It’s not uncommon for transgenderists to ask gender critical feminists a question about why we need to know information about other people’s genitals. This is because transgenderists believe that genitals are of absolutely no consequence and that there is no reason for anybody to think about them.
This topic came up between me and blogger Skepto, who wrote a post that asked several variations on the question “Why do we need to know what genitals someone has?”
This subject came up in relation to me saying that we use pronouns based on whether people are male or female, not based on their “gender,” and that male and female are words that refer to reproductive anatomy. Skepto doesn’t believe he knows anything or needs to know anything about the reproductive anatomy of people he’s not in an intimate relationship with. He says the following:
“The notion that I need to know about other people’s genitalia and vice versa doesn’t just feel absurd to me, but actively gross and invasive. Not only do I not know details about my landlady’s genitalia, I don’t want to know! Not only do I not know whether my ex-boyfriend’s ejaculate contained viable sperm, talking about the topic feels quite disrespectful of his privacy and very much like too much information!”
This is a common tactic that transgenderists use when gender critical feminists point out that you can tell whether people are male or female and that it matters which one someone is. They like to act as though feminists are somehow weirdly obsessed over genitals and wanting to know invasive information about them. In this post, I will explore the issue of how we know whether people are male or female and why we need to know.
To begin, identifying someone’s sex is not as mysterious as transgenderists claim it is. There is no need for “genital checks,” or asking people what genitals they have, or anything invasive at all. You can tell what sex someone is just by interacting with them, fully clothed, in normal social situations. It’s very rare that there is a person who is actually so ambiguous that you can’t tell. I feel quite confident in saying that you can identify the sex of at least 99% of people just by interacting with them normally. That’s because intersex conditions are less than 1% of the population and most of us have typical sex characteristics. We can identify people’s sex when they’re fully clothed because there is a common set of secondary sex characteristics that come with our reproductive organs. For example, men have a strong jaw line, an Adam’s apple, and a deeper voice, and women have a curvy shape, a higher voice, and smaller hands. There are many more secondary sex characteristics than this, of course.
A person’s sex is obvious and identifiable, whether you have an interest in knowing it or not. I don’t want to know anything about the details of my landlord’s genitals any more than Skepto does, but I do know that he is male because this is plain to see just by talking to him about how my refrigerator is running. No need for invasive questions at all. Since the vast majority of people have typical sex characteristics, I can assume that because my landlord has all the male secondary sex characteristics, he also has male genitals. This is a reasonable assumption to make about anybody since it’s true almost all the time. This doesn’t mean I want any information about the appearance or function of his genitals, it just means that I can tell he is male.
I’m quite sure that even transgenderists can identify the sex of the person they are talking to, even though they refer to people by their “gender” instead. If you have fully functioning eyes and ears, you can tell.
Now let’s talk about identifying the sex of people who feel that they have a gender identity. This is a varied group of people so I will talk about a few different categories. There are some people who don’t take any steps to medically transition and they only “socially transition.” That means they are a fully intact, unambiguous male or female and they have asked people to refer to them as being the opposite sex, or being neither sex. I don’t think this is an appropriate thing to do. If everyone can clearly see what sex you are, then calling you by opposite sex pronouns doesn’t have much of a point. Even if they call you by the opposite pronouns, they still know what your sex is and treat you accordingly. You might feel better because they’re “respecting your identity,” but they are being forced to lie in order to make you happy. Forcing other people to lie about what they can clearly see in front of them ranges from a mild nuisance to gas-lighting abuse.
I live in a liberal urban area and occasionally I do run into a trans person. Not long ago I went to the drug store and the clerk who checked out my purchase had a gender neutral hairstyle and outfit and a trans bracelet on (blue, pink, and white colours.) It looked as if she was identifying as trans because of the deliberately neutral outfit and the bracelet, and I’m guessing she was probably “non-binary” based on what she was wearing, although I didn’t ask. Whatever she identifies as, I could tell she was female.
There was one time a few years ago when I went to the bank and had a male-to-female bank teller. His sex was obviously male but he had “women’s” clothing on, long hair, and makeup. I did my banking as usual and didn’t say a word about it, because men can wear dresses if they want and that’s fine with me, but I knew he was male.
I have also been to a couple of trans events where I saw a few dozen trans people all together. Again, their sex was obvious. I saw a lot of young, short men with small skeletons, small hands, feminine jaw lines, and rounded shoulders. They were obviously female even though they had beards. I also saw a lot of really tall women with broad shoulders, Adam’s apples, and strong jaw lines, and they were obviously male although I could tell what ‘gender’ they were supposed to be. The point here is, even when people make modifications to their bodies, their sex is usually quite obvious. Trans women hardly ever pass, and trans men definitely pass more often than trans women do, but someone who knows what to look for can see it. I’m guessing that females who make body modifications don’t have a hard time passing as men around complete strangers who aren’t expecting to see a trans person, but as I’ve explained, there are many trans people whose sex is obvious. Cases where someone’s sex isn’t obvious are very, very rare.
