On September 25, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) announced that they were cancelling a panel discussion titled “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: Why Biological Sex Remains a Necessary Analytic Category in Anthropology,” originally scheduled as part of their annual conference in Toronto from November 15–19. The cancellation and subsequent response by the two organizations shows the extent to which gender ideology has captured academic anthropology.
The panel would have featured six female scientists, specializing in biology and anthropology, to address their profession’s growing denial of biological sex as a valid and relevant category. While terminological confusion surrounding the distinction between sex and gender roles has been a persistent issue within anthropology for decades, the total refusal of some to recognize sex as a real biological variable is a more recent phenomenon. The panel organizers, eager to facilitate an open discussion among anthropologists and entertain diverse perspectives on a contentious issue, considered the AAA/CASCA conference an optimal venue to host such a conversation.
The organizations accepted the “Let’s Talk About Sex” panel without incident on July 13, and planned to feature it alongside other panels including those on politically oriented subjects, such as “Trans Latinx Methodologies,” “Exploring Activist Anthropology,” and “Reimagining Anthropology as Restorative Justice.” Elizabeth Weiss, a professor of anthropology at San José State University, was one of the slated panelists. She had intended to discuss the significance in bio-archaeology and forensic anthropology of using skeletal remains to establish a decedent’s sex. While a 2018 article in Discover titled “Skeletal Studies Show Sex, Like Gender, Exists Along a Spectrum” reached different conclusions, Weiss planned to discuss how scientific breakthroughs have made determining the sex of skeletal remains a more exact science. Her presentation was to be moderate; she titled it “No Bones About It: Skeletons Are Binary; People May Not Be,” and conceded in her abstract the growing need in forensics to “to ensure that skeletal finds are identified by both biological sex and their gender identity” due to “the current rise in transitioning individuals and their overrepresentation as crime victims.”
Despite having already approved the panel, the presidents of the AAA (Ramona Pérez) and CASCA (Monica Heller) unexpectedly issued a joint letter on September 25 notifying the “Let’s Talk About Sex” presenters that their panel was cancelled. They claimed that the panel’s subject matter conflicted with their organizations’ values, jeopardized “the safety and dignity of our members,” and eroded the program’s “scientific integrity.” They further asserted the panel’s ideas (i.e., that sex is a real and important biological variable) would “cause harm to members represented by the Trans and LGBTQI of the anthropological community as well as the community at large.” To ensure that similar discussions would not be approved in the future, the AAA/CASCA vowed to “undertake a major review of the processes associated with vetting sessions at our annual meetings.”
The following day, the panelists issued a response letter, expressing their disappointment that the AAA and CASCA presidents had “chosen to forbid scholarly dialogue” on the topic. They rejected the “false accusation” that supporting the “continued use of biological sex categories (e.g., male and female; man and woman) is to imperil the safety of the LGBTQI community.” The panelists called “particularly egregious” the AAA/CASCA’s assertion that the panel would compromise the program’s “scientific integrity.” They noted that, ironically, the AAA/CASCA’s “decision to anathematize our panel looks very much like an anti-science response to a politicized lobbying campaign.”
I spoke with Weiss, who expressed her frustration over the canceled panel and the two presidents’ stifling of honest discussion about sex. She was concerned about the continual shifting of goalposts on the issue:
We used to say there’s sex, and gender. Sex is biological, and gender is not. Then it’s no, you can no longer talk about sex. Sex and gender are one, and separating the two makes you a transphobe, when of course it doesn’t. In anthropology and many topics, the goalposts are continuously moved. And, because of that, we need to stand up and say, “I’m not moving from my place unless there’s good scientific evidence that my place is wrong.” And I don’t think there is good scientific evidence that there are more than two sexes.
Weiss was not the only person to object. When I broke news of the cancellation on X, it immediately went viral. At the time of writing, my post has more than 2.4 million views, and the episode has ignited public outcry from individuals and academics across the political spectrum. Science writer Michael Shermer called the AAA and CASCA’s presidents’ letter “shameful” and an “utterly absurd blank slate denial of human nature.” Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke University, described it as “absolutely appalling.” Jeffrey Flier, the Harvard University distinguished service professor and former dean of the Harvard Medical School, viewed it as “a chilling declaration of war on scholarly controversy.” Even Elon Musk expressed his disbelief with a single word: “Wow.”
Despite the backlash, the AAA and CASCA have held firm. On September 28, the AAA posted a statement on its website titled “No Place For Transphobia in Anthropology: Session Pulled from Annual Meeting Program.” The statement reiterated the stance outlined in the initial letter, declaring the “Let’s Talk About Sex” panel an affront to its values and claiming that it endangered AAA members’ safety and lacked scientific rigor.
The AAA’s statement claimed that the now-canceled panel was at odds with their first ethical principle of professional responsibility: “Do no harm.” It likened the scuttled panel’s “gender critical scholarship” to the “race science of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” the main goal of which was to “advance a ‘scientific’ reason to question the humanity of already marginalized groups of people.” In this instance, the AAA argued, “those who exist outside a strict and narrow sex/gender binary” are being targeted.
Weiss remains unconvinced by this moral posturing. “If the panel was so egregious,” she asked, “why had it been accepted in the first place?”
The AAA also claimed that Weiss’s panel lacked “scientific integrity,” and that she and her fellow panelists “relied on assumptions that ran contrary to the settled science in our discipline.” The panelists, the AAA argued, had committed “one of the cardinal sins of scholarship” by “assum[ing] the truth of the proposition that . . . sex and gender are simplistically binary, and that this is a fact with meaningful implications for the discipline.” In fact, the AAA claimed, the panelists’ views “contradict scientific evidence” about sex and gender, since “[a]round the world and throughout history, there have always been people whose gender roles do not align neatly with their reproductive anatomy.”
