I’ve already shown how FETAs rely massively on projections to defend their transgender ideology. There is, however, one projection that stands above all others for its sheer irrationality: the accusation that radical feminists are essentialists.
Essentialism as applied to human beings refers to the belief that there are fixed attributes of individuals (such as gender, race or ethnicity) which are the “essence” of an individual and dictate behavior (e.g. gender roles, racial stereotypes). This is contrasted with constructionism, the belief that these attributes are social constructs and are not the “essence” of an individual.
FETAs believe that gender is innate and biological sex is a social construct. To be more exact, this is the conclusion they have to uphold in order to maintain their rationalization. They have to believe that there is such a thing as an “innate gender” which dictates how a person thinks and acts in order to make sense of the proposition that a person’s gender is whatever they believe.
And if there is “innate gender” then biology must be swept under the rug. This is why FETAs are also science denialists: they must deny the facts of biology at all costs, and they do so by calling people who uphold those facts of biology “essentialists.” As we’ll see, they use this attack blindly, without actually understanding what essentialism is.
FETAs are essentialists because they believe that an “innate gender” dictates how a person acts, i.e. whether they conform to the man gender stereotype or the woman gender stereotype. That’s why their accusation is a projection: they seek to accuse their opponents of what they’re doing.
Radfems are against essentialism: the radfem position about gender is that gender is a prison, and that neither gender nor sex should imply anything about people’s behavior. Essentialism is a form of authoritarianism, and FETAs are authoritarian supporters (for more on FETA essentialism and radfem anti-essentialism, see this great entry by Women of the Patriarchy).
Cathy Brennan expresses the radfem opposition to sex essentialism in this quote:
What are the behaviors and roles considered appropriate for one’s sex?
If you are a Feminist (even a Liberal Feminist or a Fun Feminist), the answer to this should be “There are no behaviors and roles considered appropriate for my sex because Females can be and do anything.”
So FETAs have to wrangle essentialism from an explicitly and adamantly anti-essentialist position. What kind of mental contortions are necessary for such a pseudo-intellectual magic trick?
This entry from Transadvocate is a good starting point for analysis because it purports to be a very sophisticated attack against radfems on essentialism. Advocates of irrational worldviews trip themselves up when they start talking too much, and this is no exception.
The entry starts with a constructionist quote from Monique Wittig, who was a radical lesbian (precisely the kind of women that FETAs hate with a passion that borders on insanity), discussing how sexual difference leads to the domination of women, and how that domination is portrayed as natural. But the author, Cristan Williams, seems to have confused this radical understanding of sex (as the difference on which oppression of women is based) with the belief that sexing people itself is oppression.
If you strip the pedantic language, this confusion is the same rationalization that many FETAs use to equate radfems with conservatives: conservatives believe in sexual difference, radfems believe in sexual difference, therefore radfems and conservatives have the same agenda.
What they don’t want to discuss is that conservatives believe in sexual difference as the valid (natural) basis for gender (as the Wittig quote illustrates), while radfems acknowledge that sexual difference is the source of the (constructed) oppression of women. Conservatives (and FETAs) hate women and want to keep them enslaved to gender roles, while radfems want to free all women from gender.
You see this equation of radfems with conservatives, with prudes, with moralizers (or even rapists), all over the place. What they want you to believe is simple: anyone who fights for women is just as bad as the people who hate women, anyone who tries to defend women’s freedom is just as bad as the people who want to exploit women. Above all else, they desperately want you to not confront anything and just accept FETA and liberal subjectivist claims as absolute (as bizarre as that sounds).
Williams then directly equates the truth that sex is used to justify gender oppression as natural with the FETA belief that sex does not exist, quoting one Sandy Stone:
What I am saying is that one of the ways that people justify oppressing people of any alternative gender or sexuality is by saying that the social norm is natural. That is, it originates in the authority of Nature itself. In other words, it comes from god, an authority to which to appeal. All of this is, in fact, a complete fabrication, a construction. There is no ‘natural‘ sex, because ‘sex’ itself as a medical or cultural category is nothing more the momentary outcome of battles over who owns the meanings of the category.
Sex is a basic biological concept, and it is natural. Now, as I’ve discussed before, sex is a human concept and, like all human concepts, it is subject to reframing. The issue therefore is not “is sex a transcendent term?” because there’s no such thing. The issue is “does sex actually exist?” and the answer to that is yes. To deny this is just plain science denialism, and believing sex does not exist is no more rational than believing in Creationism or free energy.
While much of the rest of the feminist world is confronting both the causes and effects of oppression, TERFs spend a significant amount of time and energy in preserving, supporting and appealing to a binary sexed body system constitutionally incapable of working with concepts like cis, trans, gender queer, agender, intersex as it relates to reality of human bodies because such views of humanity are supplanted by the asserted preeminence of an ad naturam binary sexed essence.
Radfems are very much concerned with sex, because understanding sex is the basis for analyzing the gender binary. People are assigned gender roles on the basis of their biological differences. The terms “cis” and “trans” cannot lead to any understanding of the gender binary, because they assume a non-existing “gender identity” which is natural and unquestionable. This “gender identity” forms the basis of FETA woman-hatred.
As for the bizarre belief that radfems cannot understand terms like “agender” or “intersex,” I have no idea where that comes from. This is probably an attempt to portray radfems as old hat, passé, a dying breed, and ignorant of anything FETAs consider to be on the “cutting edge” of gender theory.
