Biological essentialism: can we not?

Last week, I wrote about why I’m pro trans and pro choice. Given the sheer quantity of comments, I’m not sure I made myself clear enough.

I think that broad judgments based on perceived biology have historically had some bearing on the oppression of women. I also think that biological essentialism is meaningless and can only be deployed oppressively in the present day, as scientific and sociological understanding of gender and sex has progressed. Some time ago, I wrote about evolutionary psychology, and very charitably decided to pretend that perhaps all of the just-so stories explaining differences in behaviour of the sexes were true. And I concluded that even then, that does not mean it is in any way relevant now:

Wisdom teeth, though, were highly useful to humans when we first evolved. Humans were still a long way off inventing dental hygiene, and, so, tended to die once all of their teeth had rotted away and they could no longer eat. Wisdom teeth, emerging in the mid-twenties, gave an extra few years of life: four more teeth meant more time being able to eat. With the advent of dental hygiene, we no longer lose all of our teeth to decay, and wisdom teeth have become an annoyance. When a wisdom tooth grows into a mouth full of healthy teeth, there is often not enough room, and the new tooth impacts. I had a wisdom tooth that solved the lack-of-space problem by growing horizonally. Each time I bit down, it would take a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. I had it removed.

Wisdom teeth, then, are a solution to a problem that no longer exists, and when the tooth becomes a problem we have it yanked out.

If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth. They are a solution to a problem that no longer exists: we shop in supermarkets now; we have modern health care; our children are sent off to school; we have DNA testing for identification of fathers; we can have sex for pleasure with a very low risk of reproduction. The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

We can overcome wisdom teeth, and, if any of the shaky claims of evolutionary psychology regarding gender turn out to be true, we can yank that out of our society, too.

The same is true for biological essentialist arguments. Maybe once upon a time, “woman” was defined only by capacity for childbirth, or only by presence of a vagina, or only by whether she had periods or not–although, you can see by the quantities of “ors” in that sentence that even if we try to trace back through history, what defines a woman is pretty complicated if we’re going on biology alone. And yes, this nonsense has persisted through time, from the bizarre belief that uteruses could roam throughout the body causing all sorts of negative effects to the belief that everything a menstruating woman touched became unclean. It becomes a chicken and egg scenario: society was built upon misogyny, along with its science. Science, after all, is not objective: the questions it asks and answers are rooted in the society asking those questions.

It’s only relatively recently that we have even begun to ask the right questions, and noticed that actually the whole thing is a house of cards, and should rightly come crashing down. We realised that biological sex is far more complicated than the somewhat-complicated way it had originally seemed. Hormones and chromosomes, internal and external biological characteristics–none of it necessarily matched up. Some still cling to essentialism, despite its utter meaninglessness, to produce bad science to suggest that rape is inevitable, or that men and women have different brains and only men can do the logical stuff. But the science is not on their side, and there is an increasing level of criticism levelled at such work because, at its heart, it is terrible science and tells us very little beyond what misogynists believe to be true.

Most feminists are rightly deeply critical of biological essentialism, knowing, as we do, how it keeps us down. And many of us embrace the advances that have brought us closer and closer to liberating ourselves from it. It is fucking lovely not having to be defined by our reproductive status, freeing ourselves from the idea that this is what our bodies are for. Many of us use synthetic hormones to regulate our bodies, and sometimes to eradicate menstruation. Surgery has advanced so that women without cunts can have cunts if they want. Science is looking into the possibility of uterus transplants, so women who cannot bear children will be able to. We are making a hell of a lot of progress, and the hold of biologically essentialist misogyny is slipping.

Unfortunately, some feminists are holding us back. Some feminists have embraced biological essentialism. The motive for this is an attempt to somehow “prove” that trans women are not women, cloaking their transmisogyny in pseudoscientific language by pretending that “female” and “woman” are two different things, and that “female” is somehow a scientifically valid category. Often, this is presented in a way that is even more dehumanising than the way MRAs talk about women, like this gem from Gia Milinovich where she bangs on about “female mammalians” and claims that our understanding of biology is in no way related to culture.

