Trans-Denying Feminists (aka “TERFs”) – Transphobic or Just Plain Wrong?

I had generally avoided the “debate” over trans rights and transphobia, which is characterised by plenty of heat and little light, until I debated against Julie Bindel last year on pornography at the University of Essex. There had been calls to cancel the debate, based on Bindel’s alleged transphobia (despite the debate having nothing to do with the issue), and we were inevitably met by a shouty little group of students accusing Bindel of being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

Bindel has been “No Platformed” by  a number of student unions (or rather, the elitist little clique that controls many student unions and decides what the rest of the student body should or should not hear on campus). Ludicrously, such people claim that refusing to allow a person to speak on campus isn’t censorship. “It’s not censorship to deny someone a platform…”. It’s worrying that some of these authoritarian bullies will form the next generation of politicians, and will inevitably try to extend No Platform beyond universities: “It’s not censorship. We’re simply denying bloggers a platform by throwing them in jail”.

The new left, obsessed with identity politics, and lacking the intelligent analysis of earlier generations of progressives, has trouble formulating intelligent positions, and instead resorts to labelling people bigots and trying to silence them. Are Bindel, Germaine Greer and other feminists really hate-filled “transphobes”? To me, this avoids the more important question: are they right? And undoubtedly, the answer is No. They are wrong: but their mistake is a fundamental one that is broadly shared across the new left, not just TERFs.

The success of liberal values in the 1960s established equality as an essential for any enlightened society. Women, racial minorities and homosexuals all took great strides forward in their legal statuses (although the inevitable cultural battles continued). But post-modern left thinkers, especially feminists, took things further, deciding that nature itself must be declared equal. Thus, biological differences were increasingly denied: it was deemed that every child was equally capable of everything, and that individual differences in intelligence, in ability and in gender behaviours were therefore cultural, rather than rooted in biology.

So as religious objections to evolution have faded, the post-modernists have become the new creationists, denying the increasing weight of science that demonstrates how important genes are to all of our core instincts and behaviours.

The 1970s feminist movement declared gender identity to be a cultural, not a biological attribute, with hilarious consequences, which I remember well, as my mother and her friends were Women’s Libbers. It was widely predicted for example that women, now liberated, would come to equal men in sporting achievements (to be fair, there was an uptick in female world records, but this turned out to be down to the widespread use of drugs by Eastern bloc countries). It was also believed that the tendency for women to obsess over their appearances far more than men was due to “patriarchal oppression”, and so women’s lib would mean an end to mini-skirts, make-up and high heels: in fact, greater female economic independence has led to exactly the opposite scenario, with sales of cosmetics, beauty products and female clothes booming. On race, the success of West Africans in power sports, and East Africans in endurance events, was put down to “racial oppression”, rather than biological advantages.

Most fundamentally, it was deemed that children’s gender identities could be crafted by giving them different toys to play with. Thus, boys of my generation were given dolls to play with as well as trains, and toy weaponry was frowned upon. Generation after generation of feminist mothers have tried, and failed, to override their children’s innate sense of gender identity. (Some time ago I saw a very good blog by a feminist mother on how giving birth to two boys destroyed her belief that gender behaviours were merely cultural – if anyone knows of the link, please let me know and I’ll add it here).

By the 1990s, the science was well advanced, and increasingly showed that gender and sexual behaviours were in large part genetic. Twin studies allowed the effects of genes and environment to be isolated and measured, and once the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we gained the ability to directly “read” which genes were linked with each of our behaviours. Evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and genetics all developed rapidly and gradually demolished the foundations of post-modern thinking. The 1999 book Why Men Don’t Iron was one of many that explained the emerging understanding about gender behaviours, and was made into a TV programme. Similarly, the book Why Is Sex Fun included a chapter titled “Why Do Men Hunt?” By 2013, neuroscience had advanced to the point where it unveiled, in detail, the different wiring of male and female brains.

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But like all true religious believers, the post-modernists became increasingly shrill, as the rug of scientific evidence was yanked from beneath them. They attacked biology covertly, dismissing solid, mainstream science as “biological determinism”. In terms of science denial, they are greater offenders than even climate-change sceptics: the science they deny is far older and more solid than climate science.

Bizarrely, the post-modernists allow for one loophole: in response to claims from the religious right that homosexuality is cultural and therefore curable, they are prepared to accept the biological roots of homosexuality. But on gender, they take the same position as the religious right do over homosexuality: it is cultural, and therefore must be curable.

