Reply to Ozymandias on Fully Consensual Gender

With the Hopes that our World is built on
They were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon could be defined to be Stilton;
They denied she identified as Dutch;
They denied that Wishes should be categorized as Horses;
They denied that a Pig could be stipulated to have Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of Culture
Who promised these beautiful things.

—Rudyard Kipling, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" (paraphrased)

At the end of their reply to my reply to the immortal Scott Alexander on gender categorization, friend of the blog Ozymandias makes an analogy between social gender and money.1 What constitutes money in a given social context is determined by collective agreement: money is whatever you can reliably expect everyone else to accept as payment. This isn't a circular definition (in the way that "money is whatever we agree is money" would be uninformative to an alien who didn't already have a referent for the word money), and people advocating for a different money regime (like late-19th century American bimetalists or contemporary cryptocurrency advocates) aren't making an epistemic mistake.

I really like this analogy! An important thing to note here is that while the form of money can vary widely across sociocultural contexts (from shell beads, to silver coins, to fiat paper currency, to database entries in a bank), not just any form will suffice to serve the functions of money: perishable goods like cheese can't function as a long-term store of value; non-fungible items that vary in quality in hard-to-measure ways can't function as a unit of account.2

Because of these constraints, I don't think the money/social-gender analogy can do the work Ozy seems to expect of it. They write:

Similarly, "you're a woman if you identify as a woman!" is not a definition of womanhood. It is a criterion for who should be a woman. It states that our social genders should be fully consensual: that is, if a person says "I would like to be put in the 'woman' category now," you do that. Right now, this criterion is not broadly applied: a trans person's social gender generally depends on their presentation, their secondary sexual characteristics, and how much the cis people around them are paying attention. But perhaps it would improve things if it were.

Following the money analogy, we could imagine someone arguing that our money should be fully consensual: that is, if a person says, "I would like this to be put in the 'dollar' category now," you do that. Right now, this criterion is not broadly applied ... and it's not easy to imagine how it could be applied (a prerequisite to figuring out if perhaps it would improve things if it were). Could I buy a car by offering the dealer a banana and saying, "I would like this to be put in the '$20,000 bill' category now"? What would happen to the economy if everyone did that?

Maybe the hypothetical doesn't have to be that extreme. Perhaps we should imagine someone taking Canadian $5 bills, crossing out "Canada", drawing a beard on Wilfrid Laurier, and saying "I'd like this to be considered an American $5 bill." (Exchange rate at time of writing: 1 Canadian dollar = 0.76 U.S. dollars.) Then imagine that a social norm catches on within a certain subset of Society that it's incredibly rude to question someone who says they're giving you American money, but that this standard hasn't spread to the U.S. government and financial system.

Economists have a name for this kind of situation. Gresham's Law: bad money drives out good. In contexts where custom requires that defaced Canadian dollars be regarded as equivalent to U.S. dollars, maybe everyone will smile and pretend not to notice the difference.

They will be lying. In marketplaces governed by "trans American dollars are American dollars" social norms, smart buyers will prefer to buy with defaced Canadian dollars, and smart sellers will try to find plausibly-deniable excuses to not accept them ("That'll be $5." "Here you go! A completely normal, definitely non-suspicious American $5 bill!" "Ooh, you know what, actually we just sold out"), because everyone knows3 that when it comes time to interact with the larger banking system, the two types of dollars won't be regarded as being of equal value. Never doubting the value of other people's currency may be basic human decency, but if so, the market interprets basic human decency as damage and routes around it.

Similarly, there seem to be increasingly large subsets of Society in which it's incredibly rude to question someone's stated gender. But even if everyone says "Trans women are women" and uses the right pronouns solely on the basis of self-reported self-identity with no questions asked and no one batting an eye, it's not clear that this constitutes successfully entering a "fully consensual gender" regime insofar as people following their own self-interest are likely to systematically make decisions that treat non-well-passing trans women as if they were something more like men, even if no one would dream of being so rude as to admit out loud that that's what they're doing.

And how are you going to stop them? Every freedom-to implies the lack of a freedom-from somewhere else, and vice versa: as the cliché goes, your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. "Fully consensual gender" sounds like a good idea when you phrase it like that: what kind of monster could possibly be against consent, or for non-consent?

But the word "consent" is usually used in contexts where an overwhelming asymmetry of interests makes us want to resolve conflicts in a particular direction every time: when we say that all sex should be consensual, we mean that a person's right to bodily autonomy always takes precedence over someone else's mere horniness. Even pointing out that this is (technically, like everything else) a trade-off, feels creepy.

Categorization really doesn't seem like this. If there's a conflict between one person's desire to be modeled as belonging to a particular gender and someone else's perception that the person is more accurately thought of as belonging to a different gender, then it's not clear what it would mean to resolve the conflict in the direction of "consent of the modeled" other than mind control, or at least compelled speech.

