The Volokh Conspiracy

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Prof. Doriane Coleman (Duke), Guest-Blogging About "On Sex and Gender: A Commonsense Approach"

"'An ideological preference for characterizing sex as a social construct, a stereotype, and a myth,' she asserts, denies the science of sex differences as well as common sense."


I'm delighted to report that Prof. Doriane Coleman (Duke Law School) will be guest-blogging this week about her new book, On Sex and Gender: A Commonsense Approach, which will be out Tuesday from Simon & Schuster. (Readers may be familiar with her past guest posts, chiefly on who should count as a woman in women's sports.) Here's the publisher's summary of the book:

On Sex and Gender focuses on three sequential and consequential questions: What is sex as opposed to gender? How does sex matter in our everyday lives? And how should it be reflected in law and policy? All three have been front-and-center in American life and politics since the rise of the trans rights movement: They are included in both major parties' political platforms. They are the subject of ongoing litigation in the federal courts and of highly contentious legislation on Capitol Hill. And they are a pivotal issue in the culture wars between left and right playing out around dinner tables, on campuses and school boards, on op-ed pages, and in corporate handbooks.

Doriane Coleman challenges both sides to chart a better way. In a book that is equal parts scientific explanation, historical examination, and personal reflection, she argues that denying biological sex and focusing only on gender would have detrimental effects on women's equal opportunity, on men's future prospects, and on the health and welfare of society. Structural sexism needed to be dismantled—a true achievement of feminism and an ongoing fight—but going forward we should be sex smart, not sex blind.

This book is a clear guide for reasonable Americans on sex and gender—something everyone wants to understand but is terrified to discuss. Coleman shows that the science is settled, but equally that there is a middle ground where common sense reigns and we can support transgender people without denying the facts of human biology. She livens her narrative with a sequence of portraits of exceptional human beings from legal pioneers like Myra Bradwell and Ketanji Brown Jackson to champion athletes like Caster Semenya and Cate Campbell to civil rights giants like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Pauli Murray. Above all, Coleman reminds us that sex not only exists, but is also good—and she shows how we can get both sex and gender right for society.

The Kirkus Review:

A pertinent study of legal, political, and cultural assumptions about a hot-button topic.

A legal scholar whose work encompasses sex discrimination law, elite sports, and scientific research, Coleman takes a firm stand in the heated culture war "between those on the left who want to erase sex and those on the right who want to erase gender nonconformity." The author addresses the book to "everyone who wants to understand what's going on for themselves, and who's inclined to be both inclusive and true to science and common experience."

Science, she asserts, defines sex as binary, consisting of characteristics that "build one of two forms of humans toward reproductive ends." Gender, on the other hand, is what our cultures do with our two physical forms, "the social constructions that are based on our sex," and "how we conceive of and express ourselves." Although the terms have been applied interchangeably in political and legal discourse, Coleman asks readers to hold the biological distinctions foremost in their minds. "An ideological preference for characterizing sex as a social construct, a stereotype, and a myth," she asserts, denies the science of sex differences as well as common sense.

At the heart of Coleman's discussion is the question of sex-based eligibility for elite female competition. Unlike participation in school sports and activities, where trans individuals should be welcomed, at the elite level, physical differences between males and females matter more, she argues. As a former competitive runner who competed at the national level, the author believes that however someone may identify, "a malebodied kid shouldn't be the girls' state champion." The author's careful, well-supported analysis is sure to be controversial, but, she writes, "my sense is that most people are not interested in a sex-blind society; they're interested in a sex-smart society."

A bold foray into messy terrain.

-Kirkus Review

And the blurbs:

"Civil rights for women matter and to get these right you can't ignore biology. This is a seminal book—the science, the law, the politics all explained so clearly. The extremes on the right and the left are dictating the narrative, but Doriane Coleman shows there's a reasonable way for the rest of us through all the noise."

—Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medalist and chair emeritus of the United States Anti-Doping Agency

"Sex begins at conception. We don't construct it, it constructs us, from the cellular level to our complete, integrated systems—our physical forms and physiology. We're poised to reap immeasurable benefits from ongoing work in research of sex differences but only if, as Doriane Coleman argues, we can continue to be "sex smart" not "sex blind." The "common sense" here is just that; the information that should help form policy."

—Virginia M. Miller, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Surgery and Physiology and former director of the Women's Health Research Center at the Mayo Clinic

"This book is a formidable challenge to our politics, on both the right and the left. Whether you agree with her or not, if you're interested in equality, Doriane Coleman presents a serious blueprint for common ground on matters of sex and gender. Informed by science, law, and personal experience, she brings compassion and intelligence to one of our most difficult cultural collisions."

—Guy-Uriel Charles, Harvard Law School professor and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

"Male and female bodies are fundamentally different, and many clinical conditions impact females differently than males. Conflating sex and gender is disastrous to advancing healthcare for women and to their opportunities for success from athletic fields to board rooms. In this essential book, Doriane Coleman shows that a just society celebrates gender diversity without denying science."

—Mary I. O'Connor, MD, Olympian, Professor Emerita of Orthopedic Surgery at Mayo Clinic and co-author of Taking Care of You: The Empowered Woman's Guide to Better Health

"Whatever your politics, you need to read this book. Doriane Coleman lays out the what, the why, and the how of our culture wars over sex and gender. She knows that most women want to be free from sex discrimination, not to be liberated from sex itself—and that ignoring this will mean that, again, we get the short end of the stick. Let's instead adopt her commonsense approach to living together respectfully!"

—Martina Navratilova, 18-time grand slam singles champion and civil rights advocate

I much look forward to Prof. Coleman's visit!