Feminists: Protesting not shopping. (Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/ Getty)

April 23, 2024   7 mins

Here’s a version of a story you might have heard before: first feminists got what they wanted, and then they got what they deserved. At some point in the Noughties, the idea that men and women were fundamentally alike in character and aptitude (if not in body) became the only acceptable thing to believe; and at some point shortly after that, the doctrine of transgenderism swept in and swept away every claim feminism had ever made. It’s a classic of the monkey’s paw genre: be careful what you wish for.

According to this account, feminist writers had devoted themselves to rooting out the scourge of “neurosexism”, and they had been all too successful. By rejecting the idea of inherent sex difference, writers such as Cordelia Fine (in Delusions of Gender) and Rebecca Jordan-Young (in Brain Storm) had effectively undone the very class they claimed to represent. The most appealing part of this story is, of course, that it takes a particularly virulent attack on women’s rights and pins the blame for it on women.

But it also has a germ of truth to it: there is a strand of feminism that has always seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of sex difference. “Born this way” might make strategic sense as a slogan for other civil rights movements, but for the women’s movement, it would have come close to an admission of defeat: born to be underpaid and sexually harassed. No wonder there was an insistent pull towards a form of blank slatism for some feminists.

At its most extreme, this becomes the “gender performativity” theory offered by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, which claims that gender and sex are shaped by social influence. And it’s a theory that goes even further back. In the 1969 book Sexual Politics, for example, Kate Millett quoted approvingly from the work of sexologists to support the argument that “Psychosexual personality is
 postnatal and learned.” Regrettably, the particular sexologist she was referring to in this section was John Money. And though Money was much cited and widely respected, he would also be entirely discredited before the end of the century.

Money’s most influential work was probably the twin study now widely known as “John/Joan”. In 1965, a pair of male twins were born in the Canadian city Winnipeg, named Bruce and Brian Reimer. At seven months old, their mother noticed that their foreskins seemed to be closing up, and they were advised to have both boys circumcised. In the event, only one would be operated on: the first procedure was botched so badly that Bruce’s penis was entirely burned, and eventually (in the journalist John Colapinto’s account) “dried up and broke away in pieces”. Brian was left alone after that.

For the family, this was a dreadful event. For John Money, it was an opportunity. Money had already achieved some measure of fame as a pioneer of (what were then called) “sex change operations”, and also worked with (again, what were then called) intersex patients. In both cases, his aim was to use surgery and hormone treatments to bring about alignment between what he called the “psychological sex” and the “sex glands”.

Now Money had the perfect opportunity for a rare empirical study of his theories. The uninjured twin would be the control, while the injured twin would be the test. The baby was castrated and furnished with a rudimentary vulva, and the parents were given strict instructions on how to raise their newly-minted daughter as a girl. Brian would become Brenda. And, up until 1997, all the public knew of this experiment was that it had been a huge success — because all they knew was Money’s version. In his book Sexual Signatures, he described the case like this: “by the time the children were four years old, there was no mistaking which twin was the girl and which the boy. At five, the little girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and being her daddy’s little sweetheart.”

It was, continued Money, “dramatic proof that the gender identity option is open at birth for normal infants”. It appeared to be indisputable evidence that the brain was plastic, and gender a work of culture rather than nature.

The real child had a very different experience. Far from the stereotypically girlish interests listed by Money, Brenda enjoyed playing with model aeroplanes and CB radios. By the age of 11, Brenda was struggling with anxiety and social isolation, and suffered (according to a clinician’s report) from “strong fears that something has been done to her genitals” and “suicidal thoughts”. As signs of puberty kicked in, other girls treated Brenda with suspicion and cruelty: they could tell this child was not like them. Compounding the trauma, Money forced the twins into sexual roleplay under the belief that this was necessary to gendered socialisation.

In 1980, Brenda was finally told the truth. He immediately made the decision to live as a boy, and adopted the name David. Money never reported that his experiment had been a failure. It wasn’t until 1997 that the sorry episode was added to scientific literature, in an article by Milton Diamond; this was followed by Colapinto’s Rolling Stone article (expanded into a book called As Nature Made Him in 2000), which brought the case to wider public attention. Gender plasticity was declared over. The harm to David Reimer was not: in 2004, he killed himself. His family squarely blamed Money’s experiment.

