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A male ghost in a female machine?

February 10, 2011

I should begin with the warning that this piece may seem a little shocking to those of more delicate liberal sensibilities. I’m not trying to make an ideological statement, only to interrogate some of the ideas around transsexualism. I began thinking about this when I heard about someone who had, on starting university, re-encountered someone she had known at college as a woman but who was now living as a man. It struck me that nineteen was a very young age to undergo sex reassignment surgery. We have all done things at that age which we would later regret. Adolescence is a time of heightened anxiety about identity and it is natural to experiment with hairstyles, clothing, etc. Surgical reconstruction seems a little extreme. This led me to consider the issue in more depth.

‘Feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body’ (or vice-versa) is the common description of the transsexual condition: so common as to have become a cliché. My problem is that I don’t see what it could mean. However we define sex, it is a bodily definition (by genitalia or by chromosomes). There is nothing inside, but separate from, the body which could have the ‘wrong’ sex. Whatever the infamous John Gray and others of his sinister ilk may suggest, there is no equivalent of an IQ test to determine a person’s sex. We seem to have a rather old-fashioned, dualist attitude in this case. There is no spirit or immaterial essence inside us which could possibly not fit our bodies. Our minds are based in the material substrate of our brains. The cells in our brains contain the same DNA as those in the rest of our bodies. There does not seem to me to be any gap in which this mismatch can take place.

Even if we accepted a dualism I don’t see that it would work. Would the idea of a soul with a sex make any sense to a Christian? Souls are considered to be immortal and therefore do not need to reproduce. It is surely impossible for spirit to be sexed and St Paul said ‘there is neither male nor female’ in relation to God. Even if it were possible to imagine such a conflict between body and spirit is it not bizarre that we should assume that the body has somehow ‘got it wrong’? It is only if we make the further assumption that this indefinable spirit is more important than the material body that such an attitude can make sense. Any of us who are aware that philosophy and science have progressed since Descartes would certainly distance ourselves from such assumptions but they seem to still have a great deal of power.

The further assumption is that of essentialism: that there is something inherently male or female in a person which is apparently more meaningful than the mere body. If I went to the doctor and said that I feel like a black man trapped in a white man’s body I would be unlikely to receive ‘race reassignment surgery’ on the NHS. What if I claimed to feel like a tall person in a short body, or a Frenchman in an English body, or a fat person in a thin body? I do feel what has been described as ‘uterus envy’. I would like to be a woman if only to experience pregnancy and birth. It is a matter of some annoyance to me that I will never have what must be the most authentic experience that a person can have. (People sometimes ask me why, as a man, I like to read about childbirth. My reply is that precisely because I am a man I have to.) Aside from this my thoughts about what it would be like to be a woman are all about the experiences I would have in relation to other people. I’m sure that sitting alone in a pub, for instance would be different as a woman. I do not imagine that my taste in music would change or anything else that I associate with my sense of self.

Childbirth brings us to an important point. Sex may be defined in various ways but a biologist would define it by gamete production. Males produce a large quantity of small sex cells; females produce a relatively tiny amount of large ones. Sex reassignment does not allow the production of sex cells. In this sense the post-operative transsexual has not changed sex but lost it altogether. This seems a wonderfully post-modern phenomenon: the appearance of sex is more important than the reality. A body which has lost the ability to reproduce has lost its essential purpose. I am speaking from a biological point of view and can’t resist quoting J.B.S. Haldane’s famous response to the chicken and egg question: “a chicken is just the egg’s way of making more eggs.” (I’m fairly sure it was Haldane but can’t find a reference.)

Without biology there is no sex and we are left with gender, which is, by definition, socially constructed. The restrictions imposed by gender stereotypes and the power relations they support are well known and hardly need to be elaborated here. It is not in the least surprising that people, in their near-infinite variety, often have difficulty fitting into a pre-established gender role. In fact I think if more people were more self-aware this would occur to more of them. There could potentially be as many genders as there are people since we all have different attitudes and psychological quirks. The attempt to squeeze everyone into one of two boxes is, in my opinion, one of the most psychologically damaging aspects of our culture. Transsexualism is often associated with extreme or parodic interpretations of gender. There are, for instance, beauty pageants for trans-women. As with drag queens this suggests an attempt to create something more feminine than the actually feminine or hyperfeminine. Some feminists have seen this as potentially disruptive of gender as a discourse and that transsexualism shows us the fluidity of gender. Others, with whom I would tend to agree, see the reverse. If gender really were fluid and a matter of free choice there would be no need for bodily intervention. To free us from the strictures of gender the link between sex and gender must be broken. Sex reassignment only reinforces it by its acquiescence in the myth. We will be free when the idea of having the ‘wrong’ body no longer makes sense.

