Before anyone gets too excited, this is not an essay about people with non-standard sexuality. This is an essay about the power of words.
There is a peculiar fashion, like so many such fashions driven by academia, for elements of words to acquire a kind of magical glamour. Not whole words: grammatical elements of words. The first example to consider is ‘meta’.
I’m sure we’ve all heard people saying something like ‘that is so meta!’. Few people would be able to give any half-way convincing definition of this adjective, but from a grammatical point of view it is a repeated pattern: a word elements, here a prefix (meta) through some mysterious process gets detached from its original lexical use, acquires glamour, and is firstly freed up to form a slew of new compounds, and finally achieves greatness as an independent adjective, but one which is pretty much meaningless.
‘Meta’ is a good example to use because in this case there is no mystery as to its origins. I lived in Greece for a while and was surprised to discover that in Modern Greek, ‘meta’ is a perfectly ordinary everyday word meaning ‘after’. In Classical Greek, the situation is a little bit more complicated, as it originally meant ‘in the middle of’, being connected with ‘mesos’, which means middle, but by Hellenistic times, which is what concerns us for this vocabulary item, the meaning had already settled down to ‘after’.
In the English-speaking world, we today tend to think of Classical Greek philosophy as a kind of arm-wrestling match between the two titans, Plato and Aristotle, but this is a rather recent development, caused mainly by a revival of interest in Plato in Oxford University during the Victorian period. Before that, for approximately two thousand years, there was only ‘The Philosopher’: Aristotle, who was assumed to have solved most of the problems of natural philosophy, and who could be cited as an authority without any need to take the views of other thinkers into consideration. This unrivalled position explains, for instance, why Thomas Aquinas, seeking to establish a logical basis for Catholic theology, adopted what is on the face of it the unlikely project of seeking to prove that Aristotle’s philosophy agreed on every single point with Catholic doctrine. The Arab investigation of Greek thought during the Golden Age of the Caliphate had a similar aim, but the congruence they sought to prove was with the Koran. Whatever your cosmological tastes, then, the origin of all true philosophy was clearly The Philosopher.
There were some obvious difficulties with this. Aristotle had not left a single, unified system of thought (like Kant, for instance), or a few distinguished standalone volumes (David Hume), or even, like Heidegger, a shelf of works so dense and difficult to understand that nobody can really tell if they are connected into a coherent system or not. What we have from Aristotle is a ragged collection of works of different kinds. Some are whole volumes, finished and perfect, but others are often said to be lecture notes, meaning that they cannot really be understood unless you add a lot of assumptions about what he meant to say. Some of them are also now believed to have been written by other people.
Be that as it may, a standard Greek edition of Aristotle was established, later called the Corpus Aristotelicum in Latin translation, and still the basis of all modern editions. This divides the surviving works into five sections, and still includes some 13 works now thought to be spurious. In between sections 2 and 4 there is the shortest section, consisting of one book only, called ‘Metaphysics’. So the order of the sections is Logic, Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics and Politics, and Rhetoric and Poetics. The Metaphysics is internally disorganized, perhaps consisting of lecture notes amended by later editors, but nevertheless set the standard for a whole style of philosophy ever since, dealing as it does with the big philosophical issues of the nature of existence and the nature of meaning.
Aristotle called this kind of philosophy ‘first philosophy’, and we can see why. If these first issues are not solved, then how can you say anything at all about the world with certainty? He did not call it ‘metaphysics’, and indeed could not have done this, as the standard edition of his works was only compiled after his death. The word ‘metaphysics’ means ‘after the Physics’, and refers to that shortest section that comes after the longest one, the Physics.
While Latin, the language of the Western Church, survived in the West, Greek, now the language of the Eastern Church, did not, and through the middle ages it was only Latin that kept the flame of learning alive in Western Europe. Hence the expression ‘It’s all Greek to me’, said to come from a notation made by mediaeval monks copying Latin manuscripts and coming across a passage of Greek. They would write ‘Graecum est; non legitur’: It is Greek, and cannot be read. But Aristotle’s writings, together with a scrappy and incomplete collection of other Greek works, survived in Latin manuscripts, and the book on first philosophy was still known in Latin as the ‘Metaphysica’. In due course, once the Renaissance had revived interest in classical civilization, this was in turn translated into ‘metaphysics’ in English, and the natural interpretation of this impressive word (meta having no meaning in Latin) was that this was some kind of extension of physics into a different area of study. ‘Metaphysics’ and ‘metaphysical’ thus became established English words, and would probably have languished in obscurity as recondite learned language had not John Dryden and Samuel Johnson decided to label a gang of poets they disapproved of as ‘metaphysical’, a simple piece of sarcasm suggesting that they were over-learned and over-abstract. Like other such attempts, this cleverness backfired, and the Metaphysical Poets are now in all histories of English literature, and John Donne, chief among them, outshines Dryden and is widely read.
