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Profile Image for Julia.
293 reviews42 followers
July 16, 2021

I get that some people dismiss these kinds of books as transphobic right off the bat without actually reading them. I did too. I was on the “J. K. Rowling is a TERF” bandwagon only a year ago, I mean, I wrote a whole essay about how problematic she is. I agreed wholeheartedly with the idea that gender is something invisible “inside” a person and that there’s no such thing as “biological sex”. I couldn’t answer questions like “what is a woman” or “what is homosexuality”. I had doubts and questions, but I was terrified of being perceived as problematic, transphobic and a TERF.

But since I actually started reading about these things I’ve pretty much changed course. Not about trans people - but about gender vs. sex. Biology vs. identity. I 100% believe that trans people exist and that they deserve proper health care, equal opportunities in the job market and to live their lives free of hate. Of course I do.

But also believe that we need to be able to distinguish between perceivable biological reality and invisible gender identity. People are born either male or female - even the majority of intersex people are either male or female with DSD, which Stock also goes in to explaining - and if we can’t acknowledge this, we erase the reality of whole concepts. These include but aren’t limited to: homo- and bisexuality, female genital mutilation, femicide, rape statistics, sex trafficking, forced marriage and, even, gender dysphoria. This book explains why, in a pedagogical manner.

It would be lovely if we lived in a world where biological sex didn’t matter. But we live in a world where women - females - are oppressed not because their gender identity, but because of their biology. Yes, trans women are oppressed too, but their oppression shouldn’t and cannot infringe on the safety of women and girls (meaning females) globally.
Profile Image for Ben Gould.
72 reviews2 followers
May 25, 2021
Lots of four- and five-star reviews which appreciate the author's nuanced take on the subject while raising valid criticisms where necessary, and a bunch of one-star reviews firing off ad hominem one-liners. A perfect summation of the gender wars.
Profile Image for Domhnall.
435 reviews329 followers
May 7, 2021
Kathleen Stock teaches philosophy at an English university and brings to bear both her academic discipline and her evident competence as a teacher and mentor in this very accessible, readable account of gender identity theory in this country. She strives, courageously, to build a bridge between opponents and advocates of gender identity theory. Where possible, she aims to give a charitable reading of the beliefs that she is trying to understand and evaluate. When specific arguments turn out to be demonstrably unsupportable, her inclination is to make a distinction between the defective ideas, opinions or indeed political tactics on the one hand and the genuine interests and concerns of trans-people on the other. She is impatient with what she perceives as tribal mantras and has sharp words for radical or gender critical feminists, claiming to believe only in “evidence based feminism,” a new category to my mind. If she fails to impress those with strong views on either side of this debate, she may prove very helpful to civilians wishing to be informed without being pressured to take sides. I personally find it hard to imagine how being informed and being neutral can be reconciled and so I find Stock’s stance unconvincing, even rather arrogant, but this remains an excellent discussion of the subject, it included some great material that I value and it is well worth reading.

Ultimately, she argues that there is a large scale political lobby promoting ideas and positions that do not, in reality, serve the interests of transgender people themselves and that it would be desirable if her criticisms were seen as an opportunity for transgender people themselves to demand better and less self-defeating kinds of support. It does not help transgender people of any description to promote bad science or irrational concepts. It certainly does not help them to permit let alone submit themselves to medical malpractice or protect professional service providers from scrutiny. But none of this can be subjected to the types of scientific or philosophical scrutiny required so long as the supposed defenders of transgender people, the professional lobbies, the well-funded charities and the trans rights activists, pursue a vendetta against proper investigation. Cancel culture, which is demonstrably rampant and growing, is harmful to the interests of transgender people themselves; it is certainly not compatible with academic, scientific or clinical standards in a democratic society.

Stock’s selection of topics to review reflects her status as a philosopher. She continually asks what it is that we mean when we use or refuse to use important concepts. She explores and refutes very succinctly and effectively the suggestions that sex is not binary and that biological sex can reasonably be disregarded. She sets out a variety of areas of life in which a proper understanding of sex is indispensable. She evaluates critically the notion of sex being a social construct, puts to rest mistaken readings of Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic remark that women are not born but made, and dissects the ill constructed theory that every human individual has a gender identity.

She also illustrates the way trans lobbies have successfully imposed their objectives in the public domain while pushing aside and silencing alternative voices. Whether the Women and Equalities Committee of Parliament reviewing the Gender Recognition Act in 2016 or the capture of Stonewall as a charity founded to support gays and lesbians by people who directly attack same sex attraction and have used Stonewall funds to promote teaching about the “cotton ceiling,” somehow society has allowed trans activists to set aside the needs of women, children, gays, lesbians and promote instead an ideology that not only lacks proper academic foundations, but lacks political legitimacy and fails to serve the interests even of the transgender people who are supposed to benefit. Her few examples could have been multiplied but perhaps at the expense of her purpose.

Stock works to devise a constructive path forward for transgender people while demanding at the same time respect for the methods of scientific evidence and critical reasoning. She relies especially on the notion of “immersion,” which I think is intended to mean a psychological method of acting as though things were other than they really are. She gives the analogy of immersion in a computer game environment. I think she could usefully have invoked Coleridge’s well known concept of “suspending disbelief” to describe a scenario in which we can accept an invented reality without losing our ability to return to realistic thinking as required. In general, it is feasible and even common to hold two conflicting views of reality in mind when that is socially useful or psychologically comforting. What she argues, though, with vocal support from some older trans people, is that we may not sacrifice the self-evident truth that sex is immutable and we may not set aside our awareness that women, children, gays and lesbians continue to suffer serious disadvantages for which they need protection or remedies.

There is nothing new about the idea that we each construct for ourselves a “self” that depends on narratives and beliefs given to us in our particular culture. I think for instance of Mary Midgely’s book, “The Myths We Live By”. This is a fascinating strand in philosophy, in religion and more recently in psychology that can be traced back for example to the earliest Buddhist teachings, is often speculated upon by psychotherapists and in the psychoanalytic tradition, or examined by experimental psychology in the context of child development, including long term research into attachment theory and other work underpinning educational psychology. The use of a computer game analogy is entirely appropriate to a culture that is increasingly allowing children and young adults to take their guiding myths from social media and the internet, permitting direct influence from the most unexpected and least responsible sources. What I think, and Stock does not pursue, is that there are vulnerable people who can be extremely susceptible to persuasion and that there are people sufficiently malevolent to use the power of persuasion for harmful ends. I don’t think one need read terribly far into Queer Theory to identify a well-funded and influential movement seeking to destabilize conventional notions about sex and gender in ways that are not benign and not properly challenged (see “Queering Schools”). I don’t think it is hard to recognise the impact of the trans industry and the influence of names like the Arcus Foundation drumming up demand for their products in a way that Plato himself would have recognized (and what philosophy book is complete without Plato?):-

My trial will be like that of a doctor prosecuted by a cook before a jury of children. Just consider what kind of defense such a man could offer... children of the jury, this fellow has done all of you abundant harm, ... giving you bitter draughts and compelling you to hunger and thirst, whereas I used to feast you with plenty of sweetmeats of every kind. What do you think a doctor could find to say in such a desperate situation? If he spoke the truth and said, All this I did, children, in the interests of health, what a shout do you think such a jury would utter? Would it not be a loud one?

