Sex: not a spectrum Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

Decoupled from reality

Genderist ideology is based on flawed science and worse logic, argues Amanda MacLean

Here are just a few examples of the recent impacts of gender ideology.

The left’s response has not been to stand for the rights of lesbians and other women and girls, but, along with every mainstream political party, to suppress debate and to brand anyone who raises concerns or even asks questions with accusations of transphobia, bigotry and, bizarrely, fascism. There is ‘no debate’: trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary genders are real and valid. To even question these statements, it is claimed, is to threaten the very existence of transgender people.

There is no doubt that transgender people exist: there are many people who are driven to present themselves to society as if they were members of the opposite sex. Some transgender people suffer from the crippling condition of gender dysphoria that can make it psychologically unbearable to recognise themselves, or to be recognised in society, as the sex they actually are. Such people have a right to access hormonal and surgical treatments where they are necessary and medically indicated. And, irrespective of whether they have had hormones and surgery or not, and whether they have gender dysphoria or not, every individual has the right to wear clothing, adopt mannerisms and perform social roles that make them comfortable and happy. When these traits are commonly associated with members of the opposite sex, they have the right to do so without fear of discrimination, abuse or violence.

Working towards a society that is intolerant of violent and bullying behaviour, rather than cracking down on personal expression, must be part of the socialist programme and will have benefits not just for transgender people, but for women, who are frequently prevented from realising their personal, social, economic and political potential through sexist enforcement of roles and behaviour.

When framed like this, it seems almost inconceivable that the arguments raging on this topic are not primarily between the conservative right and the progressive left, but are largely on the left itself, between gender activists and leftwing feminists. But the heat in the debate comes from the gender ideologists’ hotly contested claim that transwomen are literally women. Not honorary women, or living as if they were women, or like women - as most people have previously understood - but literally women. We are told that transwomen are a type of woman in exactly the same way as black, disabled or lesbian women are. Therefore to exclude transwomen from any women’s service or facility is the moral equivalent of excluding black or disabled women. Indeed, during March, Vancouver Rape Relief Centre, which is open exclusively to women clients, lost its city council funding after transgender campaigner Morgane Oger argued exactly that.

What is ‘woman’?

Was Oger’s successful challenge to the Vancouver Rape Relief Centre justified? That depends what you mean by the word ‘woman’. Or, for that matter, male and female. According to Oger, the biological woman is a myth. Those opposed to Oger insist on the reality of the dictionary definitions: a man is an adult human male, and a woman is an adult human female. But a key part of the gender ideologists’ argument is that a transwoman is a woman, and always has been, irrespective of any surgery or hormone treatment. In other words, a fully intact male is literally a woman if he believes himself to be a woman. This is on the basis of a self-reported ‘gender identity’ that is alleged to be the only reliable indicator of ‘gender’, and is claimed to exist independently of biological sex.

‘Gender’ here is no longer determined by physical sex, but by an innate feeling of being a man, being a woman or being something else - a non-binary identity not limited to those two choices. Having this innate feeling - a fundamental knowledge of who you are, not linked to bodily sex - is, supposedly, common to everyone. Thus a transwoman claims to have exactly the same feeling of ‘being a woman’ as all women do, and should be accepted as such.

This understanding of ‘gender identity’ was not in the minds of MPs at Westminster when they voted to introduce the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in 2004. The law was introduced in response to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which stated that it was a breach of human rights to deny transsexuals the right to marry. The obvious conclusion should have been that all adults, irrespective of their sex, should have the right to marry the partner of their choice. But MPs decided that the public was not ready for that step, leaving lesbians and gay men to wait another 10 years for the Equal Marriage Act. However, the GRA was introduced in 2004 in order to allow an estimated 5,000 transsexuals to gain a gender recognition certificate (GRC), allowing them to change the sex marker on their birth certificates. This creates the legal fiction of being the opposite sex, in order to allow them to marry a same-sex partner.

The process of acquiring a GRC involves two years of living ‘in role’ as the desired sex, and a string of medical and psychological assessments - a process of gatekeeping that lobby groups such as Stonewall consider intrusive and humiliating. In response, in 2017 the Tory government announced it wanted to update the GRA to make it easier for transgender people to have their gender recognised through a simple process of self-declaration without any medical gatekeeping. The change in the language from ‘transsexual’ to ‘transgender’ is significant, because it refers to self-declared gender identity, not to physical transition. Some estimates suggest that there are around 500,000 people in the UK who would declare a change of gender, and that many of these people have not gone through physical transition, and do not intend to.

