The Butler Did It – a Review of Material Girls by Kathleen Stock

Material Girls is the new book by academic philosopher Kathleen Stock OBE, professor of philosophy at Sussex University. It is an essential read if you want to understand what the current transgender debate is all about and why there is conflict with women’s groups and feminists. If you cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would consider it fair to allow a male person to compete against a woman in female sport, then here you will find the background to how seemingly impossible beliefs such as these have come to dominate certain sections of ‘progressive’ politics. If you are shocked at the sudden proliferation of ‘gender-neutral’ toilets where there used to be single-sex facilities, and wonder where that trend is coming from; if you are surprised at the increasing number of press reports on ‘female’ sex offenders; if you have noticed the use of dehumanising words such as ‘menstruators’ where the word ‘woman’ used to be, or if your favourite organisation, business or political party seem to suddenly be falling over themselves to be more rainbow-washed than the next one, here are some of the answers.

It’s a fascinating story, based in academia but so well written that it feels like reading a detective novel in places: what’s going to happen next?! The ‘eight key moments in the rapid intellectual onset of gender identity theory’ (as well as containing a delicious joke) is a tour de force. We get a whistle-stop tour of theories from the most influential thinkers in the field, including Anne Fausto-Stirling, Judith Butler and Julia Serano, and the results in some places are mind-boggling. When people complain about academics ‘sitting in their ivory towers’ and informing policy on the ground which is entirely divorced from reality, this is surely a case of that, with knobs on. Despite being an account of academic theories, for non-academics the writing is fresh and accessible and, most importantly in a debate which specialises in deliberately obfuscating meanings, it has clarity. Such clarity. Terms and concepts are defined. I can’t tell you how much of a treat this is.

Stock has both sympathy and criticism for the concerns of trans people and of radical feminists, and she brings her own philosophical speciality to the debate with her concept of ‘immersion in fiction’. This reframing of the transgender experience is original and thought-provoking, keeping a distance as it tries to do from any position which is so entrenched as to be non-negotiable. It’s so thought-provoking that I haven’t made up my mind about the idea yet, to be honest, but I am always happy to have a new concept to ponder. The aim as I understand it is to move away from the polarising positions of ‘Transwomen are women’ and ‘Transwomen are men’, (TWAW v TWAM) as taken respectively by transactivists and radical feminists. It is not, to my reading, a proposal of compromise in terms of women’s sex-based rights (Stock makes it clear as the book concludes that sex as a concept is crucial and necessary and we must keep it to do the job it needs to do). It’s definitely not a proposal of compromise as to the meaning of the word ‘woman’, which Stock defends for the same reason she defends ‘sex’. What it is though, is a proposal to clear some ground for debate, in order that some mutual concerns might have room to be addressed.

To this end, in the most unsympathetic part of the book for radical feminists, there is a critique of some of the ideas expressed by Julia Long. I am a big fan of Julia Long but she is a controversial figure because she speaks her mind, calls a spade a spade and won’t be made to shut up. That’s partly why I like her. Stock’s criticism sees Long as the ‘extreme’ end of a polarised debate, but many feminists would argue that the material truth is not an extreme position to take, and that enough linguistic and conceptual ground has already been lost. Still, there had to be some criticism of a feminist scholar in order to balance the demolition of practically every major queer theorist out there. Long’s work is quoted at length and some readers will hopefully be inspired to go and find out more. If part of the aim of mainstream feminist writing is to raise consciousness there will be some readers that Long speaks to and some that Stock speaks to. I, like many others, value the ideas of both.

There has inevitably been some feminist criticism based on this part of the book (which I now have to refer to as *that bit*) and some of it I agree with. I don’t for example accept that there is ‘frequent casual denigration of trans women’s characters.’ It may be that the overall criticism of transgenderism as a movement, as personified by the writing of Sheila Jeffreys and Julia Long for example, will of necessity be critical of the men within it, but it seems to me that there has been a huge effort on the part of the majority of ‘gender critical’ feminists to be respectful under conditions of extreme provocation. Stock has personal experience of this, having been subject to hateful campaigns against her both at her place of work and on social media, simply for suggesting that sex and gender are a suitable subject for philosophical debate. I understand that she may be criticising one specific branch of radical feminist theory here, and not the general conduct of women on Twitter, but it is hard to stomach nonetheless when the general level of abuse is so one-sided.

