What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.

I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,

Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.

That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’

I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:

  • Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
  • Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
  • Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
  • Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
  • Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
  • Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
  • Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.


Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):

Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.

I have a few things to say about this. Continue reading “What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs”

What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

Continue reading “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. Continue reading “Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia”

Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ Continue reading “Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom”

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

A reader writes in:

I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.

By all means.

What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.

Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.

Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white). Continue reading “Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?”

Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.

Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.

Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are; we are unity, and we are unstoppable.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.

Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.

Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.

‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012’s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?

Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?

Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?

Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich

Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.


We are angry with ourselves’, Suzanne Moore of New Humanist and other zines wrote this time last year of women, ‘for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ The article, on female rage, was well received barring this line; friends recommending the piece bristled at it, if only as a caveat. They had cause to: so idolised are the bodies of trans women that hundreds are murdered yearly in Brazil, among them 39-year-old nightlife figure Madona, pelted with paving bricks until her skull fractured.

Moore might have copped to misjudging a punchline. Who hasn’t? Instead she aired on Twitter her ‘issues with trans anything’, accusing trans women of ‘fucking lopping bits of your body’ and ‘using “intersectionality” to shut down debate’, adding ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’

Julie Burchill, long time colleague and friend of Moore, promptly championed her in the Observer, declaring her in a piece titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ to have been ‘driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. ‘A gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write’, Burchill continued, ‘looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.’ The two of them, she declared, were in a ‘stand-off with the trannies’ (‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims’), ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

The ensuing storm, in which the Observer withdrew the article, apologising, raged through the British press and global blogosphere. (Zinnia Jones’ partner Heather McNamara had this to say.) Days later, Soho Skeptics hosted Moore in a debate about press freedom. I arrived a quarter of an hour late, but despite the then-ongoing furore heard no mention of the issue – save Moore’s offhand quip at one point, ‘I can’t say anything.’ Laughter followed.

Elsewhere in her article, Burchill had written:

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel, picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

Bindel, whose columns on transgender themes have earned her infamy, seems as obsessed as Moore and Burchill with trans women’s nether regions, describing them in 2004 as ‘men disposing of their genitals’. (This is, needless to say, inaccurate in every possible sense. Vaginoplasty, which doesn’t discard the penis, is expensive, inaccessible and often withheld from those who want it. Many don’t.) Transitional surgery, she insists despite all this, ‘is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’, thrust globally on unwilling gays and lesbians as it is in Iran to keep everyone suitably straight.

Regarding what’s wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. It ignores:

  • the persistent denial of trans men and women’s gender, including by Bindel herself.
  • the unwillingness of countless health authorities to provide surgery or offer it at all.
  • the fact anyone might want it.
  • that seeking it is typically done after lengthy thought.
  • that not everyone transitioning does want surgery.
  • that those who do don’t always want normative-looking outcomes, or vaginoplasty specifically.
  • that not everyone trans, seeking surgery or not, identifies binarily as male or female.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, any more gender-conforming than cis people.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, heterosexual.

Like Burchill and Moore, Bindel is talking bollocks. No one with even surface-level knowledge here, and mine’s not hugely better, could think she had more to contribute than hot, poisonous air. Understandable, then, that hackles rose when Soho Skeptics – the group that hosted Moore months earlier – announced her as a speaker last September.

‘The Battle Over Gender’

‘Insults, threats and abuse have been hurled between trans activists and radical feminists for the past few years’, read their blurb promoting the event, chaired by Gia Milinovich with Bindel and trans panellists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black. ‘Neither side is innocent.’

These statements and the title suggest equivalence, like clashes between the world’s Bindels, Burchills or Moores and trans communities were arbitrary fiascos with no victim or aggressor – like trans users on the business end of their abuse, however intemperate their response, were just as much at fault. The Bindelites claim, as Piers Morgan did this month, to be under attack, but their viewpoint rests on demonstrable falsehoods. They’re as qualified to hold forth on (trans) gender as Ken Ham is to address a conference of geologists, and Ham, despite his manifold shortcomings, hasn’t victimised his targets nearly as much.

