Monday, 27 February 2017

The Case Against Gender: a review of Sheila Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts

  • Jeffreys, Sheila. (2014). Gender Hurts, London and New York: Routledge
  • Hausman, Bernice L. (1995). Changing Sex: Transexuality, Technology and the Idea of Gender, Durham and London: Duke University Press

I shall postpone necessary preliminary remarks and dive head-first into the juicy outrageous bits. Jeffreys pulls no punches, and combines academic analysis with shocking and uncomfortable anecdotes and images. There are no ‘trigger warnings’, and her robust, matter-of-fact style will appear shocking to some readers. Under the section heading ‘Surgery for male-bodied transgenders’, we learn of the difficulties experienced by people with surgically constructed vaginas:

In one case […] the skin of the scrotum that had been used in the constructed vagina had not had electrolysis to remove the pubic hair and the hair grew inside the vagina: ‘One day I was making love and something didn’t feel right. There was this little ball of hair like a Brillo pad in my vagina.’ A surgeon pulled the hair out of him but warned it would continually grow back[i].

Gender Hurts devotes an entire chapter to the experiences of women married to men who transgender in middle age. Typically, these are heterosexual men with a fetish for cross-dressing. They tend to embrace stereotypical notions of femininity, and their practices place great strain on their wives. Jeffreys describes the experience of Helen Boyd, a women with critical sensibilities who ‘never knew exactly what feeling like a woman was supposed to mean and rejected femininity as socially constructed and constricting’:

…her husband told her he did know what it was to feel like a woman, and it was certainly not what she had ever felt. She explains: “The more I encouraged him to find an identity that felt comfortable and natural to him, the more unnatural he seemed to me. His manners changed, as did the way he used his hands. He flipped his hair and started using a new voice.” She hoped his behaviour was just a “phase” because “I felt as if I were living with Britney Spears. It was like sleeping with the enemy[ii].”

Another chapter is devoted to the issue of women’s spaces, and the morally aggressive politics of the transgender lobby to gain male access to these spaces. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a women’s only event which has been running since 1976, has been repeatedly targeted by transgender activists. In 2010 the tactics used became ‘particularly violent and aggressive’:

Camp Trans […] “vandalised the festival and threatened festival goers”. A flyer being distributed by the activists showed a rather extraordinary degree of woman hating: “A hot load from my monstrous tranny-cock embodies womanhood more than the pieces of menstrual [sic] art your transphobic cunts could ever hope to create[iii]”.

Taken together these three examples sum up Jeffreys’ case against the politics and ideology of transgenderism. She argues that this ideology and its associated practices harm trans people, women and the feminist movement. Gender non conforming children are encouraged to identify as ‘trans’ and risk major health consequences, and gay and lesbian people also suffer.  Her arguments are based around an historical account of transgenderism as a socially constructed phenomenon which grew out of medical practices relating to intersex people and an associated discourse which created the concept of ‘gender identity’. It is this historical account which I will focus on and elaborate, but before I do this I will say a few words about the political context of Gender Hurts and some of the critical comments made about this book.

The political battle between radical feminists and transgender advocates is heated and Jeffreys’ text is without doubt a weapon, a polemic directed straight at both the heart and mind of the reader. The uncompromising use of ‘pronouns of origin’ instead of those preferred by transgender people, the claim that male power is the driving force behind the politics of transgenderism and the insistence that women should create and protect female only spaces – these tenets are all articulated in both an academic and deeply personal register. No wonder then that Gender Hurts provoked a vitriolic response from offended liberals, who denounced it as a politically reactionary exercise in transphobic hate speech. Most of the reviews I read barely engaged with the arguments made in the text, and tended to cast aspersions upon the scholarly and moral integrity of the book instead of explaining why they thought Jeffreys’ ideas and concerns were wrong and unwarranted. Tim R. Johnston, for example, states that:

Jeffreys relies on a very small, controversial, and often outdated set of texts and evidence to support her arguments. She does not acknowledge the controversial or contested nature of this evidence, nor does she entertain significant and established evidence that is critical of her position. Second, the tone of the book is extremely disrespectful, and there are several places where Jeffreys engages in significant misrepresentations of transgender people, their allies, and research. These problems call into question not only the book's academic integrity, but also Jeffreys's scholarly objectivity and rigor.

In a review which is best described as apoplectic and somewhat unhinged, ‘Overland’ reviewer Lia Incognita simply refuses to engage with any of Jeffreys’ arguments on moral grounds. Because Gender Hurts commits the cardinal sin of not accepting the truth of the statement ‘transwomen are women’, it is simply impossible that any of the arguments have any merit whatsoever. The closest she gets to engaging with the text is through quoting Judith Butler, who very clearly has not read the book herself:

“If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly misunderstands its terms.  In her view, a trans person is ‘constructed’ by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct.  But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us.  We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. [...]
One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself ‘constructed’ and, therefore, not real.  And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality.  I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.”

