‘Material Girls’ breaks taboos, criticizing ‘gender identity theory’ from a philosophical perspective

When The God Delusion was published in 2006, it was a deeply controversial bestseller. Though Dawkins’ book was applauded by many, it also prompted several book-length rebuttals and a lawsuit in Turkey that sought to suppress its distribution. The reason behind much of the controversy was, I’d argue, not the substance of any of the arguments but the whole premise of the book: that the existence of God could be treated as an empirical proposition to be logically analyzed. For better or worse, many cultures consider their respective religious beliefs to merit a sort of epistemic special treatment, and to subject them to the scientific method like any common or garden hypothesis is seen as deeply disrespectful and incendiary.

In Material Girls, Kathleen Stock has broken a similar taboo. But she isn’t taking aim at centuries-old religions: instead, she’s criticizing a new doctrine that has been adopted by many public institutions within the last decade, which she terms “gender identity theory.” Gender identity theory, according to Stock, at its core comprises the following beliefs:

“1. You and I, and everyone else, have an important inner state called a gender identity.

2. For some people, inner gender identity fails to match the biological sex — male or female — originally assigned to them at birth by medics. These are trans people.

3. Gender identity, not biological sex, is what makes you a man or a woman (or neither).

4. The existence of trans people generates a moral obligation upon all of us to recognize and legally to protect gender identity and not biological sex.”

These claims are fairly radical, so I expect previously uninitiated readers will be startled to learn that, not only have they been adopted wholesale by local and national governments, virtually all higher educational institutions, and companies large and small; but that a very strong taboo has formed against suggesting they could be anything less than self-evidently true. If taken in earnest as a philosophical position, however, it is not difficult to identify gaping flaws in gender identity theory — unsurprisingly, since it has grown up insulated from serious challenge and “unconstrained by any empirical input,” as Stock put it in an interview in May. Feminists have for years been offering well-reasoned critiques of this belief system, and the policies informed by it, on blogs and social media. The value of Material Girls as an academic work isn’t that the arguments it makes are uniquely ingenious, but that it has the insight to identify a contemporary issue to which philosophical tools ought urgently be applied, and, crucially, the courage to do so in the face of bitter opposition.

Partly as a result of taboo, conversation on gender identity is often mired in euphemistic language and muddled thinking. Terms such as “sex,” “gender,” “gender identity,” “trans,” “woman,” “man,” “male,” and “female” can refer to wildly different concepts and categories depending on who’s talking, sometimes even switching back and forth between meanings interchangeably with no acknowledgement of the speaker having done so.

Much of Material Girls is dedicated to disentangling this nest of crossed wires.

In the first chapter, Stock identifies four commonly used meanings of the word “gender,” referring to these distinct concepts as GENDER1, GENDER2, GENDER3, and GENDER4 throughout the following 250 pages of analysis. We also learn, for instance, the differences between the psychiatric model of gender identity, the queer theory model, and the understanding currently in vogue, which Stock refers to as the “stick of rock” (SOR) conception of gender identity — so called because, in this model, gender identity indelibly runs through the heart of each person, waiting to be revealed, like the stamped message within a stick of rock.

With these concepts neatly set out, we are then in position to discuss the claims of gender identity theory, which Stock tackles with calm and forensic clarity. What is sex, and why is it a protected characteristic? What does it mean to “identify as” something? If trans women aren’t literally female, is there any other sense in which they might be considered to fall within the category of women? Can a male person ever accurately be described as a lesbian?

The discussion is not confined to feminist and queer theory. Stock frequently draws upon fairly abstract areas of philosophy, such as naming and categorization, perception, imagination, and fiction — the latter two being her area of expertise before becoming drawn into feminist philosophy in the last five years. The result is a set of arguments that are robustly argued from first principles, but which remain highly engaging and accessible. The writing is so engaging, in fact, that I barely registered the irony of having to bring out the philosophical big guns to defend ideas such as that there are only two sexes or that females suffer disadvantage compared to males. At one point, swept up in a cleverly tidy demonstration that the word “woman” should refer to adult human females, I was brought back down to earth by the statement that humans notice differences between males and females “because of a brain capacity called categorical perception.” In any other context this would be obvious sarcasm, but she really is, it seems, having to say this.

One of the most important parts of the book for me was the history of gender identity theory presented in the first chapter. Stock traces the development and uptake of these ideas via eight “moments,” starting with the infamously misinterpreted statement by Simone de Beauvoir that “one is not born, but becomes, a woman,” via the introduction of the idea of gender identity by psychologist John Money, to the popularization of the term, “TERF”  to refer to women who reject the ideology.

As someone who came of age when gender identity theory was already pretty entrenched within universities and very socially difficult to challenge, this served as an interesting reminder of how we got here. What surprised me most was how subversive it felt to read what was merely a neutral explanation of ideas changing over time. In the same way that a historical account of the Old Testament’s emergence from the oral traditions of various Middle Eastern peoples might be considered offensive by some Christians and Jews, it runs counter to the claim to epistemic special treatment to point out that gender identity theory has a history that can be traced, just like any other fallible human belief, and a relatively short history at that. When Stonewall asserts, “trans women are women, get over it,” clearly this is not an invitation to sit down and discuss why it is that we should believe this to be true — it is a demand that we accept this statement is and always has been true, and squash any critical faculties that might cause us question it.

