Trans feminist Cristan Williams responds to radical feminist John Stoltenberg‘s commentary on the practice of sex pedagogy, reviewing the application of “sex class” consciousness, as expressed by Andrea Dworkin, Monique Wittig, and Catharine MacKinnon, to the cultural condition of cisgender, transgender, and intersex women. Williams contrasts this analysis with a critique of the prescriptive binary “sex caste” framework promoted by Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond.
Keywords: Sex Gender Social Constructionism Sex Class
Sex Class ConsciousnessAs I read what you had to say about the myth of a natural sex binary, I could hear the collective teeth of sex essentialists across the globe grinding in outrage. The problem, I think, is that some in the sex essentialist camp conflate a belief in a natural sexed binary with the concept of sex as a class, believing the concepts to be one in the same. Wittig spoke to this in her essay, One Is Not Born a Woman:
It is we who historically must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms. This certainly seems to be an impossibility since materialism and subjectivity have always been mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, and rather than despairing of ever understanding, we must recognize the need to reach subjectivity in the abandonment by many of us to the myth “woman” (the myth of woman being only a snare that holds us up). This real necessity for everyone to exist as an individual, as well as a member of a class, is perhaps the first condition for the accomplishment of a revolution, without which there can be no real fight or transformation. But the opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals.1
Andrea’s analysis in Right Wing Women complements Wittig’s. Andrea first addresses the radical notion that “women” must not be defined in terms of sex and gender essentialism:
In proposing “the individuality of each human soul,” feminists propose that women are not their sex; nor their sex plus some other little thing—a liberal additive of personality, for instance; but that each life—including each woman’s life—must be a person’s own, not predetermined before her birth by totalitarian ideas about her nature and her function, not subject to guardianship by some more powerful class, not determined in the aggregate but worked out by herself, for herself. Frankly, no one much knows what feminists mean; the idea of women not defined by sex and reproduction is anathema or baffling. It is the simplest revolutionary idea ever conceived, and the most despised.2
She then specifically contextualizes “women” as being that which it truly is: a political sex class created by a common cultural condition, subject to the promise of a common liberation.
One other discipline is essential both to the practice of feminism and to its theoretical integrity: the firm, unsentimental, continuous recognition that women are a class having a common condition. This is not some psychological process of identification with women because women are wonderful; nor is it the insupportable assertion that there are no substantive, treacherous differences among women. This is not a liberal mandate to ignore what is cruel, despicable, or stupid in women, nor is it a mandate to ignore dangerous political ideas or allegiances of women. This does not mean women first, women best, women only. It does mean that the fate of every individual woman—no matter what her politics, character, values, qualities—is tied to the fate of all women whether she likes it or not. On one level, it means that every woman’s fate is tied to the fate of women she dislikes personally. On another level, it means that every woman’s fate is tied to the fate of women whom she politically and morally abhors. For instance, it means that rape jeopardizes communist and fascist women, liberal, conservative, Democratic, or Republican women, racist women and black women, Nazi women and Jewish women, homophobic women and homosexual women. The crimes committed against women because they are women articulate the condition of women. The eradication of these crimes, the transformation of the condition of women, is the purpose of feminism; which means that feminism requires a most rigorous definition of what those crimes are so as to determine what that condition is. This definition cannot be compromised by a selective representation of the sex class based on sentimentality or wishful thinking. This definition cannot exclude prudes or sluts or dykes or mothers or virgins because one does not want to be associated with them. To be a feminist means recognizing that one is associated with all women not as an act of choice but as a matter of fact. The sex-class system creates the fact. When that system is broken, there will be no such fact. Feminists do not create this common condition by making alliances; feminists recognize this common condition because it exists as an intrinsic part of sex oppression. The fundamental knowledge that women are a class having a common condition— that the fate of one woman is tied substantively to the fate of all women—toughens feminist theory and practice. That fundamental knowledge is an almost unbearable test of seriousness. There is no real feminism that does not have at its heart the tempering discipline of sex-class consciousness: knowing that women share a common condition as a class, like it or not.3
If Andrea is correct, all types of women share a common condition within our culture which produces the sex class, “women.” If Andrea is wrong, the sex class, “women” is instead produced by an essential biology. I as a trans feminist, take the apparent radically feminist view that the sex class “women” is the product of implicit cultural perception, understanding, regard and condition, not some essential biologism. Certainly this has been my experience.