The claim that there is a ‘commonplace suggestion, without evidence, that any trans woman’s reasons for transition are likely to be malign’ has produced the most anger, particularly from groups such as Transwidows who have suffered the most personal, private and misunderstood abuse. In a book which is so thorough in the clarity of its language it is a shame that this one statement is so open to misunderstanding. The word ‘any’ here can be read as the suggestion that ‘all’ trans woman’s reasons are likely to be malign, whereas I think it actually means ‘any particular’ trans woman’s reasons are likely to be malign. I might be wrong here, and it may make no difference to some people, but I think it’s an important distinction because there is plenty of evidence for many of the claims being made and it is misleading to suggest that’s not the case. Not least because Stock herself in her conclusion calls on, amongst other things, more evidence to be gathered on the experiences of transwidows in order to define what their political needs are. I don’t believe she intended to belittle their experiences and I think this line has been misunderstood.

On balance though, this is a mainstream publication from an academic philosopher, and looking critically at both sides of an argument comes with the territory, or it should. So much of the debate has been shut down that this is a welcome development and a courageous project from the publisher. I suspect that the book will continue to upset trans activists far more than radical feminists because after looking with a critical eye at evidence from both sides of the divide, Stock comes down firmly on the side of material reality.

In my reading of it, this is not a book which asks for compromise, at least not in the area of women’s rights, including our right to define ourselves. It presents an alternative conceptual worldview to the TWAW/TWAM binary, without telling anyone to ‘be nice’. It presents the thorny question of language as a matter of common humanity rather than necessarily a political ‘gotcha’. The feminist use of TWAM has come about of necessity, in order to reclaim the truth in an argument over language which has up until now disadvantaged women. In that sense it can be defended: clearly in terms of material reality TWAW is false and TWAM is true. Take the language further than that though and you are in the realms of opinion pitted against opinion, or theory v theory, less easy to defend to a mainstream audience and some of it pejorative: for example ‘innate souls’ v ‘delusion’ or ‘marginalised minority’ v ‘men’s sexual rights movement’. In the area of children and young people there is an understandable wish to counteract the bland obfuscating language of ‘top surgery’ and ‘bottom surgery’ but in Stock’s view it is a mistake to go to the other extreme and use shocking terms like ‘mutilation’, if only because it can alienate the young people we want to reach. I see Stock’s argument here as one which seeks to take the emphasis of the debate away from this binary, to sidestep the two extremes, and to create a space of shared experience where the conversation can happen. As I believe the conversation needs to happen, and women need to be consulted as stakeholders in it, I see this as a positive suggestion.

This is absolutely not the same thing as asking for a compromise on rights. By analysing both sides so thoroughly Stock gives more, not less, credence to her conclusion that sex matters, and that where sex matters it really matters. The evidence for and against is laid out and the result is clear: gender identity as a concept cannot and must not take the place of sex as a concept. The book taken as a whole, notwithstanding *that bit*, succeeds to my mind in moving the Overton window of what it is acceptable to think in this controversial debate. Stock has very clearly positioned herself in the centre of the debate and in doing so she has shown that it it is the centre, not an extreme fringe, which supports women’s rights. The central ground, which a lot of readers will be able to relate to as the reasonable place to be, takes it for granted that retaining women’s right to self-define and the right to legislation based on sex is a starting point, not a negotiation. The brilliant thing is, she makes it all seem so obvious.

13/05/2021 Edited to include this screenshot because I keep having to explain it wasn’t my joke. Full credit goes to Kathleen Stock. It still makes me laugh.

9 thoughts on “The Butler Did It – a Review of Material Girls by Kathleen Stock

  1. langcleg May 11, 2021 / 7:00 pm

    About 1 in 30 men have AGP to one extent or other according to most sexologists. The transwidows of Mumnset had no idea about this when Tinsel set up the first support thread all that time ago. Nor did they realise how much commonality there would be to their experiences, nor again that these commonalities would be prima facie lifted from the standard Duluth wheel abuse model. They have watched as the academic and trades union feminists ignored them for as long as they could in favour of platforming and boosting at least one self-confessed perpetrator of domestic abuse.
    Julia Long was the ONLY academic feminist who spoke for them. Imagine how they feel when Stock takes great care to handle their exes (and even the ultra maniacs among the TRAs) with the kid gloves of courtesy and aims a personal attack on Long about this very topic in a section which is so out of kilter and tone with the rest of it, it smells like a personal attack.
    It’s quite likely that 1 in 30 het marriages and partnerships are affected by AGP in the male partner whether or not that male takes hormones or gets surgeries. A good number of these will involve coercion of the type detailed on Tinsel’s website.
    How is this not more the concern of feminism than giving a nod or a wink to the ones who enjoy infiltrating feminist groups more than slagging them off? What possible common cause do women have with males who are as, if not more, likely to be perpetrators of domestic abuse than other men?
    And why does Stock suggest we find out more about transwidows when the information has been there for years had she only cared to look for it?
    (Yes, I have read the whole book! Long comment about the little bit of it that’s blown up everywhere – sorry! – but my main issue with it is the unwarranted respect it gives to the opposition which I would sum up thusly: the casuistry of both luxury beliefs and male sexual impulse, so really not worth a tweet, let alone a book. But we are where we are so I suppose someone had to write one.)

