Content note: discussion of violence, oppression, and abuse
CONTENT NOTE FOR EATING DISORDERS, SEXUAL ABUSE, GENDER INCONGRUENCE AND DYSMORPHIA
A discussion came up in a clinical consultation group I’m involved with about the number of trans people who have disordered eating. I reeled off some thoughts are not always considered, so I’m repeating them here.
It is well known that trans experiences often co-occur with some form of neurodiversity (Sensory Processing Disorder, autism, ADHD etc). So I’m going to start with these, less often thought about, reasons for eating issues and then afterwards I’ll talk about the two things people might assume – body dysphoria and trauma.
As our relationship to food, whether disordered or not, is complex and multidetermined, trans people may be having many-layered and complex responses to food and eating, some aspects of which can be missed.
IS IT A SENSORY ISSUE?
Many trans people have sensory issues, that can be an aspect of different kinds of neurodiversity. This can be around food texture, smell or taste, but it might also be around sound – e.g. the sound of someone else eating, people talking or the noise of cutlery and crockery. Some neurodiverse people get overwhelmed when their senses have too much to do, so it’s not the sounds and tastes and thinking about communication individually are problems, but all together they could be too much.
When these problems are out of the person’s awareness and go unresolved, or are even minimised or denied by caregivers, they can develop into stress reactions and avoidant or problematic behaviours around food or eating.
We need to start taking sensory difficulties and overwhelm seriously. If someone can only eat bland food whilst alone in a room with non-metallic cutlery, that’s cool – we should never have to do a thing that is painful, and for people with sensory differences, things that seem quite benign to neurotypicals can be agony. If hearing others eat or clanking plates and cutlery can be masked by soft music, a person should not have to sit down to a meal without that adjustment. Noise cancelling headphones can also be very helpful in this case. If a person can’t manage to talk or listen whilst also eating, that’s okay. If they can cope with food texture just fine at home but it’s too much in a noisy restaurant, that’s okay too. If they want to smother everything in very hot sauce because that’s a good sensation, that’s a great sensory fix. If they cannot eat sticky food with their fingers, or deal with bones, pips and gristle, we just have to believe that matters.
For some people eating is always going to be a sensory challenge no matter what and all we can do is find ways to support them to cope with that challenge. Sensory issues and overwhelm often get worse at times of stress, so there may be days our clients cope with eating and days they just can’t.
Some trans people use their relationship with food to manage feelings of physical incongruence (previously called dysphoria) they feel with their body or to change the shape of their body. In young people, eating issues can develop out of a desire to delay or halt puberty.
In the UK, trans adolescents have recently been denied the kind of bodily autonomy other teenagers have in law by the Bell v. Tavistock ruling. Trans adults are denied autonomy by UK gender clinic waiting lists that are up to 5 years – this despite robust clinical evidence that transition healthcare is life-saving and overwhelmingly helpful.
It is imperative that we help trans people, especially teens, feel a sense of bodily autonomy. Understanding the difference between dysphoria and dysmorphia is vital as part of this. Trans people don’t misperceive their own bodies, as in dysmorphia, nor is it about hating their bodies, although if unalleviated, feelings of hatred can develop. Trans people know well the physical reality of their bodies, the problem is their brain telling them their bodies should not be like that. Unlike dysmorphia, it cannot be cured by psychotherapy – the clinical evidence for this is well established.
Uninformed clinicians might get dysphoria and dysmorphia muddled up and focus on trying to make the trans person accept their body, a practice that simply does not work for trans people and can increase their distress.
But on top of this, trans bodies are sites of violence and aggression. Trans children, like other kids that are marginalised, vulnerable and isolated, are highly likely to have been sexually abused because of that vulnerability. Sadly, predators take advantage of difference and social isolation. Whether or not they have “come out” as trans, differences in behaviour and socialization are often apparent and trans people frequently report being excluded as children. Trans kids are more likely to be bullied, attacked and abused in other ways throughout life too. And their bodies are aggressively mislabelled, policed and treated with invasive curiosity. A trauma history can exacerbate this, with people, including therapists, wrongly assuming trauma “causes” trans feelings when the opposite is true – being a gender diverse person in a transphobic world can lead to trauma.
Trans people are also more likely to have been homeless or lived in poverty, and this can bring its own complex issues regarding food. Food and eating can become the means to gain a sense of control amid these different forms of violence, marginalization, and coercion.
IS IT RELATED TO INTEROCEPTION?
Many neurodiverse people have problems with interoception, their ability to know what their body is telling them. Not knowing when we are hungry or full may be part of overeating or undereating. During childhood, this may have made it harder for caregivers to get a child to eat or to not overeat. If this then became a battleground there can be extra emotional difficulty here, with issues of guilt and shame, and feelings of being controlled by others around food.
IS IT A STIM?
Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is common in neurodiverse people. It can be benign, such as sucking, chewing, hand-flapping, rocking, humming or spinning, or self-injurious, such as hair-pulling, cutting, hitting self, or skin-picking.
Neurodiverse people may have a greater need to seek comfort through stimming. They may also have been discouraged from some relatively harmless stims (think about which is more harmful: thumb-sucking or smoking. Now think about which is more socially acceptable for adults to do). Eating can be a kind of stim – a self-soothing sensory experience. This, of course, can be completely benign but can also develop into something potentially more harmful, such as eating to the point of unwellness. It may have been more socially acceptable to stim using food than to fidget, fiddle, rock, or flap as a child.
Recognising what stimming is and what it does for the nervous system can sometimes allow someone to find alternative stims if eating has become an issue. Stim toys you can safely chew are available on the internet, for example. I have had clients who wear these around their neck and have let the people around them know about their need to use these to soothe themselves.
In an article for SpoonieHacker, I talked about how medicine treats disabled trans people, and this conversation is something everyone can benefit from reading.
“Trans and non-binary activist, counsellor, trainer and writer Sam Hope is a founding member of Nottingham Trans Hub and the author of the book _Person-Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People: A Practical Guide_ (2019). We speak to them about the dangers facing the trans community in Europe, and how best to offer meaningful support and solidarity.”
I gave this interview back in August, but it still feels relatively current, referencing GRA reforms, JK Rowling, and the situation for trans people across Europe. It took place prior to the Government’s decision not to reform the Gender Recognition Act in the UK.
With thanks to Ibtisam Ahmed for giving me the platform to speak up for my community.
An extract from a talk I did for the University of Nottingham for Transgender Day of Visibility (31/3/20), detailing some of the extra complications that exist for the trans community around this pandemic.
Please note, I use certain language in this video that is ingrained but not ideal – It’s interesting how when we’re tired and stressed we use less skilful words, for example:
- Trans people being on a “journey” is an unhelpful cliché.
