A Response to Stephen Woodford and Carl Benjamin’s Discussion of ‘Transwoman’ vs ‘Woman’

Content Warnings: transhpobia, sexism, general ignorance.

 

 

I follow a number of YouTube channels for a variety of reasons. One channel I follow is Stephen Woodford’s ‘Rationality Rules‘ channel. I don’t often agree with his politics, but I can seldom fault his reasoning. I find his content to usually be well researched, well argued and interesting. He does get things wrong sometimes and when he does he is usually prepared to concede and make the necessary corrections. You still may not agree with all of his premises. You may not agree with all his conclusions but at least he has the humility to revisit the topic when warranted. He is thus an interesting channel to follow. Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad is less so. I find his content to be very loose, with poor arguments and badly (if at all researched. Much like Ben Shapiro he allows his prejudices to lead him and employs rhetorical flourishes to silence dissent. Unfortunately he has nearly one million YouTube subscribers so his views are spread widely. For this reason it is necessary to engage with him.

Woodford decided to have a discussion with Benjamin, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, and part of that discussion related to transgender woman and the claim that transwomen are women. I felt that a response was needed as neither Benjamin nor Woodford are transgender nor are either of them women. Their perspectives therefore need to be interrogated.

The section in question starts with Benjamin claiming that an implicit gender role of a woman is the ability to bear children. This shows that he has no clear idea of how gender and sex are distinct and as such his ability to discuss these terms is suspect, but let’s deal with his thinking. It is true that childbearing and child care is highly correlated with being a woman, but the question that needs to be asked is, is childbearing essential to womanhood? In fairness Woodford does attempt to address this but for me he is far too soft on Benjamin. Benjamin makes the claim, and keeps coming back to this claim, that the ability to reproduce sexually is essential to our understanding and definition of woman. He never clearly states his argument, but in an attempt to present it as robustly as possible I will outline it as I understand it below:

  1. A woman is an adult female human being.
  2. A human female is a human being that reproduces sexually (or is at least capable in a biological sense of sexual reproduction) by
    1. producing gametes (ova) that are housed and fertilised inside of the female human’s body
    2. by male gametes (sperm)
    3. The fertilised gametes (zygotes) are incubated inside the female human’s body and the new organism is birthed by the female
  3. Sexual reproduction as defined in this way is essential to the biological definition of ‘female’.
  4. Transgender woman do not
      1. produce gametes (ova)
      2. have organs capable of incubating zygotes inside their bodies
      3. have organs capable of giving birth to a new organism
  5. Therefore transgender woman are not female.
  6. Therefore transgender woman are not woman.

The argument ma seem relatively strong. But as with all arguments it relies on making valid logical deductions and having true premises. If you start with a false premise you can logically prove anything. For this reason sound logic is a necessary but insufficient condition for correct reasoning.

And it is in this regard that I believe Woodford was far too soft on Benjamin. He does indeed tackle Benjamin but allows him far too much wriggle room and should have simply dismissed the reasoning out of hand.

For a premise to be true it must be true in all respects and the starting premise fails this test. At first glance it seems relatively stable but it necessarily relies on how we define ‘female’ and this is where the argument collapses. Benjamin remains throughout the discussion attached to his definition of female as being a person that reproduces sexually or at least is capable of sexual reproduction and this is where he starts to get into trouble.

Firstly, he is clearly ignorant of the real experiences of transgender people. Some transgender people do indeed undertake medical interventions and some of these interventions result in irreversible changes that render them incapable of sexual reproduction but not all transgender people undertake medical interventions and those that do do not all have irreversible medical interventions. So, we immediately see that not all transgender people are infertile. Transgender people can, and do, reproduce sexually before, during and after transition, depending on the exact level of medical interventions that they have undertaken.

Now of course the above objection is on its own insufficient as Benjamin would (I suspect) counter by saying that whilst transwoman (who have undertaken only limited medical interventions) may be able to reproduce sexually, but they cannot reproduce sexually in exactly the way outlined in the argument (implied by Benjamin and outlined in what I believe is its strongest form by me).

But Benjamin’s argument is not sound. As Woodford rightly points out, if you define ‘female’ as reproducing sexually (or at least being capable of sexual reproduction), then there are whole classes of people who would ordinarily be considered by most reasonable people to be both woman and female, who cannot under this argument be considered to be a woman or indeed female.

Firstly and most obviously, all post menopausal women are no longer female (in terms of Benjamin’s argument) as they are no longer capable of sexual reproduction: they lack the essential biological components for sexual reproduction. And for me this is simply the argument’s biggest failing. If all females can cease to be female simply because they lose the ability to reproduce (as all females of the species will, provided they live long enough) then no female is in any meaningful way ‘female’. The term female then only describes a person at a particular stage in their life, and says nothing about them at all. If you can be ‘female’ at a stage and are ‘not female’ at another life stage then all humans are ‘not female’. There seems to then be nothing ‘special’ about ‘not female’ at all. It would also necessitate redefining the word ‘woman’ to mean something other than ‘adult female’ unless you were to accept that post menopausal women were also not women and Benjamin is very unwilling to redefine the word woman, so let’s not do that.

