You may have heard about how public transit announcements in New York City have stopped referring to “ladies and gentlemen” and instead are opting to use terms like riders, passengers and everyone, following in the footsteps of the London Underground. More recently, Trinity College in Dublin elected to replace the word freshmen with the gender-neutral fresh and teachers in the United Kingdom are being advised to call children students and people instead of girls and boys. Last month, the Church of Sweden announced it will stop referring to God as male. Needless to say, there has been a trend in recent months to essentially obliterate references to biological sex in the name of inclusion. It goes to show how gender ideology is steadily creeping into every facet of our lives.
What’s concerning is how some gender ideologues claim that legitimate science is “pseudoscience”. In August, responding to the infamous Google memo by James Damore that was interpreted by mainstream media as suggesting women are intellectually inferior to men, theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote, “Science is sold to us as an almost holy, objective pursuit: a pure endeavor, a way of pursuing truth and only truth” and that “science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting.” For Quartz, Jeremy Colangelo, a PhD student in English studies, argued that “science is clear: Sex is not binary after all” and that “the current state of […] research” supporting such needs to be incorporated into the U.S. education system. The last time I checked, however—about five minutes ago—the scientific literature says something quite different.
For those spouting uninformed drivel supporting the science of a gender spectrum, let me break down the basic lesson everyone learns in high school biology: Biological sex and gender are not two distinct, unrelated entities; they are intertwined, along with gender expression. This translates to biological reasons regarding why we are stereotypical or atypical in our interests and behavior.
Sex—whether we are female or male—is determined by our chromosomal make-up when sperm fertilizes an egg at conception. As the unborn baby develops, exposure to testosterone influences whether he or she will have male-typical traits. Higher levels of exposure are associated with more masculine development and behavior, regardless of whether someone is male or female. Following from this, biological sex and gender are binary, and self-determination can’t override this. Yes, there exists a range of individual differences within these two categories, but they can be thought to be a wider part of natural variation we’d expect to see along any trait.
Gender-variant people deserve dignity and respect, but pretending biological sex doesn’t exist will not help us accomplish what gender-neutral policies hope to achieve.
The science that gender activists will often point to in order to support their ideologies refers to people who are born with a difference of sex development, or DSD, a medical condition previously known as intersex. These people possess reproductive organs and anatomy that do not fit the typical template of female or male. An example would be when a child is born with sex-typical external genitalia as well as internal organs characteristic of the opposite sex. Previous research suggests that as many as one in every 100 people might have a DSD.
Individuals with a DSD have both male and female characteristics, but this, too, has biological underpinnings, including differences in genetics and hormonal exposure in utero. It’s not accurate to say these differences are due to gendered expectations or socialization.
I agree that people with a DSD should be treated no differently from anybody else, including being allowed to make autonomous decisions about their bodies, free from the medical community, governing bodies and society imposing their views, religious, political or otherwise. However, we can advocate for these fundamental human rights without eliminating the categories of “male” and “female.”
Activists will also point to transgender people as evidence of their beliefs, yet the defining aspect of gender dysphoria is feeling that a person identifies as the opposite sex—one that still fits within the concept of gender being binary. In reality, no one is 100 percent male or 100 percent female in terms of who we are, just as no one is 100 percent gender-conforming. The majority of us, and especially Playboy readers, should consider that we are a mix of gendered traits.
If a man wears make-up and high heels, does that mean he’s “gender-fluid?” Not necessarily. He may just be a man who likes to wear make-up and heels. Someone who is a mix of what would be considered stereotypically male and female doesn’t need to be considered in a separate gender category; in fact, thinking this way is more outdated than accepting individual differences among men and women within the binary.
As well, if someone self-identifies as being part of the “gender spectrum,” by definition, he or she is drawing on binary-defined ideas of gender. If I, as a woman, am gender non-conforming, it means I’m less like one and more like the other.
Being gender non-conforming, or feeling like you are a mix of both genders, doesn’t mean you’re “gender-neutral,” “non-binary” or neither gender. The same goes for terms like agender, bigender and whatever other identity politics-inspired portmanteau is popular this week.
Gender-variant people deserve dignity and respect, but pretending biological sex doesn’t exist—and overturning every social convention in the process—will not help us accomplish what these policies hope to achieve. These changes are at best silly and at worst an insidious form of indoctrination. They don’t actually address underlying discrimination against people who don’t fit stereotypical expectations of what it means to be male or female.
Going back to my earlier point about schoolteachers in the U.K., we risk teaching children that it’s shameful or incorrect to take pride in being female or male. The rationale for using gender-neutral terminology is that being reminded of your sex is “self-limiting”. But instead of challenging these ideas, like why girls believe they should underachieve (which would make the most sense logically), the school board has instead decided to tell girls to ignore the fact they are female.
Gender politics are becoming more polarized everyday, so much so that defending biology can now get you accused of being a “biological essentialist,” a supporter of the alt-right or a proponent of hate speech. This rhetoric is unhelpful and dangerous and we can’t allow ourselves to feel afraid of accepting certain truths. People can identify however they choose without needing to rely on scientific research to curry favor. Now more than ever, there is nothing wrong with advocating in favor of facts.
Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.