A cancel culture grenade: Who's afraid of The End of Gender?

Jen Gerson is definitely getting cancelled for reviewing Dr. Debra Soh's The End of Gender: Debunking Myths About Sex and Identity.

Book Review

The thing about Debra Soh's new book, The End of Gender: Debunking Myths About Sex and Identity, is that it wouldn’t have been published five years ago. 

Not because the book reveals any groundbreaking scientific truths, nor because the intellectual environment has grown more expansive or freewheeling — the opposite is true. 

No, this book could only have been published in Hell Year 2020 because at any time previous, any canny publisher would have asked: "Why? What's the point? Who would buy a book laying out the basic science underpinning sex and gender? Why would readers shell out money for something that explains what most of us already know?" 

For that, at its heart, is what Soh's book is: a lucid discussion of the best science we have to date on the nature of gender and sex, written for a lay audience. What gives the title its sizzle is not the content, but rather the cultural climate in which it is being published. 

It maps the depth, scope and scale of current Culture War trenches in this particular theatre of battle. The End of Gender stomps on tripwires like the gender binary, whether transgender women are women, autogynephilia, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, bathroom bans, and more. 

It's a cancel-culture grenade. 

That's not because these subjects ought to be contentious. Soh's approach and tone are largely neutral. Rather, the controversy the book will inevitably incite is a reflection of a culture that has been warped into a state of existential terror by the very notion that these ideas can be responsibly discussed. 

Soh begins by defining her terms. 

So much of the debate around the most difficult topics of sex and gender stem from the simple fact that we are misusing the basic language. For example, sex and gender are not interchangeable concepts, even though they are often treated as such. 

Sex is a term of biology. One's sex, Soh argues, is determined by his or her gametes. With the exception of rare intersex disorders, 99 per cent of the population has a clearly defined biological sex that slots into one of two dimorphic categories: male or female. 

Gender is more complicated. It's now popular to state that there are more than two genders, but Soh disputes this. She argues that gender — or the set of characteristics that signal one's sex to society — is also dimorphic. For 99 per cent of the population, gender correlates with sex. Further, even when expressions of gender are at odds with one's biological sex, this, too, is mediated by biology. Whether one presents as gender typical or gender atypical is the result of prenatal testosterone exposure. 

Soh notes that claiming to be gender non-binary, or gender fluid — or any one of a thousand variations that transcend the limiting concepts of male and female — is increasingly trendy, especially among teenagers and young adults. It seems to be the latest form of identity experimentation.

There are two reasons for this trend. 

The first is that seeing the world through an intersectional framework encourages progressives to reverse the traditional hierarchies of race, sex and power. Therefore, claiming a marginalized identity — like genderqueer non-binary unicorn — accrues status within progressive peer circles.

The second is that the culture has undergone a massive awakening to transgender rights over the past decade. This has contributed expressive categories and vocabularies for people who otherwise might have struggled to find the language to explore their most authentic selves. As the cues, like cosmetics and dress, that we used to signal our gender are socially constructed, gender expression is limited only by our creativity.

Soh — I suspect — does not object to these forms of expression beyond the fact that these expansive notions of "gender" shouldn't be confused with scientific categories. 

Soh goes on to dissect other verboten topics; from bathroom bans, to transgender women dominating athletic competitions that were created for biological women.

Among the most dangerous is the fraught territory of transgender children. Some preliminary and controversial research suggests that young biological women often suffering from disorders like anxiety and autism are signing up for medical transition at astonishing rates through an etiology that has been dubbed Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria — a phenomenon that, it is hypothesized, spreads through social mimesis.

More research needs to be conducted in this area, which has become incredibly difficult in a cultural climate that treats scientific or psychiatric exploration of ROGD as transphobic. 

Even more troubling are reports that children with gender dysphoria are being prescribed off-label puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones and, eventually, move on to surgeries to remove secondary sex characteristics like breasts. There are reports of children granted partially reversible cross-sex hormones as young as 12. Soh documents claims from detransitioners — men and women who began to transition to the opposite gender and then stopped — who were given access puberty blockers after only one short appointment with a doctor.

This despite the fact that the evidence sexologists have accrued from numerous studies about childhood gender dysphoria suggests that a majority of such children resolve their dysphorias during puberty. As Soh points out, once the sex drive begins to gear up, most dysphoric children discover that they are gay. 

Delivered too early, puberty blockers inhibit the natural processes by which dysphorias might resolve themselves without further serious medical interventions —interventions that include side effects like sexual dysfunction, sterility, and lifelong reliance on exogenous hormones that may damage organs and bones.

(The World Professional Association for Transgender Health's Standards of Practice acknowledges all of this, for what it's worth. It recommends waiting until after puberty begins to administer puberty blockers, for example, and only after an "extensive exploration of psychological, family, and social issues" has been undertaken.) 

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But in a climate that fires, libels, shouts down, threatens or blacklists anyone who dares express reasonable concerns, it's easy to see why the public would doubt whether doctors are navigating this challenge responsibly. Questions about the practices of gender identity clinics in the UK are beginning to be aired, but the culture of fear that still exists around these topics actually diminishes trust in expertise at a moment when we need to rely on it the most. 

Soh's book may force some nuance to this conversation. 

That's not to say the The End of Gender is without flaws. As one might expect of a book covering an enormous range of topics and written for a lay audience, parts of it are shallow. There is a section, for example, where Soh explores the impact of evolutionary biology on the dating market. The short version — men are cued to prefer young, attractive partners while women opt for mates with greater financial resources — is redundant. The topic is a book in and of itself, and a mere subheading in Soh's broader work can't delve into the subject with enough depth to do it justice. 

The End of Gender also occasionally suffers from mistaking extreme outliers for reality. An example of this; Soh explores gender neutral parenting and "theybys." She points out, correctly, that we ought to stop projecting our own gender-based pathologies onto our kids and just let them dress how they please and play with toys without getting too wound up about it one way or the other. 

This is good parenting advice, but I admit that I've yet to encounter this neurosis in real life. Nurseries are still painted in pinks and blues. Girly princess dresses and dump trucks abound. As a Millennial parent, I've yet to meet a single "theyby" in the wild. Journalistic articles featuring gender-neutral parents are easy to find, there doesn't seem to be much hard data on the actual prevalence of the trend. I suspect the practice is still confined to the New York Magazine lifestyle pages. 

The best reason to buy The End of Gender is for the sheer pleasure of reading Twitter-mediated samizdat. In an online culture that is constantly gaslighting men and women about the most fundamental nature of their own lived experiences, reading the book provides a sense of relief. Soh herself appears to be conscious of this appeal. (She dedicates The End of Gender to "everyone who blocked me on Twitter.")

The culture she describes online, in journalism, and in academia is broadly correct. Soh has made the media rounds promoting her book on Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro and other American media outlets. She's a Canadian woman of colour whose book is finding international attention — and yet a discussion of it is nowhere to be seen in our mainstream outlets. 

Few seem willing to risk backlash by giving her a platform. Even the most mundane conversations around sex, gender and transgender issues has acquired a patina of toxicity that is now beyond absurd. 

It's perfectly comprehensible to me why activists would seek to circumscribe discussion of these topics — and I give them some credit for succeeding in doing so. But no one who writes or thinks for a living is obliged to take any of these unspoken strictures seriously. 

Do you have a Canadian non-fiction book you'd like to see reviewed? Excellent; because I love reviewing them. Send us a note at lineeditor@protonmail.com

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