Radical feminist John Stoltenberg responds to trans feminist Cristan Williams‘ commentary on feminist sex class and sex caste epistemology, considers peer tautologies and class analysis of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Stoltenberg scrutinizes “manhood” and “womanhood” as gendered identities and notes his historical rejection of a sex and gender binary as cultural constructs.
Keywords: Sex Gender Gender Identity Sex Class
The Fork in the Road: Sex Class Consciousness vs Biologism, Essentialism, and Identity
BY John Stoltenberg
@JohnStoltenberg First of all, thank you for recalling those passages from Andrea’s Right-wing Women, which though published in 1983 could not be more profoundly relevant to this conversation! That book, like most of Andrea’s work, I read in draft before publication, so to me your astute reading of Right-wing Women feels like a memory gift: a prompt to remember how present Andrea’s moral intellection was (and is) to me.
Also, thank you for citing those passages from Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys without demonizing them personally but rather in order to focus on the distinct philosophical difference between their biology-based/sex-essentialist views and what Andrea meant when she spoke of sex class. Your juxtaposition of those quotations from Andrea with quotations from Raymond and Jeffreys draws a line so bright as to be glaring. I happen to know both Raymond and Jeffreys personally. I have warm memories from years ago of our connections and conversations. I believe them to be good and caring people deeply committed to making the world safe for women.
Yet on the particular question at hand—the implications for trans women of the meaning of “sex class” as articulated with such clarity by Andrea—I believe Raymond’s and Jeffreys’s views are erroneous. (I would welcome an opportunity to talk with them about this. In the words of the radical feminist author and journalist Julie Bindel—another longtime friend with whom I generally find myself in agreement except on this issue—“Let us hear the arguments put forward by those with whom we disagree so that we can expand our knowledge and show rational resistance.”1 We may respectfully agree to disagree, as intelligent grownups ought to be capable of doing without stooping to insult and character assassination. But that there is a principled, philosophical, and political disagreement no one can doubt, no small thanks to what you have just set forth in this conversation.)
A central sticking point for me is their claim (which I’m paraphrasing) that trans women in particular (their ire seems less at trans men) are counterrevolutionary because trans women “reify” gender, thereby undermining the revolution that’s specially supposed to liberate women who were assigned female at birth. As I understand them, Raymond and Jeffreys want to toss out the bathwater that is culturally constructed gender yet keep the baby that is sex-essentialist binary sex. And as I’ve explained in my earlier installments, I believe the binary model of sex-essentialist sex is itself a cultural delusion. So conceptually that presents a clear-cut either/or: Either you believe (as Raymond, Jeffreys, et al. do) the notion that the binary model of sex-essentialist sex maps to human nature or you believe (as I et al. do) that very notion is bunk, bogus cultural baggage from a millennia-long monotheistic/patriarchal/male-supremacist mindfuck. And that’s a conceptual fork in the road that leads to two different paths, with radically different real-life consequences.
Building astutely on Andrea’s work, you make the case eloquently for the intersectional rejoinder to Raymond’s and Jeffreys’s sex essentialism—that trans women are as fully entitled to inclusion in the movement to liberate women as are all other women who have been marginalized on account of multiple oppressions. And one would think that for smart people that self-evident and inclusive truth would be sufficient to dispel and displace the narrower notion of a sex-essentialist sisterhood.
My understanding of the concept “sex class” comes almost entirely from Andrea, although I’m aware that its meaning has philosophical and theoretical roots in pre-radical-feminist class analyses. Your quotations from Witting clearly reference those connections. Andrea’s friend and colleague Catharine A. MacKinnon brought related insights into that discussion in her book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, published in 1989.
Andrea’s and MacKinnon’s shared understandings of the concept “sex class”—as well as their shared critique of a biologically determined gender binary—clearly animated their collaboration. It’s perfectly obvious from reading them both. It’s equally obvious that their radical feminist understanding of the sex class women was trans-inclusive, and not only implicitly, as in the passage you parse from Right-wing Women. When Andrea and MacKinnon drafted their civil-rights antipornography legislation—which defined pornography as, in part, “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women…”—they made the ordinance trans-inclusive explicitly: “The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women…is also pornography.”
