Judith Butler’s phantasmagoric vision. Image credit: AI text-to-image generator Midjourney (which refused to reproduce a lifelike J.K. Rowling).

The Phantasmagoric World of Judith Butler

One chapter of Judith Butler’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, is called “TERFs and British matters of sex.” (“TERF” is an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.) The book has not landed well on TERF Island. “Butler flatters herself if she thinks there’s anything to be afraid of in her work,” writes Sarah Ditum in the Times. Jane O’Grady’s review in the Telegraph is titled “Is this the most incoherent book about gender yet?” (One star out of five.) Kathleen Stock (who is mentioned in the book) is also underwhelmed: “The chapter on British so-called TERFs is a compendium of smears culled from online teenagers about their gender-critical mums.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the reception has been somewhat warmer. In Slate, Dana Stevens (a former Butler student: “I was lucky enough to study with them”) concedes that the book is a “demanding read,” but explains this as the result of “the rigor of the thought itself.” The US journal Signs ran a series of laudatory mini-reviews: according to Julia Serano, Butler’s book is “full of counterarguments” that “will undoubtedly be useful” in responding to “misconceptions” about transgender issues. In a review in the Washington Post Becca Rothfeld tempers her declaration that Butler is “a giant and a genius” with the verdict that the new book “is not their best.” Nina Power, writing in the US online magazine Compact, offers some unsparing criticism: “Judith Butler has presided over the attempted eradication of sex as a fundamental category. She is the Pope of Gender.”

Given these quotations, you might suspect that Butler, who became legally non-binary a few years ago, is “she” to her detractors and “they” to her supporters. Although a “they/them” review of her book might be positive or negative, a “she/her” review is an infallible sign of thumbs down. Of course, I have now given the game away.

In short: Who’s Afraid of Gender? is not just poorly argued. Butler also persistently misdescribes the people and views she attempts to criticize, and her carelessness with citations would be unacceptable in an undergraduate essay. And, as if this mess wasn’t bad enough, it comes with a dollop of plagiarism on top.

Gender Confusion

“Why would anyone be afraid of gender?” is the opening of the book’s lengthy introduction. Afraid of what, though? The expectation that Butler will explain what “gender” means is briefly raised only to be dashed at the end of the first paragraph, where Butler says that the “myriad, continuing debates about the word show that no one approach to defining, or understanding, gender reigns” (3). She is certainly right that “gender” is used in a bewildering variety of ways, but some of her examples in the first paragraph are baffling. Allegedly, some “presume that the word is synonymous with ‘women.’” Others take “gender” to be a “covert way of referring to ‘homosexuality.’” Who are these lunatics? Butler gives no citations.

On one use of “gender” in the book, gender is everything anti-progressives, reactionaries, and fascists are afraid of. These bad actors are nationalist politicians such as Brazil’s ex-President Jair Bolsanaro and Hungary’s Victor Orbán, the Republican party, Vladimir Putin, past and present pontiffs of the Catholic Church, and the bigoted women of TERF Island, predominantly J. K. Rowling. The list of their fears is said to include threats to the heteronormative family, critical race theory, the end of patriarchal power and white supremacy, bestiality and pedophilia, penises, reproductive rights, trans women in female sports, migrants, harm to children, the existence of trans people, and so on.

This assortment has no internal coherence, as Butler admits: “For gender to be identified as a threat to all of life, civilization, society, thought, and the like, it has to gather up a wide range of fears and anxieties—no matter how they contradict one another—package them into a single bundle, and subsume them under a single name” (5).

However, the incoherence is an artifact of Butler’s own making. As she recognizes, her targets—for instance Pope Francis and the UK organization Sex Matters—have very different concerns. Francis pronounces on the family, the blessing of same-sex couples, and the role of women in the Church, not to mention climate change and the war in Ukraine. Sex Matters is a single-issue organization, campaigning for clarity about sex in law and policy. It is extremely misleading to bundle the anxieties of the Pope and Sex Matters together, and say they are both afraid of gender.

Fortunately, for the most part Butler uses “gender” more conventionally throughout the book, as when she tells us in the introduction that “gender has been part of feminism for many decades” (17). Unfortunately, as in a lot of the gender studies literature, she uses the word inconsistently and with maddening imprecision. From Butler’s perspective, this is a good thing: “Gender has to remain relatively wild in relation to all those who claim to possess its correct definition” (243). On the other hand, this makes no sense whatsoever of her expressed hope to “demonstrate the value of gender as a category” (24).