There was then a gap of over two hundred years before it occurred to anyone to separate the two halves of ‘metaphysics’ again. There are a few other English words starting with ‘meta’ that have a slightly different origin, deriving from different and earlier meanings of the Greek word. So ‘metamorphosis’ survived directly in Latin and then in English from Greek, in which the sense of ‘meta’ is ‘trans-‘, as in ‘transformation’. The medical terms ‘metabolism’ and ‘metastasize’ have a similar origin. But the Oxford English Dictionary cites the first modern usage of the prefix meta- only from 1917, and the original uses were fairly respectable. The mathematician David Hilbert proposed ‘metamathematics’, directly on the model of the mistaken etymology of ‘metaphysics’, and ‘metatheorem’, ‘meta-data’, and other well-defined technical uses soon followed. People probably sort of assumed there was some connection with metamorphosis and metamorphic rock. But the genie was now out of the bottle, and by the 1970s the glamorous new-old term was being added to all sorts of other words to make vaguely scientific-sounding and above all glamorous, fashionable formulations. What exactly is metapsychology? Metafiction? Metaethics? Metahistory? I’m sure the inventors of these individual terms did so with the best of intentions (‘Metahistory’ is the title of a 1973 book by Hayden White presenting a theory about the writing of history), but the net effect was to reduce the prefix meta- to meaninglessness. Meta-feminism. Metamodernism.
There seems to be a common end-point in this strange linguistic process – firstly, the shift from a bound word element to a free-standing adjective, and secondly an idea of something superlative. Metahistory as an improved form of history. When all the other meaning has been sucked out by the proliferation of inaccurate or unjustified uses, that sense of improvement is all that is left. Metaphysics is felt to be superior to physics in some undefined way: deeper, probably, and more permanent, and so by analogy meta-ethnic, meta-racism, meta-gender, and similar recent formulations have practically nothing left of anything you could really call meaning, but signal instead a spurious depth and seriousness. An implied claim to universal truth.
I have chosen ‘meta’ to start with firstly because its entire history is well understood and easy to demonstrate, but also because it is a neutral term in the game of political correctness. At the other end of that spectrum is a word element which has a different kind of etymology: phobia.
This is not originally a prefix or suffix but an independent word, also Greek, and still retaining its original meaning as an irrational and obsessive fear of something, used thus in psychiatric terms like claustrophobia or agoraphobia. There is a general phenomenon of watering-down that often happens with psychiatric terms. They are devised to describe extreme and disabling psychological states. The origin of modern psychiatric treatment is sometimes said to be the need to treat large numbers of shell-shocked soldiers in World War I, when it was observed that they had the same symptoms, regardless of their personal experiences. These symptoms were highly disabling, and the same goes for clinical depression, paranoid schizophrenia, and other familiar conditions. But when someone says ‘I’m depressed today’, they don’t mean that they are curled up in bed facing the wall and unable to face the idea of any human contact, perhaps for years on end, as the truly clinically depressed experience. They are just a bit unhappy about something. ‘Don’t be so paranoid’. It is a natural process, as starting with Freud, psychiatry provided a new terminology for symptoms we could all understand as exaggerated forms of our own experience. A more recent example of specialized psychiatric vocabulary passing into ordinary language is ‘dysphoric’. A slippery diagnostic principle has become a matter for virtue signalling: I’m feeling so dysphoric right now! Who would even have been able to guess what this was supposed to mean a few years ago?
But this is not what has happened with ‘phobia’. At a social level, there do indeed seem to be people who have irrational, obsessive fears about other groups of people. A particular kind of anti-Semitism is one example. There are people who basically devote their lives to hating and fearing Jews, blaming them for all their personal difficulties and for all the ills of society. To give a current example, there are people who are convinced that ‘the Jews’ must be responsible for the Covid-19 epidemic. They don’t need evidence. They just know it. But the term Jew-phobia has not arisen. Similarly, there is a certain kind of feminist activist described perfectly by the actress Emma Watson at the UN in 2014 as practising ‘man-hating’. In Sweden in the 2000s, a national network of women’s centres called ROKS (Riksorganisationen för kvinnojourer och tjejjourer i Sverige) developed a parallel society on that basis, with runaways and other young women in distress welcomed into an environment where not only did they never meet or interact with a man, but where the older women in charge indoctrinated them into a ‘men are animals’ ideology according to which there was an international conspiracy of ‘powerful men’ that routinely kidnapped, tortured and murdered women for fun, so that it was only by staying within the confines of ROKS that they would be protected from the roving murder gangs, often disguised as policemen. But is any of this described as ‘man-phobia’ or ‘androphobia’? These words have not become established, even if this looks like a clear-cut case of an irrational and obsessive fear.