- Most trans people who were assigned female at birth would prefer to refer to their upper body with the word “chest”.
- Gender incongruence has superseded the term gender dysphoria, according to the World Health Organisation, and is generally preferred in-community, although not by everyone.
This blog came out of a conversation with an ally about when and how to engage with anti-trans campaigners. Here are my top tips for how cis allies can be helpful in the fight against transphobic hate.
Do not boost the signal
Many transphobes do what they do in order to get attention and social media hits. Every time you hate share a transphobic article, the person who wrote it is winning, no matter how outraged you are. Do not assume that sharing an article and commenting how bad it is does damage to the writer.
If the writer or poster’s goal is simply to get good media coverage, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Social media algorithms make being outrageous and controversial online lucrative. People piling in on them will only help raise their profile and make them look like a plucky hero to those who share their hateful views.
In addition, arguments gain traction the more they are heard, even if they are being refuted.
Example: the people who still believe climate change isn’t real have almost all heard good evidence that it is, but the controversial climate change sceptic arguments still have traction exactly because they are controversial, and therefore get a lot of attention in the media in the way a well thought out argument just will not. It doesn’t hurt that, like transphobia, the right-wing media likes to signal boost those arguments.
Another example of the success of being controversial is anti-vaxxers, who use an approach called fire-hosing. According to Lucky Tran in the Guardian:
“Firehosing inundates us with so many wild opinions that it becomes exhausting to continually disprove them. In this scenario, reality is reduced to positioning and who can sell their position best.”
Transphobes are particularly good at this tactic, and the allies and trans people quickly become exhausted by the process of continually providing evidence that refutes their claims. Because the media still uncritically shares false information about trans people, the propaganda gains a similar veneer of truth to climate change skepticism. It doesn’t matter that there is a near consensus about the genuineness of trans experiences and the importance of granting them safety and civil rights. It doesn’t matter that there is zero evidence that trans civil rights endanger cis women in any way. It only matters which voices get signal boosted, just as the climate skepticism angle has been signal boosted despite a near consensus from scientists about climate change.
When you share or comment on an anti-trans article, you are unfortunately helping signal boost that article. If you create discussion beneath an article a friend shares on Facebook, you are also signal boosting that article.
Just don’t, okay?
Consider the impact on your trans friends
Transphobes, and that includes self-styled “gender critical” feminists, terrify a lot of us. Many of us have been genuinely traumatised by the hatred and vitriol that these groups target us with. I personally experience PTSD symptoms whenever I witness the hate of gender critical feminists on or offline, due to previous, awful experiences that have accumulated over a couple of decades. When it is vicious and transparently hateful it is bad. When it is polite, clever and manipulative, with undertones of gaslighting and dog whistling, it is far worse.
There is nothing worse than an abuser who is attacking you in plain sight whilst others look on and do not realise you are being attacked. The most toxic are people who share quite “reasonable concerns” that are in fact clever and false arguments that undermine our civil rights and incite others to enact violence and abuse against us. The ones that play for sympathy towards the transphobe and paint the trans person asking for civil rights as an aggressor or worse, a predator. The ones that manage to convince others that they are being victimised even by us pointing out their transphobia.
Abusers are very good at getting people on their side by in turns being charming and playing the victim. They are even better at driving their victims up the wall until they break and lash out.
When our friends treat these individuals as reasonable and engage in debate with them they are offering social inclusion to transphobes in a way that is often unwittingly socially excluding towards us. Here is a space our friend may well be holding or curating, is certainly participating in, where whether or not I should have civil rights is seen as a suitable topic for debate, rather than a given. Things are being said there that may activate my PTSD symptoms, while the cis folk in that space have no concept of the impact of this discourse. If I dare to participate at all, it’s at the risk that I may become upset or rattled, and be told by my supposed ally that I am “not helping my cause” because I haven’t been sufficiently polite to the person who is enacting structural violence on me oh, so subtly but devastatingly.
Because there is a small but vocal left wing and feminist contingent of transphobes, we are much more likely to encounter these people during activism or amongst our friends. When cis allies tag us to draw us into a discussion, or comment on a public post that then appears in our timeline, or share their experiences or an article where we can see it, they contribute to our trauma. They may think that they are demonstrating their allyship, they may think that our input would be useful to counter what has been said, but in reality they may simply be adding to our distress whilst signal boosting hate.
If arguing with transphobes is not helpful, what then can we do to counter hate? Well, one thing we can do is impose sanctions. Hold people to account for their behaviour. There is a reason why hate- mongers insist so often on their “right to free speech” – they want to be able to do what they like without consequences, and use the “free speech” argument to shut down anybody who tries to impose sanctions against them.
That’s because sanctions work.
No platforming, deleting comments from our timeline or groups, telling people we’re not prepared to stay in their presence if they continue with their hate, calling for somebody to be fired, banning them from their social media platform, unfriending them or blocking them for their views, asking people to boycott their event, are all actions that transphobes will complain very loudly about. That’s because they’re effective. Responses need to be proportionate, but often our responses take into account the heat that will fall on us for our actions more than the magnitude of the offence. Transphobes often get away with their behavior because they’re natural bullies and people are afraid to square up to them, remaining bystanders to their bullying behavior.
They will call the consequences of their actions censorship (it isn’t) and shout about an “all powerful trans lobby”, but nevertheless we must persist in making sure that people are materially and socially accountable for their actions. We should not be afraid of harnessing social power or gaining enough power to have an equal place in society. The only goal here is to gain civil rights and to shut down arguments that have been disproven over and over again to those who’ve bothered to do their homework. We have to make hate speech something that has consequences for the person making it rather than the people experiencing it.
When a friend says something transphobic, start by sending them a private message. Ask them if they knew that what they shared or said was transphobic and ask them to take it down. If they come back and disagree that it is transphobic, ask them if they would be willing to take part in an accountability process to explore this. Tell them that it is not for them to decide whether something is transphobic, that it is trans people who get to decide that. Remind them they are unlikely to know as much about trans peoples’ experiences and civil rights as trans people do. Remind them that there is a concerted anti-trans campaign going on at the moment and they might well have fallen victim to this campaign of misinformation, but the facts in favour of trans people’s civil rights are friendly.
If the person refuses to reconsider their actions, consider unfriending them and, if their hatred is entrenched and they are an active campaigner against trans civil rights, consider letting mutual friends know about the situation. When we publicly risk our own standing by siding with the bullied rather than the bully, it can be frightening, but it also signals to our fellow humans, who are, after all, pack animals, that maybe it’s time to stop the bullying.
