Let’s Cancel ‘Gender’ and go Back to ‘Sex’

Jane Austen wrote a lot about sex. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet says to Mr Darcy: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” He replies: “Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?” In Emma, Mrs Weston says to Mr Knightley: “perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex, after being used to it all her life”. And in Sense and Sensibility, Austen writes of Mr Palmer: “His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.”

Of course, Jane Austen never mentioned the word’s other usage, to have sex or intercourse, since that topic was never mentioned in print or in polite circles when she wrote. But until the 1970s, the terms “male sex” and “female sex” were normally used to describe the different biological and cultural status of men and women. Since then, sex has been dumped in favour of gender.

The traditional usage has not been completely purged. The word sex still has some important political and legal functions. The Commonwealth still has a Sex Discrimination Act (1984) and the Australian Human Rights Commission still employs a Sex Discrimination Commissioner. The phrase “same-sex marriage” gained common use on both sides in 2017 during the big debate over legalising that demand. But this usage is increasingly rare. In fact, the writings of the current Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins make it clear that she would like to ditch her outdated title in favour of the now dominant description of her role, the assertion of “gender equality”. Her major report is titled Unleashing the Power of Gender Equality and on the Commission’s website the almost unmentionable word sex is conspicuous by its absence everywhere except in the titles. Instead, Jenkins says: “My purpose as Sex Discrimination Commissioner is to advance gender equality.”

Newspaper subeditors, who once regarded themselves as the true guardians of the language, have also succumbed, not only in the leftist media but in what remains of the respectable press where terms such as “gender quotas”, “gender fluidity” and “gender crisis” now abound. The doyenne of economics writers, Judith Sloane, recently analysed the “gender pay gap”. And even an impressive defender of cultural sanity like Peta Credlin can warn about the political consequences if the “Liberals concede on gender”.

How did this change to such a vital term come about? Some might think gender is preferable because it is a more polite term that removes the ambiguity that emerged in the twentieth century when the word sex not only referred to biological status but also became openly used to refer to sexual intercourse. However, there is much more to it than that.

Gender is a term that reeks of identity politics. It emerged in its present form in the 1970s when gay activists began to demand that homosexuality be not merely tolerated but given equal standing with heterosexuality in all things. It was reinforced by feminists who wanted to eliminate the differences between men and women. Since sex was grounded in biology, it decreed that the difference between men and women was fundamental. Our chromosomes determined that neither one could become the other. Moreover, the biology of sexual difference did not recognise homosexual activities. Indeed, it implied they were unnatural.

So the activists ingeniously moved their terminology away from biology and into linguistics. In linguistics, gender is applied arbitrarily and by custom. Apart from customary use, there is no inherent reason why the French language, for instance, applies the feminine gender to “the sea” or “the mountain”, la mer, la montagne, or the masculine to “the dog” or “the desk”, le chien, le bureau. If gender is arbitrary and customary, it can be altered by changing the language. Hence if sex was redefined as gender, it too could become just as changeable.

The way to do this, the activists saw, was by demanding new speech codes in government-run bodies like universities and bureaucracies. They also campaigned relentlessly by example, using their preferred terminology in their own writings, first in academic journals and later in the popular news media.

Meanwhile, the public at large remained oblivious to this sleight of hand. Most people never understood the issues at stake in renaming sex as “gender” and saw nothing to get upset about, let alone any evidence of a campaign to impose an ideological orthodoxy. Even most of those who made their living as writers saw no need for any fuss. So gender took the field without a struggle.

This strategy has been remarkably successful. Politically correct debate no longer talks about two sexes but at least six varieties of gender preference: male and female heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender. This is not to mention several further categories now endorsed by activists. The UK transgender lobby group Stonewall adds another sixteen divisions within the taxonomy: transsexual, gender‐queer, gender‐fluid, non‐binary, gender‐variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi‐gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.

Such excess of nomenclature is a sure sign that power has gone to the activists’ heads. It is now twenty years since New South Wales and Western Australia led other states to change their laws to recognise people under the Gender Reassignment Act. An unintended consequence for the politicians who voted for this is that the biological concept of sex has been progressively replaced by the sociological term of gender. So the next stage of the activists’ campaign is to get rid of the biological concept altogether.

They do this by arguing that it is “transphobic” to support the use of “sex” as a meaningful category. In the UK, gender identity lobby groups such as Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence will brook no opposition to their claim that “Trans Women are Women” and that gender identity outweighs any claims that arise from biological sex. Merely to identify as a man or a woman, they say, is sufficient to actually be a man or a woman, irrespective of chromosomes, reproductive organs or any other biological attribute. They demand acceptance of their slogan with repeated calls of “No debate”. Stonewall has now awarded the majority of UK universities the title of “diversity champions”, which means they are publicly committed to this activist group’s definition of gender identity.

