Salvo 03.23.2021 15 minutes

The War on Sex

Judith Butler

Today’s ravenous gender radicals are poised to eat their own.

In his 1973 book The Inevitability of Patriarchy, the sociologist Steven Goldberg described sex as “the single most decisive determinant of personal identity.” Today, one wonders if such a book could even be published. Even if it were, it would certainly face a massive assault by the scholarly establishment, the “news” media, and much of the rest of elite culture, including that of many self-styled conservatives. The state of accepted pedagogy on this matter in our nation’s schools, including our universities, is now nearly the opposite of Goldberg’s argument that intrinsic biological differences irreducible to socialization exist between man and woman, differences that make the radical feminist dream of a society where men and women are functionally indistinguishable impossible to achieve. Increasingly, many in authority now take it as a matter of doxa—beyond any possible argument or demonstration of contradicting data—that sex is not a binary with two categories but a spectrum with many, and that gender is completely disconnected from sex, defined only by the whim of the individual.

The book that most fully demonstrates the radical angle of attack on Goldberg’s scientific view is one that might have had the most influence on elite thinking about gender and sex: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). The Berkeley professor’s book celebrated drag as a culturally revolutionary act that reveals what she asserts is the fact of gender’s unreality. Gender, Butler claims, is no more than a performance, and drag is a form of radical action against the illegitimate patriarchal system of power. Through this deviant practice, individuals can create alternative identities and subvert heterosexual power. If a biological man can lay claim to the female gender simply by changing clothing, applying some makeup, and altering his speech or mannerisms, the link of gender to anything biologically real is broken and we are in a (liberating) world of mirrors and drama.

Butler’s anarchist attack on “the compulsory order of sex/gender/desire,” that is, the cultural enforcement of the sex and gender binary, is consistent with the French poststructuralism of especially Michel Foucault, who saw society as a set of controls  to prevent the free expression of sexuality. This high priest for the sex/gender radicals died of AIDS after having almost certainly contracted the disease frequenting bath houses in the San Francisco area during the 1970s and 1980s. Here, Foucault tested his philosophical principles of sexual freedom in acts of anonymous, sado-masochistic, unprotected carnality with many other men.

Gender Trouble revealed what radical gender subjectivism was just becoming in the late 1980s. Butler’s book is often incoherent—even the reader who knows the intellectual sources on which she is drawing will find much of it impenetrable—but the claims that can be discerned are bold. “’Female’ no longer appears to be a stable notion,” Butler solemnly intones, “its meaning as troubled and unfixed as ‘woman.’” The truth is that, while gender does depend on cultural variation, it is also closely linked to the nature of the sex difference. In every human culture about which we know anything substantive, there exists a binary gender system that maps on to the sex binary, and the two poles of gender are quite consistent in their characteristics across cultures. There are minor variations, of course, as human cultures are complex things, but in every society we know, the overwhelming majority of people fit into one of two gender categories, and the characteristics assigned to those categories are remarkably uniform. Males are everywhere more prone to physical aggression and violence, and women are everywhere more innately attracted to and interested in babies. This is not true because of human injustice but because of natural order, an order Butler and her heirs hope to overthrow in the name of human justice.

The Fruits of Deconstruction

But human and nature cannot so easily be pried apart. The evidence of the biological reality of the sex difference—not just in gonads and sex cells, but in personality characteristics and behavioral profiles, on average—is overwhelming, and science is daily producing more. Male and female brains are structurally different in ways that map on to the emerging neuroscientific knowledge on how brain structure affects behavior and capabilities. The feminist claim that these differences are wholly a product of socialization becomes more implausible the more we know. In societies where egalitarian gender ideology is arguably most widespread, such as in Northern Europe, there has been no disappearance of traditional sex differences in choices concerning careers. Men are still overrepresented in fields that focus on systems and objects, and women are still the overwhelming majority in fields dedicated to extensive human interaction and social services.

The radical spirit of ‘90s feminism represented by Gender Trouble did not stop at “deconstructing” gender in the effort to move toward a world in which gender roles are divorced from biological sex. Sex too had to be subjected to such “problematization.” Radicals used the writing of Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist who admitted her work was fundamentally shaped by her “1960s street-activist heart,” to suggest that the sex binary was also an oversimplified social construction. Fausto-Sterling insisted there are at least five sexes: males, females, “true hermaphrodites” with one testis and one ovary, male pseudohermaphrodites with testes and “some aspects of female genitalia” but no ovaries, and female pseudohermaphrodites with ovaries and “some aspects of male genitalia” but no testes. Perhaps, she asserted, several of every hundred people might be in one of the three intersex categories, with—the clincher—an “infinitely malleable continuum” between them.

