Debra Soh deserves to be heard (19/02/2021)

This afternoon the sexologist, neuroscientist and journalist Dr Debra Soh will speak at the Oxford Union. Her inclusion on this term’s roster of speakers caused quite the furore when the Union’s term card was announced. Soh’s scientific, and now journalistic career has centred on such fraught, controversial topics as gender identity, sexual orientation, gender dysphoria, trans issues, and relations between the sexes. For those on the political left (like Soh) these are arenas of public discourse where only the bravest dare to stray from progressive orthodoxy. Soh is one of these brave people.

At the time, I suspected that the many outraged column inches aimed at Soh by student activists were written without much scrutiny of her work. Not wanting to emulate them, I have taken the time to read Soh’s book, The End of Gender (2020). It is a meticulously researched, if bewildering examination of the most contentious areas of today’s culture wars. Upon reading it, a stark disparity between two Debra Sohs emerged: There was the transphobic bigot I had been told was coming to speak to the Union, and the considered, conscientious scientist who calmly lays out her position in the book.

The End of Gender is constructed as a catalogue of myth busting, with each chapter taking aim at common misconceptions in the realms of sex, gender and sexuality. For example: ‘Myth #1 – Biological Sex is a Spectrum’, ‘Myth #2 – Gender Is a Social Construct’, ‘Myth #6 – No Differences Exist Between Trans Women and Women who were born Women’, ‘Myth #8 – Gender-Neutral Parenting Works’.

With a PhD in psychology and years of research as a sexologist, Soh is extremely well qualified to explore these subjects. Furthermore, any suggestion that her conclusions might be drawn from prejudice are quickly debunked. She writes that ‘equal rights for the transgender community’ is ‘something I fully support’. Growing up in Toronto, most of her male friends were gay, as a result, she proclaims that ‘Nowhere am I more at home than at a gay club’. She describes herself as a political liberal. As an advocate for sex-positivity, she has regularly had to do battle with the prudish wing of the conservative right. The book features interviews with icons of the LGBTQ+ community like Buck Angel. In short, The End of Gender is the work of a former scientist, concerned that her field of sexology is being co-opted by an anti-scientific style of activism. It is not the product of a political reactionary.

The first myths to be tackled are those surrounding sex and gender. Soh makes clear that because humans only produce two gamete types: sperm and eggs, sex is binary. Far from being ‘assigned at birth’, sex can be observed in the womb. Similarly, gender is not socially constructed, nor does it exist on a spectrum, but is a binary determined by ‘prenatal hormone exposure’. This, Soh reminds us, is the overwhelming consensus of the scientists in the relevant fields.

Soh also points to strong evidence demonstrating that sexuality and gender expression are heavily influenced by biological factors. She cites the research of Simon LeVay, which found consistent differences in the size of the hypothalamus between gay men and straight men. Moreover, gender non-conforming activity in childhood (for example, a boy who enjoys playing with dolls) is, she reports, ‘one of the strongest predictors of being gay in adulthood’. It is evidence like this which has allowed researchers to conclude that ‘sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable’. The activists who insist that sexuality is totally fluid, risk undermining the ‘born this way’ progress that movements for gay rights have won in the last half century. Attempting to prove that who you went to bed with was a ‘lifestyle-choice’ used to be a favourite campaign of the conservative right. It is ironic that hard-left activists are now attempting to achieve the very same.

In the section on gender dysphoria, Soh is quick to identify the risks posed to gender non-conforming young people by a culture which supports affirming gender dysphoria above all. She reports a study which states that ‘roughly 75 percent of boys demonstrating childhood gender nonconformity will grow up to be gay or bisexual’. Of those young people who come to believe that they were born in the wrong body, Soh argues that the data is clear: ‘Across all eleven long-term studies ever done on gender dysphoric children, between 60 and 90 percent desist by puberty’. With this data in mind, the danger of unnecessarily medicalising children from too early an age becomes obvious. In addition, there is considerable risk that the gender non-conforming behaviour of children likely to grow up to be gay adults is incorrectly attributed to gender-dysphoria.

