Tag Archives: gender critical

Gender Identity as a Brain-in-a-vat

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Gender critical feminists (henceforth “GCers”)  are often skeptical about a concept foundational to trans theory: gender identity, the sense of whether we belong to a particular sex/gender or not. GCers are critical of the very idea of having one’s gender be based on your identity as opposed to being grounded in the biological properties of your body. Thus, GCers often define “woman” as an “adult female” where “female” means having certain biological properties such as the capacity to bear eggs, or having the developmental program of egg-production in your DNA-makeup or something like that.

But imagine a GCer named Janice was asleep one night and a group of evil trans neuroscientists decided to kidnap her and whisk her away to a lab, where her brain was extracted from her body and placed in a vat where the biological functions of her brain are supported by a totally artificial body. All that is left of Janice is her brain. No vagina. No breasts. No ovaries or uterus. No capacity whatsoever to make eggs or get pregnant. In many ways her “body” is not gendered at all: it’s just a hunk of brain tissue hooked up to machines. An outside observer would have a hard time determining what the brain’s gender was without knowing its past history as Janice. Furthermore, the evil trans neuroscientists are clever enough as to provide artificial stimulation to the brain such that the brain falsely believes that it actually has a body and is interacting with the world in a normal fashion. Much like Neo being inside the Matrix, Janice would not necessarily “feel” like anything other than her normal self.

What happens to Janice’s sense of identity as a woman now? She once defined her womanhood entirely in terms of biological features which no longer exist. How can she hold onto them? Let’s assume she was given a theoretical knowledge of herself as a brain-in-a-vat by the evil neuroscientists. Perhaps she reasons that her brain still contains the DNA that carries the information needed to reconstruct those body parts she identified with. But in my opinion that’s a terribly flimsy sense of identity, being tied to the mere potential of the DNA in your body to produce something that doesn’t exist. That’s a negative identity, based on that which does not exist. It seems unlikely to be the basis for a strong sense of identity as a man or a woman.

One might think that the GCer would just say that her brain is sexed as female, that she has a “female brain” but the irony is that GCers typically are skeptical of the very concept of brain sex, because brain sex is a foundational concept in trans theory. The most common and mainstream explanation of trans identities is the mismatched brain sex explanation whereby a trans woman might say she needs to transition because she was born with a female brain in a male body. This mismatch of brain and body causes gender dysphoria and since we are infinitely more capable of changing the body rather than the brain the preferred treatment of both the patients and the doctors is to allow a gender/sex transition that helps reallign brain and body by changing the body.

GCers want to morally mandate trans people out of existence and prevent as many transitions as possible so they are opposed to the idea that there is even such a thing as a “female brain” or a “male brain” because that seemingly provides sufficient medical explanation for why transition is necessary. GCers typically believe that male and female brains are only different insofar as they are influenced by society. Otherwise they start off as identical but end up producing different behaviors because they are socialized to do so.

Personally, I feel like any legitimate answer to the nature vs nurture question of sex/gender will probably include at least some nature. In practically all other animal systems in nature there are evolved adaptations in males and females that make their brains distinct in at least some small way – it would seem incredible to me that humans are the drastic exceptions to the entire scheme we see in Nature. While yes it is plausible that nurture is very, very important for the development of brains it is equally likely that our evolutionary history also plays an important role in the sex differentiation of the body, including the brain.

The latest science suggests however that there is more overlap between male and female brains than difference and that your average female brain is composed of not just “female” parts but also many “male” parts. Each of our brains is a mosaic of male and female parts. But in trans people the mosaic is arranged in such a way as to radically mismatch with the body, suggesting that some people’s internal cognitive representation of the sex can be aligned so significantly with one gender/sex or another that it generates gender dysphoria.

Going back to Janice, my feeling is that Janice’s sense of womanhood would be as strong as ever as a brain-in-a-vat. In fact, I would wager that her sense of womanhood would remain almost entirely unchanged. Even if she has an abstract sense of herself as being a brain-in-a-vat the internal representations in combination with the artificial stimulation inside her brain fully determine her subjective experience, including her felt sense of identification as an adult female or woman. But without actually owning a vagina or a womb, can Janice’s claim to womanhood be based on anything other than what trans theorists call gender identity?

This is the great irony of Janice’s predicament: in order to maintain her self of womanhood, Janice’s brain must be creating an internal representation of which sex/gender she belongs to and an alignment of that  representation with the artificial inputs giving her a sense of body. But that internal representation is precisely what trans theorists mean when they talk about “brain sex” and “gender identity” – it’s the brain’s way of telling itself what gender/sex it should belong to, a sense we all have in some way or another, even if that sense is telling us we don’t belong to any gender (a-gender).

