By Preston Sprinkle, President of the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender
It just so happened that Deborah Soh’s book, The End of Gender, came out just a weeks after Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage (which I recently reviewed), and that both Deborah and Abigail appeared on nearly back to back episodes of Joe Rogan’s podcast. Deborah and Abigail only recently met each other and swim in different circles, yet their books overlap quite a bit in perspective and content.
Unlike Abigail, who’s a journalist that writes for moderate-conservative news outlets, Dr. Deborah Soh is a liberal neuroscientist specializing in brain chemistry during kinky sex and used to write for Playboy. This makes it all the more interesting that there’s a lot of overlap between their two books.
I’ve been following Dr. Soh’s work for some time now. I’ve followed her podcast, listened to her interviews, and read several of her articles. (No, not the ones in Playboy. She does write for other outlets.) Dr. Soh has always intrigued me because she checks off virtually every liberal box when it comes to social morality. Pro-choice, pro-kink, pro-gay marriage, pro-have-sex-with-whomever-you-want-and-however-you-want as long as it’s consensual. Concerning trans* issues, Dr. Soh supports transitioning for adults if it makes them happy, and she supports trans* people participating in the sport, and using the public bathroom, of the sex (or she would say “gender”) they identify with. And yet, like Abigail Shrier, Dr. Soh is critical of several ideas being promoted among trans* activists and has been labeled a homophobe, transphobe, and Nazi.
One thing I love about Dr. Soh is that she tries to be very fact-based in her research, even if the facts lead her to politically incorrect conclusions. Despite being socially liberal, if the facts in a certain area of research support a conclusion that happens to be held by conservatives, then she’ll go with the facts. This is why I was excited to read her book The End of Gender.
The book addresses 9 different “myths,” as she calls them, in the gender conversation; one chapter for each myth. The first myth she seeks to debunk is Biological Sex Is a Spectrum. She believes this is a myth. Sex is binary, articles Soh—male and female are the only two categories. “There are only two types of gametes: small ones called sperm that are produced by males, and large ones called eggs that are produced by females. There are no intermediate types of gametes between egg and sperm cells. Sex is therefore binary. It is not a spectrum” (pg. 17). And she’s right, of course. Mammals, including humans, are sexually dimorphic. There are males and there are females. Some people are born with a disorder/difference of sex development, which leads to some atypical feature in their sexual anatomy and/or sex chromosomes (intersex). But most intersex persons are still either male or female. A small percentage might exhibit a blend of male and female sexual features, but this does not nullify the binary—male and female are still the binary categories, even if some people have one foot in each side of the binary.
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Other myths that Dr. Soh debunks are: Gender is a Social Construct (ch. 2), There Are More than Two Genders (ch. 3), Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Are Unrelated (ch. 4), Children with Gender Dysphoria Should Transition (ch. 5), No Difference Exist Between Trans Women and Women Who Were Born Women (ch. 6), and several others you can find by looking at the Table of Contents. One of my favorite myth-busting chapters is chapter 8, which debunks the myth: Gender-Neutral Parenting Works. Dr. Soh doesn’t come at this issue from a religious perspective (she’s not) or a politically conservative perspective (she’s definitely not), but a simple scientific one. Gender-neutral parenting is a denial of some basic biological facts, says Dr. Soh. “The idea that masculinity and femininity are learned is one of those myths that just won’t go way” (pg. 251). I think she’s almost correct, but as I argue elsewhere I think this perspective needs more nuance. She also has a whole chapter on sex, dating, and relationships, where she corrects the myth that Women Should Behave Like Men in Sex and Dating (ch. 7) and an interesting chapter addressing the problem of ideology in the field of scientific research: Sexology and Social Justice Make Good Bedfellows (ch. 9).
The book is well written and surprisingly accessible. Though written by a neuroscientist who’s dealing with some pretty heady topics, Dr. Soh’s prose is fluid and conversational. She’s even punchy in places and isn’t afraid to be provocative. I mean, she dedicates the book: “For everyone who blocked me on Twitter.” Dr. Soh isn’t afraid to say something unpopular, if scientific data supports it; I think she even enjoys it. I also think that she justifies many of her conclusions by backing them up with data and a fair analysis of the available research. I do personally resonate with many of her overarching points.
However, I did have several problems with the book. Let me start with her use of the term “gender.” She defines gender very clearly right out of the gate:
[G]ender identity is how we feel in relation to our sex, regarding whether we feel masculine or feminine. Gender expression is the external manifestation of our gender identity, or how we express our gender through our appearance, like clothing and hairstyle choices and mannerisms. (pg. 17)
This is an acceptable way to describe gender identity and expression, though most define it as: “one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both, or neither.” Dr. Soh’s use of the term “feel” could seem a bit weak, like I feel cold, I feel sad, I feel like eating ice cream, whereas gender identity captures something a bit more psychologically significant. In any case, her definitions are close enough.
