When I was little I’d pester grownups with hypothetical questions starting with “If…” or “What if…”.
My parents indulged my curiosity, but whenever I got to spend time with my uncle, I was in for a let-down. He was a no-nonsense practical man with no patience for silly questions and little formal education, other than the school of hard knockers followed by Screw U.
Hence, whenever I started a sentence with a conditional clause, he’d cut me short: “If Grandma had balls, she’d be Grandpa.” Since I never heard rude words at home, they fascinated me in a morbid sort of way, and I never minded the rebuke. Nor did I get to ponder the literal meaning of his seemingly self-evident statement.
It’s only now, decades later, that I realise how hopelessly behind the times my uncle was. And not only he: everybody I knew was in agreement on the fixtures specific to each of the two [sic!] sexes.
We don’t even have to look so far back: even a single generation ago it wouldn’t have occurred to any sane person to insist that Grandma or even a woman of reproductive age could have testicles. That’s how it just was: the issue wasn’t up for debate.
Did I say a generation ago? I was too generous. Even a decade ago a politician didn’t have to fear for his job if he gave the wrong answer to the question “Can a woman have a penis?” Moreover, the question was unlikely to come up in the first place.
Yet the march of progress is unstoppable, and it’s up to us to stay in step. Hence that sacramental question isn’t only posed routinely, but it has also become a mass-produced trap to snare politicians.
Had you put that question to my uncle, he would have told you to perform a ballistically improbable act on yourself. That would be a good answer even today, but our politicians realise to their horror that there are no good answers. It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
A Labour politician answering ‘no’ would be drummed out of his party faster than you can say traitor to the cause. A Tory providing the same answer would be pilloried as an insensitive troglodyte typologically similar to Hitler.
The yes answer would be less problematic for a Labour MP than for a Tory one, but that’s not to say the former would enjoy a free ride. A lot would depend on his constituency, how solidly Labour it is.
If he represents, say, Camden, where the locals would indeed vote for Hitler before they’d ever contemplate voting Tory, their MP would score points by stating unequivocally that yes, women can have penises, men can have vaginas and either group can have both together if they so choose.
But give the same response in a constituency where the Labour majority is wafer-thin, and the wafer could well be gobbled up at the next general election.
So even a Labour politician has to watch his step; even for him equivocation is the best way out. For a Tory, especially one in a high cabinet post, it’s the only way.
He wouldn’t want to alienate his core support by saying it’s perfectly normal for a woman to have a penis, with testicles attached. But then neither would he want to narrow his appeal by saying it’s all about chromosomes: if it’s XY, a penis is de rigueur; XX makes it impossible.
And of course he’d lose his whole electorate (with the exception of die-hard retrogrades like me) if he gave an answer similar to the one my uncle would have offered.
It’s against that backdrop that one can fully appreciate the replies provided by the leaders of our two major parties, PM Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer.
His fellow Tories have hailed Mr Sunak for giving a straightforward reply: a woman, said the intrepid politician, is an “adult human female”. Now, while complimenting the PM for his mastery of evasiveness that doesn’t appear evasive, one may still take issue there.
No one, not even that fishy Nicola Sturgeon, would object to that definition. Of course that’s what the word ‘woman’ means. But that doesn’t obviate the possibility of an “adult human female” having testicles. After all, an adult person with a penis could identify as a female, which is as good as being one – and hey presto, Bob’s your aunt, or Grandma if you’d rather.
Neither did Mr Sunak’s next phrase clarify matters. “Biological sex matters,” he said. Again, that Scottish fish could agree: saying it matters isn’t quite the same as saying it’s all that matters. Only the chromosomal statement above would be free of equivocation, and Mr Sunak wisely refused to make it.
As for Sir Keir, he chose not to go there at all. When asked the lapidary penile question, he warded it off as the “usual, toxic political football”. That may well be, but the hack would have been within his right to say no, it was a serious question requiring a serious answer.
Boy, am I glad I’m not a politician. I’d have to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to build a career, only to lose it in the next second after that question was asked. A charge for grievous bodily harm would also be hard to avoid.
P.S. Jokes aside, here’s how I’d answer the question in a thoughtful and civilised way.
It’s a father who embodies what theologians call the ‘principle’ of procreation. That’s why a man procreates outside his own body, and that’s why he stands outside and above his creation in the sense in which a woman doesn’t.
She conceives and gestates the child inside her body, and in that sense the child is a part of her, even though the man also contributes his DNA.
Symbolically the couple imitates the act of divine creation. The man is both transcendent (standing outside and above his creation) and immanent (present within it). The woman, on the other hand, is only immanent. That’s why a woman can’t have testicles not only biologically, but also philosophically and theologically.
Then again, no one capable of asking that question would be able to understand this answer.