There is a view that writers who appeal to logic / reason as some higher level platform from which to survey our mortal ponderings are in reality using a rhetorical strategy to silence critical thought; effectively they rely on an appeal to authority which is, of course, a type of fallacy.
I think that Stock’s attempt to be dispassionate is unconvincing and her sharp attacks on radical or gender critical feminists are unacceptable. My concern with gender identity theory is not only that it lacks empirical grounding (which ought to be fatal in itself for pity’s sake) but also that it rests on crass and sexist gender stereotypes and offers young people an impoverished and unhealthy framework on which to construct a meaningful sense of self. It is destructive of all the work invested by feminists and educators generally in raising the aspirations and enriching the imaginations of children and young people, but especially of girls and women, producing [some] boys who write poetry or cook and [some] girls who enjoy maths or football and both treating the other and themselves as unique individuals rather than objects or members of a category. This conflict between the attempt to press us into socially prescribed categories or drawing out the complexity of individual difference, including sex difference, is a theme which feminist philosophers have, again, traced back to the roots of Western philosophy and the values embedded in our culture.

As long ago as 1979 Janice Raymond explained in detail the sheer sexism of the gender identity concept, anticipated most of the major issues that remain central to today’s debate [including those discussed by Stock in this book] and recognised that the people driving this movement were not acting in good faith and could not be deterred by reasonableness. “Medicalized transsexualism represents only one more aspect of patriarchal hegemony. The best response women can make to this is to see clearly just what is at stake for us with respect to transsexualism and to assert our own power of naming who we are.”
Profile Image for Colin.
1,364 reviews34 followers
August 28, 2021
I've been following this discussion (if I can call it that) about trans rights and how society makes itself more welcoming to gender-nonconforming people pretty closely for a few years now. Even more so than most controversies, it's polarised, driven by the most extreme voices, amplified by twitter and very toxic, to the extent that even high-profile, mainstream feminist writers like JK Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie get absolutely slated if they show even relatively minor dissent. Meanwhile, trusted public institutions and private companies compete to outdo each other's dedication to meaningless platitudes because it seems like the right thing to do.

So it's really good to read a book like this. Kathleen Stock brings all her professional skills to bear on the theoretical underpinnings of the various competing viewpoints. It's very measured; there's no overreach, no pointless bickering, she just picks apart facts from propaganda, marshaling arguments carefully, scrutinising every claim. She does this in really clear, unambiguous terms, which is a marked contrast to one of her main opponents, Judith Butler, who famously writes completely unreadable prose. The effect is a really powerful push-back against garbage ideology. Her main targets are academics and pressure groups claiming to represent trans people, but she criticises polarisation in general and includes some examples of bad-faith arguments from the gender-critical movement, as well as other commentators from outside feminism such as Douglas Murray.

Finally, she makes some concrete suggestions about how trans rights can be advanced without scaremongering, without distortion, by concentrating on evidence and making policy changes that will really benefit people.

I feel like I've become pretty well-versed in the arguments on all sides but there was quite a lot in the book that I hadn't come across before. I was persuaded to change my mind on a couple of points and remain unconvinced by a couple of things she's said, but that's OK - I don't mind being disagreed with!

Specifically, I thought her apparent support for the spouse's veto was a bit strange. That's always struck me as an obvious change that could be made to the GRA without compromising women's safety. I realise it leaves wives of late-transitioning men in a difficult situation, but what's the alternative? "I'm sorry Mr Jones, but you have to stay married to this woman who doesn't accept you and send your frocks to the oxfam shop"? It doesn't seem like that's going to lead to a happy ending for either party. Better to just accept the situation, surely?

Anyway, it's pretty normal that people will disagree on the details, so I don't count this as a reason for throwing my copy in a huge burning bin with Abigail Shrier's book, the latest Cormoran Strike and Half Of A Yellow Sun. The main thrust of the argument is that we get back to reality and stop being swayed by fashionable theories about gender that don't have anything to say about real people's struggles and I am totally here for that.
Profile Image for Sarah E.
8 reviews1 follower
May 9, 2021
I enjoyed reading this explanation and critique of an emerging theory that we all have an internal sense of gender identity and that this is more socially and politically significant than biological sex.

The book starts by briefly explaining how this view developed and became somewhat established in the mainstream Western culture, particularly in the UK, where the author, Kathleen Stock, is based.

It then explores what we might mean by sex and what we might mean by gender, testing whether these definitions are coherent and useful. Stock is nothing if not thorough, even exploring what constitutes a concept and how and why we categorise things more generally. As an aside, as someone not very familiar with analytic philosophy, I found these insights just as interesting as those more directly connected to the topic at hand.

From here, the author argues why biological sex must be recognised and protected in law, policy and society, explaining the various ways in which failing to do so disadvantages women and girls in particular. The philosophical analysis of the earlier part of the book is linked very much to real world application. It is here that I find the arguments most compelling. Stock's advocacy for the needs and rights of women is one of the most persuasive parts of the argument for me. She is clear and unapologetic in expressing how this emerging belief system causes harm, particularly for women and girls who already face the greatest exclusion and disadvantage.

If I was to describe where the arguments are weakest, to me it would be when it attempts to reflect the views and interests of trans people, in support of the core argument. It is to her credit that the author shows compassion fro trans people throughout, but sometimes I feel the push for gender identity to usurp sex is characterised as mainly stemming from certain charities, rather than representing the views of every day trans people themselves. I am not sure this rings completely true to me. I don't think it is necessary to argue this either because Stock's case against gender identity as the most important factor socially and politically is not necessarily undermined by the fact that a percentage of trans people might disagree with it.

Overall, the book is well researched, taking in information, research and accounts from many different people and perspectives. Most of the arguments made are thorough and tight. I like how the author is able to factor in ambiguity and nuance. When she encounters cases or situations that test concepts or practical policies to their limits, Stock is able to account for these coherently, in a way that doesn't undermine her arguments. I think this is a rare skill and something that is often missing from discussions such as this. Overall, an interesting read. Even if it does not persuade all readers of all arguments it sets out, it will surely give people pause for thought and perhaps a deeper perspective. This can only be a good thing in moving us all towards balanced and empathetic discussion and ultimately action.
Profile Image for Alison.
Author 5 books458 followers
May 7, 2021
theres a bit where she says that judith butler is 'the harry potter of philosphy' and then never explains what on earth that means.

goes for clarity, albiet one biased against trans people heavily. doesnt achieve that at all. written in a bizarre simplistic style. doesnt even have the guts of the likes of raymond, who are monstrous but at least imbue their bigotry with a bizarre gothic horror.
Profile Image for Stephen Theaker.
Author 86 books58 followers
May 9, 2021
A very good book which sets out the currently orthodox approach to sex and gender more clearly and convincingly than most of its actual advocates (quotations from whom demonstrate a staunch commitment to obfuscation, euphemism and misogyny), before exploring the real-world problems it has been causing and proposing better models for thinking about about such issues. Rather than discarding the idea of gender identity entirely, the book suggests reconceiving it as an identification with the opposite sex (rather than, as current orthodoxy would have it, literally being the opposite sex, or there being no such thing as sex at all). The book also explains why new grassroots feminist and gay rights organisations have sprung up to fill the gap left by those who have discarded sex and gone all-in on gender identity, and makes a valiant attempt to reclaim intersectionality from those who only care about one or two axes.

