An Open Letter To the Guy on Twitter Who Wonders if Biological Sex is Real
Imagine you’re standing at a train station.
Across from you, you see another man step across the tracks. He’s distracted, too busy to take the long way around, too lost in his phone to notice where he’s going. You turn your head the other way and see the train, barreling towards him as he walks into its path.
What do you do? The answer is obvious, hopefully: You scream, you shout, you wave your arms and make a scene. And if he still doesn’t notice, still doesn’t look up from his phone, you jump down and push him off those tracks yourself. Maybe you’re not that brave in reality. But at the very least you hope that’s what you’d do, right?
And why is that? Why would you go through all that effort? Because, consciously or not, you understand Newton’s laws. You understand that force is equal to mass times acceleration, that a very heavy thing moving very fast can destroy a fragile human body in an instant. You do what you can to get that man off the tracks because you know that a life depends on it.
But did you know that Newton’s laws are hardly stable? That they are mere approximations, liable to break down in all sorts of situations? It’s true. Newtonian physics can’t predict the way light bends on its way through the solar system, or how an electron might spin around an atom’s core. Even something as mundane as your cellphone relies on a far more sophisticated model. While those simple equations you learned in junior high school might get you through the day, the truth is much more complicated.
Now, here’s a question: Knowing that, do you change what you yell to the man on the tracks? After all, “The train is coming towards you!” is technically inaccurate. Einstein showed us that movement is relative; in a sense, it’s just as reasonable to say that the man is hurtling towards a stationary train. You’ve got a few seconds left. Do you take the time to capture the nuance?
Physics may be the least of your problems, by the way. Biology is just as messy. You’re probably worried that the man will end up dead, smashed to pieces or ground into bits. But what does it mean to be alive or dead anyway? Many scientists would tell you that no single criteria exists to distinguish inanimate and animate matter. Some entities, like a virus or a prion, even shatter the binary completely. And if you can’t even explain why the man on the tracks is alive, what sense does it make to worry about keeping him that way?
And of course, all of this is beside the point if we don’t know what makes something right or wrong in the first place. Dozens and dozens of complex ethical questions exist without any agreed-upon answer, and the foundations of morality are endlessly debated. Should you do anything to help the man at all? You can imagine situations where inaction is best; perhaps he’s a serial killer, or some other unrepentant monster. Perhaps no moral truths exist, and your effort to save him is completely irrational. Can you be sure your intervention is truly the right thing to do, if you can’t even define what “right” means in the first place?
This certainly is a complex matter —a complex obligation, a complex process, a complex result. Presumably, you’ll want to make sure your warning is in line with all the latest quantum theory. You’ll want to figure out just what you mean by “life” and “death” too. And it wouldn’t hurt to track down the nearest priest or philosophy professor to elaborate the finer points of ethics. Nuance, accuracy, and a critical eye are important, after all. Shouldn’t we strive to get everything right?
Now, here’s a different thought experiment: Imagine it’s you on the train tracks.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of debates break out on Twitter over biological sex — what defines it, how it can be measured, whether it exists at all. The men who dominate these debates are often experts in their fields, meaning they use terms like “bimodal distribution” and “nonstandard karyotypes” to make their otherwise mundane points. I think most of these points are foolish, tired rehashings of fallacies first identified by ancient Greeks in the fourth century BCE. They confuse — or, perhaps, intentionally conflate — imprecision with invalidity, social perception with social construction, and binarism with exclusivity. In other words, they trade in the all-too-familiar illogic that festers at the intersection of science and philosophy, where ontological cowardice appears as the highest form of nuance.
But here I go again, right? It’s so easy to get sucked into this debate, to get that hot indignation in your stomach that comes when a foolish claim is so proudly asserted. And I don’t even have skin in the game — binary or not, my sex will still land me squarely in the “paid more, raped less” category. So what’s the point beyond intellectual exercise? It seems more and more obvious to me that even entertaining the debate is a concession, an assent to women’s lives being made the subject of thought experiments and counterfactuals plucked from the air by some post-grad who, coincidentally, has never once worried about pregnancy from rape.
So that’s my quarter-through-the-year resolution: I’m not going to debate with you about the reality of biological sex, for the same reason I wouldn’t stand on the train platform debating the finer points of physics while the man on the tracks gets ground into meat. That might sound a little dramatic, a flourish of rhetoric to cover up a weak rebuttal. But how long have you spent reading up to this point? Five minutes? Ten? Then the world has fifty more mutilated girls than when you started. Were the men who carried out those mutilations confused about what makes a female body? Did they ponder chromosome parings and standard deviations when they chose who to cut? Or is that kind of nuance a luxury set aside just for educated, progressive, worldly men like you?
Isn’t it odd that sex was never so complicated before? There was nothing ethereal about our biology when it came to allocating the right to vote, or own property, or walk down the street at night without fear. We knew perfectly well what made someone female when that female-ness guaranteed a life of subservience and pain. Only when women began to say no did their bodies become a concept. So many feminists have made this point, over and over again. I see them say it. I know you read it. Did you listen? If not, why? And why do you always respond when I say it? It seems you do know who has a female body, when it comes to decide which perspective is ignored.
Sex is such a mystery to you when women want shelters for themselves, meetings for themselves, words for themselves. Pardon me for asking, but is it equally mysterious when you log off Twitter and move over to Pornhub? The true nature of a female body is so complex when you lecture. Does it become simple again when you masturbate? Who does the laundry in your house? Were you somehow able to navigate an inchoate soup of X’s and Y’s to saddle your girlfriend with the dishes? Give yourself some credit — I think you know perfectly well what a female body is. But in case you don’t, here’s a hint:
It’s the only type of body that gets you thrown on the funeral pyre when the husband dies. It’s the only type of body that gets your feet bound and your breasts ironed. It’s the only type made pregnant through rape and burned with acid, the only type expected to sit quietly and listen while we redefine it away, the only type men have spent millennia criticizing and critiquing and buying and selling until the moment we decided we couldn’t figure out what the fuck it even means.
You know what a female body is, dude? It’s the only type of body that makes men like you ask such stupid questions. So please, stop. This is an emergency. This is three and a half billion human beings tied to the tracks, and you’re riding on the train. Your insistence on nuance, your fetish for accuracy, your smug deconstruction of common sense — it doesn’t make you thoughtful. It doesn’t make you wise. It doesn’t make you progressive. It makes you an asshole. It makes you worse than a bystander. A bystander does nothing. He watches from afar. You step into the fray just to prod the victim. I’m not going to step in too, laying out my rebuttal over the screams. It’s just not worth it.
Here’s my resolution: As long as pimps, priests, and politicians know what a female body is, I do too. The moment they’re confused — the moment they hesitate, the moment they qualify, the moment they adopt the restraint and caution you demand from the targets of their abuse— then I’ll happily open myself up to ambiguity. Until then, I beg you. Reserve your philosopher’s curiosity, your scientific rigor, for the ten thousand other questions that don’t make a thought experiment out of an atrocity. What marks the division between knowledge and belief? How did life develop from non-life? At what point does a man losing his hair become bald and not merely thinning? Go tweet at Rogaine and get their thoughts on that conundrum. Leave rape crisis centers alone.