On the butchering of “essentialism”

“Essentialism” – RANCOM!

“Those radfems and their essentialist nonsense.” – Various, numerous transgenderists.

The first time I heard this, I was puzzled because, well, radical feminists aren’t essentialists. The entire position of radical feminism is based on an analysis of the ways in which society, and the structures and systems in it, create and perpetuate gender roles and the oppression of women. It’s almost the definition of anti-essentialism because it identifies people, not biology, as the creators of differences between men and women. Radical feminists are the archetypal social constructivists.

When I originally came across the claim that radical feminists were essentialists, I thought it was a mistake, and so I explained it to the person who said it. But then I heard it again. And again. And again.

Feminists and trans theorists alike know “essentialism” to be a bad word.  It has heavy ties to biotruths and evolutionary psych explanations for why women have big breasts (for men) and why it’s totally reasonable for men to be into 13 year old girls. There is a long, painful history tied into women’s oppression based on their assumed physical and neurological (emotional, intellectual, moral) inferiority to men.

And yet, for some reason, transgenderists keep on calling radfems essentialists. It almost seems as if the word “essentialism” is redefined when spoken about by and in relation to trans people. For example, take a look at what GeekFeminism has to say about essentialism:

“The concept of Essentialism states that there are innate, essential differences between men and women. That is, we are born with certain traits. This is often used as an explanation for why there are so few women in science and technology. It is also used as a rationale for pigeonholing, offering limited education, hiring discrimination, etc. It is also sometimes raised (including by women) under the guise of Equal but different.  … In recent times, advocates of Sociobiology and Evolutionary psychology often claim evolved genetic differences between the brains of men and women as the source of behavioral differences in society.”

Waving their ladysticks and shouting “ABRACACISSEXIST!,” the definition magically morphs into this when transgenderism enters the picture:

“Often, essentialism supports and is supported by transphobia, as essentialists claim that a person’s sex is the sex they were coercively assigned at birth (often mischaracterizing this sociological sex assignment as “biological”).”

When trans theorists pop up, the definition of essentialism changes from a belief about “innate, essential differences between men and women” into “biological sex matters.” If you think that trick is impressive, you should see what they’ve done to the word “woman.”

“But wait,” you say. “Innate? Genetic? Biology? Born with? That sounds a lot like …”

Trans peoples’ arguments for why they’re really the gender they declare themselves to be, their bodily characteristics and socialization as children to the contrary?

Yep, you got it.

Trans theory is pretty hard to explain, which is why they rarely do so and instead shut people down with “Transphobia!” when their questions get too close to the center.

Trans theorists firmly believe that men and women are different. There is a “female gender identity” and a “male gender identity,” and these identities are innate and qualitatively different, more different than the difference between brown and blonde hair, more different than the difference between a Boston and a Brooklyn accent (tumblr 2013 prediction: transdialect). Trans theorists search hard for scientific evidence that supports brain sex theory, the idea that there are “male brains” and “female brains.” There is little evidence, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Since the time of Aristotle, scientists have been trying to prove that men and women are really different. First, to justify assumptions about women’s mental and intellectual inferiority, now in a general pursuit of knowledge (but also the same assumptions).

This trans and patriarchy asserted belief, that men and women are innately, biologically different, cannot be reconciled with the feminist position that this idea comes from sexism. The response, then, is to distance themselves from any examination of this conflict, decrying those who ask questions as transphobic and redefining words like “essentialism” to be used against those who embody the antithesis of the real meaning (and whose position is therefore the antithesis of theirs).

“Essentialism” comes to mean “biological sex is important,” with the negative connotation of the term retained. Genderists and anti-feminists alike work hard to deny and invisibilize sex-based oppression. The only difference is that anti-feminist men declare that the oppression doesn’t exist, while the trans males declare that discussion of the oppression is offensive because it does not include them.

Let us make something clear, here:

If you believe that men and women are inherently different, you are an essentialist. If you believe that there is an innate “male identity” and an innate “female identity”  and that these are qualitatively different, you are an essentialist.

