At my tribunal hearing about whether the belief that sex is real, immutable and important qualifies as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, one of the gotcha question was “which ancient philosopher philosophised it?”. Someone called out “Aristotle” but I wasn’t going to pretend that this belief came to me from the ancient greeks.

The other side’s barrister wanted me to agree that my belief is remarkably similar to Genesis 5:2 “Male and female he created them”. “I don’t believe in god” I said.

The belief that sex is real, binary, immutable and important is — I think — a philosophical belief in the terms of the Equality Act 2010, but you don’t have to read philosophical texts to come by it.

The belief comes to us by the same mechanism that sex itself does. We are descendants of a long and unbroken line of sexually reproducing ancestors. Every one of them became our ancestor by successfully taking part in the process of combining a large cell from one parent (female) and a small cell from the other (male) to produce an offspring. Humans, like other animals are very good at perceiving the sex of other adults of their species (which type of sex cell – “gamete” – they produce) for this reason; it is hardwired by a billion years of evolution.

This is not to say that philosophy isn’t useful. Philosophers pare down big questions to their bare bones and build them back up again. And philosophers, like comedians, have a social license to talk about anything (or at least they ought to).

Continue reading ‘Philosophy and the sex and gender debates’

When JK Rowling, one of the UK’s most famous and celebrated female writers wrote her tweets about ‘People who menstruate’ on the evening of Saturday June 6, it set off a twitter storm which was quickly picked up by media around the world.

The BBC reported nothing.

Early in the evening of Wednesday January 10th Rowling published her “TERF Wars” essay.

Still the BBC said nothing.

Only when actors Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Radcliffe criticised did the BBC report on it.

Now a group of 150 trans rights activists and 3 MPs, led by Helen Belcher and Jane Fae of Trans Media Watch have written an open letter to Kamal Ahmed, Editorial Director, BBC News to say the BBC is “institutionally transphobic” in its coverage, citing its treatment of the JK Rowling story as evidence.

Continue reading ‘When “Balance!” sounds like “Silence!’

The UK government has released a little more information on its plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 with a set of “Frequently Asked Questions” which it sends to people who write in. It says:

Changes to the Gender Recognition Act are intended to make the process of applying for a gender recognition certificate less bureaucratic.

More details to be released before the end of July.

Continue reading ‘Removing red tape for gender recognition: what could that mean?’

I wrote an article published yesterday (by the feminist charity FiLiA ) on the question of “trans rights”: what are the fundamental human rights in question, and how can they be reconciled with the rights of others, particularly women. I was particularly critical of human rights organisations that have not used their expertise and legitimacy to find a way through the conflict of rights but instead repeat simplistic mantras and demand “no debate”.

Today was “IDAHOBIT” (what used to be known as the International Day Against Homophobia, now the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia), and by coincidence the Directors of Amnesty International UK, Liberty and the UK Director of Human Rights Watch released a statement.

They had nothing at all to say about homophobia or biophobia. The joint statement (in full below, with my comments) was all about “trans rights”

Continue reading ‘Three human rights organisations bravely capitulate’

Helen Pluckrose and Kathleen Stock recently set out to discuss “Gender Critical Feminism and Trans Activism” in an exchange of letters.

It was presented as an exercise in trying to mark  out the “rational middle ground” in the gender wars. Helen said that she wanted to discuss “concrete practical aspects of women’s interests, and how they might intersect with other interests”: 

“How can those of us who may or may not consider ourselves feminist and may differ quite profoundly in our political, philosophical and ideological premises but nevertheless care deeply about the rights of natal women and transgender people have productive conversation about this? “

Helen comes at this question from the position of liberalism; as she summarised “Let everybody live as they wish provided they don’t harm anyone else or prevent them from living as they wish. “

I think that this is a good principle for solving the issues. Ultimately the question of whether sex is real and in what situations it matters (and creates limitations and obligations on people) doesn’t depend on whether you subscribe to a particular brand of feminism. It is much more basic.  It is about material reality and everyone’s human rights. 

