A world without gender
‘Queer theory’ actually obstructs the fight for sexual equality. Amanda MacLean insists on a materialist analysis
The “world historical defeat” of the female sex continues apace.
Women in their tens of thousands are trafficked into sexual slavery every year. Increasing numbers of poor, black and brown women are virtually imprisoned on commercial surrogacy farms, producing babies for the benefit of rich couples. Brutalisation of women in the porn industry is feeding through into its viewers’ sex lives, with grim consequences, while teenage girls face an epidemic of sexual harassment at school and on the streets.
The frequency of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage has shot up during the Covid-19 crisis. Domestic violence has likewise rocketed. In the UK, prosecutions are so limited that rape is virtually decriminalised. Abortion rights are under attack, from the USA to Poland. And international ‘men’s rights’ networks like ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ attract millions of viewers to videos that dehumanise and pathologise women to an extreme extent.
This is a resurgent global system of exploitation and oppression targeted on women, a reaction against the many gains of feminism. The increasingly commercial nature of many of these deeply exploitative and oppressive practices - the porn industry, for one, makes billions every year, some of it from content involving rape, child abuse, non-consensual filming and the like - drives home the desperate need for a socialist analysis that exposes the roots of these ancient but enduring patriarchal oppressions. And we need an understanding and a language that enables that analysis.
But at the same time as this shocking acceleration of anti-woman attitudes, practices and policies, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are being rapidly taken apart in response to a worldwide ‘trans rights’ movement. In a rush to embrace the new world of multiple genders, organisations and corporations as diverse as Amnesty International, Tampax, the stillbirth charity, Sands, the Harvard Medical School and many others are in a sudden rush to delete the words ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ from their vocabulary and replace them with a new, ‘inclusive’ language of ‘menstruators’, ‘gestational carriers’, ‘birthing people’, ‘cervix-havers’ and ‘people with uteruses’.
At the same time, the word ‘sex’ has progressively been replaced by the word ‘gender’, which is used to refer not only to reproductive class, but also to aspects of human life as disparate as individual psychology, personality, mannerisms, clothing choices and sexual roles. And the words ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, are being repurposed to refer not to the sexes themselves, but to aspects of psychology, personality or clothing that are traditionally associated with one or the other sex.
Is this new language - and the renaming and breaking up of the category of people formerly known as women - the tool we need for the job of dismantling the worldwide discrimination, exploitation and abuse of women that is so often focussed on the female sexual and reproductive characteristics? I would argue not. These misguided attempts to dismantle the language used to describe women’s bodies and lives does nothing to reveal or dismantle the oppression itself.
This is because the conceptual framework that is driving the change in language - and stretching and distorting the categories of man and woman into meaninglessness - is fundamentally wrong. And badly so.
Sex as fiction
The political driver behind these linguistic changes is the ‘trans rights’ movement, which bases its arguments on the most extreme and illogical aspects of queer theory. Many trans activists insist that to even question the precepts that they advance is actively hateful, even fascistic in nature - witness the social media furore when any celebrity, such as JK Rowling, dares to say that the word ‘woman’ means a female person. But it is neither hateful nor fascistic to question arguments that have neither intellectual nor political integrity.
I will quote from Judith Butler’s book Gender trouble1 - first published in 1990, and often hailed as a foundational text of queer theory - and its 1993 follow-up, Bodies that matter2, to illustrate the thinking behind the current trans activism movement. Queer theory is an unashamedly post-modernist, anti-materialist and psychoanalytic school of philosophical thought that frames sex, sexual behaviour and sexual identity (being gay, bisexual or straight) as social constructs, and takes its arguments so far that it claims that the two sexes (not just gender, but the sexes themselves) are fictional. The phenomenon of intersex is thought to prove that sex is not ‘binary’, with only two possibilities, but exists on a spectrum between male and female (I, among many others, have debunked this notion elsewhere3). But in queer theory, gender is not just “the social significance that sex assumes within a given culture”.4 Queer theory goes much further, purporting that the two sexes themselves are social constructs, like money or marriage. Thus gender replaces sex altogether: “... if gender is the social construction of sex, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that ‘sex’ becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy.”5
Therefore, according to queer theory, male and female are not objective realities, but ‘identities’. Everyone is required to fit into one or other of those two ‘identities’ in order to enforce reproduction through “compulsory heterosexuality”:
The category of sex belongs to a system of compulsory heterosexuality that clearly operates through a system of compulsory sexual reproduction … ‘male’ and ‘female’ exist only within the heterosexual matrix … [and protect it] from a radical critique.6
It is therefore through the power of language, and the naming of male and female, that gender oppression is created; and it is by the power of language that it can also be defeated. In order to dismantle the oppression that has resulted from this categorisation, it will be necessary to implement an “insidious and effective strategy … a thoroughgoing appropriation and redeployment of the categories of identity themselves … in order to render that category, in whatever form, permanently problematic”.7 This feat is to be achieved specifically by “depriving the … narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman’”.8 The category ‘women’ is particularly promoted as being ripe to be emptied of meaning. It should be
a permanent site of contest … There can be no closure on the category and … for politically significant reasons, there ought never to be. That the category can never be descriptive is the very condition of its political efficacy.9
It is evident that the programme of queer theory is working, in the sense that it is changing and dismantling the language. But does the whole of gender oppression across history really originate in the simple naming of male and female? Because, if it does not, then this new movement is a dead end that is ultimately doomed to failure as far as challenging the structures that bear down on women’s lives.
