So, as many of you are aware, the high-priestess of genderology [Judith Butler] decided to momentarily descend from her exalted academic plinth and relay her ‘thoughts’ on the ongoing internecine shitshow that she, probably more than anyone else, has helped to create. Except of course that, with her usual intellectual integrity, the thoughts she decided to relay about said shitshow totally ignored what is really going on, in favour of pretending that this is a conflict between the wibbly-wobbly-gender-and-sex-is-fluid-rah-rah-liberation crowd, and, basically, um, the Pope. Despite being entirely predictable, this level of disingenuous erasure, is, nonetheless, pretty staggering. As Judy is actually more than well aware, this is a conflict which turns, fundamentally, on the fault-line in feminism that she, in fact, inaugurated – a fault-line between those of us who think patriarchy is a system of sex-based male dominance enacted through cultural mechanisms which we could call – if we can still stomach the word – ‘gender,’ and those who think that patriarchy is…like, seriously, what the fuck do they even think it is….some kind of free-floating cultural system that has nothing to do with actual bodies or their appropriation and domination, a randomly generated set of signs and signifying practices that shape our subjectivity, a thought which leads, in practice, to staking feminism’s whole liberation project on the epic transcendent power of some spectacularly superficial idea of gender-fucking.
Look, I’m a feminist, and a Prince-fan. I like superficial gender-fucking as much as the next woman. (I actually think Prince’s gender-fucking wasn’t merely superficial, but that’s another story). BUT, and this in some sense points towards the heart of the problem here, superficial gender-fucking has fuck all effect on the fundamental patterns of male dominance. As someone said to me yesterday on Twitter, the wires are currently full of male people running around stanning for the absolute progressive power of gender fluidity, who seem to think they are the living breathing instantiation of ‘smash the patriarchy’ because they dare to pair some nail-varnish with their beards, all while acting like exactly the same entitled, narcissistic, dependency-denying, mind-over-matter, female-erasing assholes that they always were. If gender isn’t just a penchant for gold lamé pocketbooks and lace and is actually something to do with the psychic, material, ontological and economic structures which underpin male dominance, then, lo, it turns out you still need an analysis of male dominance if you’re going to actually do a bloody thing about it. And I’m sorry Judy, I know you were traumatized by Dworkin and MacKinnon trying to ban porn, but having an analysis of male dominance doesn’t actually make me, y’know, the fucking Pope.
This week there’s a conference going on at Brighton University, in which a load of ‘critical thinkers’ will sit around and think very critically. Judith Butler is doing the star turn. I was supposed to go with a friend, and put on my polite academic face, and listen while she is lauded by room full of people, many of them male, who cannot get over how fucking psyched they are that ‘feminism’ no longer asks them to even acknowledge, let alone challenge, male dominance. I cannot and will not do it. At this moment the thought makes me rage. And so what I want to do, instead, is to sit here, and try and channel my rage into a (partial) excavation of how, and why, Judith Butler performed the magical and much-rewarded feat of making patriarchy – and the critique of patriarchy – vanish from feminism.
In case you weren’t able to attend the sold out Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights talk at the Vancouver Public Library, it was, in a word, beautiful. On Thursday, myself, Lee Lakeman, and surprise speaker Fay Blaney spoke truth to power, shutting down any possibility of discrediting the independent, grassroots women’s movement. Blaney challenged the myth of numerous “genders” in Indigenous cultures, wielded by trans activists in order to justify post-modern, academic theories about “gender identity,” and claim them as “non-Western” for identity politics points. Blaney said, “There are people who are talking about how Indigenous nations had five genders. That’s absolute B.S.” Lakeman reminded “those of you who can imagine bullying us into submission, you’re clearly unfamiliar with us.” I argued that it is unnecessary to trample on women’s rights in order to also argue that those who step out of traditional gender stereotypes should not be harassed or discriminated, and indeed, challenging gender stereotypes is always what feminists have encouraged. No one in attendance could argue, with any integrity, that any of the panelists were “hateful” or interested in harming others.
While many protesters shouted unrelated, nonsensical slogans outside, none had the strength of character or intelligence to address the panelists in good faith, inside. The few trans activists who did attend limited their “protests” to giggling at concerns about fascism and cheering when Blaney — a long time Indigenous feminist activist committed to fighting male violence against women — shared that she had been pushed out of the annual Women’s Memorial March, which honours the lives of missing and murdered women lost in the Downtown Eastside. One trans activist who did speak began by insulting another woman’s hair, before launching into a confusing lecture about race.