Gender, Butler tells us, “is minimally the rubric under which we consider changes in the way men, women, and other such categories have been understood” (17), is “assigned at birth,” “names the dilemma of how to conjoin social categories and lived forms of embodiment” (34), is “one of the apparatuses by which sex is established” (189), and “names for some a felt sense of the body, in its surfaces and depths” (29). The term “gender” asks how “the materiality of the body… is framed” (112) and is often “shorthand for ‘gender identity’” (185). Woman and man are genders; whether there are any more is something “feminists and gender theorists have argued about” (235), an issue which, curiously, Butler seems to leave unresolved (but see 141). One would have thought that if gender is “assigned at birth” then boy and girl should be included.

The Sins of the Father

The first two chapters focus on “the Vatican’s contribution to anti-gender rhetoric” (32). I am not here to defend popery, but Butler’s errors and mischaracterizations are venial sins, if not mortal ones.

“The idea of a dangerous gender ideology,” Butler writes at the start of the first chapter, “emerged in the 1990s when the Roman Catholic Council for the Family warned that ‘gender’ was a threat to the family and to biblical authority” (37). The relevant endnote at the back of the book cites “the Council for the Family statement from 2004,” which is not the right decade, and anyway, Butler’s link is to a 2004 letter from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), not the Council for the Family. In the body of the letter, there is exactly one occurrence of the word “gender.” The letter does not say that gender itself (a “purely cultural element”) is a threat; rather, the problem is said to be that it is “emphasized to the maximum” over sex. (Butler actually quotes this in the second chapter.) Perhaps Butler meant to cite a Council for the Family document from 2000, which does rail against “a certain ideology of ‘gender,’” according to which “being a man or a woman is not determined fundamentally by sex but by culture.” This is an early warning sign of the sloppiness that runs throughout Who’s Afraid of Gender?

Pope Francis, Butler tells us in the introduction, has declared “contemporary ‘gender theory’” to “consist of new Herodians who ‘plot designs of death that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation’” (6). Strong words. Where did Francis say them? The endnote cites a Daily Beast article in which these words do not appear. When the quotation is repeated in the first chapter, the source is given in the text (although with no page number), “a book-length interview entitled This Economy Kills, first published in 2015” (39). Butler has evidently not read that book; if she had, she would have seen that the interview occupies one chapter out of fifteen. She hasn’t even looked at the cover: “INCLUDES A STARTLING NEW INTERVIEW WITH POPE FRANCIS.”

The quotation from This Economy Kills is part of Francis’s answer to this question: “How important is it for Christians to recover a sense of care for creation and sustainable development?” Francis says that we must “respect all creatures of God and the environment in which we live,” and then segues into: “we must remember that every period of history has its own ‘Herods’ who destroy, plot schemes of death, and disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation.” Butler doesn’t get the quotation exactly right, but, in any case, the Pope is not explicitly talking about “gender theory,” which has not yet been mentioned.

Francis brings that up a few sentences later, when he says: “Consider nuclear weapons and the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a huge number of people. Consider also genetic manipulation, the manipulation of life, or gender theory that does not recognize the order of creation.” (This is the only place where the phrase “gender theory” is used in the entire interview.) It’s a bit of a stretch to describe Francis as accusing gender theorists of plotting “designs of death.” It’s even more of a stretch to say—as Butler does—that this passage likens “gender… to a nuclear catastrophe” (247). The passage no more does that than it likens “genetic manipulation” to a nuclear catastrophe. Francis evidently disapproves of all three, but he may well think nuclear catastrophe is far worse than drag queen story hour or designer babies.

Butler runs together what Francis says in the book with what he said in an interview on the papal plane, as if they were the same event. She wonders “what precisely is meant by ‘gender theory’” (7), clearly not anticipating an answer on the pontiff’s behalf, but it’s in one of her own citations, the Vatican’s 2019 document, “Male and Female He Created Them.” Gender theory “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences.”

Rufo and the Supremes

Chapter three leaves the Catholic Church and examines “Contemporary Attacks on Gender in the United States.” The conservative activist Christopher Rufo is singled out for criticism, and he’s pretty easy to criticize! Surely Butler can land a punch or two without confabulating?

