In a recent interview on BBC Newsnight with Kirsty Wark, iconic second-wave feminist Germaine Greer repudiated the notion that male-to-female transsexuals, post-operative or not, are real women. She was quick to affirm, however, that she does not advocate prohibiting the practice of undergoing a sex change. Instead, she simply denies that there is any meaningful sense in which a man who has had his genitals surgically altered should be regarded as having undergone a legitimate change in biological sex. “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman,” she said, complaining that many activists for transsexuals have accused her of transphobia, and “have decided that because I don’t think post-operative transgender men…are women, I’m not to be allowed to talk.”
Greer especially resented the accusation that voicing her opinion has resulted in inciting violence against transgender individuals, calling it “absolute nonsense.” When Kirsty Wark pointed out to Greer that some men are more comfortable after having undergone sex reassignment surgery, she replied with a blunt “Yeah, but so what?” When Wark suggested that Greer’s attitude might be hurtful towards some transgender individuals, she simply insisted that “People get hurt all the time. I’m not about to walk on eggshells.”
Her response comes amidst skeptical responses to the requests by male-to-female transsexuals that they be regarded as authentic women. Caroline New, for example, argues for a critical realist approach to sex. From this perspective, sex is the result of a pre-programmed response that produces a matrix of biological reactions, which comes to constitute an emergent phenomenon, in whose context alone sexually dimorphic components of the human body make sense. For example, a penis is a penis, not because it is a tissue with such and such a shape, New might argue, but because (among other things) it can deposit relevant genetic material into a vagina, which is itself a vagina, not because it is an orifice or a potential space located on a specific part of the body, but because it functions effectively as a receptacle of human sperm which allows the eventual penetration of the female oocyte, and so on.
From this perspective, biological sex refers broadly to a context of biological processes initiated very early in the life of the human. Thus, it constitutes an over-arching historical role in the human individual rather than merely the aforementioned functionality. Years before the male is even capable of intercourse, for example, the origin of male gametes can be traced to the production of primitive germ cells, constituting the beginning of an historical process which culminates in the genesis of a penis that is capable of depositing sperm. This is why a man who has received a penis transplant can regain all of the capacities of his previous penis: because there is a preexisting, historically mediated network of structures and functions ready to functionally assimilate human tissue in such a manner. For a similar reason, the critical realist would argue, a woman who undergoes a superficially similar alteration of tissue in this area would not have a genuine penis.