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 64,000 registered 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.