Under pressure

Why we don't like thinking about sex and gender

I mean why not really?

This week the BBC published a news article on its website which set the online outrage machine in motion. It was headlined “‘We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women.’” The reporter, Caroline Lowbridge, begins with a question: “Is a lesbian transphobic if she does not want to have sex with trans women?”

Lowbridge spoke to lesbian women who told her they had been accused of being transphobic for not wanting to sleep with people with male bodies who identify as women. Amy, for instance (aliases used), talked about how her partner, who is bisexual, suggested a threesome with a trans woman who has a male body. Amy told her she wasn’t interested. “I know there is zero possibility for me to be attracted to this person,” said Amy, “I can hear their male vocal cords. I can see their male jawline, I know, under their clothes, there is male genitalia.” Hearing this, her partner accused her of being a bigot, and they split up.

“Chloe” recalls being repeatedly pressured to have penetrative sex by a trans woman who lived in her halls of residence at university. She eventually gave in when drunk one night, hated every moment, and afterwards felt ashamed, not just because she had sex with someone she didn’t fancy but because she felt that, among her peers in the LGBT community, her feelings of intense discomfort would be interpreted as bigotry. Trans women are women, after all, and if they are women, then lesbians should be happy to sleep with them.

The piece could have been better edited. I don’t think the headline is wise, since it centres on coercion, when really what the article is about is sexual mores among young LGBT people. And Lowbridge slightly muddies her message when she cites a statistic from a social media questionnaire created by a lesbian activist. She is careful not to imply it is representative, but just by using the statistic she risks creating a spurious impression of scienciness.

But for the most part the article doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is - an anecdote-based report on a social phenomenon whose prevalence is uncertain (although naturally low in general terms, since it’s about interactions between one minority, gay women, and another, smaller minority, trans women). Indeed, Lowbridge notes that it’s probably a minority of trans women, together with some trans activists, who engage in this kind of moral shaming.

For those of us outside the LGBT community, the report offers an interesting glimpse into some of the current debates and tensions within it. It also raises deeper questions about how we all, as a society, think about sex and gender. Online, however, the article was widely denounced as transphobic. 8,000 people signed an open letter of protest to the BBC, condemning the piece as anti-trans propaganda. A secondary critique of the piece focused on the inclusion of that statistic (some of these critics presented themselves as addressing a merely technical matter, while doing so with a fervour which appeared oddly out of proportion to the alleged offence).

These two criticisms were interrelated, of course, since the main charge of the “transphobia” critics is that the article falsely implies it is reporting on a widespread phenomenon. I don’t think that is fair. The piece doesn’t over-claim and it’s not hyperbolic or alarmist. The tone is one of curiosity about what a small group of people are experiencing. I don’t believe readers of the piece will draw inferences about all or most trans women from it. And if we are to dismiss reports on minority experiences because they don’t include robust data on prevalence - well, we can forget about any reporting on the trans community for a start.

Let’s return to the question asked in that first line, which is ultimately what the report invites us to reflect on:

Is a lesbian transphobic if she does not want to have sex with trans women?

Well, is she?

Amidst the blizzard of denunciation there was little to no engagement with that question. This is odd, because that seems important. Not least because Stonewall’s answer is essentially, yes, she is transphobic. Here’s what the CEO of Stonewall, Nancy Kelley, said, in a statement made in response to the article and included in it:

"Sexuality is personal and something which is unique to each of us. There is no 'right' way to be a lesbian, and only we can know who we're attracted to. Nobody should ever be pressured into dating, or pressured into dating people they aren't attracted to. But if you find that when dating, you are writing off entire groups of people, like people of colour, fat people, disabled people or trans people, then it's worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions. We know that prejudice is still common in the LGBT+ community, and it's important that we can talk about that openly and honestly."

Note that Kelley, to her credit, does not denounce the article or claim that this phenomenon isn’t worth reporting on. She responds to it by suggesting, quite calmly, that lesbians who don’t want to sleep with biological males are prejudiced, and ought to reconsider those prejudices. While condemning anything resembling coercion, Kelley effectively sides with the trans women and activists who criticised the lesbians interviewed in the article. She tells those lesbians, gently, yes, your critics were right: you are bigoted. To Kelley, refusing to date a trans woman with a male body is equivalent to refusing to date someone because they are black.

That is an astonishing position for anyone of a conventionally liberal persuasion to take, let alone for the head of an organisation founded to advance the rights of gay and lesbian people. It implies that females who are only attracted to people with female bodies can and in fact should, in effect, choose to be attracted to male bodies. That contradicts a proposition that advocates of gay rights have struggled, over decades, to gain widespread acceptance for in liberal societies: that sexual preference is not a choice, but an innate and unavoidable predisposition.