Three hundred people attended the event — many more wanted to, but could not get tickets, as the event sold out. Thousands more watched online. The vast majority of the audience was in support of either our positions or, simply, the need for an open conversation about the issues. It is clear that Canadian politicians and the Canadian media are failing the general public in their efforts to distort, censor, and ignore that this is a conversation people desperately want to have, and that most in Canada are not on board with gender identity ideology and legislation, nor do they support trans activist tactics, which rely on using bullying, threats, and libel to silence and smear detractors.
Watch the talk and Q&A in its entirety here:
Claudia busts some myths in neuroscience. She meets scientists attending the British Neuroscience Association’s Christmas symposium on Neuromyths. She talks to Professor Chris MacManus about myths around left and right and how we use the different sides of our brain. She discusses with Duncan Astle from Cambridge University about the brain myths that have been used in education in primary schools. Cordelia Fine from Melbourne University discusses the myths about the differences between male and female brains. Anne Cook from the BNA talks about some historical myths which have been busted but why others still persist. Emma Yhnell from Cardiff University talks about whether brain training really works.
A recently released study from the university of Cambridge claims to show that male and female brains are clearly very different. In a huge study of over 600,000 people, the data obtained showed that men tend to be more analytical and ‘systemic’ while women tend to be more emotional and empathetic, thus providing clear evidence for controversial theories about the differences between male and female brains.
I know this, because I was on Sky News being interviewed about it earlier today (at time of writing).
Those who saw my interview will probably have noticed that I am not exactly supportive of the study or its findings.
In fairness, it’s not the first study to conclude that male and female brains are different based on questionable data. Nor is this the first time I’ve argued against such efforts. And yet, here we are, caught in another press cycle that provides needless ammunition to the battle of the sexes.
So, what’s wrong with this particular study? Quite a few things, as it happens. But there are also some major issues with the ways it’s being reported. Here’s a basic rundown, from my perspective.
It doesn’t look at brains, at all
A lot of the coverage states that this study shows clear differences between male and female brains. But… they didn’t even look at anyone’s brain! All the data collected was obtained via questionnaires, usually no longer than ten agree/disagree questions long. That’s hardly the most rigorous assessment. Not to say it’s totally without merit as a method, but to take information from a short list of questions with binary options and declare that this reflects the underlying structure of the brain itself, that’s quite a leap.
It’s tricky to do this with information from intense scanning studies, so to do it with the marks in a few tick-boxes is quite a ballsy move.
Hefty study, minimal applications
A lot has been made about the size of the study. Over 600,000 participants is pretty impressive, and will undoubtedly yield a lot of information to work with. But, as the previous point shows, this information is only as useful as the methods used to collect it, and if those are limited in scope and application, then any conclusions are going to be similarly limited.
Basically, even if you got as many as 100 million men and women to toss a coin, you couldn’t use this data to show one sex is better with financial issues.
Nature vs nurture, again
The researchers in the press release do confirm that the data from their study doesn’t actually reveal what the cause of the sex differences demonstrated. It could be genetic, it could be hormonal, it could be influences and pressures from the culture in which we develop.
However, this admission is rather brief and offhand in all the coverage I’ve seen, which instead focuses on the ‘clear differences’ between male and female brains, despite the whole ‘not actually looking at brains’ aspect.
But the possibility that this is purely a cultural thing cannot be overstated, and is, in my informed opinion, a substantially more likely explanation for any differences in the data. As many have pointed out, the conclusions being declared are based on averages, which is standard practice. But the data itself is all over the place.
As Professor Cordelia Fine (author of Testosterone Rex) pointed out; “sex differences are such that were you to choose a man and woman at random, their scores would be counter to expectations, with the man scoring higher than the woman on empathy about four times in ten”.
Basically, if men and women’s brains were fundamentally, structurally different in the ways argued here, you’d surely expect to see a much more even tendency towards being analytical and systemic? Same with women and empathy. But you don’t.
A much more realistic explanation is that we live in a society with a strong gender divide which is reinforced from day one, so all the adults in the study have developed in such a context and unavoidably internalised, to varying degrees, many of these cultural norms, i.e. women report being more emotional because they’re so often told by the world that they’re supposed to be, despite this being bollocks.
This also further highlights how the vast size of the study is of limited use and doesn’t automatically make the findings more valid. If I were to run a study 10 times this size in, say, India, and then declare that everyone has a Hindu brain, I’d be laughed out of the room.
But that’s not really that different to what’s going on here.
In a week of dismaying news, there was a ray of sunshine: a scientific breakthrough with the potential to change lives. Men and women’s brains have finally been proved, by actual scientists, in a massive study, to be completely different! This, you gathered, was the substance of a prominently reported new study that made the front page of the Times: “Men and women really do think differently, say scientists.”
In another paper, the headline specified how: “The sex divide: female empathy vs male logic”. Dr Varun Warrier, of the research team, was widely quoted, saying: “These sex differences in the typical population are very clear.”
