Female Trouble

Poses illustrating ‘Helplessness’ from ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’ London 1872. Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
“Trust me, I’m a philosopher”

Jon Pike is a philosopher of sport, with a background in political philosophy. He’s also the co-convener of the Open University Gender Critical Research Network, which is a long winded way of saying “very transphobic”.

His reaction to recent trans-supportive comments from Stella Creasy MP led to her describing his arguments as “gobbledegook”.

A tweet from Stella Creasy telling Jon Pike that his talk about “the attempt to re-engineer” the concept “female” being “intellectually disturbing” is gobbledegook

In response, he wrote an article spelling out his thoughts on the use of the word “female” in some detail, elaborating on what he finds “intellectually disturbing” — namely, arguments for inclusive language use, which he frames as a kind of conspiracy against common sense:

The article is remarkable because it concatenates so much disingenuous nonsense into such a small space; it’s a very pure nugget of utter and total gobbledegook, a festival of terrible argumentation.

I’m going to work through some quotes from the article and explore how it is littered with assertions about language that fail to measure up logically; and is driven by intuitions that obscure rather than reveal truth.

Let’s first take up Pike’s core complaint:

I have to be able to refer to biological sex in order to do my job.

His whole argument entirely ignores the fact that there is a long and complex history of shifting definitions of “biological sex” within Pike’s specialist field of study: sport.

He must know that there is no simple, clear cut definition of sex that can be used to underpin “fairness” in sport; the criteria used to judge who counts as “female” in sports have shifted many times over decades in pursuit of a reasonable balance — the concept of “biological sex” is intrinsically complex.

For Pike to advance the notion that “female” is a simple, intuitively understandable term, he must determinedly ignore the historical and ongoing controversies around “biological sex” within his own field; not so much doing a job as being artfully neglectful of it.

Here is Pike’s explict claim of simplicity:

The term “female” is straightforward. It’s generally accepted as an ordinary scientific and biological term.

We’ve already seen the first sentence is untrue.

The second sentence is only partially true: in common usage, “female” is often taken as nothing more than an adjective linked to the noun “woman”. In many situations, it simply means “relating to women”, as this definition states:

Definitions and examples of “female” offered up by Google

The example given there, “a female name”, is simply a name that (traditionally) only a woman would have. But there is no logical mandate that couples names to “biology”; no role for gametes here; no general call for scientists to become intimately involved in the process of christening.

Likewise, when talking about “female employees”, “female characters”, or “female friends”, we’re talking about gender. We have no hesitation in affirming that the word in these cases, and in daily life, applies to a broad swathe of people who don’t produce gametes: the bounds of “female” in general usage aren’t linked to those of fertility.

The existence of a narrower, technical “gamete producing” sense of “female” does mean the word carries a connotation of “reproductive biology” which makes its use sometimes stylistically objectionable; however, it doesn’t follow from this that its denotation is solely “biological”, or indeed “scientific”.

The word, like most words, has multiple senses.

Pike additionally suggests that “female” must only have a single sense as a “biological term” because of its range of use:

You can see that it is unambiguously a sex term rather than a gender term by realising that it applies across species: we don’t have woman squirrels, but we do have female squirrels.

But the fact that we use a word across species doesn’t actually imply there is a single meaning in play, “unambiguously”.

For example, we use the word “gregarious” both to describe animals (that flock) and people (that enjoy socializing). But humans are not like animals, and thus the implications are different when talking about people — commuters may voluntarily ram themselves into a crowded underground train every morning, but flocking together in this way is not gregariousness in the human sense.

People are embedded in cultural and social structures in a way that animals are not; we can’t assume that a word used across species boundaries implies a perfect analogy between those different uses. Context affects word meaning.

{ Aside: Female squrrels are called “sows”, rather than “women”. But so are female pigs, hedgehogs, and jellyfish, and the use of the word “sow” across these species does not reveal an abstract cross-species similarity, a shared feature of “sowness” specifically. It’s just an arbitrary pattern within English. }

The following homespun wisdom reiterates Pike’s theme that “biological sex” is a simple thing, simply referred to:

It’s a good thing that we have some fixed and simple terms that apply to regular and important features of the world. It enables us to describe those features of the world in straightforward ways.

This notion, that some terms in natural language are “fixed and simple” reflects a linguistically unsophisticated belief quite startling to see expressed by a philosopher. After all, there is a huge philosophical literature about the complexity of defining even the most seemingly straightforward terms:

The book “Is Water H20?”
The cover of “Is Water H2O?” by Hasok Chang

And linguistically, terms are by no means ever “fixed”, as an earlier article of mine explained:

In fact, this seems very much like nothing more than a tired rerun of similarly philosophically naive “gender critical” insistences about the use of the word “woman”, beautifully dismantled by Talia Mae Bettcher in this article:

It’s also unclear why a term being “fixed and simple” might be required to describe the world effectively.

Consider “mother”, a word similar to “female” in that it can be used to denote a biological status. A naive view that it is solely a “biological term” is entirely undermined by considering the variety of its uses: a “biological mother” and an “adoptive mother” need share no properties, for example. (And there are other, sometimes disjunct, types of “mother”).

This means that any simple, essentialist definition of “mother” is inadequate.

Yet the diversity of its uses are not confusing; no one insists that they somehow prevent us from providing straightforward descriptions of “regular and important features of the world”, including biological kinship.

Why would they? We don’t rely on a “simple” meaning of individual words in isolation to communicate; context provides us with relevant information.

