INTERVIEW: Dr Kathleen Stock on why we need to discuss gender identity in philosophy

Dr Kathleen Stock OBE is a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex who has written a number of articles for peer-reviewed academic publications primarily on aesthetics, sexual objectification, and the impact of modern gender theory on the rights of women and girls. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to higher education, after which many philosophers took to social media to object, circulating an Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy.”

She recently published a philosophical examination of the main tenets of gender ideology, called, “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism,” available now in both hardback and in electronic format.

Genevieve Gluck: Congratulations on the publication of your book. What can readers expect from this book and what prompted you to write it?

Kathleen Stock: I think they can expect an accessible examination of some of the intellectual background of the current craze for gender identity ideology, which seems to be turning the heads of politicians and policymakers all over, particularly in the UK, but also in other English-speaking countries, and some European countries, and beyond. I’m looking at how those ideas got started and mixed with other ideas. It’s an intellectual exploration that looks at some of the consequences of those ideas when they’re put into practice, for women and girls in particular, and for children. And I’m also interested in how it affects gay people.

I had been writing some blog posts in a kind of desperate state, thinking that this was an area that academics — including philosophers — should be getting into because it’s about identity. It’s about metaphysics. It’s also about ethics and politics. Those are prime topics for philosophers in particular, but there wasn’t a lively discussion being had. There was fear — particularly fear of being critical of any aspect of gender identity ideology. So I wrote blog posts initially to try and stimulate others. Eventually I decided that I had to write a book that would spell this out as clearly as I could, because no one else was going to, apparently, within philosophy. That’s what prompted me.

GG: There’s this idea that gender ideology originated within academia, which is something that you’ve commented on before. I’m curious how it is that it came to be so prevalent in the mainstream dialogue and how it’s come to shape laws regarding gender identity.

KS: I’m not a historian, so I stress that I don’t give an overview of how this happened historically. I pick out some big moments in the history of this ideology, for instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously saying, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I don’t think she had any conception of how that phrase would be used, but it set in motion a chain of thought and processes. That sentence is used all the time to justify the idea that trans women are literally women, or even that gender identity makes one a woman. There are other strands as well, like the influence of Anne Fausto-Sterling, who’s a historian of science, talking about people with differences of sexual development, and then there’s the influence of Judith Butler. There are a lot of strands converging intellectually, but how it all got hold of people so firmly is what I don’t fully understand myself.

Identity theory is very simplistic, so maybe it’s easy to hang on to. It’s childishly simple. It’s also a symptom of society’s continuing deep discomfort with sex non-conformity. Although people on my side of the fence are always being accused of being transphobic and bigoted, I think our opponents’ obsession with infantilizing trans people by way of a very simplistic narrative really betrays their own defensive discomfort about people who are non-conforming in terms of their sex. So there’s something psychoanalytic going on, as well. I don’t talk too much about that, but I think other people should, and I’m hoping that this will become much more talked about in years to come.

GG: What are the core tenets of your book and the arguments that you chose to focus on?

KS: I have tried to break it down into a very straightforward narrative. The first chapter is about these big moments in the history of gender identity as I understand them, historically, and I represent them relatively neutrally. Then I tackle the question, “What is biological sex?” because there’s so much misrepresentation and bad theorizing around biology now. I give three conceptions of biological sex.

In that chapter [on biological sex], I talk about influential people like Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Thomas Laqueur. Then I discuss why sex matters. It’s very strange that anyone should have to point this out, but obviously some people don’t seem to understand how sex makes a difference to social life. I go through four areas where I think it unambiguously makes a difference: medicine, sport, sexual orientation, and sexual assault statistics.

Then I go into the question, “What is gender identity?” I look at various theories — both medicalized theories and postmodern theories about gender identity — and try and give an account of my own.

Then there’s a chapter called, “What is a woman?” Within philosophy, it’s quite common for people to say that sex exists, but that trans women are women, or that there’s such thing as female and male, but femaleness does not map onto womanhood. In that chapter I tackle all those arguments.

