The press release that accompanies Prof Kathleen Stock’s new book says she wants to see a future in which trans rights activists and gender-critical feminists collaborate to achieve some of their political aims. But she concedes that this currently seems fanciful. As far as she is concerned, the book, Material Girls, sets out her stall – and she knows a lot of people will find it distasteful.
Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, says the key question she addresses – itself offensive to many – is this: do trans women count as women?
Whatever else about her views is controversial, she is surely on firm ground when she writes that this question has become surrounded by toxicity. But the problem for her is, at least partly, that many people do anything they can to avoid answering it. “Very few people who are sceptical talk about it directly, because they’re frightened,” she says. “It’s so hard psychologically to say, in reply: ‘I’m afraid not.’”
Stock is at pains to say she is not a transphobe, and also that she is sympathetic to the idea that many people feel they are not in the “right” body. What she says she opposes, though, is the institutionalisation of the idea that gender identity is all that matters – that how you identify automatically confers all the entitlements of that sex. And she believes that increasingly in universities and the wider world, that is a view that cannot be challenged.
“There’s a taboo against saying this, but it’s what I believe,” she says. “It’s fair enough if people want to disagree with me, but this is what I think.”
That last statement is loaded, too, because the gender identity row is closely linked, especially on university campuses, with freedom of speech. Campuses are a minefield for those wanting to discuss these issues, she says, and she has faced calls for her university to sack her. So she is supportive of the government’s controversial plans for a free speech bill, which critics including English PEN, Article 19 and Index on Censorship have argued will have the opposite effect.
I’ve struggled with my body in terms of femininity. I could easily aged 15 have decided I was non-binary or even a boy
In a joint letter, they argued that the legislation “may have the inverse effect of further limiting what is deemed ‘acceptable’ speech on campus and introducing a chilling effect both on the content of what is taught and the scope of academic research exploration”.
But Stock backs the bill: “I think vice-chancellors and university management groups have shown that they can’t manage the modern problems around suppression of academic freedom. I think there are some genuine instances of unfair treatment of controversial academics, and those academics should be able to seek meaningful redress.”
This week the University of Essex apologised to two professors, Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman, after an independent inquiry found the university had breached its free speech duties when their invitations or talks were cancelled after student complaints.
Stock grew up in Montrose, Scotland, the daughter of a philosophy lecturer and a newspaper proofreader, and studied for her degree at Exeter College, Oxford, going on to do an MA at the University of St Andrews and a PhD at Leeds.
Having come out as gay relatively late in life, she now lives in Sussex with her partner and two sons from her previous marriage. She regards her OBE, awarded earlier this year for services to higher education, as a signal that her views have at least some backing in the establishment.
“Academics being online, students being online – it’s introduced a whole new landscape for dealing with controversial ideas, especially when those ideas are controversial within your peer group or a student body. Threats to academic freedom don’t just come from China, or millionaires trying to buy a library wing for your college; they also come from students whipping up a petition within seconds of you saying something and trying to get you fired.”
Sometimes, she claims, it is more insidious than sackings: “For academics [the gender identity debate] has a chilling effect, because academics believe their careers may suffer in ways that are less visible: they don’t get promoted, or they’re removed from an editorial board.” The net result of all this, she says, is an impoverishment of ideas and knowledge, and damage to the dissemination of information.
Because another of Stock’s key arguments in her book is that her own profession, academia, has failed to look in detail at some claims made by trans activists. She questions some of the data that gets shared regarding violence against trans people, saying that a lot of it is produced by groups that adhere to a particular narrative.
“I don’t doubt that transphobic crime occurs, but I want to know to what extent it occurs in a way that could help the trans community better understand the problem it faces.” She’s disappointed, she says, in some fellow academics for not rising above the fray. “I thought the point of philosophy was that you would be able to argue things without resorting to ad hominem attacks – I thought that was the point of our training.”
How, then, in her view, have we got to where we are? Stock takes issue with Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ charity, which campaigns for trans inclusion and opposes the views of gender-critical feminists. The charity’s Diversity Champions programme is very popular on campuses, and Stock believes this has in part “turned universities into trans activist organisations” through their equality, diversity and inclusion departments.
Beyond this, the introduction of student fees has played its part in the current situation, Stock believes. “As soon as students started to pay, they became customers, and universities became much more deferential. They started talking about coproduction of knowledge, giving them much more choice over the whole experience.” The problem with that, she believes, is that “some young people come along with fixed ideas about gender identity theory, and it’s awkward – especially when universities are branding themselves as LGBT-friendly and queer-friendly.”
Philosophy is a vast space, most of it without risk of abuse. So what keeps her in this particular arena? “I was bullied as a child and I think that gave me experience of social ostracisation and toughened me up,” she says. “I’ve also got amazing support. Sure, some philosophers and colleagues are against my views, but others are very supportive.
“Plus it’s personal for me: I’ve struggled with my body in terms of femininity. I could easily aged 15 have decided I was non-binary or even a boy. And I feel very worried for teenagers who are now foreclosing reproductive possibilities and their future, or damaging their bodily tissues in irreversible ways, based on an idea that they may come to relinquish at a later date.”
One tragedy of the gender identity debate is how hate-filled and polarised it has become. Stock says she has suffered online abuse, but makes it clear that she is going to continue to state her case.