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Sex and Gender

At least Boris Johnson knows the difference between men and women

The Prime Minister has spotted an advantage and he has grabbed it

As a paid-up member of the Labour party, it’s rare that I agree wholeheartedly with a Conservative politician. But Boris Johnson has spoken some much-needed common sense in the gender debate. ‘When it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman,’ the PM told MPs yesterday, ‘the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important.’

Prime Minister’s Questions, 23 March 2022

Boris is right: biology does matter. I’d actually go further and say that the basic facts of biology are all that matters. Like other sexually dimorphic species we are male or female, and that alone distinguishes men from women.

We all know this but – in an astonishing departure from reality – these basic truths are denied by people who should know better, supposedly in an attempt to be kind to trans people like me. We are told that sex is no barrier to womanhood. This fallacy has taken root across politics, but it has flourished on the opposition benches. Only two weeks ago, Keir Starmer insisted that ‘a woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women.’

The trouble for Labour, however, is that it’s just not true. Women are female while transwomen are male. Female and male are different, so transwomen are not women. The logic is inescapable, but that has not stopped my own party’s MPs becoming lost in a muddle of their own making.

Johnson’s announcement came from the despatch box at PMQs in response to a question from Angela Richardson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic. Whether the question was planted or not, the PM knew exactly what he wanted to say. He immediately agreed to meet with Richardson – the Tory MP for Guildford – and then clarified ‘that when people want to make a transition in their lives, they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect.’

Few people would disagree with that: the UK is a tolerant and welcoming society, and trans people enjoy the same opportunities as anyone else. Yet too many in the Labour party cannot see this. The party has been captured by gender identity ideology – an idealist philosophy that insists that feelings must take priority over material reality. In their cloud cuckoo land, if someone claims to be a woman then they are a woman. It is nonsense, of course, but it takes a brave Labour MP to stand against it.

While it is tempting to dismiss this debate as peripheral and irrelevant, the consequences of gender identity ideology are real. They matter. And it seems that Johnson realises that voters may also realise what is really going on here.

For a start, women’s rights are a lot harder to defend if we cannot even define the word woman. The impact on children – the context of Richardson’s question – has become even more profound. Young people have effectively been told they can choose whether to grow up to be men or women, without sufficient care about the impact on their mental health when that promise turned out to be hollow.

At the same time, trans people have also been let down dreadfully. While the Self-ID debate has become febrile, mental health support remains woefully inadequate. The prospect of changing a sex marker on a birth certificate in the back of a filing cabinet is small consolation for those trans people in need of help, but who are instead consigned to an interminable wait lists for specialist support.

Two years out from the next general election, the PM has taken a very clear position. Will Labour do the same? It is not good enough for Keir Starmer to babble on about it being ‘not right’ to claim that only women have a cervix. Voters on the doorstep are unlikely to be impressed by that nonsense, nor Angela Rayner’s dismissive claim that ‘Women’s rights are not in conflict with trans rights’. There is a conflict and it has ceased to be a niche issue on the margins of social media.

The Prime Minister has spotted an advantage and he has grabbed it. As he gave his biology lesson, he turned his eyes away from Richardson and looked at the party opposite. He knows – we all know – that unless Labour changes its position, their spokesmen and spokeswomen – assuming they know the difference – are going to look ridiculous every time they are posed a simple question: what is a woman?


Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 24 March 2022: At least Boris Johnson knows the difference between men and women.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

9 replies on “At least Boris Johnson knows the difference between men and women”

As usual, Debbie’s writing is the essence of clarity. Here in the U.S. we have a liberal president, and like the liberal president before him, he gives lip-service to the idea that a trans woman is a real woman. My own congressman is gay, and has introduced a bill in congress that would make it the law of the land that trans women are women. I have nothing against trans women (beyond the pretense that they are pushing), but trans women and trans men must find acceptance in society as what they are (trans), not what they wish to be (real men and women). The position of liberals seems to be “acceptance of minorities is so important that it overrides facts”. But an intelligent society is never based on pretenses.

It has been pointed out to me that not all trans men and women consider themselves to be real men and women, but the pretenses have drifted down into enough trans people’s minds that it is taking hold. Not long ago, an advice columnist in the Washington Post printed a letter from a trans man (just out of childhood, not even 21 years old) bemoaning the fact that his/her parents and adult friends wouldn’t refer to him as a man. This letter-writer then proudly proclaimed, “I am a man!” I left a comment on that column telling him that, no, he was not an actual man, but that people would eventually accept him as a man if he could give a convincing impression of being a man. My comment was deleted within a day by a Washington Post moderator, the reason being that they consider it cruel to speak the truth to trans people.

My preferred definition of “woman” is: A person with a female reproductive system, whether it works or not. This definition is inclusive of girls who have not started to menstruate, and of women who in menopause or have had a hysterectomy or some other health problem.

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I agree with your sentiment, Caleb, but I’m not sure a woman who has had a hyserectomy can be said to have a famale reproductive system. Like if I had my balls cut off, I’d not have a male reproductive system. The former is still a woman, and I’d still be a man.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what the definition of either is, and I think that’s part of the problem. That argument seems to go round and round and never get anywhere. Reproductive system? Chromosomes? Assessment by a doctor at birth?

I’ve been reading this blog for over a year and I still don’t know. Debbie, what’s the definition of a woman, please?

