Neoliberalism is the political philosophy (of the left and the right) that was developed in the West during the 1980s as populist “common-sense.” It has several problems:
1) It regards the individual as an autonomous agent, primarily motivated by self-interest;
2) It tells us the unregulated free-market economy alleviates social inequalities;
3) It describes personal freedom in terms of the individual’s ability to “choose” in a market place of choices.
What is wrong with this neoliberal, economistic view of the human being? It is reductive. As well as being individual agents, human beings are also located in psychological, social, and political contexts that render our autonomy and inter-relationship with others more complex than such an ideology allows.
Neoliberal philosophy creates a specific political problem for girls and women. The case of the female body illustrates this perfectly: On the one hand, women’s bodies are seen as material objects which can be sold through pornography and “sex work,” to be consumed like any other product in the market. On the other, women’s bodies have now been positioned as immaterial, because any man can allegedly “become” a woman — not in Simone De Beauvoir’s sense, who argues that female-bodied people are not born “feminine,” but taught femininity — but through men simply identifying as women. In the last few months, trans activists in the UK have worked very hard to silence women who wish to discuss proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, in order to adopt sex self-identification. There have been various policing strategies ranging from accusations of “hate speech,” bigotry, or transphobia; successfully persuading venues not to host the various meetings women’s groups have been holding in order to discuss the issue of gender identity legislation and ideology, claiming those hosting the meetings are “hate groups;” bomb threats to venues that have not capitulated; and the perpetration of actual physical violence on a woman.
Broader issues have also emerged in relation to the language women are permitted to use in order to discuss these issues. Indeed, women who say that human beings with penises are men have seen their Twitter accounts locked or suspended. Recently, founder and editor of Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy, was permanently banned from Twitter after referring to a male as “he.” The words we are allowed to use to refer to our own sex organs are altered as well — even the term used to refer to adult human females has been altered, as we’ve seen the Green Party use the term “non-men,” and the Wellcome Collection museum, Goldsmiths College, and the University of London adopt the word “womxn” in order to be more “inclusive.”
It is apparently insufficient to insist, as I do, that individuals have the right to identify with “gender” in ways they feel comfortable, that no one should be discriminated against because of their gender identity or expression, and that everyone, without exception, must be legally protected from violence. Gender critical women and men are compelled to make a further leap with regard to trans ideology and accept, as an article of faith, the completely irrational proposition that men who identify as women not only must be respected and protected in their choice to do so, but that they are women. Furthermore, just in case the public is too intellectually or politically regressive to understand, we are instructed to repeat the mantra, “Transwomen are women” until we accept it.
In the very year that we celebrate the centenary of (some) women winning the right to vote in the UK — an achievement wrought by gender critical women speaking out against patriarchal power and then suffering, for their pains, from vilification by other women as well as from men — we have witnessed trans activists actively silence women from speaking out about our bodies and boundaries. When tiny stickers reading “Women don’t have penises” were placed in public places and in buildings in protest to the assertion transwomen are literally female, the police spent our taxes investigating these acts of resistance and truth-telling as hate speech.
Men telling women how to understand and experience their bodies is as old as recorded history. Since Eve was framed, men have positioned themselves as generically human. Religion, populist evolutionary biology, and medicine have all historically constructed Man as the norm with Woman as his Other. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist theorists deployed the term patriarchy — literally the rule of the father — to also describe a social structure of inequity based on the naturalization of “femininity.” This epistemological and political development was never intended to reject the material reality of binary sex. This political theorizing took place in tandem with grassroots activism whereby consciousness raising groups sprang up and women shared personal stories. In doing so, they revealed the sheer commonality of their sexual experiences and exposed a structural sexual abuse of women and girls, perpetrated by men. In this sense, the current #MeToo campaign is not new, but a revived political “calling out” of men’s sexual conduct. Perhaps it should be renamed and addressed to men as #YouToo.
The 1990s saw a fierce backlash against the radical feminist critique of patriarchy. Society, we were told, had reached a stage of “post feminism,” and we could all rest easy because the feminist movement’s demands had now been met. The Spice Girls became the epitome of young women’s newfound, individualized sexual empowerment. Feminism became a dirty word, conjuring up a spectre of miserable, sexually starved, repressed women who hated men. My students at Goldsmiths College (one of the first universities unequivocally committed to understanding sex and gender through the lens of Queer Theory, and now the proud UK hotbed of the latter), revealed an actual revulsion towards the “F word.” Any suggestion that the equality laws and the sexual freedoms from which they benefited were brought about by feminist activism and our refusal to be bound by sexist gender roles was met with disavowal. They confidently derided any suggestion that second wave feminists were sexual freedom fighters.
By the 1990s the idea of women as a sex class had been rejected, and the particular oppressions experienced by women as a collective, and enacted on female bodies, were lost. Queer Theory developed the concept of social constructionism beyond that which the poststructuralist, feminist analysis ever intended. Transgender ideology is an outcome of the meteoric rise of Queer Theory which, contrary to the claims of trans activists, does not reject biological essentialism, but reifies it by simply reversing the order: It asserts that binary sex — being female or male — is socially “assigned,” not a biological fact; in contrast gender — an individual’s feeling of “femininity” or “masculinity” — is said to be pre-social, emerging from the inner being. This ideology has no human scientific basis and overrides simple facts.
