Sex, Gender & the "False Dilemma" argument. (G2020)
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Recently I revamped some writing I had done on the relationship between sex, gender and logic, updating some of the arguments within as a reply to a comment on a youtube video by Dr John Corivino. You can find that revamp here. The comment was suggesting that "Gender Identity" as concept was inherently "homophobic", because it ignored the genital basis for definition of ones sex. It's not by the way, but read the article to find out more. A good friend then linked me to a video by a Dr Debra Soh, who is a sex researcher and has a PhD in neuroscience from York university in Canada and by all accounts is a "renegade of the intellectual dark web" You can find her linked in page here
The video above is from a youtube channel "subverse", and there's a few more of Dr Soh on there explaining her POV. I thought it would be interesting to spend some time looking at this video for a number of reasons. 1) My friend who sent it to me could also be described as Transgender.
2) The obvious point that Dr Soh is not an unthinking person 3) The seemingly odd contradictions and faintly familiar arguments within.
4) The idea that the concept of "Socially Constructed Gender identity" somehow ignores biology, 5) The difference between what the video (and Dr Soh) says, and what it implies. Dr Soh herself says in the video that "biological reality is being dismissed" whilst delivering a critique on the policy regarding trans gender athletes. Her comments really are a game of two halves, initially suggesting trans gender athletes even after two years of HRT will still have some lasting "advantage " over cis gender athletes. (presumably based on their biology?) But then later advocating "for" positions that highlight those very differences that are caused by ....err....hormonal influences on the body AKA biology. A short conversation with an endocrinologist would have put her right on this point, so is there something else at play here?
So Lets look at these points in a loosely reverse order,
Does a socially constructed gender Identity and the Trans gender concept dismiss biological reality ?
To fully answer this it may be best for people to read my previous explanations of how gender identity is an expression of physicality which I've linked at the top of this article. But In simple terms where does ones "identity" come from? Does it really exist independently of our bodies? Dr Soh has herself studied neuroscience, that is the electrical neurological activity in the brain and body that we experience as the stuff of thought and movement. (sensory nerves, cognitive functions, motor neurones etc etc.) Ergo "the brain" has a physicality, and arguably since our whole "identity" is created within it, via neurological activity, Identity must therefore have a physiological basis. Are there observable and quantifiable differences between peoples physicality? yep.. of course. Are their quantifiable differences across men and women? yep. Dr Soh herself has researched the physical differences and acknowledges that on average there are differences in brain structure across both groups. On average. This means theres variation within a group? Oh .. that's interesting but more on that later. Does this disprove Gender Identity? Or the view of gender as being socially constructed? Nope. Why so ?
Because the very argument here is circular. "Biological reality"* is being cited as a reason that trans gender people cannot exist outside a very narrowly defined and pathologied window. It ignores the evidence base that this same "biological reality" is the cause of us actually doing the existing in the first place.. This approach to trans gender is an example of what Talia Bettcher calls a "metaphysical scepticism" argument in her work here entitled "when tables speak". Unfortunately for proponents of this scepticism, the World health organisation has recently reclassified the "gender dysphoric" feelings experienced by trans gender people as physiologically caused. (under sexual health) Those pesky neurones again.
How's that for a biological "reality"? *Note: Reality as a philosophical concept is poor phenomenology, which is why this argument keeps popping up, E.G. "real" women etc from Dame Jenni Murray which I've wrote about here. but I'll leave that aside for now I dont want to come across as too snarky here, but the evidence to refute Dr Soh on this point is easy to locate. To illustrate this, heres a link to two articles that neatly sum up the none binary biological underpinnings of the process by which a sexed human being is created,
https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/feb/19/nature-sex-redefined-we-have-never-been-binary As if one needed more evidence, theres the very existence of what have thus far been termed intersex conditions, which although rare do actually physically exist, and therefore also biologically exist. They give us windows into the developmental process, and it's implications for effects on a persons identity. To be fair to Dr Soh, she does acknowledge this in her other writings, but she makes a clear distinction between the categories of intersex and trans gender in the link below, whilst also suggesting that determining a fixed immutable sex based purely on anatomical structure at birth is fine as legal precedent. (ignoring the marginalisation to intersex people that this would cause)
http://playboy.co.za/2018/10/30/the-difference-between-sex-and-gender-explained/ But, unfortunately this then leads us down a rabbit hole of "state imposed gender by Medical decree" that may or may not be correct at time of birth. (if that sounds familiar, its because that's effectively the status quo) Although to acknowledge the risk of error at birth one would have to view "sex" as a non binary particulate process .....which sadly she doesn't...