Ozy gives a list of predictions you can make about someone on the basis of social gender, as distinct from sex, apparently meant to demonstrate the usefulness of the former concept. But a lot of the individual list items seem either superficial ("Whether they wear dresses, skirts, or makeup"—surely we don't want to go for "gender as clothing", do we??), or tied to other people's perceptions of sex.4 5

Take the "How many messages they get on a dating site" item. The reason men send lots of messages to women on dating sites is because they want to date people with vaginas and female secondary sex characteristics, and maybe eventually marry them, father children with them, &c.6

Suppose one were to say to such a man, "Ah, I see you're sending lots of messages to women, by which I mean people who self-identify as women, in accordance with the utilitarian-desirable social policy of fully-consensual gender. Therefore, you should also send messages to these non-op trans women who aren't on HRT."

I think the man would reply, "How dumb do you think I am?!"7

One might respond with, "But there's a lot of cis women who you also wouldn't date. Therefore, while you're allowed to not date trans women if that's your preference, you can't say it's because they're not women."

So, I think there's actually a statistically sophisticated reply to this which I really need to elaborate on more in future posts. To be sure, our man is just relying on his intuitive perception and probably doesn't know the statistically sophisticated reply8—but it's not clear that we've given him much of a reason to trust our clever verbal arguments over his own perception.

I happily agree that fully consensual gender is a coherent position. That doesn't make it feasible. How are you going to maintain that social equilibrium without it being immediately destroyed by normal people who have eyes and don't care about clever philosophical definition-hacking mind games the way that readers of this blog do?

That's not a rhetorical question. In the case of fiat currency, the question actually has a literal answer, although I personally am not well-versed enough in economic history to tell it. Somehow, societies have evolved from a condition in which the idea of paper currency would have provoked a "How dumb do you think I am?" reaction, to the present condition where everyone and her dog accepts paper money as money without a thought—where the "somehow" probably involves the use of state violence to enforce banking regulations.

Ozy concludes—

Since it is not, properly speaking, a definition, the decision of who should be socially gendered male or female, and how many social genders we should have is not an epistemic decision. This decision can and should be made on purely utilitarian grounds.

In some sense, this is kind of unobjectionable—what kind of monster could possibly be against utility?!—but it's an incredibly vague sense. The decision of what kind of money we should have should be made on purely utilitarian grounds, but the set of possible solutions to that problem, and how well each solution performs with respect to the global utilitarian calculus, is very tightly constrained by many facts of economics and sociology.9

So too with gender. "Utilitarian grounds" does not mean, "I and some other people have an unconstrained utopian vision, and we'll be very dysphoric if you don't implement it, so the global utilitarian calculus says you should obey us." To be sure, your dysphoria is a cost under the global utilitarian calculus—but it's just one of many costs and benefits in a complex system. If someone actually wants to do a careful psychologically- and sociologically-informed analysis of how a "fully consensual gender" regime could actually be implemented in real life,10 and what impact it would have in terms of QALYs, that would be really interesting to read!

Until then, the question remains: how dumb do you think we are?!


  1. As teased at the beginning of the bulleted list in my post-Christmas cry of pain last year, I also have responses to the other arguments Ozy makes earlier in "Man Should Allocate Some More Categories". The fact that the present post focuses specifically on replying to the gender/money analogy shall not be construed to mean that I'm conceding any other points—just that I'm a ludicrously, miserably unproductive writer. (Compare the June 2018 date of Ozy's post to the December 2019 (!) date of this one.)
  2. E.g., my goat might be healthier than your goat in a way that neither of us nor any of the other local goat-herders know how to quantify.
  3. Except not everyone knows. What actually happens is that the original "U.S. dollar" concept coexists with the debased one, and savvy people who understand what's going on can arbitrage the equivocation to expropriate from those who are less savvy.
  4. The harrassment and expected-sacrifices example in particular are what radical feminists would call sex-based oppression.
  5. Friend of the blog Ray Blanchard proposed on Twitter that the term "subjective sex" might be more useful than "gender".
  6. And the fact that it's women being deluged with messages from men rather than vice versa is predicted by the evolutionary logic of Bateman's principle and parental investment theory: the sex that invests more resources per offspring will be "choosier", and the sex that invests less will compete for them. There are a few species (like the pipefish or the Eurasian dotterel) in which males are the more-investing sex, but humans aren't one them.
  7. This isn't necessarily trans-exclusionary—many such men might be happy to date trans women who were on HRT and thereby came to more closely rememble cis/natal/actual women. But that just gets us back to passing (like I was trying to say thousands of words ago), not fully consensual gender.
  8. Although I would argue that the sophisticated statistics are part of the cognitive-scientific explanation of what he perceives.
  9. For example, fiat money lets central banks exert greater control over the money supply, but can suffer disastrous hyperinflation under the wrong conditions.
  10. As I observed recently, fully consensual gender would at least have the advantage of being a Schelling point. Oh, and speaking of "real life", I happily concede that the social-engineering problem of fully consensual gender is much easier in online communities, where pesky easy-to-detect/expensive-to-change secondary sex characteristics are hidden behind the fog of net. In other words, on the internet, nobody knows you're a G.I.R.L..

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