Book of the week: Material Girls

Kathleen Stock picks her way through the complex and contentious issue of trans-activism

Material Girls

In her introduction to this book, the philosopher Kathleen Stock describes herself as a “heretic”, said Sarah Ditum in The Mail on Sunday. To many of us, though, the views she holds will seem uncontroversial: she believes that “male and female humans exist, that humans are unable to change sex, and that sex is important in the life one leads”.

Such opinions, however, fall foul of a “peculiar doctrine” that has become embedded within academia, politics and even medicine. Sometimes described as “trans ideology”, this doctrine maintains that sex is determined not by the human body, but by a person’s “inner sense” of identity. You are, in other words, whatever sex you think you are. For speaking out against this orthodoxy, Stock has suffered personal attacks and “serious attempts to derail her career”. In Material Girls, she picks her way through this complex and contentious terrain, outlining the “trans-activist case and its consequences with clarity and care”.

Debates about sex and gender can seem rather abstract, said Jane O’Grady in The Sunday Telegraph. But their real-world consequences are profound. As Stock’s brave and enlightening book makes clear, the new assault on biological sex – the insistence that “trans women are women” – jeopardises women’s “hard-won rights” and potentially compromises their very safety. It paves the way for trans women to compete as sportswomen, vie for women’s jobs and prizes and inhabit women’s jails. It also “rewrites what it is to be gay”: because groups like Stonewall define homosexuality as an orientation “towards someone of the same gender”, and because gender is what you decide it is, lesbians who refuse to sleep with trans women can be dubbed transphobic.

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Stock herself is regularly called a transphobe, but denies being one, said Stella O’ Malley in the London Evening Standard. She wants trans people to “have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do”, and out of courtesy adopts their preferred pronouns. But she simply can’t accept that trans people literally belong to the sex they identify with.

Stock offers a rigorous guide to this emotive subject, said Christina Patterson in The Sunday Times. She meticulously debunks many claims put forward by activists (such as the idea that trans people are disproportionately assaulted and murdered) and unpicks the philosophical concepts involved with precision. Her book sometimes lacks the “narrative drive” and “journalistic élan” of other recent examinations of this subject. But boy, do her arguments “pack a punch”.

Fleet 320pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

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