Is Gender Fluid?: A Primer for the 21st Century, by Sally Hines

Susan Matthews is unimpressed by an attempt to rethink our understanding of biological sex, gender and identity

June 27, 2019

Gender has proved one of the most contentious issues of the 21st century, a subject so dangerous you can be thrown off Twitter, interviewed by the police or lose your job for claiming that there are two sexes. Beliefs that are not shared by the majority of language users are now promoted as a prerequisite for entry into the public sphere.

Is Gender Fluid? asks Sally Hines’ primer and we know that the answer will be a resounding “Yes”. Fluidity, after all, is valued in the postmodern lexicon. What’s trickier is to work out what the question means. Confusingly, the word gender is currently used to refer to biological sex, to the cultural conventions associated with biological sex and to gender identity. Is the primer asking whether an individual can reject the gender categories prescribed by society? Does it explore whether social gender categories change through history and culture? These questions were the focus of 20th-century feminist scholars who celebrated gender non-conformity and showed that gender conventions do indeed change.

Hines is interested in two different questions. Can an individual change their gender identity? And is the categorisation of biological sex really fluid?

Her key idea (drawn from Thomas Laqueur) is that binary sex difference is a cultural construction, cemented in the Enlightenment to underpin gender differences. From Anne Fausto-Sterling, Hines takes the claim that the existence of intersex people undermines the concept of binary sex differences. Cordelia Fine’s work allows her to argue that most claims for binary sex differences in the brain derive from cultural bias. What’s new is not the idea of gender fluidity but the claim that biological sex is a spectrum.

Most 20th-century feminists thought of gender as a social construction that lay outside the self, a kind of false consciousness that the individual could reject. Everything changed when gender found its place deep inside the self as, in Hines’ words, the “core part of who people know themselves to be”. In the 21st century, “gender” is used to retrospectively reinterpret what used to be understood as sexual orientation. So Hines looks back to the “late 20th century”, when “anthropological studies often interpreted gender-diverse practices as personifications of same-sex desire” – as if the very concept of sexual orientation was out of date. In the new model, gender paradoxically becomes less fluid. Transgender is “an umbrella term describing people whose innate gender identity or gender expression is different to the sex they were assigned at birth”. Borrowing the language of intersex, sex is “assigned” whereas gender is “innate”.

But these beliefs are contested, not least by doctors, who insist that biological sex is generally observed not assigned. It’s also contested by historians and by intersex activists who reject the appropriation of their condition and by gender critical feminists who claim that their model is still analytically powerful.

Although Hines surveys alternative models of gender, the primer draws the reader to predetermined conclusions. Varying type sizes (“Quick-recognition text hierarchy”) preselect crucial statements: “The larger the font size the more important the words are to the overall concept or argument.” Touted as a means to help the busy reader, this familiar advertising device destroys continuity and discourages questioning. This is a primer of postmodern dogma served up as scripture rather than a balanced introduction to a conflicted debate.

Susan Matthews is a senior research fellow in English and creative writing at the University of Roehampton. She is also the author of the monograph Blake, Sexuality and Bourgeois Politeness (2011) and a contributor to both Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body (edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, 2018) and the forthcoming Inventing Transgender Children and Young People (edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, 2019).

Is Gender Fluid?: A Primer for the 21st Century
By Sally Hines
Thames and Hudson, 144pp, £12.95
ISBN 9780500293683
Published 26 September 2018

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Reader's comments (3)

Very clear, critical review. Thank you Susan Matthews
Fantastic review. This aggressive (and misogynistic) campaign to remove sex-based rights from women is terrifying, and Susan calmly and clearly reminds us that the majority do not agree, nor is there any reason to.
Not to say this review is not without merit, but given the books the author has written and the websites her co-authors promote, this review would appear to be biased in favour of a radical feminist perspective that is not conducive with the majority of the psychiatric and sociological research present in the academy.