Biology: two sexes (artwork by Lydia Ortiz)

Sex is not psyche

Amanda MacLean replies to Richard Farnos and Finlay Scott Gilmore

My article, ‘Decoupled from reality’ (Weekly Worker April 18), prompted a letter from Richard Farnos (April 25) and a response from Finlay Scott Gilmour, entitled ‘Against biological determinism’ (May 2).

I have no interest in engaging with most of what Finlay Scott Gilmour had to say last week - if he wants to debate the number of angels that can dance on an empirio-critical positivist punctuation mark, then he will have to find another debating partner - but I do wish to correct some of the major errors in how both he and Farnos represent my thinking. (I suspect that Gilmour will be as disappointed by the lack of originality I display below as he was in my first offering - unfortunately there is little room for originality when explaining that, despite rumours, the earth still goes around the sun.)

But first, to Farnos, who has only one critique of the main substance of my argument: he suggests that my understanding of biology is outdated. Not enough to make a difference to this debate. I was working in academia up until 2002, and spent a significant proportion of my PhD and post-doctoral research investigating sexual maturation in fish. This involved seeing far more salmonid gonads than I ever want to see again, and I can confirm that, like humans, salmon and trout either have testes or ovaries. I may in that time have seen an intersex fish or two, but it is not something I remember: although notable for its rarity, it would have been no mystery.

What Farnos does not realise is that there is no ‘new science’ to support the ‘sex spectrum’ argument. When, about 18 months ago, I first heard of this ‘new science’, I have to admit I was astonished - even excited. Intrigued, I went in search of it, but was disappointed to find absolutely nothing new. The intersex conditions - hormonal and chromosomal variations on which the ‘sex spectrum’ argument is based - were all taught during my first degree zoology courses in the late 1980s, when John Zachary Young’s The life of vertebrates was a core textbook. If Farnos thinks my science is outdated because I quote a general principle from that book, then he had better discount his ‘new science’ as well.

Farnos also suggests that I have made up false arguments as a straw doll in order to easily knock them down. Unfortunately not. I have neither the time, the imagination nor the malevolent will to make up arguments as bizarre as the ones that are daily put forward on this subject by genderist (not gender) ideologues. Most of the arguments - including the, frankly racist, one that transwomen are a type of woman just like black women - have been voiced and reiterated by activists within my branch of the Labour Party, not just in written articles or in the deep recesses of social media. If the people putting forward these arguments actually mean something else, then now would be a very good time to say so.


Turning to Gilmour, he suggests that I argue that “biological factors [are] the determining motivation for our psychology”, and that I enforce the gender binary, “gleefully pointing out” that “boys will be boys and girls will be girls”. If Farnos wants a straw doll, he can find one here. Biological determinism is the exact opposite of my argument, and I am as opposed to it as Gilmour himself claims to be. The fact that Gilmour is incapable of grasping this suggests that he is far more wedded to the cultural constructs attached to sex than he realises. He cannot hear the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ without dragging along with them all the cultural baggage and expectations that he claims he wants to dismantle.

Gilmour proves my point that the left is at risk of ignoring the reality of sex. Insofar as he responds to the meat of my article at all, he argues that it presents a “biological-determinist understanding of the psyche”. He seemingly cannot conceive of the body having any importance in its own right: only as an influence on the mind may it have significance.

But my argument says nothing about any effect of biology on the psyche. It is patently obvious from everyday life that the full range of personality, thought and behaviour exists across both sexes - only if you are looking though the blue and pink lens of gendered expectations could you think otherwise. Does Gilmour really think I meant that possessing a male or female body generates, in some mysterious way, a kind of masculine or feminine soul, spirit or mind that is impossible to attain if you have the other kind of body? This is something that has literally never occurred to me, although I have recently discovered that some past feminist thinkers ascribed to such a view. Gilmour only found it in my writing because he assumed it must be there and wanted to oppose it - or vice versa.

Gilmour may find it vulgar - maybe even obscene - but human beings are animals. We evolved from animals, and we remain animals. The concepts ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean the same for our species as they do for any other species on earth. Therefore it should be immediately apparent that the psyche does not come into my argument at all - unless he thinks that house mice, European eels, and lobsters also have a psyche worth the name. When I say that a person is male or female - a man or a woman, a boy or a girl - I aim to convey only some brute facts about the body, related to sexual and reproductive anatomy and functions. Those brute facts are very far from socially constructed. I defend the concept of two, and only two, sexes, because they truly are the facts of life - a constraint on our existence that cannot be escaped.

But, while I defend the reality of sexual dimorphism, I do not defend the gender binary, where ‘gender’ reflects social and cultural expectations of how each sex should think or act. The complexities of gender - by which I mean the social roles and expectations, cultural and symbolic significance, that societies attach to the sexes, and which are often socially, sometimes violently, enforced - were not the subject of my previous article. Gilmour tritely assumes that, because I did not go into that area in detail, I must not understand it, and nonsensically proposes that I therefore think that trans and non-binary people “are not oppressed by the gender binary and by patriarchy”. Of course they are. That is the point - they are actual males and females who are punished, bullied and vilified for acting in ways that are considered unacceptable for males and females to behave.

He argues that the notion of two genders is a product of western imperialism, imposed by colonialists on more open-minded cultures that recognised third genders, and sometimes more. (This may be partly true, although if he reads ancient texts like The Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh or the Torah he will find plenty of examples of extremely ‘binary’ cultures that existed long before Europe invaded other continents.) But what should be glaringly obvious is that these third genders are a response to the actual existence of only two sexes. For instance the South Asian hijra - roughly equivalent to transwomen - are not considered to actually be women. Because they are male, they fall into a separate and distinct category, despite acting and presenting as feminine. Similarly, North American two-spirit, Samoan fa’afafine and all the myriad other genders found in traditional cultures are a creative social response to accommodating gender-dysphoric or gender-non-conforming individuals in a world where only two sexes exist. If genderists have reason to believe that there is (or was) a traditional culture where a single gender category includes both males and females without distinction, then why not present the evidence?

The transrational approach that I briefly referred to in ‘Decoupled from reality’ takes the third gender/third space argument and runs with it - arguing that transwomen are not men, but they are not women either; and that, likewise, transmen are their own, unique gender - a recognition that we as humans are neither mind nor body, but both indivisibly. Until sex-based stereotypes and expectations are abolished altogether, this is the way forward in my view.