My main critique is not with her definitions, but with her frequent abandoning of her own definition when she later uses the term “gender.” For instance, right after she defines gender, she goes on to say: “gender—both with regard to identity and expression—is biological. It is not a social construct” (pg. 17). But her own definition above suggests that gender is, at least partially, socially constructed and not purely biological. Go back and read her definitions above, and then think about it. Even if gender expression or identity is rooted in biology, we’d still have to admit that society plays a significant role in determining, one might even say constructing, what is masculine and what is feminine. For example, if someone expresses themselves by wearing pink clothing, this “gender expression” would be considered feminine. But wearing pink isn’t purely, 100% biological (whatever that even means). It’s not like some pink gene gets switched on by high surges of estrogen. The very idea that pink is feminine is determine by culture.
Now, she’ll later explain what she means by “gender is biological.” She basically argues that one’s prenatal exposure to testosterone is what determines whether a person expresses themselves in culturally-shaped masculine or feminine ways. This is highly disputed, but even if we go with this essentialist perspective, the expression of gender itself (which is what “gender expression” is) is informed and shaped by culturally constructed categories—according to her own definition.
Gender identity might be quite a bit more biological, though I think even here it’s impossible to untangle nature from nurture. One’s perception of themselves as male or female or both or neither (gender identity) seems to be shaped, at least in part, with the societal norms and expectations of what it means to be a male or female. Dr. Soh herself nearly says this when she defines gender identity as “how we feel in relation to our sex, regarding whether we feel masculine or feminine.” The very categories of masculinity and femininity are shaped, in part, by culture. They are at the very least partially culturally constructed. I find it hard, then, to accept Soh’s black and white statement that “gender is not a cultural construct.”
But that’s only the beginning of the problems I have with her use of gender. Throughout the book, she doesn’t honor her original definitions of gender.
I’ve made it a habit when reading books on gender to take a person’s definition of gender and then mentally say this definition aloud whenever I later see the word gender. Oftentimes, this results in loads of inconsistencies, contradictions, redundancy, and sometimes quite humorous declarations. Here’s an innocent example:
“…activists and allies have committed to promoting the narrative that all transgender people across the board feel the way they do because they possess an internal sense of gender that is in conflict with their anatomic sex…” (pg. 128).
Using Soh’s own definition of gender, this means:
“…an internal sense of how we feel in relation to our sex that is in conflict with their anatomic sex…” (pg. 128).
Not totally inaccurate, I guess. But what is “an internal sense of how we feel?” At the very least it’s redundant. Soh basically says an internal sense of one’s internal sense. Here’s another one:
“Can a child as young as three years old know their gender?”
She basically says “no,” because she now seems to be working with a somewhat different understanding of the term gender. But if we go back to her original definition, then she actually says:
“Can a child as young as three years old know how they feel in relation to their sex, regarding whether they feel masculine or feminine?”
Well, of course they can know their feelings. I think Soh argues against this, not because she believes children can’t know their feelings, but because her use of the term “gender” has taken on an ontological life of its own once she’s done defining it. This next one made me chuckle:
“…transitioning doesn’t change a person’s sex; it only changes their gender.”
Let’s assume she means gender identity here:
“…transitioning doesn’t change a person’s sex; it only changes how they feel in relation to their sex, regarding whether they feel masculine or feminine.”
I’m pretty sure this is precisely not what she wanted to say. There’s not a single trans* person on earth who seeks transitioning in order to change their gender identity. Transitioning doesn’t change one’s gender identity, but seeks to align their body with their gender identity.
These are minor quibbles, of course, but her inconsistent use of “gender” becomes more pronounced when she argues persistently that there are only two genders (all of chapter 3 and throughout the book).
This makes no sense, regardless of whether she means gender identity or gender expression. For, for instance,she writes:
“There are only two genders” (pg. 67).
Let’s plug in her own definition of gender expression:
“There are only two external manifestations of our gender identity, or how we express our gender through our appearance, like clothing and hairstyle choices and mannerisms.” (pg. 67).
Two choices. That’s all we get. Clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms—there are only two different manifestations. Really? Clearly, gender expression exists on a spectrum; there are not only two binary ways to express yourself.
But even if Dr. Soh was referring to gender identity and not expression, her statement is still bizzare:
“There are only two feelings in relation to our sex, regarding whether we feel masculine or feminine.”
This makes no sense. There are only two different feelings in relation to our sex? Ask 100 people how they feel about their biological sex, and you’ll get a spectrum of responses. Even if ½ of them experience gender dysphoria, you’d still get a range of responses and not one of two, since there are various ways in which gender dysphoria is experienced and manifested.
