Biology vs Culture (Sex & Gender) · Language & Terminology · Legal & the Law · Psychology

Is sex (as a category) really necessary?

A recent report has suggested that we ask whether the concept of ‘sex’ as a way to categorise people is really necessary. Pink News‘ headlines for 11 May 2022 are that ‘Abolishing legal sex and gender comes with many, many pros, radical new report finds‘.

The Pink News report tell us that

‘… (UK) law is inconsistent. The Equality Act offers discrimination protections on the basis of sex, which it defines as simply being a man or a woman. But sex-based discrimination can also be on the basis of ‘perceived’ sex (in the same way that discrimination can be based on ‘perceived’ race or sexuality). Trans folk are protected by the Equality Act regardless of whether they have changed their “legal sex” on their birth certificate.

Other laws use sex and gender interchangeably. In short, for all the debate around legal sex, it’s pretty much impossible to define.

The concept of “decertification”, the abolition of legal sex, has been explored by researchers at the Future of Legal Gender project, led by law and political theory research professor Davina Cooper, of The Dickson Poon School of Law and King’s College London.

The research is not, we are told, designed to argue for or against decertification, but to ‘spark questions and debate about how our society is structured.

Who agrees that such ‘decertification’ would resolve these thorny issues?

[Read and discuss more about Nature vs nurture, Single sex spaces and Psychology.]

In an entirely different reading of what ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are about from that of PinkNews, the work of Frans de Waal is worth a look:
Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender (2022, Granta Publications, London)

Here’s the blurb:
Drawing on decades of observing our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal explores what we know of biological sex differences and of the role of culture and socialization.
From maternal and paternal behaviour to sexual orientation, gender identity and the limitations of the gender binary, de Waal analyses our shared evolutionary history with the apes, considering what is similar and what sets us apart. Male and female networking groups, sexual signals, the existence of gender non-conforming individuals and maternal bonds are observed in primate societies, but humans stand apart in the development of nuclear families, the prevalence of sexual violence and joint parental care.
With expert insight and engaging storytelling, de Waal not only sets right gendered biases in the scientific community, and delivers a fresh and thought-provoking understanding of the behavioural norms and the many remarkable potentials of the human species.

Amongst the many considerations in the book is the striking observation that the English language (unlike some others) does not distinguish ‘sex’ (as in ‘having sex’) from ‘sex’ (as in ‘being of a particular sex’); hence the development in recent times of the use of the word ‘gender’…. interesting stuff.

Here’s a review of the book:
Frans de Waal: ‘In other primates, I don’t find the kind of intolerance we have’, by Laura Spinney


It can be difficult to define gender and sex. Certainly some explanations of both would be hard to apply in law or to use in any workable way. I can appreciate that gender is difficult to define, particularly when so many gender identities are introduced but sex is surely very straightforward? It’s whether an individual’s reproductive strategy, all being well, is/was to bear young or produce sperm. To illustrate, would the authors struggle to define a stallion and mare, ewe and ram?

The legal definition of sex changes but that’s because of context and the possibility of legal fiction. The fact that sex is tangible, clear (in 99%+cases) and measurable means retaining it as a category is possible and the data which shows inequality due to sex makes retaining it important. Whereas gender is not tangible, clear or measurable and so it is difficult to use in a legal context. Whether people suffer inequality due specifically to their gender is another issue. I’m not so sure how common this is and where it overlaps with disadvantage due to sex.

To illustrate, consider a hypothesised example of a refuge for Agender people who have faced abuse due to their Agender categorisation. I had to look up what Agender is and still don’t really understand it! So, in the real world, what would discrimination against an Agender person look like? How do people know if someone is Agender in order to abuse them? What would the numbers be to warrant funding for a refuge?

I appreciate this is a made up example to make a point but I do feel this illustrates that the authors are, to an extent, fixing made up problems which don’t really exist. Whereas violence against women is real and deeply sexed. Suggestions of removing the category of sex are deeply problematic.


I’d also quote a leisure centre manager who says that “Staff had been advised not to direct people to specific changing rooms based on what they assumed their sex or gender was. ‘If someone comes in and says: where are the changing rooms? We say we have got a male changing room there, a female changing room there, and an accessible changing room there, and allow them to make that choice.’”.

I can appreciate that this fixes a real problem for non binary and transgender service users who may feel deeply uncomfortable if directed to a changing room which doesn’t match their sense of self. However, it doesn’t recognise that it creates another problem for a different, much larger and equally vulnerable set – women, particularly those traumatised by experience of abuse (1 in 3).

Being expected to share changing facilities with male bodies, without any ability to question this, could be very traumatic and I’d say deeply unfair. The Equality Act lists 9 Protected Characteristics for a reason – all need to be considered and conflicts managed.


It is impossible for trans women to have the same life experiences as women and to group them together for social, political, economic or health purposes is nonsense. To claim equivalence is a fundamental failure to understand the typical female experience – the periods, the responsibility for child-bearing and -rearing, and menopause – the effects these things have on women’s bodies, education, careers, family life etc. Biological females – i.e. girls and women – clearly need to retain their own ‘category’ so their experiences and views are not misunderstood, misrepresented or missed completely.

Arguments about wearing particular clothes or using a women’s bathroom are trivialities (although I recognise their symbolic and safeguarding importance) in comparison to the lifetime of lived experienced as a woman.