‘Women don’t have penises’: A philosophy professor responds to a British group’s claim


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Members of a small women’s rights group, Liverpool ReSisters, have declared that “women don’t have penises”. They seem to be very confident of this point, having gone as far as to paste stickers claiming as much onto the genital areas of some of the statues that make up Anthony Gormley’s artwork Another Place on Crosby Beach near Liverpool. It’s an attention-grabbing stunt. But are they right? Well, it depends on what they mean by “women”.

That claim might sound strange. We might think that it’s obvious what “woman” means. And that’s partly because there’s a myth about men and women that has a had a firm grip on our society for a long time. It goes like this:

There are exactly two kinds of people. One kind, men, have a penis, testes, and XY chromosomes, and the other kind, women, have a vulva, uterus, breasts, and XX chromosomes. Everyone is one or the other. Men and women have different character traits that follow naturally from their different bodies, and therefore are suited to different social roles.

Over the last half-century or so, we have learned that hardly anything about this myth is true.

People’s bodies come in all sorts of configurations that don’t match up neatly with this division between male and female, and there’s no straightforward link between a person’s sexed body and their character traits. The system of social organisation based on sex limits people’s choices with no good reason. It ensures that men on the whole have greater power, opportunity and status compared to women.

On top of this, many people have a subjective sense of themselves as men, women, some other gender, or none at all, known as gender identity. Gender identity is not determined by a person’s body type, personality, or social role. Rather, it’s a matter of how someone feels most comfortable navigating our gendered society. Trans people are people whose gender identity is different from the way they were categorised as male or female at birth based on their body.

Unpicking the myth

The myth that men and women have different characters and are suited to different social roles makes it seem like there is one thing going on here – biological sex – which has all sorts of natural implications. Some feminists have suggested that it’s better to think instead that there are two things going on: biological sex, and also gender, which can be thought of as the social upshots of having a biological sex in a society that’s in the grip of the myth I just described.

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