Response to Professor Talia Mae Bettcher

Note: This is my response to a guest blog post at the Daily Nous by Professor Talia Mae Bettcher, which is itself a response to my earlier Medium pieces on transgenderism, feminism, and academic philosophy. These are accessible via my profile page on Medium.

(It’s traditional, I know, to open a response piece to a fellow philosopher with some sincere thanks to the original writer for their generous engagement. In this case, forgive me if I can’t muster much. Professor Bettcher opens with, and soon afterwards repeats for emphasis, a claim that my original pieces would be unlikely to get a passing grade on her student course. The best I can do here is to fail to reciprocate the sentiment.)

Since I began writing my essays, five weeks ago, I’ve become more adept at recognising what I already knew, which is that philosophers can — of course! — use forms of argumentative engagement to achieve political goals. Indeed, that is what I’ve been doing, unashamedly. My goals have been quite specific from the start, and I took them to be detectable relatively easily.

In no particular order: I wanted, first, to open up a space for free philosophical discussion, by other professional academics, of the Gender Critical position, without any automatic monstering of the author, simply for trying this. I consider the absence of this view and/or its active denigration, in the current academic philosophical landscape of journals and academic-run blogs — please note the ‘current’ — a troubling one, given its roots in a tradition, radical feminist thought, which I consider admirable. I did not, and do not, consider the articulation of the Gender Critical position automatically hateful.

It was also central to my purpose to draw attention to a particular political context — my local one, in the UK — in which the philosophical silence, or worse, active gatekeeping around any articulations of a Gender Critical position is contributing to a kind of paralysis, or so it seems to me. This context concerns proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act to bring in ‘self-identification’, without psychological or medicalised assessment, or any period of ‘living as a woman’, as explained in several places in the original pieces. Such is the febrile atmosphere here in the UK that any critical discussion at all of this Act and its implications for female-bodied people across a range of dimensions tends to be avoided for fear of being associated with a Gender Critical position. The UK Tory Government has, in the last week or two, announced a review of the current law, saying things which look largely positive about the proposed change. The Labour Party has already expressed itself ‘for’. Concerned women’s groups, including those which run children’s groups, domestic violence shelters, and rape crisis charities, are desperate to be consulted, but it isn’t clear that they will be. The chattering class of academics is absent from the discussion in a way that seems to me highly unusual and suspect, given what I know of their tendency to get involved in other debates.

My third and final aim was to engage with, not only academic philosophers, but also the wider public about these matters, and to play my part, alongside other feminists already active in this area, in furnishing non-philosophers with some conceptual distinctions of use in furthering their own discussions in a non-hostile way. I wrote my essays in a style and idiom fitted for that end (a conversational tone; no footnotes or bibliography; no substantive engagement with specific academic arguments; critical discussion of populist conceptions of gender; and so on). Doubtless critics will disbelieve me here, but it nonetheless remains true — at no point did I take myself to be doing substantive academic philosophy in those essays. I am fully aware of what academic philosophy looks like — I even do some myself, occasionally — and that is not it. My aims were as described: no more nor less.

If you like then, I thought of myself as I wrote, no doubt grandiosely, as the person in the disaster film running away from the group, carrying a flare, and so drawing the fire. To some extent this has worked. I’m pleased to have been contacted by so many academics wishing to see this discussed, and I think I’ve noticed a positive shift in the way these matters are being discussed by philosophers online. I’ve been quoted in the press, retweeted approvingly by various socially powerful parties, and gained a number of fantastic new contacts interested in discussing all this. It’s also ‘worked’ in the sense that I am now definitely wounded, but compared to what other radical feminists have faced in this domain, it’s a flesh wound, and I’m sure I’ll recover soon enough.

So to return to the Bettcher piece: what is its political function? I can’t help thinking it is to get me to shut up and go away. This is not an unfamiliar response by now. It can take a variety of surface forms, but the substrate seems always to be the same: a collection of words whose function is to induce shame in the target and thereby stop up her mouth, and/or sympathetic anger in other readers and thereby stop up their ears. Because of this purpose, I’m not optimistic that my responding will be of much use. There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here, I find, and my interlocutors’ eyes seem to skitter away to the margins as soon as I start. But I’ll have a go.

Minus the condescension, a main complaint against me in Bettcher’s first section is that I haven’t engaged with the trans literature, which, I take it she is implying, already deals with the issues I discuss sufficiently deeply for me not to worry about it. I’m not reassured. What would have somewhat reassured me, would be to find in that literature some direct, open, and charitable engagement with the concerns of female-bodied women, about what material social effects expanding the concept of ‘woman’ via self-identification will have on them. Though in her SEP survey article, Bettcher cycles through several ‘oppositional’ texts (her word), it’s the (critical) section on Janice Raymond’s work, written in 1979 and republished in 1994, that comes closest to engaging with related concerns. However, if there is anything there about self-identification, I don’t find it — unsurprisingly given that this is a relatively new development, and one fairly irrelevant to the current US political climate. In fact, though I might be missing it, I don’t see anything about the issue of self-identification in Bettcher’s Daily Nous piece either, despite this being a constant and central theme in my pieces.

But let’s say that such considerations have been discussed in certain journal articles and books, and I’ve missed it. Would this show I was wrong about the stultifying atmosphere in the profession surrounding open discussion of these matters? I think not. The fact that a particular view is articulated in journals or books is completely compatible with there being a general strong social pressure not to articulate that position, especially since social pressures can become newly pressing in certain contexts. The fact that my own essays have met with such outrage in some quarters seems to me clear proof of this pressure (NB I haven’t even argued for a Gender Critical position! I’ve just argued that there should be room for such argument). The fact that in Mari Mikkola’s, SEP survey ‘Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender’, Gender Critical views (or even views which don’t take themselves to be explicitly Gender Critical) are criticised in a way implied to be damning, is another sign. Or, should you prefer a more current example: to date, on the UK-based site whose tagline is ‘News Feminist Philosophers can use’, there has been no discussion of the self-identification issue that I can find. Up until two weeks ago, the term ‘TERF” was freely used there, without quotations. As I write, a recent post on site (put there since I started writing, in fact) touts for signatories to an open letter describing the organisation ‘A Woman’s Place UK’ as a ‘platform for hate speech’ ‘solely committed to campaigning against trans rights’. ‘A Woman’s Place UK’ is an organisation set up to discuss concerns about the Gender Recognition Act, mostly in relation to self-identification and women-only spaces and groups. To assume that trans women have the ‘right’ to enter such spaces is precisely what is in question, of course. Its speakers include trans women, trade unionists, domestic violence survivors and those who work with them, and second wave feminists. Its meetings have met with aggressive protesting and in a couple of recent cases, violence.

The next part of Bettcher’s essay concerns three alleged presuppositions of mine. The first is that, according to me,

‘ the only reason for letting trans women use female designated restrooms and so forth, is to help alleviate our gender “dysphoria.”’

This is distortive of my original position in a couple of ways. First, I have talked insistently about other women-only spaces such as prisons, homeless hostels, public transport sleeper carriages, and changing rooms; yet repeatedly my interlocutors come back to restrooms/bathrooms. I understand this is partly a function of existing public discussions in the US. But equally, the UK political context is about all of these spaces and not just bathrooms. The major fashion retailer Topshop has made its changing rooms ‘all gender’ in response to a trans woman’s complaint. Swim England revised its policy to make its changing rooms all-gender too, then changed it back again after counter-protests. The Caledonia Sleeper Train from the North of Scotland to London allows gender self-identification as the criterion to access their ‘share with a stranger’ option on two-berth sleeping cars. Women’s prisons currently have surgically-unaltered male-bodied trans women as inmates. Women’s Aid, a major domestic violence shelter, is currently reviewing whether to allow self-identified trans women, to work in domestic violence shelters. The ‘Women’s Pond’ on Hampstead Heath in London now allows trans women, explicitly. Self-identification, a sexual preference for females, and a history of male violence (which in other circumstances, most are happy to acknowledge) complicates all of this. It is true that there are sex-based exemptions to the Equalities Act that may in theory be invoked by charities and companies in relevant circumstances, but these organisations are reportedly frightened of the public backlash and loss of custom or funding that might ensue, were they to attempt to use these.

The second way Bettcher’s complaint is distortive is that I don’t actually take any ensuing alleviation of gender dysphoria to be a reason to let trans women use women’s bathrooms (I am not sure why this is her impression, but I in any case I withdraw it). I do take empirical facts about violence in the UK against trans women, in bathrooms and elsewhere, to be one consideration to be weighed up against other considerations, in discussing UK law and social norms. Despite many apparently expecting me to, I don’t automatically prioritise the vulnerability of trans women over the vulnerability of female bodies. I request some serious empirical peer-reviewed investigation into both, which doesn’t rely only on emotive stories from individuals, or online surveys from self-selected participants without any follow up interview.

I note also that, as related by sociologist Michael Biggs:

[M]ore than a hundred women are murdered each year in the United Kingdom at the hands of males, but no day has been set aside to commemorate their deaths. Transgender murders are exceedingly rare — eight in the past decade (Trans Crime UK 2017; Evening Standard 2018) — and yet they have an institutionalized day of remembrance.

I further note that as a female, I have been shouted at aggressively on the street by men uncountable times (once last week actually), masturbated in front of by a man at the same train table as me, flashed at by a man in a suit in an Underground tunnel, and sexually assaulted in broad daylight by complete strangers twice (once at my graduation ball, surrounded by friends, and twice by the same person in a bar at an academic conference, surrounded by male colleagues). I consider myself to have got off lightly in comparison to the stories of many of my friends. To repeat: we should not have to rely only on emotive stories; but females have their stories too — many, many stories — and I see no reason to discount them or minimise them, in a discussion which clearly pertains to the possibility of male violence in spaces where females undress or sleep.

Moving on, Bettcher writes of my second supposed presupposition:

‘Second, many of the things that non-trans women are supposed to lose through the legal recognition of trans women as women, are also things that trans women themselves sacrifice’.

