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What A Woman Is
The existence of trans people is a lot of things, but happens to also be a spikey thought experiment that jabs at our concepts of identity.
“What is a woman?”
“Someone who can get pregnant.”
“So no infertile people are women?”
“Well no - okay someone who has the equipment to get pregnant.”
“So women can stop being women by getting hysterectomies?”
“No - all right, XX chromosomes.”
“What if I’m a woman - I was born female, have female genitalia, and was raised female - and I discover I have Swyer syndrome, which means I have XY chromosomes. Was I really never a woman this whole time?”
The line of questioning is infinite - though we like to make fun of people dodging the question of what is a woman, it’s because for any claim you make, there is always a but what about response. And sure, for the most part the basic definitions work, because stuff like Swyer syndrome is rare, but this is no longer good enough for us - trans people have been like “hey we exist” and now we’re scrambling for a full, complete definition to give us stability in the resulting kerfluffle.
(This is why thought experiments are so valuable in general. Reality changes, tech advances, and our basic, functioning definitions in a thousand different areas will slowly stop making sense. It’s good to figure out exactly what you mean by the concepts you’re using before thought experiments start demanding rights.)
But spoiler: trying to use better definitions here is like using knives to patch a wound. There is no ‘true definition’ of woman, there’s not an answer that will make this all okay.
Concepts like this are not discrete points, they’re clusters - collections of a bunch of traits that seem to reappear as a pattern. We can make a giant list of thousands of things that describe ‘cat’ - furry, four legs, meows, temperamental - and it gives us a lot of leeway for changing a few traits and still getting cat. You can have a shaved cat, a three legged cat, a mute cat, a cuddly cat, but it’s still cat because the rest of the thousand list items is the same. Asking “which of the list of a thousand items makes a cat truly a cat?” is nonsensical. Some are more unique to cat-cluster-lists than other lists, but no single entry is the truth.
But you can still recognize it as cat because that list of a thousand things has reappeared, time and time again, in a together cluster, like the way water flows through the stable shape of a whirlpool. There’s a common, reoccurring description list for “cat,” and a different description list for “tree,” and it’s very uncommon to find things that are halfway between “cat” and “tree.”
We identify things by going “Hey, it seems like this cluster of traits has kept reappearing, with only a little bit of variation. Let’s give that a name!”
Woman is a cluster of traits that kept reappearing over time. Some of the traits overlap a lot with the man cluster, like “wants their children to be safe” and “has two legs,” but some traits are very rare to find in the male cluster, like “has narrow jaw and large eyes” and “grew up with sexual attention from men” and “identifies with the woman cluster” and “greater interest in looking beautiful”
Trans woman is a cluster of traits that have some overlap with the woman cluster, and some overlap with the man cluster. In some ways they are very like women (identifies with the woman cluster, greater interest in looking beautiful), and in some ways they might be like men (has male biology, was socialized male as a child, wants to have sex with women).
Identifies as woman is not the core of being woman in our collective conceptspace, it’s one descriptor out of many for being a woman, because womanness is not fully described by identification. This aligns with why most trans women don’t consider it sufficient to simply identify as a woman - they also actively try to take on more traits that are unique to the woman cluster. The more unique it is to the woman cluster, the greater a signal it is - e.g., bottom surgery.
So - are trans women, women? The real question should be, how much do trans people overlap with the woman cluster? And the answer is, this varies a lot, per person.
Some trans women are indistinguishable from cis women in most aspects. And clearly there’s not 100% overlap in things like life history or medical care, but I find people who focus on this to often have double standards, because there’s lots of cis women who don’t 100% overlap in other aspects either. If you’re going to tell me Martha, a hefty butch lesbian with a hysterectomy who chops wood and smokes cigars, is a woman, then it’s strange to say that Nikki, an early childhood transitioner with long blonde hair and perfectly done nails and a sultry, feminine voice, bottom surgery, etc. - isn’t a woman.