Rarely, if ever, since social impact was added to official measurements of academic excellence, can a psychology study have enjoyed a reception as extensive, and thus far as warm, as this new contribution, from four Cambridge researchers, to the scholarly literature on sex difference. Perhaps discouragingly for their colleagues, it appears that the findings, rather than the field itself, account for the paper’s remarkable appeal. To date, no equivalent headlines – Men and women’s thinking can be surprisingly similar! – have welcomed contradictory work, such as Cordelia Fine’s, on the destructive fallacies of gendered minds.
Admittedly, the new study had its critics: Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, had reservations about its reliance on self-reporting (to a Channel 4 online questionnaire, in which subjects identified, or not, with statements such as “I am good at predicting how someone will feel”). Rippon noted that the respondents, aged between 16 and 89, would have had “plenty of time to have absorbed the gendered messages to which they will have been exposed”.
Elsewhere, the neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett pointed out, in a comprehensive demolition, that the study of sexed brain difference “doesn’t look at brains, at all”.
Broadly, however, the reported message remained, like the original research, supportive of pink/blue thinking on human behaviour and, incidentally, of the employment status quo. In fact, given the prominent and, for the most part, respectful coverage of this research, its cultural impact could surely go beyond news headlines and broadcasts, to the point of shaping thinking on fixed behavioural traits, even to influencing policymaking, or employment, especially if the study’s “very clear” sex differences can be aligned with covert sex discrimination. You can imagine, for instance, the utility of the Cambridge research at the BBC, where women have long been diagnosed as temperamentally unsuited for some journalistic work; yet more so in the City, where companies are currently defending themselves against findings of the Hampton-Alexander review. It has just revealed a decline, last year, in the number of women CEOs in the FTSE 350, from 15 to 12.
The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs [this evening], marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.
Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.
That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.
Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.
In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.
The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.
But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.
This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.
As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.
The UK government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act closes on the 19th of October.
This consultation is run by the government (it’s not some zombie petition), filling it in is important and does make a difference.
If you are not sure why this matters, have a read back through the ‘trans issues’ category of posts on this blog, or look at the rest of Fair Play for Women’s website, or A Woman’s Place, or Transgender Trend, or Gender Trender, or 4th Wave Now.
New Year’s Day 2015 was a bad one. My main memory of it is the moment when my husband essentially scraped me off the bed, where I was lying face-down, crying, because I’d seen a tweet from someone I thought was a friend – someone I’d worked with, someone whose kid I’d babysat for – denouncing me as a “terf”. The occasion for the denunciation was a piece by me published earlier that day. My editor had double-checked that I wanted to go ahead with it – there would be, she said, a lot of flak, which I knew anyway but one of the reasons I like writing for her is that she asks that kind of thing. The piece was worth doing, regardless of flak, because it was about something important: the way suicide is reported, and the potential for harm when it’s done badly.
Sarah Ditum has written a really great summery of her past six years as a radical feminist, and the ongoing state of trans activism; I would really recommend reading the whole thing.
Pop neuroscience has long been fascinated with uncovering secret biological differences between male and female brains. The question of whether men and women have innately different brains rarely fails to get people riled up. Just last year, the Google engineer James Damore caused an uproar after publishing a manifesto detailing the various ways women were biologically different from men.
But Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that anyone who goes searching for innate differences between the sexes won’t find them.
“People say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but the brain is a unisex organ,” she said onstage Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
That’s a bold statement, and one science is divided on. It seems to depend on what exactly is being measured. For example, a large study in the U.K. found that many regions of men’s brains were larger than women’s, and that women on average had thicker cerebral cortices. What does that mean for how the brain works? Unclear. Another study found that “averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features,” as New Scientist reported in 2015.
But there’s no doubt that whatever their brains look like, behavior and school performance differences between men and women are strongly shaped by socialization.
Eliot said that Damore has a misunderstanding of neuroscience and that his letter overstated the role of testosterone in male and female bodies. While testosterone is linked to aggression, it doesn’t offer a universal explanation for male behavior. Eliot also said that everyone, regardless of sex, can be competitive or aggressive, but males and females might have different ways of expressing those traits based on social norms.
Eliot blames academia and the media in part for the cycle that leads to the ongoing argument over biological brain differences. Because most scholars know that any small statistical difference between men and women will make headlines, academics, desperate for funding and attention, often focus studies on gender disparities. “You go back to data, analyze it for sex, and if you find a difference, then guess what: You have another paper,” Eliot said.
She said that even scientifically indisputable differences, such as the oft-cited statistic that male brains are 10 percent bigger than female brains, don’t mean anything. All of men’s organs are bigger on average, but that doesn’t mean they function differently.