Years ago, I had become sick with a particularly nasty case of the flu; I was feverish, nauseous and had no energy. A man I knew said that he wanted to come over and take care of me while I was ill. I had taken some medication for the flu symptoms that knocked me out and when I awoke – nauseous, weak and burning with fever – it was to him on top of me. He had manipulated my unconscious body to gain access and was finishing as I came to consciousness. I lay there, feeling utterly powerless, used, and betrayed with his cum leaking out of my vagina because, of course, he’d not used a condom. After making the self-deprecating excuse that I was just too sick for him to safely be around, I got him to leave. I felt utterly stupid, alone and hollow, feeling sick in every way it’s possible to feel sick.
Many years before I was raped, I learned to always have my car keys in my hand before going outside to my car because a man could attack me while my attention was focused on fumbling with keys. Years before I was raped, I learned that there wasn’t a lot I could do about the sexual harassment of men driving by, soliciting sex and trying to convince me to get into their cars. Before I was raped, I learned that the price for not getting into a strange man’s car was being yelled at and to be labeled “bitch” and “cunt.” Before I was raped, I learned that in this culture it’s normal for men to tell me to smile, no matter how I might be feeling, because my open and receptive face was pleasing to them. How I found myself to be subject to this specific oppression is inconsequential to the reality of its effect on my life; what is of consequence is that I share a common cultural condition that is particular to women in this society.
To be clear, my fate as a trans woman is absolutely tied to the fate of anti-trans sex essentialist women who enjoy assaulting my selfhood by constructing a forced social context for me to occupy by using male pronouns, my old name and old pictures. My fate as a trans woman is absolutely tied to the fate of prominent anti-trans sex essentialist women who assert that I am murdering motherhood when I access medical care:
There is a witness to the transsexual’s script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual’s body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual’s worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her…4
My fate as a trans woman is absolutely tied to the fate of anti-trans sex essentialist women who gain a certain pleasure from assessing, belittling and berating trans women’s bodies. My fate as a trans woman is absolutely tied to the fate of anti-trans sex essentialist women who wish that I were dead. And, my fate as a trans woman is absolutely tied to the fate of anti-trans sex essentialist women who assert that women like me are comforted by rape culture
[B]ecause the fact of the matter is that unlike born-women, who have everything (literally, everything) to lose from rape culture, transwomen have at least something (everything?) to gain. [T]o a transwoman, cutting off her dick and turning it (inside out) into a fuckhole between her legs makes her feel better… but surgical transition of born-men to MTF transsexuals would not exist if every single goddamned man in the world (including transwomen and their doctors too) didnt [sic] already believe that vaginas were just fuckholes, for men.5 6
Moreover, no matter how much these sex essentialist women might belittle, attack, and mock women like me, the fate of anti-trans sex essentialist women is nevertheless tied to the fate of all women, even trans women like me. Regardless of the animus anti-trans sex essentialist women may personally feel towards trans women like me, like it or not, we nonetheless face a specific kind of cultural condition and should that cultural condition suddenly disappear tomorrow, we would share in a specific kind of liberation.
