Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen.

I recently read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, a book beloved of trans activists, and Ophelia has invited me to share some of my thoughts here. Whipping Girl, first published in 2007, is a popular and influential book that exemplifies trans ideology, at least where that ideology intersects with feminism, and so it matters to the debate between trans ideologues and gender-critical feminists.

For now I’m going to skip ahead of Serano’s introduction and her Manifesto. Serano’s book is largely about gender; to engage Serano’s ideas about gender we need to know how she defines it, right?

Here is Serano’s definition of the word “gender”:

The word ‘gender’ is regularly used in a number of ways. Most commonly, it’s used in a manner that’s indistinguishable from ‘sex’ (i.e., to describe whether a person is physically, socially, and legally male and/or female.) [Yes, Serano has ‘sex’ doing a lot of work there. Never mind that for the moment.] Other people use the word ‘gender’ to describe a person’s gender identity (whether they define as female, male, both, or neither), their gender expression and gender roles (whether they act feminine, masculine, both, or neither), or the privileges, assumptions, expectations, and restrictions they face due to the sex others perceive them to be. Because of the many meanings infused into it, I will use the word ‘gender’ in a broad way to refer to various aspects of a person’s physical or social sex, their sex-related behaviors, the sex-based class system they are situated within, or, (in most cases) some combination thereof. (Emphasis added.)

Clear as mud.

Right off the bat, Serano makes sure the word “gender” is unencumbered by any precise meaning. “Sex-related behaviors” include all sorts of things—sex positions, masturbation, the use of tampons, giving birth—but presumably Serano doesn’t mean to include all the nitty-gritty details of living in a sexed body in her definition—does she? We can’t be sure, since she doesn’t say. For a gender critical feminist, like me, “gender” refers to performative social behaviors associated with one sex or the other, behaviors that signal, but have little or nothing to do with, biological sex. Clothes. Hairstyles. Hobbies. That sort of thing. But Serano defines the word as broadly as possible.

Now look at how Serano has defined “sex”, in part, as social (“socially male or female”). For Serano, “sex” and “gender” are interchangeable terms.

“Other people”, Serano tells us, use the word “gender” to “describe a person’s gender identity…gender expression and gender roles”. These Other People are baldly begging the question. “Gender” describes a person’s gender identity? What’s that? “Whether they define as female, male, both, or neither.” OK, but is that the same as being “female, male, both, or neither”? If not, what exactly does the word “identity” refer to here? Well, to gender. What is gender? Well, it describes a person’s gender identity.

You see the problem. Serano’s definition defines nothing much, beyond “gender” as a possible synonym for “sex”, and she’s hedged her definition of sex. There’s no escaping this circular interplay in Serano’s book. “Gender” has something to do with “sex”—that much is clear—but what, exactly? And what, exactly, is “sex”, when it’s not being the same thing as gender?

Well, for sure gender informs peoples’ identities, their self-expression and the roles they play. Maybe that’s enough to get on with. Maybe things will become clearer as we go along.

(Spoiler: it won’t.)

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