Tech is only gonna get better, and in the glorious transhumanist future where people have fine tuned control over their own characteristics, we’re going to see a lot more mobility across clusters. There’s gotta be some threshhold where someone is similar enough to a woman that you’d be like “okay, you count as woman.” If not, then your issue isn’t womanness, your issue is transitioning itself; that no matter how womanlike someone is, even if every cell of their body is indistinguishable from a cis woman’s, as long as they had to move across clusters to get there, you will reject them.
I find this to be an error in the more conservative sides of my circles; the trans debate gets processed as a threat, and so ‘woman’ becomes a category to be defended, a wall built to keep the non-women out. This is going to be a more and more unsustainable position as advancing tech keeps handing people more tools to scale those walls with.
And I am very pro wall-scaling tools. I don’t think we have control over what clusters make up a woman (although maybe in future centuries we’ll see our pattern recognition naturally broaden to encompass this), but we do have some control over the individual traits that place us. I don’t think we should feel obligated to process trans women as women if they barely overlap with the clusters - it’s not like we have control over that anyway - but I strongly support giving trans people the tools to overlap more - from vocal coaching to plastic surgery to clothing help. Medical insurance is a lovecraftian nightmare but if we’re in it we might as well use it to pay for transition surgeries.
Many trans people don’t have the ability to transition, and this really sucks. I don’t think this has anything to do with the way we conceive of concepts - the shittiness of not being able to inhabit your preferred cluster does not mean you magically inhabit the cluster - but I do think it justifies our compassion and assistance in any way we can help.
Imagine you’re part of a cult, and in the cult the reality is that you are bad; you chronically warp things to suit your own nefarious purposes, you believe whatever fits your selfish narratives, your own mind is corrupt. The cult probably doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s reinforced as a common, clearly understood, shared frame. You buy into it wholly yourself - you try hard to please the cult, but are constantly suspicious of yourself for your own nefariousness. How might you be deceiving yourself to get what you want?
Now imagine you get out of the cult, and people around you are like “holy shit you were in that? That sounds toxic and terrible”, and you slowly become aware that the cult was toxic and terrible, and of how much it hurt you and destroyed your self confidence. You now feel alive and free with these new friends who aren’t constantly reinforcing that you’re bad, actually.
Now imagine you run into someone from the cult on the street. And the person says, “of course you think the cult was bad; this is your selfish mind again adopting a narrative that makes you feel like the hero. You’re painting yourself as a victim and us as the aggressors in order to make yourself feel more comfortable.”
This would probably make you pretty angry - for a lot of reasons, but one of them might be because their narrative itself is threatening to you. As in, part of you is in danger of believing them; on some level their argument feels plausible, because their unflattering descriptions do line up with your behavior. And much of the danger comes from the belief being highly social - the reason you thought you were bad in the first place was because everyone agreed you were, but more importantly the reason you got out of this was because everyone agreed you weren’t. You’re using social reality to sensemake, which means social reality has power over your mind, and this is a vulnerable position to be in.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you struggled to make sense of who was really insane - like being inside of an emotionally abusive relationship - you might know what this feels like. “I’m not overreacting” and “That person discriminated against me because I’m a minority” and “I didn’t choose to be gay” are all examples of areas people get hyper sensitive, at least in part because their belief is social - society determines what counts as an overreaction, or discrimination, or a choice.
(Is “I didn’t choose to be gay” a social belief? Don’t gay people know they didn’t choose this? Maybe now yes, but what happens when everyone around you acts as though your preferences are intentionally created? SweetAnita, a famous streamer with crippling tourettes, has talked about how pre-diagnosis she just thought she must be deciding to act really weird and that all the strange things she did and said were all her fault.)
Now imagine if your new, non-cult friends constantly told you that the cult was bad and wrong, you’re not a bad person - you’re a good person, and you know that you’re a good person if you decide that you are a good person. It’s all in the perspective, just view yourself as one!”
This seems maybe well intentioned, but with terrible side effects. It places goodness no longer in external things like how much you donate to charity or whatever, but as an internal narrative, and internal narratives are really vulnerable to social reality.
And if you did believe that the goodness of you as a person depends on you identifying as a good person, then the presence of non-cult friends telling you you’re not, gently pointing out ways you’re actually bad, transforms from frustrating into a deep existential threat. There’s nothing external to cling to for proof that you’re good, no stable rock to ground yourself on; the proof that you’re good is the belief that you’re good, and of course you would defend this with every last ounce of righteous fury you have within you.
This is why I think the narrative “you are a woman if you identify as one” is cruel. It tells people that the power over their gender is entirely in their hands; it places the responsibility of womanhood on them, if they only believe it fully enough, and then expects them to survive in a world where gender is actually a list of clustered traits we spent millions of years evolving around. If they falter, “I’m not woman enough” then becomes a thought with enough power to make them not woman enough.
Trans people often talk about how their existence is threatened, and in a sense this is actually the case. If womanness exists in mind only, then it is actually existentially threatened by stuff like tweets or blog posts. I think this is at least to some degree an explanation for why some segments of trans people seem to be so aggressive.
My point is, treating womanhood entirely as an internal identity is psychologically fucked up and places trans people in a shitty position where they are forced to associate only with social realities that validate their identity, silence anyone who disagrees, or else risk being wiped out entirely. This seems like an unsustainable approach to womanhood.
So how real is transness?
I absolutely think social pressure sometimes causes people to believe they’re trans - I once read an account by a lonely man who’d attempted to transition to being a woman explaining that he’d subconsciously done it because women seemed to get more affection and sympathy. I think denying this ever exists is dangerously shortsighted.
I also think assuming this explains all, or even the majority of transitioning, to be pretty shortsighted.
Firstly, we already know of people being unhappy with their bodies that nobody ever seemed to take issue with before. People have psychological disorders that make them feel an intense need to cut off a limb; anorexia causes people to view themselves as fatter than they are, or something. The human brain is capable of being structured in strange ways that create genuine, (probably) non-socially-based urges.
And gender identity is also a real brain thing that people have; Daniel Reimer had his dick cut off in a botched circumcision and was raised as a girl, and while the “experiment” was confounded in a number of ways, it still seems like good evidence that he grew up really wanting to be a boy. And of course, there’s numerous examples of parents trying to raise kids gender-neutral but finding the kids prefer their gendered toys.
Our brains have built-in senses of gender from a young age, and also have the capacity to go haywire in wanting to do things like cut off limbs or starve ourselves. It seems really obvious here that some people really, legitimately, end up with a gender identity at odds with their physical body, in a way that is either minimally or not-at-all a socially induced experience.
Is it a disorder? As many before me have said - maybe? Yes? Why does it matter? The fundamental question here is what is the most efficient way to be happy and fulfilled - and if taking a pill to ‘cure’ the ‘disorder’ works, then great. If transitioning is the way to do that, also great. Let people do what they want.
But the ‘disorderedness’ of this feels besides the point. Lots of cis women are unhappy with how masculine they look, and getting surgery to become more feminine would make them happy and fulfilled. Should we call this a disorder? Maybe? Yes? Why does it matter? We’re all just a bunch of people in weird brains trying to find the best path for us to feel at ease with ourselves.
You might say, but having a disorder doesn’t make you a woman - if I am convinced I’m a tree, and distressed by not having branches, that doesn’t mean I’m a tree. And you’re right! Thinking you’re a tree doesn’t make you one, becoming a tree makes you one. If we had enough tech to install in you leaves and xylem cells and a disposition for sitting quietly, then anyone who points at you and says “that’s not a tree, that’s a disorder” is someone you should block on twitter.
Is transgenderism a fetish?
I don’t know - I’m working on a survey right now and hope to have a spot of evidence here soon. My guess is probably at least some of it is, and probably at least some of it isn’t.
But also this feels besides the point.
For the debates around gayness, the conservatives would yell that it was a choice, and the liberals would yell that it wasn’t. This always made me feel a little uneasy - why does it matter if it’s a choice or not? It felt like the liberal position was implicitly acknowledging that a man sucking dick would not actually be okay if he had full control over the decision. Why are nonstandard preferences only valid if you are a victim to them?
Similarly, I don’t give a shit if trans women find it arousing to be a woman. You have a right to dress how you want, get surgery if you want, ask to be treated however you want, for literally any reason at all. Your reason is not my business. And the insistence that no, trans people are not autogynephilic feels to me like an implicit acknowledgment that being trans is not okay for autogynephiles. If someone derives sexual pleasure from the thought of transitioning and identifying as female, then they are not allowed, they are not valid. This bothers me. I think people should do what they want.
(My suspicion right now is that the majority of trans people probably are not autogynephilic, at least not in a way that’s meaningfully different from the way cis people are aroused by being their preferred gender", but my mind is open to change in either direction here. I’m just slow to update because I feel like a higher-than-average distrust of both sides giving me evidence for their position here)
How do we treat trans people?
In general, I advocate for treating trans people as their preferred gender, regardless of how much they overlap with their desired gender cluster, because it seems like a kind thing to do. For example, misgendering is often very painful, and it usually takes little effort to use the correct pronouns.
If your grandmother with severe dementia keeps thinking you’re her long-dead brother, you’d probably have no problem playing along with it. I’m not saying trans people are demented, or that you’re being patronizing to them, I’m just trying to point out that we already have norms installed where we sometimes go along with narratives we don’t believe because we are kind, and if you tell me you won’t use someone’s preferred pronouns because of your unfailing commitment to the truth then I am doubtful.
I think trans people absolutely have the right to request being treated in the way that makes them feel good; I also think you have the right to not agree to this if you do actually feel like it deeply violates some value or description of truth. I also think trans people have the right not to associate with you in this case, because your behavior makes them feel terrible. I don’t think anybody is wrong here; I’m not encouraging anybody to violate their principles or put themselves in a situation that makes them feel existentially threatened. I just mean - if you do have the capacity to set aside your warring tribalism to pursue compassion for the other person, then… idk that seems cool.
It also seems reasonable to treat trans people differently when they actually meaningfully do not share traits with cis women. Different medical treatment seems like a clear example. Sexual preferences too - lots of people have genitals really enmeshed with what turns them on, and it’s okay to not want to date trans women - or to want to date exclusively trans women! Sports are divided by biological sex for mostly good reasons, for now. And if you want to start a women’s discussion group to talk about being sexually harassed by men from an early age, it makes sense to request this be limited to women who were sexually harassed by men from an early age.
It also seems reasonable to hold the same wariness towards at least some trans women that exist towards men; if you don’t want to allow men into your bedroom alone with you because you’ve had experience with men being sexually pushy, it isn’t insane to not want a poorly-passing trans lesbian to stay out of your bedroom, because you’re processing her as having traits that overlap more with the male cluster than the female one.
But most circumstances seem to hold no meaningful difference, and I suspect lots of people overly focus on the above examples as excuses to justify an unexamined disgust reflex.
Cause let’s be real, I think a lot of anti-trans sentiment, much of it disguised as ‘neutral’ trans skepticism, would not exist without some deep, ingrained disgust. If you magically eliminated the disgust, my guess is most people’s concerns for our children or whatever would suddenly become forgotten. Much like the anti-gay movement of decades past, people get an “ick” reaction and interpret this as danger - and if they can’t see any concrete harm, they argue for vague, general harm that must be corrupting our society in some hard-to-pin-down way. There’s going to be societal breakdown, our children will be traumatized, we’ll normalize some other thing we have an even greater unexamined ick reaction to, etc.
It’s sheer chance that you woke up into the universe and found yourself in a body that was chill with its gender; you easily could have found yourself distraught from an early age about the clothes you were expected to wear, the toys you were expected to play with, in a way much more severe than normal kid experimentation. Enter this experience with compassion and love. Narratives are often confused and we can argue over them with righteous passion, but they’re attempts to make sense of real experiences, and we should handle those with delicate care. There’s a reason we have a trans movement right now, and it’s not because people decided to randomly change their views on gender because they were bored.