When The Sexes Blur There's No Sex
We Need a New Romantic Ideal
FOR THE PAST FOUR DECADES and more, women have been proving themselves adept in what were once considered traditionally male spheres, including the battlefield. (Indeed, studies of sharpshooting have shown that women are equal to men in their handling of rifles although men seem to have a slight advantage when firing pistols).
It’s been a long slog to get rid of damaging female stereotypes, and there are good reasons why a young woman today might curl away from describing herself as “feminine,” especially if femininity is associated with weakness.
Yet sex differences remain real - despite efforts to eradicate even the concept of femaleness.
[In 2014] I was reading the New Yorker one evening and came across an article with the headline “What is a Woman?”. It was, according to the standfirst, about “the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism”, a subject about which I knew nothing. I read it, vaguely interested in the social shift that meant being “transgender” no longer refers to someone who has undergone a sex change operation, but is now “how someone sees themselves”, as the writer Michelle Goldberg put it. This meant, Goldberg continued, that women-only spaces were increasingly changing to women-and-transwomen spaces, even if those transwomen still had male bodies — and to query this risked accusations of bigotry.
What really interested me was how quickly institutions were falling into line with this new ideology: venues cancelled talks if a radical feminist was on the bill; all-female bands pulled out of women-only festivals for fear of looking transphobic. How strange, I thought, that those with authority capitulate to the obviously misogynistic demands of a few extreme voices.
Oh well, that’s just America — obviously it will never happen in the UK.
Oh, the innocence of eight years ago! Today, gender ideology — the belief that who a person feels they are is more important than the material reality of their body — is firmly in the ascendent. Activists like to claim that the only people who have a problem with this are “Right-wing bigots”, because it keeps things simple to suggest that this is a good (gender ideology) versus bad (Right-wing bigots) issue.
Yet I know a lot of non-Right-wing, non-bigots who are extremely angry at how things have shifted. My friendship group consists mainly of thirty-something to fifty-something progressive women, all, like me, lifelong Labour, or Liberal Democrat, or Green voters, all teachers, or civil servants, or writers, or lawyers.
Freeman goes on to catalogue some of the more bizarre consequences of this ideology. Many of these consequences will be familiar to listeners of the Femsplainers podcast: a biologically male college swimmer competing against female opponents and predictably smashing women’s records; biologically male sex offenders being placed in women’s prisons; feminists and other outspoken women losing their jobs for suggesting that menstruation or possessing a cervix is intrinsically female.
But what concerns me most is the broader repercussions this way of thinking is having upon young women, especially those who belong to Gen Z. We are witnessing a massive rejection of — embarrassment towards? — under 25s identifying themselves as … women. And especially as heterosexual women. New York magazine’s Intelligencer column reported in October 2020:
In 2009, for the first time in history, there were more unmarried women in the United States than married ones. And today, young women in the U.S. aren’t just unprecedentedly single; they also appear to be unprecedentedly uninterested in heterosexuality: According to private polling shared with Intelligencer by Democratic data scientist David Shor, roughly 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT; for women over 60, that figure is less than 5 percent.
According to a recent Gallup poll (cited here via the Washington Post):
A record 7.1 percent of U.S. adults self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual, and members of Generation Z are driving the growth.
These findings align with a 2021 study published in the journal Pediatrics, which surveyed more than 3,000 students in Pittsburgh school districts, nearly 1 in 10 students identified as gender-diverse — five times the current national estimates. By “gender diverse” the respondents mean that they don’t identify with their sex at birth, or don’t identify with any sex at all (“non-binary”).
Not all of those surveyed were female students of course. But there’s a real phenomenon of teenage girls disavowing their female-ness. For them, “transitioning” is not necessarily related to their sex or sexuality. Few will go on to become full-blown “men”: undergoing radical mastectomies, surgically transforming their vaginas into something that resembles a penis, taking enough testosterone to grow beards on their faces and build muscles in their arms and torsos. For the genuinely gender dysphoric, this medical science might seem a miraculous blessing.
But for the vast majority of teen girls, taking on a different gender identity (or non-identity) is simply that: it’s a social identity, not a psychiatric diagnosis. It’s a way of coping with social anxiety and the idea “I don’t fit in.” It’s another form of body obsession. And it appears most prevalent among white, middle- and upper-middle class girls in urban schools — the same demographic that in the past has been susceptible to bulimia, cutting, and other female forms of self-harm (and self-loathing). Gender dysphoria likewise tends to arise in friend and peer-group clusters.
As journalist and author Abigail Shrier reported in her important book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,
These are girls who had never experienced any discomfort in their biological sex until they heard a coming-out story from a speaker at a school assembly or discovered the internet community of trans “influencers.”