While it is true that human thought and culture must have developed in tandem with the particulars of our species’ sexual behaviour, reproductive biology and mating systems - such as menstruation, which, although not unique to humans, is unusual among mammals - it is futile to protest that sex did not exist prior to the emergence of the human race.
Queer theory, however, rejects any understanding of human sex or gender that involves biological sciences. Our evolutionary history simply disappears in a puff of smoke:
... to install the principle of intelligibility in the very development of a body is precisely the strategy of a natural teleology that accounts for female development through the rationale of biology. On this basis, it has been argued that women ought to perform certain social functions and not others; indeed, that women ought to be fully restricted to the reproductive domain.10
For those who believe that reproduction is the only societal contribution appropriate to the class of people that possess wombs, by virtue of the fact that they possess wombs, altering the use of the word ‘woman’ cannot change that. It is the reproductive ability itself, not the words used to describe it, that the argument is based on. Nothing materially changes - moving words around will not change the position of the uterus, or its function. It is as futile as rearranging the labels on the deckchairs on the Titanic. Or like renaming the Titanic itself after it has hit the iceberg - thus, miraculously, the Titanic will not sink after all.
Many of the abuses and exploitations that oppress women target the real sexual and reproductive aspects of women’s bodies - our materiality - so a materialist analysis is essential. Can any such analysis work, when its starting point is that sex is a fiction?
Applying Occam’s Razor - accepting the simplest explanation that can account for all the facts - queer theory’s conceptual framework does not cut the mustard. If sex is a fiction invented to enforce heterosexuality and reproduction, it leaves vast swathes of the picture unexplained. An analysis worth its salt would bring together multiple, seemingly different, inexplicable or unconnected aspects of social and cultural attitudes to sex under one schema. A materialist analysis that takes into account the reality that there are two meaningful reproductive sex classes fares far better, and explains far more of the problematic - and often bizarre - social and cultural practices and attitudes around sex.
Is it not a far better explanation that people became aware of the blindingly obvious early on in human development - that there are very clearly only two reproductive roles, and that the anatomical features associated with each are astonishingly easy to identify at birth in nearly all humans? And that the possession of those distinct anatomies resulted in them being named, in the same way that other significant natural phenomena are named - because, irrespective of any relative value placed upon them, they actually exist?
Leaving aside that blatantly obvious counterargument, there is a further problem with queer theory: homosexuality just does not need to be eradicated in order to ensure reproduction. Why? Because occasional heterosexual intercourse, at the right time, during periods of female fertility, is all that is needed. A woman could sleep with a man just once or twice a month, and have it away with another woman for 20-odd nights a month, with exactly the same reproductive outcome. While it is true that there would be no reproduction if every sexual encounter was homosexual, strict heterosexuality, or anything approaching it, is not required to ensure childbearing. Likewise, a fertile man can sleep with a woman a few times a year and be almost certain to father children. And since one man can impregnate many women, significant numbers of men could be largely or exclusively homosexual without any impact on the number of children born - so why persecute and punish homosexual behaviour so severely?
The ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ argument has no basis, once examined in this light, and thus a central plank of queer theory falls easily.
Queer theory proposes that the so-called ‘complementary’ aspects of masculine and feminine behaviour have been created by culture in order to justify the compulsory pairing of male with female. Genders, including the two sexes themselves, are understood to be performative: brought into being by repeated ‘speech acts’ that, through the appearance of authority and the power of naming, actually create that which they name.
