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Who is to blame for gender theory? Some feminists resist the idea of sexual difference

Feminists: Protesting not shopping. (Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/ Getty)

Feminists: Protesting not shopping. (Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/ Getty)


April 23, 2024   7 mins

Here’s a version of a story you might have heard before: first feminists got what they wanted, and then they got what they deserved. At some point in the Noughties, the idea that men and women were fundamentally alike in character and aptitude (if not in body) became the only acceptable thing to believe; and at some point shortly after that, the doctrine of transgenderism swept in and swept away every claim feminism had ever made. It’s a classic of the monkey’s paw genre: be careful what you wish for.

According to this account, feminist writers had devoted themselves to rooting out the scourge of “neurosexism”, and they had been all too successful. By rejecting the idea of inherent sex difference, writers such as Cordelia Fine (in Delusions of Gender) and Rebecca Jordan-Young (in Brain Storm) had effectively undone the very class they claimed to represent. The most appealing part of this story is, of course, that it takes a particularly virulent attack on women’s rights and pins the blame for it on women.

But it also has a germ of truth to it: there is a strand of feminism that has always seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of sex difference. “Born this way” might make strategic sense as a slogan for other civil rights movements, but for the women’s movement, it would have come close to an admission of defeat: born to be underpaid and sexually harassed. No wonder there was an insistent pull towards a form of blank slatism for some feminists.

At its most extreme, this becomes the “gender performativity” theory offered by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, which claims that gender and sex are shaped by social influence. And it’s a theory that goes even further back. In the 1969 book Sexual Politics, for example, Kate Millett quoted approvingly from the work of sexologists to support the argument that “Psychosexual personality is… postnatal and learned.” Regrettably, the particular sexologist she was referring to in this section was John Money. And though Money was much cited and widely respected, he would also be entirely discredited before the end of the century.

Money’s most influential work was probably the twin study now widely known as “John/Joan”. In 1965, a pair of male twins were born in the Canadian city Winnipeg, named Bruce and Brian Reimer. At seven months old, their mother noticed that their foreskins seemed to be closing up, and they were advised to have both boys circumcised. In the event, only one would be operated on: the first procedure was botched so badly that Bruce’s penis was entirely burned, and eventually (in the journalist John Colapinto’s account) “dried up and broke away in pieces”. Brian was left alone after that.

For the family, this was a dreadful event. For John Money, it was an opportunity. Money had already achieved some measure of fame as a pioneer of (what were then called) “sex change operations”, and also worked with (again, what were then called) intersex patients. In both cases, his aim was to use surgery and hormone treatments to bring about alignment between what he called the “psychological sex” and the “sex glands”.

Now Money had the perfect opportunity for a rare empirical study of his theories. The uninjured twin would be the control, while the injured twin would be the test. The baby was castrated and furnished with a rudimentary vulva, and the parents were given strict instructions on how to raise their newly-minted daughter as a girl. Brian would become Brenda. And, up until 1997, all the public knew of this experiment was that it had been a huge success — because all they knew was Money’s version. In his book Sexual Signatures, he described the case like this: “by the time the children were four years old, there was no mistaking which twin was the girl and which the boy. At five, the little girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and being her daddy’s little sweetheart.”

It was, continued Money, “dramatic proof that the gender identity option is open at birth for normal infants”. It appeared to be indisputable evidence that the brain was plastic, and gender a work of culture rather than nature.

The real child had a very different experience. Far from the stereotypically girlish interests listed by Money, Brenda enjoyed playing with model aeroplanes and CB radios. By the age of 11, Brenda was struggling with anxiety and social isolation, and suffered (according to a clinician’s report) from “strong fears that something has been done to her genitals” and “suicidal thoughts”. As signs of puberty kicked in, other girls treated Brenda with suspicion and cruelty: they could tell this child was not like them. Compounding the trauma, Money forced the twins into sexual roleplay under the belief that this was necessary to gendered socialisation.

In 1980, Brenda was finally told the truth. He immediately made the decision to live as a boy, and adopted the name David. Money never reported that his experiment had been a failure. It wasn’t until 1997 that the sorry episode was added to scientific literature, in an article by Milton Diamond; this was followed by Colapinto’s Rolling Stone article (expanded into a book called As Nature Made Him in 2000), which brought the case to wider public attention. Gender plasticity was declared over. The harm to David Reimer was not: in 2004, he killed himself. His family squarely blamed Money’s experiment.

This awful episode perhaps demonstrates little except that sexologists should be treated with grave suspicion: it is so extreme and grotesque, it can hardly be treated as indicative of anything in normal childrearing. Certainly, if Money’s twin experiment had any influence on the development of gender identity theory, it surely ought to have been discrediting, given Money’s direct involvement in medical transition.

“Gender identity theory required two parents.”

But instead, it seemed to sow the seeds of what was to come. The New York Timesreport on the 1997 revelations had ended like this: “And it is the head, Dr. Diamond added, that holds the primary sexual organ, the source of one’s identity, and the organ that does not lie.” In other words, gender is in your head. One reading of this was that the experiment on Reimer was not wrong because it mauled the body of a child; it was wrong because it put the brain and body out of alignment.

The Nineties were also a time of considerable public interest in the idea that “masculine” and “feminine” had a biological basis. John Gray’s blockbusting 1992 book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus had established a popular narrative of psychological sex difference as a kind of relationship self-help. (Men couldn’t help being inconsiderate — they were born that way!) In 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference had brought a neuroscience gloss to the position. As he summarised it in his introduction: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

The Noughties critics of neurosexism were not, or were not all, rejecting the idea of sex difference in totality. As Fine wrote in her 2010 book Delusions of Gender: “There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large (although generally decreasing) sex differences in who does what, and who achieves what. It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are.”