Then I have a chapter on fiction. Effectively, people who say that people can change sex, or that trans women are women, or that trans men are men, are immersed in a fiction. I am a philosopher of fiction, that’s my background originally. So I bring that expertise to bear there, and try and talk about how being immersed in a fiction can have beneficial aspects, but also has negative aspects. What we really want to avoid is institutions and laws compelling us to immerse ourselves in a fiction, which is now increasingly what we have around gender identity.

The rest is about how we got here, historically speaking. Again, I don’t give an overview, but I try and plant a few seeds. The final chapter is about where we go next, and how we can try and forge some kind of common ground with trans activists. Some of the basic concerns are shared between feminists and trans activists, but there’s a vast divergence on the solutions to — or even the diagnosis of — the problem.

GG: What shared concerns do you discuss? Do you mean male violence?

KS: No, I don’t talk about that. I think that the younger generation who are interested in being non-binary — or at least who feel themselves to be non-binary — are concerned with getting rid of norms around sex, which they would call gender. I try not to use the word “gender” too much because it’s so confusing, so I say, “being non-conforming around sex.” I think non-binary people really do, in some sense, want to smash oppressive “gender norms,” and so do many feminists. It’s just that they have very different ideas about how to do that. We could have that discussion productively. Obviously we’re not at the moment because we’ve got completely different poles in the culture war. But I think common ground could be forged.

GG: You’ve written in the past about aesthetics, imagination, fiction, and female objectification. Do you see any connection between the objectification of women in media and gender ideology?

KS: Yes. In fact, there is a section in my book about that. I think the objectification of women (females), on a massive scale, is at the heart of many societal problems for women and girls, and this is one of them. I’m not saying it’s the only cause of gender identity ideology by any means, but certainly it’s there. The idea that womanhood is a costume or an appearance is absolutely bound up with an objectifying way of looking at women as aesthetic surfaces, as shapes, or sexually attractive objects. In the book I explain that I once had a trans woman say to me, “I must be a woman because heterosexual males want to have sex with me.” It seems incredible, but in an increasingly pornified, objectifying society, that kind of logic is in the ascendant. Of course womanhood is not a costume, and being a woman is far more than what you look like or how sexually attractive you are. But that’s not a message that seems to be getting through.

GG: Had you seen some quotes from Andrea Long Chu’s book, Females?

KS: Yes, I talk about autogynephilia in this connection as well. Autogynephilia is clearly a component. There are some trans people who are autogynephilic. I find that beyond question. Andrea Long Chu talks about in her book (I use preferred pronouns for the purposes of this book, but I also have a big section examining the costs of that), Females, and talk about the forced feminization fetish, where the fantasy is that, as a man, you’re forced into being feminized and made “sissy.” There are all these jaw-dropping sentences in the book about how this is the essence of femalehood: being sissified or being reduced to “an expectant asshole” and “blank blank eyes.” It’s actually really instructive about some aspects of the trans experience.

I do also say that there can be a tendency among radical feminists to overplay autogynephilia and to pathologize it. But I think it obviously has a bearing, and people need to know about it when the discussion is about changing rooms and shared spaces — formerly single-sex spaces where women get undressed. That’s an important aspect of the conversation.

There’s been huge resistance to talking about autogynephilia. People like Michael J. Bailey and Alice Dreger, who have written about it, have faced horrific harassment, because there’s just such a shame around it and a desire to suppress any discussion. But I think we need an adult conversation about it, and we need to connect it to objectification. I assume there must be a connection between the development of that psychological profile and the increasing objectification of women.

GG: I absolutely agree with you. I think there’s probably a larger discussion that could be had about the promotion of pornography in academia at the moment, including by people like Andrea Long Chu, and how that could be shaping some of these attitudes. I’ve seen this idea floating around in the gender ideology debate, especially in academia — that being a woman is associated with stereotypes, such as submissiveness. I wonder what your thoughts are on that.

KS: That turns out to be the consequence of a lot of things that academics do say, although I don’t see that many academics, apart from people like Andrea Long Chu, explicitly saying that womanhood is the occupation of a submissive social role. But there is this quite historically popular view amongst feminist philosophers, for instance, that womanhood is something social. Although that’s actually being displaced in the zeitgeist, recently, with the idea that womanhood isn’t even something social, it’s just psychological. But if we stick to the idea that it’s something social, then in practice, what seems to happen is that it becomes the idea that womanhood is the socially submissive role.