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Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

Yes In Fact You Are a TERF

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“Gender critical” blogger Purple Sage recently wrote a post about the term “TERF”. In essence Sage argues that the term “TERF” is over-used by angry trans activists and that moreover “everyone is a TERF” because all it takes to be a TERF is to piss off a trans activist by, e.g., mentioning the fact that cis females can get pregnant. Let’s take this from the top folks cuz I’m gonna break down everything that’s wrong with her poorly reasoned post.

First of all, nobody is actually a TERF. This is not actually a descriptive acronym, it’s a slur. The way it is used in speech is the same way people use bitch, whore, cunt, or feminazi.

TERF is not a slur in and of itself in the same way f*ggot and n*gger are. The f-word and the n-word are paradigmatic examples of slurs. There is NO way to use those words without causing some kind of tacit harm. That’s what makes them slurs. But TERF is an acronym. It breaks down to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. None of those words in and of themselves is a slur because they can all be used in non-inflammatory sentences. The same cannot be said of “whore” and “cunt” – if these words remain in sentences the sentence becomes inflammatory in virtue of the decision to not use less inflammatory versions like “sex worker” or “vagina”. Obviously “trans” is not a slur. Nor is a slur to call someone “exclusionary”. Nor is it a slur to call someone radical or to call them a feminist. So when you break down the meaning of TERF it becomes possible to use the term TERM in a non inflammatory manner to describe those people who identify as feminists with a “radical” bent who want to exclude trans women from the category of women and trans men from the category of men. Furthermore, the term “TERF” itself was coined not by trans people but by cis feminists. It was started as a neutral term. The same cannot be said of REAL slurs like the f-word or the n-word.

Nobody identifies as a TERF and this isn’t an accurate description of anyone’s politics

This is totally false. Just because “gender critical” folks themselves don’t like the term TERF that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate description of people’s politics. The term means “trans exclusionary radical feminist”. It basically means anyone who thinks that trans women are *really* deep down just men and trans men are *really* deep down just women. This perspective is almost universally shared by people in “gender critical” circles and thus it becomes a highly convenient tool for trans people to have a widely recognized term that describes “gender critical” politics.

I don’t actually “exclude” trans people though. I read the words of trans people, I watch their videos, I talk with them, they comment on my blog, and I have not excluded any trans people from anything in real life.

This is a hilariously bad interpretation of what the “exclusionary” element of TERF actually means. It doesn’t mean exclude trans people from your social circle, or exclude trans people from your youtube watchlist. It means exclude trans women from the category of women and exclude trans men from the category of men. “Gender critical” people believe that only assigned female at birth people are REAL women and trans women are just men/males. This is what TERF means. It means excluding trans people from the gender they identify with. Just because you talk with trans people and put on an air of politeness does not excuse you from being a TERF. It’s not about your actions – it’s about what you believe. If you don’t think trans women are women, then you’re a TERF plain and simple.

There is a second meaning behind the term “exclusionary” which has to do with things like excluding trans women from the women’s restroom and other “women only spaces”. I have not read Purple Sage’s entire blog so I am not familiar with their views on bathroom politics but if they toe the “gender critical” line then I almost guarantee they would argue that trans women should not be allowed in women only spaces. That is exclusionary. You are excluding trans women from the spaces that only women are allowed to go to. Another example is the Michigan Women’s Festival, a classic case of cis females excluding trans women because they believe that trans women are not women.

You’re a TERF if you know that women menstruate, you’re a TERF if you understand how babies are made, you’re a TERF if you know that lesbians aren’t interested in dick, you’re a TERF if you even say the words “female” or “biology.” Since reality itself is transphobic, everyone who understands reality is a TERF.

This is total bullshit – classic strawman argument meant to make trans people look deranged. I don’t know a single trans woman who thinks it’s transphobic in and of itself to talk about pregnancy or cis female biology. What’s transphobic is to say that only women can get pregnant because that erases trans men.

Furthermore, Sage is just confused on this point. She is confusing the idea that talk of pregnancy can trigger people’s dysphoria with the idea that talk of pregnancy is inherently transphobic. Yes it’s true that some trans women have their dysphoria triggered by discussion of cis female biology. But that’s not the same as saying such discussion is inherently transphobic. What would be transphobic is to say that just because trans women can’t get pregnant they aren’t “real” women. Or it’s transphobic to try and reduce the entirety of the concept “woman” to the biological characteristics typical of cis females because that essentially begs the question. But discussion of biology or the differences between AMAB and AFAB bodies is not inherently transphobic. Cis females and trans women have different biological properties. That is a fact. I don’t know anyone who would deny that fact. Nor do I know anyone who considers the recognition of that fact to be transphobic.

