You might expect an author of a book whose title proclaims “the end of gender” to be clear on what gender is. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Debra Soh, author of The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society.
In her first chapter, “Myth #1: Biological Sex is Not a Spectrum,” Soh distinguishes four things: biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and gender. So far so good — biological sex is about gametes, gender identity is about feelings, gender expression is about presentation, and gender is about social norms and social ideas, right? Not entirely. Soh only agrees on the first three.
According to Soh, “gender — both with regard to identity and expression — is biological.” This suggests gender consists only of gender identity and gender expression, and that it therefore lacks any social component. Indeed, she explains that gender “is not a social construct, nor is it divorced from anatomy or sexual orientation.” In a footnote, Soh says she understands the idea of a “social construct” to be “the product of one’s social environment or learning.” Soh doesn’t see any aspect of gender as social, writing off hundreds of years of feminist theory. (She is unlikely to be moved by this criticism… Soh positions herself, repeatedly, as doing science, while both feminists and trans activists, she believes, are just doing activism.)
Many people today (mistakenly) use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. Is it possible Soh simply believes they are one and the same? In her third chapter, “Myth #3: There Are More Than Two Genders,” she writes:
“There are two [genders]: female and male. There is zero scientific evidence to suggest that any other genders exist.”
This suggests Soh believes biological sex is gender. But this doesn’t sit well with her earlier suggestion that gender is a matter of gender identity and gender expression. There are more than two gender identities (as per those who buy into gender identity ideology), and there are more than two ways of dressing yourself. If gender is identity plus expression, then there are more than two genders. Which doesn’t fit with her statement about there being only two “genders”: male and female.
I expected some clarification from the second chapter, “Myth #2: Gender is a Social Construct,” but was only left feeling more confused. Soh writes:
“Biological sex dictates gender in more than 99 per cent of us… [s]ocialization shapes the extent to which our gender is expressed or suppressed, but it doesn’t dictate whether someone will be masculine or feminine, or whether she or he will be gender-conforming or gender-atypical.”
This is fairly straightforward: we have a biological disposition toward certain sorts of behaviours or interests, but these might be either encouraged or suppressed by our social environment. Maybe a boy who loves to dress up is discouraged, told “that’s for girls,” so suppresses that part of himself; maybe a girl who is good at sports is discouraged, told “you’ll get your clothes dirty” or “you might hurt yourself,” so suppresses that part of herself. Suppose boys have a biological disposition to play with trucks and girls have a biological disposition to play with dolls, that these are the only biological dispositions there are, and that our social environment does not suppress these dispositions. If that were the case, biological sex would be dictating gender. The real question is how much of what we currently think of as “feminine” and “masculine” behaviour is actually purely biological, dictating “gender,” rather than being shaped through social suppression or encouragement. If the answer is “all of it,” Soh is right that gender is biological. If it’s anything else, from “none of it” to “some of it,” then feminist theory is right that at least some of gender is a social construct.
While Soh acknowledges that whether a trait is deemed “masculine” or “feminine” is culturally defined, she also argues that being driven towards such traits is biological. She suggests that, “in the Western world, a shaved head is viewed as masculine,” pointing out that “the majority of people sporting shaved heads are men.” Women who shave their heads (in the West), Soh argues, “are likely more masculine than the average woman… there’s a good chance they were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero.” But, and here’s the kicker, “If, in an alternate universe, a shaved head was seen as a feminine trait, we would expect to see the reverse — most people who shaved their head would be women, and any men who chose to do so would likely be more feminine than other men, and exposed to lower levels of testosterone in the womb.”
It is not clear if Soh is using “women” here to refer to a social role, meaning biological males will be always primarily driven toward head-shaving, but if our culture classes this as “feminine,” we would call those people women; or if she is using it to refer to female people, meaning that females will be driven towards whatever a culture defines as “feminine,” and likewise for males to the “masculine.” However, it is impossible that a female baby, in utero, would have a biological drive toward whatever the culture it emerges into has defined as “feminine.”
Biological dispositions have to have fairly precise content. They can be broadly defined, like saying, “males will tend to be risk-takers” and letting the cultural context fill in how risk-taking manifests. But that is not the same as saying that whatever is arbitrarily coded as “feminine” is what a girl baby will aspire to.