Helen had already set out her application of the liberal principle in an article in 2017   “An Argument for a Liberal and Rational Approach to Transgender Rights and Inclusion”. It is a bit  fence-sitting and finger-wagging,  but she basically comes to many of the same practical conclusions that gender critical feminists have reached: 

  • Should males who identify as women play in women’s sports? No (or at least Helen says “not until sports scientists find a way to accurately measure physical advantages and disadvantages for trans people”)
  • Should males who identify as women be housed in women’s prisons? No. 
  • Should lesbians who don’t want to date males who identify as women be called bigots? No. 
  • Should we be extremely cautious about children transitioning. Yes. 

But on the question of whether males who identify as women should be able to access spaces where women and girls are naked or changing without their consent? Helen says yes, as long as they don’t “wave their penis around” 

“it will be down to trans women with penises to refrain from displaying them. There is not yet any evidence that trans women are going into changing rooms and waving their penises around, and the vast majority would rather not do any such thing.”

This is a startling conclusion. It suggests she considered and discarded as “illiberal” or “irrational“ the option of just saying no, sorry,  identifying as a woman does not give you the right to override the privacy and consent of actual women, because they are also human beings with full human rights  (and of course alternative unisex facilities available wherever possible can accommodate people who don’t feel comfortable changing in shared spaces with members of their own sex). 

Helen’s conclusion goes against her liberal principle. I don’t think “let everyone live as they wish” extends to letting men into places provided for women’s privacy (because of the harms and ‘wishes of anyone else’ bit ). 

Should the principle of consent be overridden because of:

  • What someone is wearing?
  • Their make up and hairstyle?
  • What pronouns they use? 
  • Whether they have had cosmetic surgery or take medication? 
  • What psychological conditions or feelings of gender identity they have? 
  • Their belief that gender identity is more important than sex?
  • Their being a vulnerable minority?
  • Their feeling sad and unsupported if not allowed in? 

I don’t think so.  

I have never heard anyone explain a reasoned liberal human rights argument for why we should let some people override other’s autonomy to to decide whether to share intimate spaces with members of the opposite sex. (Some might get away with it, but that is a different question). And I don’t think there is one. Yet when people talk about “trans rights” they are usually talking about this as a right. 

“Trans rights – Be Nice” as the chant goes

Its not. Its a demand.

Helen differentiates between trans activists “abusing legal and institutional power to deny women who want to protect their sex-based rights any validity” and trans people who are “a particularly vulnerable and marginalised group of people who face much prejudice and hostility even when they are going about their lives and not demanding anything from anyone.” Taking your male body into a space where female colleagues, classmates or strangers don’t want it and pressuring them to pretend they do not know you are male seems to be regarded by Helen as ‘not demanding anything’.

Or perhaps, to be charitable she hasn’t thought it through. Still if you are going to set yourself up as a public intellectual proposing to be the voice of reason you should think this through.  Rebranding “demands” as “rights” is illiberal and authoritarian sleight of hand. 

The only way to get around the conclusion that males forcing their way into female-only spaces are abusing consent is through word games.  Say the words “Transwomen are women” (or just make it socially unacceptable to say they are male) and the problem goes away. 

And this is basically what Helen does (or her cognitive dissonance does it for her).

The letter exchange grated because, despite setting out to talk about the interests of women, and “trans rights”  Helen and Kathleen didn’t talk about what the basis for these might be at all, but spent a lot of time discussing the problem Helen sees with gender critical feminists: why do they keep disagreeing with her?  Why are they so angry? Kathleen praised Helen for her “nuanced views”, and the “ intellectual flexibility and open-heartedness” of her version of liberalism. 

After the fourth letter, frustrated by the lack of talk about the subject matter I asked Helen on Twitter about what she means by  “trans rights”. This led to long conversation about the single sex spaces issue. 

Helen’s justification for males in female spaces went all round the houses:

Helen’s loop-da-loop of  arguments are familiar to anyone who has ever had a twitter discussion with a trans rights activist trying to persuade them that boundaries are bigotry. I don’t think Helen has been consulting the TRA Trope Almanac its just that these are the weird knots that people’s brains tie themselves in when they are trying to avoid going with the straightforward answer.  

The straightforward answer is hard to say because it means you have to say “no” to males who identify as women – even your friends, even vulnerable people, even nice people, even young people, even people who’ve had surgery (because no one wants to talk about your genitals, and you shouldn’t have to talk about them) . And this feels unkind. But doctors should never have told people with dysphoria that they could override other’s consent. It wasn’t theirs to give away. 