Taking this argument to its logical conclusion leads to some deeply unpleasant thought, like this:


Twitter   Glosswitch  @boodleoops Bleeding is okay ...

Here, we see an attempt to define purpose of vaginas, deeply rooted in biologically essentialist misogyny*. Now, I have made the choice to not give birth, and I don’t need to go into why, because it’s my body and my choice, and the world has progressed to a position where I am able to make that choice. My vagina, if I get my way, will never be used for a role in babymaking. As for the bleeding, I find it quite fun**, but I don’t really feel like it’s an essential characteristic of my womanhood, nor would I feel that if my period ever stopped, my vagina would become purposeless. But my vagina is hardly a useless hole: far from it. It’s for shuddering orgasms. This part of my body is a delight to me. A finger or a dildo in there feels like heaven as I feel it brush my G-spot, and I feel my clit grow hard around it. And yes, I tend to prefer dildos, and I am aware of just how horrifying homophobic patriarchy finds that. I don’t use it for reproduction, and I don’t have to because we have moved on enough to no longer be defined and confined by our reproductive organs.***

I am a woman. I am still a woman, despite not even knowing what hormones my body produces due to years of taking synthetic hormones. I am still a woman, despite the fact that I have never given birth and do not plan to. I will still be a woman if, like my mother, severe fibroids necessitate a radical hysterectomy and bilateral oophorectomy at some point in my future.

Once upon a time, biological essentialism was all there was. We grew up. And we are slowly slinging off this burden, leading to the liberation of all women. We must fight biological essentialism wherever we see it, and liberate ourselves fully from these archaic constraints.

Further reading:

Un-gendering sex: a feminist project? (I am because you are)

Writing the Body: Stories of sex and gender (Alice Nuttall)

“The day an extremely popular white feminist advocated eugenics and mass abortion of trans people”  (Red Light Politics)

How Cissexist Partiarchy Works (Alien She)

Duplicitous or £9 notes…? (UnCommon Sense)


*I am 95% certain that the “ten pound note” reference refers to wanknotegate, which suggests that this Twitter conversation is basically barbs targeted at me, which has been expanded into misogyny.

**It is worth noting at this point that a common trope among transmisogynists is to claim that trans women will not let cis women talk about menstruation. I think it is abundantly clear here that such policing of discussion of menstruation can come just as much from cis women.

***DISCLAIMER: This, of course, refers only to my own relationship with my own cunt.


Note on comments: I’m not approving TERfy/MRAish comments (I find it impossible to distinguish which is which, because they all just use the word “female” a lot and cast women as walking wombs), as this blog is a safe space for marginalised women. Go and whine about me on your own blogs.

21 thoughts on “Biological essentialism: can we not?”

  1. Hey. Thanks much for your words re: biological essentialism and what is a woman. I am trans and choose to dress androgynous. i am not sure i could “look” like a woman if i tried. i don’t try. Though once I was talking to a group of people about being trans and this woman came in late. At the end of the talk she came up to me and said, she has a 55 year-old “son” who was trans… then she said she took me as a woman until I said I was trans… very nice I felt. i wear women’s pants, underwear, sometimes a blouse or shirt if i can find something that fits… usually pull-overs… i wear this stuff because it feels good… plus I have these very nice women’s glasses with little gold sunsets on the sides near the lenses — that’s hard to explain — but i always get comments about how nice they look on me… i’m 6’2” and weigh about 190… broad shoulders, long legs, blah blah… i run and use a sports bra because if i don’t my tits hurt… i use a t-blocker and estrogen… i use the men’s locker room at the Y where I workout… it hardly comes to me that I could use the women’s locker room… though I must say I often look longingly at the door of the woman’s locker room and wish… I live in NYC and of course there would be lots of support for me using that space… but i don’t. Not sure it’s important right now in my transition… i am 68 and have lived as man for so long I am not sure what a woman is either… but while I am not sure what a woman is and whether i am one or not, I know I am not a man and never have been… or a boy either. I think it would be grand to not have to choose one or the other… but then I don’t choose… THEY choose… that said, at work, my co-workers call me Ms. L_____, and use female pronouns when they refer to me, which is all quite nice… i love reading your posts… such a lovely girl you are.