This ideology has sparked off a new women’s movement across the world, opposing the notion that ‘woman’ is just a feeling. Many women see it as threatening hard-won rights that the feminist movement had fought to achieve for decades - particularly the provision of single-sex facilities and services, and political representation. If gender identity, now completely decoupled from the body, trumps sex in all circumstances, then that would give people who they see as men access to women’s shortlists, women’s awards, women’s refuges, women’s prisons, women’s toilets and women’s changing rooms. With sexual assault and harassment from males being everyday occurrences, many see self-declaration of gender identity as a threat.

And if any man can declare himself to be a woman, then what does the word ‘woman’ even mean? The debate has turned nasty, particularly online. Lesbians who reject trans partners are condemned as ‘vagina fetishists’; women have been banned from Twitter for statements such as ‘There is no such thing as a female penis’ and, in a worrying move for free speech, there have been a number of cases where hate-incident legislation has led the UK police to phone or visit people in their homes for making similar statements online. To question any part of the genderist ideology is to be branded transphobic, a ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, or TERF. But is biology a TERF too?


The core of the genderist argument lies in undermining belief in the reality and significance of the traditional male and female categories that are based on the physical sex of the body. This attack on our everyday understanding of the sexes is designed to force the concession that there is no value in distinguishing between people on the basis of their physical sex - because it is, supposedly, a badly flawed concept in the first place. Key to this argument is the existence of a class of intersex people. It is important, therefore, to understand what the evidence is really telling us and I intend to go into it in some detail.

Everyday experience - and ‘high school biology’ - tell us that there are only two sexes: male and female. But recent research, it is claimed, reveals that the boundaries between what we have traditionally thought of as male and female are vague, fuzzy, ill-defined. Even scientists cannot agree on what ‘male’ and ‘female’ really are! In fact, rather than being a neat ‘binary’ with only two discrete categories, sex is now a spectrum. The ‘spectrum of sex’ case is summed up in the news article, ‘Sex redefined’, by science journalist Claire Ainsworth, published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2015. Do these claims stand up to scrutiny?

Ainsworth presents a weird and wonderful kaleidoscope of cases where sex chromosomes, sex hormone profile, sexual anatomy and gonads (ovaries and testes) do not ‘line up’ - that is to say, where individuals deviate from the typical male or typical female combinations of these characteristics. She lays out a linear sex spectrum starting with ‘typical male’ at one end and passing through to ‘typical female’ at the other, via a range of variations known as ‘differences of sex development’ (DSDs - otherwise referred to as intersex conditions). Her case is encapsulated by DSD biologist Arthur Arnold: “… there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females … and that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways”; and gender clinician Eric Vilain: “… since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter” (my emphasis).

To the lay man, lay woman, or lay non-binary, other-gendered person, this all sounds deeply convincing when their mind has just been completely boggled by the 94-year-old woman with male DNA in her brain and the 70-year-old father of four with a womb. But what Ainsworth fails to do from the start is to explain what we are really talking about when we talk about the sexes. As the zoologist, JZ Young, says in his introduction to the classic text The life of vertebrates,

It is splendid to be aware of many details, but only by the synthesis of these can we obtain either adequate means for handling so many data or knowledge of the natures we are studying. In order to know life … we must look beyond the details of individual lives and try to find rules governing all.

In other words, to understand the natural world as more than a swirling kaleidoscope of endless, confusing variation - as presented by the genderists - it is necessary to step back and look at the general picture, while acknowledging that there will always be some exceptions to any biological rule.

Like many others in the gender debate, Ainsworth plunges directly into a discussion of the complexities and confusions around sex without first defining her terms. In addition, she makes no distinction between the different ways that scientists use the words, ‘sex’, ‘male’ and ‘female’, when they relate to the whole organism, and when they relate to mechanisms within the organism. These are crucial errors.

Reductionist disciplines that look at different parts of organisms - such as genes, tissues, physiology or neurobiology - use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ as shorthand for ‘of males/females’ or ‘typical of males/females’. We identify traits like chromosomes or hormone profiles as typical of male or female by first dividing the population into male or female categories on the basis of other characteristics. Having made that distinction, we can then compare the two groups and ask questions about how and why they differ. Thus, the reason we call the XX chromosome combination ‘female’ and XY ‘male’ is because each genotype usually plays an important role in determining the development of male or female anatomy, and thus is very closely associated with those sexes. But the reason we can say this is that we first divided the population into males and females, using other criteria, before checking what chromosomes they had.