Apparently not. Butler claims that Rufo “has instigated several campaigns accusing primary schools of teaching BDSM—a wild allegation” (108). It is Butler’s own allegation that is wild. Rufo once reported on a “Sexy Summer Camp” for children 13 and over, but he has never said that primary schools are teaching BDSM.

Butler also claims that Rufo’s main bugbear, critical race theory, is something he knows nothing about. During “a lecture at the Claremont Institute in California,” Butler writes, Rufo was asked to “explain what CRT is,” and “floundered and refused, saying ‘I don’t give a shit about this stuff’” (22). You can see the “lecture” here (the relevant portion is 8:01-9:04); in fact, it was part of a panel discussion which took place in Washington, DC. No question of any kind was asked. Instead, Rufo was talking about “very angry graduate students” who try to “fight me on these highly technical Hegel interpretations, and it’s like, I don’t have time for this. I don’t give a shit about this stuff.”

Maybe Butler finally skewers Rufo when she says that he “refuses to read or study the academic field against which he has waged a culture war” (22)? No. Rufo’s 2023 book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, has chapters on Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell. Because Butler’s disinformation is so easy to expose, it simply provides Rufo with free ammunition. If he had paid Butler to run PSYOPs for right-wing culture warriors, she could hardly have done a better job.

The fourth chapter is “Trump, Sex and the Supreme Court.” Butler spends some time on the 2020 Supreme Court decision Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employers from discrimination on the basis of (among other things) “sex,” also covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status. I’m no legal scholar, but Butler’s reading of the decision is—to use a word she likes a lot—phantasmatic. She quotes this passage:

[T]ake an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth. Again, the individual employee’s sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision.

According to Butler, “the language of the Court makes it explicit that the sex of an individual can change” (122). She seems to have failed to understand the difference between “X was identified as (recognized as) a male” and “X identifies as (self-describes as) a female.” The second statement can be true even if X was recognized as male at birth and remains so. Despite urging the virtues of careful textual analysis, Butler is not very good at it.

A Masterclass in Bad Faith

Chapter five, on the witches of TERF Island, is a masterclass in bad faith. A few random examples will have to suffice. Butler notes that J.K. Rowling and her terven “prefer ‘gender critical’ to ‘trans exclusionary’ and ‘TERF’” (142) and pleads for a “better conversation.” She discusses Rowling’s 2020 essay, in which Rowling writes, “I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since. I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death.” Butler does not use profanity to refer to Rowling, but she does call her a “TERF.” It might have been more honest to use the other four-letter word.

Butler also engages with Kathleen Stock and Holly Lawford-Smith, two philosophers at the front of the gender-critical Charge of the Light Brigade during the British TERF Wars of 2019-2023. Since Butler complains in the introduction that “advocates of the anti-gender position… will not read the scholarship on gender they oppose” (18), one might presume that Butler is going to criticize, fairly but firmly, the arguments in Stock’s Material Girls and Lawford-Smith’s Gender-Critical Feminism. Instead, the only citations are to a piece by Stock in the Guardian and the text of a YouTube talk on Lawford-Smith’s website.

Butler mentions “an interview” in which Stock claims “that the perception of the two sexes is something that the brain simply does” (Butler gives no citation). Butler sarcastically remarks, “This I did not know” (150). Of course, anyone who is not trapped in Butler’s hall of mirrors will intuitively realize that Stock is correct. As one paper puts it, “sex categorization occurs automatically… and can be objectively isolated and quantified in the human brain.”

In a similarly surreal passage, Butler comments on Rowling’s claim that 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria are in remission in adulthood. Butler puzzles over the characteristics of these people: “Tomboys… genderqueer people, cross-dressers… or something altogether different” (152). She suggests that Rowling’s source, if there is one, will forever remain unknown, like the whereabouts of Harry Potter’s distant cousins: “even if we were able to check the statistics Rowling mentions…” The statistics can easily be checked: they are from a 2016 post on the psychologist James Cantor’s blog, Sexology Today! Cantor lists eleven studies, one of which (a Ph.D. thesis) was later reworked as an important paper published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2021. The desisters, as Cantor says, “generally turn out to be regular gay or lesbian folks,” in case you were wondering. Butler then says that “the regret rates among people of all ages for gender transition is very small,” as if this is relevant to the desistance figures (it isn’t). The endnote cites a nonsensical study (a point made in Stock’s review).