It also suggests sometimes thinking about these issues in terms of immersion in a fiction. Immersing ourselves in a fiction of sex change, it argues, like reading a novel or watching a play, is not necessarily unhealthy or problematic in itself, but can become so when we try to coerce others into participating, or when those in power collude in the coercion (e.g. when women and girls are instructed by judges to use female pronouns for their male assailants). From this point of view, the fury aimed at recalcitrant women who won't play along is similar in nature to that aimed at audience members who talk out loud at the theatre, which perhaps explains why so many actors seem to be such enthusiastic sex denialists – their careers are dedicated to never breaking the spell. The book also introduced me to the useful idea of the Reverse Voltaire: "I agree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to prevent you from saying it."

It's not a book that will hold huge surprises for anyone who has been following this discourse closely in recent years, though it may help set their ideas on a firmer philosophical footing, and place the ideas one encounters in their historical context. I certainly benefited from its itemisation of the different approaches to defining sex, and the various meanings of the word gender. But it's particularly ideal for people who are just getting a sense that something is awry (e.g. when they hear about male rapists being transferred to women's prisons, or male athletes participating in women's sports) and need a book that brings them up to speed on how we got here, and how we might make our way to a place that's better for everyone. At a time when formerly reliable organisations are actively misleading people in the course of their campaigning, a straight-talking and fair-minded book like this becomes essential. I found it convincing, compassionate, thoughtful and utterly reasonable.
May 20, 2021
I really enjoyed this book. Kathleen Stock lays out her arguments for why talking about biological sex and its impacts continues to matter in clear and lucid terms. She is generous and charitable to her intellectual opponents, never stooping to strawmen or ad hominem attacks. A necessary read for anyone interested in engaging in public discussions around sex and gender, feminism, and trans activism.
Profile Image for Sharad Pandian.
410 reviews134 followers
January 27, 2022
Stock's argument is basically that the category of "sex" is being erased in favour of "gender", specifically understood as gender identity. Given the wild heterogeneity of the world, I'm sure some people actually believe sex does not exist or is entirely unimportant (or act as if they do). I suppose the book has some value in so far as it addresses these people.

For my part, I come at this from a more sociological perspective than an analytic philosophy one. In short, the book left me mostly unconvinced. In section III, I argue that Stock has misunderstood the significance of her new account what being trans is, but I set out positive features and methodological differences first.


I. The positive

Let me start with what I liked: In the last chapter, Stock pushes for a vision of politics as centering coalition-building instead of seeking agreement on everything. She takes this to imply that while the trans movement and feminist/queer movements are distinct, they should be open to pragmatic teaming up for political goals. Such an approach leads her to her disavow the most odious behaviour of the gender-critical/terf movement, which attributes malign intentions to every trans person and seems to take great pleasure in insultingly denying the identities of trans people. Stock even mostly uses preferred pronouns for trans people (although her justification for this as "immersion in a fiction" will no doubt be considered unacceptably condescending by many trans people).


II. Methodological Differences

Let me now state my own approach: as a non-woman, I'm not going to offer any special insight or prescriptions here in a debate about who counts as a woman and in which spaces; rather I'm going to approach this as a relative outsider to the field, but with some familiarity in the sociology and philosophy of knowledge production. I lay out the difference between her method (epistemology-metaphysics) and mine below, and will explain why this difference matters in the next.

Stock's stance is some kind of naive scientific realism: the stance that there are pre-theoretical facts which science discovers and which have validity regardless of your context. This matters because it's tied to:

-a metaphysics which supposes that there are fixed, unchanging material facts, with contingent social meanings laid on top of them. For example: it's not simply that she thinks contemporary science provides an account of sex, but that this is is trans-historically commensurable, even superior, to every account that came before.

-an epistemology which (functionally) regards knowledge acquisition as possible from any standpoint/positionality

I'm part of an alternative social construction tradition - specifically the Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge - which instead has:

-an epistemology which wants to always be aware of the ways in which knowledge acquisition is almost always mediated, always contextualized (think of how the vast majority of theoretical and observational knowledge you have did not come from direct perception or original theorization). This isn't to say the material doesn't exist, but knowledge about the material doesn't just arrive in your brain by magic, it is made through the social practices of specific human communities.

-a metaphysics where the human and non-human world (or the social and natural, with a different understanding of "social") are always tangled up. Note that this does NOT mean any configuration is possible. There absolutely is such a thing as material agency which both directs and restricts, but human knowledge always involves the social (in both its epistemology, as above, as well as the enormous human labour it takes to isolate natural phenomena)


III. Reinterpreting Stock

Stock argues against two models of gender identity: the "stick of rock" (SOR) model (where "gender identity is a persistent stable part of the self") and the "queer theory model of gender identity" (which understands sex and gender identity as a "performance"). Stock's contribution instead is to suggest an "identification model":

Applied to gender identity, then, an identification model says that to have a misaligned female gender identity is to identify strongly, in this psychological sense, either with a particular female or with femaleness as a general object or ideal. (You might also say ‘identify with womanhood’ but I’m leaving womanhood aside for now.) To have a misaligned male identity is to identify either with a particular male or with a general object or ideal of maleness (or manhood). And to have a misaligned non-binary identity is to identify either with a particular androgynous person or with a general ideal of androgyny. Strong identification will often involve dysphoria, understood as an aversive emotional response to perceptions of one’s own sexed body and to its difference with the body one longs to see.

The first thing to notice is that while she justifies this account by claiming it "fits well with the yearning, idealised quality of many first-hand accounts of trans experience", this is not anything like systematic evidence collection. In fact, such an account can never really be tested because how are you going to find whether or not someone has identified with some external image and whether or not this indeed was the etiological source for their condition? In this regard then, Stock's dismissive description of the limitation of high theory applies to her own account very well:

High theory is abstract, totalising, seductively dramatic in its conclusions, and relatively insulated from any directly observable empirical consequences – which, of course, makes it harder to dislodge.

But the really insightful critique is obtained when we think harder about what kind of explanation she's proffering. My contention is that what she's ended up with through her circuitous path is just... the social construction of identity/reality. Plenty of analytic philosophers get very skittish about notions of "construction", but I've always believed that the more interesting aspect is the "social": given (as mentioned in section II) that truths and theories do not magically get emailed into our heads, we have to recognize that we develop all our accounts of the world and ourselves by letting our powers of perception, background knowledge, and imaginative capacities interact constantly with humans and non-humans in the world. Importantly, it isn't simply a disembodied mind doing this, it's an embodied being in a particular social milieu, whose identity is linked to a range of humans and non-humans (in the broadest sense: including spaces, abstractions, etc) in a range of ways, from disinterest, desire, detestation, yearning, nostalgia, ambivalence, etc. So Stock isn't wrong about trans people being trans in virtue of identification, it's just that she misunderstands the significance of what she's stumbled onto because she's asymmetrically explaining gender identity while not bothering to explaining anything else: identification with others is a basic part of the development of any identity.

To see this vividly, consider sexual orientation. Stock thinks this is straight-forwardly defined as attraction to your own biological sex. I'll come to its ahistoricality later, but notice that even if we accept this definition, there's still a phenomenological story about the discovery of your sexual orientation. In heterosexuals, their sexuality is simply assumed so it's not particularly clear to them, but any queer person knows in detail how you do not at one go simply have a fully realized sexuality: instead, knowledge is earned, but it's more that just knowledge: the seed of sexual orientation germinates across time, with the contingent happenings at one stage affecting but not determining how later stages manifest. You don't just say "I'm attracted to the other sex" and finish your journey there - instead, you notice yourself being drawn to certain people (real and virtual), certain body parts, certain visions of futures (yearned for, dreaded); physiological arousal appears, but also emotional arousal, even spiritual. And all through it, you seek and find and use role models of various kinds, and your relation to them is often ambiguous: as the old joke goes, it's hard to know if you want to fuck them or be them. In the case of sexual orientation, we know that none of this has any bearing on origin (aetiology) or whether sexual orientation can be changed (mutability). While homophobic parents do foolishly suggest that a gay friend might turn their child who would have otherwise been heterosexual, it's probably more apt to say that the "friend" might very well affect the way sexual orientation manifests and develops, but they cannot change the underlying orientation itself.

