Who’s Afraid of Gender?, by Judith Butler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $23.99)

The gender theorist Judith Butler and I have been engaged in an arm’s-length dialogue for several years. I have criticized Butler’s ideology in a long essay on Drag Queen Story Hour, and Butler, in turn, has criticized my efforts in helping craft reforms of the Florida university system, which she has preposterously deemed “fascism.”

Now, Butler has published a new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, that launches new and unfounded attacks on my work.

First, some background for the uninitiated. Butler is one of the world’s most prominent gender theorists. She has argued that society is dominated by “phallologocentrism” (the logic of the male member), and that a person’s gender is an expression of “performativity,” shaped by human choice rather than biological necessity. When undergraduates insist that reality, and, in particular, sexuality, is a “social construct,” they are echoing Judith Butler.

An unremarkable Foucault imitator, Butler is not particularly insightful, but her use of Latinate neologisms and dense prose give her work the appearance of profundity. She often seems impressed with herself as she turns English words into Germanic-length monsters. Here is a quintessential sentence of Butler’s impenetrable writing: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

In her most recent book, Butler approaches self-parody, devoting chapters to subjects such as “Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex” and “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” Rather than parse her ramblings, I’ll focus instead on Butler’s campaign against a philosophy that I know quite well: my own.

Butler has packed her book with untruths, which call into question her basic competence as a scholar—not to mention Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s apparently nonexistent fact-checking process. Consider some examples.

First, Butler writes: “In a lecture at the Claremont Institute in California, a conservative think tank, Christopher Rufo railed against CRT [critical race theory], but when asked whether he could explain what CRT is, he floundered and refused, saying, ‘I don’t give a shit about this stuff.’”

This sentence contains several falsehoods. First, the lecture Butler describes was not in California, but in Washington, D.C. Second, nobody asked me to explain critical race theory, which I have analyzed in countless articles, interviews, and a New York Times best-selling book. Rather, I was making a specific comment about graduate students who had peppered me with “highly technical Hegel interpretations,” about which, I somewhat crudely responded, “I don’t give a shit.” Butler apparently was uninterested in these facts and invented her own instead.

Next, Butler accuses me of waging “a culture war” against queer theory, taking issue with my description of queer theory as consisting of “lessons on ‘sex liberation,’ ‘gender exploration,’ ‘BDSM,’ ‘being a sex worker,’ . . . and ‘sexual activity while using licit and illicit drugs.’” More specifically, she claims that I have “instigated several campaigns accusing primary schools of teaching BDSM—a wild allegation that reflects a frenzied fantasy more than any actual pedagogy.”

Butler uses scare quotes and appeals to “fantasy” to create the impression that I have made up these claims out of thin air, but each of her references comes from documented reporting of mine that has never been challenged. If she had looked, Butler would have discovered that the first set of terms—“sex liberation,” “gender exploration,” “BDSM,” “being a sex worker,” and “sexual activity while using licit and illicit drugs”—are verbatim quotations from the curriculum of a gender-activist organization that works extensively with children.

I have never claimed that primary schools were teaching BDSM. Rather, I have reported that the School District of Philadelphia encouraged teachers to attend a conference featuring “BDSM,” “kink,” “trans sex,” and “banging beyond binaries.” Additionally, I have reported that Lurie Children’s Hospital worked with Chicago middle- and high school teachers to promote materials on “kink,” “BDSM,” and “trans-friendly” sex toys.

Each of these stories is based on unchallenged reporting. It is Butler, not me, who is engaged in a “frenzied fantasy.”

In the book’s footnotes, Butler spreads more falsehoods—this time, about my tenure as a New College of Florida trustee. First, she claims that the trustees, including me, fired all the professors who were up for tenure during our first year. In fact, we merely denied a group of candidates early tenure, and encouraged them to reapply the following year per the regular timeline. None was fired.

Second, Butler accuses the trustees of creating a wave of “anti-gay harassment” on campus. Contra Butler’s claim, however, New College of Florida has seen dramatic drops in rates of sexual harassment and other Title IX complaints under its new leadership. The campus is much safer than it was under the previous leadership.

Indeed, the only incident of harassment that I can recall came following a speech I made on campus with Governor Ron DeSantis, in which a militant “non-binary” student, who later appeared with Butler in an online forum, spat on me and subsequently was charged with battery. (I requested that prosecutors drop the case after the student agreed to withdraw from the college.)

Third, Butler claims that, at New College, “faculty were fired from their positions for teaching ‘woke’ subjects.” Again, there is no truth to this charge. Many faculty members have resigned, and others have seen their contracts expire. And we abolished the gender-studies program, which was something of a farce; its director, fellow trustee Amy Reid, remains on the faculty as a French professor. Not a single professor was fired for teaching “‘woke’ subjects,” or any other subjects, for that matter.

Butler, or her fact checkers, could have reached out to me or to New College administrators. Instead, they created a fiction that fit their priors.

This serial fabrication is part and parcel of Butler’s ideology. She has spent decades pushing theories of “social construction” and denying fundamental realities—pushing the lie, for example, that men can become “trans women,” and that women can become “trans men.” With her latest book, Butler has gone trans factual.

There is no bottom to Judith Butler’s postmodern theories, only an endless procession of novelties. These appear to be catching up to her. The gender world has moved beyond her. Butler herself must sense this. Perhaps feeling that she has lost her intersectional luster—she is, after all, an affluent, cisgender, able-bodied white woman—she has recently adopted “they/them” pseudo-pronouns. Her transgressions now have an air of desperation to them. But whatever her motivations, Butler and her publisher would be better off focusing on reality, not fantasy.

Photo by Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Images


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