Book review: Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock,

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

The recent publication of Kathleen Stock’s new book Material Girls, published by Fleet, is one of a number of publications dealing with what are termed “transgender” issues and the public discussion around them, not to mention the campaigning and lobbying by Trans Rights Activists (TRAs) as well.

Stock has a very clear and easy to read writing style, which is perhaps surprising for a lecturer in philosophy.  It is however, written with a certain defensiveness, Stock dots and crosses every i and t that she possibly can and even explicitly states in parts what she is and what she is not saying, just so as nobody is labouring under any false notions about her arguments.  It is not surprising that she does so.  Long before her book was published, long column inches were given over to her and her supposed transphobia. She was subjected to a vicious and vile campaign supported by many supposed Lefties and ‘Marxists’.

Pink News and others were involved in a campaign to have an OBE she was awarded rescinded.  The only real problem with Stock’s OBE is that she accepted it.  There is nothing progressive about the Empire or any of its awards, yet we had so called Lefties getting down on bended knee to petition the English queen to declare that Stock wasn’t worthy of the “honour”.  I am not sure how much honour these erstwhile Marxists and others think there is in an OBE, but they were pretty adamant about Stock.  So, she writes in a sort of defensive style, anticipating the attacks and arguments of her detractors.  She points out that the current atmosphere is not conducive to debate.  As an academic you would think she felt safe, but no, very few stood up for her.  Some kept their heads down out of a well-founded fear and caution, others did so because they will never have any courage to say anything that upsets their fellow academics.

But 600 craven academics signed a letter denouncing her and asking for the OBE to be withdrawn.  Amongst those gutless, intellectually bereft cowards were three of her colleagues at Sussex University where she lectures: Joe Gough a Ph.D candidate in Philosophy; Jasmine Selman at the School of Psychology and Arianne Shahvisi, at the School of Medicine, who alarmingly lectures in reproductive and feminist bioethics.  You would think someone at the school of medicine would know you can’t change sex, but apparently not.

Stock in writing her book is conscious that she is swimming in a sea of sharks and that academic freedom and freedom of speech in general is being curtailed in a fashion that leaves Orwell’s 1984 as the great understatement, some will now be able to claim not without reason that he lacked imagination.  She points to some official university statements.

For instance, University of Kent policy currently officially recognises and protects the gender identity ‘demifluid’ – that is, the policy states, people ‘whose gender identity is partially fluid whilst the other part(s) are static’.  Kent also recognises the ‘demiflux’ – that is, people ‘whose gender identity is partially fluid, with the other part(s) being static’.  Though the unwary might confuse demiflux with demifluid, these are not the same, we are told, for ‘flux indicates that one of the genders is non-binary’.   University of Essex policy, meanwhile, recognises the ‘pan-gender’, understood as people who identify ‘with a multitude, and perhaps infinite (going beyond the current knowledge of genders) number of genders either simultaneously, to varying degrees, or over the course of time’.  Perhaps not surprisingly in light of all this, the University of Roehampton notes in its trans policy that ‘Terminology is continually evolving and by the time this policy is published, some definitions may be out of date.

How any of those statements got past their English departments is beyond me but what this gibberish means is that thought crimes exist, so called “misgendering” and that the universities themselves would like to state for the record that when at some future date they are accused of such a thought crime in one of their definitions, they will prostrate themselves and humbly recant and apologise to the Great Leader, whoever Zee or Zum might be.  So, no matter what shortcomings the book has, and I believe it does have some, this is a brave book by a brave woman in the current climate.

Stock’s book as stated is an easy read.  She begins by introducing the talking points from the TRA’s perspective and then goes in later chapters to pick them apart.  Her presentation of the talking points is clear and concise and the picking apart of many of the arguments is also easy to understand.  In many ways what she has done is she has written a handbook, which I don’t mean in any negative sense, for activists.

She takes us through all of the points coupled with philosophical discussions on various aspects in clear language, making Queer Theory and the criticisms of it accessible.  She establishes clearly the different models by which we can arrive at the blindingly obvious notion that binary sex exists.  In fact, she seems like many of us exasperated that such basics have to be restated.

For many readers, it might seem surreal that I’m bothering to spend a whole chapter on establishing that binary sex exists. They will take this to be blatantly obvious. For others, my arguments will seem outrageous and heretical. Such is the strange intellectual climate we now live in.

She deftly breezes through various topics, not only reaffirming in a scientific as opposed to a philosophical manner that binary sex exists and explains also its importance in medical science, something that many people overlook.  Blood tests and a whole range of medical exams are read differently depending on the biological sex of the person.  Your “inner gender”, whatever that is does not change your medical reality.  She explains quite well what sex is, why it matters and also delves into a discussion on gender and what it is and the different viewpoints on this.  We sometimes forget in the midst of the hue and cry of TRAs that they in fact do not all agree on what they are talking about, there are varying positions, which require varied responses.  She picks apart the arguments around gender and the supposed biological basis to it and also the vexed issue of sports which should gain even greater notoriety due to Laurel Hubbard competing as a “female” weightlifter at the Olympics.

