The truth about gender

Some months ago I saw Richard Dawkins recommend on Twitter a new book called The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, by Debra Soh. Decided to take a look at it, because, why not? Science is cool. It turns out that it's a decent book, flawed (repetitive and politically naïve—the author seems to think that authoritarian leftists and reactionaries are equally dangerous) but useful as a corrective to the "culturalist" (idealist, postmodernist) gender madness that pervades the upper echelons of our society. Soh knows her science and has no trouble debunking the simplistic social constructionism of many feminist activists. The book has a lot of interesting information on the nature of gender and sexual orientation, and gets quite intricate in its long discussions of all the bewildering issues and controversies with regard to transgenderism. Soh also offers some sound, albeit commonsensical, advice to the many parents who agonize over how to raise their children in the context of mass cultural and institutional confusions about gender. It seems large numbers of people actively discourage their children from pursuing interests that are gender-typical, for instance not allowing daughters to play with dolls or pressuring sons to engage in feminine activities (beauty contests, ballet classes, etc.) even when it's clear they don't want to! As if there's something terribly wrong with belonging to the over-90 percent of people who unproblematically identify with their birth sex and pursue modes of self-expression coincident with that! You wouldn't believe the kinds of truly harmful insanity Soh describes, like doctors and parents encouraging young children who say they don't identify as their birth sex to actually transition to the opposite gender (only, in many cases, to want to detransition years later). Years from now, how many suicides and ruined lives will have resulted from the "woke" fetish of becoming the opposite gender?

So the book performs some useful services. But frankly, these gender wars, or even "cultural" issues in general—identity politics—have never overwhelmingly interested me, however important they often are. Whether fighting for trans rights or fighting against the undeniable harms of cancel culture, I think culturalism gets more attention on the left than it deserves, crowding out interest in other grave social problems. It would be nice if more activists would concentrate on, say, energy policy—like advocating for nuclear energy, which has to be a major element in any effort to combat global warming. (Renewable energy alone is woefully inadequate, not least because it's rarely "alone"; it's used in conjunction with natural gas, which contributes to global warming.) Issues of "identity" are cool, sexy, galvanizing, instantly polarizing and attention-grabbing; energy policy or economic policy, or work in the labor movement, is less flashy, so it doesn't always draw the collective attention commensurate with its importance. This is unfortunate.

Anyway, while reading the book I excerpted a few passages that I thought were informative and clarifying. They're copied below. I think Soh is trustworthy: she has a PhD, she's steeped in the scientific literature, she began as a fervent social constructionist but completely changed her mind once seeing what research had to say, she's aware of studies that come to conclusions different from hers but explains what's wrong with them (not every study's conclusions are right, after all), and she's very sympathetic to the "social justice" concerns of activists. Overall, the book is pretty reasonable.


Postscript, written in a moment of inadvisable lack of self-censorship: Despite the consensus among liberal and intellectual circles, I don't think people actually believe gender, or sexual identity, is entirely socially constructed. It's something they say (because they're supposed to say it), but it's not something they deeply believe. The differences between men and women are too profound for anyone to really believe they're totally artificial, solely the product of how people were socialized as children. The wonderful female tendency to laugh and smile far more often than men: is that a result of their being universally taught to laugh and smile a lot?? They themselves, women and girls, don't bring anything to the table, they're just socially pressured and manipulated into regular bursts of giggling and spontaneous beaming smiles a thousand times a day? Men's brutish assertiveness and aggressiveness: were they taught to act that way? Going back millennia? Every generation in every society in history has been socialized so that the males are a bunch of aggressive gorillas? Women's obvious emotional intelligence (or 'sensitivity'): were they taught that? Men's emotional coarseness: were they everywhere taught to be so coarse? Men's wolfish hungry-eyes syndrome whenever they see an attractive woman: have they been—somehow—socialized in every society to react that way, to drool over women? That spontaneous reaction, instantaneous and reflexive, to seeing a good-looking woman is just a social artifact?? (But if it isn't, then male and female brains are innately different after all!) I mean, hordes of liberal and left-wing academics pretend to believe these things, because in order to have a successful career it's important to project idiocy and groupthink, but I doubt many of them truly believe it. I even doubt most of them know what they actually believe. They just think and write as they're supposed to. They are the perfect specimens of socialization—they should study themselves if they're interested in "socialization."

No reasonable person thinks, for example, that which sex you're attracted to is socially constructed. Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, tend to insist they have no control over it. It isn't a choice, and it's so deeply rooted in your mind it can't be a mere result of experiences you've had ("social constructions"). Why shouldn't the same be true of sexual identity, or "gender"? Where would the painful, debilitating gender dysphoria of trans people come from if not from something deeply rooted in their brain, something biological? And what else can explain the differences between particular trans and cis people who have had more or less the same socialization?

The previous two paragraphs basically suffice to refute a large amount of postmodern "blank slate" academic literature going back to the 1960s. Mockery can refute, believe it or not. (This semi-facetious statement follows Nietzsche, who didn't have much respect for the intellectual class.) It's fine, and sometimes useful, to have scores of nuanced and verbose academic articles, but, as so often, at its core the matter is rather simple and you only have to be reasonable in order to get at the truth. The basic truths about humans and society are rarely such difficult and arcane issues as intellectuals want you to think.

Anyway, here are some excerpts:

Biological sex is either male or female. Contrary to what is commonly believed, sex is defined not by chromosomes or our genitals or hormonal profiles, but by gametes, which are mature reproductive cells. There are only two types of gametes: small ones called sperm that are produced by males, and large ones called eggs that are produced by females. There are no intermediate types of gametes between egg and sperm cells. Sex is therefore binary. It is not a spectrum.