This was 1983, and Andrea and MacKinnon were drafting legislation for a civil remedy, a law that a person could use to bring a civil suit, and so it had to be written in language that would pass muster under then-current judicial interpretation of the sex-discrimination part of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. At the time, discrimination against transsexuals (the word more common then) was not covered under the Civil Rights Act whatsoever. (That, happily, has changed.) So Andrea and MacKinnon’s choice to include transsexuals with this particular language was not only because they wanted transsexuals to be able to use their law (because they knew transsexuals were being harmed in the making and use of pornography); it was for the specific purpose of saying that discrimination against trans-persons was discrimination based on sex, which was not otherwise legally recognized at the time.
The trans-inclusive language they chose was more than for purposes of legal practicality. As can be seen in Andrea’s and MacKinnon’s work generally, their intolerance of the sexual violence that undergirds and enacts male supremacy was never sex essentialist, and they understood in a profound way that a person could be subordinated as a member of the sex class women, and thereby consigned to it, without having been assigned female at birth—as happened exactly in the painful personal story you courageously shared.
So to me the notion that truly revolutionary radical feminism is trans-inclusive is a no brainer. I honestly do not understand how or why a strain of radical feminism has emerged that favors a biology-based/sex-essentialist theory of “sex caste” over the theory of “sex class” as set forth in the work of Wittig, Andrea, and MacKinnon. Can radical feminism be “reclaimed” so that its trans-inclusivity—which is inherent—is made apparent? I hope so, which is why to me this conversation between us matters so much. But I hope so not only on behalf of trans folk. I hope so because there is a radical inclusivity inherent in radical feminism that is needed on behalf of everyone.
I’ll try to explain.
First, I’ll pose and answer a question: If the sex class women is not locked into or located in a biological sex binary (which is a chimera), then what is its origin? Andrea was very clear about that: The sex class women originates in the ideology and practice of male supremacy. I borrowed from Andrea’s clarity about that analysis in all my work about the sex class men and the gender identity “manhood.” And I borrow from that analysis every day of my real life.
In fact both the dominant sex class men and the subordinate sex class women originate in male supremacy. To be more precise: Sex-class hierarchy originates in the male-supremacist quest for identity through domination, disidentification, despisal, and derogation. It’s a point Andrea made eloquently in her essay “The Root Cause” with reference to pornography, which she was later to call (in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women) “the DNA of male dominance. Every rule of sexual abuse, every nuance of sexual sadism, every highway and byway of sexual exploitation, is encoded in it”:
In literary pornography, the pulsating heart of darkness at the center of the male-positive system is exposed in all of its terrifying nakedness. That heart of darkness is this—that sexual sadism actualizes male identity. Women are tortured, whipped, and chained; women are bound and gagged, branded and burned, cut with knives and wires; women are pissed on and shit on; red-hot needles are driven into breasts, bones are broken, rectums are torn, mouths are ravaged, cunts are savagely bludgeoned by penis after penis, dildo after dildo—and all of this to establish in the male a viable sense of his own worth.[…]
The pornography of male sadism almost always contains an idealized, or unreal, view of male fellowship. The utopian male concept which is the premise of male pornography is this—since manhood is established and confirmed over and against the brutalized bodies of women, men need not aggress against each other; in other words, women absorb male aggression so that men are safe from it. Each man, knowing his own deep-rooted impulse to savagery, presupposes this same impulse in other men and seeks to protect himself from it. The rituals of male sadism over and against the bodies of women are the means by which male aggression is socialized so that a man can associate with other men without the imminent danger of male aggression against his own person. The common erotic project of destroying women makes it possible for men to unite into a brotherhood; this project is the only firm and trustworthy groundwork for cooperation among males and all male bonding is based on it.
This idealized view of male fellowship exposes the essentially homosexual character of male society. Men use women’s bodies to form alliances or bonds with each other. Men use women’s bodies to achieve recognizable power which will certify male identity in the eyes of other men. Men use women’s bodies to enable them to engage in civil and peaceable social transactions with each other. We think that we live in a heterosexual society because most men are fixated on women as sexual objects; but, in fact, we live in a homosexual society because all credible transactions of power, authority, and authenticity take place among men; all transactions based on equity and individuality take place among men. Men are real; therefore, all real relationship is between men; all real communication is between men; all real reciprocity is between men; all real mutuality is between men. Heterosexuality, which can be defined as the sexual dominance of men over women, is like an acorn—from it grows the mighty oak of the male homosexual society, a society of men, by men, and for men, a society in which the positivity of male community is realized through the negation of the female, through the annihilation of women’s flesh and will.