There were people like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in radical feminism who also thought that womanhood was equivalent to occupying a sexually submissive role, and thought that manhood was equivalent to occupying a sexually dominant role, but they didn’t think you should keep those roles. They wanted to smash the roles — they wanted to get rid of objectification. So in a sense they wanted to get rid of women and men as they understood them. The traditional feminist idea of associating womanhood with a set of social behaviors, or expectations, was not the conservative idea that then you would keep these in place.

But because feminism has now tried to be trans-inclusive — to say with conviction that trans women are really women — [feminists] have lost the capacity to criticize the social role of womanhood, because now they’re effectively saying that if you want to occupy [that submissive role], you should be able to, and that makes you a woman. It’s really defanged feminism. Modern feminism can no longer criticize any of the social expectations around female roles because it adopted this conservative defensive crouch in response to trans activists’ demands.

GG: Why is it that only “What is a woman?” is being asked?

KS: [laughs] What could it possibly be? I think in a lot of discussions of misogyny, what gets missed out is that people — including women — are constantly triaging — even unconsciously — and thinking, where can I have the most impact? Whose behavior can I influence most? People make that calculation and come up with the answer that women will capitulate first. And to some extent they’re right. Unfortunately history shows that women have capitulated. So it wasn’t a stupid strategy. Generally both women and men understand that women’s boundaries tend to be more permeable — they tend to be more socially aware. I’m making vast generalizations, but something’s got to explain this. I think people don’t want to push this line with men because it wouldn’t get anywhere. Another salient fact is that a lot of trans activism historically has come from males. There’s more aggression, there’s more insistence, there’s more entitlement.

Now, I say nothing in the book about where I think these social characteristics come from or whether they are from nature or nurture, I don’t go into that. But sociologically, it seems like trans women have been more demanding than trans men, and sociologically, women as a group have been more accommodating than men to trans activism. Both of those things are relevant here.

GG: It strikes me that in the case of men presenting as feminine, they tend to do so in order to enter private spaces, but when women present as masculine, they tend to do so in order to enter public spaces.

KS: That’s interesting. Like every generalization I’ve made, there’s lots of exceptions. I try and steer clear of any kind of stigmatization and oversimplified story about why people transition, or why males transition. So I don’t endorse the theory that they’re all out to get into private spaces. But the bathroom issue has loomed very large, hasn’t it? And it’s often said to be motivated by fears about violence from other males towards trans women, but the trans activist movement could have chosen to lobby for third spaces, but didn’t. Why didn’t trans activists take the much more sensible route saying trans women can’t go into male bathrooms because it’s too dangerous for them, so they need separate bathrooms. But they didn’t, they just said they had to be in women’s spaces.

GG: Women often rightly make the argument that if that were the case, we would lose boundaries on privacy and safety. How would it ever be possible for women to tell the difference between someone who has a good intention and someone who doesn’t? And, in general, there is a value in preserving women-only spaces for its own right. What would you say to that?

KS: Well, I agree. The thing that got me into this debate was the rise of gender identity as an ideology, because that says you are a woman irrespective of your presentation — you can look any way as a male, including masculine-presenting, and still be a “woman” or have a legitimate right of entry into changing rooms, showers, bathrooms, hospitals and prisons if you have the right feelings inside. It’s childishly obvious that this is no way to run safeguarding policies, which were originally set up to protect women who are on average physically, smaller, and weaker, and are the subject of male sexual interest.

But the problem with that policy is that it undermines the social norm that you can roughly tell where someone should be by looking at them. Of course, that’s not infallible. Of course, mis-sexing goes on and that could be distressing for whoever is the subject of it. But generally, the idea was that if a woman saw someone who resembled a male in their changing room, they could say, “Sorry, you shouldn’t be here,” and that’s a kind of protection for them in a world in which sexual predation is so common.

To move to the idea of inner feelings as the arbiter of who goes where is to undermine the whole basis for the safeguarding system and serves to remove women’s safety, privacy and dignity, as well. Trans activists say in response that trans women have been using those facilities for years. But that’s a kind of motte-and-bailey fallacy. What they are referring to in that context is passing trans women — trans women who have taken hormones and had surgery. Of course, their presence in changing rooms does nothing to undermine the social norm because they look like women, but that’s not what trans activists are now arguing for at all.