“Sex is relevant” is not essentialism: it’s reality. It is the recognition that people are divided on the basis of their genitalia, not a 20 question identity survey given to them at birth. It is the recognition that women are oppressed not because of an innate “gender identity” but because they are a part of the impregnatable, fuckable and therefore dominatable female sex class. It’s the recognition that infant females are positioned in society as “girls,” a socially influenced, socially consequential class (GENDER) on the basis of their sex-based categorization.

“Sex is relevant” is not essentialism: it’s reality.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir.

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13 Responses to On the butchering of “essentialism”

  1. jose says:

    The stuff feminists have been explaining for decades regarding how gender isn’t in the brain but in the sexual hierarchy that limits women to the role of sexual targets and mothers is known in sociological research circles as “feminist anti-essentialism”. So yeah, trans activists have this exactly backwards.

    A pretty neat demonstration of this is the Burrneshas or Albanian sworn virgins. In a strict patriarchal society, what do you do when you’re running out of men? Somebody has to lead. Thus these women gave up their life as women to become patriarchs. But this didn’t just entail a haircut and a pair of trousers: they had to swear to remain celibate for life. They literally applied to get out of the sex class (a.k.a. “women”). Since they weren’t recognized as sex targets and potential mothers, they gained status and respect reserved to the ruling class (“men”). “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,” former patriarch Pashe Keqi says.

    The message is clear. Opression against women isn’t based on their internal identity (the Burrneshas don’t think they are male). It’s not an identity hierarchy we live in, but a sexual hierarchy.

    I’m going to get corny and say these women are a testament of our shared humanity. They know they are female, yet they have lived as women and as men. They do away with the gender divide. They don’t feel like they are either — they feel like human beings and the rest is made up. In short, feminist anti-essentialism in practice. “I liked my life as a man”, Burrnesha Qamile Stema says. “I have no regrets”.

  2. It is important to continue challenging ideas, especially from minority groups whose views are often kept sacred for it is through discussion (dialogism) that minds grow & theories develop.

    I wish I had read this post before being asked last week (by someone who identifies as Trans): “When did you first realise you were a man?” I was surprised by the lack of choice. While true, one human being cannot speak for another, some capacity of it is essential in order to communicate.

  3. marcos says:

    From the gay male side, I concur with the bogosity of trans-essentialism. Trans folks get to define their own realities in their own autonomous terms and are entitled to full civil rights protections and to have their health care needs met.

    There are no guarantees in life, however, that anyone else will buy your schtick, not in business, not socially and not sexually or in gender. Going all shrill when people don’t only highlights the failure to connect.

    This notion that the penis is not central or essential to what it is to be male is simply preposterous. I’ve seen some trans men at gay play parties and welcome them though not all gay men would. The look on their eyes as they see the real deal going down says it all.

    At one faeries party last year, someone with breasts and a vagina was in a play scene next to us. The individual’s higher pitched moans were distinctive in the male space. After everyone finished up, I told the person that I was glad for the diversity in the space. The person took offense and declared that he was a he, that gender is different from sex. Uh huh, yeah, sure, right.

    A minority of a minority theory cannot redefine the majority in its terms and expect to be accepted. Those boundaries have to be negotiated, not asserted under pain of excoriation. But then again, I’m an anarchist, not a leftist.

  4. Julia says:

    Very good explanation. Yes, radical feminism is anti-essentialist at its core. It’s people who insist that “lady brains” exist – and thus, “gender” is a real material thing that exiss transhistorically and outside of our constructed society – who are the real biological essentialists.

  5. Pingback: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock: A Book Review | Liberation Collective

  6. Wow, thank you so much for this post.

    If you’re someone who’s cis, and you’re heavily invested in destabilising gender performance codes, and you meet someone who’s trans, and this person sustains their gender, in violently hostile conditions, precisely by using those same codes … you could easily make the leap to, “Oh, they’re essentialist.” But I think it’s a stupid leap.

  7. Pingback: FETAs accusing radfems of essentialism: the ultimate trans projection. | The Prime Directive

  8. lovetruthcourage says:

    I agree. It is trans who are the essentialists, not radfems.

  9. sketcher563 says:

    Reblogged this on sketcher563.

  10. petuniacat00 says:

    Reblogged this on PetuniaCatLand and commented:
    This is from a couple years ago, really good explanation of what essentialism is. And what it isn’t, as in the weird trans claims about it. Good and easy to understand.

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