To discover what those males and females are, of which XX and XY chromosomes are typical, we look to those scientific disciplines that study whole organisms: their life histories, evolution and behaviour; how they relate to each other and to their environments. Crucially, it is this understanding of the sexes that is most relevant to people in society and in politics, because it concerns itself with whole people and how we interact socially and economically. In ‘whole organism’ disciplines, sex relates to an organism’s potential reproductive role: to produce sperm (male), or to produce ova (female). Evolution has resulted in different body plans that are associated with these roles - we are all familiar with what they are in the human species. Therefore, in any discussion of human beings as individuals, or as social, economic or political groups, in contradiction to Vilain, as quoted above, there is one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter - it is the definition of sex that applies to the whole organism: its potential reproductive function.

Whether it is fulfilled or not, having a reproductive system of the type that produces sperm or gestates a foetus is significant, because it is associated with a whole complex of other characteristics that together have a dramatic effect on life history - particularly, for humans as mammals, the enormous difference in reproductive investment and reproductive risk that can be expected, not least when it comes to the chances of being literally left holding the baby.


It is at this stage that the gender ideologists will cry foul and say: what about all those intersex people? So it is worth looking now at the prevalence of intersex, and to ask whether it is justifiable to use it to argue that the categories of male and female are not valid.

Statistics on the prevalence of intersex are freely bandied about, as the gender argument rages: 4%, 1.7%, 0.02%. For the lay person, it is difficult to know what credibility should be given to these widely varying figures - indeed what they mean at all.

The 4% figure can be immediately discounted - its origins are apocryphal. A 1993 paper by Anne Fausto-Sterling “cited a figure attributed to John Money that the frequency of intersexuality might be as high as 4% of live births, but Money (1993) responded that he never made such a claim”.1

The 1.7% figure, however, has a solid basis: it is the result of a comprehensive review of worldwide scientific literature by Melanie Blackless et al in the American Journal of Human Biology (2000), while the 0.02% represents a subset of the same data. Before delving into that paper further, it is important to understand the definition of ‘intersex’ that it uses. Intersex conditions in this context are defined as deviation from a Platonic ideal of what male or female bodies ‘should’ be like - the paper’s ambition being to demonstrate that sexual characteristics - specifically the size and shape of genitals - vary naturally, just as do body shape, body size and voice timbre; deviation from the norm therefore does not necessitate medical intervention on newborn infants who are unable to give consent to potentially life-changing surgery.

To demonstrate that a significant proportion of humanity deviates from a Platonic ideal is, however, a far cry from proving that there are multiple sexes, or that intersex people are neither male nor female, or that intersex people are a mixture of the two sexes - all claims that the genderists make, based on Blackless et al’s figure.

The bad news for the genderists is that the 1.7% figure does not tell them what they think it does. It certainly does tell us that 1.7% of the human population has to deal with their bodies differing in a significant, and often distressing, way from the ‘norm’ expected for male and female. Where this is apparent to others on a daily basis, they may have to deal with social embarrassment or misunderstanding, intolerance and hostility; and, whether their condition is obvious or not, they may have to wrestle with infertility, or with the lifelong impacts of unnecessary childhood surgery. All of these are serious social and personal issues that require support and understanding. However, differing from the norm for male or female is not the same as being neither male nor female, or being ‘a bit of both’.

Blackless et al compile data on the frequency of a number of intersex conditions in the human population. Some of these conditions do convey what the name ‘intersex’ suggests - a combination of male and female gonads and reproductive anatomy. Blackless et al use the term “true hermaphroditism” to describe the intersex condition, ovotestis - one of the rarest intersex conditions, in which the gonads have a mixture of ovarian and testicular tissue, or where one gonad is an ovary and the other a testis. (Note that the term ‘hermaphrodite’ is now considered outdated and offensive by many.) This condition is very rare, occurring in approximately one in 100,000 live births, or 0.001% of the human population.

Blackless et al list four other conditions that result in either ambiguous genitalia (where it is not clear at birth whether the child is male or female) or a situation where the gonads are male, but the genitalia female in appearance, or vice versa:

 Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome - a very variable condition, affecting 0.00076% of the population. Those affected have testes, and the external genitalia may be atypically male (malformations of the penis, or micro-penis); ambiguous; or atypically female (enlarged clitoris).

 Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome - affecting 0.00760% of humanity, resulting in testes paired with incomplete female anatomy.

 Classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia - occurs in 0.00770% of live births; those affected have ovaries and external male genitalia.

 Idiopathic - 0.00090% have similar features to those described above, but with unknown causes.

The total incidence of these conditions comes to 0.017% of the human population. Adding the figure for ovotestis, we have a total of 0.018% of humanity whose reproductive system may have features common to both sexes. With rounding up, this is the origin of the 0.02% figure.

