies to become intelligible at all (Salih 2002). So to “sex the body” is the manner in which bodies become known as sexed, whether this is through the culturally constituted gender matrix (Butler 1990), or through the medical regulation of bodies (Dreger 2000).

Recent transmisic invocations of “material reality”, “female bod[ies]”, etc are all part of a cissexist and exorsexist attempt to (cis)sex the body – to make it so that the body is inherently cis, deterministically either male or female. No ambiguities, no change, no processes, just a single pair of states: male or female. One is “born male” or “born female”, and this is the underlying causal factor that determines ones physiological traits, determines one position in society, and consequently, whether one ought to be considered a woman or a man and whether one is permitted to speak on certain issues. Hush up trans women, you’ve gotten too uppity with your talk of “rights” – you aren’t allowed to have thoughts on feminism, on the definition of womanhood, on their own experiences! You’re delusional, mistaken. You’ve been indoctrinated into the “trans cult”, where you’ve then become its willing member.

For this movement, we must not only “sex the body” (Fausto-Sterling 2000), but cissex the body as well. The body becomes cis through proclamations like “trans women are biologically male“, as if “male” is something solely biological, rather than generated and generative. The body becomes cis because ovaries are framed as “female”, as trans embodiment becomes logically and politically impossible (Billard 2019). Transition becomes “mutilation“, intersex bodies become “disordered” and sex becomes a permanent, immutable property of an individual (see Lavin 1987). By sexing the body, transmisics cissex the body.

In that same process, they achieve their primary goal, which is to “transfigure the monster”. By this I mean that transmisics are not passionate about spouting “biological reality” and tweeting “trans women are biological males” because they have a deeply held ontological belief about the composition of the body or a particular position in the philosophy of science. They say these things, come to believe these things, to turn trans people into freaks (see Lisa Millbank’s amazing post). The trans body becomes monstrous, a Frankenstein of medical experimentation (Raymond 1994), the active subject of bioethical travesties (Hausman 1995), a disfigured mistake. Our bodies are politically subjected to excessive inquiry, but it is not only trans bodies that are poked and prodded on the internet, but cis and intersex ones too [2]. The (trans) body is (trans)figured into a monster.


The trans body becomes stuck oscillating between two different states. Either present oneself as hyperfeminine to ensure that you ‘pass’, else our hands, skull shape, brow ridges, the way we walk, arms and shoulders ‘give us away’ (Billard 2019), or we must resign ourselves to be feminine men (but not too feminine, lest 0.5% of the population be the causal force preventing gender norms from disappearing). The trans body has come under biopolitical control, from the airport, the prison, the jail, in the ‘maternity‘ ward to the General Register Office, even after death. When transmisics speak of “true sex”, “biological sex” in an attempt to slander trans people, they are exercising the biopower they have accrued.

Sex, sex, sex, sex (yeah)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (la-la-la)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la)
Sex, sex, sex, sex (yeah)

Lest we be unclear in that trans people do not engage in this same sort of body politics. Fatphobia is ever present in queer communities, as is hierarchy based on the racialization of the body. Gatekeepers attempt to force people into transitioning based on their concepts of what transness entails and requires. “True Tr*nnies” hold that trans people who don’t get/want SRS are not “true trans” people and/or that trans women aren’t “true” women until they have a vagina [3].

“Sex” is not merely a neutral aspect of scientific inquiry or “biological reality”, as some right-wingers argue in an tepid attempt to defend the sex binary. It is a political tool used for violence. When the discourse of a “true sex” (Lavin 1987) is brought to the surface, it can easily be revealed that it is the basis for transfemicides and the ongoing gendercide (Bettcher 2007). Trans people deceive the world about our “true sex”, what is really contained within our cells, our chromosomes, their actual meaning. We have lied to the world by looking one way, but being another. This alleged deception extends even when the other participant in an engagement is willing, to the point where conspiracy theories about womb farms arise.

