Sex is complicated. Some plants require the cooperation of more than two different gametes to produce a viable seed, and some animals live parts of their lives as male and part as female while others switch sex according to chemical signals in their environment and others are hermaphroditic (and in some cases even capable of self-fertilization) while yet others are capable of parthogenesis (by means of forgoing meiosis). Among humans true hermaphrodism is rare but not unknown (though not sfaik with evidence of fertility in both directions), and various other intersex body forms can arise from genetic abnormality or fetal environment. Even more common than intersex bodies are the cases in which behavior is different from the norm for the apparent body type and/or genome. This includes both cases of gender dysphoria and exclusive homosexuality (with the latter being so common as to apply to on the order of 10% of all humans). The range of secondary sex-related characteristics is of course huge – with bearded women and breasted men being far more common than is visible after the adjustments of depilation, makeup, and clothing. Not to mention the range of other physical attributes, sensitivities, and attitudes, which, despite perhaps being distributed bi-modally with high correlation to apparent sex, are nonetheless of such variance that sex is a poor (and in any case inappropriate) predictor.
Getting back to the two most highly correlated variables (namely chromosome pattern and externally apparent genital structure), they do indeed define two non-overlapping clusters in the multi-dimensional spectrum of human sex types which almost encompass the entire species.
Because of the dominance of these two particular clusters and because of the correlation of these clusters with variation in physical size strength and aggression (and maybe other factors as well) those who identify with the “weaker” sex may feel at risk or disadvantage when exposed to the other group in vulnerable situations or in athletic competition. As a result, certain facilities and competitions are segregated, but then the question arises of how to deal with those who, for physical or psychological reasons, don’t fit into one of those two clusters.
Some people feel genuine terror at the prospect of entering an almost exclusively male environment (especially one involving public nudity) and others feel equally genuine terror at the prospect of not having certain spaces free from people who have penises (or in some extreme cases even from people who have some secondary male characteristics despite being biologically clearly female).
Some people who have changed their social presentation want to engage in sports in the category that they identify with, but many women feel that it is unfair to have to compete athletically with people who have the advantage of having grown through adolescence with typically male bodies and hormones.
These are not easy issues to resolve, but calling the latter groups above a derogatory term like TERF (or “bigoted fuckface”) is offensive – and so too is insisting on calling the former men and referring to them with male pronouns when that is easily avoided. (My personal preference is to refer to a person by whatever pronoun she or he prefers, but if someone feels unable to do that I don’t object so long as some other way is found of avoiding the pronouns that are known to be hurtful.)
Unfortunately both sides in the “debate” are most wrong when they claim that “science” supports their view.
YES it is true that, in humans, sex is almost always binary and immutable, BUT it is not always that way and it is certainly not a universal pattern in biology.
YES there is a (multi-dimensional) spectrum of sexual categories, BUT if anything, this contradicts the idea that one not in one of the two dominant categories can be appropriately assigned to one of them (either just by declaration or by some other means).
Science does not tell us how to behave, and in particular it does not tell us how to respond to people’s desire to appropriate an identity in a way that others feel is inappropriate. What we need for that is empathy, caring, and maybe a bit of wisdom.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – Butterflies and Wheels
Tribal Skepticism (in the Age of Gender Ideology)
Are there any circumstances you see where a person should be compelled to use someone’s preferred pronouns?
“Compelled” is a strong word. I can’t imagine any circumstances where I’d countenance holding a gun to someone’s head and demanding that they describe someone else in a particular way. But I do think that it is wrong (and in extreme cases worthy of some censure) to deliberately and unnecessarily refer to someone in a way that they find offensive.
Thanks, Alan. Not sure what you mean by ‘unnecessarily’, but how about, instead of ‘compelled’, instructed by an authority such as the police or a judge?
The gun was just a metaphor for anything else that might be threatened by the police or a judge. I don’t think anyone should ever be forced to make a statement that they don’t believe is true. But in certain very exceptional cases they may, in my opinion, be punished for not refraining from statements that are harmful. Unnecessarily using pronouns that contradict someone’s preferred identity is probably not quite in the class of statements I would prohibit, but it might become so if repeated aggressively with the apparent intent to hurt or taunt the “victim”, and at any level it is something I would not approve of. In general the use of pronouns can be avoided but sometimes the alternative wording becomes unduly complex or awkward. By ‘unnecessarily’ using pronouns I just mean not putting any effort into avoiding them – or worse, using them when the alternative of a name or other reference is actually simpler. (Eg saying “The guy came in the room and he spoke loudly and he knocked a book off the table” rather than “The person came in, spoke loudly, and knocked a book off the table”.)
Unfortunately, this has already happened. How about trying to put yourself in the position of a woman giving evidence in court (where she has sworn to tell the truth under pain of perjury) against her male attacker and being told by the judge to refer to him as if he was a woman. Consider the case of a minor assault and then in the case of rape. What should the woman do? Kow tow to her male attacker’s desires?
The first case has already happened, but consider the second as a hypothetical – but entirely likely – based on the first case:
Imagine the scene…
Barrister: “In your own words, describe what the defendant did next, remembering you are under oath.”
Victim, shaking as she relives the traumatic experience: “He inserted his penis…”
Judge interrupts her: “What is the problem? It’s HER penis. The defendant wishes to be addressed using ‘she’ pronouns by the court and as a matter of courtesy, I suggest you might like to do the same.
SHE inserted HER penis.
Victim breaks down.
What is important here? The truth or the contradiction of someone’s preferred identity (whatever that is)?
I agree that the law should not allow a judge to interfere in a witness’s testimony except where it is either irrelevant and wasting the court’s time, or unfairly prejudicial to one side or the other. Using a dispreferred pronoun would not fall into that category, but using racist or sexist language might do so.