In an illuminating paper published in March in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, two UK feminist academics, Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan, took a stand against this position. They argued it meant the end of scholarly research and debate in this field. Biological sex lies at the heart of a body of feminist theory that asserts the ongoing inequality between men and women, its historical origins and its role in political theory and practice. Suissa and Sullivan say one cannot articulate, much less defend, this theoretical analysis without assuming the basic distinction between biological sex and gender:

Gender identity ideology is in this sense, absolutist, demanding that we ignore material evidence of the relevance of sex in any context. Repetition of the mantra “Trans Women Are Women” obstructs any attempt at a nuanced discussion about the circumstances under which sex might be relevant … The view that it is transphobic to acknowledge natal sex as even potentially relevant has led gender identity campaigners to demand that social and human scientists must not collect data on sex, and philosophers must not use sex as a conceptual category.

It is heavily ironic that among the principal targets of the gender identity campaigners are those on the Left of the political spectrum. In the UK it is the Labour Party that has copped most of their attention in recent times, and which, in response, has quickly bent the knee in apology. During the contest for parliamentary leadership of the party in 2020, all the candidates, except the winner Keir Starmer, signed a pledge to expel from the party any women who supported “sex-based” rights. Another Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, found herself in the sights of the new orthodoxy when, in response to an advertising promotion for cervical cancer screening for “individuals with a cervix”, she “liked” a mocking tweet that asked, “Do you mean women?” Duffield soon found herself in the middle of a social media storm calling for her removal from the position of Labour Whip. Two of her own staff resigned over her “overtly transphobic views”.

Feminist academics who once made university teaching intolerable by trumped-up charges of sexism against male colleagues are now seeing their own specialisation cut from under their feet by more militant operators. In Australia so far, publicity about this activity has been confined to radical critiques of Germaine Greer and J.K. Rowling for taking pro-feminist positions against transactivists, and the issue of the right of biological men to compete in women’s sports. The paper by Suissa and Sullivan reveals that in UK academic life, things are gyrating out of control. When they tried to convene the 2020 Women’s Liberation conference at University College London, their event was deemed by university authorities as “high risk” and required expensive security. The list of tactics recently used by transactivists against events staged by traditional feminists include sabotaging their booking systems, defamatory allegations against speakers, petitions to get meetings cancelled, protest rallies outside events, threats of violence, and even physical assaults on speakers.

Anyone who thinks Australia will be somehow quarantined from this epidemic of political insanity had better think again. The Morrison government has just capitulated to the Human Rights Commission’s pursuit of “gender equality” by accepting its list of rules that prohibit men from, among other things, looking at a woman for too long, or inviting her out for a date she doesn’t want. These activists clearly have the ability to get politicians to do their bidding. Like the British Labour Party, the Coalition will soon find that feeding this ravenous beast only encourages it to demand bigger servings from the same banquet.

To succumb to the demand to use gender as the preferred synonym for sex is to corrupt and diminish the language. It leaves speakers of English without a one-word version for the most significant biological division within the human species (not to mention all the other mammals on the planet). So it is clearly time for some cultural disobedience in response. Those of us who see this tyranny for what it is should stop using the linguistic term gender as a synonym for sex. When categorising the males and females of our species, we should emulate Jane Austen and the other great English novelists by sticking with the traditional term.

Instead of giving in to the cultural totalitarians of identity politics, we should give them a taste of their own medicine and cancel the word gender from our own usage altogether. This is a small gesture that might take a while to catch on. It will never happen in the universities, of course, but there is probably a silent majority out there in the real world hoping someone will start the ball of dissent rolling.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant

  • Doubting Thomas

    Bravo, Mr Windschuttle. Thank you for that refreshing breeze of sanity. Include me among your potentially far less silent majority.

  • Michael

    Yes Keith, well said. I’ve found myself mulling this over in recent weeks and determined that I should use the word ‘sex’ in all appropriate occasions as a protest against and modest rebuke of this insidious, all-too-innocent sounding redefinition of our language.

  • whitelaughter

    very true

  • marmike

    Personally I’m all for sex but I can see how this woke concept of gender when coupled with the equally illogical post-modern concept of truth could be useful in hoisting them with their own petard (if not their own rope). After all if gender can be fluid then so can age and despite the fact that biologically I’m 80, I could decide that I am in fact 10 for the next four days, so that here in WA I don’t have to wear a mask in public!

  • DG

    It largely goes back, in my understanding, to John Money’s deranged desire to step around the dominance of biological function and legitimise the vagaries of human perversions.

  • Salome

    Return gender to the grammarians. The rest of us are happy to make do with sex.

  • gary@erko

    What is gender? What type of thing is it? We know that sex is a matter of biology. Is gender a psychological attitude or discovery, is it something like a whim but more substantial, an emotional state? Is it like a soul that’s more the person than their own physical body? What exactly is gender?