Instead, ‘phobia’ has taken on a new life by changing its lexical function, so that in compound words it no longer means what it has always meant. Do people who use the word ‘Islamophobia’ really mean that people suffer from an obsessive, irrational fear like people who suffer from claustrophobia or another psychiatric condition? A crippling disability? I suppose that in some mental ward somewhere there is some unfortunate who is convinced that there are Muslims everywhere, responsible for all their misfortunes, and who can’t stop thinking about this, as hampered by this belief as someone whose agoraphobia stops them leaving the house, but I have never met such a person, and the people who are nowadays labelled Islamophobic don’t fit that description either.
I suppose in this case the link is the term ‘homophobic’, and while it’s also an inaccurate term, it has a bit more of a justification, insofar as there evidently are, and certainly used to be, a lot of overtly heterosexual men with some kind of psychological complex about gay men, either because of fear of their repressed homosexual feelings, or because of the need to maintain denial of their own gay experiences. But irrational and obsessive fear? Really? Again, maybe, somewhere, there is someone like that, but it is an overstatement. Created in the 1960s by a psychologist called George Weinberg, the word was a weapon in the war for gay liberation, but should surely have been laid to rest by now. Instead, we find that Wikipedia defines homophobia as encompassing ‘a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).’ This is a very convenient definition for those wishing to use this as a term of abuse, as this ‘range’ is not defined. In fact, rather than describing a phobia in any real sense, it is a term of ridicule and abuse that can be applied to anyone saying anything at all, even once, that could be interpreted as claimed in the definition, according to a flexible set of criteria changed at will by the thought-leaders and activists involved. What this boils down to is that -phobia as a political term now just means ‘having a politically incorrect attitude towards’.
There are a few other word elements we could look at, notably post-, which like meta, just means ‘after’, and which has had a similar trajectory, so that post-structuralism is seen as some kind of ultra-structuralism or meta-structuralism, deeper and altogether superior, with the same kaleidoscopic variety of other formations. It even sporadically makes it as an independent adjective and noun, referring to the post-modernists and post-structuralists collectively (‘the posts’) – but it hasn’t really passed into the language like that. ‘I am post’ remains incomprehensible. But with the discussion of phobia we at last arrive at ‘trans’, for ‘transphobia’ has joined the short but distinguished list of neo-phobias, and even more mysteriously. Since the expression ‘trans’ only acquired the sanctification of independent adjective status in the 21st century, it seems even less likely that there is a widespread mental disorder based on irrational and obsessive fear of the trans. This is doubly so as it is not at all clear what the term ‘trans’ is supposed to mean.
Dictionaries typically give three or four definitions of the prefix ‘trans-‘, but from an etymological point of view they boil down to two, both from Latin, and cognate with Greek ‘meta’ in some of its senses. Either it means ‘on the other side of’, or it means ‘undergoing change’. The first use is the original one, but is now by far the rarer, being limited to chemistry, where it refers to chemical bonds being on the other side of a line of symmetry, and geography, the Romans having named two of their European provinces Trans-Alpine Gaul and Cis-Alpine Gaul. This terminology has been borrowed a few times, with Transjordania and Cisjordania meaning territories on one side or the other of the river Jordan, and Transkei and Ciskei referring in the same way to the two banks of the river Kei. The prefix cis-, meaning ‘on this side of’ is also used in chemistry, this being an analogy to the geographic use.
Far more common is the meaning of ‘trans-‘ as to do with change, as in translate, transform, transaction, transition, and many other familiar words. It is immediately clear that none of these words have opposites with cis-. A moment’s thought shows why. If we say that something is on the other side of a barrier, then we can conceive of something on this side of it. But if we say that something changes, then there is really no need to have a word for the state in which no change has taken place. If we do want to form a negative, we negate the whole word. If something is not translated, it is not ‘cislated’; it is untranslated or just not translated. ‘Cisformed’ is incomprehensible; untransformed or not transformed is fine. Un-transacted. With nouns, though, even this kind of negation is impossible, not exactly for grammatical but for logical reasons. An iconic ‘trans’ word, the title of Lou Reed’s 1972 album that included ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, is ‘Transformer’. So what is the opposite of that? Cisformer? Not transformer? Like most common nouns, it has no negation.
So how has it come about that when applied to sex and gender, the word ‘trans’ is widely believed to have an opposite in ’cis’? Cis-gender, cis-sexual, even cis-man and cis-woman? There is only one explanation. In this usage, both ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ are meaningless. In fact, they share the special kind of meaninglessness we have already seen in the Wikipedia definition of homophobia. As a purely ideological term, ‘trans’ can mean whatever the fashion of the moment decrees. Currently, one of its main uses is in the expression ‘the trans community’, a term which suggests that there are lots of different kinds of trans people (or ‘folks’ as they are often called for reasons that escape me: is ‘people’ a politically incorrect term too?) and they are all joined together in one big happy family. So I have a question. What about transvestites? Are they part of the ‘trans community’? And if not, why not?