If scientists and academics were to begin with the premise that men and women are equally capable, Eliot said, their studies would result in radically different conclusions.
For instance, many, including the then–Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, have used a 1970 study that showed men outperformed women 13 to one on the math portion of the SAT to explain why there aren’t more women at the top of STEM fields. “People said brilliance in math is a male phenomenon,” Eliot said.
Of course, it turned out women were being discouraged from pursuing STEM. Once more programs were put in place to foster this type of learning, the ratio dropped to three to one, Eliot said, and is now on its way to closing.
When young men and women come up against sexist stereotypes masquerading as science, Angela Saini wants them to be armed with the facts. “I call my book ammunition,” she says of her 288-page prize-winning work Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. “There are people out there who insist that somehow the inequalities we see in society are not just because of historic discrimination, but also because of biology – the idea that there are factors within us that will cause men or women to be better at some things than others.”
She wrote Inferior to demonstrate that “actually, science doesn’t support that point of view. I think it’s important we understand these scientific facts. We need that ammunition to counter the weird mistruths that are circulating within and outside science about sex difference”.
To female scientists fed up with being treated as though their brains are the odd exceptions among their sex, Inferior is more than just a book. It’s a battle cry – and right now, it is having a galvanising effect on its core fanbase. On 31 July a crowdfunding campaign to send a copy of Inferior to every mixed secondary school in England with more than 1,000 pupils was launched by Dr Jessica Wade, a British physicist who writes 270 Wikipedia pages a year to raise the profile of female scientists. Within two days the campaign had raised £2,000. Yesterday it reached its original £15,000 target and was powering its way towards £20,000 – a figure which would allow the book to be sent to every state school in the country.
“There’s nothing you want more than for people to be inspired by your work,” says Saini, 37, a multiple award-winning science journalist, who first became intrigued by sex difference research when she wrote about the menopause for the Observer. “What Jess is doing means such a lot to me. I hope if my book can empower her, it can empower other young women, and men, too.”
The key message she hopes her readers will take away is that nothing in science suggests equality is not possible. “We are not as different as the inequalities in our society makes us believe we are. Even now, there are people saying we shouldn’t be pushing for gender equality because we’re never going to see it for biological reasons.” For example, many people think there are large psychological differences in spatial awareness, mathematical reasoning or verbal skills between men and women. “Actually, those differences are tiny, a fraction of a standard deviation,” says Saini. “Psychologically, the differences between the sexes are not enough to account for the inequalities we see in our society today.”
Inferior is not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination. It includes a firsthand account of female genital mutilation and deliberately examines a large number of academic studies in painstaking detail. But, like recent bestselling children’s books Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, it could play a valuable role in breaking down gender stereotypes for the next generation of would-be scientists and mathematicians, and Saini is confident many teenagers will engage with it. “Girls and boys aged 13 or 14 upwards have really responded to the message, and the earlier we can get this message to them, the better.” She was the only girl in science and maths classes at school. “Even if it’s not overtly stated to you, just being in a minority – especially a minority of one – makes you think maybe there are some differences between the sexes.”
Researching and writing the book has totally changed how she feels about herself, destroying her own “subconscious stereotypes” about women. “It made me look at the world differently. That’s the power of science.”
In one of the most shocking chapters, Saini relays a letter written by Charles Darwin in which he argues that women are intellectually inferior to men. “He was looking at society. He saw women weren’t achieving as much and he treated us almost the way you would treat observations of lions or peacocks in the wild. He thought: this reflects the biological facts.”
Even at the time, contemporary female intellectuals pointed out that this theory ignored a lot of obvious historical and cultural factors, but Darwin failed to take on board their arguments. “It was quite lazy of him, which is surprising, because he wasn’t a lazy scientist. He was usually so painstaking and thorough.”
But she still admires him for everything he got right. “Even the best scientists can fall into this trap of looking at the world around them and thinking: things are the way they are because of nature.” After all, she points out, assuming 19th-century scientists could be biased but 21st-century scientists never are makes no sense. “That’s why, in the book, I look not just at the science, but at the scientists.”
These range from Kristen Hawkes, whose research suggesting postmenopausal women played a vital role in increasing the human lifespan has been met with dogged resistance from some male scientists, to Robert Trivers who, Saini shows, used evidence from a flawed 1948 experiment on fruit flies when he famously argued that men are more naturally promiscuous than women. “A lot of people – especially scientists – view science as perfectly objective and rational. But the questions researchers choose to ask, and the answers they come up with, are heavily affected by their prior assumptions.” At times, the book shows a staggering lack of respect from male scientists towards the work of their female contemporaries. “Science won’t improve unless we understand that we all have biases and those biases affect research,” says Saini.