By contrast, gender identity is how we feel in relation to our sex, regarding whether we feel masculine or feminine. Gender expression is the external manifestation of our gender identity, or how we express our gender through our appearance, like clothing and hairstyle choices and mannerisms...

When sperm fertilizes an egg at conception, the baby will be either female or male. [But she discusses intersex babies as well, in other passages.] This biology will influence hormonal exposure in the womb, as well as the child’s resulting gender identity. At about seven weeks, if the embryo is male, the testes will begin to secrete testosterone, masculinizing the brain. If the embryo is female, this process does not occur.

There are thousands of studies showing the effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain. In fact, this exposure to testosterone has a powerful effect on the ways in which male and female brains grow. In a 2016 study in Nature’s Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that testosterone exposure alters the programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth, leading to differences between the sexes before the brain has finished developing in utero.

Although sex and gender are both biologically based, it isn’t accurate to use them interchangeably. Nowadays, gender is used almost exclusively, even when a person is actually referring to sex. When a baby gorilla was born at a public zoo in Toronto, journalists happily shared the news that the gorilla’s gender would be announced shortly. But animals, including intelligent ones like gorillas, don’t have a gender. They have a sex.

As discussed earlier, sex is determined by gametes, as opposed to a person’s genitalia. In the case of someone who identifies as transgender, sex remains male or female and is unchangeable from birth, since transitioning doesn’t change a person’s sex; it only changes their gender. [So, apparently, a trans woman is still technically male because her gametes haven’t changed.]

Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behavior. These differences are not due to the postnatal environment or societal messaging. Gender is indeed biological and not due to socialization.

…Whether a trait is deemed “masculine” or “feminine” is culturally defined, but whether a person gravitates toward traits that are considered masculine or feminine is driven by biology. For example, in the Western world, a shaved head is viewed as masculine, and the majority of people sporting a shaved head are men. For women who choose to shave their head as an expression of who they are, they are likely more masculine than the average woman, and will probably be more male-typical in other areas of their life, too. From a biological standpoint, compared with other women, there’s a good chance they were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero.

…Activists will point to intersex people as evidence that biology doesn’t always predict one’s gender. But because intersex people possess a mix of both female and male characteristics, this can lead to having a gender identity that is different from the way one appears to the outside world. So, even in these cases, biology is still dictating a person’s sense of gender. To suggest that this group proves that gender is completely unrelated to biology, or that a person’s sense of gender in the brain somehow operates in a way that is distinct from the rest of their body, is flawed and foolish.

Studies have shown that sex differences exist across a wide range of cognitive abilities, including verbal fluency and mental rotation. In studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), which measures brain regions that “light up” from changes in neuronal activity during a particular task, women on average outperform men on the former, while men on average outperform women on the latter.

Gendered interests are predicted by this exposure [to testosterone in utero]—higher levels are associated with male-typical interests and behaviors, regardless of whether the baby is male or female. These interests include a preference for mechanically interesting objects and systemizing occupations in adulthood. Lower levels are associated with a preference for people-oriented activities and occupations, stemming from evolutionary roots. Women, who are tasked with the role of bearing children, evolved to be more sociable, empathic, and people-focused, while men, as hunter-gatherers, were rewarded for strong visuospatial skills and the ability to build and use tools. This explains why STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields tend to be dominated by men.

There are only two genders… Gender is not a spectrum, a continuum, a kaleidoscope, a prism, or any other majestic-sounding metaphor that gender activism has dreamed up.

People who identify as gender nonbinary, or enby for short, don’t identify exclusively as either male or female. Nonbinary identity labels may seem boundless, but they all basically mean that a person identifies, to some extent, as both male and female, or neither. Genderqueer, for example, means a person identifies as neither, both, or a combination therein…

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species, with two types of gametes: eggs and sperm. Intermediate gametes don’t exist. Since biological sex and gender are both defined by these parameters, gender is, by definition, like sex—either male or female; binary and not a spectrum.

…It’s not appropriate to consider everyone who exhibits some degree of gender nonconformity as belonging to a third category of gender. It’s more outdated to assume that someone who is gender-atypical is another category of gender entirely, than to consider them as part of the normal variation you’d expect within female or male, just like any other human trait.

Despite what advocates for social justice might say, sexual orientation is linked not only with gender identity, but also with gender expression. One study showed that roughly 75 percent of boys demonstrating childhood gender nonconformity will grow up to be gay or bisexual. The reasons for this [have to do with] the prenatal environment and the extent to which hormones masculinized the developing brain.

…Greater exposure to prenatal testosterone is associated with male-typical interests and behaviors and sexual attraction to women, regardless of whether the individual is male or female. Boys, for instance, are typically exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb, and tend to gravitate toward mechanical toys, like trucks, and being sexually attracted to women upon reaching puberty. A boy who is exposed to lower levels of testosterone is more likely to be female-typical when he is born, gravitating toward toys and activities that girls prefer, like dolls and playing house, since girls are also generally exposed to lower levels of testosterone. He will also be sexually attracted to men in adulthood.

[Should children who are gender dysphoric transition to the opposite gender? No. Here’s why:] Across all eleven long-term studies ever done on gender dysphoric children, between 60 and 90 percent desist by puberty. Desistence refers to the phenomenon of gender dysphoria remitting. A child who has desisted will no longer feel dysphoric about their birth sex. These kids…are more likely to grow up to be gay in adulthood, not transgender.

…Upon reaching puberty and developing romantic interest in their peers, the majority of children who once felt discomfort with their bodies grow to be comfortable in them. This is because gender identity is flexible in prepubescent children and grows more stable with development and age.

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