Sex is not neutral. Sex itself is violent. Sex is the violent imposition of ontological categories onto bodies, stamping us to particular social formations. Sex is sexualization, the preparation of bodies for violation [4], the preparation of bodies for heterosexuality  [5], for the reproduction of society [6], and the reproduction of people themselves [7]. Sex is violence.

For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary

Wittig (1976)

[1] Transcourse here is a portmanteau meant to describe the online (be it Reddit, Twitter or Tumblr) discourse about trans people.

[2] See also here, here, here, here, and here. As well as here, here, and here.

[3] And similarly that trans men aren’t “true” men until they have a penis.

[4] Credit goes to conversations with Twitter user @9BillionTigers for this line of thought.

[5] For an analogous argument, see MacKinnon (1989).

[6] See Guillaumin (1995).

[7] For the best work outlining this argument, see Wittig (1976), (1980).


Materialist Feminist Conceptualizations of Sex-Gender

Materialist feminism itself arose out of the division and conflict between the aforementioned radical feminism and Marxist feminism in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It was not the feminisms of Andrea Dworkin and Marilyn Frye, though, that materialist feminists were responding to, but rather the more aptly named ‘cultural feminisms’ of Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and co. They grounded gendered reality in biological differences between so-called sexes (rather than the radical feminist & materialist feminist concept of sex classes). The charge of biological reductionism on the fault of cultural feminism, and the charge of economism and class reductionism on the fault of Marxist feminism in turn produced what could be seen as a synthesis of the two in materialist feminism.

Monique Wittig

Monique Wittig’s analysis of sex-gender was particularly cogent for her time. Wittig sought to ground sex class distinction in the heterosexual labour contract of society. As such, she analyzed lesbians as non-women in her most famous quote “Lesbians are not women“.

For Wittig, “sex” is not a precultural phenomenon constituted by biological properties, but is inherently connected to heterosexuality; that which constitutes it. She argues that categories inevitably develop relationships, and as a result are subsequently constituted by them:

The sexes, in spite of their constitutive difference, must inevitably develop relationships from category to category. Belonging to the natural order, these relationships cannot be spoken of as social relationships. This thought which impregnates all discourses, including common-sense ones (Adam’s rib or Adam is, Eve is Adam’s rib), is the thought of domination

She argues that “sex” is the category that forms society as heterosexual. It is quite obvious that heterosexuality presumes a “sex” to ground itself; it requires the polar opposition between “male” and “female” to constitute heterosexuality vis a vis the relationality between them. As such, “sex” is not about ontology, not about metaphysics, but is inevitably socially structured:

The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual

The category of sex is the one that rules as “natural” the relation that is at the base of (heterosexual) society and through which half of the population, women, are “heterosexualized” (the making of women is like the making of eunuchs, the breeding of slaves, of animals) and submitted to a heterosexual economy. For the category of sex is the product of a heterosexual society which imposes on women the rigid obligation of the reproduction of the “species,” that is, the reproduction of heterosexual society.

Wittig considers this sex binarism as the “ideology of sex difference”, that which is required for the structural maintenance of heterosexuality at both material, economic and cultural levels:

The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking, on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women. Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. Every system of domination establishes divisions at the material and economic level.

As a result, Wittig believes that sex is itself constituted by oppression, so that a feminist movement has no choice but to abolish sex:

For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society.

Wittig’s argument here is that to presume that sex is the cause of oppression, rather than oppression producing sex, is to naturalize that oppression: to say that there is some pre-cultural “sex” that then causes oppression, which would be an unsatisfactory result for the feminist project, for it would deem anti-oppressive projects impossible.

Even more, her analysis of the ideology of male domination leads her to conclude that it is male domination that produces the idea of “sex” as natural, rather than relationally discursive:

What is this thought which refuses to reverse itself, which never puts into question what primarily constitutes it? This thought is the dominant thought. It is a thought which affirms an “already there” of the sexes, something which is supposed to have come before all thought, before all society. This thought is the thought of those who rule over women.