To say that Stock’s previous work on gender identity has made her a persona non grata within academia is to put it mildly. A contact in her department at the University of Sussex told me that “people treat her like a pariah;” in a Medium post that has received over 4000 “claps;” an anonymous student claims to be leaving academia in part because, “I can easily imagine running into Kathleen Stock.” (Stock responded on Medium, herself.) She has been the subject of numerous petitions and official complaints from students; her public lectures are frequently targeted by cancellation campaigns; and on several occasions fellow academics have at the last minute pulled out of appearing alongside her either in print or in person — a pretty effective silencing technique, as it often leads to the debate (or panel, or book, or article) in question being cancelled. It seems almost that whatever Stock does, whether being invited to give a lecture or write a review, or receiving an OBE last January, you can bet academics will be queuing to sign open letters expressing their “dismay.” There’s no doubt that Material Girls will similarly receive a less than favourable response from some quarters, and that many will dismiss it out of hand as bigoted in premise.

The naive reader might be puzzled as to why Stock has attracted such vilification. Unless one takes the view that to reference the biological sex of someone who is transgender in any context is by definition transphobic, it is difficult to argue that the book is motivated by ill-feeling towards trans people rather than, as stated throughout, concern that a belief system not grounded in reality is producing dangerously bad policy. Material Girls is not a polemic: Stock approaches opposing arguments charitably and in good faith, and refrains much more than many writers from moral grandstanding or emotive language, preferring to stick as neutrally as possible to the relevant points of contention.

The notable scarcity of hatefulness to point to is no obstacle to critics of Stock’s work, such as three anonymous philosophers, who initially write, “we agree… that philosophy should be a discipline in which sensitive and controversial issues are investigated,” but go on to claim that “one problem is that it’s easy to miss the transphobia in trans-exclusionary writing, because it’s often cloaked in a veneer of politeness,” and that “terms like ‘male,’ ‘man,’ and ‘biological male’ are often used as transphobic dogwhistles.”

Supposedly, dissent is more than welcome, the problem is that Stock dissents in the wrong way. But if that is the case, it is very hard to imagine how one could possibly write critically on this subject — i.e., not accepting that gender identity theory as outlined above is axiomatically true — in a way that was acceptable.

However, not one to court popularity on either side, Stock also breaks with other feminists in several places in Material Girls. For instance, she suggests that the stigma attached to autogynephilia is “undeserved,” and chooses to use preferred pronouns throughout (though she expands upon her reasons for doing so and does make it clear that she respects the right of others to choose frankness over politeness). In addition, in a move that has met with accusations of selling out from some quarters, she devotes some space near the end of the book to criticism of more confrontational strains of feminist opposition to gender identity theory.

To Stock, an article published by Julia Long at Uncommon Ground seems to exemplify an attitude that is unfairly hostile towards trans women. While the arguments against this militant approach were reasonable, it does seem possibly fair to suggest that Stock tries to bolster her position as a neutral voice by playing up both the size and influence of — and her own difference from — a few individuals who take a more extreme stance than she does. As pointed out in a review by Lily Maynard, Stock casually accuses Long of writing “contemptuously” — a departure from the carefully neutral wording with which Stock paraphrases her main ideological opponents throughout the book.

Maynard suggests that Stock “does not seem to grasp that many women are deeply and genuinely insulted by a man’s suggestion that he could be a woman.” This seems highly unlikely to me. But whether or not she is pragmatically holding back some stronger sympathies, writing this book as a relatively neutral explainer rather than as a personal manifesto fills a critical gap.

It’s clear from increasing mainstream news coverage of issues such as the prescription of puberty blockers to minors that there is a public appetite to understand the controversies Stock writes about. However, such coverage is often confused, buzzword-filled, and lacking in context, and so does little to clarify what exactly it is that various factions are so up in arms over. Material Girls will likely make this opaque and febrile area of public debate accessible to more of the public.

The book has already received favourable reviews in widely read newspapers including the Times and The Telegraph, and just this week, Stock was interviewed sympathetically in The Guardian. All of this would have been virtually unthinkable back in 2018, when proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act first brought these questions to greater public attention. The same week, Stonewall has come under uncomfortable scrutiny after it was found by an independent report to be giving illegal, discriminatory advice to hundreds of organizations. It seems entirely plausible that future historians could point to the publication of Material Girls as a key moment in the turning of a tide against the influence of gender identity ideology within public institutions.

Whatever its influence on this particular debate in the coming months and years, Material Girls is the first of what will surely be many book-length examinations of a truly remarkable cultural phenomenon. It has the makings of a set text that will be of relevance not just within feminism, but also in many other areas: medicine, culture, language, and, not least, the study of authoritarian ideological movements. As well as this, Material Girls proves that philosophy is not just the study of dusty Greeks in togas, but a method of systematically clarifying thoughts, which remains as relevant and useful applied to today’s controversies as it was 3,000 years ago.

Ellen Pasternack is a PhD student in evolutionary biology living in Oxford, UK.

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