Shrier connects the sudden spike in trans-identifying and gender diverse teenage girls to what academic psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “the mental health crisis” afflicting Gen Z as a whole. Shrier summarized some of Haidt’s findings:
Between 2009 and 2017, the number of high schoolers who contemplated suicide increased 25 percent. The number of of teens diagnosed with clinical depression grew 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. And the worst hit — experiencing depression at a rate three times that of boys — were teenage girls.
Lest one assume that these girls are merely reporting their depression in greater numbers (and not necessarily experiencing more of it), Haidt points out that the average rates of self-harm reflect the same spike: an increase of 62 percent since 2009 — all among teenage girls. Among pre-teen girls aged ten to fourteen, rates of self-harm are up 189 percent since 2010, nearly triple what they were only six years ago.
So why would this rise of depression among young women express itself as some new form of gender dysphoria or outright rejection of one’s birth sex?
BECAUSE GEN Z IS DEFINED by the fact it’s the first generation to come of age with the iPhone and other post-Internet technology, it’s easy to blame social media for a lot of their ills. And of course there’s something to that. As The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan once wrote, “The average fifteen-year-old boy has seen more hard core pornography than the entire fighting force of the Second World War.” The average fifteen-year-old girl might be disinclined, understandably, to perform the role of female porn star. Easier to drift into sexual ambiguity than to face the crude and unromantic expectations of their male peers.
Still, I believe there’s something deeper at work — a problem that neither the Second Wave feminists or my generation could solve.
Every age has its fairy tales which embody an era’s romantic ideals. For the longest time these were stories of virginal princesses being rescued by brave, chivalrous princes. The Second Wave of feminism during the 1970s mocked and dispensed with this vision of helpless women needing strong men to bring about their “happily ever afters.”
A new ideal came into being: Strong princesses would rescue themselves, thank you very much. Princes were optional. To win a woman’s love, a man would have to reckon with her independence first – usually after a plot twist in which the tables turned, and she proved to be the more courageous of the pair.
I remember watching countless Disney and Barbie princess movies throughout the childhoods of my two daughters. My eldest, born in 1991, was among the first generation to be introduced to this new style of heroine: Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. In contrast to the previous models – the warbling, pining Snow Whites and Cinderellas (who seemed even more outdated when viewed on grainy VHS tapes) – Belle was a superwoman. She read books! She rejected the gross advances of the buffoonish town catch! She sang about wanting more from life than marriage and babies! She stood up to, and conquered, a beast! Belle was followed by headstrong and proud Pocahontas, then the enterprising and heroic Mulan, and so on, all the way to fearless Anna, from Frozen.
While these feminist versions of princesses might have been more impressive female role models than their predecessors, they did not offer any more satisfactory guide to navigating modern romance. In the end, these tales proved every bit as formulaic and unrealistic as the ones they sought to replace. True love would still conquer all. The enlightened couple would still go on to live happily ever after. Belle wasn’t left to face her thirties alone, slinging beers in the local tavern, while Prince Charming swiped right on Tinder.
Today, I fear we have no cultural narrative for a romantic ideal. There is no general agreement about what constitutes “happily ever after.” Young men and young women are baffled by each other’s expectations. Dating is a minefield for everyone, when it’s not a depressing exercise in online shopping. The same woman asking to be choked (yeah it’s a thing) is capable of #metoo-ing another guy who can’t mind read her emotions on a first date. Which is it? Are we individuals capable of taking responsibility for our choices, even when we don’t like the consequences? Or are we so physically and emotionally inferior to men that we require Victorian levels of censure to cast rakes and adventurers out of polite society forever?
I’ll take non-binary for $500, Jack.
Yet these issues are simply the 2.0 version of what my own generation of women grappled with. More than two decades ago, I wrote my first book, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. As a young journalist covering women’s issues, I’d grown alarmed by the studies and statistics that showed my contemporaries to be more miserable with their lives – in every measurable category! – than the previous generation of women had been.
This made no sense. Those of us who came of age in the 1980s were sometimes referred to as the “Daughters of the Revolution,” or the first generation to benefit from the gains made by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than feeling oppressed by men or thwarted in our ambitions, we’d grown up in fact taking the movement’s mighty achievements completely for granted. As I wrote in 1999:
We get up in the morning and go to our jobs as doctors, executives, plumbers, and soldiers without devoting a second’s thought to the efforts that were spent making these jobs seem completely normal… [W]e apply for post-graduate degrees with every expectation that we will use them and not let them languish when we become mothers. When we graduate, our first thought is not, Whom will we marry? but, What will I do? And when we do marry, we take for granted that our husbands will treat us as equals, with dreams and ambitions like theirs, and not as creatures uniquely destined to push a vacuum or change a diaper.
I continued, optimistically,
If Virginia Woolf, in the early part of this century, modestly hoped that women would attain “rooms of our own,” we have, at century’s end, not only achieved rooms of our own but apartments of our own, offices of our own, bank accounts of our own, judicial seats of our own, constituencies of our own, and even corporate empires of our own.