Thus, each individual assumes - or grows into, takes on and expresses - a ‘gender’ that is encouraged, promoted, and enforced by social expectations. I broadly agree that many of the observable average differences in male and female behaviour are largely culturally created, and reinforced by oft-repeated societal expectations. The fact that the expectations have to be so often stated, and sometimes violently reinforced, is testament to the fact that those differences are in no way innate, but are driven by the requirement to conform. But the origin of the expectations of ‘complementary’ male and female behaviour is not, as queer theory suggests, to counteract homosexuality and force the pairing of male with female.
The specifics of masculine and feminine behaviour do not point towards such a conclusion. Why is feminine behaviour submissive, while masculine behaviour is dominant? Why not the other way around? Why must one be dominant and the other submissive at all? Wouldn’t a hand signal do instead? How do the particular, specific manifestations of gender serve the purpose of enforcing heterosexuality and eliminating homosexuality, when many of them, such as FGM, reduce heterosexual behaviour in heterosexual women? True, any enforcement would require bullying of some kind, but why is it that so much of the bullying related to sex focuses on (heterosexual) women, and so relatively little on heterosexual men? Why is virginity in women prized but of little account in men? Why is so much actual heterosexual behaviour, that could lead to reproduction, so viciously punished? Why are women punished, humiliated, shamed far more than men for sexual promiscuity - heterosexual promiscuity? Why is it girls, not boys, who are the primary victims of child marriage practices? Why, in so many cultures, are women traditionally not allowed to own property, and children are considered the property of the father and not the mother? What answer does queer theory have to all this? None. It is not even framed as a question that needs to be answered.
All of these disparate cultural practices spring sharply into focus when we understand the simple rule formulated by Friedrich Engels, the primary and founding rule of patriarchy, which exists to enforce the rights, not of men in general, but specifically of fathers: when property is private, belonging to male individuals rather than shared communally, women must bear children only to their husbands.
Why? Because the mechanics of reproduction mean that, while a woman can be certain the children she is raising are indeed her own, a man cannot - unless he knows for sure that the children’s mother cannot have slept with any other man. Thus when private property is concerned, men have a strong motivation to ensure that the children to whom they pass on their wealth are their own offspring. Herewith the origins of monogamous marriage. And with it, as an integral part (indeed as a driving force), the origins of women’s oppression - or “the world historical defeat of the female sex”, according to Engels.11
The gender rules developed in order to ensure paternity and inheritance. This simple explanation takes us a long way to understanding the specifics of how gender oppression manifests itself globally, in the enforced submission of women to men, and specifically to their husbands, and in seemingly disparate cultural values and practices that prevent women from having heterosexual sex with multiple male partners, outside of marriage, or punish them if they do.
How do men, individually and collectively, stop - or attempt to stop - their wives from sleeping with other men? Promises are not enough, as we know. How do you stop anyone from doing something they want to, from expressing their own desires? You bully them. You humiliate, threaten, harass, attack and perhaps - occasionally - even murder them. In these multiple ways you seek to enforce compliance, through assuming social dominance and forcing social submissiveness and subordination. Society and culture evolve around these values, and develop in ways that satisfy the needs and desires of the socially dominant group. Meanwhile members of that socially submissive group are discouraged from banding together (they might mount a revolution), and learn to adapt their own behaviour to avoid harm. And, since conflict is costly, disruptive and traumatic, both groups develop strategies to signal their social position, to defuse and avoid conflict and possible injury, with social rules and expectations developing around these behaviours.
The global hallmarks of masculinity and femininity would be recognised in any other primate species as the unmistakable signs of social dominance and social subordination. Socially dominant primates (and other mammals, plus many other vertebrates) make themselves large, take up space, monopolise resources. These are the core components of masculine behaviour. Subordinate animals drop or avert the gaze, make themselves small, move out of the way, and surrender resources. These are typical feminine behaviours. In primates, attending to the needs of the dominant members of the group, by grooming, is also characteristic of social subordinates. In humans, grooming as such has been replaced by a far broader suite of behaviours that involve serving the needs of the dominant class.
Gendered behaviours and the social values attached to each sex reflect this pattern worldwide. Societies globally and throughout time promote and encourage these masculine and feminine behaviours - better understood as dominant and subordinate behaviours - as appropriate to men and women respectively. Western cultures are no exception.