Phenotype is the physical manifestation of a person. When we hear an anti-trans troll assert that because what is taken to be an acceptably long phallus was discovered at birth, a male sex was established and therefore cannot be changed, they are appealing to a fallaciously constructed concept of phenotype permanence. If a baby is born with a phallus – the phallus being the “essence” of a man – the person is said to have been born a man.
Now Williams degenerates into simple lying. Radfems do not state that a person was “born a man,” let alone on the basis of a penis. No one is “born a man” or “born a woman” (despite the FETA belief in “innate gender”). The labels “man” and “woman” are assigned at birth on the basis of sexual difference, but these terms have no realities apart from the social context. A baby cannot be a man or a woman because it is not yet located within the social context. A person becomes a man or a woman because they are socialized as a man or socialized as a woman.
The phallus is not the “essence of a man.” A man does not act “like a man” because he has a phallus. A man acts “like a man” because he was socialized as a man. The penis is only relevant because it is one of the signs of the male sex, which is then used to assign gender.
The trouble for FETAs is that they must deny the existence of socialization at all costs, because it directly contradicts their religious belief in “innate gender.” They will either deny that socialization happens or deny that it happened to them.
What radfems do say about phenotype is that penises are male. Again, this is a biological fact and denying it is science denialism. FETAs believe that if they imitate the penis with their own flesh, they can become men. But having a penis, or a simulated penis, does not make one a man.
Now, there’s a lot of whining and poisoning the well in these sections. For example, the section “Critiquing the trans essence argument” is mostly one long attempt to portray radfem arguments as silly (calling it a “caricature,” fallacious, hypocrisy, cruel, and so on), but Williams doesn’t explain why it is silly. There is very little attempt at a “critique” here.
The meat of the critique, instead, seems to be in the section “Trans: the non-essenced experience”:
There is no gendered essence haunting the brains of trans women, forcing us to like pink, and gender identity doesn’t just mean social identity.
So here Williams seems to be specifically addressing the issue of FETAs being essentialists. Let’s see what she has to say in response:
When trans people talk about “gender identity” we can be talking about:
A: One’s subjective experience of one’s own sexed attributes;
B: One’s culturally influenced sex identification within the context of a social grouping; or,
C: Both A and B
TERFs like to pretend that “gender identity” only ever means the penultimate Category B because the former and latter deviates from the trans-experience-as-Dualism argument – an anathema for TERFs.
This is one point on which I agree with Williams: the concept that they designate as “gender identity” is purely subjective and culturally constructed, and has no biological reality. But for FETAs to use gender as a replacement for sex, gender has to be innate and immutable.
If that was the extent of “gender identity” for FETAs, then there would be no debate at all, because it makes no claim about reality. It is because FETAs make claims about reality that there is a debate. FETAs claim that sex does not exist, FETAs claims that a person who was socialized man can actually be a woman (and vice-versa), FETAs claim that penises and vaginas are not sexed organs. These are false claims about reality that are important in undermining feminist thought, and they all rely on “innate gender identity” as their support.
Williams then mentions socialization, which is rather surprising in a FETA article since, as I mentioned before, it’s the elephant in the room insofar as their worldview is concerned. But she’s only bringing it up to score a point:
For the TERF, socialization can act as the essential sexed essence stand-in that confers male or female binary status upon the body and as such, it is perfectly acceptable to appeal to it.
But this is a lack of understanding of what essentialism is. An essentialist is someone who believes that there’s something innate in the individual, something in their nature, that dictates their behavior, and socialization is not innate. Therefore it cannot be a “sexed essence stand-in.” All it means is that being socialized into any social construct (such as religion, race or gender) molds people’s behavior. This is an obvious fact. Williams doesn’t even try to address this (rightly, since trying to refute it would just be ridiculous), which is why I say she only brought it up to score a point.
Simply expressed, the role of sex in the genderist mind is to validate and naturalize gender, i.e. behavioral expectations or prescriptions. This is not how radfems talk about socialization: they do not claim that being socialized as a man validates and naturalizes men’s aggression against women, quite the contrary. They are very keenly aware that gender, like any other form of socialization, can be unlearned, something which cannot happen in the essentialist schemas of the genderist and the FETA.
For socialization in a person to be a stand-in for essence, it would have to be, in a meaningful way, part of who the person is. But “being a man” or “being a woman” is not a meaningful identification for many people (including most radfems), not because they are “trans” or “genderqueer” (nonsense concepts in themselves), but because they acknowledge that they were socialized into gender and that it’s not part of who they are.
One last point. Keep in mind that she argued that gender identity is not innate in this very same section when you read this:
Maybe at some point in the future it will become an undisputed scientific fact that trans people experience our bodies in the way that we do as a result of some neurological structure that is triggered due to some genetic/epigenetic causality, but, regardless, the point is that for many trans folk throughout the world, transition is about addressing the way we experience our bodies.
But this directly contradicts her earlier claim. If she believes it is possible for gender identity to be innate, then it cannot be a subjective or cultural construct. She glosses over this with a “regardless,” not realizing the enormity of what she’s just said. That seems to be the one constant of this article: lots of glossing over or gliding over major points of contention, and obsessing over little details meant to portray radfem arguments negatively.
It was hard for me to get through Williams’ article because it is permeated with crass ignorance and arrogance, a pathetic combination. These are the extremities to which a person trapped in an irrational ideology have to resort in order to look credible.