Confusing and inconsistent uses of the term gender occurs throughout Soh’s book. This is very common in books on “gender.” They define it upfront, as Dr. Soh did, but then it’s as if “gender” begins to grow and morph and take on some kind of ontological life of its own, so that the writer ends up talking about gender as some independent anthropological category that can stand on its own two feet alongside, and sometimes in the place of, biological sex. It’s no longer an internal sense of who you are in relation to your sex—but actually who you are instead of your sex. But Dr. Soh made a big deal of defining her terms correctly upfront and making sure we understand the difference between sex and gender. I didn’t expect her to slide back into the same quicksand of gender rhetoric.
I had problems with several other things in Dr. Soh’s book, but for the sake of space, I’ll mention only a few.
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In chapter 4, she says that “being gay was not a choice, but innate, a finding that has been stable since the 1970’s” (pg. 110) and later she says that being gay is biological not a choice. Surely, being gay—same-sex attracted—is not a choice. But it’s a false dichotomy to therefore say it’s biological and innate. Same-sex attraction could very well be both not a choice and yet not purely innate and biological. Our environment, social context, and upbringing can play some role in nurturing one’s attraction to the same sex. Learning a language, for instance, is not a choice. I didn’t wake up one day and choose English as my mother tongue. But I wasn’t genetically hardwired to speak English either. If I said, “I didn’t choose to speak English; therefore, it must be biological—you’d rightly call this a false dichotomy. The same goes for Soh’s summary of same-sex attraction. Being gay, as most scientists say, is caused by a complex blend of nature and nurture.
Soh later frames gender identity along the same binary options: it’s either “hardwired or a choice,” and then she goes on to argue that it’s hardwired (because of prenatal hormone exposure). But these aren’t the only two options. Nurture, or one’s environment, can play a role—sometimes a strong one in shaping or nurturing one’s gender identity. This doesn’t mean gender identity is any less real or important. (My ability to speak a language is pretty important.) It just means that scientifically and factually, both nurture and nature often play a role here.
In fact, Dr. Soh argues for this very thing, that gender identity (according to her own definition) is at least partially shaped or influenced by society. In chapter 5 when she discusses Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, she argues that the sudden rise in female teens identifying as transgender (i.e. gender identity) is due to “social contagion” (pgs. 165-175). If society plays some role, even a small role, in shaping one’s gender identity, then it can’t be purely biological, as she argues throughout the other parts of her book.
Though not intrinsically related to gender, I think Soh radically misunderstands the concept of “sexual fluidity.” Soh says that “‘sexual fluidity’ claims that anyone can be gay, and that human sexuality is in actuality free-floating and whatever you want it to be” (pg. 101). But this is a terrible misrepresentation of what sexual fluidity means. Sexual fluidity has to do with some level of change in sexual desire within a general orientation, and it doesn’t happen simply as a “choice” but through (often unexpected) circumstances and different social contexts. And the concept of sexual fluidity doesn’t suggest that “anyone can be gay.” Dr. Lisa Diamond, who’s a leading expert in sexual fluidity research, would never describe sexual fluidity the way Soh does, and nor would others who have researched this area of sexuality.
I also think that Soh misrepresents the research on brain-sex theory. Now, Soh has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, so I hesitate even bringing this up. This is her wheelhouse, not mine, which is why I was quite shocked at her research here. On the whole, Soh believes that there are sex differences in the brain, that “with puberty comes a surge of hormones that promotes sexual dimorphism in the brain” (pg. 116) and that the “brain structure of transgender individuals appears to be shifted in the direction of the sex they identify as” (pg. 116). This is certainly one theory, and there are some studies that seem to support this theory, but Soh cites it as fact. Since she often mentions that she’s a scientist just giving us the facts, it’s easy for reader to assume that Soh here is simply following the research.
But actually, the science is quite mixed on the so-called “brain-sex theory.” Soh does cite a few studies that support her argument, but she fails to mention all the ones that don’t. Sure, some studies showed similarities between the brains of trans* people and the average brains of the sex they identify with (for example, transwomen’s brains looked more like average female brains than like average male brains).[i] Other studies, however, showed the opposite: the brains of trans* people were more similar to those of people who shared their biological sex rather than people who shared their gender identity.[ii] Still other studies found that certain features of trans* people’s brains are somewhere in between what is typical for males and females.[iii] But Soh doesn’t mention this complexity. She doesn’t even mention Rebecca Jordan-Young’s massive survey of research, which is very critical of the theory of sex differences in the brain (Brainstorm) or Cordelia Fine’s scathing critique (Delusions of Gender). Even one of the main studies that Soh cites in support of sex differences in the brain goes on to say:
Overall, for every brain region that showed even large sex differences, there was always overlap between males and females, confirming that the human brain cannot—at least for the measures observed here—be described as “sexually dimorphic.”[iv]
And that’s from a major study that supports some level of sex differences in the brain. If there are sex differences, they exist on a general level not a categorical one. The brain is not “sexually dimorphic” as Soh argues, even according to the studies she cites to support this view. “The notion of a male brain and female brain fits well the popular view of men from Mars, women from Venus,” quips neuroscientist Daphna Joel, but “it does not fit scientific data.”[v]
I dive a lot deeper into the brain-sex theory in chapter 8 of my book Embodied. My point here is not to argue for or against Soh’s position, but simply to point out that the scientific data is much, much more complicated than Soh makes it out to be. You can’t just cite a few studies that back your point, ignore all those that don’t, and then claim to be simply following the science.