  2. You are fucking awesome. Every time I read your stuff, I learn, have put into perspective, yet another thing. Please keep up the good work. Your explanations are so logical and sensible, I’m amazed everyone doesn’t agree with you.

    Personally, I don’t have an opinion on what “women” is. Because, as you rightly point out, it is irrelevant. If someone wants to call themselves a women, it’s none of my business what organs they have, or what hormones their gonads produce (or don’t), let alone what chromosomes they have. And, frankly, if I go around saying “but you’re a man really, aren’t you” or using male pronouns, then that is fucking rude. So, I wouldn’t do it. It would be very similar to continuing to call someone by their old name, even though they changed it (legally and all).

  3. Great post and well written. Bio essentialism kind of is destroyed by its own thought process anyway- they want to focus on the science well, that’s great but the science across all species says it is actually very hard to determine gender. There are sex changing fish, Komodo dragons do not need sperm to become pregnant, it’s the male seahorses who actually end up pregnant and spotted female hyenas are almost indistinguishable from their male counterparts and actually have higher testosterone levels. This shows that such rigid biological theories completely fall down in every species. There’s just nothing to support these horrid arguments. There is a great deal of gender variety in every species.

    Plus, those cis people who wish to attack trans women by saying rubbish like “you’re not a woman if you can’t get pregnant” end up insulting a great number of cis women who also can never be pregnant (when bigotry actually uses common sense though it will cease to exist, and I suppose I shouldn’t expect reason from people who declare “gender doesn’t exist” until they come across a trans woman). Let’s just let everyone define themselves.

  4. I wondered why you were deleting the TERF-y comments, as I believe that stupidity is often its own remedy…

    …Then I read ‘safe space for marginalised women’.

    Fair enough. There’s only so much value in an historical record of TERF stupidity, and we’ll never even know how much has been lost by the shouting-down, silencing and exclusion of the marginalised.

  5. Another argument in favour of saying “fuck you” to biology.
    Scars and scar tissue served an essential purpose “back in the day”, in that it enabled people to quickly heal enough and not have to worry about disease and stuff. Except it’s a trade off. Scar-tissue isn’t as good for a person for various reasons (see Wikipedia). Well, now we have science and medicine, we can fight disease, etc., so we don’t need scar tissue any more. If these people who think that biological essentialism is where it’s at, they can keep the scars, and the rest of us can take regeneration (up to, and including fingers and limbs, in the future).

  6. “Some feminists have embraced biological essentialism. The motive for this is an attempt to somehow “prove” that trans women are not women, cloaking their transmisogyny in pseudoscientific language by pretending that “female” and “woman” are two different things, and that “female” is somehow a scientifically valid category.”

    I see sex as a biological continuum, with bunches at both ends, whereby we are ascribed to one of two categories [male or female] at birth based on the “best guess” of which we are closest to generally on the presence or lack of a penis. As such I regard female and male as a scientifically valid categories, but not ones in which people not all people fit, and also ones in which people shift in around through their lives, through medical intervention (even when they stay within the assigned sex).

    I don’t think it is necessary to be female to be a woman; conversely nether do I think that its necessary to be a woman to be female, but I do think that both categories are meaningful, Sex assignation is based on a signifier (penis) which indicates likely future reproductive status – and this is the key. Those with the reproductive capacities which are heavily correlated with the presence of a vagina are the means of reproduction.

    Society genders people in order to identify those with gestational capacity, in order to better exploit them. I welcome trans women in feminism, as I think by their very existence they pose one of the strongest challenges thus far to patriarchy (in the same way as the existence of lesbians challenges the definition of woman as “sexual partner of man”), undermining the link between the gender of “woman” and gestational capability as you point out, but at the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that being the means of reproduction *in and of itself* is a source of exploitation.