The second half of this conversation is “why do we need to know?” I wish it didn’t matter what sex someone was. Both males and females should be treated with dignity, and taken seriously as full human beings. There should be no different expectations placed on males and females based on what people think they can do or say or wear. For example, females should be able to run for President and get elected based on their merit, without being subjected to misogynist abuse, and males should be able to express feminine personality traits and clothing styles without getting beaten up and called “faggot.” But males and females are treated differently, and this is a reality we have to deal with.
Right from infancy, boy and girl children are treated differently. Parents buy certain toys and clothes for their small children based on whether they are male or female. They hug girl children more and they teach boy children not to cry. Then when they’re sent to school, teachers treat boys and girls differently too. Messages from culture (books, movies, and other media) teach the same lessons. By the time kids reach adolescence they are full of cultural ideas about who boys and girls are and these ideas are firmly ingrained in their minds. We call this process socialization. Socialization causes men and women to behave in different ways and expect certain behaviours of each other.
I’m somewhere in the middle of the continuum between social constructionism and biological determinism. I’m probably about three-quarters social constructionist. I think that the differences in male and female behaviour can be accounted for mostly by socialization and partly by biological differences. For example, males, as a group, tend to be more aggressive and violent than females as a group. Males might be partially more prone to violence and aggression due to their biology (testosterone, for example) but I think it’s mostly that they’re taught to be aggressive by our culture. Men are expected not to show emotion, to be tough and strong all the time, to be leaders and protectors who think rationally and don’t get upset. They’re expected to be completely intolerant of “sissy” behaviour and to beat up any men who aren’t sufficiently masculine, to prove their own adherence to masculinity. They’re also taught that in order to be a real man they should treat women like sexual objects whose bodies they are entitled to. This is where I’m coming from when I make the following statement: we need to know what sex people are because males are dangerous and we need to protect ourselves.
Now, just because I say that, doesn’t mean I think that literally every single man in the world is violent. It just means that men, as a group, tend to be more violent. Most people who commit rape, murder, sexual assault, and plain old assault, are men. Women never know which men are going to be violent until they are—there is no way to tell ahead of time. We are expected to be “vigilant” all the time and “never walk alone at night” because any man has the potential to be one of the dangerous ones at any time. Since male violence against women is so prevalent, large numbers of women actually have been abused by men and are actively trying to prevent being abused again.
Women try to prevent being abused by doing things like keeping track of the men around us and their behaviour, and avoiding men in some situations. We avoid doing things like undressing or peeing in rooms where there are men, or being alone with men who we’re not intimately involved with. We set boundaries, we watch our drinks, and we don’t walk alone at night, because we understand the problem of male violence against women.
When transgenderists ask the question, “why do you need to know what genitals people have,” the first thing I wonder is, “Have you never heard of male violence?” Most people have. All sorts of people, even if they’re not feminists, have heard of male violence. You know how macho fathers are hesitant to allow their teenage daughters to start dating? That’s not because they’ve read Andrea Dworkin, it’s because they live in the world and they know that men are violent and their daughters are in danger.
There are other reasons why people need to know who is male and who is female. One of them is sexual orientation. Not everybody is “pansexual,” lots of us actually have preferences for one sex or the other. We would only consider dating people of one sex and we identify which people are our preferred sex. It’s also important in sports situations. Males and females are separated on sports teams so that it’s fair. We have different physical attributes, so we can’t be competing against each other fairly or safely. Finally, sex is but one of many attributes that we notice about people and can use as an identifying factor. If you are trying to describe someone to another person, identifying the person’s sex is one of the ways to communicate what the person looks like, just like their eye colour, hair colour, height and weight. It’s not “bigoted” to identify someone’s sex, just like it’s not bigoted to identify that someone is tall, or has brown eyes, or has long hair. It’s just an accurate observation. Sometimes we do need to make observations about people’s physical attributes in order to identify them.
In many social situations, someone’s sex will never matter. Chances are if I go to the bank, it doesn’t matter if the teller is male or female. Most of the time, strangers walk past me without incident and it doesn’t matter what sex they are. But sometimes it does matter. It matters particularly to women, because we are vulnerable due to our female biology and the fact that men are socialized to see us as objects for their use. (Have you seen the dudes on Twitter laughing about grabbing random women by the pussy lately?) Men abuse women because they can, because they like to, because they are in fact encouraged to, and because they rarely ever get punished for it. Women have the right to identify that males are the people most likely to harm us, we have the right to name male violence as a social problem, we have the right to identify who around us is male, we have the right to set boundaries keeping males out of our private spaces for our own protection, and we have the right to call men men. It doesn’t do any harm to men when we identify their sex, but it does harm us when we cannot identify male violence or protect ourselves from it. When women are required to not notice what sex men are, that means we can’t set boundaries.
It would be nice if it didn’t matter so much. There shouldn’t be so much of a need to treat males and females differently. But in this world, we do have to treat males and females differently, because they behave differently, and this matters. Having female biology means being vulnerable around people with male biology. And even if everyone were a nice person who didn’t want to harm anyone, it would still be obvious what sex people are, and it would still be an identifying factor that we use occasionally, and it would still be important to anyone who is conducting an intimate relationship, a medical examination, or a sports game. Like it or not, sex is a significant physical characteristic of human beings.