The meeting, it appears, was devised in response to anger at Suzanne Moore. ‘One female writer’ whom she knew, Milinovich wrote in October, ‘got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people’ – no name is given, but Moore’s is a likely guess. ‘After [an] explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it. When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion . . . My aim [there] was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.’

You’d conclude from this Milinovich, established in the skeptic scene, linked to Bindel apparently through Moore and with views not far flung from the former’s (see below), was the architect of the event – conflicting, seemingly, with Soho Skeptics convenor Martin Robbins’ statements that ‘trans people [were] in a key role’, ‘in charge’ and ‘helped organise and select people’, and ‘Bindel was there because the trans people on the panel [Dalton and Black] wanted it’. The Pod Delusion’s audio upload also described it as being ‘put together by Gia Milinovich’, who comments therein, ‘I thought, oh my God, I have got to have this woman on the panel.’

Clarity would help, but it’s easy in any case to see why giving her equal – or any – time made Twitter’s so called “trans cabal” irate. Their very existence, trans women’s especially, is in Bindel’s eyes oppressive, mutilatory and wrong, a stance whose premises have been thoroughly tanked but which she broadcasts through global media.

Milinovich and Robbins balked when critics mauled them for debating trans people’s right to such existence – as if the only obstacles to it were outright demands for killing. Milinovich, specifically, cites my tweet to that effect, one from a storm of users’, in a blog post, handle and avatar blurred out. (What for, the original being public and a Google search away, I still can’t tell.) Both have insisted the meeting wasn’t ‘a debate’; accurate but beside the point. ‘Debate’ was a verb in the tweets at hand, slamming the academic examination of trans identities’ validity and legitimisation of Bindel’s concoctions.

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Defining terms

Milinovich is taking heat at present for insisting, since this event, on the adroitness of terms like ‘female biology’, arguing implicitly that feminism should devote itself to this by using sex-based definitions of ‘women’s bodies’, and explicitly that abortion access and vulval/clitoral genital mutilation are by definition ‘female’ issues due to the relevant anatomy. ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

‘During the [Battle Over Gender] panel,’ she wrote back in October in a post making similar arguments, ‘I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender.’ There’s already a contradiction here: if ‘woman’ is a term of identity and not anatomy, Milinovich shouldn’t refer (as she does here) to ‘women’s bodies’ as physically distinct. Regardless, here’s what she said on introducing the event.

‘Sex’: we all know what it is, but I’m talking biology, so what sex are you? This is ‘male’ and ‘female’ (so, ‘male’ has XY chromosomes and ‘female’, XX chromosomes), so I’ve gone to a book called Developmental Biology, Sixth Edition – this is for a definition. They’re talking about mammals, and I think it’s important we always remember that we’re mammals, and not something special even though we think we are. A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts and mammary glands. In many mammal species, each sex has a specific size, vocal cartilage and musculature. So we’re talking biology when we use the word ‘sex’. We’re talking biology.

Another word is ‘gender’. Quite often these two words are conflated, so I’ve gone to the World Health Organisation for a definition of this. The World Health Organisation says gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. So in our society, traditionally and stereotypically, women wear a dress . . . and have long hair and men wear trousers and have short hair. Men go out to work and earn loads of money and women stay home, and are deeply fulfilled by looking after their children. (Can you see my cynicism coming in here?) If women work, they obviously will earn less than men. Women are caring and empathic, men are rational and they’re leaders. Women can’t do maths and men can.

Now, all of these things including the maths are social constructions. If you look at different cultures, you will see different things. Now, it’s really easy to understand this when you think about clothing, right? There’s no place in the brain that makes a female innately want to wear a dress or have long hair. Or there’s no place in a male brain that they innately want to wear trousers and have short hair. So that’s quite understandable, you know – we know that these are social constructions. It’s a little bit more difficult for some people to understand that things like personality traits or maths ability and things like that are social constructions, and they differ in different cultures. Very simply, you can think of gender as masculine and feminine, and all of the stereotypes.