But the way in which they were widely claimed to be connected was, plainly, influenced by sexism more than science. Baron-Cohen’s questionnaires used items like “I enjoy participating in sport” and “I try to avoid doing household chores if I can” to establish someone’s “systematising quotient” — as though women had equal access to sports, as though there was anything “systematic” about not doing the washing up, and as though playing in a team didn’t demand a certain level of empathy.

The ultimate implication of The Essential Difference was that men were designed for thinking, and women for caring. It is substantially the same vision of gender that you can see in the notorious Mermaids “Barbie to GI Joe” gender scale. And this is a very appropriate thing for feminists to critique, especially when the level of “empirical” evidence underpinning it is so flimsy. Applying a rigorous eye to the science of sex difference is hardly the denial of sex difference: you could even call it a systematising impulse.

Fine herself has written, in a 2021 article, about the threat that gender identity theory poses to women’s rights. Replacing the category of woman as sex class with the category of woman as gender essence potentially deprives women of “the concepts to explain the disadvantages they face in virtue of their sex, and a commitment to accurate data to test and understand it”. In other words, when you make the idea of sex taboo, you make sexism impossible to name, or to counter.

Jordan-Young, however, took a very different direction, and ended up arguing not only against the idea of men and women having different brains, but against sex categories altogether. In 2019, she coauthored an article arguing that Caster Semenya (who is chromosomally male) should be eligible for women’s competition, which stated it was “simply not true” that testosterone played any role in athletic performance — a position that not only stands in opposition to every race result ever recorded, but which is also belied by the observable outcome of doping regimens.

It is hard to understand how anyone could be at once so deeply in denial about reality, and so cavalier about fairness to female athletes. The answer, perhaps, is fear. Like Kate Millett, Jordan-Young correctly deduces that sex difference has been used as the alibi for sex discrimination; in order to prevent the discrimination, one must therefore deny the difference.

Or as the science writer Angela Saini (author of the book Inferior) put it in a 2019 radio discussion: “We have to be careful that we don’t treat women as categorically different, and the reason we have to be cautious of this is because in the past this is a stick that is used to beat women with.” There is logic here, but a fragile, partial kind. Turning away from science may be tempting after the ways science has been abused to further sexism, but if you base your claim to sexual equality on the idea that men and women have no meaningful differences, your claim will fail.

Gender identity theory required two parents. One of them, yes, is the fearful strand of feminism that tends towards science denial. But the other was the tradition of scientific chauvinism in which femaleness amounted to being “daddy’s little girl” or doing chores: a tradition in which sex is reduced to stereotypes. If the only lesson we learn from this century’s strange diversion into gender identity mysticism is that we should blame women alone, then we’ve learned nothing at all.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
23 days ago

This is a very fine essay, imo, that elicits two strong responses in me.
The first is admiration for the author. The essay is insightful, clever and erudite. Even if I studied the feminist literature, I am not sufficiently talented to write an essay of this quality.
My other response is that this essay embodies the decadence of our society. That someone so obviously clever and talented as the author should spend her time writing this essay, perhaps even devoting her professional life to the subject matter of this essay, represent decadence in a way a terse, sterile definition of the word “decadence” never could.
Our society has reached the point where engineers, mathematicians, and the like, are ridiculed for the “oppressive” nature of their disciplines, whereas to write the current essay is evidence of the highest reaches of social development and awareness.
Some might read my comment as an implied (or not so implied) dig at the author’s current essay. It’s not. I’m lamenting the fact that the most talented among us spend their time writing this type of essay, while the enemies of our civilization build bridges, dams, power plants, solar energy technologies, and advanced algorithms. Meanwhile, we denounce the whole endeavor of science, technology, and material progress as irredeemably racist and destructive.

John Riordan
John Riordan
22 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Good point.

There’s one thing I’d add to it though, which comes from an observation I read a few years ago about the effect of the financialisation of Western economies: the smartest people coming out of university with mathematics and computer engineering degrees weren’t necessarily going into innovative industries that would have made maximum use of their talents, but into banking, where their jobs were to create ever more complex algorithms for gaining commercial advantage in the derivatives and trading markets.

While there’s nothing wrong with this on one level, on another level the fact that these people aren’t helping create next-generation nuclear reactors, transport systems or food technologies does mean that we’ve been putting our best minds to work winning zero-sum games as opposed to driving the genuine progress that improves the human condition.

I guess I’m pointing out that the decadence you mention has taken many forms.

James S.
James S.
18 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The same trend is happening in medicine, at least in the US: more graduates from medical schools are spurning clinical training or practice, and going into business, venture capital, the financial sector, etc.

Partly this may be due to disillusionment as to what clinical medical practice has become (especially in primary care) but it’s also a huge brain drain and an indictment of how society selects for and views vital professions.

J Bryant
J Bryant
23 days ago

.

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
23 days ago

The awfulness of what was done by the medical profession to David Reimer cannot be adequately described. It is deeply deeply sorrowful. At the very least it is evidence for why, first, the medical profession (and all of us) should do no harm. That is, doing nothing should be the default. But nothing stops the righteous from inflicting their crazy on others. Certainly, the decency and doubt of everyday people doesn’t stand up to it. Honestly, once you know David’s story, it’s hard to listen to a medical professional, or even go to a doctor, ever again.

John Riordan
John Riordan
22 days ago
Reply to  Mark HumanMode

I don’t think your final claim follows from the example. Medical professionals who do this sort of thing are part of a very small minority and more to the point can often be easily identified by a cursory examination of whether or not they permit political opinions to influence their work.

Most well-trained medical professionals would no more permit politics to influence their decisions than they would permit religious views to do the same.

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
22 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

There are plenty of medics who blatantly display their political biases, in a manner that would see me swiftly sacked from my own job (bringing the company into disrepute blah blah…).