The point I was building towards was that these substantial new freedoms and expectations had brought with them new issues and problems, not just for women but for men as well. You could argue that we (in the Western hemisphere, at least) had embarked upon one of the greatest sexual experiments in the history of humankind. Here we were, living in the richest and most advanced society on the planet, and would no longer be held back by outdated ideas of male and female “roles” or behaviors. Like Eastern Europeans after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, so many young women were imbued with optimism for the future. The barricades were gone – poof! –- making way for what we believed would be a steady trajectory of betterment and progress. Yes, there were still important wrinkles to be ironed out (especially if you were not white, educated, or heterosexual). But at least we could now be hopeful that all women would eventually benefit.
Or could we? Research at the time showed that women of my generation were more likely to be divorced or never married than those previous. We were more likely to be single mothers, junkies, alcoholics, or to die in poverty; more likely to have abortions or catch a sexually transmitted disease. And when we did bear children, we were more likely to have to hold down full-time jobs while still shouldering the bulk of housework as well.
I suppose it shouldn’t have been a big surprise that there would be some serious fall out from such a seismic social change. And it’s fall out that has continued to rain down upon our heads in the nearly half-century since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the sexual revolution’s equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. In my book, I called it “the New Problem With No Name”:
In Friedan’s time, the problem was that too many people failed to see that while women were women, they were also human, and they were bing denied the ability to express and fulfill their human potential outside the home. The new problem with no name is, I believe, exactly the reverse of the old one: While we now recognize that women are human, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are also women. If we feel stunted and oppressed when denied the chance to realize our human potential, we suffer every bit as much when cut off from those aspects of life that are unique and distinctly female.
And so it continues today with Gen Z.
Denying or glossing over biological differences between men and women doesn’t help anyone — least of all women. As Freedman and others have observed, the legal and institutional brunt of ignoring these differences falls most heavily upon women (we don’t see transmen racing to be admitted to men’s prisons or compete in male sports, for example. Nor are transmen trying to cancel doctors who might recklessly assert their male patients more often than not possess prostate glands).
Until we can converse freely, truthfully, and productively about these differences I fear the mental health of Gen Z and subsequent generations will continue to spiral.
Companion Listening from the Archives: I interviewed Abigail Shrier when her book was published in 2020. Caitlin Flanagan joined as co-splainer. Click on the button to hear it.
See also some short YouTube clips from my appearance on the “Keep Talking” podcast with Dan Riley, where I address a whole host of generational issues related to women and feminism today.
How could we not nominate this remarkable First Lady of Ukraine? No one would have begrudged or judged her for picking up her children and leaving Kiev when the city came under attack from the Russians. But she has stayed by the side of her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. #StandWith Ukraine
AFTER I SUSPENDED the podcast, a number of you told me that you will miss discovering new books from my interviews with authors. So by way of compensation, each month I’ll highlight a new or noteworthy book I think might be of interest to my subscribers.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been absorbed by Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty’s brilliant biography of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. (I’ve actually been listening to the audio version, which is superbly read.) I regret I’ve gotten to this only now, as I would have loved to have recorded an episode with Tumulty (the book was published in April, 2021).
The Reagan’s marriage was famously close, so close in fact that it froze out their children. Equally famous was Nancy’s notorious meddling in White House affairs, her extravagant tastes, her dependency on astrology for guidance, her vengeful reputation, and her circle of wealthy, more liberal-minded Hollywood friends. She’s been long cast as the scheming Lady Macbeth to Ronald Reagan’s genial and weak-minded king.
I wasn’t sure I could endure the marathon of hours an audio book demands about such a seemingly shallow and nasty piece of work as Nancy. But oh was I wrong. Sure, people always turn out to be more complex than their public personas. And while Nancy certainly doesn’t come off as a Pollyanna in Tumulty’s telling, you learn that her political instincts were sharper than any high-paid consultant and that she served critically and helpfully as the Great Translator to an otherwise baffling, unknowable man (Reagan).
In fact, the portrait of Reagan we glean second hand is as good a biography of him as any of the official ones. Thanks to Tumulty’s copious research and interviews, we have as intimate a view as Nancy’s to the back scenes of their marriage, Ronnie’s rise to governor, and the full stage of his presidency. We share coffee in their Palisades house when Ronnie is first toying with the idea of leaving acting for politics; we’re in the hospital waiting room as surgeons race to save his life after he was shot; we’re absorbing the condescending insults of Raisa Gorbachev as the two first ladies pretend to get along while their husbands hash out historical nuclear agreements; we’re in their post-presidency Beverly Hills living room when doctors tell Ronnie he has Alzheimers. And while you never fully warm to Nancy (her children never did), you come away with a much fuller appreciation of the indispensable role she played in her husband’s historic legacy.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this first edition of our new phase of Femsplaining! Stay in touch.
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