And as a matter of fact, some lesbians do in fact like dick. My ex-fiancee was a classic “goldstar lesbian” before she met me but she loved my dick. It’s simply not true that all lesbians/queer people are not interested in dick. To think otherwise is to be very ignorant of the lived reality of cis female self-identified lesbians who date preop/nonop trans women. And if it’s not just ignorance it’s outright erasure.

All humans the world over know the difference between male and female, so all of us are TERFs.

I am very skeptical that “all” humans are aware of the hidden complexities in trying to define how many sexes there are or what constitutes male or female biology when the existence of intersex conditions complicates the simplistic binary narrative believed in the Western world. Expert biologists who actually know what they are talking about are coming to a consensus that biological sex is a spectrum and cannot be so easily cleaved into two and only two utterly distinct categories.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

TERFs, Essentialism, and Normality

Gender critical radical feminists (henceforth GCers) believe that trans women are not women. They believe we are essentially male because of our biology. They divide the world into female and male – ignoring intersex people as “anomalies”.  They argue that the only way to be a woman is to be female. But what does it mean to be female? GCers often use the definition that females are those creatures that produce eggs and can get pregnant. Trans women do not produce eggs and cannot get pregnant from sperm (though uterus transplants now make it possible for trans women to have a womb), thus trans women are not female and thus not women.

But you might retort: not all cis females can get pregnant. Many are infertile. Does this mean these cis females are not female? Not women? Here’s where things get tricky. GCers fall back on a “normality” clause such that the infertile cis females belong to a class of beings where, if things go “normally” in development, they will be able to get pregnant. Thus females are those beings who “normally” can get pregnant. GCers then argue that this class of beings is globally oppressed on the basis of their biological sex (which normally can get pregnant). If you are of the class that normally can get pregnant then you are oppressed in virtue of belonging to that class.

But going down this route is philosophically dangerous. The crux of the issue is defining the notion of “normal”. Who gets to decide what’s normal and what’s abornmal? If you say that male and females are “normal” and intersex people/trans/infertile people are “abnormal” – how is that judgment made? GCers might try to rely on statistical normality i.e. go by what the “majority” of cases indicate. Trans/intersex people make up probably like ~1-2% of the total human population. And so we are “abnormal” in this respect. But why should we rely on a statistical definition of normality? After all it’s perfectly consistent to say instead that it’s “normal” for intersex people to be born – they are just rare. Because rarity does not automatically equate to “abnormal” – for the same reason that rare biological traits are not necessarily always pathological. The problem is that normality judgments cannot just be read off of nature so easily – there is almost always an element of human subjectivity in trying to define what is to count as “normal”.

There’s an analogous debate happening about vegetative state patients. Are they people? If we define personhood in terms of consciousness then vegetative state patients are not persons. But we could also say veg state patients belong to the class of humans where it is “normal” to have consciousness and that anyone who belongs to that class is a person. See how dangerous “normality” arguments are? They reflect a kind of magical thinking whereby you have a linking property that connects reality to the ideal world of what’s “normal”. But vegetative state patients are NOT persons if we define personhood not in terms of normality but in terms of the actual reality of their mental state. The same thing happens in the abortion debate. Pro-lifers says that even if fetuses do not have consciousness they belong to the class of beings that, if things go normally, will eventually turn into persons with consciousness. But the reality is that fetuses are not persons: they are clumps of cells with no consciousness.

Similarly, the reality of some cis females not being able to get pregnant cries out for a new definition of womanhood that does not rely on the magical thinking of normality. It doesn’t matter if “normally” women can get pregnant because in reality some woman do not have any biological capacity to reproduce and yet they are 100% women just the same. So why not say the same thing for trans women? Trans women cannot get pregnant and yet they are women. The problem with normality arguments is that they are essentialist, trying to find the singular “essence” of womanhood and pinning that down on one category, namely, biological sex. But we know that in reality biological sex is complicated by intersex/trans people – biological reality is not easily cleaved into two categories (male and female) unless you are willing to write off a huge segment of the population as “abnormal” even though there’s nothing physically wrong with them in the sense of being more likely to die.

In conclusion, it’s philosophically suspect for GCers to try and define womanhood in terms of the biological capacity to get pregnant because it’s essentialist nonsense masquerading as legit science when in reality their arguments are not scientific at all but rather ideological. Their first assumption is that trans women CANNOT be women and then they try to find a definition of womanhood that gives them that conclusion while at the same time arguing they’re doing this in order to fight oppression against cis females. But it’s not a competition. Trans women are also oppressed by patriarchy – often in the exact same way cis women are. Trans women and cis females are thus natural allies and it saddens me that so many don’t understand that. ALL women, trans or otherwise, need to work together and acknowledge our intersecting identities and privileges in order to fight patriarchal oppression.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies