A Name Of One’s Own – Or How Women Became the Second Sex of the Second Sex –

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

Kajsa Ekis Ekman comments on the Swedish bill designed to allow every person to define their sex.

This article was originally published in the “Culture” section of the Swedish daily Aftonbladet, then translated in French and in English. 


In a recent letter to the United Nations, the British government recommended that the term “pregnant woman” be replaced with “pregnant person”. This since the term “woman” might offend and exclude pregnant men.

Now we don’t want to offend, do we?

Thus, the word “woman” is removed, having been deemed too narrow and exclusionary. But anyone who supports the principles of inclusion will soon find that they also come with a new definition of gender.

According to this definition, gaining ground without having really been debated, a person’s sex is rooted not in their body, but in their mind. Several countries, including Norway and Greece, have already amended their laws so that people now can self-define their sex with no requirement for surgical intervention. If the current Swedish bill becomes law, this policy will soon also apply here. Faced with the issue, the International Olympic Committee has issued recommendations according to which an athlete can compete as the gender he/she chooses, as long as one has lived as that gender for four years and meets the hormonal criteria. Further, the British Labour Party has published new guidelines concerning its all-women candidates lists, so that anyone who identifies as a woman can enter.

This change is generally viewed as progressive. From now on, sex will no longer be reduced to biology and transgender people will finally be recognized by law! Positing the change as a question of identity, rather than one of ideology, has made debating difficult – because how can you question somebody’s identity? – when the matter actually concerns society as a whole

If society as a whole will change the meaning of “sex”, this affects all of us, not just one group. What will happen to gender-specific statistics on violence and equal pay if we no longer can refer to biological sex? What will happen to the concept of homosexuality? What will happen to non-mixed spaces such as prisons, changing rooms and women’s shelters? What exactly do we mean by the term “sex”?

The dictionary of the Swedish Academy defines woman as “an adult person of the female sex.” To find out what the female sex category is, Karolinska University Laboratory tells us that with the exception of people who are born with chromosome abnormalities, “women normally have two X chromosomes to form the XX pair, while men possess one X and one Y chromosome, or the XY pair.” As a matter of fact, this definition comes close to the second wave feminist ideal: that sex should mean just this and nothing else. In patriarchy, however, sex means a lot more: being a man is associated with having certain names, hairstyles, occupations, behaviours, rights and vice versa. It is these roles we refer to when we say “gender” as opposed to biological sex.

The new definition turns everything around. Sex no longer is a reproductive function, but an identity. This does not, however, mean that it is regarded as a free choice: according to certain physicians and trans activists, gender identity is an “essence” that exists separately from socialization processes and the body. Transactivist and author Julia Serano believes that some aspects of femininity are “are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex.” This is an idealistic definition, in the sense that mind prevails over matter. The feeling decides, and the body will have to be transformed accordingly. In fact, people no longer speak of sex change: the correct term is now gender reassignment surgery, or in Swedish “gender corrective surgery”. To speak of changing sex implies that the person previously had another sex, while the person who reassigns or corrects their sex is simply adjusting the body to its correct state: the one of the mind.

What then determines what the actual sex of a person is? Often, these same gender roles that feminists seek to dissolve are exactly the ones now “proving” that a person is one sex rather than the other. In the medical journal Läkartidningen, physicians Louise Frisén, Per-Anders Rydelius and Arne Söder assert that sexual identity is innate and that “7% of boys are considered extremely effeminate, while a smaller percentage of girls are perceived as extremely boyish.” Something is very eerie about doctors identifying and mapping children’s behaviour based on their sex.

The US group TransYouthProject asserts that a boy who loves princess dresses is “gender nonconforming” and should be identified at an early age. If he also wants to have long hair, prefers to play with girls and loves pink blinking shoes, he “is” most probably a girl. He would then be eligible for LupronDepot, an intramuscular puberty-blocker injection given every three months, or Histrelin, an implant inserted in the arm that releases testosterone inhibitors. Until now, there has been a minimum age limit for this treatment, but increasing numbers of physicians are pressing to abolish this limit. For its part, the political party Feministiskt Initiativ is seeking to abolish the age limit for bottom surgery and to institute “the will and welfare of the child, with parental consent of one parent” as sufficient authorization for such interventions.

Now, few of us would deny the existence of children who truly feel like they belong to the opposite sex, or the cruelty of growing up in a society where deviance from the gender norms can be severly punished. Anyone who has any doubts about this, or think that people with gender dysphoria ahould just “cut it out”, should take the time to read the biographies of transgender people, for instance, that of Mario Martino, published in the 1970s, or that of our contemporary Skylar Kergil.