    I think most of us, if asked “have you experienced your gender” would shrug our shoulders and say something like “I’m male” or “female”, and not really know what our gender is or where to look for it as a separate “thing” that coincidentally correlates with our sex.

  • Patrick McCauley

    “The UK transgender lobby group Stonewall adds another sixteen divisions within the taxonomy: transsexual, gender‐queer, gender‐fluid, non‐binary, gender‐variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi‐gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.” … These sexual fantasies used to gather together under the word – ‘fetish’ … (even though the sado-masochists seem to be glaringly absent – though ‘they’ remain a significant minority) Fetish, being a product of the sexual imagination to enhance the sexual act into something more interesting (as if it were not already interesting enough) The fetishists now seek to have ‘gender’ with each other and live in fear that there maybe no other person on earth who can fit their particular and unique sexual fantasy.

  • J. Vernau

    I happened to be reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (first published 1859) last night, and came across the following sentence. It occurs when Mr Lorry first meets Miss Manette (in chapter 4 of ‘Book the First’; page 23 in the Penguin Classics edition):
    “The likeness passed away, like a breath along the surface of the gaunt pier-glass behind her, on the frame of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering black baskets of Dead Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender—and he made his formal bow to Miss Manette.”

  • RB

    Just laugh at them. When they scream at you laugh again, it is the only sane form of defense.

    I am fortunate to be in a position where they cannot hurt me, not everyone is so placed, so on their behalf, I do whatever I can to annoy the people who make such claims. With some thought and some minor effort, I can get their spittle-flecked screechings to hit 90Bd.

  • Salome

    Back in the 70s and 80s, a lot of honest and conservative people were, I think, fooled by the idea that ‘gender’ was ‘more polite’–it was something of a euphemism. And that was the hook by which the radicals got it into general linguistic usage. And the rest would be history if we were not still living it.

  • gardner.peter.d

    “male and female heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender.”
    ” transsexual, gender‐queer, gender‐fluid, non‐binary, gender‐variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi‐gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.”
    20 in all.
    Being an engineer by training I am quite creative but also practical. Is there a mapping of these terms to practically identifiable behaviours or physical attributes? Could someone please help?
    The first four are easy: men who like women and vice versa, men who like men and women who like women.
    Then I can understand another four:
    A heterosexual man who is now a woman through surgery and who now likes men.
    Ditto who still likes women.
    A heterosexual woman who is now a man through surgery and who now likes women.
    Ditto who still likes men.
    So that is 8 that I can understand although I do not know the politically correct identities.
    Now it gets complicated. Suppose we start with homosexuals and lesbians, instead of heterosexuals. We would have:
    A homosexual man who is now a woman through surgery and who now likes women.
    Ditto who still likes men.
    A lesbian woman who is now a man through surgery and who now likes men.
    Ditto who still likes women.
    So that’s 12 in total.
    If they are bi-sexuals to begin with then they would be bi-sexual, hetero, gay or lesbian after surgery:
    Female bi-sexual to male bi-sexual, male heterosexual or homosexual,
    Male bi-sexual to female bi-sexual, female heterosexual or lesbian,
    So that’s 18 in total.
    What are the other two? Male and female don’t knows? Aren’t they bi?
    If we add female and male bi-sexual to the destinations of the first 12 categories, we get a total of 30 possible transitions.
    Now add in hermaphrodite as a destination and we are up to 60. Exciting, non?
    What about if we start with hermaphrodites? 120? Not sure. I’ve lost count.
    Anyway it seems the Stonewall group are falling down on the job.
    What are the politically correct terms for the types I have listed?

  • cbattle1

    The field of engineering has not yet achieved gender equality/diversity; they are still stuck in the old paradigm which believes that a joining of pipes can only be effected with a male to a female fitting!

  • pbw

    Bravo, indeed. Many of us have been railing futilely against the de-sexualisation of language (concurrently with the sexualisation of everything else) for years.

    Next campaign: let’s purge the singular plural “they” from our pronouns.

  • Blair

    Sex male female
    Sexual attraction heterosexual homosexual bi-sexual
    That’s all ye need to know.

  • pbw

    @ J Vernau
    “…black divinities of the feminine gender…”
    I think this was deliberate. Note the “feminine.” Genders are masculine, feminine (and neuter), not male and female. I suspect that Dickens was distancing these figures from both real divinities and real persons. They were artifices, like gender.

  • talldad

    We may have to use the expressions and the word “gender” when confronting the issue but we should always use them in quotation marks to express our view that they are not legitimate within the context. We could go further if relevant to a particular discussion to call them illegitimate and a bast…dization of grammar.

    It is time for our language to be provocative and unavoidably reportable – this was the strategy adopted by the Trump administration. What he said was so irksome and provocative that the lame-stream media could not avoid reporting it and thus they disseminated his viewpoints to their audiences despite their hatred.