  2. Peggy Luhrs May 11, 2021 / 7:26 pm

    “I am a big fan of Julia Long but she is a controversial figure because she speaks her mind, calls a spade a spade and won’t be made to shut up.” So recognizing reality and calling it out, refusing to use the terms of the oppressors, which were designed as dominating discourse to shut women up, is controversial. Isn’t that the major problem in public discourse, the refusal to name what we see and allow the world to be bamboozled by propaganda?

  3. thebewilderness May 11, 2021 / 8:12 pm

    I realize that woman bashing is a requirement for publication of any work by a professional Feminist.
    Still, I would have been grateful if Dr Stock had written of Feminists with the same respect she expressed toward transgender identified males. Accusing a feminist of writing contemptuously with words dripping contempt was unprofessional and inappropriate.

  4. Alex Bloodfire May 11, 2021 / 9:49 pm

    An excellent review! I’ve bought Material Girls and looking forward to starting it!

  5. TinselAngel May 11, 2021 / 9:53 pm

    I feel that the link in this article to the interview that I (ie founder of Trans Widows Voices) did with Donovan Cleckley, implies that the section quoted about “malign” intentions is the section that I objected to.

    It was not this section that I objected to, I have not expressed an opinion on that.

    What I objected to was the minimisation of AGP by saying it was “played up, hyperbolised and stigmatised”, and the implication that objecting to the platforming of trans widow’s perpetrators by feminist groups is an extreme, radical view.

    I do not feel Stock is qualified to judge what is or is not an exaggeration regarding AGP. The women who have been victims of AGP men are the experts.

    Several other trans widows have also been in touch with me to object to the minimisation of AGP.

    My comments can be found here:

    With regards to the later passage where Stock says we do not know enough about trans widows, I would add, that the information is now out there if one is sufficiently interested to look.

  6. Shirley Addams May 11, 2021 / 10:48 pm

    I look forward to reading her book. I hope that I can find it soon. Way to go Dr. Stock.

  7. alanspage May 12, 2021 / 2:19 pm

    In the foreword of his translation of Mario Mieli’s “Towards a Gay Communism” (which argues that everybody is transgendered and that were it not for society imposing heteronormative restrictions on everybody, there would be a pansexual paradise) David Fernbach writes:
    “Mario also dismisses the biological level of the sexual contradiction in too summary a fashion. The women’s movement has raised various questions about possible innate differences between male and female. Whatever the answer to this might be, it is necessary for a theorist who makes the claims that Mario does to take up a position on this debate. Reduction of the biological division to simply a question of gender is the reverse error of that made by the American radical feminists.”
    Even back in the 1980’s the idea of a gendered society was seen as being a mis-step it seems.

  8. Pat Smith May 14, 2021 / 11:41 pm

    My problem with Stock’s book is she accuses feminists of ‘playing-up’, ‘hyperbolising’ and ‘stigmatising’ autogynephilia. She dismisses the strong feminist analysis of autogynephilia Sheila Jeffreys’ wrote as ‘simplistic’, as it names male (sexual) entitlement and dominance as the problem, saying instead she prefers ‘fact-based feminism’. Says Julia Long is ‘extreme’ and strongly implies she is a man-hater (and so too women that agree with her) simply for objecting to AGP males being platformed in women’s meetings instead of their wives, using male pronouns for all men, and prioritising female’s right to set and maintain strong firm boundaries with men. It also seems she has made use of the association of the word radical with extreme in people’s minds, in order to imply radical feminism is extreme, when really it means root, getting to the root of the problem. I think it reasonable for feminists to object. Some may call Stock’s position a humanist one, which of course she is entitled to take, but instead of owning that, instead she has framed herself as a reasonable, non-man hating ‘evidence based feminist’ and has implied those that disagree with her as extreme, man-hating, non-evidenced based feminists. To many of us she looks like she is bending over backwards to placate these males and is throwing feminists under the bus.

