What I believe about sex and gender: part 5

Political implications, continued

39. Women and trans women have some political concerns in common. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are traceable to sexism or misogyny, as many are, they have common interests with women, and both groups would benefit from working together and organising together.

40. There is also some divergence in experience. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are not shared with biological females, there may be a need for them to work and organise separately. On some issues – for instance, with respect to forms of discrimination and marginalisation traceable to transphobia, rather than sexism – trans women and trans men may have more in common with one another than do trans women and biologically female women, and so may benefit from organising together.

41. Some political issues will affect biological females only. These issues are usually of paramount importance to female persons. Reproduction, contraception, female diseases: these are only really issues of concern for biologically female people, and insofar as they don’t affect trans women, who are biologically male, it may sometimes be appropriate for them to be excluded from organising on this issue.

42. As noted in point 30, despite their differences and divergences, there is sufficient overlap and commonality of experience to conceive of women as a coherent political class, and it is this belief that makes feminism, despite its inherent diversity and variety of forms, a coherent political label. One especially salient form this commonality of experience takes is harassment, abuse, exploitation, and violence at the hands of men. Obviously this incorporates a large spectrum of behaviours, including exploitation of domestic, emotional and sexual labour, emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, verbal harassment, physical violence, sexual assault, rape and murder. All women live under the constant background threat of male physical and sexual violence, fear of which constrains our freedom and shapes our behaviour and choices. Crucially, this exploitation, abuse and violence towards women is committed by people born male, and raised and socialised as men. This may be a product of biological factors, such as higher levels of testosterone among males; it may be a product of male socialisation and the inculcation of masculine norms of dominance and aggression; or, most likely, it may be caused by a combination of the two. But it is clear that inflicting emotional abuse and violence on women is not caused by simply “identifying” as a man. If it were, we would expect to see transsexual men inflicting violence and abuse of women at the same rate that men born and raised male do. The fact is that most violence and aggression – whether towards women or towards men – is carried out by male persons, inhabiting biologically male bodies, who were raised and socialised as men.

43. Given this common experience of exploitation, abuse and violence inflicted by male people, those born and raised female – especially those who have personally suffered male  abuse and violence – have a legitimate interest in the existence of some spaces designated for females only, away from the presence of people with male bodies who have been raised and socialised male. These might be spaces to recover and heal; they might be spaces for political organisation and consciousness-raising; or they might simply be places for temporary sanctuary and privacy, safe from male attention. The users and organisers of gyms and sports centres, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, and other kinds of women-only space, may legitimately decide that it is appropriate for such spaces to exclude those born and raised male, to facilitate women’s healing, or to provide a site of respite and safety from a male-dominated world. Alternatively, they may decide to include some male born people, under certain conditions, such as full transition. This is not to say that all persons born and raised male are necessarily violent or abusive, or will inevitably shatter the sanctuary of such spaces, any more than acknowledging the need for persons of colour to organise and associate freely in the absence of white people assumes that all white people are violent or abusive. It is simply to recognise the political significance of being a member of an oppressed class, and to acknowledge the importance to members of that class of being able to organise and associate separately, free from those who are members of the dominant class, who will have different experiences of that class system.

44. The result of this is that if the users and organisers of a women-only space deem it appropriate for them to exclude trans women from this space, it will often be reasonable and legitimate for them to do so. (See here for a careful and considered account of the various functions different female-only spaces perform, and the degree of inclusion or exclusion that might be appropriate.) This may cause emotional pain and distress for some trans women, who may strongly feel that they are women, identify as women, and desire to be regarded by others as women. This emotional pain and distress is unintended and unfortunate. No feminist wants to inflict emotional suffering on trans women. However, it may sometimes be unavoidable, and there is no reason why in these instances, the desire of some trans women to be included in the space in question should trump the legitimate interests of females in occupying separate spaces. It is essential that we ask what purpose the space is intended to perform, and be prepared to engage in a critical reflection of whether such purposes might be thwarted by the presence of male-bodied and male-socialised people, regardless of the intent or desire of those people. While it may be painful and injurious to the self-perception and self-identification of trans women to exclude them from some female-only spaces, these spaces do not exist to validate the identities of those who believe themselves to be women. They exist to provide safety, sanctuary and community to those born and raised female, something which females, as an oppressed social group, have a right to enjoy.