There is much to respond to in this portion of AAA’s statement. First, it’s ironic for the organization to accuse scientists of committing the “cardinal sin” of “assuming the truth” of something, and then to justify cancelling those scientists’ panel on the grounds that the panelists refuse to accept purportedly “settled science.” Second, the panel was organized to discuss biological sex (i.e., the biology of males and females), not “gender roles”; pivoting from discussions of basic biology to murkier debates about sex-related social roles and expectations is a common tactic of gender ideologues. Third, the AAA’s argument that a person’s “gender role” might not “align neatly” with his or her reproductive anatomy implies the existence of normative behaviors for members of each sex. Indeed, this is a central tenet of gender ideology that many people dispute and warrants the kind of discussion the panel intended to provide.
The AAA’s statement made another faulty allegation, this time against Weiss for using “sex identification” instead of “sex estimation” when assessing the sex of skeletal remains. The AAA claimed that Weiss’s choice of terminology was problematic and unscholarly because it assumes a “determinative” process that “is easily influenced by cognitive bias on the part of the researcher.”
Weiss, however, rejects the AAA’s notion that the term “sex determination” is outdated or improper. She emphasized that “sex determination” is frequently used in the literature, as demonstrated in numerous contemporary anthropology papers, along with “sex estimation.” Weiss said, “I tend not to use the term ‘sex estimation’ because to estimate is usually associated with a numeric value; thus, I do use the term ‘age estimation.’ But just as ‘age estimation’ does not mean that there is no actual age of an individual and that biological age changes don’t exist, ‘sex estimation’ does not mean that there isn’t a biological sex binary.” She also contested the AAA’s claim that anthropologists’ use of “sex estimation” is meant to accommodate people who identify as transgender or non-binary. Rather, she said, “sex estimation” is used when “anthropologists are not 100 [percent] sure of their accuracy for a variety of reasons, including that the remains may be fragmented.” But as these methods improve—which was a focus of her talk—such “estimations” become increasingly determinative.
After making that unfounded allegation against Weiss, the AAA further embarrasses itself by claiming that “There is no single biological standard by which all humans can be reliably sorted into a binary male/female sex classification,” and that sex and gender are “historically and geographically contextual, deeply entangled, and dynamically mutable categories.”
Each of these assertions is empirically false. An individual’s sex can be determined by observing their primary sex organs, or gonads, as these organs determine the type of gamete an individual can or would have the function to produce. The existence of a very rare subset of individuals with developmental conditions that make their sex difficult to assess does not substantiate the existence of a third sex. Sex is binary because there are only two sexes, not because every human in existence is neatly classifiable. Additionally, while some organisms are capable of changing sex, humans are not among them. Therefore, the assertion that human sex is “dynamically mutable” is false.
Weiss appropriately highlights the “false equivalency” inherent in the claim that the existence of people with intersex conditions disproves the binary nature of sex. “People who are born intersex or with disorders of sex development are not nonbinary or transgender, they are individuals with medical pathologies,” she said. “We would not argue that because some people are born with polydactyly (extra fingers or toes), often seen in inbred populations, that you can’t say that humans have ten fingers and ten toes. It's an absurd conclusion.”
On September 29, the AAA posted a Letter of Support on its website, penned by anthropologists Agustin Fuentes, Kathryn Clancy, and Robin Nelson, endorsing the decision to cancel the “Let’s Talk About Sex” session. Again, the primary motivation cited was the panel’s opposition to the supposed “settled science” concerning sex. The authors disputed the panelists’ claim that the term “sex” was being supplanted by “gender” in anthropology, claiming instead that there is “massive work on these terms, and their entanglements and nuances.” They also reiterated the AAA’s false accusation that the term “sex determination” was problematic and outdated. Nonetheless, the canceled panel could have served as a prime venue to discuss these issues.
In response to these calls for censorship, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) issued an open letter to the AAA and CASCA. FIRE characterized the groups’ decision to cancel the panel as a “retreat” from their scientific mission, which “requires unwavering dedication to free inquiry and open dialogue.” It argued that this mission “cannot coexist with inherently subjective standards of ‘harm,’ ‘safety,’ and ‘dignity,’ which are inevitably used to suppress ideas that cause discomfort or conflict with certain political or ideological commitments.” FIRE implored the AAA and CASCA to “reconsider this decision and to recommit to the principles of intellectual freedom and open discourse that are essential to the organizations’ academic missions.” FIRE’s open letter has garnered signatures from nearly 100 academics, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and Princeton University’s Robert P. George. FIRE invites additional academic faculty to add their names.
The initial letter and subsequent statement by the AAA/CASCA present a particularly jarring illustration of the undermining of science in the name of “social justice.” The organizations have embarrassed themselves yet lack the self-awareness to realize it. The historian of science Alice Dreger called the AAA and CASCA presidents’ use of the term “cardinal sin” appropriate “because Pérez and Heller are working from dogma so heavy it is worthy of the Vatican.” Indeed, they have fallen prey to gender ideologues, driven into a moral panic by the purported dangers of defending the existence of biological sex to people whose sex distresses them. The AAA/CASCA have determined that it is necessary not only to lie to these people about their sex but also to deceive the rest of us about longstanding, foundational, and universal truths about sex.
Science can advance only within a system and culture that values open inquiry and robust debate. The AAA and CASCA are not just barring a panel of experts with diverse and valid perspectives on biological sex from expressing their well-considered conclusions; they are denying conference attendees the opportunity to hear diverse viewpoints and partake in constructive conversations on a controversial subject. Such actions obstruct the path of scientific progress.
“When you move away from the truth, no good can come from it,” Weiss says. The AAA and CASCA would be wise to ponder that reality.
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