GG: I’m American, and I’ve been seeing how the gender critical activism of the UK is shaping the conversation that’s happening in the US right now, particularly in regards to the Keira Bell case and puberty blockers. Her case was brought up in the Senate during a discussion on puberty blockers regarding the appointment of the new assistant secretary of health Dr. Rachel Levine, who had advocated for puberty blockers in the past. In regards to the medicalization of children, what do you think is going on here, and why do people feel so strongly about giving these drugs to children?

KS: Partly, I think what’s going on is a kind of “just-so story,” I’m afraid. It validates the story about adults. That story is that you have a gender identity, which is innate, bursting out of you at a certain point, which cannot be suppressed or denied and should always be affirmed. That’s a story being told about adults and I really criticize that view very heavily in my book. But in order to validate that story, children are now being described as having gender identities and [we are told] we can tell by what they say. If they say I think I’m a boy — or even in some extreme cases, they exhibit sex non-conforming behavior — their parents can determine that they must be really a girl, or a boy, in a way that doesn’t match their bodies.

That’s a very disturbing aspect of this whole construction. As Heather Brunskell-Evans would say, the construction of the trans child is used to prop up the fictions — the backstories — of adults. It’s not that I don’t think there are children who have body dysphoria or dysphoria about their sex — it’s not that I don’t recognize that, I absolutely do. But to say that they have an inner gender identity, which is authentically them, is a particular interpretation of what they’re experiencing and I think it’s the wrong one.

Puberty blockers have been introduced in a completely irresponsible way in the UK. They’ve been presented in this horrible metaphor of “pressing pause on puberty,” as in stopping the development of post-pubescent sexual characteristics. But the body is not a CD player, and it turns out that the long-term effects of these [drugs] on the body are poorly understood. What science we have, including on bone density, isn’t good. Another thing that needs to be understood is that they stop the regular development of the sex organs. If children go from puberty blockers straight onto cross-sex hormones, which is happening in many cases, then they just won’t have normal sexual function, some of them, for life. This is something that is happening to them before they potentially understand what sexual function is.

It’s turning out that a lot of children, relatively speaking, with gender identity disorders — or gender dysphoria, or whatever you want to call it — are autistic. A lot of them are same-sex attracted. Being autistic means that you quite often have a delay in your ability to categorize things in the world flexibly. It makes sense, then, that you might have problems mapping biology onto identity. Then there’s also trauma in many of these children’s backgrounds which is not being properly looked at because of this narrative that says an authentic gender identity is making itself known through their behavior and speech. It’s incredibly worrying to me, and scandalous that the medical profession on the whole has mindlessly adopted the mantras. Obviously there are honourable exceptions everywhere but there is a whole lot of thoughtless behavior going on on the part of medics, endocrinologists, and psychologists.

GG: Absolutely. And the media has really failed to do its job reporting on this properly.

KS: With honorable exceptions, but on the left in particular, there’s a taboo around doing anything other than giving a positive gloss on any aspect of trans experience. It’s all about individuals and never about structure. The left has lost its capacity to look at structures and how they might be contributing to the production of the trans child. It makes sense that in a world which is increasingly “positive” towards gender identity as a concept, children will use whatever tools they find in the culture to interpret themselves. So, of course, we’re getting more “trans children.” This is the social construction of a group. There’s a feedback loop from the culture to how people are experiencing themselves. But none of that is properly being discussed.

GG: I agree. You mentioned the rates of autism in children who are presenting symptoms of gender dysphoria. Recently, I was talking about this — how, about two decades ago, one of the same drugs that’s used as a puberty blocker was purported to be a cure for autistic children. I find the connection there to be interesting, and I wonder if we ought to be using the term “puberty blocker.” I don’t know if it’s helpful. It hides the history of the drug. But in any case, what I’m hearing is that you don’t necessarily believe that there’s an innate gender identity that one is born with.