“In a time not too long ago, biological explanations were used to suggest that women were bad at math and belonged in the kitchen. A woman’s only value was bearing children and helping her husband succeed. Thankfully, times have changed.”
Presumably, she doesn’t think that women being bad at math and good in the kitchen is biological, or that it was once biological but is no longer. Her comment about times having changed suggests that she understands that this was a sexist notion, propped up by bad science, attempting to justify women’s subordination by making it seem natural. But if she can grant this, gender as a social construction already has a foot in the door. If some of women’s subordination in the past has a social explanation, why only math and the kitchen, rather than a range of other things? Why then and not now? Why not have the conversation about which things we understand as “femininity” are “a product of one’s social environment or learning,” and which things are more likely biological?
In the second chapter, we learn that Soh used to be a feminist. She writes, “Never in a million years did I think I’d one day be advocating publicly for the importance of sex differences.” But she seems to believe feminism argues there are absolutely no differences between men and women. One of Soh’s concerns with this perspective is that, if we deny that there are sex differences in the brain, we will end up reverting back to considering it adequate to “generalize” from the male brain in neuroscientific research, overlooking potentially important sex differences. Her conception of the sensible, scientific, anti-wokeness position is that there are some sex differences and they matter politically — a view shared by radical and gender critical feminists.
If we are being charitable, we could assume that by “feminists,” Soh means mainstream, trans activism-supporting feminists, which excludes radical and gender critical feminists. In her the sixth chapter, “Myth #6: No Differences Exist Between Trans Women and Women Who Were Born Women,” Soh briefly acknowledges radical feminism, explaining that radical feminists believe:
“… Women are a systematically oppressed class and men are socialized into being oppressors by the patriarchy. Gender is a social construct that exists to prevent women from having equal rights, funneling men and women into roles of domination and subordination, respectively. By this logic transgender women are not, and cannot, be the same as women who were born women because they were born and socialized as male.”
She seems to find it surprising that women who believe gender to be a social construct wouldn’t accept men who identify as women as women, because “trans women could just be socialized as women after transitioning.” That is to say, if socialization is what makes the woman, why can’t it make a man a woman?
It isn’t difficult to answer to this question, however: there is a difference between being socialized as part of early childhood development, when one is most impressionable, and being socialized as a teenager or adult. There is also a difference between being targeted for particular treatment on the basis of being female, and being treated in a particular way, half-heartedly, by people attempting to be kind and inclusive to a male who wishes to be treated “as a woman” — people who may even involuntarily be responding to that maleness in doing so. And there is a difference between having actually been subject to some socialization as opposed to none or virtually none, as a merely self-identifying and non-passing man who identifies as a woman will have been.
If we take seriously the female part of “female socialization,” then the only men who will have been socialized as female to any extent are those who pass as female, and even then we would need to determine whether that is enough to fully overwrite previous male socialization. Socialization is not the “gotcha” that Soh seems to think it is.
Soh makes some concessions to radical feminists when it comes to the politics of the trans debate. She notes the “unspoken hypocrisy” of the left — a “political movement that is supposed to be championing the rights and freedoms of women” — accepting women’s “subjugation and erasure” via trans activism. She acknowledges the concerns radical feminists have about gender identity ideology, including physical safety in women-only spaces, the entrenchment of regressive sex stereotypes, and the undermining of women-centred language. However, she also says, “I don’t believe transgender women should be reduced to their biology or be referred to as male,” which is confusing given everything that has been said already in the book about the importance of biological sex differences. How are we supposed to maintain the importance of biological sex if we are not permitted any language to describe it?
Soh appears so concerned with “wokeness” and rejecting the “blank slate” view of some feminist activists that she conflates feminism and gender identity activism, and sacrifices a more nuanced (and science-compatible) understanding of what gender is. It is unfortunate a book that is so well-informed and accessible on many issues nonetheless makes this big a mistake.
The book should have been titled The End of Gender Identity, as this is what it actually argues for, and in my view, succeeds in establishing. If we ignore the socially constructed aspects of gender, however, the end of gender may be even further away than we thought.
Holly Lawford-Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She teaches feminism, the ethics of immigration, and climate ethics, and is currently researching radical feminism and the conflict of interest between feminists and trans activists. Her second book, Gender Critical Feminism, is due out in 2021.