Does anyone find any of those two definitions controversial? Anyone?


For a start, neither of these defines ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Milinovich states ‘sex’ to mean anatomical ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, and ‘gender’ to mean ‘roles . . . society considers appropriate for men and women’ – but doesn’t define manhood or womanhood itself.

What we have is confused and inconsistent use of several definitions.

What is consistent is her stance ‘that Biological Sex is A Real Thing and Gender is Culture’; that ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes, with ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, prediscursively exist like hydrogen or Pluto. The thought, whatever the views she draws from it, has been seconded in British skepticism’s blogosphere, amid insistence ‘discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia.’ It’s wrong: the claim gender’s between our ears and sex between our legs is one long since unravelled by better thinkers than me.

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

The status of Pluto isn’t one on which the wellbeing of millions rests. We get to choose how we frame things, bodies included. If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say. If that’s not cause enough to modify her model, surely coherence is?

‘If you want to reclassify Males and Females, and redefine Vaginas and Penises’, she tells her critics, ‘then you’re going to have to [do so] in over 5,000 different species of animals from Mammalia on down. So… good luck with that.’ Far be it from science ever to revise its thoughts or language, but in any case, her attitude to the latter doesn’t, in my view, hold water.

Sex is derived from gender

It’s just as ambitious trying to untether ‘male/female’ from ‘man/woman’, as Milinovich declares is necessary. When she writes in her October post of ‘two male comedians [and] one female writer’, she fails at this herself. It’s difficult to blame her: broadly, these terms just are synonymous.

Zoologists didn’t coin ‘male’ or ‘female’. The argument above, and her caution to ‘remember that we’re mammals’, suggest these designations fell to us from neighbours (or ancestors) in the animal kingdom. The reality is the reverse: said designations operated for humans millennia before we studied sex – chromosomes, internal organs, gametes, hormones – or exported that study to other species.

The ‘we’ here is a specific one. The models of sex that ruled till recently, for which Milinovich argues, grew up in gender-binary cultures. Had societies of more than men and women written the papers that inform popular thought – if views of anatomy today were based on theirs – would they have spoken of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies? Would we, now?

It should be clear we’re trying, through the model of male/female sex, to describe bodies in pre-existing terms. If, as was traditionally thought and seems to be the Bindel-Milinovich view, gender evolved to regulate sexed bodies, why does it account so badly for them? Why, if it evolved to correspond with anatomic traits, are some ‘ambiguous’ – inexplicable, that is, in terms of it? Why intersex, but no orthodox ‘intergender’ to match?

‘Yes’, says Milinovich, ‘I know about intersex conditions’ – then leaves it there. She seems not to consider themes that follow logically:

  • why one anomaly makes someone intersex, another, just unusual.
  • whether if ‘intersex’ is taxing to define, sex might be too.
  • how the sex dyad, if less descriptive than once thought, became ubiquitous.
  • that the a priori (fe)maleness of body traits might be debatable.
  • why some, again, are sexed more strictly than others.

Milinovich’s stance and statements shift demonstrably. The impression I can’t help being left with is that her output, more certain of itself than it is well-informed, fits most definitions of ‘splaining’. If her goal is a feminism of ‘female’ (in her terms) anatomy, I’m further struck, she makes no obvious mention of how trans men might be included – suggesting, conceivably, that it is to her a movement for those marked physically and socially as female: that is, cis women.

The entire concept of “sex”’, to quote the Tranarchism blog, ‘is simply a way of attaching something social – gender – to bodies.’ The addendum, lastly, is quotable and appropriate:

The most sensible way to look at the question of sex now is this: a male body is a body belonging to a male – that is someone who identifies as male. A female body is a body belonging to a female – that is, someone who identifies as female. Genderqueer bodies belong to folks who are genderqueer, androgynous bodies belong to androgynes, and so forth, and so on.


Any number of thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich