My response to Dr Asia Ferrin

In a post this week on the American Philosophical Association blog, Dr Asia Ferrin purports to teach readers about how to conduct more ‘open’ and ‘respectful’ and ‘evidence-based’ discussions about gender and sex, by showing them how I, personally, am doing it all wrong. She takes these descriptors directly from an organisation I have worked with — A Woman’s Place UK — and their ‘5 demands’, though clearly she is sceptical that these demands should be taken at face value, when endorsed by me. Based on her blog post, I think it’s fair to say that Ferrin either thinks I’m confused, self-deceived, or downright malicious in the way I conduct my discussions. This post is a response to hers.

A bit of background: in the UK, there is currently a government-run public consultation going on, about whether changing the legally-stated sex on one’s birth certificate should be a matter of self-certification, or ‘self-ID’, without any other criterion applied. It ends in October. An associated question, also pertaining to the proposed legal change, is whether self-declared trans women should have access to protected spaces and resources traditionally reserved for females. A Woman’s Place UK is one of the grassroots organisations that has sprung up to try to force a conversation about all this with the general public, in the face of highly organised and well-funded attempts from LGBT charities and other public bodies to shut discussion down. It’s mostly run by left-wing trade unionists, and regularly platforms gender-critical trans women as speakers. I have spoken at a Woman’s Place UK event recently, both about the proposed changes, and about the silencing of gender-critical and radical feminist voices in academia: here is a video of my talk. My other contributions are all on my Medium profile. For general background on concerns about changes to the Gender Recognition Action, see this website, run by another grassroots organisation Fair Play for Women.

According to Ferrin, as I pursue my gender-critical arguments in public, I should be working out ‘why might the other person with whom I am engaged be hostile in this moment and what limitations or biases am I myself contributing that hinder productive discussion?”. She thinks I’m missing the point of any hostility I encounter, which is this: a negative answer to the question ‘Should trans women have access to spaces ‘typically designated for women only’? must be founded in one of a limited number of flawed assumptions. Ferrin lists these assumptions as A)-D).

The first such assumption is A) ‘Trans women aren’t women’. Ferrin says I defend this position. Actually, I don’t. I defend the view that trans women are not biologically female. (Sometimes, in earlier writing, I used ‘natal woman’ but I am clearer nowadays about using ‘female’ to refer to the category I am most concerned with). Admittedly, to distinguish between ‘woman’ and ‘female’ may sound to many like a distinction without a difference. However, in the history of feminism, a distinction has been made between ‘womanhood’, understood roughly as a socially constructed, pernicious set of stereotypes about what a biological female should be, and ‘femaleness’ i.e. belonging to the female sex class. I don’t yet know what I think about that view, in its detail, and am still working it out. But I’m absolutely clear that trans women are not female, whether or not they are women. Biological sex is not a spectrum, even given our relatively recent knowledge about several kinds of intersex people. (There are nine models of VW Golf, but being a VW Golf is not a spectrum). Sex is not a social construct either, even given that it has many social meanings layered upon it. (A diamond is still made of carbon, even if it is, allegedly, a girl’s best friend). And even if sex was a spectrum, or a social construct (which it isn’t), neither point would do anything to motivate the idea that a male can count as a female, simply in virtue of self-declaring as one; or even in virtue of really, really feeling as if they are one, or wanting to be one.

Two clarifications: first — to anticipate the uncharitable responses my blog pieces often get from other academic philosophers, who like to make out I’m stupid or naive — I don’t take the latter points to settle that question, and am currently working on an extended piece on biological sex. A further important clarification is that, though I don’t defend explicitly the view that trans women are not women, I definitely and unashamedly defend the right of other women to freely believe this, if that’s where their reasoning takes them, and to say it in a range of politically important contexts, even if it causes offence sometimes. My defence of this point is here.

As terminology is so fraught, and I haven’t always been the clearest, I’ll forgive Ferrin this understandable mistake. In what follows, where relevant, I’ll translate her subsequent points against me into points about ‘females’, and see if they run.

Ferrin starts by claiming that saying that ‘trans women aren’t women’ (or, in the new, more accurate construction, saying that they aren’t females) ‘hurts’ and ‘harms’ (her italics) trans women, in that it leads to physical violence against them. This is highly tendentious, for a number of reasons. For one, it is very difficult to work out precise causal routes to physical violence against trans people, in the cases we know about — is it violence on the basis of being gender-non-conforming (not all gender non-conforming people are trans)? Is it violence on the assumption the person is gay (i.e. homophobia)? I have looked at many a survey on violence against trans people since I started writing about this, and none of them have done anything to try and sort this out question, in relation to responses given. (Such surveys also tend to be commissioned by trans activist organisations and done on the basis of self-selection and self-report, with no follow-up surveys; but I digress). Crime reports are also mostly impotent to settle it.

A further relevant point is that we do know that violence against trans women is carried out almost exclusively by males. If Ferrin’s thought is that violent males are assaulting trans women on the basis of reading Medium articles by me, or attending Women’s Place meetings, she had better provide some evidence, hadn’t she? It’s quite a serious allegation, after all. Another thing we know is that, when it comes to homicide against trans people, as indicated in this report , ‘62 percent of the 2,609 transgender people killed worldwide from January 2008 through September 2017 were sex workers.’ Horrifying, yes. But does this indicate a more complicated and realistic story, in terms of significant causal factors, than ‘some people read or heard some feminists saying ‘trans women aren’t women’, and then went out to attack trans women?’. Er.. yes. (And as a side note: ‘evidence-based’ discussion about violence against trans people, as apparently enthusiastically sought by Ferrin, should not, if at all possible, take place on the basis of articles by celebrity UK trans activist Paris Lees.)

The next false assumption I make, which supposedly justifies some of the hostility I get from opponents, is B): Trans women are dangerous to cis women (i.e. females). Here’s Ferrin (my italics): “Like Assumption A above, Assumption B is hurtful and harmful. I can imagine that if someone wanted to have a discussion, or explore a thesis, that involved invoking this assumption about me, I would experience a range of emotions — e.g. fear, hurt, disappointment, anger, resentment, hopelessness, and/or betrayal. I would feel some or all of these things at once if someone implied that I was dangerous.”

I have clarified repeatedly, and am happy to keep saying, that I don’t believe trans women are dangerous because they are trans women. I do however think that some are dangerous. Why this is, exactly, will differ from case to case, but as a good feminist who hates toxic gender norms, I would wager money on being socialised as a male having something to do with it, in many cases. The main point is, though, that I didn’t get the idea that some trans women are violent or dangerous out of thin air. There is in fact plenty of evidence of actual violence and harassment by some male trans women against females, in female-only spaces. To look for cases in the US, you have to look at local press reporting, not the national newspapers; in the UK, you (unfortunately) have to look in the right-wing press, and not the left. Both of these omissions, and inclusions, are no doubt politically motivated. Nonetheless, no matter how sensationally presented, such reports are not invented. You would have to be cognitively dissonant, a magical thinker, or understand nothing about human nature, to think that trans violence against females was an impossibility. I don’t know which of these applies to Ferrin, but in any case she writes at one point that trans women ‘have not in fact been dangerous to cis women’. This is just false. Some have.

Does pointing this fact out in public cause ‘harm’, as Ferrin says it does? In my view, it causes significantly more harm not to point it out. Ferrin and her imagined hurt trans counterpart obviously need to distinguish between ‘some significant proportion of class x is dangerous’ and ‘you, as a member of class x, are dangerous’. Would Ferrin have any truck whatsoever with a ‘cis man’ who complained that he was personally upset by the claim that many cis men are dangerous, on the basis that he himself was not dangerous? I suspect not. I don’t deny that many trans people take it highly personally when people like me point out that some trans women — not them particularly, but some others — are criminal and violent and that this makes a difference to how public bodies should organise social space. But frankly, given the over-sensitivity and clear misinterpretation involved, that is not any reason not to have those conversations, especially when the costs of not having the conversations are so great for females.

Generally, I do wish, probably pointlessly, that US commentators would try to imagine the situation that UK females now face, before leaping to the conclusion that I must be hateful in arguing as I do. We don’t have Trump in power; that’s your unfortunate position, not ours. We are facing, through the proposed change in law, the possible elimination of our sex-class-based protections on a national scale. Indeed it is already happening. As a male in the UK, with the relevant organisation’s blessing, you can officially ‘self-identify’ into such diverse, formerly female-only units as: Girl Guide troupes, including their camp tents and showers; Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University; Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Swimming Ponds; TopShop women’s changing rooms; women’s sleeping carriages on the Caledonian Sleeper train; British Gymnastics women’s teams; many school changing rooms; and, most notoriously, women’s prisons, where a trans women recently sexually assaulted four female prisoners. This is all approved by politicians and remains unchallenged by any official public body. Indeed, it is nearly universally enthusiastically welcomed (apart from, that is, the dull, background drone of some middle-aged females protesting vociferously). If females in those spaces object to finding males there, we are told that at best the females should be put somewhere else; at worst, they should be prosecuted for hate speech. This is happening socially, right now, even in advance of any changes to make it legally easier for males to transition. Concerns about safeguarding, so heavily present elsewhere in UK law, seem to have been completely abandoned.

Now, it is my assumption that female-only spaces where women get undressed and sleep are there for at least the following reason: to protect their occupants from sexual assault, voyeurism, and exhibitionism from males, and to protect their privacy and dignity. It is also my assumption that when it comes to large-scale social structures, you cannot let only the nice, harmless people in. You either let an entire category of people in, or you don’t, and there is no way of working out in advance who will take advantage. Either we have female-only protected spaces, or we don’t. If Ferrin wants to argue against having them at all, so that everything is mixed-sex, then she should do so directly. If alternatively, she is aware of any evidence that suggests trans women (most of whom have penises and many of whom are heterosexual i.e. female-attracted) do not exhibit patterns of male violence and so can be admitted safely as a class into proximity with vulnerable females, she should present it. In the absence of either, the only conclusion to draw from her insistence that I am harming trans women by arguing for female-only spaces — so much so, that not only should we let them in, but that I shouldn’t even be disagreeing in public — is that she does not take female interests remotely seriously.

In discussing this point, Ferrin makes an analogy between me and a white person arguing that ‘black people are dangerous to white people’. She says: ‘it would be unsurprising for a conversation involving these assumptions to make many Black people feel a range of emotions and thus inclined to shut down conversations in which these assumptions are made’. Personally, I’d rather steer completely clear of any trivialising analogies between the struggle of an entire people for civil rights, and the supposed ‘right’ of male trans women to enter female-only spaces. So let’s take instead the claim ‘white people are dangerous to black people’. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that many are; especially in the US, where lots of white people seem to have guns. Should we stop saying this to white people, because some white people might misunderstand the implication and feel their personal integrity is thereby being impugned? That’s a big fat ‘no’ from me. As long as commentators each make reasonable efforts to disambiguate ‘some’ from ‘all’, they are not responsible for basic misunderstandings of their words by others, however horrible these misunderstandings then make those others feel.

According to Ferrin, the third assumption I make, which accounts for the righteous hurt which my interlocutors feel as they argue with me, is this: ‘C) Trans women are not necessarily dangerous, but they do make some cis women uncomfortable in these more intimate spaces.”

This one made me laugh. Say that the assumption is true. As a matter of fact, I think it is. So females (‘cis women’) feel discomfort at sharing these spaces, AND, according to Ferrin, trans women feel discomfort at hearing about this discomfort. But whose discomfort should care about, according to Ferrin? Trans women’s, stupid! This is a bit of a theme for Ferrin, and for my critics generally. If there is violence, pain, or discomfort to be noticed and alleviated, it is that which trans women suffer, not females.

The final faulty assumption Ferrin thinks I make is this: D) Including trans women in women-only spaces makes cis women (ie. females) more vulnerable to cis men. Quite stunningly, not only is Ferrin reluctant to countenance the possibility of any violence whatsoever from trans women against females, she is almost equally reluctant to countenance the possibility of malfeasant ‘cis’ (not-trans) males, pretending to be trans women, in order to do harm in female-only spaces. According to her, ‘empirical work like this is .. complicated’ and ‘the jury is going to be out for a while on the plausibility of this’. (Readers who are ‘cis men’ might at this point be longing for the degree of charity and cautious scepticism Ferrin shows here, applied to crimes committed by members of their group not dressed as women).

Ferrin also implies that even if there was such evidence of ‘cis’ males cross-dressing to get into women’s spaces (er.. there is!), we could not on that basis ‘make the normative jump from the descriptive’ (oh hello, Davey Hume - bet you never thought you’d turn up here). OK, fine, whatever; but could we at least make the prudential jump from the descriptive, if not the loftily ‘normative’? If the evidence shows (as in fact, it is already showing) that some males — whether genuinely ‘truly’ trans or just pretending — turn out to pose a threat to females, and it’s really hard to tell in advance which ones will, can’t we then make a social norm and/or law to exclude all males from female-only spaces on prudential grounds, in order to keep females safe?

Ferrin goes on to say that it is ‘most important to note’ that even non -gender-critical ‘folks’ like herself can be, and are, concerned about the possibility of ‘cis men’ (not trans, never trans!) hurting females in women-only spaces. Hence, I’m being ‘unnecessarily divisive’ in implying that only gender-critical people care about such things. Ok, but hang on a minute, Dr Ferrin — only a paragraph ago, weren’t you saying that ‘the jury is going to be out for a while on the plausibility of this claim’? Truly, this is a fast-moving environment. In any case, I am absolutely delighted to know that you take this issue for females so seriously. Because do you know, I have a practically workable solution at hand for you..

Generally, Ferrin’s whole piece is an extended plea for me — as representative of all those bolshy females who refuse to say what they are expected to about this matter, and to go along with the politically expedient status quo — to shut up about female’s boring old feelings, or even material harms to them, and listen to trans women’s feelings instead. There’s a lot of rhetorical stuff used to hammer the point home: phrases such as ‘malicious’ ‘hypocritical’, ‘stirs the pot’, ‘divisive’ and ‘shameful’ are used about me. Notwithstanding, I continue to see no reason on earth why we should automatically prioritise the hurt feelings of trans women, as weighed up against emotions such as embarrassment, anxiety, fear, and even in some cases trauma and physical pain, on the part of females.