Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney


Some time ago, I wrote a review of Sheila Jeffreys' anti-trans diatribe GENDER HURTS for the Times Literary Report. For a variety of perfectly good reasons, they have ended up publishing a somewhat abridged version in the print edition, and presumably eventually online.

The deal I have struck with them is that I acknowledge they have published the abridged piece and blog this full version.

GENDER HURTS by Sheila Jeffreys (Routledge 215 pp. )
reviewed by Roz Kaveney

There is a razor-thin but definite line to walk between scholarship worthy of trust and mere polemical advocacy. Since the start of her career as a historian of ideas – with particular emphasis on eg the Purity movements of the late Nineteenth Century – Sheila Jeffreys' scholarship has always been the handmaid of her political project. This is, and always has been, war on a patriarchy that she conceives of as a simple oppressive sex caste hierarchy, rather than a set of multiple oppressions deriving from a system of property relations. She has, for example, consistently argued that it is the duty of feminist women to choose celibacy, or a lesbianism based on political commitment rather than erotic preference, rather than sleep with the enemy. The deeply enclosed and focussed nature of her thinking has always obliged her to cherry-pick evidence and ignore nuance – famously, in Anticlimax, she treats Nabokov's Lolita as an unironic celebration of child abuse.

For Jeffreys, the word 'gender' describes the ideology that sugar-coats sex caste oppression; accordingly, any idea, any practice, any personal preference or need that might question her simplistic position needs to be eradicated. In the course of her career, she has anathematized everything from high heels to tattooing to the work of Judith Butler as part of the war on women; it was inevitable that, sooner or later, she would concentrate her fire on gender theory and the trans community, if only because the existence of our complicated messy provisional endangered lives makes her world look untidy. Feminists whose work she admires – Janice Raymond, for example – have called for transexuality to be 'morally mandated out of existence; Jeffreys has called for trans medical care to be declared a human rights violation by international treaty. Nowhere do either of them show any awareness of, or interest in, the human rights of hundreds of trans women murdered each year, mostly in the Global South.

Language is, for Jeffreys, something to be used carefully to deny the existence of choices of which she disapproves. For example, she uses 'prostitute' only as a passive transitive verb, because she is of the opinion that no sex worker has any autonomy. She refers to 'transgenderism' as if it were an ideology rather than a complex of needs and choices, and has turned 'transgender' into a verb. She prides herself on always using the pronouns she regards as correct rather than those trans people have chosen for themselves; she explains at length that this is a matter of principle, rather than mere childish rudeness. At the same time, she regards the adoption of the value-free term cis to denote anyone not trans as a vile and insulting piece of abuse.

Jeffreys is very keen to deny personal animus, though her grasp of strict truth is often lacking. She talks of a conference she was to speak at being banned from the C onway Hall, rather than of its organizers having been reminded that they needed to observe the hall's regulations about hate speech and declined to do so. She cites this occasion as evidence of a 'McCarthyite' conspiracy to silence her, as she does the existence of a number of mildly successful trans journalists – all of whom mostly write on other matters. (Sheila Jeffreys remains, of course, a tenured academic in spite of this cabal.) She also denies that she is guilty of hate speech in spite of a passage in which she claims that the genitals of trans women who have had surgery stink.

This passage is worth commenting on because she relies on a Dutch study of the bacterial flora of those private parts (Weyers 2000), but both distorts its results and fails to criticize its protocols. Tge Weyers study notes occasional unpleasant discharges in a fifth of its population – because it relies on literature for its comparison of flora, the study is mute on the frequency of such discharges in cis women. The protocol also asked its subjects not to wash their genitals for three days and did not consider the effect of this on the degree to which faecal bacteria were present – nor does Jeffreys. The study does, however notice that lesbian trans women had a flora closer to the cis norm – Jeffreys does not mention this correlation, for whatever reason.
Some of Jeffreys' statements of fact are open to considerable question. She argues that the existence of transsexuals is a modern socially constructed phenomenon, ignoring all the evidence for similar groups in a variety of other cultures and periods. In the face of quite clear evidence to the contrary eg Pagan Kennedy's THE FIRST MAN-MADE MAN 2007, she argues that the development of trans medical care was driven by doctors rather than requests by trans people. Her accounts of problems caused by the presence of trans people in gender-segregated spaces rely excessively on the tabloid press and blog posts by her political allies – it would be interesting to read the opinion of Routledge's lawyers on whether some of these accounts are actionable; for a supposedly peer-reviewed book, GENDER HURTS' citations rely surprisingly heavily on newspaper accounts and blog posts.

Jeffreys relies heavily on the argument from authority. She draws extensively on other 'radical' feminist writers – Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, Robin Morgan – though not on Andrea Dworkin, who happens not to have agreed with her colleagues on this issue. She cites the late Mary McIntosh's opinion from work published in the 1970s without noting that McIntosh changed her views on this and other matters. She cites extensively the negative views about transexuals held by psychiatrists like Ray Blanchard or Paul R. McHugh without ever mentioning eg McHugh's support for work-place discrimination against gay men and lesbians and opposition to female reproductive freedom.

One of Jeffreys' standard positions is a sort of negative utilitarianism – everyone should refrain from any action or idea which might, in any circumstances, have a negative outcome. The very small proportion of trans people – about 2 per cent - who experience regret and choose retransition is used as an argument that no one should ever transition in the first place; the unhappiness of some partners of trans people about the un-chosen reconfiguring of their own sexual choices is taken as an argument that it is the partner who is being selfish. Because Jeffreys chooses to believe that transsexuality is exclusively a matter of changing socially constructed social roles, rather than primarily deriving from the dysphoric sense of wrong sexual embodiment that most trans people report, she can regard trans men as acting primarily out of a desire to trade up their social position and to abandon possible commitment to a lesbian feminist community – again, the imputation is that to do anything of which Sheila Jeffreys disapproves is to be either deluded or wickedly and wilfully selfish.

She is particularly moralistic about the supportive parents of trans adolescents. Again, in the face of most evidence, Jeffreys chooses to believe that self-identification as trans comes over adults as a result of pornography, or as an insane reaction to patriarchy; accordingly, younger people cannot possibly know their own minds in this matter and are the victims of a reinvigorated eugenics movement. Of course, since Jeffreys believes that lesbianism is a freely chosen political identity, it is hard to see what such a movement could be trying to extirpate...In the real world, of course, the struggle for trans civil rights has included the right to family life in the face of eugenics laws in, say, until recently, Sweden that mandated sterilization and the destruction of genetic material. (Negotiation of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK had to sidestep an attempt to impose this as a condition.)

Of course, Sheila Jeffreys is opposed to equal rights for trans people, because they enshrine in law, as she sees it, the possibility that not everyone agrees with her. She has stated elsewhere her confusion at the fact that the only people who spoke out against the GRA were right-wing conservatives like Lord Tebbit. GENDER HURTS is a trashy book masquerading as authoritative scholarship but it is not without its uses as an awful warning; yet again, a version of progressive, liberationist politics that is based on telling other people what to do finds itself up against the complicated realities of lived experience and in alliance with the police, the churches and the most reactionary and authoritarian of politicians.

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