In order to clarify my thoughts on these objections to Gender Hurts, I carefully examined the social construction arguments made by Jeffreys’ and the texts she uses to develop her case. The most important book she refers to is Bernice L. Hausman’s Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. I think Butler seriously misrepresents Jeffreys’ account of social construction, and I shall explain why as I outline the most important elements of the account.

Jeffreys argues that it is possible to articulate a social construction account of transgenderism along similar lines to that of homosexuality as famously described by Michel Foucault. Just as scientific theories and medical descriptions wove themselves into nineteenth century social relations to create an essentialised and naturalised category of persons (homosexuals), the twentieth century contains a distinct yet parallel story concerning the creation of transgenderism. The social identities created through these discursive processes are shaped by the over-arching imperatives of a patriarchal system of male dominance and heteronormativity:

The creation of the transgender role can be seen as a way of separating off       unacceptable gender behaviour which might threaten the system of male domination and female subordination, from correct gender behaviour, which is seen as suitable for persons of a particular biological sex. In the case of homosexuality, the effect is to shore up the idea of exclusive and natural heterosexuality; and, in the case of transgenderism, the naturalness of sex roles[iv].

Unlike homosexuality, transgenderism required the existence of particular types of specialised medical technology. Developments in endocrinology (the field of medicine relating to hormones and hormone therapy), anaesthetics and plastic surgery occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. These developments influenced the treatment of intersex people, who were now subject to medical procedures to ‘correct’ their ambiguous sex. Whereas it is most certainly appropriate to label intersex infants as ‘victims’ of medical technology, it is not at all true that transgender people were similarly passive recipients of medical treatment. Jeffreys is most definitely not guilty of the sin of denying ‘agency’ to transgender people. It is this very agency which forms a crucial plank in the social construction account:

Hausman explains that when there was public knowledge about medical advances and technological capabilities individuals could then name themselves as ‘the’ appropriate subjects of particular medical interventions, and thereby participate in the construction of themselves as patients[v].

Both Hausman and Jeffreys describe the ideological processes and changes which accompanied this construction of a ‘born in the wrong body’ subject. Hausman provides us with an acute and insightful view into the pre-requisite assumptions required for sex change medical procedures:

To advocate hormonal and surgical sex change as a therapeutic tool for those whose ‘gender identifications’ are at odds with their anatomical sex, it is necessary to believe that physiological interventions have predictable psychological effects. In order to do this, evidence of the unpredictable psychological effects of plastic surgery must be marginalised, understood as aberrant (neurotic or psychotic) reactions, or controllable through patient selection – and certainly not the norm. It is necessary to believe, further, that patient ‘happiness’ is a recognisable and realizable goal for surgeries that have no physiological indication. And, in addition, it is necessary to acknowledge a certain autonomy of the psychological realm such that the psyche is understood as the realm of stability and certainty, while the body is deemed mutable[vi].

It is worth pausing here to take in and consider Hausman’s perspective. To question the fact that people seek medical procedures which help ‘align’ their anatomy with their gender identity is currently viewed as tantamount to a fascist hate crime. Yet clearly there are a host of quite unique and questionable metaphysical ideas which make such facts possible. Usually people seek medical treatment for physical ailments, and psychological treatment for mental distress. There are of course drug treatments for people with severe mental illnesses, but these are informed by a lively debate about the relative merits of different treatment approaches. Medicalisation of psychiatric conditions is a political subject of debate when it comes to things like drug treatments for depression, but such debate is a moral taboo when it comes to gender issues. Gender identity advocates insist that there is absolutely nothing ‘pathological’ about seeking medical treatment for gender dysphoria. This moral position very effectively silences any debates about the nature and causes of gender related distress.

These metaphysical assumptions which underlie the medicalised treatment model were facilitated by the development of ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’ as discursive entities which became progressively removed from material biological reality. This process started in the early twentieth century with the treatment of intersex infants, and reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s with the work of John Money, Joan Hampson and John Hampson. Prior to the 1950s the word ‘gender’ was an obscure grammatical term, and was not a part of everyday parlance. The phrase ‘gender identity’ entered the world in 1964, in an academic paper written by a psychologist[vii]. Jeffreys argues that this discursive development facilitated the normalisation of the transgender subject:

Hausman argues that the ‘production of the concept of gender in Western culture’ can be analysed. All of the medical ‘interventions’ […] depended upon ‘the construction of a rhetorical system that posits a prior, gendered self necessary to justify surgical interventions[viii]

Hausman’s account also casts the dependence the other way around, so that medical practices and gender discourse mutually support each other:

… the semiotic shift from sex to gender, from body to mind, relied on the use of plastic surgical technologies as treatments for impaired psychological functioning[ix].