A quick glance at Twitter, or at the placards when they’re on strike would confirm this. The notion that these biases don’t influence their decision making is laughable.

Jim D
Jim D
22 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The American Medical Association has gone full woke, pushing DEI, trans positivity, and other unscientific concepts on their membership and in the training of physicians. While the membership of the AMA is a small percentage of total physicians, their influence on medical schools and the politics of medicine (yes, it is a thing) is immense due to their political contributions and control of the main terminology used to report medical services and procedures (which translates into payment to physicians.) The American Academy of Pediatrics is all in on gender reassignment. The World Health Association, which publishes the International Classification of Diseases, used to report illnesses, injuries, signs, symptoms and ill-defined conditions, is eliminating the words worman and mother from definitions. These organizations do not hide this shift, they proudly publish and promote it.

John Riordan
John Riordan
21 days ago
Reply to  Jim D

And I suspect that the majority of medical professionals treat the nonsense question about as seriously as you and I do.

Don’t forget Robert Conquest’s first of three laws: Everyone is a conservative about what he knows best.

Don Rua
Don Rua
16 days ago
Reply to  Mark HumanMode

“The awfulness of what was done by the medical profession to David Reimer cannot be adequately described. It is deeply deeply sorrowful.”
Has this tale ever been made into a decent film or polished Netflix documentary series? As with The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath, sometimes art can change a culture. I believe many Americans were a solid step more aware of the dangers of social media algorithms as dopamine triggers, from Tristan Harris’ Social Dilemma, and that didn’t even have the power of true life emotional human arc within it.
I think it’s time for the Reimer story to be familiar to much more of society, and let the implications reverberate. To an academic, a film or series may seem like a crude, biased instrument compared to peer-reviewed journals. But A) I’ve seen the academic and scientific wall completely obliterated, and campuses funding the growth of bad science from echo-chamber social science programs and B) culture eats strategy for lunch.

David McKee
David McKee
23 days ago

Academics are prone to overthinking things, getting their proverbials in a twist as a result. This is an excellent example.

A carthorse is strong but slow. A racehorse is fast, but not nearly as strong. So which is better? Neither, of course. It is possible to be different but complementary, and therefore equally worthy of esteem. So it is with men and women.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

That is a good analogy, and some carthorses will be more sprightly than average, and some will be less strong than average, the same applies to the race horses. Generalisations can be applied to a whole group but individuals will vary from the average.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Academics are prone to overthinking things

Ironically many academics are prone to underthinking things. What they seem to be good at is novel applications of dogma where it has never gone before. That’s not quite the same as thinking.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

A neat and concise analogy – (I might borrow it!)

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

The issue I suppose is that people will perceive the racehorse as better than the carthorse, or vice versa, as the article says. Plus in some situations, either specific or general across society, one could actually be more useful than the other. Furthermore, a particularly good racehorse may be extremely valuable whereas a poor one has no value, whilst all carthorses are fairly similar.

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

As a retired vet, may I suggest an analogy that is more aligned to the subject at hand. Go into a barn with a Friesian cow and you’ll be fine. Go in with a Friesian bull and chances are he’ll kill you. 
NB Being a bit naughty. I picked Friesians because the sex difference there as regards temperament, build etc is quite dramatic.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
19 days ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

Right on Glynnis!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
23 days ago

As with most things, I blame the Kaiser.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
22 days ago

Ludendorff surely?

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
22 days ago

No, no, no RW-H – much earlier, when the Conference of Vienna ceded control of the Rhineland to Prussia perhaps??

rupert carnegie
rupert carnegie
23 days ago

Fascinating. One conclusion seems to be that the strength of opinions in this area are not matched by strong evidence.

To me, the main problem is not the various opinions but the aggressiveness of their proponents and especially the progressive trans lobby – the refusal to debate, the cancelling of speakers, the denunciation and professional destruction of individuals who express scepticism, etc. i.e. the suppression of debate and the imposition of a dubious orthodoxy.

The trans issue is only an extreme example of the zeitgeist in the Anglosphere. The same intellectual
conformism and failure to critique or debate is evident in other academic and policy areas. If the Tavistock Institute scandal has revealed the consequences in this corner of healthcare, we should wait with trepidation for the consequences of not kicking the tyres in others. The issue is not so much free speech per se but free debate.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
22 days ago

I’m afraid there’s one piece of evidence that proves beyond any doubt that men and women are different: childbirth.

Gender ideology is just the latest and most dangerous battle in the war between the state and the family. You cannot have a truly totalitarian state without removing parents as the primary influence on the moral and social development of children. H1tler, Stalin and Mao understood this. So do their disciples in the progressive movement. Hence the ever-intensifying push to centralise control of education.

Chuck Pezeshki
Chuck Pezeshki
22 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Now you’re talking. Gender ideology may “come” from somewhere, but its amplification is directly the outcome of psychopathic, relational disruption. It’s the effect of psychopaths attempting to grab the ground wire of society to rewrite the software people live by, and spread sexual abuse — when then in turn creates more psychopaths.
That doesn’t mean that all people with gender dysphoria are psychopaths — rather that they are the human shields that psychopaths are using to advance their own, anti-empathetic goals. Welcome to The Matrix.
https://empathy.guru/2022/10/29/vampire-colonies-ab2098-transhumanism-and-life-in-the-matrix/

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

Agree – but the feminist movement did all this prior to trans, with the same disregard for evidence and the same impatience with facts.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
22 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

True.

I once suggested in a comment on a Kathleen Stock essay that she should write a piece on the bad habits of feminists that had been adopted by the trans movement. Still waiting.