In her final letter Kathleen gave a whole lot of arguments for why its OK to say no to males forcing their way into women’s changing rooms – about reducing of risk of sexual offences against women and deterring deviants, but actually its much simpler. It is degrading to have to undress with a member of the opposite sex unless you chose to. It doesn’t matter whether they are sex offenders or not, its embarrassing.  And people are allowed to have privacy and autonomy.  This is why we have single sex spaces in the first place (and restrictions on  sex when it comes to jobs like bra fitters, police officers and security staff doing searches, and genital waxers). This is why school toilets and changing rooms are sex segregated from juniors onwards – it is not primarily because some of the boys might be sex offenders. It is because it is an ordinary expectation of dignity and privacy once we hit puberty. 

I’m no philosopher, but consent seems to me to be a fundamentally liberal idea. The word does not appear once in the letters.

I think Helen did get the point about consent on Twitter. Her position seemed to shift from “its fine for males to use women’s spaces as long as they don’t wave their penis around” to businesses should be free to provide single sex spaces, or spaces which include males who identify as women. But they can’t use clear language, And those who don’t like it can lump it (go elsewhere).

This sounds superficially like a position that fits the principle of liberalism. Everyone has freedom and choice. 

But it is a bizarre workaround of logic, which discounts women’s rights (does it matter if businesses and workplaces are made hostile places for the vast majority of women who would like to change, wash and go to the toilet without males?). And as Kathleen Stock had already pointed out this is not some abstract thought experiment; Stonewall and co. have pushed most major institutions to adopt policies that if make it impossible for women to say no to males in previously single sex spaces and keep their job, and have told them that this is the law.  

Of course people are free to use words to mean whatever they like, but when it comes to spaces where strangers, colleagues or classmates are undressing together we need clear rules, and unambiguous words.

To call it ‘authoritarian’ to expect words in law to have a stable and commonly understood meaning  is liberalism turned inside out.

I do think the question which started the letters was good: “How can those of us who may or may not consider ourselves feminist and may differ quite profoundly in our political, philosophical and ideological premises but nevertheless care deeply about the rights of natal women and transgender people have productive conversation about this? “.  

The answer, I think,  is not to try to divide people into nice and nasty, enemies and friends, but to talk seriously about rights. People have the right to freedom of belief, but not to compel others to pretend to share those beliefs.  People have the right not to have their personal privacy interfered with, and not to be subject to degrading treatment. 

There is no “right” to share intimate spaces with members of the opposite sex without their consent.  People who think there is are either confused or trying to confuse you. 

The “rational middle ground” should not be a space where women’s rights are traded off for men’s demands, and where women who object are called angry, paranoid, irrational, and unkind.   You don’t have to be a feminist to notice when this is what is happening, but it helps.

A couple of weeks ago I asked this question, and promised to collate the answers

Here are the recommendations (strictly speaking they are not all on Netflix…)


  • Ex Machina
  • Uncut Gems
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • Contagion
  • What We Do In The Shadows
  • Fucking Åmål
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Defending your life
  • What We Did On Our Holiday
  • Coming to America
  • Everything Studio Ghibli
  • Aeronauts
  • Leap Year
  • Space Jam
  • Insidious
  • The Conjouring Universe
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Shaun the sheep
  • Boys Don’t Cry
  • Phantom Thread
  • Okja
  • Green Book
  • Bombshell
  • Bicycle Thieves
  • The Balloonatic
  • Duck Soup
  • Citizen Kane
  • I Am Not An Easy Man
  • Midnight Run
  • Tootsie
  • True Romance
  • Mrs Lowry & Son
  • The Escape Room
  • Horse Girl
  • Pain and Glory
  • A Good Year
  • About Time
  • Life of Pi
  • The King
  • Julie & Julia
  • The Big Short
  • The King’s Speech
  • Life of Brian
  • What women want?
  • The Hateful Eight
  • The Red Sea Diving Resort
  • Paris Texas
  • Constant Gardener
  • Fast Color
  • The Two Popes
  • The Irishman
  • Mrs Doubtfire
  • Eaten by Lions
  • Operation Odessa
  • I Am Mother
  • Girl Interrupted
  • Victor Victoria
  • Mumbai Central
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  • Get Smart
  • Pixels
  • Burlesque
  • Rango
  • The maze runner
  • Forces of Nature
  • Instant Family