    Stock claims she is ‘evidenced based’ and implies we are not, yet the evidence is AGP make up 75% of these males according to Blanchard. AGP males have assaulted women. AGP males have masturbated in female’s spaces. We don’t know how many of these men commit such crimes, as they won’t always been detected or reported by women, even if they are reported they will be reported as female’s crimes. So it is disingenuous of Stock to say it is without evidence.

    Some AGP males have admitted they get sexually aroused by people using female pronouns for them and being referred to as a type of woman. Stock may consent to be part of a male’s fetish, but other women should not be guilted or shamed into doing so, when its implied it isn’t polite or reasonable to refer to males as men then that is what happens.

  9. Jane Smith May 15, 2021 / 12:04 am

    I also object to Stock minimising the abuse women have received from these males, and ignoring their male entitled behaviour, instead implying those of us that do acknowledge it and have a feminist analysis about it are ‘simplistic’ without evidence and man-hating.

    The fact is the evidence shows narcissist traits are are more common in males than females (see here). Narcissists live in a fantasy word, view others as players in their fantasy, are notoriously entitled, selfish, self-centred, lack empathy, see relationships as transactional, exploit others for their own gain, don’t respect boundaries, are highly manipulative, often gaslight and play the victim for sympathy, and use DARVO. Although there are a few covert narcissists who are less directly abusive but still manipulative, people with strong narcissist traits are not benign. Even therapists don’t like dealing with narcissists see here. Another psychologist (who admits his AGP) openly acknowledges AGP males display narcissistic traits (see here). Transwidows have said how abusive these males can be (see here). Lesbians have stated how entitled these men act with no respect for their boundaries (see here). These men have reacted with what could be described as narcissistic rage and sent rape and death threats to women who set firm boundaries with them (see here). As a psychologist who is an expert on manipulators says ‘it’s simply not safe to assume that someone’s rage stems from inner trauma’. ‘Behind most narcissistic rage is an attitude of entitlement.’ (see here). Radical feminists as well as many psychologists, theapists etc., who have familiarity with manipulators understand that (male) entitlement is behind such behaviours, and viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects to be used will only increase their entitlement and narcissism. Viewing others as objects to be used IS a narcissistic trait. So to view it as benign and feminist analysis as without evidence is ignoring the evidence and wishful thinking at best.

    Playing along with a narcissistic fantasy to placate someone is never a good idea, it can enable coercive control ‘everything the victim once knew, thought, felt or believed has gradually replaced with the abuser’s narrative. The victim no longer thinks for themselves, but their thinking is now of the abuser, their needs, views, desires and wants.’ (see here).

    It is actually Stock’s view that is simplistic, that AGPs are victims of a sexist culture and should be helped to feel less ashamed about their fetish. Moreover, women internalising and eroticising their own oppression, is very different from a male viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects, yet Stock doesn’t seem to understand this. Stock’s argument that it is the same, could in fact be viewed as a way to try to guilt or shame women into feeling sympathy for these males. Which is interesting considering she thinks AGP males shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed or ‘stigmatised’. As a psychologist who is an expert on manipulators says ‘shamelessness is a defining aspect of the most problematic kinds of narcissism.’ (see here) ‘Lacking an appropriate sense of guilt, and without a sufficient sense of shame, they don’t engage in the same kind of reflective thinking that enables most of us to grow, change, and improve ourselves’ (See here). Narcissists lack empathy (though they can fake it if they think it will get them what they want), so the only thing that stops them is negative consequences to themselves like shaming.

    The way to deal with people with entitlement and other narcissistic traits is to establish and maintain strong firm boundaries. It is not mean or man-hating to recognise what is going on and have firm boundaries, it is what protects women from abusers. ‘The pattern of relating with the narcissist has up to this point been all about what he wants, demands, needs, etc., with no concern for what you want or need. In order to change this unhealthy pattern, start thinking about what is best for you and then do it. Sure, you will face fallout and pushback. Expect the worse. But, in order to heal from narcissistic abuse and grow into a healthier you, you’ve got to stand strong against the pushback.’ (See here). It seems to me that Stock does not understand these things as she does not have a radical feminist analysis, and has presumably not studied the ‘dark triad’ personality traits, or worked with victims/perpetrators of abusers.

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