However, Stock, having come up with her sociological story about identification explaining being trans, endorses withholding the ability to transition for all minors and affirms non-affirmatory approaches:

For these sorts of reasons, in my view there are no circumstances in which minors should be making fertility-and health-affecting decisions involving blockers, hormones or surgery, as is now happening in many countries. No period of therapy prior to the age of majority could be long enough to untangle all these possibly contributory strands.

...In light of all this, the current professional prohibition of ‘conversion therapy’ – i.e. prohibition of anything other than affirmative approaches to gender identity from medics and psychologists – looks profoundly misguided. What this obviously ignores is that a therapist’s refusing to automatically ‘affirm’ a teenager’s gender identity, but rather sensitively exploring her feelings with her instead, may open up space for the patient’s acceptance of her own homosexuality.

Whatever the independent merits of these suggestions, just as the observation that sexual orientation has to manifest through contingent occurences and identifications implies nothing about ultimate origin or mutability, there is absolutely nothing in Stock's identification theory that necessitates either of her prescriptions. Suggesting that it does is at best begging the question; at worst, reckless speculation. To be fair, it's not that anyone has a simple explanation for why certain people are cis or trans - Julia Serano's "gender inclinations" don't do any better, but it's at least a plausible filler concept that acknowledges the need for further explanation. Stock's approach claims explanatory power that it does not deliver on.

Finally, I'll end by commenting on how Stock is desperate to cleave sex from gender, to then make sex the lynchpin of sexuality. To do this, her realist inclination sketched in section II lead her to a worldview where sexual orientation understood as attaction to other sexes (and not gender) is simply a fact that exists transhistorically, a claim she repeats without any historical evidence or argument whatsoever. My hope is that an increases sensitivity to the complexities of the social (as her account suggests she's becoming) leads to a more inquisitive stance to the world we live in. While Science might very well provide defensible definitions of sex for its own purposes, even cursory reflection on contemporary and historical lives reveals that sex and gender are always imbricated in complex ways - sexual orientation might not make too much sense in our lives without the notion of sex, but whose sexual life has nothing to do with gender? And how are we to know about the range of ways attraction can manifest through mere introspection? Without suggesting that sex is immaterial (of course not), I think a less totalizing approach is called for: to what extent attraction is linked to sex and gender across people and cultures is an empirical question, not one to be fixed by arbitrary fiat. My own sense is that we don't need (nor can we find) a single concept for sex or gender applicable in every single context, but we do fine with a more splintered, contextual, pluralistic approach. And historical and anthropological studies help us appreciate this plurality, and engaging with these in greater detail in important, instead of simplistically claiming (without evidence) that we can detect some vague notion of sexual orientation across it all.


Postscript regarding the call for coalitions: Where boundaries should be drawn, and when, are live questions now, and a view that tries to deny the validity of a basic concept like "gender identity" is bound to deepen rifts, however much she might talk of coalition-building.
Profile Image for Muriel (The Purple Book Wyrm).
259 reviews65 followers
August 11, 2021
More accurate rating: 9/10.

Disclaimer: I was already extremely familiar with this topic (thanks Reddit 😆) before getting into this book. I also agree with the vast majority of the authors' points and "ideological" positions (if you want to call them that). In essence, my feminism is, and always has been, gender-critical. Long before, in fact, this even became a qualifier for one's feminism. Indeed, before my exposure to the topic covered by Professor Stock's treatise, I had assumed feminism inherently criticised gender, i.e. sex-based stereotypes, roles, assignations, etc... for the harmful system it is under patriarchy, and was thus extremely confused by the existence of what I'll call "genderist" feminists (those feminists who seemingly embrace gender identity ideology and the more problematic branches of trans rights activism).

As such, I obviously loved this book. The author does a brilliant job of presenting an analysis of the current situation regarding the issues some (a lot of?) feminists/women's rights advocates, some gay and trans people, concerned parents, scientists and critical thinking advocates have with the current trajectory of the trans rights movement and its reliance on gender identity ideology. She explains how we got here (though I'm sure other feminist authors will also, eventually, write about this aspect of the topic in more detail), and dissects the arguments presented by gender identity ideology, before carefully dismantling them.

She initially approaches the topic from her background in philosophy - which I found very interesting -, but also brings in contributions from other fields such as biology or linguistics. The tone throughout the book is consistently calm, empathising, and rigorous without being pedantic or condescending. When she talks about a particular concept in philosophy, she takes the time to explain it in terms anyone can understand, using pragmatic analogies I found quite helpful myself.

As I stated, I was already very familiar with this topic, and the many arguments used by the different actors involved in this debate (or conflict I suppose). The one truly original contribution professor Stock brings to the conversation is her concept of "immersion in a (collective) fiction" when it comes to assigning trans people to specific conceptual categories (i.e. a lot of activist organisations require of the public to accept that trans women are literally women and trans men are literally men and non-binary people... well there I'm not entirely sure, I've never seen anything specific regarding them). She then argues this is an entirely natural phenomenon, which can have very positive consequences, but also negative ones. It was certainly, from my perspective, a thought-provoking (and entirely relevant) way of looking at certain aspects of this topic.

Beyond that, I just think this book is a great synthesis on the topic, and thus a great primer for people less knowledgeable about it. Yes, it is staunchly "gender-critical", and it is feminist. But it is not transphobic in the slightest, unless of course you are a person who believes that acknowledging the fact human beings are a sexually dimorphic species (in short that sex is real, is fundamentally binary and not a social construct) is hateful. Or that disagreeing with the assertion that everyone even has a gender identity is hateful, of course.

The only section I feel could've used a bit more polishing was the one about feminism itself, or at least the currents of feminism which are involved in this particular debate. I felt it lacked a smidge of nuance, and reflected a very anglo-centric and, more problematically perhaps, internet-centric way of looking at things. I wasn't always sure whether the author was pointing the finger at actual (radical?) feminist thinkers and activists, or rather self-appointed "radfems" on the likes of Reddit or Tumblr (those spaces bring out the worst in literally everyone, on every side of every political issue in my experience 😅).

Moreover, while I am, broadly speaking, aligned with the author's more moderate tone and stance within "gender criticism" (compared, once again, to some of the more vitriolic commentators one can find on the Internet), at times I felt like she wasn't entirely justified in her somewhat moralizing attitude towards the anger felt by a lot of other gender-critical women/feminists. This was especially relevant in her section concerning individuals with AGP. I agree 100% with Professor Stock's point that people should not be shamed or stigmatized for a (relatively minor, all things considered) paraphilia they have no control over. I.e. blanket statements such as "all males with AGP (some of whom will transition) are predatory creeps" are gross and don't help anyone. On the other hand, professor Stock also spends two pages detailing the (extremely repulsive and offensive) excesses of bad actors within the trans rights movement who have AGP, and who constitute a big part of its public face. Can she then really be surprised by some of the gut reactions women have to that? Again, I don't condone hatred or vitriol, but at the same time I also kind of understand the reaction, and the author's condemning tone just felt a little off to me as a result.