I should finish by pointing out that I do appreciate the suffering of many transsexual people, the difficulty of the decisions involved, etc. I have no wish to prevent people doing whatever they like with their own bodies (within reason) and certainly support efforts to end legal and social prejudice.

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From → Gender, Philosophy

8 Comments
  1. Alecto permalink

    “Whatever the infamous John Gray and others of his sinister ilk ”

    Presumably http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gray_%28U.S._author%29 rather than http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_N._Gray ? – might be worth linking that to clarify.

    The crux of this is that we do define ourselves with relation to other people, at least partially. Although clearly there can be no ontological meaning to saying someone is trapped in the wrong body, there could be many ways in which a person’s self-representation, identity etc would fit better with the way they are externally perceived if they change their body, and external perception is a component of self-conception. As sex is the most important social judgement we make about people it makes sense that this would be the most pressing and difficult to deal with disparity. And yes, this is all very dependent on gender roles. Where it becomes arguable is to what extent gender roles are culturally determined.

    If we consider dress as an analogue to body, your argument would say that once we abolish any link between what we wear and what we wear’s cultural meaning then we would be free to construct dress in any way that we liked. True, but scarcely imaginable, and it would also rob dress of the very significance that we would want to play with. It could be argued that removing gender would remove one axis on which we are capable of constructing our identities, and if we remove all of these we will end up less differentiated rather than more. Maybe. I need to think about that a bit.

  2. I’ll take your comment as clarification on John Gray, I think I assumed it would be clear from the context.
    I do think that a desire to be perceived as the other sex is a large part of what may be meant by being trapped in the wrong body. I’m not sure that that really affects the argument though, just adds a useful subtlety.
    I’m not sure that I’m arguing that gender should be removed, just radically reconstructed.

  3. Alecto permalink

    “There could potentially be as many genders as there are people since we all have different attitudes and psychological quirks.”

    What exactly would that gender reconstruction look like? Reassigning attributes from one gender to another? Or simply not making essentialist judgements about people if their gender does not conform to traditional gender-sex relationships?

    I think there is a danger in this kind of argument to fall back into a Cartesian trap in which our “self” is privileged over our body. Selves are the consequences of biology interacting with an environment. One of the only gross physiological differences between individuals that would seem to impact selves from the purely biological side is sex (all physiological characteristics inevitably contribute, but I think sex has the largest impact on behavioural possibility). Sex, it seems, must therefore be a component of our selves. Gender is the culturally expressible sum of attributes we attribute to this component. If sex is a crucial biological fact, and sex is a socially observable attribute of our bodies, then gender must inevitably be a crucial social fact about our selves, and will inevitably cluster around the behavioural consequences/possibilities of sex. It may be that the only genuine behavioural consequence of sex is a direct role in reproduction. If so the range of a gender should be highly restricted to precisely that: less a reconstruction of gender then a stripping down to essentials. All of those other things associated with gender: intelligence, spatial ability, hysteria, job suitability etc etc remain as general variables in the population without reference to sex or gender.

    Even this discussion, I think, highly idealises self-conception over social construction by implying that self-conception is even possible outside of socially constructed identity stories.

  4. On second thoughts I may actually prefer deconstruction to reconstruction. Perhaps a continual process of deconstruction which allows the renegotiation of gender to go on repeatedly, a kind of permanent revolution. In fact this has been going on for a while already and is causing enough anxiety that people like John Gray feel the need to re-establish the old binary.

    Biological difference is important but does not have to be the basis of oppressive power relations.

    I’m not trying to write a manifesto.

  5. I do think that there is, conceptually, a subjective difference between one’s internal identity and their outward appearance. I’m not necessarily arguing for the existence of a separate, essential ‘soul’, but I do think that subjective identities are valuable in their own right, simply because the human brain is complex enough to develop identities that aren’t necessarily identical to one’s outward appearance. The mismatch does exist for many people, even if you can’t see it yourself. This post looks like an argument from personal incredulity: ‘I can’t see how it’s mismatched, therefore HOW CAN IT BE?!’ Even if a body ‘can’t’ have a ‘wrong’ sex, there is still the matter of personal identity, which is really important. We’re human: selfhood and identity are really, really massively important things that you can’t categorically dismiss.

    Am I denying the importance of reproduction or other biological functions? No. What I’m saying, though, is that biology isn’t destiny, and when dealing with human beings, we’re deaing with a lot of cognitive complexity that allows people to be able to form identities that aren’t contingent on ‘I have to have babies’.