Sanctions must be proportionate to the crime, but the impact of campaigning against trans rights and legitimacy should not be underestimated. Hate speech is the foundation of escalating violence against marginalised groups and needs a zero tolerance response.
Educate yourself and others, and speak up
Although trans-positive articles will never have the reach of those negative articles that get hate-shared everywhere, you can inform yourself and others by following and sharing the work of knowledgeable trans people on social media – random names off the top of my head include CN Lester, Munroe Bergdorf, Tavis Alabanza, Alok Vaid-Menon, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Ben Vincent, Ruth Pearce, Christine Burns, Natacha Kennedy, Kat Gupta, Paris Lees (me!!) . . .
Make sure you know a hell of a lot before wading in on an argument – gender critical feminists are wiley, and can have folks believing up is down. Poor arguments make the situation much, much worse. Maybe 9/10 times I see a cis person arguing with transphobes, they actually don’t know enough not to get badly tripped up.
Here are some stock phrases to help you out rather than getting tangled in an in-depth “debate”
“Trans lives, identities and civil rights should not be up for debate.”
“Trans civil rights hurt no-one, anyone who says differently is peddling misinformation”.
“The pervasive idea that trans women pose a threat to cis women is a fiction that de-centres the very real violence trans women experience.”
“De-legitimising trans experiences and undermining their civil rights is an act of structural violence”.
If you’re a cis man, and you’re arguing with a cis woman about women’s safety and feminism, please also consider that you might not be helping at all just by virtue of being a man. Engaging in an online argument only serves to reinforce the pretense of victimhood of transphobic women who claim that trans rights is some sort of trojan horse for men to impose themselves on women. It’s not, of course, but when it comes to the finer points of feminism and navigating feminists discourse, very few cis men know enough to do this well, and I do not want my trans-positive activism to come with a side-order of accidental misogyny or the optics of a cis dude brow-beating women and telling them what’s good for them. Just as the likes of Graham Lineham haven’t been overly helpful to the gender critical cause when he browbeats trans inclusive feminist women online and tells them how they should do feminism properly.
Better still, share positive, trans inclusive feminist articles (such as the ones I share on my Facebook Page) in spaces where they’ll have impact and simply delete any anti-trans comments. Don’t forget that if you block someone, they can no longer reply to a thread you started in a group, so consider blocking people who make hateful comments if you don’t have admin rights to delete their comments. Respond briefly and firmly, report them to admins, and block them.
Consider having a policy on your own groups and timeline that does not allow speech that opposes marginalised people’s civil rights, and learn why those toxic, pervasive but sometimes innocent-sounding “whatabouts” do just that. Learn about the links between supposedly feminist/leftist transphobes and the far right, and examine the ways in which their arguments overlap.
As long as whether or not trans people should have civil rights is still considered a matter for debate in polite, socially aware circles, trans people will continue to suffer and die under the weight of this structural violence. Dehumanising speech is the underpinning mechanism for the rise in hate crime and alarming suicide statistics. It needs to stop.
First of all, a quick apology to my readers – I’ve been out of the habit of blogging while working on my upcoming book, Person Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People
But today I was running a trans feminism workshop with a lovely group of Feminists over Fifty and it reminded me I’ve been neglecting this blog, so I think I might write a few quick blogs on trans feminist subjects, because there’s still so much misinformation out there that has a life of its own.
Today’s blog is about claims that keep surfacing online that trans women show “male patterns of violence” and how that trope has managed to be perpetuated without evidence, and has contributed to a hostile climate where reform to the Gender Recognition Act has stalled. I also look at the community in general and what we do or don’t know about trans offenders. Please be warned, there are some very upsetting contents ahead.
Content warning: discussion of violence, including sexual violence, transmisogyny, prisons, criminality, systemic oppression of trans people, marginalised groups in prison statistics
Telling a good story
When creating a lie the first ingredient is some good storytelling. So many TV and film murderers are trans-coded; gender non-conforming or outright trans representations, as in Insidious 2, Pretty Little Liars, Silence of the Lambs or Psycho. The portrayals are so frequent and run from blatant to subtle. Next time you watch a crime show, look out for little clues and hints at a trans narrative for the villain, especially if the crimes are sexual.
This means we are primed to believe that trans women are violent, predatory, often disturbed, and of course perverted, because we are told the story over and over until it becomes a trope we don’t even notice we are absorbing.
The offering up of trans (and queer) characters as villains is of course a deliberate ploy of the patriarchy – it distances perpetrating behaviour from cishet men, enabling the rape and violence culture that allows cishet men to get away with their crimes far too easily.
The idea of the deviant trans woman is also rooted in misogyny, in the idea that women are inferior sexual objects, so someone society sees as a man wanting to be a woman must have warped sexual motives. This has also led to some truly terrible and entirely debunked, inappropriately sexualised theorising about trans women from clinicians and transphobes alike that is much discussed elsewhere. No such equivalent theories exist for trans men, despite the huge similarity of trans men’s and trans women’s experience, because misogyny infects society’s view of trans women in some truly alarming ways.
Lies in the media
Ingredient 2 in creating the lie of “trans woman as perpetrator” is evidenced in the national presses’ ability to throw around a completely fabricated story that Soham murderer Ian Huntley is transgender (he’s not, never was, never said he was).
There have been a lot of these “anonymous source” stories about trans people recently. Often “anonymous source, terrified of powerful trans lobby, tells completely unsubstantiated and alarming tale of a Bad Thing a Trans Person Did”. In the case of Huntley, the anonymous source, a fellow prisoner, simply made up the story Huntley was trans and it was widely reported in the media, and taken up in the Twittersphere, particularly by high-profile writer Graham Lineham.
Because journalists protect their sources, unscrupulous media can use this route to publish pretty much any fiction they please without any accountability. There are no repercussions for the source or the writer beyond the need to print a small print apology if the truth comes out. Proving something did not happen when it is an anonymous story about an unnamed trans person in an undisclosed location is even harder, and when we complain about such (common) stories being unsubstantiated gossip presented as fact, the complaints are not upheld.
Presumably, there is a financial incentive too to provide a juicy story that captures the “concerned about trans rights” zeitgeist.
It doesn’t really matter that the Huntley story has been retracted, because in 20 years there will still be transphobes repeating the story, some in good faith, some in bad – trust me, urban legends about Terrible Things A Trans Person Did never die, they just get more and more embellished.
There is no evidence, despite what some people might claim, that trans women (or trans men, for that matter) are in any way more dangerous than cis women, but it does not matter – people believe awful stories about trans people because they have been consistently groomed to do so.
Ingredient 3 in the lie was a scandalously manipulative claim by Fair Play for Women (FPFW), a group campaigning against trans civil rights, that 41% (60 out of a total of 125) of trans prisoners are sex offenders. The truth, as revealed here is that the figure was derived by entirely spurious means, but yet again it was widely, and uncritically, reported.
If FPFW’s figures were correct, they would signify that there are only 125 trans prisoners in the UK in total. That means that for a total trans population estimated to be between 200,000 – 500,000, trans prisoners would be a surprisingly small group comparative to the general prison population of 179 per 100,000.
Just to clear things up a little, that 60 sex offenders that sounds so alarmingly large as “41%” is 0.01% of the estimated trans population – one in ten thousand.
I would expect the trans prison population to be proportionately higher for complex sociological factors I explore in the next section, just as it is for other oppressed and marginalised groups. And yet if FPFW’s stats are right and that 60 sex offenders figure is indeed out of an 125 total trans prison population then that’s astonishingly low. Of course, if you read the BBC’s fact-check on the figure all becomes clear – most trans prisoners are not recorded and there is a reason why serious offenders are recorded as trans while minor offenders are not.
So FPFW and all the media outlets who shared it effectively lied about the proportion of trans sex offenders, stirring up people’s existing prejudices about trans people.
The truth, that there are 60 sex offenders out of a completely unknown but certainly much higher total is less impactful, though. There are of course sex offenders in every group of humans in existence – there are an estimated 64,000 female sex offenders in the UK according to the Guardian, for instance – that’s one in every 500 women. We do nothing to keep these sex offending women out of toilets and changing rooms.
I guess that if the government are as bad at recording stats for minor LGB offenders we could just as easily (god forbid) produce a similarly manipulative statistic for the proportion of recorded lesbian or gay sex offenders, and start a debate about LGB people being a danger. Which would be horrific.
And this is where the existing lies enable the new lie, and where social marginalisation plays its part too – if someone produced a statistic that 41% of middle class white men in prison were sex offenders, few would believe it and it wouldn’t be in the interests of our increasingly right wing media to share it.
So what would we expect the trans prison population to be?
If it was recorded, which it isn’t, there are many factors that might make trans people more likely to end up in jail. Members of many marginalised groups are over-represented in the prison population, not under-represented. Factors that might influence incarceration rates include high homelessness statistics (25% of trans people have been homeless) low income (60% of trans people earned under £20,000 in this UKgov survey) and high unemployment (35% of trans women and 43% of trans men were out of employment in the last year).
Mental health service users are vastly over-represented in the prison population. If you look at the Trans Mental Health Study 2012, 76% of trans people have taken antidepressants, 31% had accessed a community mental health team. Rates of mental health experienced were: Depression 88%, stress 80%, anxiety 75%. 36% scored as having major depression. We know from a landmark study published in The Lancet among others that poor trans mental health is directly linked to the appalling way society treats trans people.
Then, let’s remember that marginalised people who are the victims of violence are often themselves arrested for that violence.:
“Women marginalized by their identities, such as queers, immigrants, women of color, trans women, or even women who are perceived as loud or aggressive, often do not fit preconceived notions of abuse victims and are thus arrested.” (Source: Jacobin)
The government LGBT survey reported that in the last year 25% of trans people had experienced domestic violence, and the Trans Mental Health Study 2012, showed that, 38% experienced physical intimidation and threats for being trans, 19% had been beaten up for being trans, 14% had been harassed by the police.
The report Out of sight, out of mind? Transgender People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse reports staggering stats for victimisation of trans people: Abuse from partner or ex – 80%; emotional and transphobic abuse – 73%; Controlling behaviour – 60%; physical abuse – 45%; sexual abuse 47%. In addition, 37% of respondents said that ‘someone had forced, or tried to force them to have sex when they were under the age of 16’ and 46% had experienced some other form of childhood sexual abuse.
This is not the subject at hand, but these statistics bear out the reason trans people desperately need to be included in safe spaces, refuges, services, hostels and other provision for victims.
All of these experiences of being victimised, marginalised and oppressed sadly make any marginalised group also more likely to be enmeshed in the prison system. One thing (white middle class) feminism does very badly is equating criminality or even violence with privilege, and looking for carceral solutions when in fact the causes of criminality and violence are complex. For example, recent reports show a rise in knife crime is associated with austerity
Of course, with minority groups and incarceration levels you also need to factor in the amount people are reported for crimes and the likelihood police will push for prosecution and a jury will convict. Given the extent of society’s mistrust of trans people evidenced by the films, TV and headlines mentioned above, it’s safe to say that trans people do not experience the teflon-coated protection that the white middle class boys of this world receive when they do perpetrate.
That Swedish Study
Which brings us to ingredient #4 in creating the perfect storm of a lie about trans people. An oft-quoted (never been replicated) Swedish study claims trans women (and also trans men) show “male patterns of violence”. This is used by transphobes to “prove” that trans women have some innate “essence of maleness” that should exclude them from womanhood, whilst also pushing trans men conveniently outside of their circle of protection.
The study’s author came forward and protested transphobes misusing the study, saying:
“we were measuring and comparing the total number of convictions, not conviction type. We were not saying that cisgender males are convicted of crimes associated with marginalization and poverty. We didn’t control for that and we were certainly not saying that we found that trans women were a rape risk. What we were saying was that for the 1973 to 1988 cohort group and the cisgender male group, both experienced similar rates of convictions
. . . claims about trans criminality, specifically rape likelihood, is misrepresenting the study findings. The study as a whole covers the period between 1973 and 2003. If one divides the cohort into two groups, 1973 to 1988 and 1989 to 2003, one observes that for the latter group (1989–2003), differences in mortality, suicide attempts and crime disappear. This means that for the 1989 to 2003 group, we did not find a male pattern of criminality.” (Source)
Leave aside the utter injustice the author used the term “male pattern of criminality” at all to describe offending numbers of trans women, when she could also have used the term “marginalised pattern of criminality” just as easily.
But, you apparently only need to worry about increased numbers of criminal trans people if you travel back in time to before 1988 anyway. All in all, this is surprising – given low socioeconomic status, repeat victimisation, poor housing, poor mental health and the number of trans people pushed into sex work, I would really expect our community to be more highly represented in the prison population than it apparently is.
The study’s author goes on to say that better treatment of trans people most likely led to the reduction in offending rates. Almost like making constant insinuations that we are dangerous and deviant has a material affect on our wellbeing and place in society.
These toxic lies about trans people, particularly women, leave them often excluded from people’s circle of care, treated as the “outsider” to be scared of instead of the vulnerable people to be scared for. In my work, I see the impact of this injustice every day. Truly vulnerable people constantly being subject to violence and abuse, excluded from services but more than that, excluded from people’s concern.