It was quickly pointed out that Fausto-Sterling had been deceptive in her estimate of the frequency of intersexuality. Leonard Sax, in the Journal of Sex Research, noted that she had counted phenomena such as Klinefelter’s Syndrome (biological males with an extra X chromosome), Turner’s Syndrome (biological females with only one X chromosome), and several other conditions typically not recognized as intersex. One of these alone—late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia (LOCAH), which involves the overproduction of adrenal androgens—accounts for 90 percent of Fausto-Sterling’s claimed figure of 1.7 percent of the population that is intersex. But LOCAH is not an intersex phenomenon. Many individuals who have it are never diagnosed because the symptoms are so mild, and all who have it are born with typical male or female genitalia that correspond to the male and female genotypes. Nearly all such individuals go through puberty with the typical sexual development for their genotype, as the condition generally does not manifest in women until the early 20s and in men much later. The true estimate of intersex individuals, Sax argued, is roughly 0.018%, about 100 times lower than Fausto-Sterling’s estimate. That is, more than 99.98% of humans are clearly either male or female in terms of biological sex.

But the attack on “standard sex difference science” was undeterred by this decimation of Fausto-Sterling’s case. In Gender Trouble, Butler criticized the work of an MIT group that had just discovered the region on the Y chromosome responsible for sex differentiation, claiming these scientists ultimately had to invoke cultural symbols of patriarchy to legitimate their explanations. In her view, this betrayed the very notion of an objective science of sex difference. We are always trapped in culture, she wrote, which means we are always trapped in patriarchy. A science of sex is impossible. Radical sex/gender ideology attacked science as male knowledge and elevated female knowledge as superior on the basis that women as a class were treated as inferior. Like blacks and other powerless groups, women—at least, women with a feminist outlook—could critically understand the point of view of men and supplement its lacunae with the fuller vision of the female perspective. Marx made similar claims about the superiority of working-class consciousness, though he did not attempt to cast the very notion of science as a tool of oppression.

The MIT group’s finding that what we now know as the SRY gene determines sex is universally accepted science today, and Butler’s ideological criticism has aged poorly in scientifically literate circles. So has her wild overestimation that perhaps one in ten people is outside the normal sex binary.

Revolutionary Science

In the ‘90s, radicals assumed the culture would quickly follow them in rejecting science as a patriarchal way of knowing and embracing radical relativist subjectivism, but that has not happened yet. The heady moment of relativism represented by Butler’s book gave way to the recognition that claims about what is real or true, especially such claims that invoke science, still have great rhetorical power for the average member of the public who is insufficiently grounded in poststructuralist theory. The gender/sex radicals therefore retooled. Instead of rejecting all science in blanket fashion as hopelessly patriarchal, they now claim that scientific knowledge is on the side of their political project and fervently denounce “sex traditionalists” as benighted and anti-scientific. Thanks to the success of the ‘60s call to bore inside the institutions, they can rely on an ever-growing body of radicalized scientists to produce pronouncements on gender and sex that support their political agenda.

A remarkable example of the new radical sex/gender politics can be seen in the 2018 Nature magazine announcement on the Trump administration’s proposal to classify sex according to biological (genital) and genetic data. The Nature writers mimic the ‘90s radical criticism of sexual categories, reiterating the false claim that those unclassifiable by the traditional binary system might make up as much as 1 percent of the population. But the rhetorical value of science as a way of knowing is not rejected here, as it is in Gender Trouble and ‘90s radical gender/sex thinking. Indeed, the very fact that the piece appeared in Nature, a preeminent public science publication, demonstrates this change. Science, or at least a cleverly masked politicized usage of the term, is an effective weapon in the current culture wars.

Debates about the nature of transgenderism are now the epicenter of this long-term movement to undermine the biological science of sex and gender while inaccurately invoking science for its strategic value. Claims are made constantly in public science media about the indisputable, biologically rooted truth of every individual claim to be transgendered. Yet transgenderism is heavily concentrated in younger cohorts, who are still developing a permanent sense of identity, and it is undeniable that many young people who self-identify as trans at some time eventually revert to the gender identity that aligns with their biological sex. This inconvenient fact is seldom mentioned by the radical gender/sex scientists and their allies in popular media.

Recently, a major study in the American Journal of Psychiatry purporting to show that transgender individuals who underwent sex-reassignment surgery achieved improvements in mental health had to be corrected, as the researchers revealed—after letters critical of the design of their study prompted them to reanalyze their data—that their initial analyses were flawed. The subjects of the study had experienced no improvement in their likelihood to seek medical interventions for anxiety and require prescriptions or hospitalization in the wake of attempted suicides. Few mainstream media sources reported the correction, though many had eagerly trumpeted the original, incorrect findings.

The radical anti-science sex/gender subjectivists have not yet all disappeared, and the spectacle of their taming by the new radical gender/sex “science” is laden with glaring contradiction. Butler now finds herself in the impossible position of being at once the author of a book purporting that no gender claims can have any basis whatever in biology and a staunch, outraged defender of the current dogma that transgender claims must be accepted as fully and firmly rooted in the “lived reality” of those making them.

It behooves us to be attentive to the contradictions and shifting terms in the arguments of advocates of the radical dissolution of gender and sex as categories. History, common sense, and science are on the side of the traditional understanding that there are two biological sexes; that gender identity, while not rigid, is generally in accord with sex; and that adolescent confusion is a normal part of growing up and not an indication that a child has been born into the “wrong” body. We must not give in to the advocates’ cynical use of the rhetoric of civil rights as they attempt to squeeze a new class of victims into existence but remain vigilant and willing to call out their demented arguments whenever possible.

Photo Credit: “Judith Butlerby Andrew Rusk

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