Conversely, I do not understand the author's (apparent) endorsement of maintaining what is called the "spousal veto" on sex "change" procedures. A similar thing exists for (voluntary!, let's be clear here) sterilization procedures in some countries, and I just think it's wrong either way. Just because you're married to someone doesn't mean you own them or their body. If an adult individual wishes to transition to better their mental health, then it's their choice and that's that. Their spouse should have no say in that whatsoever. However, if the spouse then wishes to divorce the transitioned partner, then that should be respected as well. 🤷🏻‍♀️

To wrap things up: I'm very happy this book managed to get published. I commend Professor Stock on this excellent, empathetic and intellectually rigorous work of analysis and synthesis, and hope this will encourage other gender-critical and feminist-aligned authors to tackle this topic as well.
Profile Image for Deborah Siddoway.
240 reviews7 followers
July 12, 2021
I need to start my review with a disclaimer. First of all, this is not an academic review – simply my own personal response to the book. I would define my feminism as being gender critical. This not an appropriate forum to dissect the hows and whys I came to adopt a gender critical approach in my own thinking, but while gender critical views do inform my feminism, I also think it is important to challenge them, to understand the rationale underlying them, and to consider the issues more broadly, recognising that there are real people who are affected by the ideological issues that arise when one discusses sex and gender, and the conflation of those two terms. This book is an attempt to examine some of these issues, and attempts to do so with compassion, understanding and empathy for women and transpeople who are the most affected by the topics addressed.

The starting point, really, and the crux of why the book came about can be summed up in one statement: "It is now a dictum of modern trans activism that we each have a gender identity." (p 25). In this book, Dr Kathleen Stock deconstructs the underlying philosophical issues surrounding this statement. She begins by offering an introduction to the history that contributed to the development of gender identity and how it came to dominate current feminist discourse.

She then offers two chapters on what sex is and why sex matters, although there is an overt recognition that she would not have to be writing these chapters if these concepts had not been subjected to some degree of challenge, particularly in an academic context. While there is a part of me that finds it ludicrous that someone has to write a chapter on what sex is, it is apparent that this is required if one accepts the proposition that gender identity is what is most important, or argues that sex is nothing more than a social construct.

By the time I got to the chapter on What Makes a Woman, I have to confess to feeling quite emotional, particularly as Stock turned to what she terms as 'the witch question', which is the one which asks whether or not you believe that trans women are women. Commenting on how the desire to be kind can lead to that question being answered in the affirmative, what struck me was her observation that the question itself is one that is often wielded to shut women up, and the 'trans women are women' statement is certainly one that appears on social media as an all-powerful mantra, designed to stop any discussion of the issue.

Stock also points to the growing trend of affirming gender identity within the criminal justice system. This, for me, is something I find particularly troubling. As Stock observes, when crimes are reported by the press as being perpetrated by women - females - it misleads the public into thinking that women are just as likely as men to commit crimes that are violent or sexual in nature. When they are recorded as being 'female' crimes because on the sole basis that a perpetrator identifies as female, as Stock rightly observes, this compromises the data that could be used to combat violence against women.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, was her discussion around the idea of 'women as social', that is being a woman is linked to performative social roles. She turns, albeit briefly, to historic issues regarding slavery and race and whether black women were considered as women (see in particular 165, 166). I found this a particularly interesting discussion, but felt that it could have been taken further, particularly as to how the narrative of the anti-slavery movement was adopted by early feminists. Women were able to argue that their rights were as non-existent as those of enslaved black people and use that comparator as a tool to begin to speak out for women - all women. (See in particular Midgley's book Women Against Slavery).

The chapter that really got to me, was 'Immersed in a Fiction'. Legal fictions have never served women well. One of the most damaging was that married women had no legal identity of their own on their marriage and came under the 'cover' of their husbands. They were unable to make contracts, own their own property, speak out for themselves. It really was as though someone threw Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility over them from the moment of their marriage. Again, this was a chapter that I felt that Stock could really have taken much further. As I was reading, I kept waiting for the word 'gaslighting' to appear. The demand that women ignore the evidence of their eyes and call someone who is male female, is one that requires compliance or cooperation. Many women choose to affirm a gender identity out of compassion or kindness. But the demand for acceptance of gender identity without question can be manipulative, controlling, coercive and potentially very dangerous for women, especially in settings where they have been required to allow male born people into their sex-segregated spaces with no way of telling whether or not the person they are made to accommodate is safe or a potential threat.

Stock moves on to discuss the ideological creep into the legal justice system generally, noting that the Equal Treatment Bench Book was heavily influenced by Stonewall. This is something that has long troubled me. The English legal system has an established history of allowing the law to evolve organically and lobby groups should have no place in dictating how judges should approach the matters that come before them. Justice should not only be done, but it should be seen to be done. It is difficult to reconcile this objective with a procedural handbook heavily influenced by an organisation such as Stonewall.

The requirement to force women to refer to their rapists as 'she' is one that Stock also reports on, and her commentary on this is far more measured than what I (and indeed, most women) would have employed. Indeed, her discussion of what she terms sex-incongruent language is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. To my mind, it is another form of silencing women - your brain is working so hard to try and accommodate the pronouns that have been required that it slows your thinking. It reminded me of those times I was told to watch my tone in an argument. It causes you to police your own language – you are so busy thinking about how to say something that what you are saying loses its imperative – and power.

The book concludes with a chapter on how to create a better activism for both women and trans activists going forward, arguing that neither are well-served by the current discourse around both. In my view, this is a really positive way to bring her discussion of the issues to a close. There is a toxicity that has grown around any discussion of the issues, and it is right to look to alternative approaches to move forward.

There is a lot to take from this book, and it certainly is a useful tool to understanding some of the issues around sex and gender and why it is important to differentiate between the two concepts. I hope it generates some sensible discussion between the two very polarised positions. Judging by some of the reviews I have seen about this book, however, I fear that those who do not want to see why reality matters for women will just keep on shouting.
July 5, 2021
This book is absolute bull shit. It has nothing at all go do with being trans. This woman has used her intelligence to construct a house of cards which panders to prejudice. Evil indeed are those that use there intelligence to denigrate and promote hatred towards others. It's dangerous trash. She knows absolutely nothing about being transgender the horror of bigotry. I challenge this woman to a decent conversation. She might learn something other than gushing dangerous nonsense to profit by at the expense of the weakest in our society. Shame on her and the profiteering publishers
Profile Image for Lee.
7 reviews12 followers
May 17, 2021
A solid piece of philosophy examining the current arguments around the complex topics of sex, gender identity, trans activism and feminism. Stock articulates a middle way, acknowledging why we must argue for trans rights whilst also arguing for protecting women’s rights and she does so in a way that does not fall prey to either extreme end of the current stances on these issues. A mature, well thought through contribution. A copy should be required reading for all legislators.
Profile Image for Sam Worby.
225 reviews13 followers
May 17, 2021
An interesting and thought provoking read. More philosophical than the non-fiction I usually read, but clearly explained and mostly in plain English. A really important book on an important topic.
Profile Image for Meera.
8 reviews1 follower
December 15, 2022
I'll agree with Stock that we need better terminology, as "gender" has several easily confused meanings. We are badly in need of systematic surveys of trans people that can move us into the realm of evidence-based debate rather than argumention based on philosophical theories and anecdotal evidence. It is certainly true that many cis people repeat slogans like "trans women are women" and "gender is a social construct" without doing the readings and reflecting on what these mean.