Sex Caste Consciousness
Recently, some anti-trans sex essentialist radical feminists have begun to favor the term, “sex caste” instead of “sex class” to describe the cultural condition of women because class analysis perceives an end to the sex class system. For example, the anti-trans sex essentialist radical feminist opinion leader Sheila Jeffreys explained her rejection of “sex class” and preference for the term “sex caste” in her 2014 academic work, Gender Hurts:
In this book I have chosen to use the term ‘sex caste’ to describe the political system in which women are subordinated to men on the basis of their biology… Feminists have disagreed over whether women’s condition of subordination is best referred to in terms of ‘caste’ or ‘class’. If women are in a subordinate class in relation to men, as the working class is in relation to the bourgeoisie, then women’s revolution can be conceptualised as overthrowing the power of men in such a way that sex class ceases to have meaning and will disappear as a meaningful category. It also implies, as in left theory, that women’s revolution requires the recognition by women of their ‘sex’ class status as the basis for political action. Nonetheless, the term sex class can be problematic because it implies that women could move out of their ‘class’, in the same way that individual working class people could change their class position by becoming embourgeoised. The term ‘caste’, on the other hand, is useful for this book because it encapsulates the way in which women are placed into a subordinate caste status for their lifetime.7
For Jeffreys, the perception, contextualization and languaging of a “sex” body binary isn’t part of gender because sex is asserted to instead exist within culture as an empirically unconstructed state of human embodiment so that “women” must be conceptualized in terms of biological function: a “sex caste.” Such constructions of “sex” are convenient for sex essentialists who wish to use it to assert that trans women and cis women do not share a common cultural condition:
Postmodern and queer theorists share with transgender theorists the idea that ‘gender’ is a moveable feast that can be moved into and out of, swapped and so forth. Gender, used in this sense, disappears the fixedness of sex, the biological basis that underlies the relegation of females to their sex caste. Female infants are identified by biology at birth and placed into a female sex caste, which apportions them lifelong inferior status.
Female foetuses are aborted and female infants are killed because of sex, not ‘gender’ discrimination. Foetuses do not have ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’, because the forces of a woman-hating culture have not had a chance to affect the way they understand themselves. The inferior sex caste status of women is assigned with reference to their biology, and it is through their biology that their subordination is enforced and maintained through rape, impregnation and forced childbearing. Women do not pass in and out of wearing ‘women’s’ clothing, as cross-dressers may do, indeed they may reject such clothing as inferiorising, but still suffer violence and discrimination as women.8
I think there’s a reason Jeffreys’ biologism is curiously silent on the existence of intersex women within her sex caste system. In fact, Jeffreys never once mentions the existence of intersex women in Gender Hurts. Note Jeffreys’ rhetoric with regard to precisely what identifies infants at birth: “Female infants are identified by biology at birth and placed into a female sex caste…” Such rhetoric obscures the subject which objectifies infants through the cultural practice of sexing babies into a cultural binary body system, a practice which intersex activists have strived to make more apparent for decades.
As Jeffreys correctly states, “female foetuses are aborted and female infants are killed…” but they are not killed, as she asserts, “because of sex.” A more accurate statement would have been, “female foetuses are aborted and female infants are killed because of culture.” It is culture and not “sex” that sets the conditions for patriarchal violence to take place, and it is culture’s patriarchal lens that causes individuals within that culture to construct that which is not “man,” which is to say, that which is “woman.”
When one obscures the cultural root of patriarchal violence, one’s material embodiment becomes the only thing left to consider as being its implicit root. Having obscured the root of patriarchal violence, Jeffreys seems oblivious to the reality that she has deployed the same rhetoric rape culture cites when obfuscating the guilt of a rapist. For the same reason it’s problematic to say that a woman was raped because of her mini-skirt, it is likewise problematic to assert, as Jeffrey’s sex caste framework does, that a woman was killed because of her sex.
Jeffreys asserts that females experience patriarchal violence “…because of sex, not ‘gender’ discrimination.” Having rhetorically obscured the actual root of patriarchal violence (culture), Jeffreys asserts that the victims of patriarchal violence did not face “gender discrimination.” But, what is gender if not the contextualization of what is culturally asserted to be “sex”? Having erased the subject (culture) to her object (sex), Jefferys simply proclaims that a cis women’s experience of gender identity cannot resemble trans women’s experience of gender identity because, “Women do not decide at some time in adulthood that they would like other people to understand them to be women.” Here, one wonders if Jeffreys has ever spent time listening to the concerns of young adults or considered the money spent by cis women each year in sex binary-accentuating surgeries, makeup, hair and weight loss products because within Jeffreys’ “sex caste” framework, it’s asserted that women living within patriarchy don’t act to be perceived or identified as a “woman:”
Women do not decide at some time in adulthood that they would like other people to understand them to be women, because being a woman is not an ‘identity’. Women’s experience does not resemble that of men who adopt the ‘gender identity’ of being female or being women in any respect. The idea of ‘gender identity’ disappears biology and all the experiences that those with female biology have of being reared in a caste system based on sex.9
Not only is Jeffreys’ rhetoric constructed to obscure the root of patriarchal violence, her rhetoric is constructed to obscure the experience of cis and trans women and, of course, the experience of intersex women is ignored, erased and goes unconsidered. Moreover, within Jeffreys’ sex caste framework, “transgender” is a verb and while there can be lesbian women (here, “lesbian” functioning as an adjective), the English language dictionary adjective “transgender” is avoided.