But this also raises several questions. Is it ethical to surgically modify children’s bodies when they are not old enough to understand the lifelong consequences? If 7% of boys now are “naturally” effeminate as the doctors state, is this then not a natural part of what it means to be a male – why the rush to bring them out of malehood? And does this ultra-progressive attitude not entrench an arch-conservative idea of sex – where one in the past removed dresses from children with penises but now removes the penis from children with dresses? The bottom line remains: children with penises must not wear dresses. This is not a liberation from biologism, rather the opposite.

Gender self-identification also has some unforeseen consequences. For example, rapists can now end up in women’s prisons, as was the case in England, where Martin Ponting, convicted of raping two women, ended up in a women’s prison after undergoing sex reassignment, or the recent case in Sweden where Kristoffer Johansson who murdered and dismembered his girlfriend now identifies as a woman and has demanded to be transferred to a woman’s prison. But above all, gender self-identification has shaken up the world of female sports. In American boxing rings, the Italian volleyball league, and Canadian cycling competitions, male-born athletes now compete in women’s events.

In 2017, first place in the Australian weightlifting championship went to Laurel Hubbard, who 10 years earlier was a man who competed under the name of Gavin Hubbard. As a man, Hubbard was not overly successful. This all changed when Hubbard entered female weightlifting and now lifts 19 kilos more than the second-place contestant. In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner was named Woman of the Year in the United States, even though she had been a man barely a year before. The highest-paid CEO in the United States in 2013 was Martine Rothblatt, also born male. Interestingly enough, the reverse situation is much harder to find. Few female-born athletes or celebrities succeed in the world of men. Of all articles published on the topic of trans men, the most common theme is pregnancy.

photo jenner gavin

Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner and Gavin “Laurel” Hubbard

The message to women here is that to become Woman of the Year, or highest paid executive of the year, we must have been born male. These types of injustices are precisely what women have always denounced, except that now we have been relegated to second place even in our own group! We are the second sex of the second sex! But whereas we have been debating our second place in society for long, debating this new downgrading is almost impossible. To even speak of the differences between people who are born male and people who are born female—the basis of feminist thinking—is now by definition considered transphobic.

Feminists accused of transphobia are targets of death or rape threats, boycotts and no-platforming. Lesbians who don’t want to have sex with people with penises are labelled “transphobic” in Anglosaxon social media, since a penis can now be considered a “ladystick” aka a “female penis” and should be allowed everywhere. Female athletes who object to unfair conditions are told to shut up because they benefit from “cis privilege” as if the fact of being born female all of a sudden were an advantage.

These attacks are frequently excused by the fact that transgender people are an extremely vulnerable group, at high risk for violence and hate crimes and a significant suicide rate. This is entirely true. But, here, we are confronted with a strange phenomenon: while men are responsible for almost all the violent and hate crimes committed against transgender people, women receive most of the blame, simply for daring to write or think about the concept of gender identity. The bottom line here is that if you don’t agree with sex being a state of mind, you are infringing on people’s right to exist. Sorry, but this doesn’t make sense. It goes without saying that transgender people deserve respect, human rights and an end to violence and discrimination. But this does not mean that being born female and feeling like a woman as an adult is the same thing.

Because if bodies don’t matter, if upbringing doesn’t matter, why does sex matter at all? A dialectical understanding of sex as both material reality and social construct is at the core of socialist feminism. Biology is not destiny, but biology exists. Our bodies produce spermatozoa and ovules regardless of how we label them. This is what distinguishes sex ontologically from race or class, concepts which have no function outside of systems of domination. It is entirely possible to imagine a society where the concept of race or class does not exist, just as there are societies that have hundreds of intricate categories of ethnicities and social castes. Yet, ethnicity is treated as a concrete and unshakeable characteristic in contemporary Western discourse. Just consider what happened when the parents of NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal revealed that she was white. Although she had “lived as” a Black woman for many years, conducted research and created work about Black people, the general opinion were unanimous on one point: she was not Black. If you were not born, you cannot become.

Okay. Suppose we let people choose their sex but not their ethnic background. We could then ask our children how they feel and make sure that they end up in the right category, and even, if necessary, create more categories. Perhaps all of us would enjoy greater freedom. One question remains though. What do we call the half of humankind who is born with a pair of X chromosomes? Those who have in common so many things: breasts, vagina, menstruation and, in most cases, the possibility of getting pregnant? What do we call this group of people who run a higher risk of being aborted before birth due to their sex, having their genitals mutilated, being denied an education, being raped, being beaten or abused in their own homes, paid less, being victims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the labour market—what are we supposed to call these people? Do they not deserve a name of their own?

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

photo ekman en pied simon kron(Author photos: Simon Kroc)


*NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Original title: “Könet i Knoppen,”  Aftonbladet, 16 January 2018.

French version : « Ce sexe qui n’a plus de nom »

Translated by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Nicole Kennedy, Marie-Claude Plourde, trad. a., and TRADFEM 

All rights reserved to Kajsa Ekis Ekman.
Ekman is an investigative journalist and author of several books, including Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy, and the Split Self, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2013.

cov being being bought

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