Stock caricatures standpoint epistemology as "cis people need to shut up." Activist sloganeering aside, the point of the concept is that trans people have insight into our own experiences that non-trans people do not. Stock's experience as a GNC lesbian does give her insight into gender non conformity, but it does not mean she understands dysphoria or the dangers that come with being visibly trans. This book is, ironically, a pretty great exhibit of how not being a member of an oppressed group limits your understanding of that group's experience, even if you approach the discussion with good intentions and try to back yourself up with evidence.

For example, Stock cites a study showing that less than half of trans people of trans people have had genital surgery and claims "it is clear that many trans people are not seeking surgery." This fails to consider that many trans people want to have surgery but aren't able to access it. To trans people, this is blindingly obvious, but Stock overlooks it.

Stock's back-of-the-envelope calculations rely on incomplete data to make misleading and ludicrous claims. She claims that trans people have a lower murder rate than the rest of the population and disputes that trans people (especially youth) have higher rates of suicide than their cis counterparts. Additionally, she is skeptical that the long waiting lists for medical transition contribute to suicide. The problem with these claims is that there isn't as of yet a consistent count of trans people (which she admits in a later chapter), that trans bodies often aren't identified as such, and that not all trans people who want to transition are on the GIDS waiting list. Stock also ignores research that contradicts her claims while lamenting the lack of such research about trans people, which I will chalk up to ignorance rather than bad faith.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Stock makes some valid points about the pitiable state of trans discourse and the shortcomings of various theories of gender, but she fails to understand the material reality of trans people.
Profile Image for Christine Hankinson.
17 reviews12 followers
June 4, 2021
Necessary read. Balanced, intelligent and intellectually satisfying.

Written to take the heat out of the discourse not to inflame it. Does two very important things it reveals the utter confusion of the use of the word gender and it’s meanings and it puts back in place what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she said women are made. Things we took for granted and deeply understood but have been misrepresented and run with since the nineties.
This must have been very hard work as subject is so toxic and heated and mIsinformed.
Oh and I’m glad I now get what third wave feminism is and why I felt no truth in queer theory and resented how women’s studies was so effectively erased by gender studies in the nineties. Yes women do exist. We are a concept. Not all alike, but an understandable concept... like trees are Kathleen ably said.
It’s also very annoying that saying that women exist and are adult females labels one as right wing.. times are a changing, we are on the nursery slopes and without excluding trans gender people we will get there and stop the folly of self ID and non debate.
4 reviews
May 9, 2021
Enjoyed it

Stock goes through the current debate in an unbiased way giving fair hearing to both sides before coming to a fair conclusion. Maybe not the polemic some would.have wanted, but better for it.
Profile Image for Redfox5.
1,561 reviews56 followers
May 22, 2021
Brought this after seeing some buzz about it on Twitter. I thought this was a fair and balanced view looking at the conflict between Women's rights & Trans rights. A reminder of why sex is important and should always take precedence over gender. Would recommend.
Profile Image for Sara Reis.
35 reviews7 followers
August 11, 2021
You know it's an intellectually honest piece of work when the author purports to dissect the arguments of her ideological opponents as they themselves would have made them, rather than make them into strawmen or simplistic versions and therefore easier to attack.

This is a thoroughly analytical but surprisingly accessible book that goes back to basics to explain where we are with trans activism and the clashes with a significant section of (grassroots) feminist and LGB groups. It takes you through the history of gender identity theories and how they are used by different progressive groups to form their policy asks. And how in many cases these groups are getting it wrong, for both trans people and women.

I quite liked the last chapter, in which the author suggests new direction lines for trans, feminist and gay & bisexual activism. In particular, I really liked her list of research topics of surprisingly basic things we don't know that would be really beneficial for these activist groups (including how many trans people there actually are in the UK) and their effective political lobbying on behalf of the people they purport to represent.

This is a really informative and rational book. Not a ounce of hate in sight:

"Trans people are trans people. We should get over it. They deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do. Their transness makes no difference to any of this. What trans people don't deserve, however, is to be publicly misrepresented in philosophical terms that make no sense; or to have their everyday struggles instrumentalised in the name of political initiatives most didn't ask for, and which alienate other groups by rigidly encroaching on their hard-won rights. Nor do trans people deserve to be terrified by activist propaganda into thinking themselves more vulnerable to violence than they are."

Kathleen doesn't shy away from criticising different feminist schools of thought and mainstream feminist organisations, which tells you all you need to know about her steadfast analytical approach to this issue (she is, after all, a philosopher).

Definitely worth reading for a rigorous yet accessible dissection of current trans activism.

(In my opinion, it is telling that the one-star reviews to this book so far are ad hominem attacks, rather than substantive critiques to the book content, while there are plenty of 4-5 start reviews which don't agree with the author in some points.)
Profile Image for melis.
241 reviews95 followers
July 24, 2021
the title is a bit misleading because it's got (almost) nothing to do with the content. it's also ironic if you think that stock tries a bit too hard to distance herself from radical feminists (probably because she wants to reach a wider audience), calling their work simplistic without actually taking the time to properly reference these works and explain their thoughts, yet attempting to "criticise" them.
Profile Image for rogue feminist.
5 reviews12 followers
July 30, 2021
peepee poopoo
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Amelia.
412 reviews7 followers
January 21, 2022
"If–big if–it’s really true that women are biologically determined to be domestic, submissive, and so on, redefining WOMAN as something nonbiological won’t save them from that fate. All it will do is distractingly change the subject to a different kind of people. Meanwhile, the adult human females will still be there, working away in the kitchens and nurseries and bedrooms, subjugated by their biology."

Kathleen Stock, previously a professor prior to her termination for wrongthink, is both evocative and brave. Daring to write on a topic so highly contested, so prolific that even dissenters venture to not open their mouths due to fear of ostracization in the world of Forstater and Rowling, Stock offers a well-rounded, formulaic, and rather polite critique of modern day language surrounding the Trans Rights Movements.

Inside, she argues that there should be a vocabulary that can be used by all parties while not taking language away from another group. She offers and answers questions, such as "What is a woman?" and "What constitutes homosexuality?"--questions I never thought needed to be fleshed out and defined in the ways Stock writes when I was in 12th grade ten years ago. Oh, how the times change. But within her search for answers, she takes it upon herself to research and break down the definitions of both Trans Rights Activists and those within the Queer Movement.

Interestingly, she mentions the act of identification. One cannot "identify" without having a referent. So, when a male "identifies" as a woman (and more aggressively, a female, but that's a different conversation), the male must have an idea of what "woman" is. Yet, when asked what makes a woman, radical feminists receive the following cop-out answer: "A woman is whoever says they're a woman." We can take this two ways--an essentialist way, or a gender critical way. Either a woman is, as the dictionary states, an "adult human female", OR a woman is made up of her gender roles (domestic, feminine, make-up, docile, obedient). And thus offers the PoMo conundrum: words are used to define things, so what happens when the words we use no longer have definitions?

This, to me, is the very heart of Stock's book. She is provocative, evocative, and most importantly to those who would dislike her, empathetic.
Profile Image for Evoli.
36 reviews31 followers
September 8, 2022
A very controversial book, as the various positive and negative reviews illustrate. Very fitting to the just as controversial gender topic!