There has been an attempt to unperson the transvestite population.
Paradoxically, it seems that it is only by disavowing their ‘trans’ name that transvestites are allowed into the ‘trans community’. The word ‘transvestite’ dates from the 1920s and therefore predates both ‘transsexual’ (1949) and ‘transgender’ (1966), and there was no mystery about what it meant. There were female transvestites, often lesbians who dressed as men in public, but the bulk of transvestites were heterosexual or mainly heterosexual men who got a sexual thrill from dressing up in women’s clothes at home. They might occasionally go to some party or special event, or risk an outing to the pub, but it was mainly a private passion indulged at home. Since the ‘born in the wrong body’ ideology had not yet been invented, it never occurred to anyone that indulging in this harmless fetish was the start of an important journey towards changing into women or anything like that. Transvestites don’t want surgery or hormones and are content with the thrill of occasionally dressing up. Since this does not fit the narrative of trans ideology, according to which any small boy who shows an interest in putting on a dress is to be whisked off for a lifetime of drugs and surgery ‘before it is too late’, happily heterosexual adult transvestites (often married, and borrowing their wives’ clothes) are something of an embarrassment. However, it seems that if they stop calling themselves transvestites and start calling themselves ‘cross-dressers’ then they are allowed to be part of the trans community. Since ‘cross-dresser’ and ‘transvestite’ mean exactly the same thing, the only difference seems to be the use of the prefix ‘trans’.
As with the definition of homophobia above, the point seems to be that the term ‘trans’ has no objective or core meaning, but rather a vague meaning whose application changes as fashion changes. In particular, apart from the problem with transvestites, it has the advantage of not making any specific demands for who may be included. This suits one important group: the allegedly trans-sexual men, often young men, who are identified by some experts as auto-gynephilic, the suggestion being that they have a paraphilia or fetish that means they are fixated on the image of themselves as women, accentuating this by dressing as women, but not desiring any kind of hormones or treatment…. In other words, they are transvestites, but rather exhibitionistic ones, and with the key difference from an ideological point of view that on the basis of this fetish or whatever you want to call it, they now claim actually to be women. Bruce Jenner suddenly coming out as a transvestite would have been much less exciting, after all. Since they are simultaneously heterosexual men from a biological point of view, this produces the odd result that they often also claim to be lesbians. This demographic is very important in the trans community, and also now in what is left of the women’s movement, with institution after institution coming to terms with the fact that these aggressive young men are taking over. But a real head-scratcher is that they don’t consider themselves to be cross-dressers either. Pious explanations are given of the difference between transvestites and these male-bodied trans women, and it is pretty clear that the former are not regarded as part of the community, while the latter are its core membership. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between them apart from that.
So once again we find that a fairly ordinary word component, trans, has been separated from its original meaning and taken on a new life as a carrier of glamour and magic. We have seen from looking at the trans/cis pair that ‘trans’ as a sexual marker is now pretty much a meaningless term. But many would object that ‘trans’ is just short for ‘transgender’. Since from purely lexical point of view, ‘trans’ does have a core meaning, perhaps it is this formulation that should properly be identified as meaningless.
The main reason that ‘gender’ has become such a fashionable term in the English-speaking world is that the English language has only a vestigial gender system. Swedish, too, has a vestigial gender system, though it functions differently, and Sweden is the other main site of gender activism in the world, having influenced the rest of Scandinavia through pan-Nordic institutions. Apart from those countries, Israel and Germany stand out, but that is because of the high proportion of English-speakers there.
In English, gender is not a grammatical but a semantic concept. Boys are called ‘he’ because of the meaning of the word, and not just because of grammatical convention. Compare this with French. In French, every noun has a fixed grammatical gender, and French people are programmed to accept this as an inherent part of the word, like its pronunciation and spelling. ‘Table’ and ‘chair’ are both feminine. ‘Floor’ and ‘ceiling’ are both masculine. This is obviously not their sex; it is their gender. From a biological point of view there is nothing female about tables and chairs, and nothing male about floors and ceilings. The gender of the noun then determines the form and sometimes the pronunciation of adjectives attached to it, and also the pronouns used to refer to it. So the noun for ‘person’ is feminine and takes feminine adjectives and is replaced by the feminine pronoun elle or she even when it is referring to a man.
Discussions of gender have been very slow to get off the ground in France and in many other countries with gender-based grammar like this (basically the whole of Europe except for Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Hungary, plus Armenia, Georgia and Turkey in Europe’s near-abroad) because the idea of changing gender seems inherently impossible. If you decide to say le table and declare that the table is now masculine, it doesn’t seem perverse or iconoclastic or daring or anything: it just looks wrong. Not morally or politically wrong: just incorrect.