Only one book-length critique of transgenderism [sic] was written in second wave feminism, Janice Raymond’s deservedly well-known tour de force, The Transsexual Empire. She usefully sums up the difference between feminist understandings of women and those of men who transgender [sic] thus:
We know that we are women who are born with female chromosomes and anatomy, and that whether or not we were socialized to be so-called normal women, patriarchy has treated and will treat us like women. Transsexuals have not had this same history. No man [sic] can have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman. He [sic] can have the history of wishing to be a woman and of acting like a woman, but this gender experience is that of a transsexual, not of a woman. Surgery may confer the artifacts of outward and inward female organs but it cannot confer the history of being born a woman in this society.10
Leaving aside the fact that here, Jeffreys and Raymond both appeal directly to cultural history to essentialize “women,” through the sex caste framework, “sex” isn’t descriptive, it is, in its present tense, prescriptive; one’s present tense experience of rape, objectification and oppression as a trans “woman” within our culture is never shared by women-born “women.” Within this framework, trans and intersex women exist outside the women sex caste because Jeffreys and Raymond’s asserted binary body system is specifically crafted for that purpose. Therefore, when a trans or intersex woman is beaten, raped and degraded by the men in her life, we should understand that she is being oppressed as a man. Thus unlike women authenticated through the rhetorical agency of a past tense essential biology, trans women (and here again, intersex women are erased) necessarily promote prejudicial versions of what constitutes “womanhood” in the present tense:
I have chosen to use pronouns that indicate the biological sex of the persons whose work is discussed here for a number of reasons. The first is that the biological sex of transgender persons does not change and use of the pronoun of origin indicates this. This is politically important, since it is useful for feminists to know the biological sex of those who claim to be women and promote prejudicial versions of what constitutes womanhood. Also, use by men [sic] of feminine pronouns conceals the masculine privilege bestowed upon them by virtue of having been placed in and brought up in the male sex caste. If men [sic] are addressed as ‘she’, then all this privilege, which affects their speaking position and may be crucial to their choice to be ‘women’ in the first place, is disappeared. Another reason for adherence to pronouns that indicate biology is that, as a feminist, I consider the female pronoun to be an honorific, a term that conveys respect. Respect is due to women as members of a sex caste that have survived subordination and deserve to be addressed with honour. Men [sic] who transgender [sic] cannot occupy such a position.11
As demonstrated within Jeffreys’ essentialist sex caste framework above, sex prescriptivism is ethical and brings with it norms and taboos which are deemed moral to observe. Moreover, this behavioral morality is in no way gender because, within Jeffreys’ sex caste framework, the sexed body binary somehow exists outside of culture. Such understandings of women’s oppression seem foreign to the radical feminist analysis of Andrea and Wittig. Wittig writes in The Straight Mind:
For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society.12
Here again, I want to return to Andrea’s analysis in Right-Wing Women:
There is no real feminism that does not have at its heart the tempering discipline of sex-class consciousness: knowing that women share a common condition as a class, like it or not.
Rape, battery, economic exploitation, and reproductive exploitation are the basic crimes committed against women in the sex-class system in which they are devalued because they are women. These specific crimes are each committed against huge percentages of the female population at any given time. They are the crimes of the sex-class system against women; they are the crimes that keep women women in an immovable system of sex hierarchy. They are crimes committed against women as women.13
As to the question of an essentialist sex binary, Andrea is clear in Woman Hating:
The first question then is: What of biology? There are, after all, men and women. They are different, demonstrably so. We are each of one sex or the other. If there are two discrete biological sexes, then it is not hard to argue that there are two discrete modes of human behavior, sex-related, sex-determined. One might argue for a liberalization of sex-based roles, but one cannot justifiably argue for their total redefinition.
Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female, ” “man” and “woman, ” are used only because as yet there are no others.