I suspect that all university students – of any discipline from physics to gender studies – would benefit from a first term devoted principally to teaching critical reasoning and the benefits of good faith constructive debate (along perhaps with psychological resilience and some guidance on which drugs to avoid and the rules of consent). Thus equipped they might find it easier to detect charlatans and resist attempts to brainwash them.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
23 days ago

What do you actually want, Sarah?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
22 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

A p*nis perhaps?

Simon James
Simon James
22 days ago

No grandpa, she said ‘Happiness’

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

Upvote from me for being witty

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Ah, the eternal question.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
18 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

More.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago

Jordan-Young correctly deduces that sex difference has been used as the alibi for sex discrimination; in order to prevent the discrimination, one must therefore deny the difference.

Hence the rapid rise of transgenderism and the feminization of men. If women can’t be men, perhaps men can be women?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

There is nothing “feminine” about the horde of violent transvestite autogynephiliac men who have taken advantage of the misguided self-ID movement to rush out of the closet into women’s spaces.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
21 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

“the horde of violent transvestite autogynephiliac men’ <– Of course not, they do not exist.

R Wright
R Wright
21 days ago
Reply to  Talia Perkins

The man doth protest too much.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
20 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Liar.

Tom More
Tom More
23 days ago

The radical and incoherent skepticism of Nietszche and the brutal reductio of Marx are behind gender insanity. https://nationalpost.com/opinion/daniel-dorman-when-courts-believe-anyone-can-be-a-woman-justice-is-in-jeopardy

John Riordan
John Riordan
23 days ago

The story of David Reimer is deeply tragic, and seems to be yet another example of people with medical qualifications callously playing God with the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have come within the gravitational pull of their own authority. I suspect that there would be less of a problem with this if these people were forced to face the consequences of their actions sooner: how on earth did John Money manage to maintain the fiction for 20 years that his experiments on a living human being had been a success as opposed to the failure that they were?

Anyway, the final part of the article describing that it now appears that many gender equality activists have been seeking to eradicate sex-based injustice by eradicating sex entirely, well this would be funny, I suppose, if it didn’t raise the question of how people so obviously unsuited to critical thinking managed to rise to positions of influence. Did nobody ever mention the phrase about the baby and the bathwater to any of these clowns?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
22 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Twenty years seems to be about the norm when it comes to outing academic fraud. The susceptibility of academics to groupthink and their fondness for witch hunting makes it almost a generational process.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
22 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Is that academics or just people?

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
18 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

It’s people in general. It’s just more disgusting when academics, supposedly the brightest of the bright, are leading the pack in believing six impossible things before breakfast, then spending the rest of the day bludgeoning the masses into acquiescing.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
23 days ago

Nice straw man.

The belief that behavior differences between human males and females is entirely a social construct, which has been promoted by feminists for the last 50 years or so, is not entirely to blame for the rise of gender ideology, but it has played a huge part in it.

What else is to blame? How about the idea that being kind is more important than telling the truth?
Our the idea that individual self expression is the highest virtue, and more important than caring about the well-being of your family and society?

When I think of gender ideology I think of a relatively small number of very unpleasant, deviant men being promoted, egged-on, celebrated by powerful women. Maybe I have that all wrong though.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
22 days ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

It is also a result of the rise of neo Marxist Post Modernist philosophy aka the critical theories that underpins all woke ideologies. In essence the power to change things comes from controlling the discourse – that is what drives all the torturing of language, the incessant chanting of trans women are women and the virtue signalling around being on the right side of history. You will find the same in all the other woke causes including in climate alarmism.

Simon James
Simon James
22 days ago

.

Simon James
Simon James
22 days ago

How about we leave women alone, let them make their choices and stop using them as a battering ram for modernity?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
22 days ago
Reply to  Simon James

We leave them alone?

How about they take their battering ram away from our door.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
22 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

How about men who suggest what ‘we’ need to do acknowledge that the ‘we’ to whom they refer is not everybody, but men only?

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago
Reply to  Huw Parker

Are you saying that “that’s what we need to do”?

Jay Chase
Jay Chase
20 days ago
Reply to  Simon James

Women have destroyed single-sex bonding social spaces, severely damaging our social fabric in the process, made the modern professional workplace miserable for men and turned themselves into unpleasant and unhappy imitations of masculinity. Let’s stop pandering to them by firmly rejecting their childish delusions about human nature being a blank slate and their attempts to tear down western society.

Mike Rees
Mike Rees
22 days ago

Humm! Do people no longer think about evolution? Humans are large primates. If you wish to know whether sex differences are real you might look at other great apes. It has been done. Sex differences in great apes social groups and society are real. Humans do not float in a world of their own unique biology.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago

I think it’s rigidity of definition that is a big problem. That’s why a man might claim he is a woman because he likes wearing dresses and clothes shopping. Once you start defining biological sexes in terms of psychology rather than biology, the outliers (even if they are the exception that proves the rule) can be a problem. Not all little girls or boys behave in the fashion expected. If you are rigid in your definition of what is a boy or a girl, you are left with two options: coercing the child into behaving in a manner you think appropriate for their sex, or declaring that little girl is actually a boy. That’s the whole problem with stereotypes: they just can’t account for variation.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
22 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

True, in a classroom of 15 girls and 15 boys there will be 30 people with differing combinations of feminine and masculine traits none of whom should be forced into the straitjacket of stereotypes.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

30 is quite a small number, but we could say that in any large group of boys and girls the majority will cluster around the norm for their sex, with various outliers who will differ to some degree.

Force, straitjacket and stereotype are all loaded terms. It’s an interesting question whether it is better to gently socialise children into rough conformity with their sex, or to leave them as outliers. Western societies are very individualistic and see the personality as sacrosanct so we tend to back the outliers. But (using loaded terms) is it really better to feel like you belong, and fit in, or to feel like a misfit?

