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The persecution of Kathleen Stock is not about free speech

The efforts of transactivists to have Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy, sacked from her post at the University of Sussex, have prompted many fine defences of free speech. “Free speech is a precious thing and while most accept that there must be some limits, the bar for curbing it needs to be high,” the Financial Times proclaimed. “Without free speech, and the right to offend, how much longer may we have had to wait for enfranchisement for all, religious freedom or equality before the law?” asked higher education minister Michelle Donelan.

These are noble words and yet most people would recognise that free speech issues are difficult and context-dependent. We might, for example, agree that people should be allowed to deny the Holocaust or argue that IQ is related to ethnicity, while feeling much less comfortable about allowing those individuals to work in a university and teach their beliefs to students. 

Kathleen Stock’s situation has nothing in common with these hypothetical cases, however, and to frame what is happening to her as a free speech issue is to make a fundamental mistake. This is not about one woman’s right to express contentious views, but a systematic attempt by misogynists to hound yet another woman out of her job for being insufficiently deferential to their extreme demands.

When you ask activists what Stock has said that is so offensive, not one of them can point to a single line she has written or said. Indeed, Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi gave the game away when she wrote in a letter: “While I am not familiar with Professor Stock’s philosophical writings, I am greatly concerned by her work as Trustee for the LGB Alliance group.” (The LGB Alliance is an organisation defending the rights of gays and lesbians: you can read its rebuttal of Owatemi’s comments here.)

This is a right currently enshrined in law

Too lazy to read anything Stock has written, Owatemi is nonetheless ready to condemn her by association. It should come as no surprise that Owatemi couldn’t quote any transphobic remarks by Stock, because she hasn’t made any. Stock’s book, Material Girls, is coolly reasoned, as befits an academic philosopher. She respects people’s pronouns. Her public interventions have all been measured. 

So what is it about Stock that has made transactivists so angry? In short, Stock’s argument is that there are only two sexes, that sex is immutable and that women have the right to maintain single-sex spaces. Most sensible people know the first two points to be true, though it is a sign of the idiocy of the times that when Professor Robert Winston said on Question Time that “you cannot change your sex, your sex actually is there in every single cell in the body”, chair Fiona Bruce felt obliged to respond: “There are many people who would vehemently disagree with you.”

As for Stock’s argument that women have the right to single-sex spaces, this is a right currently enshrined in law. Hospital wards, changing rooms, prisons and domestic violence refuges are historically closed to the opposite sex for reasons both of privacy and safety. Yet all over the country, we are seeing them open their doors to biological males. (Indeed, the CEO of Edinburgh Rape Crisis, a trans woman, has branded rape victims who prefer single-sex refuges as “bigoted”.) 

Why? Because biological sex is being replaced by a nebulous concept called “gender identity”, allowing any man who identifies as a woman to be allowed to use women’s spaces. That term “identifies” is a broad one: under Scotland’s new Hate Crime bill, “transgender identity” encompasses “trans men, trans women, non-binary people and cross-dressing people”. 

It is not unreasonable for women to want to keep cross-dressing men out of their private spaces: indeed, it is hard to think of a single advantage to women of allowing them in. But even a tentative expression of defiance is met, in Rosie Duffield’s words, with “mostly male aggression and verbal abuse”. What we are witnessing is familiar to domestic abuse survivors like Duffield: an outpouring of rage from men who can’t cope with women saying No. 

The law has been used repeatedly to silence women

Most commonly this takes the form of threats of sexual violence. Outside the feminist conference FiLiA last weekend, in which women discussed their experience of male violence, two transactivists stood outside with a placard declaiming: “Suck my dick, you transphobic c***s”. Similar insults, such as “TERFs can choke on my girl dick” and “Die TERF scum”, abound online. When JK Rowling invited children to post pictures on her Twitter thread for her children’s book, The Ickabog, transactivists responded by posting pornographic pictures on the thread. 

Their tactics are not confined to sexually abusive language. Attempts to frighten women through intimidation are also common, as we saw when masked protesters let off flares on the Sussex campus, or activists released smoke grenades at a women’s meeting outside Grenfell Tower. On other occasions, women entering a venue have had to walk past men shouting abuse and throwing water at them.  

It doesn’t stop there. The law has been used repeatedly to silence women, in cases such as the private prosecution of  Linda Bellos and Venice Allen, the criminal conviction (later overturned) of Kate Scottow and the (now discontinued) criminal prosecution of Marion Millar, whose offence was to tweet a picture of a suffragette ribbon. There are also attempts, sometimes successful, to have women banned from speaking at events, as in the cases of the academics Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman. And then there are the efforts again, often successful to have women removed from their jobs or contracts for believing that it’s not possible to change sex: Maya Forstater, Gillian Philip, Allison Bailey. 

Meanwhile, those who have the power to stop this the police, the social media giants, the universities have either ignored it or been actively complicit. The many fine words expended on the rights of academics like Stock to free speech, while well-meaning, are part of the problem: this is not about what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to say. It’s about how a group of bullying men are silencing women through aggression, intimidation and violence. It’s about the tantrums of men including prominent leftists like Jolyon Maugham, Owen Jones and Billy Bragg who cannot contain their rage that women won’t do what they’re told. 

These bullies have been indulged for long enough. Let’s stop policing the thoughts of those on the receiving end of abuse, and start to tackle the perpetrators of it. They need to be taught one simple lesson: when women say No, they mean No. 


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