DEBATE REVIEW: Sex Is Real, Immutable, and Binary
Agreement, disagreement, and confusion.
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Several weeks ago, I posted a tweet that said “Sex is real, immutable, and binary.” In addition to receiving a quote tweet by renowned physicist Sean Carroll scolding me for my purported ignorance of the “actual science,” I received another response from Alice Dreger, a science historian best known for her work on the history of intersex conditions and “hermaphrodites” in humans, calling on some venue to host a debate with me on the topic.
I was excited to see Dreger’s willingness to debate the issue, as I am familiar with her work and thoroughly enjoyed her book Galileo’s Middle Finger.
I responded immediately that I would be happy to have a conversation with her on this issue, but that I would strongly prefer the format to be that of a moderated discussion instead of a rigidly structured debate that would prevent meaningful dialogue. I’ve watched plenty of formal debates, which emphasize rhetoric over substance and almost invariably result in two people talking completely past one another. Because of this, I am less interested in debate than I am dialectic, which is inherently less adversarial and is centered around discourse and reasoned argumentation as a means for establishing what’s true.
The honest search for truth isn’t about defeating opponents, it’s about people with differing views coming together to dispel impediments to mutual understanding. That being the case, I preferred not to think of my upcoming event as me versus Dreger, but rather me and Dreger versus confusion in the pursuit of truth.
Unfortunately, Dreger was insistent on the rigid debate format where she would “get equal time, with a moderator to keep time” because she was “a woman conversing with a man on a Hot Topic.” In other words, she assumed (based on sexist stereotypes) that I would be overly domineering, and so a dialectical approach was taken off the table. Nevertheless, I agreed because debates on this topic are practically unheard of, and I thought that a suboptimal event would be better than no event at all.
We then needed to find an appropriate moderator to host the event. Dreger said that her ideal moderator would be one of her friends “with CAIS or ovotestes or genetic mosaicism of sex chromosomes,” but that she would be “open to other possibilities.” Given that the debate was going to be so rigidly structured, I didn’t much care who was going to keep time and ask questions. Fortunately finding a host wasn’t difficult, as Corinna Cohn and Nina Paley immediately reached out offering to host the debate on their podcast Heterodorx. Dreger and I both agreed, and we began emailing to schedule the event.
In the meantime, several other much larger venues reached out to host the debate, or additional debates. Andrew Doyle of GB News invited us to debate the issue on his show Free Speech Nation.
To my surprise the Munk Debates, which recently hosted a large debate with Douglas Murray, Matt Taibbi, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michelle Goldberg about whether mainstream media can be trusted, which has over 117 thousand views on YouTube in only 13 days, reached out to host our debate on the sex binary. Dr. Scott Barry Kauffman, host of The Psychology Podcast (the largest psychology podcast in the world), also offered to moderate the debate on his podcast. Even a representative from Substack contacted us to set up a series of Substack-based letter exchanges debating the issue. But while I eagerly accepted each and every offer, Dreger rejected them all.
This struck me as odd. For someone so adamant on having a debate, she seemed determined to have it reach as few people as possible.
Regardless, the date was set for December 12 on the Heterodorx podcast.
The reviews of the debate were somewhat mixed. Most in the YouTube chat declared me the clear victor, but my followers were likely overrepresented there. Corinna Cohn, one of the Heterodorx hosts, claimed on Twitter that she was more persuaded by Dreger’s arguments.
In my view, the rigid format was an impediment to understanding. I am certain that I fully understand Dreger’s position and could articulate it in a way she would fully sign off on. Unfortunately, I doubt Dreger could do the same with respect to my position.
Dreger appeared either unwilling or unable to grasp the central pillar of my argument, which is that the existence of intersex people—or even “hermaphrodites” to the extent that they exist in humans (they don’t in a meaningful way)—do not in any way invalidate the sex binary. In fact, their existence emphatically demonstrates the binary nature of sex. Dreger’s confusion was evident near the end of the debate by her insistence that my worldview entails “ignoring” people who do not fit neatly into either of two rigid boxed labeled “male” and “female,” despite me explaining repeatedly throughout the debate why that’s not the case. A moderated discussion format would have made these misrepresentations much more difficult to maintain.
What follows is a play-by-play of the entire debate. I highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, clarify some of my responses, and attempt to resolve the perceived friction between our positions from both her and my point of view. I explain why I believe Dreger failed to make her case, and also address a few details I got wrong.
Ultimately, however, is it up to you to decide who made the most sense. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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