    In my opinion, your post is teetering dangerously towards invalidating the identity of transgender people by invoking slippery slope arguments about ‘racial reassignment surgery’. Also, your characterisation of trans women as being hyper-feminised, froofy, parodies of femininity is pretty offensive. There are plenty of non-trans women who engage in so-called ‘parodic expressions of femininity’, and there are many trans women who would be considered more ‘tomboyish’ or ‘butch’.

    Here’s a site I’ll recommend: http://www.questioningtransphobia.com. Check your privilege, and stop making parlour games out of people’s identities.

    • Thank you for the comments. The point about hyper-femininity was partly to discuss the fact that feminists have different views on the subject. (If, as a feminist, one disapproves of beauty pageants I’m not sure why one would condone them in the case of trans women.) I am, of course, aware that there is great variety and I may be guilty of misrepresentation for rhetorical purposes. I apologise for any offence.

      Identity or selfhood is a difficult area. I don’t think we can assume that identity is inherent. It is a social construction which depends as much on our relations with others as on our own experiences. It is fluid and ever-changing and negotiable. As such I think it makes a very good subject for ‘parlour games’. Trying to make personal identity taboo is not, I think, helpful to anyone.

      If we agree that both race and gender are socially constructed I don’t see why they should be treated differently. Both can be heavily involved in individual identity. It seems to me that a special case is made for gender identity while other cases of ‘mismatched’ identity would be treated very differently. If you can explain why I’d be pleased to hear.

      I would, by way of comparison, make a similar point about people who have face-lifts because they identify as ‘young’ and choose to change their bodies rather than coming to terms psychologically with ageing. Of course social pressures have a lot to do with these decisions and an end to prejudice against the old would help to solve the problem. In this way I would say it was analogous.

      My point about biology is that that is the only context within which ‘sex’ has any meaning. Without that there is only gender, which has only as much meaning as we choose to give it.

      • I still think that it’s inappropriate to do that with people’s identities, especially when you’re talking from a position of culturally sanctioned privilege. It feels as though you’re dictating to people in a culturally ‘subordinated’ position who they are and what they’re going through.

        That being said, gender identity is a combination of biology and socialisation. I’m not denying that there’s a big social component to gender and gender identity, but ‘hey, let’s do away with gender’ probably isn’t going to stop people transitioning. I don’t think gender is a bad thing in and of itself; I just think that social discrimination targeted towards a particular gender or set of genders is wrong.

        Studies have shown that there’s a biological component to gender identity:
        http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/85/5/2034
        http://mindhacks.com/2009/04/05/imaging-the-transgendered-brain/#comment-5829 and
        http://mindhacks.com/2009/04/05/imaging-the-transgendered-brain/ — while one of these studies of trans women didn’t show the same level of differences that the first one did (as the trans women studied hadn’t started oestrogen therapy yet, unlike the ones in the first study), there was a significant difference between the trans women and the male controls. There’s something to the idea that gender is partly biological and partly cultural. I think this bears itself out in several different ways: there are transgender identities that have arisen in non-Western cultures (and those identities were viewed with more respect than many western people view trans identities), and even in times where the sex/gender barrier was seen as impermeable, there were people who pretty obviously transgressed the gender binary.

        I’m not a determinist, but I do think that identity is a combination of social constructions and inherent subjective truth. I have a strong sense of self. Is it an illusion? Maybe, but it’s a helpful one to me, anyway.

        For the record, I don’t have a problem with people wanting to change their bodies to match the way they perceive themselves. I do think that the gender identity issue is different to the race issue, and I really don’t want to conflate them.

  6. There’s a whole argument to be had about whether gender is necessarily unequal or whether we can keep it but lose the discrimination. I think we may disagree on that, which is fine, especially as I don’t have a very firm view either way.

    Do you think that there is in some sense a ‘trans gene’? If there were I am quite happy to accept that that would invalidate much of my argument, although it would raise a host of other interesting questions. I think that our knowledge of the brain is rather limited and that the studies you refer to are suggestive and certainly bear further investigation but could not be said to be conclusive. Neurological differences can be culturally created so such studies do not yet solve that problem.

    If I want to dictate anything to anyone about their identity it would be that identity is contingent and fluid and something to be examined and played with rather than treated as monolithic and unassailable. The sense of self can only be some kind of illusion, or, as Douglas Hofstadter puts it “an hallucination, hallucinated by an hallucination”. Coming from this perspective I suppose I don’t have as much reverence for anyone’s identity (including my own) as others might. This may partly be due to privilege and I’m happy to take that into account. On the other hand I would hope that within this context it is clear that I am hoping to engage in a debate like this rather than preach or set out a manifesto.

    I don’t think that we really disagree about much and as you are an interesting interlocutor I hope we reach some kind of conclusion. (I recently had a long argument with astrologers on another post so it’s a relief to debate with someone who writes things worth reading.)

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