Is this the most incoherent book about gender yet?

A woman walks along a pedestrian crossing with trans flag colours in Bloomsbury
A woman walks along a pedestrian crossing with trans flag colours in Bloomsbury - Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

For millennia, humans boasted of being a ­special creation, above “the beasts” because endowed with reason and free will – until, in the 19th century, we realised that we were animals ourselves, on a continuum with apes. In the past 30 years, however, we have found a new way of disclaiming animality: apparently, unlike other mammals, humans do not come in two sexes, but range along a spectrum – and/or a human’s sex is simply “assigned at birth”, therefore can be changed.

Such claims have been given intellectual respectability, if not consistency, by exaggerated statistics of those born intersex, and by “queer theory”, one of the founding texts of which is Gender Trouble, written by Judith Butler, a professor at Berkeley, in 1990. Famously obscurantist, it seems to say that sex is purely a performance.

If less opaquely written, Butler’s new book is just as baffling. More than half of Who’s Afraid of Gender? exhaustively outlines efforts by the Pope, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Trump, and those branded Terfs (trans-exclusionary feminists), to discredit, penalise and outlaw gender.

But how exactly is gender being “abolished”, and what exactly is it? As Butler observes, the definition is much debated; but rather than ­proposing one, Who’s Afraid of ­Gender? follows the confusing, disingenuous fashion of using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, despite at one point pronouncing them to be “co-constructed”, and at another opining that “gender might be said to precede sex”.

Butler categorically denies that “gender is to culture as sex is to nature”, or that “gender is produced through forms of patriarchal power”, neglecting to mention that this Terf-ish sex/gender distinction was, according to some interpretations, first proposed in The Second Sex (a key gender-studies text). “Biological categories are saturated with meanings,” Butler complains. Which was surely Simone de Beauvoir’s point – she was seeking to purge the sex category “woman” of the cultural accretions of gender that have long distorted it. Butler, however, treats linguistic bewitchment as ineluctable: “Sex has shifting historical meanings.” But biological language aims to reach up to the real thing. Why doesn’t Butler try to distinguish the usage of “sex” from what it is intended to refer to?

Judith Butler
Seeing red: Judith Butler rails against Trump, Terfs and the Pop - Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“If sex is legally assigned and registered and can be re-assigned and re-registered, can we not conclude that the reality of sex has changed, or that that change is now part of our historical reality?” Butler demands. As if, guided by linguistic usage, natural selection would dismantle the sexual dimorphism that has taken so long to evolve and has been so advantageous to the survival of the human species. We are asked to consider “embodiment… not as a discrete and bounded ­phenomenon, but as the effect of a complex set of interactions of an organism with an environment”; which sounds scientifically respectable – except that such interactions happen only over millennia.

A fairly standard account of ­sexual dimorphism is that “‘male’ means making small gametes (sperm), ‘female’ means making large gametes (eggs)”. According to this account, however, “the drawing of this distinction proves to be a convention wrongly applied to the human species, given that all the members of some species of algae, fungi and protozoans produce the same size gametes”. By the same token, then, given that the Labord chameleon’s young need no par­ental care, human parental care must also be superfluous. Butler quotes mystifying passages from ­sociologists intended to purvey the fashionable view that sexual dimorphism has been a spurious and cruel colonial imposition. Yet isn’t sociology, like anthropology, rooted in it – studying how human societies, in ingeniously diverse ways, regulate reproduction, child-rearing and kinship, and apportion roles for the two sexes and for the sexually anomalous?

Butler doesn’t touch on the ­crucial issue of puberty blockers and the removal of adolescents’ breasts and penises. Excluding trans women from women-only spaces is tantamount to treating them as rapists, apparently – the statutory argument. But an ­increasingly high proportion of trans women retain their penises, so isn’t excluding them a matter, as with ordinary men, of prudent ­pre-emptiveness? The human penis, like that of any other animal, has, because it is part of nature’s drive for life, a sort of life of its own. The inadvertency of erections is what manifests the authenticity of desire, thereby flattering both their owners and their observers (when not dismaying them).

“Nothing about the organ per se produces rape,” says Butler. Like a gun lobbyist insisting that it’s the person, not the gun, that kills, this ignores the fact that some tools are more dangerous and unpredictable than others. The reality of global warming led the arch-social-­constructivist Bruno Latour to retract his extreme position. Judith Butler’s may be impermeable.

Jane O’Grady is the author of Enlightenment Philosophy. Who’s Afraid of Gender? is published by Allen Lane at £25. To order your copy call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

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