We can presume then that there is a great deal about human sexuality to be discovered, and that our notion of two discrete biological sexes cannot remain intact. We can presume then that we will discover cross-sexed phenomena in proportion to our ability to see them.14 15
As you know, I interviewed Catharine MacKinnon, focusing on questions of sex essentialism, gender and sex class consciousness. Prior to my interview, she was interviewed by the New York University of Shanghai. Taken together, both interviews seem to make it clear that MacKinnon’s radical analysis is aligned with both Andrea and Wittig’s:
I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.
To me, women is a political group. I never had much occasion to say that, or work with it, until the last few years when there has been a lot of discussion about whether transwomen are women.
Many transwomen just go around being women, who knew, and suddenly, we are supposed to care that they are using the women’s bathroom. There they are in the next stall with the door shut, and we’re supposed to feel threatened. I don’t. I don’t care. By now, I aggressively don’t care. Simone de Beauvoir said one is not born, one becomes a woman. Now we’re supposed to care how, as if being a woman suddenly became a turf to be defended. I have become more impassioned and emphatic as I have become more informed, and with the push-back from colleagues who take a very different view.16
I have always seen discrimination against trans people as a form of sex-based discrimination. I’ve taught it that way since 1977; it can be found throughout my casebook Sex Equality (2007). One of my earliest clients was a transwoman who was imprisoned in a male prison. Her situation was absolutely horrific. My views on this have not changed one iota over time, although they have become more informed as more trans people have written, spoken out, and more discussion has been engaged, and as I have met more and more out trans people (mostly transwomen) all over the world.
My basic feeling, with Simone de Beauvoir, is ‘one is not born, one rather becomes a woman.’ How one becomes a woman is not, I think, our job to police, even as everything about that process is worth inquiry and detailed understanding. Having been surrounded by born women who do not identify as women particularly, and reject feminism as having nothing to do with them, it has been inspiring to encounter transwomen who do identify as women, actively oppose violence against women including prostitution (in which those who engage have little choice), and are strong feminists. “Woman” can be, in part, a political identification. To be a woman, one does have to live women’s status. Transwomen are living it, and in my experience bring a valuable perspective on it as well.17
Considering the effort to reduce, repurpose, and construct radical feminist analysis around sex class consciousness into a public battle of rhetoric aimed at trans people, would you please talk about the way you work with sex class consciousness?
- Conboy, Katie. “Monique Wittig: One Is Not Born a Woman.” In Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, 316. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
- Dworkin, Andrea. “The Coming Gynocide.” In Right-wing Women, 191. New York: Perigee Books, 1983.
- Dworkin, Andrea. “Antifeminism.” In Right-wing Women, 220 – 221. New York: Perigee Books, 1983.
- Greer, Germaine. “Pantomime Dames.” In The Whole Woman. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
- “Rape Culture Birthed the Neovag.” Femonade. July 16, 2010. Accessed February 26, 2015. https://factcheckme.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/rape-culture-birthed-the-neovag/.
- Femonade was a regular and founding contributor to RadFem Hub, an early online community of self-identified radical feminists focused on criticizing trans people, and specifically, trans women.
- Jeffreys, Sheila. “Introduction.” In Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, 5. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Ibid, 5-6
- Ibid, 6
- Ibid, 6
- Ibid, 9
- Wittig, Monique. “The Category of Sex.” In The Straight Mind and Other Essays, 2. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
- Dworkin, Andrea. “Antifeminism.” In Right-wing Women, 221 – 223. New York: Perigee Books, 1983.
- Dworkin, Andrea. “Androgyny: Androgyny, Fucking, and Community.” In Woman Hating, 175 – 181. New York, NY: Dutton, 1974.
- See this topic discussed in the journal Nature.
- Farr, Bella, and Alhan Fakhr. “Harm Is Harm, Hello.” On Century Avenue. March 08, 2015. http://oncenturyavenue.org/2015/03/harm-is-harm-hello/.
- Williams, Cristan. “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: An Interview With Catharine A. MacKinnon.” The Conversations Project. November 27, 2015. http://radfem.transadvocate.com/sex-gender-and-sexuality-an-interview-with-catharine-a-mackinnon_n_433.