It is this domination ideology that produces sex as binary, that produces sex as biological, that produces sexual division as natural:

Dominance thus teaches us from all directions:
-that there are before all thinking, all society, “sexes”(two categories of individuals born) with a constitutive difference, a difference that has ontological consequences (the metaphysical approach),
-that there are before all thinking, all social order, “sexes” with a “natural” or “biological” or “hormonal” or “genetic” difference that has sociological consequences (the scientific approach),
-that there is before all thinking, all social order, a “natural division of labor in the family,” a “division of labor [that] was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act” (the Marxist approach).

Christine Delphy

Christine Delphy is most often considered “the” feminist that founded the strand of materialist feminism. She burst onto the scene with her work “The Main Enemy” as an analysis of women’s oppression. Beyond that, she has developed an intriguing account of sex-gender in her piece Rethinking Sex and Gender.

Delphy finds fault with the unstated presumption that feminist theory has been based on: that sex precedes gender in a way that constitutes the coatrack model—sex is precultural and gender ‘arises’ from it. Delphy considers this wrongheaded:

What should have happened, however, is that recognising the independence of the genders from the sexes should have led us to question whether gender is in fact independent of sex. But this question has not been asked. For most authors, the issue of the relationship between sex and gender is simply ‘what sort of social classification does sex give rise to? Is it strong or weak, equal or unequal?’ What they never ask is why sex should give rise to any sort of social classification. Even the neutral question ‘we have here two variables, two distributions, which coincide totally. How can we explain this covariance?’ does not get considered.

She examines the possibilities for the relationship between sex and gender and concludes that the only logical and empirically supported one is that gender precedes sex, using sex as the “mark of difference” to create and maintain hierarchy:

That gender precedes sex: that sex itself simply marks a social division; that it serves to allow social recognition and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated. That is, that sex is a sign, but that since it does not distinguish just any old thing from anything else, and does not distinguish equivalent things but rather important and unequal things it has historically acquired a symbolic value.

She notes that this construction of sex requires several social acts; that the biological properties that constitute the social marker of sex must be dichotomized and flattened to a single property in order to create a sexual binary:

The marker is not found in a pure state, all ready for use. As Hurtig and Pichevin (1986) have shown, biologists see sex as made up of several indicators which are more or less correlated one with another, and the majority are continuous variables (occurring in varying degrees). So in order for sex to be used as a dichotomous classification, the indicators have to be reduced to just one. And as Hurtig and Pichevin (1985) also say, this reduction ‘is a social act’

Her analysis leads to an inevitable conclusion: that gender must be abolished. It is a logical consequence of the feminist project, a necessary consequence as such:

All feminists reject the sex/gender hierarchy, but very few are ready to admit that the logical consequence of this rejection is a refusal of sex roles, and the disappearance of gender. Feminists seem to want to abolish hierarchy and even sex roles, but not difference itself. They want to abolish the contents but not the container. They all want to keep some elements of gender. Some want to keep more, others less, but at the very least they want to maintain the classification. Very few indeed are happy to contemplate there being simple anatomical sexual differences which are not given any social significance or symbolic value. Suddenly the categories they use for analysis, which elsewhere clearly distinguish those who think difference comes first and hierarchy afterwards from those who think the contents of the divided groups are the product of the hierarchical division, become muzzy, and the divergence between the two schools fades away.

The second bolded section brings us to Delphy’s final point (and will spring us into the next discussion): that hierarchy precedes division. It is not that we divide humans into “males” and “females”, note their properties and then erect a hierarchy of “male” over “female”, it is that hierarchy comes first. This reanalysis, for Delphy, has two important consequences. First, that it is not possible to think of a society where women are “lifted up” to the social role of men, for this implies that all of society can become dominant:

One can no more conceive of a society where everyone is ‘dominant’ than of one where everyone is ‘richer’.

Second, she notes that the feminist project cannot aim for, like some cultural feminists like Mary Daly have advocated for, a society based on “feminine values” or “feminine virtues”; the entire concept of femininity is premised on hierarchy, constructed and constituted by hierarchy:

It is also not possible to imagine the values of a future egalitarian society as being the sum, or a combination, of existing masculine and feminine values, for these values were created in and by hierarchy. So how could they survive the end of hierarchy?

Colette Guillamin

Colette Guillamin is a French sociologist renowned for her work on the relation and construction of race and sex. Her extensive work throughout the late 1900s is collected in an anthology called Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. For the sake of space, I’ll primarily be quoting Danielle Juteau-Lee’s summary-introduction to the anthology, in which she explains Guillamin’s theoretical turns and arguments. Her argument(s) for the construction of race and sex have a common strand.

First, we must question the idea that there is a non-situated “nature” inside of which social categories “pop out” for social appropriation:

Those who talk about the natural specificity of the ‘races’, of the sexes and of other social groups are in fact saying that a specific nature produces social practices. This amounts, as she reminds us, to a substantialism, a pseudo-materialism, a material and not a materialist position; the properties attributed to matter ‘arise not as consequences of the relations which the material form maintains with its universe and its history…but actually as characteristics intrinsically symbolic of matter itself

Guillaumin uses historical analysis to isolate the particular ideological formulations and processes that lead to these type of beliefs, and performs one of her famous “reversals”. It is not because of the “nature” of a social category that the members of that category, and the category itself, are socially appropriated – a “nature” is attributed to social categories (like races and sexes) because they are appropriated. This reversal is important: it is essential to materialist analysis.

Guillaumin emphasizes that the allocation of individuals into racial [and sexual] categories can only occur once they have been socially constituted and naturalized. Once constituted, these categories must be identified; marks, arbitrary marks, will then be chosen. The choice of a signifier follows the establishment of social categories; and, as we will see, it is precisely because there exists a social category that the signifier is operative.

For Guillaumin, the way that the signifier comes to operate and the temporality and direction of causality between the social category and its signifiers are very important things to note. That there exist average differences between social categories on social, biological, or other traits does not itself naturalize social groups, it is a particular socio-historical process that naturalizes the groups by turning traits into signifiers:

No one denies the existence of somatic, biological (in the case of the sexes) and phenotypical differences between human beings. Nor does anyone deny that skin colour exists and cannot be removed. But choice of a signifier does not happen haphazardly. The fact that skin colour [and sexual anatomy] and not eye colour, shape of ears or length of feet are usually used as signifiers in our society is explainable; it results from the conjunctural association between an economic relationship and physical attributes.

She reverses the typical theorized relationship again:

Another reversal is effected here by Guillaumin, between the signifier and the position occupied in a given system; it is not because your skin is black that you were enslaved, that you became a slave, but because you were a slave that you became black or more precisely that colour becomes significant.

Guillaumin’s specific theoretical current of feminism can be distinguished from its historical influencing antecedents: radical feminism and Marxist feminism.

Radical feminism emphasizes the fundamental opposition between men and women, the central oppression of women qua women. All men, irrespective of class or ‘race’, benefit, though in different ways, from a system of domination where women are economically, politically, legally and culturally subordinated to men. Radical feminists recognize the existence of ‘sex’-gender relations that are socially constructed mainly within the family, and suggest different interpretations as to their basis

Walby points out that, for Marxists, gender inequality
derives from capitalism and is not to be constituted as an independent
system of patriarchy, since men’s domination over women is a byproduct of capital’s domination over labour. Marxist feminism usually limited its materialism to the economic and the economic to relations constitutive of capitalist social classes, i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; consequently it usually located gender in the ideological instance and affirmed that gender inequality derived from capitalism and benefited capitalist

Her work is of the utmost importance and is a fantastic start for any feminist theorization on sex, so I recommend reading the introduction here.