This book is a solid piece of of philosophy, which examines the current arguments surrounding the convoluted themes of biological sex, gender (identity), feminism and trans activism. The thought provoking book is very balanced in presenting diverse arguments. One can observe that it is well researched, taking into account a myriad of different people with their perspectives on the juxtaposition of the above mentioned topics. The arguments seem to be thorough and tight, while manoeuvring in certain ambiguities or coherence gaps.

In “Material Girls”, Kathleen Stock articulates a middle way, acknowledging why we ought to argue for trans rights, whilst simultaneously also arguing for protecting women’s rights. Kathleen Stock argues and presents the information in a very mature and thought through manner.
For sure an intellectually satisfying, compassionate and utterly reasonable book that convincingly contributes to the current debates, while being written in (mostly) plain English.

Despite all the mentioned positive characteristics, the book will surely not persuade all readers of its set out arguments. Nevertheless, it will present a possibility for the reader to pause for thoughts and perhaps also allow for a deeper dive into the variety of perspectives.

Definitely a recommendable read for anyone who is interested in participating or just being more knowledgable regarding public discussions around the aforementioned topics. An important book on an important topic!
Profile Image for Stacey Handler.
116 reviews4 followers
October 14, 2021
Well written, if a little dry, introduction to why UK feminists are fighting so hard against the fantasy that men can ever become women. If you aren't in the fight, this is a good primer, laying out all the facts of what is a woman and why sex matters. It's pretty dismissive of some feminists who Stock doesn't personally like, and she continues to call men she/her and appears to put the needs of AGP men above those of their ex-wives (she gives one line over to their plight) but I'd still recommend this book, though it's very dry in places and was a slow read for me.
1 review
July 26, 2021
these feminists who’s entire argument is about equality are starting to act like the very men who oppress them because men use this argument that feminism is taking away from their rights when it’s absolutely not and now these cis women are acting like trans people are taking away their rights which they’re absolutely not it’s honestly v hypocritical.
Profile Image for Amber.
11 reviews
August 20, 2021
Dull and dry, took months to finish, and doesn't contain anything new that hasn't previously been covered by feminists.

Not sure why Stock thinks it's appropriate to name and shame established feminists like Sheila Jeffreys and Julia Long for their refusal to 'be nice' to trans-identifying men, even those on 'our side'. Seems unprofessional and misogynistic.
Profile Image for Davia Finch.
42 reviews23 followers
September 7, 2022
Immersed in Her Own Fiction

As with every book I’ve read by an anti-trans activist (ATA), I could write a book of equal length detailing the misunderstandings, misrepresentations, bias, prejudice, and factual inaccuracies contained in it. I have neither the time nor the patience to do so, so I’ll focus on a few of the most egregious problems with Stock’s book and pass over the rest in silence.

Like all ATAs, Stock objects to something she calls ‘gender identity theory,’ and like all ATAs, she has either failed to understand current scientific thinking on the subject (the 'theory') or deliberately misrepresented it.

It’s safe to say that anyone who argues that trans activists (TAs) are ‘denying biology/science/reality’ has misunderstood what they're saying. This is the first and most obvious problem with Stock’s book. No one is denying that, at the biological level, reproduction is determined by chromosomes, gonads, gametes, hormones, and internal and external reproductive anatomy. What TAs (and the science) are saying is that there is a difference between all this biology and a person’s lived experience as a particular gender. This is the difference between the small organic structures known as chromosomes and the consciousness of the person who is aware that they are an organism with small organic structures known as chromosomes. Or like the difference between a physical book and the meaning of the words contained in the book. I don’t really care what you think of ‘gender identity theory,’ you cannot equate these two very different things (biology, controlled by chemical reactions; and consciousness, controlled by perceptions) and that's what the terms are referring to.

When we talk about sex, we’re talking specifically about all the biology responsible for reproductive processes at the cellular level; when we talk about gender, we’re talking specifically about our shared experience as conscious, self-aware people who live in a culture that has a lot to say about what people with particular biological features should do. When we say: ‘gender is a social construct,’ this is what we mean: our understanding of ourselves as reproductive beings cannot be divorced from the way we talk about reproduction; our ‘discourse’ shapes how we think and feel about it.

Stock and all the other ATAs would instead like you to equate these two things (sex = gender) and pretend that nothing we think, feel, or say about our roles as reproductive beings has any relevance. It all begins and ends with biology. Gender is just some sort of airy epiphenomenon detached from 'reality.' This is biological essentialism; it’s reductive, it’s regressive, and it’s simply not true. Stock should know better, as a feminist, and perhaps if she’d understood what TAs are saying she would have. But she hasn’t. Reality does matter. But not just biological reality; ALL of it. It’s not TAs who are denying reality in this debate; it’s ATAs.

The argument that TAs are ‘denying reality’ is even more absurd when you remember that there are thousands of researchers all over the world with PhDs in various branches of biology, medicine, neurology, cognition, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., actively utilizing this distinction every day in their research. How Stock, a philosopher, has managed to convince herself that she’s in a position to tell all these scientists that they’re not doing science is only one of the many baffling mysteries of her book.

To illustrate her ignorance with a quote:

“If I’m right about the identification model, not everyone has a gender identity.”

She’s not right, according to the science, and everyone does have a gender identity.

Gender identity has been used in the field of gender science for at least 50+ years now, and there it has a particular meaning, which is (more or less) a person’s self-understanding when it comes to gender. As everyone who is not in a vegetative state has some kind of understanding of themselves in relation to cultural norms for gender, it is absolutely certain that every person has a gender identity of one sort or another. That’s just how the term is used by researchers. The only conclusion I can draw from Stock’s peculiar statement is that she is unfamiliar with the entire field of gender science. A rather glaring oversight if you’re going to write a book about 'gender identity theory.'

Gender identity, in this sense, is no different from other forms of identity, like racial identity, religious identity, etc. They all refer to a person’s self-understanding in relation to cultural norms in some specific area and how that impacts their perceptions, self-esteem, etc. Gender identity is not a ‘thing,’ like a little tumor in the brain that some people have and some people don't, but a portion of one’s total self-understanding—that portion relating to gender. What makes gender identity unusual and different from most other areas of identity is that it seems to be strongly influenced by an innate (biological, genetic or epigenetic) bias: people seem to come into the world predisposed to model one gender or another, whether that’s ‘boy/man,’ ‘girl/woman,’ or something more ambiguous. This innate bias is what Stoller is referring to in his 1968 book, Sex and Gender, as ‘core gender identity,’ and it’s best understood, in my opinion, as an innate gender orientation equivalent to (but on the other side of) sexual orientation.

If we can accept that sexual orientation may be innate, there is no good reason to reject the hypothesis that gender orientation is also innate, and a good deal of scientific evidence already exists to support that claim (such as twin studies, early childhood developmental studies, and neuroanatomical studies). The power of this innate bias is particularly clear in the David Reimer case, and in the case of intersex people, who often have a strong identification with one gender or the other regardless of their particular anatomical characteristics, chromosomal makeup, or how they were raised. To put this in better perspective, we can say that a person is born with an innate bias toward finding one (or more) particular gender(s) attractive (sexual orientation) but that from this innate bias, over time, one develops a sexual identity (as, for example, a lesbian) which is not merely one’s sexual preference (a physiological response to stimuli) but all of the other things that go along with it in our culture (such as an awareness of a history of oppression, internalized homophobia, etc.). Gender orientation -> gender identity; sexual orientation -> sexual identity; biology -> psychosocial self-understanding.