Why should we believe the uses of “female” need to be any less diversified than “mother”, or that such variety would be problematical?

The importance Pike places on describing the world using “fixed and simple” terms is assumed, rather than justified.

But he does mention a couple of non-sport examples where he thinks this perspective is important. Particularly:

You only need to look at the work of Caroline Criado-Perez

It’s important to be aware that the key inspiration behind Criado-Perez’s book “Invisible Women” in fact turns out to be a harmful myth:

It’s easy, though, to be sympathetic to the thesis of the book: that design assumptions built around a “default male” reference point are potentially harmful. Of course research and design should be inclusive — but there’s a world of difference between recognizing uses of “default male” as a problem, and making a blanket assumption that there must ubiquitously be fundamental/qualitative differences between people due to sex.

An uncritical acceptance of that idea is foundational to the reiteration of sexist and transphobic myths; these are pervasively accepted in neurosexist and evopsych discourse, for example. When taken to be established truths, such myths can have a pernicious influence on determining what is researched, how that research is carried out, what conclusions are drawn from it; and will also feed more broadly into social policy.

It’s only a small step from “sex matters” to defending sexism:

Pike is worried about “harm”:

Re-engineering it away from a biological term into an identity term is a harm to such discussion. If that happened, the term would need replacing.

The lazy assumption that a “biological term” applicable to cis people maps directly to trans people — ignoring the effects of transition — is itself a direct cause of harm, and not just to discussion.

For example, consider the never-ending struggle that trans people face to get appropriate medical care, often simply because of that lazy assumption:

But that is only one form of a broad spectrum of harms that trans people face due to systemic prejudice, fuelled by similar misapprehensions and deliberate misrepresentations. And right now, we can see a tidal wave of increasing harm caused by escalating moral panic, that is translating directly into a multiplicity of legislative attacks on trans existence:

Weigh that against the horror of potentially having to adopt more nuanced language.

Pike wants to paint the idea that we could use more precise terminology to reduce harm as an absurdity, painting this as “elitism” and “linguistic colonialism”, citing Humpty Dumpty, and wheeling out some implausible potential jargonese:

Maybe the harm would be temporary, because we would get used to using terms like “generators of large static gametes” and “generators of small motile gametes” or “Possessors of Homeostatic Property Cluster 1” and “Possessor of Homeostatic Property Cluster 2”.

Well, perhaps technical talk, scientific or medical talk, philosophical argument, does often require the use of precise technical terminology rather than bantering in the vernacular? That seems to be a lesson one ought to broadly draw from the entire history of science and philosophy.

Why make such a childish song and dance in favour of crude imprecision?

{ Aside: note the hidden assumption that “homeostatic property clusters” can describe categories that might have poorly defined boundaries. But HPCs can’t handle patterns of family resemblance which undercut essentialism entirely, like those we saw for “mother”, because the properties of exemplars there can be disjoint, not related through clustering. }

Pike, in fact, is fighting against a phantasmal vision:

Creasy, and others, want to decouple “female” from the reality of biological sex.

As we’ve seen, normal usage does not, in fact, necessarily couple these things together; there is no decoupling to be done.

The use of the phrase “the reality of biological sex” is notable; I guess Pike is lucky, as a philosopher, to have unmediated access to “reality”, which he can deploy against those who disagree with him.

But perhaps it’s worth reflecting that there are also less enlightened people who also make the claim that their conceptualizations of the world directly reflect “reality”:

God forbid that the public might have to come to terms with complexity:

If we reached that point, there would be a loss to public debate. It would become obscure and technical.

The above-linked article about definitions used in “sex testing” showed us that debates about inclusivity and fairness in sport are already obscure and technical.

It’s simply boorish — and deeply unserious — to suggest that complexity should be swept under the carpet. Treating trans people as though they were biologically immutable — ignoring the effects of transition — is absolutely not a direct route to engineering “fairness” into sport.

Something that might seem necessary is the consent of those who are referred to by the terms: do currently-called-females consent to the re-engineering of the term “female”? Should there be a vote?

It’s ironic that Pike is inveighing against “conceptual re-engineering” while engaging in his own attempt at re-engineering the definition of “female” away from already-existing patterns of usage.

Let’s leave to him the logistics and implementation of a voting process, if he believes that would be persuasive.

Amidst his peroration — an oxygen-depleting miasma of patronising verbiage specifically directed at Stella Creasey — Pike delivers a devastating rebuke:

Possibly, she is out on a limb and thinks that “female” is a social term, one that is up for grabs, not a scientific and biological one. If so, I think she is just wrong.

This really doesn’t feel like the capstone to a robust and convincing argument.

Not only because of all the arguments we’ve already seen, but also because scientific theories and terminology are malleable in the light of new data: at no point is science immune to revision. The adoption of new theories is, itself, a social process.

So how can any word not be a “social term”? Or not “up for grabs”?

Finally, let’s note Pike’s note of weaponised self-deprecation, used to paint a picture of what it’s like to disagree with him:

I’ve been all at sea in a seminar, struggling to keep up and ill-prepared.

At least that’s not a lonely place, as demonstrated by the roster of “gender critical” academics who are repeatedly and very visibly in this position.

Any argument that language “naturally” ought to be used in alignment with a trans-exclusionary mindset is philosophically feeble; terminology does not dictate morality, but vice versa.

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Kim Hipwell

Kim Hipwell

PhD in Cognitive Science, interested in the structures of natural and artificial languages. Thrives on atonal music and trans rights. She/her.