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Well yes, but the educated view nowadays is that we are talking about overlapping bell curves, not rigid binaries. And that leaves lots of options. The view I am coming to is that we should gently nudge children in the direction of gender conformity, without being too heavy handed about it, because it just makes life easier for them.

Thats the opposite of the feminist/trans/gender fluid view which makes unhappy gender smashing heroes (or sacrificial lambs) out of those who don’t fit in.

Don Rua
Don Rua
16 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

What pains me, both as someone with post-grad education in psychology and as a grandparent of two teen girls, is the push on the margins of how a “girl” is supposed to behave, before there are whispers of “maybe you’re supposed to be a boy”.
What happened to the wholesome and uplifting message that a girl can have widely varied interests, and be 100% a girl/woman? Sports, leadership, decision making, engineer, mother, nurse, neurosurgeon, astronaut. Teen girls have it tough enough, and it’s a confusing and challenging time in the development of identity, personality, etc.
This struggle should not be compared with a set of “boyish” interests, to wipe another woman from the earth, via surgery, counseling, or other tools to nudge one gender into considering they are a major mistake on nature’s part. It feels deeply immoral, as well as lacking a significant amount of scientific evidence to support such a stance on so impactful a topic.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

One hard, irrefutable fact of life is that boys and girls have deviated from gender norms for generations and grown into normal adult men and women anyway. For some reason, this is beyond the comprehension of those who would reshape society to suit their vision.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
22 days ago

A good piece. Aside from Judith Butler and the Californian transhumanism fostered by Berkeley university (and a nice match with the tech hub in SF), I believe at least some of the truth may be evenmore sinister.
James Lindsay has place the emphasis on how the post-feminist Queer philosophy of the 1980s was often camouflage for campaigns to introduce increasing levels of s-xual transgression into American public life. In addition, these were to be ‘progressively’ introduced to the public education system to break down existing taboos.
In short, under the bracket of Queer philosophy we didn’t just get deconstructionism borrowed from Althusser, Derrida and Foucault, but an emphasis that what was permitted underground should be pushed by universities and civil groups to be gradually accepted by legislators.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
18 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Quite. Althusser, Derrida and Foucault were not women, not feminists and I doubt they were influenced by feminists either.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
22 days ago

If the aftermath of the Cass review is going to require the culture to ask itself how and why this happened and to allow those on the wrong side of the argument to re-orient themselves and deal with their public shame, it’s a price worth paying.
But we need to progress with speed to the uprooting of this ideological bindweed in our schools and medical institutions. If not it’ll yet again be adult feelings put ahead of children’s needs. Let’s not repeat our errors and descend into hand wringing inertia.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Yes – but how deep does it go, who planted the seeds, and how many weeds are we going to have to uproot and throw away.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
22 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

If the aftermath of the Cass review is going to require the culture to ask itself how and why this happened

There are a number of reasons this happened but one underpins them all:
The self-proclaimed beliefs and interests of gender cultists were elevated above the right of everyone else to speak openly, thereby allowing them to act with impunity.
That is the inevitable consequence of blasphemy laws, speech codes and other formal and informal mechanisms for suppressing lawful speech.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
22 days ago

A very excellent article. This paragraph is the heart of it:

Replacing the category of woman as sex class with the category of woman as gender essence potentially deprives women of “the concepts to explain the disadvantages they face in virtue of their sex, and a commitment to accurate data to test and understand it”. 

The only change I would make is that there is no “potentially” about it.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
22 days ago

Women aren’t solely to blame for this mess, but it’s hard to look past the fact that far more women seem to support it – especially “high-status” women.

I won’t bother trying to re-hash Mary Harrington’s theory about high-status women pushing this in their own interests, to the detriment of low-status women, but it’s the most plausible explanation I’ve heard. Incidentally, Helen Joyce is excellent on the whole trans issue right up until this question is asked; at which point it all becomes men’s fault.

Michael Lipkin
Michael Lipkin
22 days ago

There is one very obvious difference those (male) academics are not mentioning. 98% of those in jail for violent crime are male. There is a subset of the male population who are irredeemably predatory and violent and all that can be done with them is lock them up.
Are a few (dubiously brainy) academics worth this price? Maybe not, maybe the male population could just be replaced by a few freezers full of sperm?

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
21 days ago
Reply to  Michael Lipkin

“98% of those in jail for violent crime are male” <– Where? In the US for example, it is 90%.

Simon Templar
Simon Templar
18 days ago
Reply to  Michael Lipkin

Except for the work of Christ in the soul, man is depraved.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
22 days ago

Rousseau, Locke, Marx, Alexandra Kollontai and then 20th century feminism — the long denial of biology

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
22 days ago

Rousseau, Locke, Marx, Alexandra Kollontai and then Lyotard, Lacan, Foucault, secularists, humanists……20th century feminism, — the long denial of biology (a move made easier by biologists like Dawkins who championed humanism and undermined public acceptance of natural law….who attacked religion and cleared the way for a new religion) A zillion university professors paid from the public purse. ….But most of all weak, pathetic conservative politicians who gave ground, at every juncture, to a kind of progressivism-lite.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

This is a reasonable potted history, but it really underplays the extent to which the theory of the social construction of gender was central to feminism. And especially central where it mattered, in academia and education.

Without this theory, the whole sex/gender distinction collapses: there is no firm line between the two. The idea that differences in male and female behaviour and personality are innate and natural (in whole, or in part) is completely antithetical to feminism as it has been thought and practised.

Its just that this is a bit of an “oops” moment for feminists who have suddenly seen where their ideas lead – gender ideology – and don’t like the look of it.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

For anyone who’s followed the feminist/gender debate for any length of time, it’s really odd to see feminists cuddling up to biology. It’s also pretty clear that had the trans thing not come along they would be sticking to their social constructionist guns.

And in a sense with good reason. If some aspects of “gender” are innate, and some not, the main candidates for innateness are anything critical to survival, sex and child rearing. Selection pressures in these areas will have been very strong. But those areas include many of the things feminists are most keen to see as malleable and open to change.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago

It has been quite the spectacle to watch women participate in the erasure of their own sex. That this has moved into the realm of widespread experimentation on children has a Mengele-like quality to it, yet that, too, enjoys some level of support. There are plenty of men to blame as well, the ones who see a lucrative area of specialty in sterilizing children. I do not think that history is going to look back favorably on this sorry chapter of our existence.

M Shewbridge
M Shewbridge
22 days ago

People are f*****g weird.

This is a perfect example of conflating truth with values; honestly, this strikes me as a very basic error that nobody in secondary school, let alone academia, should be making.

Men and women are different in at least some ways; that is a fact. Nothing in that fact supports the value of treating women as lesser than men.

It’s like the other taboo debate, about whether IQ varies amongst the races. Even if it did, that wouldn’t support the concept of treating certain races better than others. We treat humans as humans regardless of their abilities.

Perhaps our values were wrong in the past, and we used perceived “facts” to justify them. Ok, but that was wrong then, is wrong now, and will always be wrong.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
22 days ago

Or, we could acknowledge some limited areas where safety or physical fairness justify some differential treatment, and for everything else focus on the individual.
That would be a problem for the political project of using “disparate outcomes” as a basis for discriminating for/against large groups, but we could live with that.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
22 days ago

Reality, biology, is to blame for “gender theory”. You are to blame for your emotion driven abuse of people who do not in reality conform to your delusion as to what is real.
“It appeared to be indisputable evidence that the brain was plastic, and gender a work of culture rather than nature.” <– And that is fraud entire. Gender is exclusively biological. Really, you should stop asking “soft sciences” about it — they know nothing real, and want not to. Their end of the scientific endeavor is too far detached from hard measures to escape it’s Heroic Age where having a beautiful theory and notoriety is more important than saying things rooted in data and logic. When Psychiatry was in it’s Heroic Age still, we heard from the Refrigerator Mom Theory of autism and still hear the echoing epicycles of AGP.
“In other words, gender is in your head.” <– And it is, exclusively.
“One reading of this was that the experiment on Reimer was not wrong because it mauled the body of a child; it was wrong because it put the brain and body out of alignment.” <– A quite brainless, tendentious reading, yes. It was vilely wrong because it did both. Why are you so twisted that is not clear to you?
“Money forced the twins into sexual roleplay under the belief that this was necessary to gendered socialisation.” <– And in fact, 40~70 years ago, “playing doctor” was thought to be a normal and common childhood experience. Attitudes do change, don’t they?
“The Nineties were … level of empathy.” <– None of which has any relevance unless you are a devotee of the soft sciences, which I note attract flakes and liars.
“Jordan-Young, however … of doping regimens.” <– Flakes and liars like that, indeed. The time history with respect to testosterone levels is the overwhemingly significant thing dictating average athletic performance as differentiated by apparent sex — or per the cisgender Mrs. Semenya, in fact less apparent than originally thought.
“Like Kate Millett, Jordan-Young correctly deduces that sex difference has been used as the alibi for sex discrimination; in order to prevent the discrimination, one must therefore deny the difference.” <– The same idiocy infects Lise Eliot, for example, who repetitively uses means which could not find the characteristic male typical vs female typical differences in the brain few other have any difficulty seeing reliably.
“Gender identity theory … nothing at all.” <– You in fact know nothing at all of relevance which you have mentioned.
Gender is that biology developed between the ears, which impels a child to perceive from among them while growing up, those also of their gender, so they can learn the gendered behaviors of their society and by emulating them signal their own gender. The satisfaction of that impulse has its place in Maslow’s order of needs, and it’s satisfaction can be existential in importance. Children generally do not need to be compelled to do so — in fact, that usual experience of those who are in any way gender atypical at all is they are immediately and sometimes viciously compelled from doing so.
“the doctrine of transgenderism swept in and swept away every claim feminism had ever made” <– You have left it unclear what you think that “doctrine” is, and how you think which true claims by feminists, in particular, have been “swept away” by it ? That feminism which says a woman is of equal and individual worth before the law , in civic and public life, is certainly intact in my view and fully consistent with the fact some people are transgender and transition medically or not.
The biological fact is the sex of person is what sexually dimorphises between their legs while in the womb, and the gender is that which dimorphises between the ears. That happens as a result of literally differing genetic and hormonal cues at widely separate times in the duration of the pregnancy, and those cues go to physically distinct tissues with differing eventuated sets of receptors for those cues. It would be insanity to presume, in light of how much else goes awry at one rate or another, to think those instances of sexual dimorphism were always per typical to each other in every individual. In fact they are sometimes not congruent to each other such that the person notices, anf that person is transgender. This is noticeable to 1 about in 150 people in a way generally consistent with the DSMV/WPATH standards of care for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, but for the requirement the person must request medical assistance in transitioning their apparent sex and gender for such to be recommended — for prescriptions and letters for surgery to be written. About 1 in 450 apparently will do so to the degree their finances permit, differing medical insurance mechanisms applied.
The biology of that is supported chiefly in links at parts A) and B) here.
https://taliaperkinssspace.quora.com/People-are-born-transgender-they-are-not-mentally-ill-it-is-no-paraphilia-it-is-a-physical-birth-defect-no-more-a-men
Notice there is nothing of the “soft sciences” there.
And is still true nothing of that ~sweeps in and sweeps away~ any legitimate claim made in the name of feminism.
I note also that recently a certain Dr. Hillary Cass is repudiating what some writers and commenters here have claimed her report said of the matter with respect to youth.
That is expounded on thoroughly here.
https://www.erininthemorning.com/p/dr-cass-backpedals-from-review-hrt
Do you care to bother, Mrs. Ditum, to be specific where you are now making vaporous, atmospheric claims?