Again it is worth pausing and taking stock of the implications of Hausman’s view. She is not in any sense ‘discounting’ or ‘erasing’ the lived reality of people who come to think of themselves as born in the wrong body. She is instead clarifying the historical conditions of possibility for such beliefs to exist. These historical conditions involve both medical technology and a very particular type of gender discourse. Both Jeffreys and Hausman are severely critical of the view that transgender identities can be retrospectively located throughout history and across different cultures in various types of ‘third genders’. Transgender identities are a specific product of the twentieth century.

Hausman describes how the discourse on gender shifted from a social to a private and individualistic register. ‘Gender’ was conceptualised as both a set of social roles and stereotypes, and as a private essence inside people which develops over time. Because intersex people frequently experienced great suffering when their internal sense of gender did not match their assigned social role, the medical approach was to ‘fix’ the anatomy to line up gender identity with sex. Psychologists and sexologists increasingly emphasised the notion of gender identity, rather than gender roles, and came to view gender identity as something that was fairly rigidly ‘imprinted’ on the mind in early childhood. Hausman explains the problematic consequences of this ‘imprinting’ model:

To suggest that socially constructed behaviours are imprinted, that is, established irrevocably and without flexibility, is, however, to lend tacit support to culturally hegemonic rules and expectations. The concept of imprinted behaviour suggests the idea that while there is one correct pattern (heterosexuality with its concomitant masculine or feminine gender role expression), this pattern can be wrongly imprinted. Because the notion of imprinting suggests irrevocably established behaviours, the only way to affect (or ‘cure’) the anomalous imprint – so that the subject can engage in cultural activities as a ‘normal’ person – is to alter some other aspect of the subject. In the context of intersexuality, after gender role has been imprinted, the subject’s genital morphology and hormonal makeup become targets for medical intervention. The same holds true for transsexualism and it is in this connection that transsexualism appropriated one of its strongest arguments for surgical and hormonal sex change, as transsexuals are understood to be subjects who for some reason develop the ‘wrong’ gender identity for their anatomical sex[x].

Sheila Jeffreys observes that the majority of people who argued for these sex change procedures were male, and argues that the male character of the demand for access to medical treatment is a defining feature of transgenderism. She traces the history of this demand, from famous early cases in the 1950s such as Christine Jorgensen to the ‘pioneer’ efforts of cross dresser Virginia Price in the 1960s and 1970s. Following the controversial studies of Blanchard and Bailey, she distinguishes between homosexual men who transition and heterosexual men who are motivated by autogynephilia (an erotic fetish for dressing in women’s clothing). Jeffreys argues that we should not accept the separation between gender identity and sexuality as unproblematic, and that feminists should be wary of the motives of men who transition.

Considering Butler’s criticism of Jeffreys’ view, it is true that Jeffreys supports a sort of ‘feminist policing’. Women are justified, according to Jeffreys, in rejecting the presence of male transgenders inside spaces such as toilets and changing rooms, and a part of this justification has to do with the prevalence of autogynephilia. Women are also justified to be critical of the views put forward by male transgender ‘feminists’ such as Julia Serano. She recounts the experience of Serano who wrapped a lacy white curtain around his eleven year old body like a dress, satisfying a deeply felt urge to feel ‘feminine’. Noting that his experience is “unlikely to have been shared by many females”, Jeffreys ruthlessly exposes Serano’s efforts to “reinvent ‘feminism’ to fit his erotic interests[xi]”. What is at stake here is not the ‘reality’ of social constructions, but rather the male power and patriarchal structuring of sexuality which informs the undenied reality of those same constructions.

*           *           *

Sheila Jeffreys’ forthright and uncompromising feminist stance is tempered somewhat by her admission in the introduction that most of the literature on the transgender phenomenon is celebratory rather than critical, and that she had to read ‘against the grain’ in order to develop her account. Relying in part on the burgeoning scene of radical feminist bloggers critical of the current political climate surrounding transgender issues, Gender Hurts is best viewed as hybrid of academic theory and political polemic. Coming in at under 200 pages, it is a ‘monograph’ which left me dissatisfied, not because of its critical sensibility but because of its brevity. There may well be holes in Jeffreys’ arguments and shortcomings in her account, but Gender Hurts deserves considered recognition and engagement, not abuse and dismissal.

[i] Jeffreys, Sheila. (2014). Gender Hurts, London and New York: Routledge, p.70

[ii] Ibid. p.93
[iii] Ibid.p.168
[iv] Ibid. p.17
[v] Ibid. p.21
[vi] Hausman, Bernice L. (1995). Changing Sex: Transexuality, Technology and the Idea of Gender, Durham and London: Duke University Press, p.63

[vii] Robert Stoller, ‘A Contribution to the Study of Gender Identity’, Journal of the American Medical Association 45 (1964): 220 – 26
[viii] Ibid. p.27
[ix] Ibid. p68
[x] Ibid. p.101
[xi] Ibid. p. 50

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