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.
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:
- Businesses can decide who to let into their spaces, it is entirely up to them (No its really not, that is why we have anti-discrimination laws. Businesses are not allowed to arbitrarily exclude people based on protected characteristics, they need to have clear & justified policies)
- Single sex spaces that let members of the opposite sex in are not mixed sex, as long as we use different words (this was surprisingly PoMo for Helen)
- Single sex spaces are hard to police, how do you know what sex people are (A few people pass, many dont. Everyone knows what sex they are and can respect others’ privacy – single sex spaces are not going to suit you if you don’ t feel comfortable with your sex)
- You’d need to inspect people’s genitals (Of course you don’t. How ridiculous.)
- Butch lesbians look just like men (no they dont)
- The transmen gotcha (Don’t be silly….have you forgotten about unisex options. Not everyone has to use single sex spaces)
- People should not have to use the word “male” to describe what sex people are (sure people can draw their own money with crayons, or redefine what “miles per hour” mean to them – but in the real world, words and symbols have common meaning).
- Why would you “freak out” at the sight of a penis in a women’s space (oh FFS)
- You have a paranoid fear of half the population (Really ? Thats where this is going? )
- Something about hedgehogs (I’m done)
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.