    This isn’t a historical anomaly as you suggest, but a very real and current issue – the rise of “womb renting” and “egg harvesting” in the Global South commodifies those with gestational ability, while the “war on women” (sic) in the US is deliberately restricting cis women’s access to reproductive technologies which enable them to control their fertility. I understand trans arguments that the term “female” comes with a great deal of gendered baggage, but the relationship to the means of reproduction is a critical material division between humans and one which we should not lose sight of. Yet I fear for the erasure of this by a narrative that sex is nothing but gender.

    Going back to Sojourner Truth, who lamented that white culture did not regard her as a woman, entitled to be helped out of carriages and too fragile to work in the fields – that self-same white culture was happy to steal and sell the children she bore. She may not have been a woman in the eyes of white patriarchy, but she was still the means of reproduction.

    1. The thing is, this can be got around. We can talk about reproductive rights without gender–as you just did by saying “those with gestational ability”, “the means of reproduction”, etc.

      Personally, I rather like “means of reproduction”. Got a nice Marxist ring to it 🙂

  7. Cannot find anything to fundamentally disagree with in that post there stavvers. I still think there is an automatic presumption that any woman of child bearing age will at some point have children because that is what society expects. But if you choose not to get pregnant what business is that of anyone but yourself ? You are arguably doing society a favour by not extending its moral responsibility to another human being anyway. The transphobia of radical feminists is sad. They are using a strictly biological definition of what it means to be female without taking into account the psychological aspect too which obviously applies to trans. Your logical deconstruction of biological essentialism was very well argued. I had never thought of it in such terms before so thanks for educating me on that. This is a wonderfully informative blog. Anyone interested in all things feminism should definitely read it. So keep up the good work now

  8. “Science, after all, is not objective: the questions it asks and answers are rooted in the society asking those questions.”

    After applying this filter, does anything objective survive?

    1. To expand on stavvers’ excellently concise reply, which I agree with, and go further in a direction of epistemological anarchy:

      Nope. Scientism and positivism, often disguised as their own enemies, sell the biases of the powerful in society as objective truth. Liberals and scientific institutions often claim to have rejected both movements while still pretending objectivity and failing to state their biases. Truth is a function of power, and engaging with any truth in good faith requires disclosing one’s power and assumptions. JMHO…and as a total libcom, I *would* say this.

  9. Brain scans of female and male brains show obvious distinct and significant differences. Many people find it difficult to judge the exact effects of such differences, and you can easily and justifiably argue that differences in cognition/test scores/etc rely heavily on nurture/society rather than biology. But it’s not that there’s nothing to biological differences. Research suggests trans people’s brains more closely resemble the gender they conceive themselves to be, and research exists to support a genetic factor for the trans condition as well. Frequently you’ll encounter trans people (not all, but including myself) who feel fairly uncomfortable throwing out the biological basis for sex & gender because they partially base their legitimacy as a woman or man on having a female or male brain. For one example, some trans women such as myself, who aren’t yearning to be stereotypical pretty pretty princesses, have little to hang their hat on except the faith-like belief in the biological differences in our brains, and a vague sense of “belonging” and who consider your peer group; and on statistically aggregate/average cognitive differences like ability for non-verbal communication, or urban-legend generalizations like empathy or one’s tendency to nurture.

    As for not basing one’s legitimacy on the state of one’s reproductive organs…full support for your perspective from me. 🙂

      1. d’aww cute that you believe in sexual dimorphism of brains, something for which there’s barely any evidence. Where’d you learn it, a listicle on IFLScience?

  10. What a bunch of postmodern deconstructionist drivel. “Biological essentialism” is based biology which is science. Please if you reject biology, do not enjoy the wonders of modern medicine.

    1. It isn’t, tho. The “two distinct sexes” thing is something which science itself thinks is bullshit. Go read, sweetcheeks, you’re embarrassing yourself.

      1. “The “two distinct sexes” thing is something which science itself thinks is bullshit”

        I am confused about this. Are you referring to brains, or bodies here? Could you please suggest a reference or two which backs up this claim?

        1. “A reference or two”.

          Oh love. Basically anything written about sex that isn’t in a primary school textbook is your reference here.

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