To give Stock a hand, then, what she’s actually objecting to is not gender identity (a person’s self-understanding) but what I’m calling gender orientation (the innate bias toward internalizing one gender role or the other). As the importance of mastering one’s reproductive role (in the case of humans, through imitation) can hardly be overstated, one can’t readily dismiss such a bias as a mere ‘feeling’ unless one is also ready to dismiss similar very strong, innate feelings, such as feelings of attraction toward one gender/sex or another (sexual orientation) or the feeling of fear one experiences when faced by a tiger. Sexual desire is a feeling, but we wouldn’t (hopefully) force anyone to have sexual relations with someone they're not attracted to and tell them their ‘feelings’ are irrelevant. Nor would we (hopefully) force women to bear children if they 'didn’t feel like it' or work without pay if they 'didn't feel like it.' The entire social world is constructed around ‘feelings’ (justice, freedom, etc.) and nobody seems to object when people make important, life-altering decisions based on them—except when it comes to gender. When it comes to how one feels about one’s place in the social-reproductive landscape, ATAs couldn’t consider a person's feelings any less relevant.

These gender feelings (the desire to be considered a man or woman or other gender, regardless of one’s physical characteristics) are quite strong (speaking from personal experience) and people are quite willing to die for them, which is why suicide rates skyrocket in the trans community when people are forced to repress them. Other people are quite ready to murder trans people for having those feelings, too, whether directly or through the denial of adequate healthcare and legal protections. (One hopes that ATAs would take those feelings seriously. Alas, one is likely to be disappointed, since many ATAs deny that transphobia exists.)

As an aside (since I’m here), when a trans person says they ‘feel like a man (or a woman)’ they are not referring to some kind of specific sensory quality, like a texture or smell; they’re referring to a feeling of rightness or wrongness about how they fit in the world. This is a cognitive feeling, the same kind of feeling that lets you know you’re doing something you don't like. (No one demands to know what that 'feels' like before you stop doing it.) No trans person is claiming, therefore, that men or women ‘feel’ a particular way, like a bowl of warm porridge; only that it feels wrong and unpleasant to be forced to live and identify as a kind of person they’re not. I really shouldn’t have to explain it, but … “I feel like a woman” is a metaphor, like “I feel on top of the world.” It's not meant to be taken literally. (“Throw her in the loony bin, she thinks she’s on Mt. Everest!”) “I feel like a man/woman” is simply the easiest and most comprehensible way to communicate a feeling which is otherwise extremely difficult to describe.

As an alternative to ‘gender identity theory’ (people have an innate sense of their own gender), Stock proposes that trans people (and their allies) are ‘immersed in a fiction’:

“My hypothesis is that at least some of the time many trans and non-trans people alike are immersed in a fiction; the fiction that they themselves, or others around them, have literally changed sex.”

Stock proposes that trans people immerse themselves in this fiction to escape gender dysphoria. The problem is, there is no good reason to accept her hypothesis, and why it seems any more plausible than having an innate sense of gender is anyone's guess.

Stock seems to locate the origin of gender dysphoria in a ‘misalignment’ with gender norms and ideals. But every person is misaligned to one degree or another, and it doesn’t explain why some people, in particular, identify so strongly with an opposite sex stereotype (or androgynous stereotype) that they will go so far as to immerse themselves in this fiction. Many people very far from cultural norms do not so immerse themselves (e.g., butch lesbians, feminine gay men), and many who largely conform to cultural norms do so immerse themselves (e.g., late transitioning trans people who have lived most of their adult lives unexceptionally as a member of their assigned sex). How does Stock explain this discrepancy? She doesn’t.

Another reason she proposes for gender dysphoria is sexual harassment, and certainly a great many, if not most, young women have experienced unwanted attention from men. But very few of these women go so far as to try to ‘identify out of womanhood’ (to quote a popular gender critical phrase). What sets these people apart? No idea.

Why do some feminine gay men (to raise another of Stock’s ad hoc etiologies) deal with their internalized homophobia by identifying as women when certainly many, if not most, gay men must learn to deal with internalized homophobia growing up in a homophobic culture? And what good would it do them, in any case, to ‘identify out of being gay’ in a highly transphobic culture? It doesn’t make sense to deal with your internalized homophobia by hefting a dump truck's worth of internalized transphobia. For that matter, why aren’t trans people identifying out of being trans into being gay or lesbian to escape their internalized transphobia? It's a mystery.

And why would young women try to avoid unwanted attention from men by adopting an identity which earns them unwanted attention—of a different sort—from just about everyone they meet—family, friends, teachers, employers, landlords, medical workers, law enforcement officers, etc.? Is it really easier to be a trans man in this culture than to be a cis woman? Wouldn't it be easier to take self-defense? Stock has no way to explain any of these obvious objections.

She also doesn’t explain why gender dysphoria is the one type of mental discomfort which leads to immersing yourself in a fiction. Why don’t poor people ‘immerse themselves in a fiction’ of being rich? Why don’t dissatisfied employees immerse themselves in the fiction that their job is quite nice, actually? Why don’t sick people immerse themselves in the fiction that they’re well? Why don’t trans people immerse themselves in the fiction that they’re not discriminated against? Stock doesn’t bother to explain why gender dysphoria, alone, out of all the forms of discomfort people experience, leads people to immerse themselves in a fiction. Her hypothesis creates a bigger mystery than the mystery it proposes to solve.

It also doesn’t accurately reflect the lived experience of trans people. As a trans person, I have never been able to avoid the awareness that I have a body I don’t want to have. I have never spent hours or days or weeks floating along in the fiction that I have the body I want. I don’t think I could string two minutes together maintaining the kind of suspension of disbelief that would be required. I do immerse myself in fiction all the time—watching Netflix, reading a book—but these experiences have nothing to do with pretending I don’t have a body I don’t want to have; they simply help me take my mind off a fact I can’t do anything about. If I get upset if a person misgenders me, it’s not because they’re spoiling my immersion, but because it reminds me of a painful fact I’d rather not think about. If you point out that someone is disabled and they get irritated, is it because you’ve ruined their immersion in the fantasy that they are not disabled? Or is it, perhaps, that they think you’re being incredibly rude?

Stock not only does nothing to address any of the problems with her theory, but she doesn’t even bother to provide any evidence that it may be true. It’s just something that occurred to her one day that seemed superficially plausible and which she presented without any further serious reflection. Hardly surprising, I suppose, considering:

“For most of my professional life, I have focused on exploring questions to do with fiction and imagination.”

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Profile Image for delievi.
40 reviews3 followers
July 28, 2021
FIRST OF ALL i agree with melis, but i still do believe that this can be an intermediate introduction to those who already have some knowledge regarding the topic but lack the “whole” picture and why most of that picture is flawed in many political and philosophical levels, (this book doesn’t give a well-rounded account of radical feminist theory AT ALL and thats why it’s getting 3 stars). nevertheless, not everyone can read jeffreys first because they are too much afflicted with the illness known as “worrying about people’s feelings more than literal facts and truths” and i think stock is unfortunately afflicted too 😩
Profile Image for blannah.
49 reviews
April 1, 2022
My main issue with this book was that the author was repeatedly SO CLOSE to making a good point, but then would just move past and willingly run into a wall. The tone is so smug yet bitter and self righteous that I cannot accept this as a “neutral academic take” on the issue.
I could rant about the damage this book does forever, but I guess I’ll have to thank the author for challenging and ultimately reaffirming my beliefs and understanding of gender identity.
(Also, the cover?? Wtf)
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