KS: No, I absolutely don’t believe that and I argue against it. It’s a weird kind of essentialism. I can’t understand why queer-influenced academics aren’t arguing amongst themselves because [gender identity ideology is] very much in conflict with a lot of what post-structuralists say, including Judith Butler. It serves to remove sex as a stable material fact and imposes gender identity in its place to do all the work sex did. I try and look at some of the scientific studies that are wielding to support this idea. That gender identity is, you know, available from very young and somehow in the brain. And I just don’t think that’s what the studies show.

GG: I’m not a philosopher, but I want to pick your brain about the background of the idea of innateness of identity. For example, I think John Locke had argued against it, had he not? What is a philosophical position on innate identity?

KS: Philosophy has been interested in the question of what they would call personal identity. For example, what makes me the same person I was 10 years ago? What is the continuant that means that we’ve got one person here rather than three? There’s been various attempts to answer that question. Some people, like Locke, would locate the answer in memory. Locke would say that what makes you who you are is that there’s a continuous memory with no significant gaps. That raises questions about what happens when you get radical amnesia. But that question is not the contemporary question. Gender identity is being proposed as an aspect that’s essential to you and that it should be on your passport and affirmed by psychologists. It’s suggested that you have a fundamental right to recognition of that identity. But I think “identity” is being used in a different way from how philosophers would use it when they talk about personal identity.

GG: Some other academics, like Jane Claire Jones for example, have argued about the dualism involved in gender ideology. There’s this idea that you have a gendered brain, or soul, that’s separate from the body. I wonder if that kind of splitting has something to do with the way that we interact with technology these days.

KS: Yes, Jane talks about the idea of a gendered soul. There’s something really archetypal about the way that this discourse proceeds in terms of this thing inside you which is really you and can be detached from your bodily constitution. But in terms of relation to technology, when a male decides that he’s a woman or a female decides she’s a man, they’re immersed in a fiction. It becomes important not to mention that you’re immersed in a fiction because that would basically break the fourth wall and show that it was a fiction. And you don’t want anyone else to draw attention to the fact that it’s not real. That’s true of all fictions, like being in the theater and not wanting people’s mobile phones to go off. You don’t want to lose your remote, imaginative, emotion in what you’re fantasizing.

There’s a big connection to technology because we’re increasingly behind screens and it’s increasingly easy to construct and curate a persona for ourselves. This goes for all of us. We show the world only what we want to show and get no kind of real time feedback from others. You can see how many avatars are being used by kids who are into trans activism online. You can see the influence of Tumblr, for instance, and memes that capture what the person really wishes was the case about them, or representing what they really would like the world to see. That’s a big part of the story and it’s to be tied in with academia and journalism, along with wider trends, like the rise of the smartphone, the rise of self-harm in women and girls and other sociological trends. This is not a simplified story but when you think about it in terms of this gender identity bursting out of you innately, then it becomes a very simple story and there’s no need to try and connect it up.

GG: The whole phenomenon has the effect of silencing critical thought in general, right? Because if you can’t question this, then you can’t question the impact of the media on shaping identity.

KS: Everything’s become about an individual’s hero’s journey. It’s simple, Disneyfied archetypal stuff: the hero expresses themselves against the trends of society to become who they were destined to be. It really does cut out an awful lot of critical thought.

GG: I remember a few decades ago, there was a lot of societal dialogue happening about anorexia and the impact of thin models on the identity of young girls who were seeing this as a projection of what women should be. But I haven’t seen that same conversation happening in regards to gender ideology.

Now you get the odd article about Snapchat dysmorphia and things like that, but the conversation that was going on around anorexia — including changing laws to promote healthy weight in models — was happening. It seems as though one knock-on effect of gender ideology is that these types of questions overall about how media is shaping how we see the world and ourselves is missing.

KS: That’s right. It’s my impression that superficial solutions have been presented and in some quarters accepted, like body positivity, which to me looks like the fetishization of new body shapes and still looks like a kind of objectification. That’s one reason the conversation has shifted. There are organizations out there still trying to draw attention to this, and in the UK, Transgender Trend has tried to draw attention to the influence of social media in this area. I recommend anyone who doesn’t know about them to look at their resources.