(Note that Blackless et al do not present figures on two other conditions: 5-alpha reductase deficiency - another variable condition similar to those above; and persistent Mullerian duct syndrome, which can result in normal male anatomy coupled with an incomplete uterus and fallopian tubes. The incidence of these conditions is still unknown, but both are considered rare.)

What is glaringly obvious is that in none of these conditions is there any sign of a sex other than male or female - in this small percentage of humanity, we are still talking about either a mix of male and female features, or atypical male and female features. Nowhere is there a third gamete, or an actual or potential role in reproduction that differs from the two we are already aware of.

In the remaining intersex conditions - which make up the majority of those investigated by Blackless et al - ovaries are always accompanied by female reproductive organs, and only female reproductive organs. Testes are always and only accompanied by male reproductive organs. This means that 99.98% of humans fall clearly into either ‘male’ or ‘female’ sex categories - using the definition that applies to whole organisms, as I have outlined above.

Diverse range

What accounts for the remaining 1.68% of the human population that is intersex? It consists of people with a range of conditions, which are considered intersex because of variations in sex chromosomes, or that arise from hormonal causes. They produce a diverse range of variations in sex characteristics: in males, atypical development of the penis or missing testes; in females, the absence of the womb, a closed vagina, enlarged clitoris or missing ovaries; and in both sexes conditions may result in infertility, a failure to go through puberty, or developing secondary sex characteristics at puberty that are more typical of the other sex. These conditions are often distressing, and some also affect other aspects of metabolism, growth and bone development. But note - those affected by such conditions still fall clearly into the male and female categories, when sex is defined as having a male or female type of reproductive system. Some examples of these conditions will serve for clarification.

First, a large proportion of people with such conditions are women with the condition known as ‘late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia’ (1.5% out of the 1.7% of intersex people). These women are born with XX chromosomes, complete female internal and external reproductive system and genitalia, and ovaries. They are female, not male - their body development has clearly followed the female pathway and their potential role in reproduction would only ever involve gestating a foetus, not producing sperm. Nevertheless, late-onset CAH is considered an intersex condition, because sufferers have a hormonal imbalance - an excess of testosterone - that starts to affect them during childhood or puberty and can result in enlargement of the clitoris and excess body hair. Irregular periods and problems with fertility are also common.

While the bodies of late-onset CAH women may deviate from some Platonic ideal of what a woman should look like, and while they have a hormonal profile that is more typical of males than females, it is no more reasonable to argue that they are male, on the basis of excess body hair and high levels of testosterone, than it would be to claim that Ronnie Corbett was female because of his short height.

Similarly, take the case of a woman with Swyer syndrome, who has no ovaries, but otherwise complete female anatomy and secondary sex characteristics. Does it makes sense to turn around and decide that she is ‘really male’ when we find that she has an XY chromosome combination? To use an analogy, imagine that all buildings are constructed with a copy of the blueprint embedded within each brick. Imagine breaking open the bricks from a thatched cottage, and finding the blueprint for a skyscraper within them. Would it be reasonable to declare that the thatched cottage is actually a skyscraper? Of course not - in fact it would be insane. To say that a woman with Swyer syndrome is male would be equally ridiculous. The ‘male’ Y chromosome interfered with the development of her ovaries, but very obviously it did not play the part in building a sexed body that it usually does - it did not make her male. It made her an infertile female, not a third sex.

To sum up, it is by investigating the chromosomal/genetic and hormonal make-up of individuals that we are often able to reach an understanding and explanation of why people have variations in their sexual development. Often, it is because of an unusual chromosomal or hormonal make-up, which may be typical of the opposite sex. But possessing these does not mean you are the opposite sex or are partially so. Most intersex cases involve variations of sexual development within the male or female sex classes. 99.98% of the human population have features of only one or the other class, and not both; and there is no evidence of any third sex class. It should be noted at this point that in an estimated 1% of births, sexual development is atypical; and between 0.05% and 0.07% require an expert to investigate ‘ambiguous genitalia’ that are hard to identify. But a very small penis is still a penis, and is a male reproductive organ; an enlarged clitoris is still a female organ. There are two sexes and only two, and the vast majority of people fit clearly into either one or the other.

At this point, a genderist is likely to throw in the argument that defining male and female, or men and women, according to reproductive function is offensive, degrading or exclusionary, because it (a) reduces people to their genitals/reproductive role and (b) excludes many people who are currently included in those categories. The first of these arguments is truly a red herring - to say that someone has a certain type of body is simply descriptive. It is not to say that that is all their being consists of, or that they must fulfil their potential reproductive function. This is an attempt to invoke the traditional feminist argument that women must not be ‘reduced to’ reproductive functions, without understanding it - the force of the argument is that women’s lives must not be limited to, or by, childbearing or the expectation of it; women must be allowed to play a full and active part in all realms of society.