Far from progressive, the most militant wing of the trans-activist lobby risks encouraging a new form of conversion therapy, where young gays and lesbians are encouraged to escape struggles with their sexuality by joining the fashionable club of transgenderism. Soh’s conclusion here is devastatingly adroit: ‘The most regressive view is that anyone who enjoys dressing like the opposite sex or who feels as though they are mix of male and female must really be another gender altogether’.

Unlike sexual orientation, no evidence has yet been found that gender dysphoria is biologically innate. Soh cites the work of Lisa Littman, a professor at Brown University, which suggests that for those young people who experience rapid onset gender dysphoria, a friendship with a person already identifying as trans can be a contributing factor. Simply stating findings like these is enough for people like Soh to be labelled transphobes, but she repeatedly emphasises that the last thing she wants is for the science to be used by genuine bigots as the basis for discrimination: ‘What I don’t want is for people to take the information in this book and use it to deny transgender people their rights [and] legal protections’.

However, her wish to ensure that the rights of trans people remain protected stands at odds with the aims of activists who appear determined to erode legal protections for women. For example, in the name of inclusion, the English language is being purged of female gendered nouns. Now, it is not uncommon to see women described as ‘pregnant people’, ‘birthing parents’ or ‘menstruators’ by woke corporations and politicians. Earlier this year, Nancy Pelosi proposed eliminating the word ‘mother’ from the legislative dictionary of the House of Representatives. It is worth asking who really gains from actions like these. If women cannot be referred to as a distinct group, then they cannot be protected in law. And why is it predominantly women, not men, who are having their identity redefined in the name of tolerance? Why should the burden of adaptation fall to just one sex? Again, Soh cuts right to the point: ‘there is nothing wrong with advocating for meaningful and fair opportunities for everyone. They should not come at the cost of prioritising one group over another’.

The latter sections of the book discuss the biological realities which underpin relations between the sexes. Despite what radical feminist theory might tell you, Soh makes it clear that men and women are not the same. One difference is the heightened selectivity of women when it comes to potential partners. This trait is by evolutionary design, and reflects the fact that the act of sex ‘comes with a greater cost to women, due to the possibility of becoming pregnant’. With this in mind, if men want to appear attractive, argues Soh, then they should demonstrate a willingness to invest in a relationship. She encourages men to be the one to make the first move and even (shock horror!) pay for meals in those early dates. Her advice to women is that ‘requiring men to, at minimum, initiate interest will help to weed out those who are just going to waste your time. It also means that he values you’. This advice might be less applicable to casual hook-ups, but if it’s a serious relationship you’re after, Soh recommends ditching everything you’ve heard about men and women being identical, and instead rely on evolutionary hardwiring built on the experience of countless generations.

The outrage that was provoked merely by inviting Soh to speak at Oxford demonstrates that we currently find it extremely difficult to have frank, evidence based conversations about the topics outlined above. This helps no one. Soh’s own experience in the academy has been of clinicians and researchers ‘bullied and intimidated into silence’, leading to therapeutic practice that does not promote the best outcomes for those with conditions like gender-dysphoria. Simultaneously, the ideological homogeneity of the university environment does not encourage academics to voice dissenting opinions. Those at this university who have attempted to paint Soh as an aggressive transphobe should consider whether such tactics are consistent with principles of reasonable debate, or even of respect for the truth.

Soh’s position towards those within the vanguard of ‘woke’ ideology is a humane and rational one. Essentially, people should be able to identify as whatever they like, and should certainly never face discrimination as a result. However, she makes the case that legislators must think very carefully before acceding to demands that the law change in order to accommodate versions of human existence which are not necessarily grounded in scientific fact, especially given the risks of infringing the rights of others.

Soh’s last, and most important point is this: ‘There is activism and there is science. Activist science, no matter how passionate or well intentioned, is not science’. Science is and must remain an apolitical endeavour. If a scientific field is pressured and co-opted by a particular ideology, then no guarantees can be made about the accuracy of its conclusions. It is astonishing to me that the same activists will sing the praises of science on an issue like climate change, but will simultaneously argue that the field of sexology is pure pseudo-science. As Soh states in the closing chapter of The End of Gender, ‘The propensity for science denial will always be there, because the truth about who we are is uncomfortable’. That the truth is often uncomfortable is beyond doubt, but that should never render us unable to face it. 

The End of Gender is published by Simon and Schuster and the cover design pictured is by Jason Gabbert.

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