As with sexuality, a minority of individuals are born possessing gender identities that depart from the mainstream. As with all other people, trans people deserve equality, and their human rights to be upheld. They deserve to live a life free from stigma and bullying, and for their chosen identities to be honoured by the world. The battle for trans rights is belatedly being fought, having been largely overlooked by earlier generations. In a sign that this debate has now fully entered the mainstream, new-left darling Owen Jones, never an early entrant to any issue, has recently contributed one of his typically worthy-but-unenlightening perspectives.

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And so inevitably, trans activists have clashed with some among the older generation of feminists, still wed to the discredited idea of nurture over nature. Bindel and co are probably not bigoted; they are simply wrong; they cannot shake off the progressive ideas of their youths that have turned out to be discredited by science.

But the TERFs are not the only people still clinging on to this rejection of science. A leading female sex blogger responded to a science article I tweeted by tweeting back at me: “Biological determinism is fucking bollocks!” – illustrating the low quality of debate around these subjects. The ongoing arguments over “gendered” toys continue, based on the silly assumption that Barbie dolls and pink Lego bricks are somehow responsible for the lack of female CEOs and nuclear physicists. Despite 50 years of post-modern parenting, gender differences are as strong as ever.

Like all religious-type movements, biology-denying feminism will crash and burn, but it will become increasingly shrill on the way down. Discussions over sex, sexuality and gender in the absence of scientific understanding invariably produce laughable nonsense. Equal rights are a legal and ethical idea: they don’t require underlying conformity. We are all different, we are all equal.

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6 thoughts on “Trans-Denying Feminists (aka “TERFs”) – Transphobic or Just Plain Wrong?”

  1. Your comments about the extreme left behaviour in universities in the 1970s and 1908s remind me of the debate at Portsmouth Poly over a £1000 donation to the NUM strike fund (which was rejected), only to be replaced by a donation of £999.95 added as an amendment to a motion to send a delegation to a march. On ratification … (thank heavens for SU ratification) … it was rejected on the basis that the proposal had nothing to do with the NUM, Arthur Scargill, Maggie Thatcher et al, but rather a “small group of students who comprise[d] the dirty tricks department of PPSU.” And why is that in quotes? Because I said it.

    Times don’t change. Agendae do.

  2. Great article, Jerry. This phenomenon is manifesting here in Australia much more of late as well. The more you look at biology denying feminism the more it looks like a religion. This movement of the feminist left toward the religious right has reached an incredible union here with the formation of a group called Collective Shout. Led by Melinda Tankard-Reist, your readers will really enjoy reading about her latest defamation action.http://noplaceforsheep.com/2012/01/17/some-thoughts-on-being-threatened-with-defamation-by-melinda-tankard-reist/

  3. There’s a point to be made here that, whilst evolutionary biology demonstrates the tendency of each gender to certain behaviours, gender itself isn’t a rigid binary – it’s a statistical spread with clusters towards either end of the spectrum, but with plenty of ‘outliers’ in between. Sadly, some people’s grasp of science is so thoroughly Victorian that they attempt to make a leap of faith from evolutionary biology to biological determinism, declaring any traits which fall outside of very narrow clusters of behaviour to be ‘abnormal’.

  4. As for whether the TERFs are bigoted or just plain wrong in their views of transwomen, is there really a difference in practical terms? In other words, if they refuse to adjust their worldviews from ones formed in the 1970s-1980s on the basis of fresh evidence and/or the personal accounts of transpeople, aren’t they still privileging faith and ideology over reason and empiricism, and privileging their own fixed views on trans issues over the individual rights of transpeople?

    There’s long been a massive contradiction at the heart of ‘radical feminism’ on the subject of gender, i.e. that gender is a cultural construct on the one hand, whilst only cis-women merit being considered ‘real women’ for the purposes of feminism on the other. The pronouncements of the TERFs on gender are inevitably riddled with classic Stalinist doublespeak.

    1. Good points and I’m with you on the evolutionary psychology and genetics front. What I don’t get, Jerry, is how does the solid science INFIRM the limited assertion by Bindel that transsexual women are not really women? Genetically, most of these people have the chromosomes of one or another gender. That there may be other factors ( hormones, upbringing) that sway them later, doesn’t change the fact they’re born with one set of chromosomes.
      So, despite my great contempt for Bindel’s stand on sex work, and feminist intellectual methods, I’m with her on “trans women not really women”. This is of course, not to say that they don’t deserve rights etc like everybody. Just that technically, biologically, they are men. The rest is variety the spice of life.

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