The enactment of dominance (‘masculinity’) and subordinance (‘femininity’) can be understood as partly learned and partly innate. Innate, in the sense that the expression of these behavioural patterns is an instinctive response to a felt social situation, or social position - anyone will signal submissiveness in the presence of a threatening social dominant who is likely to escalate dangerously if challenged. Thus, nearly everyone signals submissiveness extremely effectively, and unconsciously, as soon as they have a gun pointed at their heads. And it is hard not to display these behaviours, when we feel ourselves to be in the presence of a socially dominant or subordinate individual or group.
So femininity is a stylised display of primate submissiveness - a behavioural strategy that reduces or avoids conflict by reliably signalling submission to social dominants. Members of either sex, when they find themselves towards the bottom of any social hierarchy, deploy different, but similarly ritualised and reliable, submissive gestures. Examples include bowing, curtseying, kneeling or prostration before monarchs; the doffing of caps with downcast eyes and slumping shoulders in the workplace; and the kneeling and bowing (in prayer) that is such a large part of patriarchal organised religions. It is easy to recognise such gestures as signals of submission to social superiors, and they should be opposed as manifestations of social hierarchies that need to be abolished as an implicit part of the project for universal liberation. Neither the bowing and scraping of the dispossessed nor the arrogance and high-handedness of the wealthy should be welcomed or celebrated. It is time to apply the same approach when it comes to gender.
Moving beyond their instinctive component, the specifics of so-called ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ behaviour are learned and then practised until they become habitual; and sometimes deployed consciously and strategically. People do what other people do; children start to mimic others around them, especially those they perceive to be like themselves, at a very young age, perfecting gestures, postures and vocal tones that may be cultural or, within each culture, gendered. Learned and practised from a young age, it is no wonder that these behaviours can feel like a natural part of a person’s core being - especially when they also incorporate an instinctive response that is deployed after rapidly gauging the level of threat posed by others. In addition, both sexes are explicitly taught to behave as expected - and so the dominance of males and the subordination of females is reinforced and perpetuated from one generation to another.
Anything that undermines the position of men as dominant and female as subordinate is a threat to the established order. Thus the second rule of patriarchy: men must not act like women, and women must not act like men.
This explains why homosexuality, cross-dressing and other forms of refusal to conform to gendered expectations are persecuted in many societies. For men to start acting ‘like women’, either sexually or socially – ie, submissively, which has come to include being penetrated sexually - would be to undermine and threaten the superior role of all men. Similarly, for a woman to act ‘like a man’ is a shocking insurrection - she must be kept down, and such behaviour has to be punished and made taboo. Since clothing and other behaviours are cultural markers that help to distinguish between the two sexes, cross-dressing breaks this law very blatantly. And further, to allow cross-dressing potentially allows the mixing of the sexes in ways that could undermine paternity rights.
On this reading, then, the persecution of homosexuality, cross-dressing and all other forms of gender non-conformity originated secondarily from the enforcement not of compulsory heterosexuality, but of compulsory monogamy for women in the interests of ensuring paternity rights. This is an important distinction, for, while it accepts that gendered behaviours and values are cultural, it acknowledges the material existence of the two sexes as a real and significant phenomenon, with powerful influences on societal development.
Understanding and placing ourselves as animals with real, material, biologically sexed bodies - rather than the smoke-and-mirrors erasure of sex and materiality itself that queer theory promotes - gives us a far more powerful tool to understand and combat the oppression of women, and homosexual and transsexual or transgender people, than queer theory’s baseless speculations ever can.
It explains not only the different social and cultural values and expectations around men and women, but it also explains many of the specifics of what they are and why the expectations are so strongly hierarchical. Women must be submissive to men (‘feminine’) because they must be controlled - from the male perspective, in order to bear children fathered by the man who controls them. From their own point of view, they must allow themselves to be controlled, and teach each other to be controlled, in order to avoid injury or worse. It also explains widespread cultural practices that control the sexual lives and reproduction of women - from FGM to child marriage, to taboos around female virginity and pregnancy outside of marriage. These things happen because sex is observable, and real, and known from birth. At birth, it is in nearly all cases blatantly obvious whether a person can be reasonably expected to be capable of bearing a child, or of inseminating a woman, and it is on this basis that the two sexes exist as classes. To suggest otherwise is to enter the realm of absolute fantasy, or at least of extreme idealism, which indeed queer theory does, since “to ‘concede’ the undeniability of ‘sex’ or its ‘materiality’ is always to concede some version of ‘sex’, some formation of ‘materiality’.”12
The current queer theory-led trans movement seeks to dismantle the second law of patriarchy - men must not act like women, women must not act like men. We do indeed need a movement against sex-based oppression that acknowledges and unites against that law. We need to work towards a world where qualities like strength, assertiveness, caring and gentleness are rewarded, encouraged and promoted in both sexes rather than mocked and punished when they are exhibited by the ‘wrong’ sex; where it is impossible for men to act ‘like women’, or women to act ‘like men’, because gendered expectations attached to each sex no longer exist and anyone can, without censure or even mild surprise, be an engineer or a carer, be logical or emotional or wear a dress or make-up or high heels or a tie or cut their hair short, irrespective of their sex. But to pretend that the sexes themselves do not exist is a nonsense. And it is a dangerous nonsense, when it obscures and denies the existing power relations between men and women.