Secondly, any woman who has undergone a hysterectomy (at any age, for any reason) ceases to meet the criteria for being female under this definition and thus would also no longer be considered a woman by Benjamin. Again, as he is justifiably averse to redefining woman as that would open the door to a more comprehensive definition, which he is at pains to avoid, let’s stick with his definition and argument.

For me then, the argument is defeated here. Comprehensively.

Perhaps though, Benjamin would like the opportunity to avoid redfining ‘woman’ by  instead restating the argument slightly as follows (and I believe that at this point, in an honest effort to ‘steel man’ the argument I may be guilty of going beyond the argument made, at least in its implicit form, by Benjamin but I will do so anyway in an honest attempt to strengthen the argument as best I can):

  1. A woman is an adult female human being.
  2. A human female is a human being that is or, at some time in the past, was capable of reproducing sexually by
    1. producing gametes (ova) that are housed and fertilised inside of the female human’s body
    2. by male gametes (sperm)
    3. The fertilised gametes (zygotes) are incubated inside the female human’s body and the new organism is birthed by the female
  3. Sexual reproduction as defined in this way is essential to the biological definition of ‘female’.
  4. Transgender woman do not
      1. produce gametes (ova)
      2. have organs capable of incubating zygotes inside their bodies
      3. have organs capable of giving birth to a new organism
  5. Therefore transgender woman are not female.
  6. Therefore transgender woman are not woman.

Under this revised argument Benjamin could legitimately claim that any person that had the ability to reproduce sexually in the manner specified was female and thus was a woman, but that transwomen are not women because they are not female as they never had the ability to reproduce sexually in the manner specified.

However he still has a problem in that there are many many people who any reasonable person would consider to be both women and female who do not meet Benjamin’s very specific definition. There are a whole range of people born with any number of conditions that render them infertile. They may be born with all the various organs required for sexual reproduction as specified in the argument but for a host of reasons may be rendered infertile. They may have slight hormonal imbalances, they may have the requisite organs, but they may be defective in some way, they may contract diseases that cause infertility. There are a number of reasons that a person who in every other respect is a female simply cannot reproduce sexually.

Benjamin seems to acknowledge this fundamental flaw and tries to escape the trap he has fallen into by saying that whilst these people may appear to be women they are in fact ‘lesser women’. He even says that they believe themselves to be less womanly than other women. No actual evidence is provided for this assertion and I find that astounding but let’s go with it.

I do not think that Benjamin has succeeded here. Firstly as stated above for a premise to be true it must be true in all cases. I think we have proven that the definition of woman as ‘an adult female’ is too limited if, but only if, you define ‘female’ as a person capable of sexual reproduction in the specified way. Secondly to assert (without evidence) that infertile women are both objectively ‘lesser women’ and self identify as such is disingenuous. What may be true is that at least some infertile women report that they feel like they are perceived to be less womanly by society at large. This however is not the same as being less womanly. Indeed (anecdotally) most infertile women (it would seem and like Benjamin I lack evidence, beyond a few personal anecdotes, for my claim) object vehemently  to this characterisation. They correctly say that to deny their womanliness because of one ‘failing’ is unfair. It certainly seems very unjust to me indeed.

Benjamin however has another problem. Speaking biologically, how do you define these people? Sure they are not capable of sexual reproduction in the manner specified, but  in most cases any biological investigation of them is unlikely to reveal their infertility. On both a macro and micro scale many of these people would appear to meet all the objective criteria used by biologists to define them as female.

The argument thus fails in all respects. I cannot think of anyway of strengthening the argument any further to allow it to meet reality and also be logically valid. It is thus clear that the premise is simply not true  and the argument thus fails.

The conversation then rambles quite a lot. Woodford’s failure to definitively refute Benjamin’s argument means that they keep coming back to it in different forms. Woodford, whilst understanding that Benjamin’s argument is flawed is also not willing to embrace the logical outcome nor is he prepared to offer a new or better definition of woman or female. In fact he seems attached to the idea of a human female being in some way correlated with sexual reproduction through female gametes (ova), being internally fertilised by male gametes and the incubation of these zygotes. His unwillingness to fully consider the implications of the shortcomings of this definition of female leads to the conversation spiraling and ultimately going nowhere.

Both Woodford and Benjamin wisely steer clear of trying to define ‘female’  through chromosomal attributes. Scientists now regard this as a highly unreliable means of determining sex, let alone gender. There are just too many contingent factors at play to make chromosomes sufficient in determining biological sex.