People don’t seem to realise this community is banging loudly on the door to be let in for a reason – not because we are difficult aggressive sociopaths demanding the unreasonable but because it’s scary and dangerous out here, particularly for trans women, and being included in the human pack and treated like a person in need of care and safety is a fundamental need.
It’s time to stop believing the lies.
Content note: This blog mentions transphobia, violence and sexual violence
The events at London Pride inflicted huge distress and threat on trans people. Ensuing discussions have not always been useful, but as someone who lived within the lesbian community I understand how embedded misconceptions about trans issues are. I decided to write a longer blog specifically for my cisgender lesbian friends, to help them better challenge in-community transphobia.
“It’s important to keep talking until everyone understands/agrees”
Unfortunately, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Most people will go along with the prevailing feeling of the group as a whole. If it feels they can get away with saying something nasty about a minority group they don’t really care about or want to understand, they will take the opportunity to do so. Strong social disapproval of this behaviour works much better than patient listening and arguing.
This is also because expressing controversial views is actually a display of power, as I discuss here.
If the prevailing dialogue is saying “we’ve had this conversation enough, trans women are women and we need to stop debating this”, then that sets a tone for inclusive spaces where trans people feel safe to come in without feeling they need to justify their very existence.
If the prevailing dialogue is “there is still much to talk about on this issue and it’s ok to keep discussing it til everyone agrees”, then we will carry on having this same conversation forever, because transphobes will always exist. If we centre the transphobes, even the unconsciously transphobic ones, and their need to talk, then we will forever be making spaces difficult to access for trans people.
At some point a moment happens where socially something shifts in people’s imagination from “it’s free speech” to “it’s just not an ok thing to say”. Usually, people claim “free speech” only if they have sympathy for the arguments. If you are letting cis people talk at length about the legitimacy of trans people, you are at the very least enabling transphobia, if not somewhat sympathising with it.
“The protest sheds light on the issues”
Does the increased opportunity to say bad things about minority groups “shed light” on issues and resolve them? Just look at the emboldening of the far right across the world and their own insistence on their right to “free speech” for an answer to that question. Prejudice is not something you can debate someone out of – social non-acceptance of prejudice is a far stronger tool than debate. See the paradox of tolerance for more on this.
I was told by a number of people the protest on Saturday created “an opportunity”. But the protest in reality just reinforced trans people’s positions as outsiders.
This has made trans people much more afraid of attending LGB(t) events, particularly Prides. An online video where a Pride in London steward says “We don’t mind you being here, we appreciate it” (at the 3.50 mark) to the protesters doesn’t help things. Neither does the fact that Police did not act despite it being a public order offence, but did try to stop trans women shouting back at the protesters, who were shouting “dykes not dicks” and “men can’t be lesbians” at the time, whilst distributing leaflets calling trans women rapists.
One person told me I should be glad about the protest and I asked how he would feel if someone distributed hundreds of leaflets accusing him of being a rapist. Unfortunately, accusations stick, and these leaflets and the circulated videos and banner pictures will influence people. If you say hateful things about a minority group, it will socially influence people to think you must have a reason for doing so, and the respect given to the protesters will give their words even more weight.
Contrast the treatment of the privileged figures who led this protest (Julia Long is an established and well heeled white, middle aged, middle class, senior academic), with the treatment of other Pride protesters over the years. This photo, taken at Glasgow Pride last year, shows how young trans protesters are treated:
Listening over and over to transphobes and allowing their discourse to dominate lesbian spaces even though they are arguably a minority, means the community spends more time and empathy on the unfounded fears of transphobes than the very real fears of trans people.
This discourse is directly undermining potential and existing civil rights, as well as putting vulnerable trans women in increased danger. But it also silences younger cis lesbians, who are far more likely to be trans inclusive, and it reinforces power dynamics about who controls lesbian space.
“No one side of this is more oppressed than the other”
Saying this is tantamount to saying trans women are not women. If you think that, you are being transphobic. You might not want to think of yourself that way, but that doesn’t change it.
There is an enormous body of evidence to support the existence of trans people both historical, archeological, psychological and biological. You want your neat sex binary? Tough, it doesn’t exist. You want to believe that birth certificates and pronouns are biological facts that cannot be changed? Well, they aren’t.
Trans women are women. Trans lesbians are lesbians. So when a cis lesbian attacks a trans woman yes she is absolutely acting oppressively, because they are both women and only one of them is trans.
“But I’m being called a transphobe for not wanting to sleep with trans women”
Okay, first of all, your body, your choice. You can sleep with whoever you like!
But here’s the thing, if you would not consider dating a trans woman because you’re a lesbian, then you probably consider her to be outside your dating pool. And that means deep down you probably see her as outside of the category “woman”.
Sorry, but it really is transphobic to exclude trans women from the category “woman”. So, yes, you don’t have to date trans women, but making the statement that you wouldn’t date trans women reinforces the idea that they are not legitimate people for (cis) lesbians to date. All the cis lesbians who are dating trans women would very much disagree with you.
It’s transphobic to say that trans women can’t be lesbians and cannot date lesbians. This doesn’t mean anyone is forcing anyone to sleep with trans women, but it is saying you do not have the right to decide for everyone else what woman means, what lesbian means, or what transphobia is. Excluding trans women and the cis women who date them from the word lesbian or from lesbian spaces is transphobic.
“But lesbians don’t like penis”
Some trans women have a penis. And some lesbians are fine with that. If that’s not you, that’s ok. I lived as a lesbian for many years and I can tell you there are many kinds of lesbian with many different likes and wants. Dictating what all lesbians do and do not like isn’t ok.
Stigmatising anyone for being different is a truly horrible thing to do. There are all sorts of reasons trans women cannot or don’t have surgery. But saying things online like “I would never date a woman with a penis” is really, really hurtful and stigmatising. It doesn’t just hurt trans women, it hurts over-endowed intersex women too.
I couldn’t be around penises intimately for a long time when I was going through abuse recovery. It is totally ok to feel that way and not be stigmatised for that. There will be times when you need to share that information. Online, as a result of a discussion about whether trans lesbians are valid is not one of those times. To use your personal trauma around penises to invalidate trans lesbians is just plain manipulative.
Sleep with whoever you like. Your body, your rules. But just like Grindr statuses saying “no fats no femmes” can perpetuate systemic prejudice against certain bodies and presentations, so can unnecessarily broadcasting your negative feelings about some trans women’s bodies.
“But some trans people do bad things”
There are 64,000 registered female sex offenders in this country. A trans exclusionary radical feminist (Valerie Solanas) shot Andy Warhol, leaving him with a life limiting injury. A cis lesbian nurse (Beverley Allit) was Britain’s most notorious child serial killer. I also know a number of women who have been violently attacked, both sexually and otherwise, by cis lesbians, and who have been left with permanent injuries.