Female oppression is not an inevitable consequence of the differences between male and female bodies. Yes, the fact that men are bigger and stronger on average can make it easier for them to establish social dominance through direct physical threat; while the risk of being left literally holding the baby and having to provide for it can put women in an economically vulnerable position, where social subordination is a likely outcome. But under different material conditions - and a different value system - there is no reason why we cannot shed these destructive, dysfunctional habits of gender that oppress and limit our humanity.
There is nothing inherent in being a man that makes men oppress women - it is their position in society that allows them to do it, and rewards women who collude with them. Power is the ability to harm without being harmed yourself, and therefore, with sufficient motivation, many people when they have power will use it to cause harm. Currently, men very frequently have that power in relation to women, and so they use it, resulting in very many harms. When, within any given social grouping or class, men occupy a position of power with respect to women, it is not an inevitable effect of human biology: it is a position gifted by property, by wealth, by tradition and by law.
We must seek to rebalance power to prevent harm. That involves, among many other things, abolishing both masculinity and femininity - no progressive cause should support or perpetuate a social system in which dominance is encouraged in one group, while social submissiveness is promoted in others. It is absolutely contrary to all ideas of human dignity and liberation. How could any liberatory movement adopt a position that posits an innate, inescapable hierarchical system at the heart of human nature, with close to 50% of humanity born inescapably into a submissive role?
But in today’s gender debate, the position of queer theory-inspired trans activists is exactly that. For them, to be a ‘woman’ is not to be female, but to be ‘feminine’- in other words, to be a ‘woman’ is to be submissive. It is here that we begin to see the true social regressiveness of this supposedly liberatory movement. For, while it is understood that biology does not determine the gender of trans people, the flipside of that argument is that most people’s gender is indeed innate, as social conservatives have always thought. Why? Because, according to trans activism, most people are ‘cis’ - they ‘identify’ as the gender they were born into. If 1% are trans, then 99% are cis; perhaps being trans is more common, especially if it includes the non-binary category, but still the vast majority of people are cis. So, since most people born with female reproductive systems are ‘cis’ women, they are supposedly innately feminine, which is to say, innately submissive, subordinate, and servile. Meanwhile a similar proportion of people born with male reproductive systems are considered to be ‘cis’ men: innately masculine, and therefore born into a socially dominant role. It is likely that many activists and well-meaning people on the sidelines of this debate have not thought it through far enough to understand that this is the logical and necessary conclusion of their arguments.
While most trans activists avoid definitions like the plague, such a conclusion is borne out by the attempts of some to redefine ‘woman’ and ‘female’. Definitions of ‘woman’ include such gems as: “a person who acts in accordance with traditional gender roles assigned to the female sex” and “anyone that culturally identifies and presents as the combination of stereotypes and cultural norms we define as feminine” or “adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable and concerned with appearance”. And femaleness is “a universal sex defined by self-negation … I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another … [The] barest essentials [of femaleness are] an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes.”13
This is what we are fighting. It is why we are fighting. We refuse to submit.
1. J Butler Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity London 2007.
2. J Butler Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’ London 2011.
3. A MacLean, ‘Decoupled from reality’ Weekly Worker April 18 2019.
4. J Butler Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’ London 2011, pxiv.
5. Ibid pxv.
6. J Butler Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity London 2007, p150.
7. Ibid p174.
8. Ibid p200.
9. J Butler Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’ London 2011, p168.
10. Ibid p8.
11. F Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state (1884): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm.
12. J Butler Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’ London 2011, pxix.
13. Definitions in this paragraph are taken from Helen Joyce’s compilation, ‘What is a woman (or female)?’: thehelenjoyce.com/what-is-a-woman.