Reality Bites: Why sex (still) matters

It is hard to think about, talk about or write about anything else but the corona virus crisis right now.

But still I want to talk about sex.

Sex — whether you are man or a woman — is real, binary, straightforward, and in some situations important.

To which the questions come; “Why do you still want to talk about that, don’t you know there is a pandemic on? Does it really matter? Why are you still being mean to transgender people?”

This was never about being mean to transgender people. It was always about being able to talk about material reality; in particular the reality of female bodies and women’s lives, and laws which protect against sex discrimination. More than this, it is about institutions — political parties, governments and public bodies, the media, universities, regulators, research institutions being able to do their job — which means dealing with reality.

Four months ago I was in the employment tribunal facing questions like “if sex is observed at birth, how can you possibly know what sex someone is if you weren’t there when they were born?” There was discussion about what Phillip/Pips bunce’s pronouns might be that day.

Only a month ago it was International Women’s Day. UN Women was telling us that women are ‘formless’. Almost every mainstream organisation marked the day by genuflecting towards the edgy idea that the category of women must include males.

Now, biology is back.

As reality bites, it is clear that the language of “gender identity” and the denial of sex are useless for talking about how this crisis is affecting women and men. Men appear are more likely to die from the virus. Lockdowns, closure of schools and businesses, the way that financial safety net packages are designed affect men and women differently.

Image for post
Image for post
Fawcett Society #coronaconversations — 4 women talked about how the crisis affects women (meaning female). No one yelled TERF at them

It turns out sex is not a spectrum. It is not uncertain or irrelevant. Clothes are just clothes. People who identify as non-binary are not a different group from men and women. It is important to collect sex disaggregated data.

Men with gender dysphoria have their own problems, but these are different from the situation of women; mothers and pregnant women, women locked down in domestic abuse situations, the ability to access contraception and abortion, the fact that medical equipment (including personal protective equipment) is made to fit a male bodies. The patterns and of women’s working lives, who is expected to pick up the responsibility for home education.

What Phillip Bunce wears on any given day is Bunce’s own business. None of it has anything to do with being a woman. That anyone ever thought it did already appears ridiculous. Enforcing pronoun protocols, rainbow lanyards and queer-theory-anything is rapidly falling down priority lists as organisations struggle to remain solvent. And many will not.

Maybe when we come out at the other side of this crisis we will find ourselves, like Pam Ewing waking up to find Bobby in the shower, being told that the widespread adoption of gender ideology was a strange and vivid dream. People will develop amnesia about the fact that they pretended to believe that sex doesn’t matter, and that they punished others who refused to go along with it.

That so many organisations caught the PoMo gender identity craze was I think, a symptom of wider system pressures; the hyperactive attention economy, the hollowing out of the business models of existing truth-finding and slow-thinking institutions (academia and the media in particular), the disruption of a previous generation of ‘good jobs’ as career pathways.

These dynamics have been turbo-charged by the COVID-19 crisis. Gender identity policies may not be priority now, but the challenge to organisational survival means that an outbreak of courage and integrity to unwind them is also unlikely.

While proposals for legal sex self-ID appear to have been kicked into the political long grass in the UK, much of the harm has already been hardwired: the conflation of sex and gender identity and the authoritarian approach towards anyone who disagrees with this is already written into policies and official guidelines. “Stonewall law” has been put into practice even without reform of the Gender Recognition Act having to go through parliament.

People are still being investigated, thrown out of political parties and out of jobs for arguing that women are adult human females. People who keep their jobs have already got in the corrupting habit of pretending not to know what everyone knows. The UK government decided to leave the question of sex off its COVID-19 tracker altogether. The upcoming census is still set to advise people that they don’t need to answer the question on their sex with their actual biological sex, or even their legal sex, but the sex they feel like.

It is ten years this week since the Equality Act got royal assent. And the definition of sex, and of single sex services has been allowed to become more and more ambiguous through weak, wrong and inconsistent official guidance. A law meant to protect against sex discrimination is being instead used to bully and victimise women seeking to stand up for their rights, by making the words in the law unspeakable. The Act is now widely misinterpreted as giving men who identify as women the right to access single sex services for women (such as toilets, changing rooms, dormitories, women’s refuges and sports). Official policies of the NHS, prisons, Equality and Human Rights Commission, the judicial college, the press regulator IPSO, the College of Policing, ACAS, trades unions, local authorities, the civil service, and professional regulators already follow this “Stonewall law” rather than the Equality Act itself.

All of this still needs to be unpicked. And it needs to be done in a way that does not throw the ‘intersectional’ baby out with the bathwater. This health crisis, the lockdown, and the economic recession expose inequality — between rich and poor, old and young, male and female, and affects migrants, people with disabilities and others with protected characteristics. It is more important than ever that the systems by which we tackle inequality and unfairness are not diverted into the pointless and easily discredited madness-of-crowds of sex denial.

The institutions that made up the fabric of society are all contemplating the distance between here and bankruptcy. What we need is not just to temporarily (and very expensively) prop them up, but find better ways of organising ourselves in human systems to optimise resilience, efficiency and fairness. This requires organisations that don’t make people afraid to speak the truth.

On sex, a reality-based approach would recognise that sex exists, is binary, immutable and sometimes important, and also respect everyone’s reasonable privacy over their bodies, and the privacy and accuracy of their data.

The government is committed to producing new guidance on single and separate sex services (my lock-down project is to mobilise input to this — get in touch if you are interested).

One day we will get back to our public spaces, workplaces, pubs, sports, schools and colleges. Service users and frontline staff all deserve clear, unambiguous, humane rules about who is allowed where. Perhaps, we will emerge from our enforced isolation with a stronger collective recognition of the need for clear rules and limited, careful enforcement.

Written by

This is mainly where I write about sex and gender

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store