The conversation then touches on transwoman athletes competing in ‘woman’s events’. I will not tackle this discussion comprehensively as it is a massive topic of considrable debate. Suffice ti say the following:

  1. There has been very little proper research into transwomen competing in sport
  2. All sports are highly specific and different physiologies, psychologies etc will be ideal for different sporting codes
  3. You therefore cannot generalise regarding transwomen competing in any sport: research needs to be conducted into specific sports codes and that research is sorely lacking
  4. Most if not all arguments in relation to transwomen competing in womens sport are therefore de facto arguments from ignorance
  5. Anyone is entitled to an opinion on this subject but not all opinions matter
  6. For what its worth I think there are far more important issues for both cisgender and transgender women to be dealing with right now. By definition this is only an issue for elite (professional and semi-professional) athletes. There are far bigger issues that affect far more people that need to be addressed. We should let the experts decide based in objective scientific data, not opinion, belief or sentiment.

I found Benjamin’s obsession with sex and the alleged and implied ‘dishonesty’ of any infertile woman (trans or cis) quite interesting. It is also disingenuous. People do not only have sex to reproduce. People do not only get married to have families. Again whilst marriage may be highly correlated with ‘family forming’. It is not a causative, nor a necessary nor a sufficient condition for family. And whilst sex is necessary for reproduction, not all sex (in human or any other animals behaviour for that matter) is for reproduction. Sex plays a number of roles in social behaviour and to reduce it to a reproduction is fallacious.

It is also disingenuous to accuse any infertile woman of dishonesty as Benjamin seeks to do. Firstly, not all infertile women know that they are infertile. Secondly, not all men or women want to reproduce, so their infertility may or may not be relevant. Finally if you have not discussed your desire (or indeed your lack of desire) for children before forming a long term romantic attachment then the relationship has far bigger problems anyway.

My final observation is that Benjamin repeatedly uses the word ‘outlier’ to try and refute the legitimate criticism, by Woodford, of his argument. Indeed he would likely use the same defence against my refutation. He keeps arguing that any infertile woman is an outlier and thus (I assume) statistically irrelevant. He seems to not have considered his problem of post-menopausal women however. I can’t see how literally every women on earth can be considered an outlier however even allowing for this deception the fact remains that the definition and premise he wants to use needs to be ‘true’ for all reasonable cases and I believe I have shown that this is not the case.

Tellingly, at the end of the segment Benjamin then goes on the offensive, having failed to adequately defend his argument by saying that the fact that some people have detransitioned shows that the current ‘best practice’ by the medical profession is flawed. He asserts that transgender people are being pushed into transitioning without proper consultation and without considering other alternatives. He makes the incorrect assumption that transgender women could be ‘cured’ by taking testosterone showing his mind boggling ignorance of the subject and then uses this premise (that not all treatment options are adequately explored) combined with the premise that some people detransition to draw the conclusion that there needs to be more gate-keeping around transgender people’s access to medical care.

Ironically having dismissed all the objections to his ‘transwomen are not women’ argument as mere outliers he then uses an even (at least in my opinion) more statistically irrelevant set of outliers to support his claim. He even admits that there is insufficient evidence to support his claim saying literally that ‘we don’t have the numbers’ before going on to simply make up a number of 400 ‘detransitioners’ out of a sample of 3  000. He literally just made that up. At the very least he gave no source for the data. Come on Woodford! How do you let him get away with this? You are better than that…

Anyway there are a few other subjects that were touched on and that could be critiqued but these are for me the most important ones.

In conclusion we should see that Benjamin’s central thesis is thoroughly refuted. His argument is false. And we can therefore definitively state that transwoman are woman. If you do nit accept this statement as true, then you must either redefine ‘woman’ or ‘female’. As you can see Benjamin’s definition simply fails him and his argument. I am happy to say that if a person looks like, behaves and identifies as a woman then they are a woman. I am less phased by biological definitions as these are mutable and not comprehensive anyway.

Finally I would conclude with a caution to anybody, but especially people with large followings (whether on Twitter, YouTube or whatever) from weighing in on issues that they lack expert knowledge. Unfortunately all that you can achieve is the spreading of falsehoods and prejudice. Oh and you end up looking foolish. Benjamin is clearly guilt of this. He presents his prejudices as facts and then tries to use rhetoric and cherry picked and straight incorrect arguments and ‘evidence’ to support his prejudice. Woodford clearly wants to try and understand transgender people better, but his lack of real knowledge and insight results in him missing salient parts of the discussion. If you want to discuss a topic, either be an expert or better yet involve experts in the discussion.

 

Post script:
Having transgender friends does not make you an expert in transgender issues.
Having transgender friends does not inoculate you from transphobia.
Having transgender friends does not make you a better (or worse) person.
Having transgender friends does not make you an LGBT+ ally.
Here endeth the lesson.

 

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