Rebecca Lowe: CNN’s “individuals with a cervix” Tweet, and why denying the realities of biological sex is so harmful

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical.

I’m going to assume you saw three things on Twitter this weekend. But don’t worry, I’ll go through them briefly, now, and I’ll explain my annoying Twitter-centricity, below.

The first of these things was a tweet by CNN, saying: “Individuals with a cervix are now recommended to start cervical cancers screening at 25 and continue through age 65”. The second thing was a range of people replying to CNN’s tweet with variations on the theme of, “Cervix-havers?! You mean women!”. And the third thing was a less wide-ranging set of people responding to these “Women!” tweets, with claims that the people who wrote them were transphobic.

Now, to anyone who doesn’t follow this stuff, it must sound a bit “inside baseball”. And, yes, I know there’ll be comments below this column telling me: “The world is bigger than Twitter!”, and “Get a life!”. But the point is that this kind of exchange – “Women!”, followed by “Transphobe!” – is becoming common. And so is the thing that instigated it. Organisations like CNN know full well what they’re doing when they say things like “individuals with cervixes”.

Indeed, in our fortnightly Radical column, we’ve written many times about the powerful lobby pushing the agenda that leads to wording like CNN’s. As we’ve documented, this lobby has captured our institutions – local authorities, schools, medical providers, police forces, and so on. And commercial organisations have proven keen to extract financial gain from what’s become a raging culture war. (I don’t use terms like “culture war” lightly, but it’s hard not to see all this in that way.)

Now, one obvious response to this weekend’s problem – as various sensible-seeming people have pointed out – is that organisations like CNN could simply refer to “women and other cervix-havers”. Or, “women and transmen”. Because that’s where the crux of the matter lies. The main reason that accusations of “Transphobe!” are levelled at the people who shout “Women!”, is that the accusers believe – counter to scientific acceptance – that not all cervix-havers are women.*

This is not, generally, however, because those who shout “Transphobe!” believe that someone born a man can have a cervix. Rather, it’s because they believe that being a “man” or “woman” is not determined by biology, but rather by the way in which someone “identifies”.

So, they shout “Transphobe!” largely because there are some natal women who identify as men, but who haven’t had their reproductive systems removed to meet their desire to present themselves as men. And these transmen, the “Transphobe!” shouters believe, are not covered by the term “women”, because -regardless of their extant cervix, or any biological fact – they are now “men”.

Nonetheless, I imagine many of the people who shout “Transphobe!” wouldn’t like the solution on which CNN write “women and transmen”. And this is, surely, because such a phrase would work to emphasise an essential difference between people who are natal members of a sex set, and those who identify into it.

And what the “Transphobe!” people want is to elide these two things. In other words, if “transwomen are women”, and “transmen are men” -as their mantras go – then, the phrase “women and transmen” is problematic, because the “full” reduction of this would, of course, be “women and men”.

Now, the solution on which CNN write “women and transmen” would, also – I believe – not go down too well with many of the people who shout “Women!”. (I should confirm at this point that I am one of those people, albeit one who prefers calm, reasoned argument to shouting, wherever possible.)

And this is because the people who shout “Women!” see the CNN tweet as a particular kind of intentional political act – a sexist one. This kind of tweet, in other words, serves purposefully to help to write women out of the picture, in an insidious way.

So, we appear to have reached stalemate: people shouting across each other on the internet, with no hope for mid-ground pragmatic solutions. Or, do we?

Well, aside from my concerns about what all this means for women – and, particularly, girls, as I’ve set out here, before – I’m also worried by the lack of concern for transpeople that is shown by those who shout “Transphobe!”, whenever anyone refers to the realities of biological sex. I wonder whether, potentially, this worry could help us – or, at least, those of us entering these discussions from a shared position of good will – to find a point of agreement.

The point here, surely, is that shouting “Transphobe!” in response to “Women!” cannot really be in transpeople’s interests. This is not only because unfair accusations of prejudice help nobody: they dilute focus on real instances of prejudice, and also make people scared to enter into necessary discussion. But it is also because transpeople’s needs cannot be fully met if, as a society, we pretend there is no such thing as biological sex.

Rather, if we recognise, as we must, that transpeople have some particular needs that differ from the needs of the natal members of the biological sex with which those transpeople identify, then it cannot be that “transwomen are women” – if “women” is to mean what it needs to mean.

These needs include some transwomen’s need for testicular cancer treatment and some transmen’s need for cervical smears. On top of this, specific trans needs also include support against trans-specific prejudice, which differs from misogyny and misandry, from which many transpeople also suffer.

Now, meeting all of these particular needs requires widespread and formal awareness of the realities of biological sex – and that requires words, so we can discuss these things. Using the words “woman” and “man” for these purposes is simply reflective of the development of the English language.

Yes, we could begin to use other words for these purposes. Instead of “woman”, for instance, we could use “female-person”, or “womxn”, or “shwoman”, or “abc”. But we would come to the same place, and that is a place in which this particular word would refer to what it is to be a natal member of one particular biological sex.

Using “woman” to mean a natal member of one particular biological sex is, therefore, exclusionary. But it is not exclusionary for hateful reasons; it is not a value judgement. It is a functional term, and it is required for the meeting of sex-specific needs.

These needs go beyond healthcare. They also relate to sex-specific concerns around bodily privacy and security, as recognised in the Equality Act. They relate to matters of fairness, too. And if we have no relevant words, then – as with healthcare concerns – people will miss out on what they need.

In other words, if you deny the realities of biological sex, in order to be kind – and I am certain that the majority of the people who are committed to the mantra “transwomen are women” are committed to it because they think that it is kind, and good – then you will end up harming those people you seek to protect.


*Of course, to state that “all cervix-havers are women” is not the same as to state that “all women have cervixes” (women who’ve had total hysterectomies, for instance).

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