From there, it is back to the bathrooms once again, and from there to lesbian dating sites, a theme I have broached in at least one of my essays:

‘Worried about men trying to pass themselves off as women to hurt us? Well, guess what? I’m worried about that too. Even the concern that on-line dating sites for lesbians don’t or won’t provide information about whether a potential date has a penis or a vagina, can be of equal concern (or lack thereof) to both trans and non-trans women alike. (As an aside, I think the forced advertisement of our genital status is abuse — but that’s for another time).’

I’m glad Bettcher acknowledges, as a worry, the possibility of males with unannounced penises going on romantic dates with lesbians. I’m sorry she has to face a similar worry too. It was certainly a worry to me as I used lesbian dating sites over several years, and arranged dates with strangers. It’s also a severe worry to others I know. But once again, no useable practical solution seems to be proposed or even mooted, and the implicit message seems to be that female worries are secondary or negligible in relation to the Greater Good. (I also note that, later on, she dismisses the empirical claim that trans women are experienced by many lesbians as exhibiting ‘male energy while in a lesbian space’ by referring me contemptuously to theoretical trans literature discussing it. I cannot for the life of me see how this worry could satisfactorily be neutralised by acquaintance with this literature, but I’ll be sure to pass that along to my friends next time they mention it).

Turning to Bettcher’s third attributed presupposition of mine (and at this point, I’ll interject my answers as I go along):

The final assumption, apparently, is that trans men do not exist.

No. In my very first essay I wrote ‘there is a corresponding issue of whether trans men should be counted as men or not, but we only ever seem to talk about TW, and I’ll reluctantly carry on this tradition here’. I have chosen to focus upon a range of questions about the admission of trans women, via self-identification, into the category of women. I acknowledge a further range of issues as they pertain to trans men. That it is not my focus does not imply that I think those issues are unimportant; let alone does it imply the rhetorical claim that I think that trans men don’t exist (was there ever a debate in which one position gets accused so often of treating the other as ‘non-existent’?).

Consider: She wants a private space for “female-bodied people” where this refers “to a body that has XX chromosomes, and for which the norm is to be born with female genitalia (vagina, labia, clitoris), and a female reproductive system (ovaries, uterus, vagina).” She complains, “WNT are losing access to some formerly female-body-only spaces, where they get naked or sleep.” Stock’s okay with a big, hairy trans guy using “female body-only spaces”? Even if he’s had phalloplasty and a hysterectomy? Just so long as he’s got xx chromosomes?

Yes, actually, since you ask. However, I don’t suppose many trans men would particularly like to be there, and if I’m right, I take that to be an issue too. I would like to see the social design of spaces that allows recognition of multiple and sometimes competing interests in this area. I’m sure there are creative ways to think about this, but they get shut down immediately by this sort of shifting around from one set of interests to another, as soon as a competing interest to one’s favoured group becomes salient.

The problem, of course, is that the very existence of trans men has been erased from the discussion altogether. Once they are brought into existence, however, the absurdity of some of Stock’s claims become apparent. Obviously, we don’t see each other’s chromosomes (any more than we see each other’s “brain sex” — as she herself notes). So the concern around private spaces has a lot more to do with our intimate appearances than it does anything else.

No, I’m afraid it’s not about ‘appearances’ and nor is it, as has been disingenuously complained to me many times, about my or anyone else’s ‘discomfort’ at such appearances (honestly: if I wanted to start a protest movement to alleviate women’s discomfort, I’d probably just campaign against high heels). To repeat ad nauseum: my concern about female-only spaces is about legal self-identification without any period of ‘living as a woman’, prior male socialisation in a way which exacerbates the tendency to violence against female bodies, and the fact that many self-identifying trans women — or their duplicitous doppelgangers who aren’t really trans women but who pretend to be such for the purpose of entering some women-only spaces — retain both male genitalia and a sexual orientation towards females. I don’t care what anyone looks like, how they dress, what they do to their body, what consenting adults they have sex with, and so on, and I’ve repeatedly made that clear. Nor, for that matter, do I take trans women to be a monolithic group of sexual predators, or monolithic in any sense. Obviously I do not. I simply refuse to let even small numbers of females be the automatic collateral in sweeping social changes such as those proposed.

Alongside all this, there are quite a few other rhetorical amplifications. I don’t just ‘claim’, but also ‘trot out..’, ‘boast’.. and so on. I ‘invite trans women to prove they are women’. No, I don’t. I invite philosophers to facilitate a less hostile and more open discussion about the matter. The very next passage, where Bettcher goes through several possible senses in which the question ‘Are trans women women?’, is not news to me, though it’s presented as such. I was already aware of these options; they are pretty standard moves given wider discussions in philosophy generally. I happen to think some of them carry the conceptual resources to argue powerfully and positively for a female-oriented conception of ‘woman’ that excludes male-bodied people in some social and institutional contexts. I also assume that, in the current climate, there would be serious obstacles to the publication of any such view, no matter how tightly argued or empirically informed. And if I’m wrong about that, well, all to the good! Let my lapse be instructive, and let the radical feminists get writing for journals and academic websites again, and not just for blogs and counterculture magazines.

Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.