Photo by Adrienne Bresnahan
Artillery Row


No one should be forced to use preferred pronouns

Should a female victim of sexual assault be obliged to describe her male assailant using the pronouns of his choosing? According to a ruling from South Australian Chief Justice Chris Kourakis, compliance with such a request, even in a rape trial, is “a matter of respect”.

Respect for whom, one might well ask. Certainly not the victim, potentially denied the right to describe the assault as she perceived it. As JK Rowling tweeted in response to last Wednesday’s ruling, “female victims of male violence are further traumatised by being forced to speak a lie”. Then again, as many would and have countered, this all depends on your understanding of “lie”.

Are preferred pronouns lying? Or are those who experience them as such morally inferior bigots who have not yet educated themselves enough to recognise a greater truth? The latter seems to be the position of many — generally, of pronouns he/him — seeking to school Rowling. In their reading of the situation, preferred pronouns are a courtesy owed to others, one that costs the speaker nothing. Hence if one refuses to call an accused rapist by the pronouns he demands, one is inflicting a further punishment — the denial of a basic human right to be seen as one’s “true self” — before he (or she or they) has even been convicted.

I don’t think this is true, but neither do I think it is inconsistent. If preferred pronouns are indeed a human right, a cost-free expression of respect, then they should be used at all times. The trouble is, they’re not. They’re an act of generosity, a concession, and using them imposes a far higher cost on female people than on male people. If you are Chris Kourakis, you’re hardly going to admit this. Indeed, perhaps you do not even see it.

Gender, as men such as Kourakis often seem to have forgotten, isn’t just about “the trans issue”. Beliefs about who owes “respect” (not to mention kindness, selflessness, care etc.) to whom are gendered. The work of “respecting” men’s perceptions of themselves — from laughing at bad jokes to feigning ignorance in the presence of male genius — is something in which women engage on a daily basis. It’s invisible work, noticed only when we fall short (an omission for which we are then duly punished). It is not something men do for us in return. Rather than laugh at our bad jokes or praise our feeble intellects, they will simply conclude women are less funny and less intelligent than them.

We are quite used to allowing male perceptions to override our own

For many women, saying “trans women are women” is an extension of this form of gendered work. It imposes a cost that saying “trans men are men” does not impose on men. If the cost were the same, men simply wouldn’t do it. “Trans women are women” posits not just that female people have no qualities or experiences that cannot be shared with (some) male people, but that within the category “woman”, female people (as “cis women”) now constitute as a privileged subset. As Kajsa Ekis Ekman has pointed out, this leads to a situation whereby “on the one hand, biological women do not exist as an oppressed group; on the other, when speaking of a privileged group, they suddenly do exist”. Many women find this offensive, not because we are interested in denying the “true selfhood” of others, but because it’s demanding we misrepresent our own position in relation to them.

Despite how offensive it is, many of us will still go along with it. We are, after all, quite used to allowing male perceptions to override our own. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that in doing so, we are not just politely agreeing to allow another person to “be themselves”. Because gender is not just individual, but relational, we end up agreeing to things about our own selves which we may not believe (for instance, that we identify with some inner gender identity, or that our sex is “assigned” as opposed to observed). We make this concession because, ironically enough, that’s how gender works.

Women say what we’re asked to say because we’ve been conditioned to put others first. We do it because we’ve been taught our feelings are less important. We do it because female self-definition is treated as a petty indulgence whilst male self-definition is considered a basic need.

We do it because we know it’s dangerous to say “no”. We do it because we don’t want to lose our jobs. We do it because we’ve seen what happens to women who don’t.

We do it because women aren’t considered to be “compromising” or “meeting people halfway” until we’ve already let the other side win. We do it because, as Andrea Dworkin put it, “the first tenet of male-supremacist ideology is that men have this self and that women must, by definition, lack it”.

If female inner lives were granted the same value as male ones, we would see that when a woman refuses to call her rapist by the pronouns he demands, she is not withholding a human right, but withholding a service which she should never have been asked to perform in the first place. That she performs it most of the time does not make it something that she naturally owes to anyone. Deferring to other people’s perceptions is never a low-cost activity. It’s just that most of the time, other than in the most extreme situations, the cost of not complying has been made higher than the cost of complying.

It is particularly galling about this form of coercion that whenever evidence emerges that women are not in fact comfortable with it, they are cast as liars or hypocrites for having ever pretended they were. For instance, in a blogpost for Verso that seeks to shame feminists who wish to protect single-sex spaces, Lorna Finlayson, Katherine Jenkins and Rosie Worsdale ask whether there is a “tacit assumption that trans women are not (‘really’) women, and hence not a population which feminism needs to represent”:

If so, it would certainly be good to have this claim out in the open, since feminist opponents of inclusivity sometimes claim either to regard trans women as women or to be “agnostic” on that issue.

Would it really be good to have this “out in the open”? Haven’t we been told that being honest about sex differences is wilful cruelty? That the only reason we could have for not keeping our thoughts to ourselves couldn’t possibly be political consistency, but a desire to make others feel bad? If you are going to emotionally blackmail people into repeating your catechisms, it is a bit rich to then think “but they were lying the whole time!” is any sort of gotcha.

It reinforces the view that the accuser, not the accused, is morally flawed

It reminds me of the way in which a woman will try to be nice to a man who is harassing her. She will smile; she will be polite; she will ask herself “what’s the point in offending him?” Eventually, however, there will come a point where she needs to assert her boundaries, whereupon her harasser will accuse her of leading him on. Even if he knows her “niceness” was coerced, he will deem it hypocritical. She should have been honest with him! Even if five minutes earlier, he would have claimed that a smile — or a pronoun — costs her nothing at all.

When women endorse other people’s realities as an act of kindness, all the latter perceive is that this is now “the reality” — the only one that matters. Hence any future deviation from it is proof either that women are dishonest or that we are cruel. We might have been having our own personal experiences of the world the whole time, but that is simply not taken into account.

It should hardly need saying that this maps onto patriarchal attitudes towards sexual violence (what could he have “reasonably” taken for consent?). Women cannot trust in any legal system that already views the perceptions of potential victims as secondary. It doesn’t even matter which pronouns the accused uses; if they are the same ones his victim would use, that would only be a coincidence. Nor does it matter that Kourakis has now responded to Rowling by asserting, somewhat vaguely, that “a victim of crime would never be asked to address an accused person in a way which caused the victim distress”. This would seem to imply, not that sexual assault victims have valid perceptions, too, but that some victims may be so damaged as to be exempt from the lofty standards everyone else is expected to follow. If anything, this reinforces the view that the accuser, not the accused, is morally flawed and lacking in credibility by default.

It’s a terrible starting point for the pursuit of justice, and for any broader attempt to address the politics of sexual violence. Those who cannot see this are in no position to lecture others on matters of respect.

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