  • Anna
  • Point break
  • Drive
  • Polar
  • Bokhe
  • Miss Virgina
  • Baby Driver
  • Once Upon A Time In The West
  • The Witch
  • Hidden Figures
  • Mother
  • The Waling
  • The Imposers
  • Call My Agent



  • Tell Me Who I am
  • ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas
  • Three Perfect Strangers
  • Cheer
  • The Kominsky Method
  • Face Places
  • Wild Wild Country
  • McQueen
  • McMillions
  • The Staircase


  • Russian Doll
  • After Life
  • Mindhunters
  • Babylon Berlin
  • Grace and Frankie
  • Still Game
  • Maniac
  • Good Girls
  • Unbelievable
  • Dark
  • Last Tango in Halifax
  • Flowers
  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  • Please Like Me
  • Norsemen

Every time Labour leadership candidate, Lisa Nandy has been asked for her view on the Gender Recognition Act and gender self ID in the last few weeks she tells a story about a young person in her constituency . Here are a couple of versions of that story

“I have a young person who is going through the Gender Recognition Act process at the moment. Watching what she and her family have had to go through has driven me on,  despite the level of anger and hatred and abuse that I’ve had in the last few seeks for standing up on this issue, it has given me a very small taste of what this what her and her family have had to put up with over the past few years, going through this lengthy, awful process. There is no supportThe waiting times are horrendous. The stigma is terrible. It is not a psychological condition, to be trans and we should not stigmatise people . That is why I don’t agree that the Gender Recognition Act was a step forward because I think it was something that was meant to provide support and help and in fact has become one of the problems for trans people.  One of the reasons why they are stigmatised, bullied and discriminated against and why we’ve now got a situation that we should be ashamed of in this country where  Trans peoples suicide rates are sky high and mental health is at rock bottom. “

“The Gender Recognition Act which was designed to try and help & support people going through the trans process has become something that is part of the problem with very very lengthy delays. So I have got a young girl in my constituency who has been going through the process at the moment she has been waiting years without support. She has been bullied at school. She is having a hard time at school. Her family is having a hard time. It is a very long processes without support but also it’s a very stigmatising process and that is why I believe self identifying is a really important part of the fundamental right of  people saying I know better than any psychiatric assessment could determine who I am and what I’m about. “

What on earth is she talking about?

Continue reading ‘What on earth is Lisa Nandy talking about?’

I spoke at the excellent Woman’s Place UK conference  at University College London on 1 Febuary 2020  — in the opening plenary with Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters and Joanna Cherry QC MP, Chaired by Professor Sophie Scott.


Wow! This is going to be an  be an amazing conference.

I am overwhelmed to be here on a panel with Pragna and Joanna.  It is an unexpected turn in my life

  • I am not an academic feminist
  • or professional feminist.
  • I am not a radical feminist.
  • I am not a socialist feminist,

I am just a feminist

I am an ordinary woman who knows what a woman is and who refused to shut up about it. 

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Continue reading ‘Women’s Liberation 2020: My Speech’

I spoke at the Women’s Place UK meeting in London on May 20th, as a last minute stand in alongside Julie Bindel, Selina Todd and Meghan Murphy. It was a brilliant night.

Helen Lewis wrote in the New Statesman: “The packed hall felt like the birth, or rebirth, of something. A feminism unafraid to talk about the female body. A rejection of the extremes of identity politics. And – just as radically – a movement that happens in the real world rather than purely online.”

Continue reading ‘Sex, gender and development’

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The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa report on Fiscal Policy for Financing Sustainable Development is a serious piece of work.  But it contains the latest in a long series of silly numbers which inflate perceptions of the scale of revenue at stake from multinational corporate tax avoidance.

It says tackling  base erosion and profit shifting by major multinationals in Africa could boost tax revenue by an estimated additional 2.7 per cent of GDP.  That works out at around $60 billion, bigger still than  Kofi Annan’s much repeated big number from 2013 (which was based on a misunderstanding of a whole different set of numbers)  and more than current levels of  annual inward FDI.

Where does this number come from? Is there any reason to think its the right number now? And if not why does nobody notice?

Continue reading ‘2.7% of GDP: another big number to take with a huge pinch of salt on multinational tax avoidance in Africa’