  • Harry Lee

    To me, the main task is to rehabilitate and improve the functioning of white, heterosexual nuclear families.
    Right now, the spending of tax-payer money, news/opinion media content, and focus in the education systems all favour non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-families.
    If this keeps up, not only will white heterosexual society suffer full collapse, but in consequence, so will the non-whites, and the non-heterosexuals, and the non-families.

  • ianl

    >” … rules that prohibit men from, among other things … inviting her out for a date she doesn’t want …”

    Seriously ? How is one supposed to know that unless one asks and is told NO ! (or, if extra lucky, NO THANKS !)

    The next logical step is to prohibit *thinking* about asking for a date. If she doesn’t want a date, then clearly it is disrespectful to even think about it. All hetero males must hence forth be be given 25 negative social demerit points per week because otherwise they’ll be constantly indulging in thoughtcrime.

    In his own way, Orwell was a genius of sorts.

  • ChrisPer

    It is not at all crazy that these crazed absolutists demand compliance or destruction of card-carrying Leftists. They regard rational people like conservatives as their enemies, certainly but the real goal is to terrify into silence the rational Leftists.
    Public expulsion from the academic or public sector is a strong deterrent to speaking up for rationality.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    Androgyny, of course, has been around a long time. The ancients dealt with it in some of their myths, as did Shakespeare in his comedies, where male actors played women pretending to be men.

    The folk today so fixated on playing such semantic games, not just for the fun of it, presumably are driven by some kind of narcissistic need for “attention” – and an “identity”- in an indifferent world.

    Yes, “perception is reality”, but surely at some point it morphs into delusion, however much one slices and dices “gender”. When it does, presumably some lives are wrecked beyond repair.

  • Frank Salter

    Mr. Windschuttle. Thanks for a breath of sanity. Gender was part of the push against biology in the social sciences. This has been a major theme for a century, If everything else can be socially constructed, and made subject to revolutionary will, why not sex?

  • Alice Thermopolis

    A Year 12 boy at Xavier College, ‘one of Melbourne’s oldest Catholic boys’ colleges’, apparently just ‘announced to the Xavier community her identity as female’, which the School has supported, saying ‘she’ will be remaining at the School.
    Some parents are asking questions, such as this one: “what’s a ‘girl’ doing in a boys’ school?”

  • Mike O’Ceirin

    If gender is fluid and anything goes surely this ends all discussion. I meet someone how do I know what they are in terms of “gender” if that is what it is called. Since it is entirely what they say it is. It ends all argument gender quotas since winning one can just declare they are the right gender. That is a population of hermaphrodites waiting and wings to declare the most suitable gender. It is going to give the census takers are damned hard time. As a side note my grandson has declared himself to be a truck with the pronoun TR and is demanding to be serviced by a garage for a grease and oil change. On another note I suppose there will be people seeing marriage counsellors who want to have children but can’t decide which one of them is female.

  • awgs

    Richard Dawkins humorously addressed this topic in his introduction to the Blind Watchmaker:

    “I am distressed to find that some women friends (fortunately not many) treat the use of the impersonal masculine pronoun as if it showed intention to exclude them. If there were any excluding to be done (happily there isn’t) I think I would sooner exclude men, but when I once tentatively tried referring to my abstract reader as ‘she’, a feminist denounced me for patronizing condescension: I ought to say ‘he-or-she’, and ‘his-or-her’. That is easy to do if you don’t care about language, but then if you don’t care about language you don’t deserve readers of either sex. Here, I have returned to the normal conventions of English pronouns. I may refer to the ‘reader’ as ‘he’, but I no more think of my readers as specifically male than a French speaker thinks of a table as female. As a matter of fact I believe I do, more often than not, think of my readers as female, but that is my personal affair and I’d hate to think that such considerations impinged on how I use my native language.”

  • lhackett01

    Keith, as you say, “The list of tactics recently used by transactivists against events staged by traditional feminists include sabotaging their booking systems, defamatory allegations against speakers, petitions to get meetings cancelled, protest rallies outside events, threats of violence, and even physical assaults on speakers.” How is it that politicians and authorities allow themselves to be manipulated so easily to accept woke causes like sex and gender? Worse, how is it that societal rules and definitions can be changed without wide spread public consultation. Certainly, the media of all sorts is much to blame in typically refusing to publish objectors. Remember the same-sex marriage debacle. The Government reneged on its promise of a plebiscite where both sides of the argument would have to be presented in equal measure to the public so they were fully informed, and voting would have been compulsory for the whole population. Instead, they foisted a voluntary postal vote upon us with no discussion. In such ways, most of the foundational mores of Australian society are under threat.

    Gender, in sociology, is belonging to one sex or another, not based on biological or physical differences, but on social, cultural and behavioural characteristics.

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