David Morley
David Morley
21 days ago
Reply to  Talia Perkins

The biological fact is the sex of person is what sexually dimorphises between their legs while in the womb, and the gender is that which dimorphises between the ears. 

Talia – keep commenting, but you’ll have to be more succinct if you want people to read.

If I read you correctly you are a strong biological realist – much more so than any feminist. You also put your cards on the table in the sense that your view is falsifiable in principle. Feminist positions generally are not. I’m not saying I think you are right, but you do have a view which is scientifically testable.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
21 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

“Talia – keep commenting, but you’ll have to be more succinct if you want people to read.” <– Uhuh. I am replying to the fool in the original post, who had a lot to say about not much – I am not less succinct than they were.
“you do have a view which is scientifically testable.” <– With the result proceeding from it for the last twenty years — each case a real life test — there seems to be no reason to doubt it.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago

Isn’t this a bit of a strawman? I’ve never heard anyone claim that third wave feminism was solely responsible for gender woo woo. What I have heard is that it was a significant contributing factor which is undoubtedly true.

B Emery
B Emery
22 days ago

‘Now Money had the perfect opportunity for a rare empirical study of his theories. The uninjured twin would be the control, while the injured twin would be the test.’

That’s the most f*cked up thing I’ve read for a long time.

‘Or as the science writer Angela Saini (author of the book Inferior) put it in a 2019 radio discussion: “We have to be careful that we don’t treat women as categorically different, and the reason we have to be cautious of this is because in the past this is a stick that is used to beat women with.”’

‘ . In 2019, she coauthored an article arguing that Caster Semenya (who is chromosomally male) should be eligible for women’s competition, which stated it was “simply not true” that testosterone played any role in athletic performance — a position that not only stands in opposition to every race result ever recorded, but which is also belied by the observable outcome of doping regimens. ‘

How is all this cr*p getting traction.
Who buys these books by these crazy people.
What nutter asked them to write an article/book/radio show in the first place, then what crack head decided to publish them.
I laughed my arse off at’ a position that not only stands in opposition to every race result ever recorded,’
People are getting paid for this sh*t. How.
I will not be bothering to read anymore cr*p related to this subject.
What is happening in academia.
The entire establishment has gone f*cking nuts.

Jay Chase
Jay Chase
21 days ago

I’m not buying the writer’s attempt to hugely downplay sex differences here. Simon Baron-Cohen is a serious scientist, Cordelia Fine is an activist who’s misled a generation of idealistic young women. There’s also the loony Gina Rippon, whose recent book says that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to look for sex differences.
Clearly these feminists are motivated by the fear that young girls will be discouraged by the reality of sex differences and give up on trying to smash the patriarchy, but lying, as I think this author is doing, is not going to work. The science is getting better and the obvious differences between the two sexes in our genetic and hormonal makeup are becoming increasingly difficult to hide.

Thomas Donald
Thomas Donald
21 days ago

Fantastic final sentence.
Great piece. I learned something. Thank you.

Mike Buchanan
Mike Buchanan
21 days ago

Interesting piece, and good to see a feminist writer allocating some blame to feminists. But why does Unherd never publish articles by anti-feminists? Feminists are heard all the time in the mainstream media and elsewhere, it’s the anti-feminists who are “unheard”.
Some uncomfortable (for feminists) truths bear repeating:
1. Trans ideology is the inevitable offshoot of feminists’ “gender is a social construct”. The incomparable anti-feminist Professor Janice Fiamengo (Unherd should ask her to write for them) has written a number of excellent articles on feminism and trans ideology, including:
Meet the New Feminist Hate, Same as the Old Feminist Hate
https://fiamengofile.substack.com/p/meet-the-new-feminist-hate-same-as?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2
Single-Sex Spaces for Me, But Not for Thee
https://fiamengofile.substack.com/p/single-sex-spaces-for-me-but-not?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2
Anti-trans Feminists Are Now Reaping the Whirlwind
https://fiamengofile.substack.com/p/anti-trans-feminists-are-now-reaping?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2
Lia Thomas is the Child of Feminism
https://fiamengofile.substack.com/p/lia-thomas-is-the-child-of-feminism?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2
2. Women are more likely to be abused by female partners than by male partners, the most violent couples are lesbian couples:
https://j4mb.org.uk/2022/12/09/are-women-more-likely-to-be-abused-in-lesbian-or-heterosexual-relationships/
Why do feminists not write about women abused by women? Do they not care about these women, or does their existence undermine feminists’ careers as ‘journalists’ and more?
3. The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project (PASK) https://domesticviolenceresearch.org/ was published in May 2013 in the journal Partner Abuse and is the most comprehensive review of domestic violence research ever carried out. This unparallelled three-year research project was conducted by 42 scholars at 20 universities and research centres. The headline finding of the PASK review was that:
“Men and women perpetrate physical and non-physical forms of abuse at comparable rates, most domestic violence is mutual, women are as controlling as men, domestic violence by men and women is correlated with essentially the same risk factors, and male and female perpetrators are motivated for similar reasons.”
A key numerical result from the PASK review was:
“Among large population samples, 57.9% of intimate-partner violence (IPV) reported was bi-directional, 42.1% unidirectional, 13.8% of the unidirectional violence was male-to-female, 28.3% was female-to-male.”
The last point is worth emphasising. In the 42.1% of (heterosexual) couples in which one partner is always the perpetrator and the other the victim, the woman is TWICE as likely to be the perpetrator and (therefore) half as likely to be the victim.
Finally, a short video recommendation, “Adolf Hitler reacts to radical feminist Julie Bindel”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZjcPaBrGqI
Mike Buchanan
JUSTICE FOR MEN & BOYS http://j4mb.org.uk
CAMPAIGN FOR MERIT IN BUSINESS http://c4mb.uk
LAUGHING AT FEMINISTS http://laughingatfeminists.com

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
8 days ago
Reply to  Mike Buchanan

This delusional troll, M.B., doesn’t seem to realize that, while he’s blathering on about women being more violent than men, all the rest of us know the long-established statistics, the world over, that men commit 97% of all violent crimes like murder, torture and rape. Obviously, he’s so blinded by his hatred of women he can’t see straight.

