Published in the Times 19/8/17
Efforts to stamp out artificial gender distinctions shouldn’t get confused with real differences between men and women
Girls are good at “being pretty and wearing dresses”. Boys grow up to be presidents, “because they’re better at being in charge”. There’s nothing politically correct about seven-year-olds. The kids of Lanesend primary school in a BBC documentary just repeated, unfiltered, what they saw and heard from parents, books, teachers, adverts and TV.
The idea of creating a “gender-neutral” classroom in No More Boys and Girls sounds like some sinister feminist experiment. When in fact it was incredibly simple: challenge a few silly, life-limiting stereotypes and, as one excited boy put it, “everyone can choose to be anything they want”.
After six happy weeks in which they met male dancers and female mechanics, there was only one thing boys and girls loathed with equal passion: sharing a block of unisex toilets. Both felt invaded, vulnerable, embarrassed. “I try not to go at school,” says one girl (in next week’s episode). “I hold it in all day.”
It struck me that here was the heart of our current travails of confused teenagers, hormones and clinics: we have forgotten, or conflated, the difference between gender and biological sex. That the former is nonsense, the latter is real.
Gender is the story a society tells itself about the roles and status of men and women. Gender says boys don’t cry and assertive girls are “bossy”. Gender once declared women couldn’t vote, have a mortgage, fly a plane; that men couldn’t care for their own children, show tenderness or fear.
Gender has lately become an engine of enterprise: companies have learnt they can flog (particularly to women) products we never knew we needed. Like pink power-tools, razors or Bic lady pens. Lego is now seen as a boys’ toy, except sets which come in pink. The Lanesend girls, given a build-a-robot kit, were initially sceptical: this wasn’t for them, it was blue. The pink and blue theme park is so vivid teenagers think it’s real
Gender now starts in the womb: at “gender reveal” parties, prenatal scan results are celebrated in a glitter cannon of pink or blue. Muslim feminists are rightly appalled at hijabs imposed on little girls, but what about the stupid bows stuck on bald baby heads because God forbid anyone mistakes your daughter for a boy. Girls of eight have pampering parties and wear impractical Clarks shoes called Dolly Babe, while their brothers tear around in durable Leaders.
The ways in which young men and women present themselves has never been more crudely gendered. YouTube videos and Love Island parade the largely unattainable ideals of stubbly, muscled he-man and long-haired big-boobed Barbie. Gender has decreed human beings, in all their glorious variants, must resemble cartoons, avatars, porn stars.
Gender’s greatest trick is passing itself off as Nature. New Scientist this week reports a study of the cognitive abilities of men and women in 26 countries: it finds their variations were linked to each society’s attitude to gender roles. So if a society says spacial puzzles are for boys, girls will grow up with inferior spacial reasoning skills. But neuroscientists believe the brain is plastic: give both sexes equal practice and results will be similar. Tell that to Google’s James Damore.
And this pink and blue gender theme park is so vivid, its expectations so rigid, that no wonder teenagers think it is real. A friend’s daughter declared she was really a boy: after a long talk it transpired she loathed the dresses and flouncy hair she thought a prerequisite of girlhood. She cut her hair, wears jeans and is happy. Contrast with a mother featured in Radio 4’s iPM who believes her ten-year-old is “non-binary” because she chose a pirate not a princess-themed birthday party.
When I interviewed Maria Miller, who chairs the Commons women and equalities committee, she said “we’re not doing enough for people who have no gender at all”. She made it sound as if they were born without an organ or a chromosome. When in fact those declaring themselves “gender-fluid” or “gender non-binary” and demanding to be called the pronoun “they” don’t sit easily at the blue or pink gender poles but somewhere in between. But then don’t we all . . .
Rather than approving the right to put an X on your passport instead of F or M, we should aim to make the biological categories of men and women as big, generous and inclusive as possible. So men are still men if they wear dresses and “butch” girls don’t now feel they must take testosterone.
But biological sex itself is now controversial. The World Health Organisation has recently removed a page from its website explaining the difference between gender and sex, which said that women menstruate and men have testicles. These simple scientific facts are now unsayable.
The new orthodoxy is that whether you are a man or a woman is merely a feeling, an inner essence, which transcends biology. If Justine Greening’s proposals on the Gender Recognition Act are passed this will be enshrined in law.
While we should make better provision for the small number of people with gender dysphoria who wish to transition, biological sex cannot be erased. For women in particular, biology — contraception, childbirth, abortion, rape, menopause — shapes much of our destiny.
So while we need to challenge the phantasms of gender, we must respect biological sex. There are occasions when it matters for men and women to be separate so they feel dignified, private, safe. As shown by the furore this week that the government has not abolished the hated mixed-sex hospital wards. Or the horror shown by the seven-year-olds of Lanesend primary. Boys and girls can be equal without being forced to share loos.