In a recent Op-Ed for The Los Angeles Times, Debra W. Soh, a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto, argued that gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science in order to push forward their own, more nuanced understandings of gender. Both groups, she suggests, are compromising the broader argument for equality of the sexes by focusing on ideas that are not sufficiently supported by the bulk of scientific research, and which often work to alienate rather than engage people in this all-important debate.
Soh explains that gender feminists believe that gender is a social construct and something that is cultivated within individuals through a process of socialization. They therefore reject the role of evolution in moulding the brain, arguing instead that individuals are born blank slates and then become gendered beings.
This is at the crux of poststructuralist feminism propounded by theorists such as Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at U.C. Berkely. By distinguishing sex from gender, they argue, gender can thence be considered “performative” and something we can change by altering the social definitions of “masculinity” versus “femininity.” Change the definitions, they suggest, and you change the reality of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Simone De Beauvoir led the way for this mode of thinking in her landmark book “The Second Sex” in which she noted, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Soh, however, argues that scientific research proves gender is biologically determined. For example, she draws on a recent study in the journal “Nature’s Scientific Reports”, which highlights the impact of testosterone on the “programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth and sex differences.” While gender feminists will often refer to a 2015 study that concluded it is impossible to tell male from female brains apart, Soh draws on more recent research that found a 93 percent success rate in classifying a brain by its sex.
While ‘distortion of science hinders progress’ Soh argues, it also distracts from the main issue feminists ought to be addressing – that traits typically associated with ‘femininity’ are generally considered inferior within our society. This is what we need to be changing, she suggests.
Soh also turns a critical eye on transgender activists, and concludes that ignoring scientific research has led them, along with gender feminists, to promote notions of gender that can prove more damaging than beneficial to the very people they are purportedly championing.
Read the full Op-Ed at The Los Angeles Times.