Mike Buchanan
Mike Buchanan
21 days ago

Comments on this piece from Nigel:
An interesting piece because it wriggles within itself. But keeps coming back to the point that it is feminists who have been in the vanguard of ignoring and indeed actively suppressing any evidence for innate sex differences. Its just that their reasons for this related to their usual key targets of escaping the implications of being the birthing human with a nurturing role for babies and infants and jobs that require little physical effort. This is why feminists such as Ditum find their stance on sport so difficult, because its in that context that they have to acknowledge considerable differences both physical and psychological in order to demand even males with low testosterone and other hormone treatments are excluded, because in sports you cannot fiddle things. Unlike messing about with the entry requirements for public service jobs such as the armed forces, firefighting and police. The truth is the feminist project is the origin, as admitted by such as la Bindel who in weak moments admits the “trans” lobby were “allies” right until they actually demanded “equal rights” with women. Much is made about the rather unlikely ability to police toilets or odd decisions by Prison Governors but the real issue is the fact that “equal sport” would mean males and former males would mean no woman would win anything at all (even in Chess it seems). I wonder how ready any feminist is to admit that if the tests for the military, fire or police services were to become sex or gender equal based on actually lifting a casualty, carrying a full equipment pack, running after a miscreant; there would too be precious few “sisters” winning places. And then, as Ditum worries ,what about some of the character, behaviour traits too….. Just as the demand for female versions of all sports is based on women’s inability to win, it sort of highlights that much the same reasoning is why there are “quotas” “targets” “positive action” in many public services, because otherwise there would similarly few “winners” in recruitment tests etc. She it quite right the whole issue is a big one for the feminist project.
Mike Buchanan
JUSTICE FOR MEN & BOYS
http://j4mb.org.uk

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
19 days ago

Yes, some “feminists” have thought they could dodge the bullet of being stamped as inferior by claiming there are no differences between women and men. It didn’t work. The male supremacists, whether male or female, still believe in male supremacy and female inferiority. Through millions of years of evolution of sexual dichotomy with females bearing young had women not been nurturing the human race never would have survived to the dangerous surplus it has today. Men in the role of hunters in “hunter/gather” societies would have profited by aggression. So why wouldn’t women have evolved as nurturing and men as aggressive? Every society on the planet demonstrates this in a greater or lesser degree. Thank you Glynis Roache for the example of the cow and bull.

leonard o'reilly
leonard o'reilly
17 days ago

I admire Sarah Ditum. For her style and clarity, certainly, but also for …. taking a risk. These are crazy times and this is a subject to set the loonies off.
But I have a few comments, none of them controversial.
“Sex difference has been used as an alibi for sex discrimination.”
That’s true, but only partially true. Sex differences have also been used, correctly, to explain differences in outcomes. ( See Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin, not so much for their views, though their views matter, but for the evidence that they cite on sex differences. ) That is the baby that had to be thrown out with the bathwater of discrimination in the denial of sex differences. But the ‘baby of outcomes’ will not be disposed of so easily. It is a sturdy little creature because it is real. It is an outcome. Real differences result in real differences in outcomes.
The denial of sex differences, on the other hand, must founder because it is based on falsehood.
“We have to be careful that we don’t treat women as categorically different…”. Well, men and women are categorically different. They are males and females. But that is not the point. The point is about trait differences: physical traits, cognitive traits, behavioural traits. And in those respects, it is true that women are not categorically different from men in terms of traits ( males and females both share the same traits, after all ), but they are statistically different. That is, traits tend to be distributed differently, between the sexes and within the sexes. Men tend to be this, women tend to be that. And guess what? Those tendencies result in – are you ready for it? – different outcomes! Those babies will not be thrown out.
”If the only lesson we learn from this century’s strange journey into gender identity mysticism is that we should blame women alone, then we’ve learned nothing at all.”
But the hypothesis is not correct. No one sensible blames women qua women for the denial of sex differences and the resulting delusion that sex is all in your head. Feminists deserve a lot of the blame, however, though not all feminists even. But after, say 1980, arbitrarily, feminism has been using a battering ram on an open door. And the corpus delecti in their argument is that differences in outcomes are based solely on discrimination. That’s not true.
Still, the conclusion of the hypothesis is correct. We’ve learned nothing at all.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
15 days ago

“sex difference has been used as the alibi for sex discrimination”
I found this meandering essay to be crucially lacking a point of view on the topic it is addressing… In fact, I don’t think this author understands what she herself believes about the topic of sex difference.
Of course sex difference has been used to explain / justify / establish sex discrimination… why wouldn’t it? The only question is: where do we draw the line?
Why does it make sense to say that men can’t compete against women in athletics, but that we must make more movies where women action heroines beat up male villains?
Why does it makes sense to say that men should be kept out of women’s bathrooms, but that we must recruit more women to be fighter pilots and engineers?
Feminists cannot have their sex difference and eat it, too. And I have yet to find one – even though they dominate the webpages of UnHerd – who has articulated a coherent place to draw the line in social policy.