45. It does not follow from this that any feminist who wants to organise a female-only space is proposing to conduct checks on the people who try to enter those spaces, to demand to see a Gender Recognition Certificate, or to insist on examining the genitals of people at the door. Rather, it is a matter of making the policies of the space and the boundaries of the women who use that space publicly known, and asking for those boundaries to be upheld and respected. If trans women respect biological females as their sisters and allies, they will be willing to acknowledge those women’s need for some female-only space, and their right to draw their boundaries in whatever way makes them feel comfortable and safe – as indeed, most trans women do.

46. Like biological females, trans women are frequently victims of male violence and sexual predation, and so they too have an interest in having access to safe spaces away from men. Ideally, there would be sufficient time, resources and physical space for trans women to have their own facilities and spaces where appropriate. In addition to mixed facilities for those who are comfortable with them, there would be female-only changing rooms and refuges, and facilities designated specifically for trans women. Such objectives can sometimes be relatively easily realised, such as through the creation of gender-neutral, self-contained toilets and changing cubicles. However, given inevitable constraints on resources, the provision of safe spaces and facilities exclusively for trans women may not always be achievable. Such cases present us with difficult challenges, and careful thought and deliberation will be required to determine, on a case-by-case basis, how best to balance the competing interests and claims at stake. But it should not be presumed as a matter of principle that trans women have an absolute right to enter all existing women-only spaces, as depending on the context and the purpose of the space, this may conflict with the needs and desires of existing users. Furthermore, the funding and resources for spaces such as women’s refuges and rape crisis centres frequently exists only as a result of long, dedicated, continuous work and commitment on behalf of the women who run them. There is nothing to stop trans activists and their allies engaging in similar projects to provide their own facilities.

47. The label TERF, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, to refer to those feminists who argue for the continued existence of at least some female-only spaces, is a thought-terminating cliche: a piece of rhetoric designed to mask the difficulty and complexity involved in balancing competing interests, to prevent the need for further reflection, and to stifle dissent. As argued above, there may sometimes be valid and legitimate reasons to exclude trans women from feminist spaces, depending on the context and the function of the space. The use of the label TERF to describe any woman who argues in favour of some female-only spaces serves to pathologise all disagreement on this issue, and to foreclose the possibility of reasoned discussion and compromise. Either you agree that self-identified trans women should be entitled to enter each and every female space, including shared changing room facilities and women’s refuges, with no exceptions or conditions; or you are labelled a dangerous, malicious bigot who must be ostracised and contained. If you express any discomfort about, for example, this individual gaining access to female changing rooms and toilets; or if you think that a convicted rapist who decides to identify as a woman should not be housed in a women’s prison; you are a TERF, guilty of bigotry on a par with racism or homophobia, and thus your concerns can be dismissed without further argument.

48. Furthermore, the word TERF and accusations of transphobia are now levelled at any person who questions the conceptual coherence and scientific plausibility of the idea of gender identity, or who continues to believe in the material reality and political significance of biological sex. Making statements such as “the penis is the male sex organ” or “women have vaginas” is, among certain transgender activists, sufficient for one to be labelled a dangerous, transphobic bigot. The label TERF is therefore not a neutral descriptor. It is not a meaningful description of any feminist politics, and there are no individuals who define their own position as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Furthermore, regardless of how those who coined it originally intended to be used, it should now be interpreted as a slur: first, because no woman actually endorses the label to define herself, and generally speaking most women called TERF object to being so labelled; and second, because it is so frequently accompanied by abusive language and threats of violence.

49. Part of the motivation for writing the present posts is to clarify my own position on sex, gender, and female-only spaces. I have been labelled a TERF and a transphobic bigot on many occasions, simply for continuing to insist that: female biology exists; female biology matters; and females have a right to some female-only spaces. These posts are intended to clarify my view for any observer who has read such accusations about me or women like me. The reader can decide for herself whether she thinks the views I have expressed here are evidence of bigotry and prejudice towards trans people.

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here; part 6 is here.)