But I also think that in discussions about anorexia or objectification of women, there’s been a chilling effect, because modern feminism has changed the subject and we’re no longer talking about women and girls anymore. We’re talking about a wider category — wider in some ways, narrower in others, because it excludes trans men now, and non-binary people. Once you change the subject it is not surprising that the conversations will lose their point and their insight because you’re no longer talking about females, and the phenomenon is one that predominantly is directed towards females. I do blame academics and feminist organizations who have changed the subject because it means that all these fruitful conversations got sidetracked.

GG: So Kathleen, what is material feminism? And why does it matter?

KS: [laughs] I’ve tried to write this book for a broad audience and I don’t want to get caught up — for this book anyway — in detailed articulations of the feminism I prefer. I just want to say that feminism is about females — that’s what it is. That’s the basic point. We need a big healthy discussion about what that looks like. So I haven’t said what I think my feminism is, or what I think the preferred route for feminism is, but I’d like, in the future, to properly look at that.

I recently wrote a paper about whether gender abolition is a reasonable goal for radical feminism. I think, actually, in many senses, it isn’t. That’s not because I think that gender is innate, although some bits of it might be for all I know. There are still reasons why sex-associated social norms are beneficial to women in some cases, and that’s gender in some part. That’s a provocative conclusion, and if anyone is interested, the talk I gave associated with this paper is online. That’s the sort of conversation I’d like to get into.

The second wave was really powerful, and there is lots there to learn from, but there’s also quite a lot to take issue with. What we need is a reinvigorated discussion about women in the context we find ourselves in now, which has totally transformed in terms of politics and technology, and of course depends on where you are, as well economically, in the world. None of that has been done by the mainstream. So this book is my attempt to set out the basic rationale for why females matter and why it’s okay for a feminist movement to focus exclusively on them.

GG: What a weird time to be living in where these things even need to be said.

KS: I know, I would love it if I never had to talk about why biological sex matters and why gay people are same-sex attracted again. That was not the height of my philosophical ambition.

GG: There does seem to be this kind of feeling that you just have to keep repeating the basics over and over.

KS: There’s a lesson there for us. There’s a liberal idea that we’ll just keep progressing towards a glorious Utopia. I don’t think that’s right anymore. The picture of human nature that underlies it is flawed. The relationship between men and women is probably always going to be, on some level, antagonistic. Women are constantly going to have to be on their guard for new dick moves.

GG: Most of the time we seem to be on the defensive, so it’s nice that you got this book out there to get on the offensive.

KS: I hope so. But I mean, it’s just a book, isn’t it? People will have to do their own bit in organizations, as policymakers. as politicians. It is going to need much more than a book.

GG: What do you think it’s going to take?

KS: I don’t know. In the UK, because we have a National Health Service, it helps we have a whole infrastructure setup to examine the costs of certain treatments. I don’t mean economic costs, I mean in terms of well-being and to make sure that the methodologies are right. I’m hoping that that infrastructure will look at things like puberty blockers, psychological treatment for children with gender dysphoria, and so on. That will hopefully, then, be taken up elsewhere in the world. It’s also going on in places like Sweden and in Holland, so conversations are starting to happen in the medical world. That gives me hope for what’s going to be the case with children in the future. I don’t know about women’s rights. I despair sometimes. I don’t know whether anyone’s ever going to take those seriously enough to be able to say, for instance, that women need their own rape crisis centers.

GG: Unfortunately I agree with you there, and I do think that the attention being paid to the medical scandal happening with children, hopefully, will be a starting-off point, but in regards to what the outcome will be, I guess we’ll just have to see.

How can people get your book?

KS: In the UK it’s on sale already and you can just buy it from anywhere you’d normally get a book, whether it’s online or in a shop. There’s also an ebook version available in the states and Canada. But if you’re after a hard copy and you don’t want to buy it directly from the UK and pay postage, then you’ll have to wait until September 21st, which is when US suppliers start selling the hardback directly.

GG: So we can expect Amazon to start censoring your book sometime around September [laughs]. Thank you so much for talking with me.

KS: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me and thanks for all the brilliant work you do.

Genevieve Gluck

Genevieve Gluck is a writer and advocate for women's sex-based rights and creator of Women's Voices, an audio library dedicated to bringing awareness to feminist texts and speeches.