I say it is astonishing, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone has had even half an eye on debates over gender in recent years. Kelley’s statement is consistent with the philosophy crystallised in the widely used formulation “trans women are women” (albeit widely used among people who mean very different things by it). This philosophy is about more than the rights of trans people. It aims for the redefinition and perhaps abolition of all such categories: trans, gay, straight, men and women. Amia Srinivasan, philosopher and author of the bestselling book, The Right To Sex, says she would like to see gender abolished. She believes that trans people are at the vanguard of a radical, society-wide change in consciousness.

For what it’s worth, I disagree with Kelley/Stonewall and scholars like Srinivasan. I don’t wish for, or foresee, a radical change in the collective consciousness on these questions. I’m sticking with a model in which biology and bodies are vital to questions of sex and sexuality, as they have been for thousands of years. My answer to the question above is No. But at least Kelley and co. have a position. At least they are following through on their premises; at least they have done some thinking about it.

What’s maddening about the negative reaction to this article is that most of those reacting haven’t begun to do the same. People read the piece or saw the headline, they got a bad feeling, and they interpreted that bad feeling as a signal that the article is transphobic (or for some, that it should be dismissed because of one statistic dropped halfway through from which no conclusions are drawn and which in fact could easily have been cut without affecting the thrust of the piece at all).

The real reason the article is discomfiting is that it describes a way of thinking about sex and sexuality that is unfamiliar and jarring to those of us who still work with the widely accepted and, for many intuitive model of gender and sexuality. Now, that feeling of discomfort doesn’t mean the new worldview is wrong; radical changes of consciousness are by definition counter-intuitive and uncomfortable when they happen. But the feeling should act as a signal that there is hard thinking to be done, because these are competing models of gender and of sexual ethics. They contradict each other. You can’t subscribe to both at once.

Among mainstream, male, soggy centrist liberals - like me - a common reaction to the debate over trans rights is to dismiss it as a tremendous fuss over not very much. It’s just about toilets, is it? Surely we can adapt toilet policy (or sport policy, prison policy, healthcare policy, and so on) in a way that satisfies everyone. The presumption is that all we’re doing here is trying to accommodate a new minority under the umbrella of a liberal society. We know how to think about that. We’ve done that before.

But Stonewall’s position on sex and gender is not an extension of the existing liberal consensus on sexuality; it’s a challenge to it. It’s a wholly different perspective. If Kelley didn’t denounce the article, that’s probably because she didn’t read an article about trans women behaving badly - she read an article about prejudice in the lesbian community.

Of course we should continue to seek practical compromises on real world problems. But this isn’t just about policy; it’s more fundamental than that. It’s about the basic stuff of who we are as men and women and how we interact with each other. Until we recognise this, the policy issues will be running sores, because the people on either side of the arguments will be starting from almost entirely different premises without acknowledging or even realising it.

Some of those who support Stonewall’s aims, or think they do, would probably sign up to one of the gay rights movement’s most successful slogans: “born this way”. Sexuality is fixed and innate: it can be repressed, but not rewired. (The logic which underpinned opposition to conversion therapy). But the new orthodoxy has left that axiom in the dust. It contends that gender and sexual identities are clothes we put on or take off; that trans women are women in every conceivable sense; that lesbians who refuse to date them are therefore practicing bigotry.

These different worldviews take you to different conclusions on any question relating to gender and sexuality. Yet many people have not confronted this choice and try to have it both ways. They sense the contradictions, almost subconsciously, but resist exploring them intellectually, through fear of being seen to say the wrong thing, and also because uncertainty makes us anxious. It feels better to blast it away with moral outrage. But the only thing less constructive than polarised conflict is unexamined agreement.

Kelley says we ought to be able to discuss these issues “openly and honestly”. She is right (and let’s hope this marks an evolution of Stonewall’s policy of, well, not doing that). Yelling TRANSPHOBIA at articles like this forecloses any discussion or thought. Instead we could use reports like this as opportunities to examine our assumptions. Are Chloe and Amy being unfairly maligned by their peers or are they encumbered by prejudice? Or to take another example, simply because it came up in my feed recently: is the New York Times right to describe a transgender woman as the first female four-star admiral in history? If not, why not?

It would be good to be able to discuss these questions without feeling pressured or shamed or coerced into adopting one position or the other. Just as it would be good if lesbians were allowed a sexual preference for female bodies without being tainted with prejudice.

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