This awful episode perhaps demonstrates little except that sexologists should be treated with grave suspicion: it is so extreme and grotesque, it can hardly be treated as indicative of anything in normal childrearing. Certainly, if Money’s twin experiment had any influence on the development of gender identity theory, it surely ought to have been discrediting, given Money’s direct involvement in medical transition.

“Gender identity theory required two parents.”

But instead, it seemed to sow the seeds of what was to come. The New York Times’ report on the 1997 revelations had ended like this: “And it is the head, Dr. Diamond added, that holds the primary sexual organ, the source of one’s identity, and the organ that does not lie.” In other words, gender is in your head. One reading of this was that the experiment on Reimer was not wrong because it mauled the body of a child; it was wrong because it put the brain and body out of alignment.

The Nineties were also a time of considerable public interest in the idea that “masculine” and “feminine” had a biological basis. John Gray’s blockbusting 1992 book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus had established a popular narrative of psychological sex difference as a kind of relationship self-help. (Men couldn’t help being inconsiderate — they were born that way!) In 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference had brought a neuroscience gloss to the position. As he summarised it in his introduction: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

The Noughties critics of neurosexism were not, or were not all, rejecting the idea of sex difference in totality. As Fine wrote in her 2010 book Delusions of Gender: “There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large (although generally decreasing) sex differences in who does what, and who achieves what. It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are.”

But the way in which they were widely claimed to be connected was, plainly, influenced by sexism more than science. Baron-Cohen’s questionnaires used items like “I enjoy participating in sport” and “I try to avoid doing household chores if I can” to establish someone’s “systematising quotient” — as though women had equal access to sports, as though there was anything “systematic” about not doing the washing up, and as though playing in a team didn’t demand a certain level of empathy.

The ultimate implication of The Essential Difference was that men were designed for thinking, and women for caring. It is substantially the same vision of gender that you can see in the notorious Mermaids “Barbie to GI Joe” gender scale. And this is a very appropriate thing for feminists to critique, especially when the level of “empirical” evidence underpinning it is so flimsy. Applying a rigorous eye to the science of sex difference is hardly the denial of sex difference: you could even call it a systematising impulse.

Fine herself has written, in a 2021 article, about the threat that gender identity theory poses to women’s rights. Replacing the category of woman as sex class with the category of woman as gender essence potentially deprives women of “the concepts to explain the disadvantages they face in virtue of their sex, and a commitment to accurate data to test and understand it”. In other words, when you make the idea of sex taboo, you make sexism impossible to name, or to counter.

Jordan-Young, however, took a very different direction, and ended up arguing not only against the idea of men and women having different brains, but against sex categories altogether. In 2019, she coauthored an article arguing that Caster Semenya (who is chromosomally male) should be eligible for women’s competition, which stated it was “simply not true” that testosterone played any role in athletic performance — a position that not only stands in opposition to every race result ever recorded, but which is also belied by the observable outcome of doping regimens.

It is hard to understand how anyone could be at once so deeply in denial about reality, and so cavalier about fairness to female athletes. The answer, perhaps, is fear. Like Kate Millett, Jordan-Young correctly deduces that sex difference has been used as the alibi for sex discrimination; in order to prevent the discrimination, one must therefore deny the difference.

Or as the science writer Angela Saini (author of the book Inferior) put it in a 2019 radio discussion: “We have to be careful that we don’t treat women as categorically different, and the reason we have to be cautious of this is because in the past this is a stick that is used to beat women with.” There is logic here, but a fragile, partial kind. Turning away from science may be tempting after the ways science has been abused to further sexism, but if you base your claim to sexual equality on the idea that men and women have no meaningful differences, your claim will fail.

Gender identity theory required two parents. One of them, yes, is the fearful strand of feminism that tends towards science denial. But the other was the tradition of scientific chauvinism in which femaleness amounted to being “daddy’s little girl” or doing chores: a tradition in which sex is reduced to stereotypes. If the only lesson we learn from this century’s strange diversion into gender identity mysticism is that we should blame women alone, then we’ve learned nothing at all.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.