What do these facts have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing.
If I were to raise any of these issues in the context of trying to say there was something inherently problematic about cis women, that would be deeply problematic. If I were to talk about the cis lesbian violence cited above in the context of a conversation that was discussing lesbian exclusion from women’s spaces, or trying to portray them as more violent than other women. that would make me lesbophobic, pure and simple.
It wasn’t so long ago that het women were saying lesbians didn’t experience the same oppressions they did, had male energy, might make advances on them, were more likely to commit crimes, be violent, be sexually aggressive, etc. We didn’t get past that stage by over and over allowing homophobic rhetoric to be tediously discussed, but by shutting it down for the nonsense that it was. Because there isn’t a group of people alive that is devoid of criminal activity, and citing individual crimes in the context of a civil rights discussion is simply oppressive.
It’s transphobic to highlight individual misdemeanours of trans people as some sort of statement about the group. Of course it is. By all means call out problematic behaviour, but never on the basis that somebody is trans. That’s transphobia.
“Trans people are ok, but trans activists are going too far”
Every civil rights movement in history has been painted as evil. This is nothing new. I wince when I hear feminists coming out with the exact same nonsense we hear about feminism – “too aggressive, political correctness gone mad, pendulum swung too far, I’m being oppressed by not being able to say what I want to say.”
At a time when the internet is full of far right sock puppet accounts and 4chan-produced memes trying to stir up fights on the left, I don’t doubt that bad things are said sometimes by some people who are trans or purporting to be, and I don’t doubt that in every civil rights movement there will be the cool heads and the less cool ones.
But nine times out of ten the poor victim of these “terrible trans activists” has actually simply been told that they are transphobic, and doesn’t believe this is the case.
You are not being oppressed by being called transphobic. If you’re told you’re transphobic just say “I didn’t intend to be, but I will reflect on that”. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You don’t need to defend yourself, and if you do, of course people will keep coming at you, that’s the nature of the internet. But people being called transphobes aren’t an oppressed minority, and aren’t going to have their civil rights taken away. Unless you think being humoured in bigotry is a civil right.
If trans activist is a dirty word I am happy to take my place alongside other dirty words like feminist, because it means we’re changing things and conservatives don’t want us to. We won’t stop until we’re equal.
I am personally non-violent, but the question of whether violence helps gain civil rights, the Stonewall bricks, the Suffragette bombs, will always be a lively one and I do think in any civil rights battle violence is going to happen at some stage, whether justifiable or not, because people don’t like to be oppressed, and oppression is structural violence that in this case materially affects the wellbeing and life expectancy of trans people.
In other words, trans people are dying as a direct result of transphobia. Trans exclusionary feminists, for instance, managed to argue for an exception to the Equality Act that specifically allows trans women to be excluded from the DV and sexual violence services they proportionately need more than cis women. Although most services such as women’s refuges that I train are actually trans including because they understand the need, it deters trans women from approaching services, and this puts them at increased risk.
Often privileged people tell minorities they are “not helping their cause” because it stops the privileged person having to look at their own complicity in oppression. Those who are not actively campaigning for trans civil rights are the ones not helping our cause, don’t blame trans people. We will be safe when people stop being afraid to stand with us or looking for flimsy excuses like one bad apple to distance themselves.
“I support you and want you to have rights, just not the right to be women”
The only civil rights trans people want are to be recognised as who we say we are, and accepted without stigma or prejudice. Saying trans women are men is unacceptable. Saying “why don’t you all just have your own bathrooms and be registered third gender” is SEGREGATION. This is unacceptable.
If you do not accept the enormous body of evidence supporting trans existence, and accept that we are allowed our place in society, you are transphobic. It’s that simple. If you want us to be segregated out of your spaces, you are transphobic. If you want to stop trans women being fully recognised as women, trans men being fully recognised as men, and non-binary people being allowed to choose which side of the current legal gender binary they fit or opting out of the legal binary, you are transphobic.
“I accept trans women are women, but I also believe men are saying they are trans women for dubious reasons”
Let’s be clear that this isn’t really much different from “trans women are men”, it’s just switching over to “some/most trans women are men”. I have heard all sorts of nonsense on this one. Autogynephilia, an entirely debunked theory, is one of the many ways trans women are sexualised and portrayed as deviant men. The word rape and trans women gets used in the same sentence so often that it naturally contributes to the climate where trans women are portrayed over and over as a danger rather than in danger. The alarmingly high incidence of sexual assault of trans women is evidence of the result of this narrative – trans women receive all the objectification of cis women with none of the protection.
Every day, trans women fail the test of being “woman enough” for cis people, and are expected to be held to cis people’s judgement. Are not allowed to decide for themselves who they are. Of course, this happens to all trans people, but for trans women there is the addition of misogyny, where being demeaned, objectified and considered “lesser” by virtue of their femininity is part of their oppression.
Misunderstandings of what the GRA reforms mean add to this panic. I say misunderstandings, I mean lies – in the media, online, everywhere, the anti trans lobby are trying to block these reforms, but they are really going after the Equality Act 2010 protections that we currently have. They want to reverse our civil rights.
It is the Equality Act that allows us to self-identify in everyday life – use toilets, changing rooms and services as we need, without a Gender Recognition Certificate. Trans women and men have actually been self-identifying and living their lives for many years, but the EA gave them some protection and rights in this. Not to wave their willy around in a changing room in front of kids as some transphobes suggest, that’s still indecent exposure and it will continue to be illegal, but to use facilities just like other people. We don’t have to produce a birth certificate at the door, and we have a right not to be harassed.
“But women only spaces are at risk”
Women’s refuges, prisons and other spaces come up a lot. My local Women’s Centre has allowed self-identifying trans women to use it since 1998. Transphobes were so outraged about this, in one incident a transphobic woman spat on one of the cis women who pushed for the change. The change happened, of course, because of cis women deciding they wanted to include trans women. They understood trans women are vulnerable and should not be left outside.
In my extensive experience of women only spaces such as domestic violence services and lesbian or women only events, trans exclusionary types are invariably in the minority. They are often bullies, however, who want to control the spaces.
How many problems have their been with the Women’s Centre’s policy in its 20 years of including self-IDing trans women? Exactly none. Not once has someone represented themself as a trans woman to gain access to the centre.
When I do training at the centre, it turns out the real problem is convincing trans women that they are safe there – it is still very under-used by trans women. This was also my experience working for trans including Women’s Aid organisations – despite 80% of trans people experiencing DV, they don’t feel safe to approach services, and of course this puts them at greater risk.
We didn’t need to fear that a man would slip under the radar and access a refuge, because we did thorough risk assessments before allowing access, just as prisons do. And in both cases, some cis women would be excluded for being too violent or unsafe to include.
If you drill into the “some trans women aren’t real, some are” rhetoric, you find that the proponents of this believe all trans women are men, but will tokenise compliant trans women who are happy to say “we are mentally ill, we are men really, we are only valid if we have surgery, and we don’t need any civil rights”. Studies clearly prove trans people are not mentally ill, but are just part of life’s natural diversity, and that the best way of confirming what somebody’s gender is is simply to ask them.
Why haven’t men taken advantage of the EA to invade women’s spaces like everyone feared? Why haven’t they taken advantage of the Irish legislation that now allows people to legally self-declare their gender? It’s simple. Men don’t need to go through any such nonsense in order to attack women, nor would these legislations in any way help them to do so. Making a statutory declaration, as they have in Ireland and propose to have in England, is a legal commitment, and doing it falsely would be fraud.
“We should have the right to self-organise how we please”
Actually, I agree with this. Transphobes should absolutely be allowed to set up their trans woman-excluding spaces if they want to. But in my experience, that’s not enough for them. Back in the 70s, when these ideas first came up, they dominated women only spaces, but increasingly cis women have fought to include trans women, and little by little “women’s space” has come to be trans inclusive. As this shift has happened, the transphobes have lost control of these spaces and the women within them, and that’s the real issue here.
When they protest younger assigned female people transitioning, it becomes quite clear how proprietorial they are over other people’s bodies and identities. Personal and bodily autonomy go out the window – people must live the way the transphobes dictate. It is all, of course, about power and control, and sowing fear is one of the best ways in which to control other people.
As someone who lived for many years as a lesbian, because it was a socially easier, less stigmatised identity, I abhor the way some lesbians try to police transness out of the community. It will always be there, because gender and sexuality are interlinked, although separate.
Many lesbians experience a spectrum of gender dysphoria issues, and many lesbians surreptitiously have these issues medically treated with hormones or surgery. But coming out as trans into the community is impossible, because a hard line is drawn where none really exists. There are lesbians with no gender issues, there are lesbians with some gender issues, and I know a few lesbians are open to me if not elsewhere that they would come out as trans men if it felt safer to do so.
Who would have thought, gender is on a continuum, just like sexuality.
When my partner came out as trans, I received an email that same day saying “now you are straight, you should remove yourself from this lesbian email group”. When I came out as non-binary, but still lesbian-identified, I received another email: “As a man, it’s disrespectful for you to comment in this group” these people were, of course, known transphobes, but their views were overly tolerated in my old social circles.
I didn’t leave the lesbian community and didn’t want to – it left me. It could not contain the huge diversity of people who resonate at some point with the word “lesbian”. The rules of belonging were too rigid, and too binary.
I realise this may not be true for everyone, but in the spaces I was in there is no way to get away from the fact that the lesbian community was institutionally transphobic and also biphobic.
“We need sex-based, not gender-based protections”
Anyone who knows me, knows I fundamentally disagree that we should legally assign gender at birth. It is bad for women, intersex people, and trans people. It is segregation, it enforces a binary where none exists, and it massively exaggerates the implication of being born with certain organs.
Gay people, black people, disabled people have protection in law from discrimination and can self-organise without legal registration. In fact, we would be horrified if we legally registered people for being gay.
I do not have a problem with legal protection for people based on reproductive capacity. We rightly should protect pregnancy, for instance, as a factor that can lead to discrimination. But this is not a woman’s issue solely, because men and NB people can give birth, and many cis women cannot.
A transphobe once said to me that rape of trans women is not as serious because they cannot get pregnant. Appalling when you realise rape of children or post-menopausal or infertile women is by implication also less serious. Or an infertile rapist is committing a lesser crime. Of course we cannot make such simplistic and nonsensical statements. Rape is traumatic for all those who experience it and all those who experience it, whatever their gender, have experienced someone having power and control over their body, the ultimate oppression.
Pregnancy, abortion, period tax, smear tests, are all important issues, we need to talk about them, but we also need to remember they are issues for some men and NB people, and not issues for some cis women. The myth is trans women are saying we can’t talk about these things, the truth is that assigned female people like me are asking we talk about them more inclusively and with more awareness. And obviously never bring them up deliberately to exclude trans women.
I do not need to be legally registered and socially labelled because of my uterus, but there are rights and medical needs I do have because of my body, or did have when I was younger. I also don’t need a shop assistant to call me by a particular salutation because of my uterus, in fact I am puzzled that any woman is fighting for this bizarre social convention to be preserved.
I do want there to be access to gynaecological healthcare, contraception, abortion, smear tests, pregnancy leave and rights, an end to period tax and ideally have tampons on the NHS. I want childcare to be valued and equalised. None of these are related to having to be legally registered as female or needing to have she/her/ma’am/Ms applied to me.
If I had been born without a functioning uterus but still assigned female, the idea that that would that have made me “less of a woman”, that rape would have been less serious, that I could have been decentred from feminist conversations as childless lesbians once were, is abhorrent to me.
The way Mumsnet users have been radicalised in the anti-trans crusade I can see we are slipping backwards to a time when women are considered walking wombs or baby-makers and very little else. Ironically, they call the cis women opposing this “Handmaids”. It is well known in trans circles that the influence of this radicalisation ultimately comes from the misogynist and evangelical right wing, not from the left but intended to divide it.
“Lesbian, not queer”
None of this is good for a healthy, diverse lesbian community. But older lesbians, if you want to know why more and more younger people are identifying as “queer” it’s to distance themselves from this nonsense, and to embrace a diverse community rather than a rigid one, in which trans people are included not universally shut out.
I personally don’t think we should lose the identity lesbian, but rather embrace the fact that it is ever evolving. At different times in its history it has been more about sexuality, or more about gender. Radical feminist Monique Wittig, for instance, saw all lesbians as “third gender”, but most modern definitions solely cite exclusive attraction to women. But “lesbian” is still a broad church. For some it’s about attraction to “female masculinity”, others to “femmes” and “femininity”. Believe it or not, there are even some self-identified cis lesbians who sleep with gay men, because sexuality is complex and diverse.
Of course, people are complicated and identity is complicated. When I organise, I focus on creating anti-oppressive space rather than space that excludes certain people. I look at what is going to be centred, rather than trying to create a pure monoculture. I organise across difference rather than encouraging people to focus on sameness.
Women centred/ lesbian centred space rather than women only space is one possible future for the increasingly complicated lesbian terrain. I would give anything to organise with and socialise with lesbians again, but things do need to change and I have no desire to set foot in spaces labelled women only, especially if those spaces exclude trans women or include me only by erasing my identity.