In English, though, once the notion of gender-fluidity was introduced, it took off like a rocket. The idea seems to be that since we have three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, corresponding to he, she and it, a better way of conceiving of gender is as a spectrum, a beautiful rainbow with masculine and feminine now only the end-points, and nearly everyone somewhere in between. Indeed, from the way that ‘gender’ is used, you could infer that that is the main difference between sex and gender: that sex is fixed but that gender is excitingly variable. If that were true, though, then surely the natural thing would be for all those claiming to be somewhere near the middle of this distribution to demand to be called ‘it’, and that clearly does not happen. The only people who use the pronoun ‘it’ for people claiming to be neither male nor female are those seeking to insult them, and the reason is clear. The semantic category it refers to objects other than people or ‘near-people’ such as pets. It is not at all the mid-point of a beautiful rainbow, because when it comes to gender, the beautiful rainbow does not exist. There are no French chairs that are 60% female and 40% male, or female on weekdays but male at the weekends. This is not because of the tyranny of the patriarchy, it is just a fact of life. Language has evolved like this. There is nothing you can do to change it. ‘Male’ versus ‘female’ is one of the most basic categories of life, meaning not just human life but the life of animals and plants as well.
This is confirmed by a look at a couple of languages that, unusually, have no grammatical gender at all. English and Swedish have each evolved from older versions of the language that did have gender, which is why they retain some vestigial gender structures, but Finnish and Chinese are gender-free. Not only is there no agreement between nouns and adjectives on the basis of gender, there is no gender distinction in pronouns either. Does that mean that the semantic categories don’t exist either?
In Finnish, the pronoun hän means ‘he’ or ‘she’ without distinction. In speech, it is also often used for ‘it’, but there is also a separate inanimate/non-human pronoun ‘se’. Students of historical linguists teach us that this animate/inanimate distinction is actually the origin of grammatical gender, with the sexual distinction added on afterwards. Other Uralic languages work in the same way. Swedish gender activists have long thought that this is wonderful and on the model of Finnish, have tried to introduce a neutral pronoun hen to replace their blatantly sexist words for ‘he’ and ‘she’. But unfortunately they are confusing grammatical and semantic concepts of gender. My mother was a Finn, and despite speaking English every day for fifty years, until the end of her life she would confuse he and she, even when referring to her own children. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t know whether we were boys or girls. Her concept of basic sexual categories was not affected at all by this linguistic peculiarity. But because she had not been brought up doing it, she had the same difficulty with ‘he’ and ‘she’ that an English-speaker has remembering to make the table feminine and the floor masculine in French. It could never be 100% automatic.
Chinese is an interesting example too. The third-person singular pronoun is tā, indifferently he, she, and it. But even though there is a total absence of grammatical gender in Chinese, we see again that this has no effect on the inherent human sexual categories. There are three different characters used to write this word in contemporary Chinese, with no change in pronunciation or grammar, and the three characters mean he, she, and it. Furthermore, the character for ‘she’ is an invention of the early twentieth century, influenced by Western languages, so for thousands of years the language was like Finnish, with just one word for he and she; but as with my mother, the absence of grammatical gender in their lives made no difference to their understanding of sexual categories. Indeed, Imperial China was just about the most patriarchal and sexist country you could imagine, with wives obeying and daughters ignored. This is an indication of how deeply misguided the gender activist project is.
We can extract two simple principles from all of this. The first is a simpler way of putting the distinction between semantic and grammatical gender:
Gender is a characteristic of words and not of things or people
And the second is an observation based on the table/chair/floor/ceiling example, though we could have looked at almost any other examples:
Gender is inherently meaningless.
The gender of nouns in French can be explained by referring back to Latin, but that doesn’t get us any closer to any actual meaningful way that the table is female. The table has no sex, but the word for table has a gender. In English, the same word, ‘table’, has the default neuter gender, meaning only that it takes the neuter ‘it’. To qualify for female gender the table would not only need female sexual characteristics, it would also need to be a human being or a provisional human being. In other words, it would be its sex that determined this use of ‘she’. Gender in English is a marker of sex and nothing else.
Despite all the talk of gender-fluidity, what we see when we look at actual gender systems in real human languages, including English, is a simple binary logic, with another, independent animate/inanimate (or human/not human) distinction sometimes applied as well. It would appear that these semantic distinctions are innate and pre-linguistic, as they are still present among speakers of languages that make no formal gender distinctions. Some readers, however, will feel that what I have been discussing is not gender at all: not, anyway, what they mean by gender. So let us turn to the contemporary misconceptions.
It is amazing to me that nobody ever mentions the origin of the modern conception of gender as a social construct. This is now the established idea of gender among those who feel they can safely ignore all the facts about gender in language. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, for instance, gives the following long-winded definition:
Gender: refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age.