https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2018/10/31/science_shows_sex_is_binary_not_a_spectrum_138506.html Opps. At best what Dr Soh's comments do argue is that gender as an "Entirely" socially constructed concept is flawed, but is anyone is actually suggesting that this argument is a good one? Nope. Why so? because to do so would be to ignore the philosophical and anthropological "first cause" principle of our biology. (which trans gender people aren't, we're actually acknowledging it) And thereby fall foul of the long standing arguments on Nature verses Nurture. Although I will admit there are some really really poor explanations out there from some trans advocates. So what Dr Soh is doing here is setting up the straw man argument. One that is easy to knock down, which also gives the appearance of a dilemma between "biological reality" which she defines as binary, and "Socially constructed gender identity" which she again defines as being outside her own definition of "biological reality" No actual dilemma exists, she just defined the terms herself in such a way as to falsely create one. Watch a little further into the video and it becomes even clearer with the mention of xx/xy dichotomy, Edmund Wilson's presence or absence argument, with some leeways to account for the intersex phenomenon. The binary model, again. Now where have I seen that before? oh yeah 4 paragraphs ago) Mixed messages
All in all, whilst I agree twith Dr Soh that gender (and therefore GI) has it's roots in biological factors, we differ on the idea that this excludes trans gender people from a biological basis for existence. After all, if one accepts that a "cis gender identity" is biologically derived, why not a trans gender one? (mutatis mutandis?) Plus, since the hormonal mechanism that creates anatomical differences in cis men and cis women is used in her arguments to suggest that the exact same mechanisms (HRT- and surgical interventions) will have little to no effect on trans men and trans women, Dr Soh's metaphysical scepticism is revealed, and more so by her differentiation between "intersex" and "trans gender" people. Familiar arguments "Sexual orientation is linked to gender, and gender identity" Okay... how so. I've heard this argument before and whilst on the surface it seems banal, it does have subtle connotations linking back to a now discredited study by Dr Ray Blanchard in the 80's (if you're not aware he suggested that sexuality was a driver for M2F transsexual people to transition, an erroneous position and his results were deemed overreach by peer review some years later, in this article by Moser et al) There are links as a result of the descriptive language we use to discuss each phenomena, but causal links? Theres not a great deal of other literature to back up this claim (Sorry Dr Soh) What I get from this Subverse video is that it subtly suggests a narrative of its own, whilst subverting the gender identity narrative by (falsely) presenting it as a false hood. It is suggesting, though never stating, that trans gender people who fall outside the already existing parameters of the intersex phenomenon are expressing a "differently derived" identity. It Invites the viewer to recategorise the T of LGBT as an orientation, by describing a straw man version of the gender identity concept that is removed from biological causality, and therefore must be "something else". This is pure Blanchard, and very very wrong. (factually, evidentiary and also incidentally ethically) If there was any doubt of Dr Soh's intent at this point, her narratives regarding "rapid onset gender dysphoria" remove it, and are the final nail in the coffin of impartiality. https://email@example.com/why-rapid-onset-gender-dysphoria-is-bad-science-f8d25ac40a96 Dr Soh also states "If gender identity is a social construct then sexual orientation is a choice" but: A Gender identity, whether cis or trans, is socially constructed, but it is also biologically caused. (Just ask your cis gender friends when they knew they were cis) Which is what Dr Soh doesn't accept. The mechanisms of biological causality for a sexed individual are Not Binary Which is also something Dr Soh doesn't accept. What this video actually implies is that "being trans gender is choice", Dr Soh is, in my opinion guilty of pathological categorical thinking, and living in one single area of scientific study to the exclusion of all others. Dr Soh suggests "sex" is binary. It's not, but the categories we have used to describe it thus far have been, and she fails to make the distinction between "the category" and "the phenomena" being categorically described. Her arguments therefore support a binary, predominantly cis gender model whilst othering the trans gender Category/Phenomenon as "less legitimate" unless "intersex". Remember I mentioned averages? Variation within a population. I wonder in all the neurological scans that Dr Soh carried out as part of her doctorate, did she ask any of the candidates how they identified? Being a majority group within a societal structure does not by definition make that group the default state. It does give them much more control over narratives though. It just goes to show that everyone, even supposedly objective scientists, will colour their pursuit of knowledge with their own perceptions. What Jose Medina called the "unknown unknowingness" of societal bias, and at least based on the philosophical view of science that I have written here one must remember all science begins with what is thought to be known. It seems Dr Soh claims to know more than she really ought to. It reminds of the Athenian beggar one again
"I may be the wisest of all men, but only because I do not pretend to know that which I do not." Got any thoughts? Drop me a line at