“What can we do, though?”
I’d like lesbians reading this to ask themselves some reflective questions. Have you spent more time in your life listening to transphobes that trans people? Have you spent more social time in spaces where trans people wouldn’t feel comfortable than in spaces where transphobes wouldn’t feel comfortable? Have you read/consumed the words of transphobes or “gender critics” more than the words of trans feminists like Julia Serano or CN Lester? Count the even slightly transphobic people in your life. Now count the trans people. How does that tally?
How might these things perpetuate biases you aren’t even aware of?
Get behind trans friendly cis lesbians like Ruth Hunt and Grace Petrie and share their words. Follow my Facebook page Trans Inclusive Feminism and subscribe to this blog. Learn ways to stop transphobic discussions running amok in spaces you hold or frequent.
Sometimes that’s about being firm and saying “trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are legitimate, and it’s oppressive to say otherwise”, rather than engaging in long-winded debates you may not be equipped for and that just give awful views even more of a hearing.
Please help trans people get civil rights, and ask your friends to do the same. Without you, we are looking at our rights going into reverse, and trust me, we are the canaries but this alt-right fuelled division will be after you next. All of us need to choose this moment to cease to be silent in the face of any hatred against marginalised people.
Dear readers, it’s been rather a long time since I blogged. One of the reasons for this is very exciting – I have been commissioned to write a book! Other reasons I may blog about in due course are more depressing.
But this week I took to Twitter in frustration about the GRA reform “debate” and people liked what I said, so I thought I would share a transcript below, or read it on Twitter here. Meanwhile, check out the amazing information guides on the GRA from Trans Actual.
We might now call this “doing a Len”, cis man wants to look progressive but doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Let me transplain some facts to the unaware /1
In my experience, these women know full well that trans women are at *higher* risk of domestic violence than cis women and need these services
Vulnerable women who need safety/2
This is why the majority of cis women and the majority of feminists do not support the anti-trans lobby/3
**marginalised people are more vulnerable to predators**
And trans women are gender variant whether transitioned or not
That’s not hard to understand, is it?/4
not *a danger*
and that we desperately need to end this narrative that portrays them as a danger /5
when in fact if you look at their feeds they believe *all* trans women are males and should have no rights or recognition/6
My local women’s Centre has allowed self-IDing trans women since 1998 and there have been zero issues as a result/7
I support abused trans women *often* and they are scared to get help/8
they promote one fringe feminist narrative over all others because it achieves their ends
– to make women feel unsafe to participate in society because men are “biologically programmed” to be dangerous /9
And services like prisons and refuges risk assess everyone/10
I’ve received horrendous abuse from the anti-trans lobby. Please stop seeing these people as ordinary feminist or ordinary cis women with “concerns”/11”
It feels as if there is a big conversation happening currently about abuse and sexual violence, one that is going beyond the single narrative of violence by men towards women. For LGBT+ people, and particularly trans people, who whatever their gender are disproportionately abused, this is very important. I write about this, in response to the #MeToo viral campaign, in my latest article in The Queerness.
The danger of opening out the discussion and realising that people are abused, not just women, is that we can erase much of the good work that feminism has done in highlighting structural inequalities that particularly affect women, and enable abuse. The Harvey Weinstein saga and others like it has not happened in a gender neutral context, and it’s dangerous to pretend it has. With that in mind, I responded to an article in BACP Therapy Today that to me went backwards rather than forwards, erasing the good feminist work that’s been done around abuse that highlights the abuser’s power as an essential ingredient for abuse to happen.
My letter is shared in full here:
It was at once heartening and disappointing to read Phil Mitchell’s piece about men’s experience of abuse in Boys can be victims too, October issue.
It is very important that we raise awareness of male victimhood and also female perpetration, however it’s sad that when this happens it so often comes with a side attack on feminist approaches to violence. As someone who has worked in this field for a long time, I wish to develop the feminist model, but not throw it out. There are very good reasons for including power analysis in our appreciation of abuse. What is limiting is a non-intersectional appreciation where the power differential between men and women is noted, but other power differentials are ignored. Mitchell’s approach seems to be, rather than note the other power differentials that exist, to attempt to erase misogyny.
Mitchell states “what is common to all victims of CSE is not their age, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation, but their powerless and vulnerability” and yet we know that powerlessness and vulnerability can be caused by those very things Mitchell lists. We know looked after children are more vulnerable to abuse, children in general are more vulnerable than adults, disabled and neurodiverse people more vulnerable than able/neurotypical, etc.
Particularly absent from the discussion, despite referring to gay clients, is the established research data that LGBT+ children experience higher levels of abuse than their straight counterparts. Around 50% of trans people, whether men, women or non-binary, experience childhood sexual abuse. In a society that stigmatises and marginalises gender non-conformity, and disbelieves or rejects the narratives of LGBT+ kids, it’s not hard to imagine the reasons why predators target them.
Finally, Mitchell makes a bold and unsubstantiated claim, that the skewed figures suggesting women experience higher levels of abuse are false. And yet, this imbalance holds over a number of different studies and methodologies, including anonymous self-reporting. As a practitioner, I can assure Mitchell that women also under-report, and that 15 year old girls also cling to the idea that having adult “boyfriends” is something special, and conceal the abusive nature of the relationship from themselves and others.
The myth that women and girls find it easy to speak up about abuse is particularly problematic. Of the women clients I have worked with, a tiny handful have spoken up and still less have been supported and believed. Having worked with both male, female and non-binary clients, I can confirm that much of what Mitchell reports is by no means specific to male victims, although of course there will be specific social narratives and dynamics in play for all diverse groups of people, and certainly dismantling our ideas around male power, invulnerability and masculinity is a feminist issue that ultimately will assist male victims.
Abuse is a multi-determined phenomenon and I agree we should take all victimisation equally seriously, as a disadvantage in and of itself that can lead to future inequalities. However, that does not excuse us from noting the many power differentials that enable abuse to happen, including misogyny. If we are not aware of these power differentials, how may we ensure they do not replicate themselves in the therapy room?
We need to widen the feminist dialogue, not dismiss it. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality gives us the framework to understand that power dynamics are not single issue and that gender is just one factor within a complex web of structural inequalities that exist in society. Through this lens, we can look at female perpetration, male victimhood, and the disproportionate burden of abuse that falls on the LGBT+ community and other minority groups.
As a pro-intersectional feminist, the work I do with people who have endured abuse and oppression will always be informed by an understanding of power dynamics, and an awareness of the complex nature of these. This takes a great deal of self-reflection and exploring of unconscious biases, but the therapist who does not want to see these structures cannot possibly work safely with their effects.
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)