This and other parts of the chapter demonstrate that Butler’s understanding of the medical literature is as tenuous as her grasp of Catholic theology.

About Sex

Starting in chapter six, the book veers off into potentially more interesting territory. The fascists who fear the “phantasm of gender” are largely left behind, and the last four chapters contain Butler’s thoughts on sex, gender, the nature/culture distinction, and the translation of “gender” into other languages. “I wanted to reach people,” she recently said in the New York Times, but hasn’t put in much effort. If you don’t know what “positivism” is, Butler is not going to tell you. At one point, she quotes the notoriously obscure science and technology studies academic Donna Haraway, “Bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes” (206), which is unlikely to enlighten the general reader.

What about sex? (The title of chapter six.) Well, Butler agrees that it’s real. She’s fairly clear that there are sexes beyond male and female—the alleged “fact that there are two sexes” (213) has been “effectively contested” (212). She’s even clearer that people can literally change their sex. Trans women are not only women, they are also female: “when one is called male when one is a woman… the calling is an effacement of what one is” (184). In an earlier chapter, Butler approvingly reports the trans writer Andrea Long Chu’s insistence that “female” is “the category that defines her” (155). (Butler notes that Long Chu doesn’t think of sex biologically, but delicately omits her account of the “barest essentials” of femaleness: “an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes”.)

Probably what is underlying all this is Butler’s inability to see much of a difference between “assigned sex” and sex itself. Sex is “established by various cultural and social means, and today we refer more generally to the sex ‘assigned at birth’ rather than to what is natural” (205). Yes, but aren’t animals female or male no matter whether anyone “assigns” them a sex at birth? It would have helped if Butler had considered this elementary question. She does not.

Butler thinks science is on her side, particularly that done by “feminist scholars” (176). Some scientists, she reports, have argued that sex is “a spectrum or a mosaic” (190), citing a book by the neuroscientist Daphna Joel, Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain (co-authored with a science journalist, Luba Vikhanski). Since that book argues nothing of the sort, presumably Butler never bothered to open it. Joel, incidentally, recently co-authored a paper with the psychologist Cordelia Fine in which they say that “sex categories” (male, female) are “binary.”

A Scholarly Car Crash

A spectacular scholarly car-crash occurs in chapter nine. To see it in slow-motion, we need a little background.

Back in 2004, the biologist Joan Roughgarden published a book called Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. You only need to know two things about it. First, Roughgarden gives a pithy account of the standard biological conception of the sexes: “To a biologist, ‘male’ means making small gametes, and ‘female’ means making large gametes. Period!” (Gametes are sex cells, sperm and eggs.) It’s clearly and straightforwardly put, and the passage is deservedly often quoted. (I have quoted it myself.)

The second thing you need to know is that on the next page of Evolution’s Rainbow Roughgarden mentions that some species sexually reproduce using “mating types.” In those species, “the distinctions of male and female don’t apply because there is only one gamete size.” Yeasts are an example: there are no male or female yeasts, but they can sexually reproduce nonetheless.

Now to Butler. She quotes from page 190 of The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Philosophy of Science, which is part of a chapter titled “Is Sex Socially Constructed?” written by the philosopher Catherine Clune-Taylor. Here is the pertinent passage from Clune-Taylor, as quoted by Butler, which I have split up into two paragraphs (adding italics):

[Feminist interventions have deepened an] understanding of sex as socioculturally and materially constructed, exposing the plethora of social norms, practices, knowledges, technologies, bureaucracies, institutions, and capacities implicated in its production as binary and natural.

Indeed, within biology, male and female sex is determined solely on the basis of gamete size—those members of a species who produce the smaller gametes (“sperm”) are identified as males, whereas those who produce the larger gametes (“eggs”) are the females.

There is a minor mistake in Butler’s reproduction of the first paragraph—she omits a couple of Clune-Taylor’s words. And in the second paragraph, Clune-Taylor’s “indeed” is confused: the standard gamete conception of sex is not an illustration of how sex is “socioculturally and materially constructed.” But never mind all that. The important point is that in Clune-Taylor’s text, the second paragraph, which paraphrases Roughgarden’s explanation, ends with a citation to Evolution’s Rainbow: “(Roughgarden 2004: 24).” (This is a slip on Clune-Taylor’s part; the page number should be 23, not 24.)

Butler, however, clips Clune-Taylor’s citation to Roughgarden and inserts an endnote. That endnote says (in effect), “Roughgarden, p. 24, as cited in Clune-Taylor,” which is another minor mistake. The words are all Clune-Taylor’s, not Roughgarden’s. The endnote should say, “Clune-Taylor, p. 190.”

Immediately after quoting Clune-Taylor, Butler says that “In fact, in her book Evolution’s Rainbow, Roughgarden writes, ‘To a biologist…’” (214), giving the quotation that Clune-Taylor has just paraphrased. This makes it sound as if Butler is chiming in with a contribution of her own, but the contribution is entirely Clune-Taylor’s.

It gets much worse. In Clune-Taylor’s chapter, the passage above (ending “are the females”) continues with these words:

However, even this distinction is acknowledged to be a convention, given that all the members of some species of algae, fungi, and protozoans produce the same size gametes. In these cases, the species is divided into genetic groups known as “mating types” (see Roughgarden 2004: 23–24).

I have added the italics; the reason for the red text will be clear in a moment. Butler does not quote this passage from Clune-Taylor, in which the latter claims (incorrectly) that the gamete account of the two sexes is a “convention.” Note that this is Clune-Taylor’s view, not Roughgarden’s. Roughgarden says nothing about conventions in the relevant part of Evolution’s Rainbow.

Back to Butler. After quoting Roughgarden on sex and gamete size, Butler then writes:

However, even the drawing of this distinction proves to be a convention wrongly applied to the human species, given that all the members of some species of algae, fungi, and protozoans produce the same size gametes. In these cases, the species is divided into genetic groups known as “mating types,”4 but sex falls out of the picture.

The red words in both the above quotations are the same (again, I have added italics). Notice Butler’s endnote marker next to “mating types.” Endnote 4 does not cite Clune-Taylor, but instead reads “Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow, 23-4,” which reproduces Clune-Taylor’s citation.

So, Butler has taken Clune-Taylor’s words, made them even more mysterious by the gratuitous addition of “wrongly applied to the human species” and “sex falls out of the picture,” and passed them off as her own. Even the page reference to Roughgarden in endnote 4 is wrong (a duplication of a slip by Clune-Taylor): Roughgarden mentions mating types only on p. 24.

Plagiarism has been in the news recently, and it’s ironic to find Butler joining in, since her idiosyncratic prose style should make that impossible. I should emphasize that Butler’s plagiarism was obviously inadvertent. But it does indicate the level of quality to be found in Who’s Afraid of Gender?

Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Sloppy Scholarship

Does Butler finish the book on a jolly note, reassuring us that all the fuss about gender being as dangerous as nuclear weapons is just a silly overreaction? Not quite. The conclusion portends the apocalypse: “there are many reasons to fear destruction, including intensified neoliberalism… and the felt sense that the earth as we know it will not be able to survive climate destruction” (255-6), to which she adds “war,” “systemic racism,” and the “devastations of capitalism,” among others. She reminds us that “the killing of women and trans, queer, bisexual and intersex people is an actual form of destruction taking place in the world,” strangely forgetting to mention the demographic most likely by far to die from homicide. Gender, in the capacious sense of the introduction, expands even more to include “women’s freedom and equality… single parenting… adoption rights… books for young people” (248).

In Butler’s phantasmagoric world, the oceans are boiling, bisexuals lie dying in the streets, and the empty shelves of school libraries gather dust. On a hillside, J. K. Rowling stands between Vladimir Putin and the Pope, the papal cassock flapping in the breeze. The trio gaze with grim satisfaction at the devastation below, under a glowering sky.

Plagiarism aside, there are many reasons to be irritated with Who’s Afraid of Gender?. One is Butler’s delusional insinuation that gender-critical feminists have engaged in “bullying” and “censorship campaigns” (135), when they and their sympathizers have so plainly been on the receiving end. (Butler signed the censorious 2017 open letter denouncing the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia for publishing Rebecca Tuvel’s paper on transracialism.)

Another is Butler’s claim that her opponents “refuse to read the material under dispute” (18). In serving up this dog’s breakfast of a book, Butler shows that she is the one who has not done the reading.