Woe betide anyone who dares critique transgender truths since the other face of this alleged progressivism can be a furious authoritarianism. The particular issue for which I have been vilified is my view that society should tread carefully with children who step out of stereotypical gender roles, and not set them on a medicalized path of hormone treatment which will almost inevitably have irreversible consequences, including sterility, and — the increasingly common trend — mastectomy for young women. Medical intervention and surgery will never actually transform an individual to the opposite sex, despite the fact that we feed youthful fantasies with the narrative that it is possible. “Sex change” (or “gender reassignment”) surgery can only simulate sex organs, for example by excising the penis and testicles to construct an internal, insensate cavity into the male body, or by creating a prosthetic penis fashioned from flesh taken from elsewhere on the female body. The consequence of this is sterility, as well as the reduction or even complete elimination of sexual, genital sensation.
At the very same moment that high profile men who identify as women insist they ARE women, have facial reconstructive surgery and breast implants, but see no need to have their penises removed (perhaps for the reasons described above), there is insistence from well-established trans-affirmative children’s organizations like Mermaids that early medical intervention on children’s bodies in the form of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones is essential for the wellbeing and health of these youth. We need to pause at this moment and contemplate whether children are being sacrificed on the ideological altar of “inherent gender identity” which allows men who identify as women to explain their adult behavior stripped from any psychological or social context. We could also have a public debate about suicide statistics of youth who are encouraged to understand their experiences through the lens of transgender theory, and call for rigorous data provided by recognized social scientific methodology, in contrast to the data collected and the conclusions reached by the transgender lobby group Stonewall.
“Gender identity” is essential to the organization Gendered Intelligence, whose CEO is a Queer Theory proponent. A “Trans Youth Sexual Health Booklet” produced by the organization reads:
“How you look, how you speak, how you have sex are all aspects of you, but your identity is paramount. A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs. A man is still a man even if he likes getting penetrated vaginally.”
Gendered Intelligence’s concept of freedom as individual self-realization seems progressive, inclusive, and commensurable with children and women’s rights. However, it performs the reverse function — it actually reinvigorates traditional ideas of girlhood, boyhood, and womanhood, and endorses the reactionary sexual politics which it allegedly subverts.
It is often pointed out that gender self-identification is an equal opportunity issue: women can identify as men too! The disparity between the responses of men who identify as women, and of women who identify as men, demonstrates rather than refutes the feminist point. In all the kerfuffle about progressivism, women who identify as men do not insist, for the purposes of inclusivity, that men rename their genitals in non-biological terms because to name the penis as a penis is exclusionary of female-bodied men who don’t possess one. Nor do they urge organizations to re-spell the noun “men” as “mxn” (I notice Goldsmiths is notably remiss in its alleged commitment to diversity on this point!) or vociferously and aggressively protest, “Transmen ARE men.” Finally, they do not whip up misandry and direct sexually threatening language at any man who disagrees with transgender ideas.
I assert that a woman is an adult biological female. Our sex, like that of men, was not “assigned” at birth, but empirically observed. Women are not “cis,” as per the new nomenclature of transgender ideology. “Cis” sets up a hierarchy in which allegedly “cis” women have privilege because their biological body and “femininity” match. In this view, “women with penises” are the most oppressed women of all and are even more essentially women than women themselves. “Cis” also performs the function of defining “femininity” as inborn, something feminists reject. Finally, “cis” erases corporeality as having any component part of lived womanhood.
I hope that one day we will look back with disbelief that we once lived in a culture where it was unacceptable to say, following De Beauvoir, gender is not inherent in a child, but is socially achieved by both boys and girls; children should be allowed to be who they are outside of gender constraints; it is society that needs to change, not children’s bodies; adult caretaking requires — no, obliges — us to be the grown ups and (in anything other than the most exceptional of cases), guide all our young people through the psychological, maturational stages of adolescence necessary to achieve adulthood, before allowing them to take any deep, irreversible decisions about their bodies. I hope that one day we will find it incomprehensible that we sterilized healthy children and turned with wrath at voices raised in alarm, all in the name, irony of ironies, of child protection.
Neoliberalism, with its focus on individualism and personal choice, ignores the existence of patriarchy as a social structure. This has led to a newly minted form of patriarchy’s exercise — the emergence in the 21st century of a masculinist disembodied narrative of womanhood that has been elevated as progressive by all political parties, in particular those of the Left. The consequence of the neoliberal concept of freedom is the opposite of progressive, since it has opened up a space where a patriarchal authoritarianism, exemplified by gender identity politics, has been able to take root and thrive, and where alleged liberals will brook no dissent and scream freedom for men at the expense of women.
Heather Brunskell-Evans is an academic consultant on sex , sexuality and gender. She is a Trustee and Spokeswoman for the women’s rights charity FiLiA and sits on the management board of OBJECT, a feminist campaigning group.