As for the argument that the definitions are exclusionary, can a man still be considered male if he has had a vasectomy? If a woman has had a hysterectomy, should she no longer be considered female? This argument would, apparently, apply even if the woman involved had borne eight children, and it is at this point that we need to start questioning the validity of applying postmodernist analytical techniques to scientific categorisations. The genderist logic requires that every single member of a group must possess all of the defining features of the group, not just some of them, or we must abandon the original categorisation. Using the same approach, it is possible to argue that the distinction between chimps and humans is arbitrary. Not every chimp has opposable toes (sometimes they are mutilated by opponents), not every human being has language, some humans are born completely covered with body hair, etc, etc - therefore, since we can always find individuals who do not satisfy all the characteristics by which we define the group, we can no longer distinguish between chimpanzees and human beings. Applying such a highly academic and abstract, postmodern take to real-life situations is not necessarily wise - we are likely to encounter several difficulties if we decide that the chimp/human distinction is no longer valid.

Any categorisation in biological sciences always involves generalisation. We recognise that some individuals may be atypical, which is to say that they may not possess all of the characteristics of others in the same group. Nevertheless, that does not preclude them from membership of the group if they share other features. For instance, a three-legged creature that shares a resemblance to members of the group known as ‘dogs’ will be categorised as belonging to that group, even when one of the defining characteristics of a dog is that it has four legs. Similarly, when an adult human being has an incomplete or non-functioning female reproductive system, she still belongs to the group, ‘people with female reproductive systems’ - otherwise known as ‘women’.


The illogical arguments of the gender ideologists are examples of masterful sophistry, designed to baffle the ill-informed with ‘science’, and to persuade the public that a fully formed male is female, and always has been female, solely because he says he is. And the reverse for females making the claim to be male. These claims are on the basis of a subjective, internal feeling of ‘gender identity’, which is sometimes invoked as a manifestation of ‘brain sex’ - ‘the brain of a woman in the body of a man’.

Brain sex is a highly controversial subject in its own right, and splits opinion nearly as much as transgenderism. But, whichever side of the ‘brain sex’ argument is right, it cannot be used to support the argument that a man is a woman. If, when all is said and done, we find that there is no conclusive evidence of significant average differences between the brains of males and females, then clearly there is no basis for the claim of having a man’s brain in a woman’s body, or vice versa. On the other hand, if there is a clear distinction between the two sexes, once again, as for height, you might be unusual for a male, but you would still be unequivocally male, because the criteria for distinguishing between males and females lie elsewhere.

We do not yet know what the root causes of gender dysphoria are. But, if having an evidently male or female body causes you extreme discomfort and distress in social situations, then that is good grounds in itself for society to deal with you compassionately and to make accommodation where it can. We must seek to create a compassionate society that welcomes and supports those suffering from the crippling dysphoria that leads them to seek surgery and manipulate their hormones. It is essential that transgender people are able to survive, thrive and function freely in society without fear of discrimination. It is on that footing that we must approach transgender issues.

But tolerance and understanding of the trans experience will fail if they are based on bad and disingenuous interpretations of science. Trans people are perfectly capable of recognising the reality of biological sex, while having difficulty accepting it on a personal basis. Sound arguments for acceptance can be made without twisting and distorting our understanding of the whole of humanity and indeed the natural world - and there are signs of a trans backlash against the excesses and illogic of the genderists.2

While acknowledging the material reality that there are only two sexes, we must reject the traditional sexist view that self-expression, mannerisms, talents, ambitions and roles in life - other than reproduction itself - must be limited by, or linked to, our biological sex. The fact that much of the left unquestioningly accepts and regurgitates an ideology in which the subjective feelings of the individual trump objectively observable conditions is a sign that we have abandoned the physical, material reality on which our politics is based, and replaced it with a subjective individualism that is alien to any class-based analysis.

Sex is still one of the major axes of oppression globally: female foetuses are selectively aborted because of it, women are enslaved and trafficked into prostitution because of it, girls’ genitals are mutilated and sewn together because of it, girls in poverty are denied education because of it. The Chibok schoolgirls were not asked how they identified before being abducted and raped. Without acknowledging the reality of sex, it is impossible to even name sexism, never mind understand or defeat it.

The left must stop pretending that sex neither exists nor matters. The biological woman is not a myth - she is real, she is here - and she is angry.


  1. American Journal of Human Biology: https://docplayer.net/34440-How-sexually-dimorphic-are-we-review-and-synthesis.html.

  2. See, for instance, https://transrational.co.uk.