Stevi Jackson

Stevi Jackson is renowned for her recent revival of materialist feminism with her in-depth analyses of gender, sexuality and the networks between them in her extensive sociological work on the topic. Her 2001 article ‘Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary‘ revisits Christine Delphy’s aforementioned essay and reminisces over the history of the relation between Marxist feminism and materialist feminism. She summarily explains her view:

At the level of social structure gender is a hierarchical relation, constitutive of social men and social women, sustained through divisions of labour and other means, notably the heterosexual marriage contract. Here, gender intersects with institutionalised heterosexuality, bolstered by law, the state, and social convention. The institution of heterosexuality is inherently gendered; it rests upon the assumed normality of specific forms of social and sexual relations between women and men. Gender is also constructed at the level of meaning, through the cultural distinction between women and men, the unspoken and taken-for granted means by which we embody and recognise each other as women or as men as well as the more overt norms of appropriate femininity and masculinity. Sexuality is socially constructed at the level of meaning through its constitution as the object of discourse and through the specific discourses on the sexual in circulation at any historical moment; these discourses serve to define what is sexual, to differentiate the “perverse” from the “normal” and to delimit appropriately masculine and feminine forms of sexuality. However, meaning is also deployed within and emergent from social interaction, and hence finds its expression at yet another level—that of our everyday social practices, through which each of us negotiates and makes sense of our own gendered and sexual lives. Here, too, gender and sexuality are constantly in the process of being constructed and reconstructed, enacted and reenacted, within specific social contexts and relationships. Gender and sexuality are thus socially constructed by what embodied individuals actually do. Finally, sexuality and gender are socially constructed at the level of subjectivity, through complex social and cultural process by which we acquire sexual and gendered desires and identities.

This intervention here has come to me time and time again throughout my reading of the debates over sex and gender: fundamentally there are disconnects between the people who isolate their analysis to one portion of the network of gender concepts.

In a 2017 article with her often-coauthor Sue Scott, she explains her opinions on the “trans issue” by recounting the history of sociological analysis of gender:

The concept of gender has developed via a number of perspectives (Jackson and Scott 2000). Early research on intersex and ‘transexualism’ provided a basis for de-coupling sociocultural gender from biological ‘sex’ and ultimately for questioning the binary itself. A significant piece of sociological work on this issue was Garfinkel’s 1967 essay on Agnes, which made it possible to explore more fully gender as social rather than natural.

They point out that in contrast to many, sociological perspectives don’t presume a particular model of gender and then exclude trans people on that basis, but use the existence of trans people as a foundation for a critique:

In academic circles, however, it is widely assumed that those whose bodies do not match this dichotomous classification, or who cross gender boundaries or who bend or blend definitions of gender, have something to teach us about the ways in which gender is constructed and its significance within contemporary society and culture. This issue has been approached from a number of different feminist sociological perspectives and the importance of thinking about how the binary itself works has been crucial to most of them.

Jackson and Scott repeat the mainstream feminist view that womanhood is not constituted by biology, a single characteristic or a cluster of them, but is embodied culturally and socially:

The notion of who is a ‘real’ woman is at the heart of the recent controversies. It is important not to define womanhood as biological though it clearly is embodied and embodied differently by cis and trans women, not least because the later often undergo complex medical procedures. We should not deny trans women their status as women on the basis of biology. Appealing to the body as a site of authentic womanhood not only risks a slide into essentialism, thus undermining the radical promise of the concept of gender, but also risks homogenizing (cis) women who do not all experience their bodies in the same way.

Emphasizing the feminist result that womanhood is a social construct, they offer a poignant critique of the idea of ‘real womanhood’:

We would suggest that arguing about who is as ‘real’ woman is to look at the issue from the wrong end. If we take gender seriously, think about it sociologically, then no one is a ‘real’ woman – there is no such thing as ‘real’ womanhood, because it is in itself a social construct. Moreover there is a huge variation in what it means to be male or female and in the lived experience of such. Nonetheless, there is a difference between staying with the gender assigned at birth and changing that gender. So what difference does this biographical difference make?