Despite my critiques of Soh’s book, I do I agree with most of her conclusions and think the book is a worthy read. (I would just argue somewhat differently in several parts.) I could easily write a lengthy review focusing on all the positive things in the book, like her critique of gender stereotypes, her summary of autogynephilia (pp. 123-37) and rapid onset gender dysphoria (pp. 165-175), her critique of the “happy daughter or dead son” advice from medical professionals (pp. 160-165), her summary of gender-neutral parenting (ch. 8), and her concern about ideology taking over scientific research (ch. 9).
I do recommend Soh’s book. It should be read, analyzed, and critiqued, as with any book. It just shouldn’t be your one-stop-shop. You should definitely put it in dialogue with other books that argue differently. And it wouldn’t hurt to actually read some of the studies cited in her book.
[i] For example, F. P. Kruijver et al., “Male-to-Female Transsexuals Have Female Neuron Numbers in a Limbic Nucleus” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 85 (2000), 2034-2041; Dick F. Swaab, “Sexual Differentiation of the Human Brain: Relevance for Gender Identity, Transsexualism, and Sexual Orientation,” Gynecological Endocrinology 19, no. 6 (2004), 301-12; Simon Lajos et al., “Regional Grey Matter Structure Differences between Transsexuals and Healthy Controls—A Voxel Based Morphometry Study,” PLoS One 8, no. 12 (2013), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083947; Elke Stefanie Smith et al., “The Transsexual Brain – A Review of Findings on the Neural Basis of Transsexualism,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 59 (2015), 251-266; B. P. C. Kreukels and A. Guillamon, “Neuroimaging Studies in People with Gender Incongruence,” International Review of Psychiatry 28, no. 1 (2016), 120-28; A. Guillamon, C. Junque, and E. Gómez-Gil, “A Review of the Status of Brain Structure Research in Transsexualism,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 45 (2016), 1615-48.
[ii] Emiliano Santarnecchi et al., “Intrinsic Cerebral Connectivity Analysis in an Untreated Female-to-Male Transsexual Subject: A First Attempt Using Resting-State fMRI,” Neuroendocrinology 96, no. 3 (2012), 188–93; Ivanka Savic and Stefan Arver, “Sex Dimorphism of the Brain in Male-to-Female Transsexuals,” Cerebral Cortex 21, no. 11 (2011): 2525-33.
[iii] G. S. Kranz et al., “White Matter Microstructure in Transsexuals and Controls Investigated by Diffusion Tensor Imaging.” Journal of Neuroscience 34, no. 46 (2014): 15466-75; B. Clemens et al., “Male-to-Female Gender Dysphoria: Gender-specific Differences in Resting-state Networks,” Brain and Behavior 7, no. 5 (2017), e00691, doi: 10.1002/brb3.691. Incidentally, although much has been made of comparisons of the hypothalamus (BSTc), critics have pointed out that this part of the brain doesn’t become sexually dimorphic until adulthood, which means it isn’t able to explain the trans* experience of children; see, for example, W. C. J. Chung, G. J. De Vries, and D. F. Swaab, “Sexual Differentiation of the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis in Humans May Extend into Adulthood,” Journal of Neuroscience 22, no. 3 (2002), 1027-33.
[iv] Ritchie et al., “Sex Differences.” Other studies come to similar conclusions; see D. Marwha, M. Halari, and L. Eliot, “Meta-Analysis Reveals a Lack of Sexual Dimorphism in Human Amygdala Volume,” NeuroImage 147 (2017): 282-94; A. Tan et al., “The Human Hippocampus is Not Sexually-Dimorphic: Meta-Analysis of Structural MRI Volumes,” NeuroImage 124 (2016): 350-66; Daphna Joel et al., “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic,” PNAS 112 (2015): 15468-73. In the words of cognitive neuroscientist Lutz Jäncke, most “sex/gender differences are not large enough to support the assumption of sexual dimorphism in terms of brain anatomy, brain function, cognition, and behavior. Instead, I suggest that many brain and cognitive features are modulated by environment, culture, and practice (and several other influences)” (“Sex/Gender Differences in Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neuroanatomy,” F1000 Research 7 , doi: 10.12688/f1000research.13917.1.)