This is another one of those definitions that is at once so broad and so vague that you need a guide to interpret it. What are the last two sentences doing there, for instance ? Is the idea that class, race, poverty level, ethnic group, and age are part of the definition of gender? Or has it just been cut and pasted in by mistake? What it appears to say is that gender is just one among many factors that must be taken into account in a complete analysis of socio-cultural context, which is a very peculiar way to go about a definition. And how does this definition apply to the many gender-trenders who want to have some non-specific or third gender that is not just a question of male and female?
We could try a more intellectual definition, maybe. Catharine MacKinnon is a leading – the leading, actually – feminist legal theorist, and she offers this definition of gender.
Stopped as an attribute of a person, sex inequality takes the form of gender; moving as a relation between people, it takes the form of sexuality. Gender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women. (p. 6)
By what stretch of the imagination do these two definitions refer to the same thing? Once again, MacKinnon makes the elementary mistake of defining gender in terms of men and women (in her defence, this was 1987, before these terms had been made obsolete), but what we can see is simply that the definitions don’t matter. Ask ten gender experts to define gender, and you will get ten different answers – different not just in their details, but in their frames of reference and general concepts. And yet they will all nod and agree with each other and look happy. It is merely using the word ‘gender’ that unites them: as it is merely using the word ‘trans’ that unites a more recent but very similar group. Who cares what any of it means? But where did it all come from? ‘Gender’ used to refer only to grammatical gender. At some point in the 1950s or 1960s a sea change came about, and the word ‘gender’ began to be used in relation to sexual identity. What happened?
There is a problem of chronology, which, however, a little reading soon dispels. The great authority on gender for a generation was the New Zealander John Money, who literally wrote the book on the subject in the form of the 1972 university textbook (with Anke Erhardt) Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, a comprehensive survey of the current state of knowledge of the biology of sex with an emphasis on scientific explanations of various physical and chromosomal abnormalities. Money was not just a theorist. In 1965 he was a co-founder of the ground-breaking Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, and supervised what at that time were called sex-change procedures. He seemed very modern and liberating, and introduced a lot of trendy vocabulary, most of which (ever use the word ‘ycleption’?) has disappeared; but he wrote about gender identity and gender roles, and was such a dominant figure in the field that most people have assumed that he invented these terms and thus set up some underlying though unclear theoretical frame of reference to go with them.
However, in a footnote in his textbook, he refers the reader for gender to another author working in the same field, Robert J. Stoller, whose ideas could not be hiding in plainer sight, housed as they are in a thick two-volume compendium entitled Sex and Gender. The problem of chronology arises because while Money was a prolific author who evidently worked fast, Stoller took several years to compile this work, which is a study of the case histories of 85 patients and 63 family members from the clinical experience of the Gender Identity Research Clinic of UCLA, where he was Professor of Psychiatry, and his personal clinical practice from the late 1950s on. The UCLA body was not a clinic in the normal sense, but largely a discussion group among the various professionals involved in treating intersex people and other problem cases, though they did interview clients too. Everyone working in this emerging field obviously knew each other and kept in touch, and while John Money kept up a stream of neologisms and pet theories, Stoller’s work is a slow, solid attempt to create a new theory of sex and gender. It is recognizably the theory used today, in which sex is a biological given, but gender is something created by the circumstances of life, including family dynamics and social expectations. The first volume of Sex and Gender appeared in 1968, but the second only came out in 1974, and Stoller wrote that he considered them a single study. He writes approvingly of Money, sharing his belief that one can socialize a genitally female child as a boy and vice versa (for instance in cases of ambiguous genital development), a view which is much less popular today. However, while Money had a concept of gender role, as something culturally determined and elastic, Stoller gravitated towards the idea of a core gender identity, established as part of the developmental process and then permanent.
Apart from influencing John Money and other clinicians, Stoller also found a follower in the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley, whose Sex, Gender and Society from 1972 took up Stoller’s conception of gender and introduced it into feminist discourse, where it has certainly flourished. In a 2016 study called Intersexualization; the Clinic and the Colony, Lena Eckert devotes a chapter to the history of the concept of gender in feminism, and writes (page 78) that ‘Sex and Gender… was crucial for feminism, since the gender -concept has been derived from this book.’ So it is Stoller, not Money, who started the whole gender bandwagon rolling.
However, what nobody seems to have grasped at the time is that Stoller, a professional psychoanalyst, saw as a main goal of his theories an alignment with orthodox Freudian theory. Eckart understands this, but has missed the explanation given by Stoller in a preface which seems to have been written for a one-volume reprint of both parts of Sex and Gender from 1978. He explains the rationale for separating sex and gender in Freudian terms, and before going into a more general discussion of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ and ‘Three Essays on Sexuality’, actually gives a specific reference in Freud’s writings for the origin of this theoretical separation: ‘The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,’ (1920). This is an account of a case in which Freud was called in as an act of desperation by a bourgeois Viennese family whose 18-year-old daughter had fallen in love with an older woman of questionable reputation, and the aim of the treatment was to cure the girl’s ‘genital inversion’. Freud’s description of the case is in general a sympathetic one. He gives up on the assigned task, suggesting that the girl be treated by a woman doctor, and sees the homosexual attachments of the girl in a neutral way, without moralizing. But his analysis of the case reads like a caricature today. The girl, we read, had a normal Oedipal development, but Freud was able to get to the bottom of her case thanks to her descriptions of her dreams. She suffered from a bad case of penis-envy, and when her mother became pregnant, she reacted by ‘turning into a man’. What Freud makes of all this is a theory of homosexuality which is also a theory of human sexuality more generally. This is that a person’s sexual identity has three parts: somatic sexual characteristics, psychical sexual characteristics, and kind of object-choice. Stoller quotes this passage, and adds after ‘psychical sexual characteristics’:’(what we are now calling gender)’.
It is not immediately clear what this passage means, but fortunately Freud explains it in the article. By ‘sexual characteristics’ he means simply male or female. A person may be physically male or female, psychically male or female, and choose a male or female sexual object. So a man may, for instance, be of a feminine psychical type (have a female attitude, Freud says), and yet be attracted to women. In the case under consideration, the woman is of masculine attitude or psychical type, and is also attracted to women. This rock-paper-scissors approach explains all the mysteries of homosexuality. ‘If we take these findings into account, then the supposition that nature in a freakish mood created a ‘third sex’ undoubtedly falls to the ground’.
So, to be clear, in these two examples, according to Stoller’s interpretation of Freud, the man has a female core gender identity but is nevertheless heterosexual as he chooses a female object, and the woman has a male core gender identity and is homosexual as she chooses a female object. It is amazing that this theory should have been transplanted – one must assume by mistake – into feminist discourse and spawned the monster of congealed sexualization and all the rest of the mumbo-jumbo that has followed on. It provides no basis whatsoever for the assumption that gender is something infinitely elastic and malleable. The homosexual woman is psychically a man, and that’s it. If anything, he believes, and with some evidence if we think of intersex people, that it is the physical sex rather than the ‘gender’ that is uncertain, suggesting for instance that a possible treatment for female homosexuality might be to remove the hermaphroditic ovaries and replace them with single-sex ones – although to be fair he does say there is little prospect of this being applied in practice.
Once you have grasped what Stoller means by core gender identity – a simple matter of whether you feel you are a boy or a girl – his idea, based as it is on decades of observation and questioning – does not look so bad on the whole. ‘Born in the wrong body’ goes out of the window, as he buys into the Freudian account of development, so that, while core gender identity is formed early on, it is only by the ‘genital stage’ (i.e. puberty) that the process of sexual development is complete, and it is ultimately the progress of the Oedipus Complex that decides the outcome. But the idea – shared by Stoller – that people develop a fixed core gender identity that cannot be changed is a compassionate one. As a psychiatrist, Stoller was not himself directly involved in surgery, but he was part of a professional movement that saw surgeries originally intended to correct the genitals of intersex babies applied to adults. But he was cautious, and as these treatments became available, he wrote of the corresponding appearance of a new type of mental illness, which he called transsexualism – a delusional obsession with sex-change surgery, as it was called at the time, as the solution to all one’s emotional and psychological problems. This was another idea with legs, as Money’s clinic at Johns Hopkins was closed down in 1979, partly because a percentage of patients were coming back after surgery and saying they wanted their body parts back, but mainly because the unrealistic expectations of deluded patients had led them to believe that all their problems would be solved by their surgery, and long-range studies showed that the treatment had no measurable effect like that – the simplest marker being that the very high rate of suicide attempts reported among people presenting themselves for treatment (about 40%) was unchanged after it.
You can agree or disagree with Stoller’s Freudian theory (I suspect there would be few takers today), but at least you can understand what it is. Just as people can be divided into male and female physical types, they can be divided into masculine and feminine gender identities. No beautiful rainbow spectrum appears. There is indeed a complete absence of post-modern psycho-babble.
So what has evidently happened is that feminists, and then gender activists and the ‘trans community’ have made a strange move. They were early adopters of a theory they didn’t understand, and which if they had understood would have run a mile from: one which says just about the direct opposite of what they want it to say. So their reaction, collectively and perhaps instinctively, was to treat their new possession, the word ‘gender’, as a magical, totemic source of glamour and excitement rather than as an analytical term. On that basis it became a key element in the progress and professional success of their complicated movement. Ann Oakley had evidently read Stoller (though not his still-unpublished preface) and uses his terminology correctly; but this tiresome convention was soon abandoned. The theory of gender is the quintessential Dead White Male theory, after all.
So what we have instead is typified in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from 1990, a work which uses the word ‘gender‘ on practically every page, but nowhere offers a definition of what it means. It evidently means whatever she wants it to mean in the particular sentence she is writing, with no need for consistency or rigour, since none of her readers know what it means either. There is an academic debate involving ‘doing gender’ versus ‘undoing gender’. Just nod and agree. In all the explosion of writing on gender, the meaningful part can be identified by performing the experiment of replacing ‘gender’ with ‘sex’ and seeing if it still makes sense.
Since the great revival of interest in sexology in the 1960s, a lot of scientists who should know better have also adopted the word ‘gender’. It thus reverts to its use as a euphemism for ‘sex’. What genuine advantage is there in talking about ‘gender identity’ instead of ‘sexual identity’, ‘gender role’ instead of ‘sex role’. Even the deliciously fashionable ‘gender dysphoria’ would make more sense as ‘sexual dysphoria’. By adopting the language of gender, something done fifty years ago and in good faith, doctors and scientists unwittingly made it possible for gender studies ideologues to sound as if they were talking about something scientific – and even to demand that the doctors and scientists should defer to them as the real experts on the subject.
Apart from what seems to be the core idea that gender is infinitely flexible in meaning, the ideologues seem to have three ideas which are not stated directly but which can be inferred. 1. Gender is not the same thing as sex but is better than sex. 2. Gender is the product of patriarchal society and therefore something to be resented. 3. Gender represents the glorious victory of women/lesbians/trans folks/insert flavour of the month here. This seems to be roughly the emotional complex. But from this contradictory and chaotic mix we are forced to a simple conclusion. If we are going to remove the real historical origin of gender theory and replace it with nothing, we are left with a theory that means nothing. There is, in fact, no such thing as gender anymore.
3. Civilizational collapse
It is not just the word ‘transgender’ that is the problem. Any number of pseudo-intellectual terms have little by little crept in and invaded what used to be respectable areas of study, or driven them out completely and replaced them with mountains of treacherous and dangerous nonsense. Diversity: used by people who insist on total conformity. Inclusion: code for excluding non-believers. Micro-aggression – naturally enough, defined as ‘demeaning meta-communications’.
If you use meaningless language, preferring it in fact to plain and factual explanation, it is not education. It is not even really indoctrination, since if the doctrines themselves can’t be understood, how can you indoctrinate your followers? It is more like a religious system of education, and of course there is plenty of that about and we know how it works. The Mormons have places called universities, offering a wide range of courses, leading to qualifications that look just like real degrees; but in order to enrol in these institutions you need to believe – not pretend to believe, mind you: actually believe – that there was an Ancient Egyptian-speaking civilization in Central America whose scriptures were read by Joseph Smith wearing a magic helmet and that the Garden of Eden is located in Missouri. Not that the official learning of the West has been much better. The learned Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, a man of extraordinary talents who was believed by many to be the most knowledgeable man in the world, taught that volcanoes were eruptions from the fires of hell beneath the ground. Centres of Islamic learning today teach that sorcerers can capture djinns and force them to fly to heaven to spy on the angels. The proof of this is shooting stars, which are the weapons the angels use to drive the djinns away. Hundreds of millions of people believe this as a result of this ‘education’. Are these the standards of enquiry we wish to revive?
There is a very great danger from one particular direction. The American universities that are driving the steady decline of intellectual standards are increasingly run not by academics but by professional administrators, and the courses of study they go through to qualify for these well-paid positions have long since been invaded by the politically correct but mentally challenged purveyors of social justice. It was long assumed that the exact sciences could not possibly be taken over by the peddlers of magical slogans and pointless, destructive projects, but this is now happening. Astronomy, for some reason, is a target, and job applicants must not just explain something about astronomy. They must offer plans for making astronomy more diverse, this being the chief goal of the non-scientists responsible for administering the universities. Probably the most extreme case of intellectual corruption is in Sweden. It is the most gender-equal country in the world by all sorts of measures, but the feminists who have taken over the government and the whole of higher education there believe in a ‘discourse of subordination’, according to which Swedish society is gender-segregated and male supremacist. They claim that they want to see the same number of female professors as males in all subjects, and I suppose they will achieve it, but obviously this is not going to satisfy them. There are any number of fresh sources of outrage lined up and ready to go.
All this cascades downwards. It is not just higher education that is in the hands of the anti-rationalists. Some university students, after all, do rebel or even just keep their mouths shut and fail to believe as they go through their obligatory training in micro-diversity and meta-ethnic discourse theory. Primary school children are a much safer bet. So page 45 of California’s 2019 K-3 guidelines on gender identity, aimed at teachers of five-year-olds, states: ‘While students may not fully understand the concepts of gender expression and identity, some children in kindergarten and even younger have identified as transgender or understand that they have a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth.’
‘Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man’ is a saying that was alleged by Voltaire to be a Jesuit maxim. The Social Justice Warrior knows better. ‘Leave him to me. I will give you the genderqueer transman.’ That is the sacrament of their faith.