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The female reproductive system consists of both internal and external features. Externally, there is the vagina and it’s various components, and breasts, plus a wider pelvis. Things can happen to breasts and vaginas and uteri and ovaries and fallopian tubes and pelvises, but it’s unlikely that they all go kaput. I could be wrong, of course 🙂

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Well written. Thank you. Most like me are only just noticing whats going on because even now, many arent going out, esp with cases of Covid on the rise. Its like men in womens spaces suddenly happened while we were recovering from family deaths, covid and long covid. My mum still isnt going out 3 times a week as she used to. So, as Covid becomes a thing of the past, more people will venture out, notice the ladies toilets have gone, go back home quickly, not go there again or give them custom. Maybe this has been happened. As this gov acknowledge distress to women losing their long fought for basic rights, now reinforcing the law that when equality said same sex facilities for women men, it meant single biological sex. No law over time has bothered with word biological cos not even Orwell foresaw people would question what a woman was! Having people think of gender not sex is what clouded this. Women & their men folk will boycott places that seem to not welcome 99+% of women, seeming to be for the 0.008% of  population who trans people. (No self ID here legally so i count grc people only). 

Maybe this has happened, the decline of the highstreet coincides with womens facilities being removed by stealth, against building regs etc. Women like me stopped going out.

Ive voted labour all my life until recent years when they dont seem to stand for normal working class people anymore.  But re covid i considered labour because i thought Boris should have closed the borders like other countries who had virtually no cases but vaccine rollout was amazing,  if in eu would have been many months later.

What Boris has said in recent days like no to self ID and males females of course are different. Excellent. Its a vote winner for millions like me. Boris said was basic common sense, what everyone knows to be true, just that now we are all noticing an air of fear. People are scared to speak the truth. It reminds me of Germany 1930s and i can see women are the targets. especially once people catch on how violent and cruel extremists are to any who speak out. If these things continue i fear for both women and transwomen.

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Caleb, you said, “So we modify the definition a bit: A woman is a person with a female reproductive system, whether it works or not or has been altered for any reason.”

I don’t mean to be pedantic, and of course you can define a woman as you see fit, but I think the issue is more complicated, and the fact that you “modify the definition” to contend with different circumstances shows that.

It isn’t a problem relating just to men and women. In the final analysis, all definitions are arbitrary, depending on collections of examples and descriptions (the former rarely being exhaustive and the latter being only words, which have the same problem of definition). We might disagree about whether a piece of furniture is a “chair” or a “bed” and argue about our definitions, for example, when we’re looking at a chaise longue.

I’m grateful for your definition, because it brought the issue up for me again. I am particularly interested in what definition Debbie uses, because this is his blog (or hers – pronouns are just pronouns). I doubt there can be an absolute definition, even in biology, which is rife with complex collections of attributes that biologists have to arbitrate upon – even a “species” isn’t what most lay people think, and has all manner of problems of definition.

I think it’s important, after many posts asserting the “simple facts” of maleness and femaleness that the definitions being referred to are spelled out, and openness shown to discuss the relevance and clarity of those classes of person. Resisting post-modern uber-woke idiocy is fine, but we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction, after decades of progress away from extremely damaging sexual absolutism.

It is particularly important after several assertions that a gender assignment should not change “the sex ascribed at birth” or “the sex on one’s passport”, since these might be – and I assume sometimes are – made mistakenly, where sexual characteristics are not clear, or at odds with the person’s genetic sex. The latter, as far as I’m aware, is considered the medical definition, which is whether the person has an XX (female) or XY (male) set of chromosomes. Their phenotype – INCLUDING INTERNAL PARTS of the reproductive system – may be opposite to the genetic sex, have characteristics typical of both sexes, or be physically intermediate.

Whichever definnition we choose, there are dangers that we discriminate against some group or other, and there will continue to be arguments about which definitions ought to apply. I gather from what Debbie has said that (s)he is acutely aware of complexities in the subject; I just think they need airing more. It will be easy for readers to form the opinion that (s)he is against gender reassignment under any circumstances, which I don’t think is the case. Does having a working, non-working or modified reproductive system make the difference between helpful and unhelpful gender reassignment? Does “gender dysphoria”? How sad would I have to be about my sex to have gender dysphoria? Can I get over it with some good talking therapy? Can we get to a place where sex is just a fact regarding our chromosomes, but we can live as we want to live? No, not if we want to live as a woman and women don’t want us in the bathroom. Life is messy.

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Lettersquash, I’m not having the problems that you are having. I think that things are more cut-and-dried than you make them out to be. Assuming that a person’s body is not “intersex”, meaning that it isn’t ambiguous by having elements of both sexes, then we should be able to identify who is a man and who is a woman from the major sexual components, like, does the body produce eggs or sperm, what are the chromosomes, etc. The point is, I’m not talking about abnormal bodies. So I stand by my definition: A woman is a person with a female reproductive system, whether it is working or not (due to age or disease). I’m just not as conflicted as you are, and I suspect that Debbie is not particularly conflicted either. Her articles are never ambiguous.

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“Conflicted”? – hmm. That’s not what I am, and it strikes me as a rather dismissive and condescending attempt to close down discussion. “Interested” or “considerate” might be better.

‘Assuming that a person’s body is not “intersex”, meaning that it isn’t ambiguous by having elements of both sexes, then we should be able to identify who is a man and who is a woman from the major sexual components, like, does the body produce eggs or sperm, what are the chromosomes, etc.’

Yes, assuming you just consider a subset of human beings and a wider set of sexual indicators, you should be able to identify their sex! The easy cases are easy. Some of us bother to think a bit more.

“The point is, I’m not talking about abnormal bodies.”

Perhaps you would be more “conflicted” if you actually knew anyone who is intersex, or worked in a relevant medical profession where you’re discouraged from going around talking about people being “abnormal”.

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