The gender identity manhood, and the dominant ideology and practices that drive and enact it, is not picky about whether the human being it subordinates has so-called female biology. Often as not, the lie of manhood is reified—and the gender identity manhood is experienced as real—by subordinating people with so-called male biology. As Andrea points out above (and as I elaborate in The End of Manhood), the gender identity manhood derives solely from acts of dominance, on a continuum from dissing and derision to destruction and death, together with the institutions that privilege it, including manhood-bonding pacts at the expense of individuals or groups who are subordinated in order for manhood to exist.2 Therefore to say that foregrounding female biology is a sine qua non for dismantling male-supremacist violence is a misdirect. Given circumstances of someone’s sufficiently rage- and hate-filled drive to reify the gender identity manhood, anything that moves can be “treated like a woman.” Therefore what’s necessary for dismantling male-supremacist violence is the end of manhood itself.
Andrea had much to say about how to do that, how it can and must be done. For instance she wrote (again in “The Root Cause”):
As I see it, our revolutionary task is to destroy phallic identity in men and masochistic nonidentity in women—that is, to destroy the polar realities of men and women as we now know them so that this division of human flesh into two camps(—one an armed camp and the other a concentration camp—is no longer possible. Phallic identity is real and it must be destroyed. Female masochism is real and it must be destroyed. The cultural institutions which embody and enforce those interlocked aberrations—for instance, law, art, religion, nation-states, the family, tribe, or commune based on father-right—these institutions are real and they must be destroyed. If they are not, we will be consigned as women to perpetual inferiority and subjugation.
I believe that freedom for women must begin in the repudiation of our own masochism. I believe that we must destroy in ourselves the drive to masochism at its sexual roots. I believe that we must establish our own authenticity, individually and among ourselves—to experience it, to create from it, and also to deprive men of occasions for reifying the lie of manhood over and against us. I believe that ridding ourselves of our own deeply entrenched masochism, which takes so many tortured forms, is the first priority; it is the first deadly blow that we can strike against systematized male dominance. In effect, when we succeed in excising masochism from our own personalities and constitutions, we will be cutting the male life line to power over and against us, to male worth in contradistinction to female degradation, to male identity posited on brutally enforced female negativity—we will be cutting the male life line to manhood itself. Only when manhood is dead—and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it—only then will we know what it is to be free.
Because Andrea problematized manhood as such, she was often falsely accused of hating men. Anyone who grasps the conspicuous absence of sex essentialism in her work knows that what she hated is what is done to reify the lie of manhood. And she saw clearly that the damage done to sustain the sex class men, and one’s membership in it, could be inflicted on people whatever their sex assignment at birth.
The insistence of some radical feminists on biological womanhood and a sex binary as their theory of everything—an insistence also embraced by many people raised to be a man because it sustains their belief in the existence of biological manhood—completely misses the important point that Andrea makes about how male supremacy operates to create, maintain, and enforce the sex-class hierarchy. In that sense the insistence of some radical feminists on biological womanhood and a sex binary diverts revolutionary urgency away from problematizing the lethal ideology of male supremacy (aka belief in manhood) and narrows attention on a specious principle of biologism. Even more misguidedly, the insistence of some radical feminists on biological womanhood and a sex binary fails to perceive holistically how damaging and destructive male supremacy is to just about everyone—because just about anyone can at some point in their life experience the brunt of it on account of derogated attributes that include not only so-called female anatomy but also stature, age, sexual orientation, skin color, mental capacity, physical ability, gender expression (the list goes on and on and on; there is not an intersectionality of oppression that does not intersect male supremacy).
I believe there is great hope is the notion of radical inclusivity applied to matters of sex and gender. It is a perspective that sees trans folk as unheralded heroes of the larger resistance movement against male supremacy, not least because they bear vivid witness to real-life victimization under violent impositions of the gender binary that many folks experience. Far from undermining the feminist critique of gender as hierarchy, the survivor testimony of trans folk underscores and amplifies it. And to the extent that more and more people feel free to live outside binary sex and gender mandates—to the extent that there are more and more genders and there are as many sexes as there are people—and to the extent that more and more people recognize their own stake in eliminating male supremacy and its mandates—that may be humanity’s most promising hope right now to explode the fiction of the sex binary and ultimately the hierarchy of gender itself.