Given that she is held by the academic cowards who signed the letter and TRAs to be part of a transphobic conspiracy, she challenges some of the statistics that are often trotted out about murders of so called trans (my phrase, not hers, more on that further down), the suicides of so called trans children in a chapter dealing with the propaganda behind the TRAs claims.  Just three suicides occurred in Britain over a two-and-a-half-year period, with other factors at play as well.  These are all useful facts and the book is very informative, but Stock is on weaker ground in her concessions to TRAs.

She uses the preferred pronouns when talking about them, with the exception of sex offenders, though she does say it is her personal choice.  She recognises the importance of language and also the cognitive developmental problems for children when there is an incongruence between the words being used and the evidence of their eyes and ears and is categorically against the TRAs notion of punishing someone for “misgendering”.

One obvious consequence of this is that trans activism’s attempts to socially sanction or even criminalise what they call ‘misgendering’ and I call ‘accurately sexing’ within institutions look even more illiberal, especially in environments where young people are only just getting to grips with the original concepts in the first place (e.g. schools). People can’t help seeing what they see. With children, we usually encourage them to say what they see, so it’s bizarre to change the game and start punishing them for it.

She also points out that Facebook offers a choice of seventy-one gender options.  Were we to accept gender as real in the sense TRAs mean it, how could we not get someone’s gender wrong?  Nationality is easier and we still make mistakes with that on a regular basis.

Language shouldn’t be forced into a binary of ‘truth’ versus ‘lies’; it’s potentially much richer than that.  Some trans people enter immersively into a fiction on the assumption it will be implicitly understood by others as a fiction.  Others do so with no particular thoughts about what others will believe or imagine, but only the understandable and immediate desire to find relief from feelings of dysphoria.  Either way, there’s no automatic deceptive intent, nor eventual deceptive fact.

This is one of her concessions to TRAs.  Yes, there may be people who are immersed in a fiction and make no requirements of others, though that is not my own personal experience of them, where even having agreed to make everything feminine (in Spanish) the fact I did not perceive the person as a woman was a bridge too far for them.  Activists however, do not accept such an idea, they state vociferously that they are in fact women, that is their material reality and they do not generally demand you immerse yourself in a fiction but that you accept what the Party says, War is Peace, Men are Women. 

Though she does say that

As noted earlier, when people are collectively coerced into immersing themselves in a fiction, it simultaneously becomes important not to make any second-order reference to the presence of the fiction. Any such reference will tend to destroy first-order immersion, just as an actor saying ‘I’m an actor!’ or ‘This gun isn’t real!’ on stage will destroy an audience’s immersion in a play. A taboo then arises around naming reality. This is particularly bad in contexts such as universities, whose main point is to produce and disseminate socially useful knowledge, broadly speaking.

And to some extent we are no longer allowed to state the obvious, they are not women, no changes in pronouns or other factors will ever change that reality.  Stock’s concessions on some points will not help and in fact didn’t help her avoid the vitriol that poured out in relation to her OBE.

There are other concessions where she objects to the use of terms like mutilated to describe detransitioners as having been mutilated.  But what else would you call a young woman who was coached into thinking she was a man and convinced by others that she “needed” a double mastectomy?  Mutilated is the correct word, in the pursuit of an ideology at the Tavistock Centre and other places.  Far too often she makes such concessions which in my opinion detract from the book itself.

She also tries to resurrect concepts such as intersectionality, taking us back to the original use of the term.  But the world and language have moved on, it is now just a catch phrase for the eternally offended and the option to avoid talking about class and socio-economic status, something Stock herself does not agree with, as she does mention class.

She finishes off the book basically arguing with feminist currents about how to move forward.  It is not that these arguments are not important, they are, but they take from the overall quality of the book in explaining the issues from theoretical, scientific and practical perspectives.

Despite some of its political weaknesses, this a worthwhile book and should be read and it is very didactic, a very useful tool.  And she should be commended for her courage in writing it at a time when most universities have abandoned any pretence at even trying to engage our critical faculties and are just money-making operations that go with the Zeitgest.

3 comments

  1. I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a month or so (its pub date in the US is October 19, 2021), and now I’m looking forward to reading it even more. I like knowing that this is a kind of handbook: something I might refer to more than once in trying to keep terms straight. Absolutely loved the scathing humor about the OBE.

  2. “With children, we usually encourage them to say what they see”

    Actually, no. Family life in Western “civilization” largely consists of telling children they don’t feel what they feel, they don’t see what they see, they don’t hear what they hear. This is how we end up with a society that tells untruths as a matter of habit. And how well-meaning British tourists drove indigenous people crazy (in Borneo, I think it was) in a matter of days.

  3. Why limit it to children? Viruses which haven’t been isolated, “cases” that aren’t sick, deaths from auto accidents and cop killings, etc.

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