Image by Tim Robberts
Artillery Row

The case against case-by-case

Women’s rights must be clearly and consistently defined

After publishing an outrageous piece in Cycling Weekly about Olympian cyclist and women’s rights campaigner Inga Thompson, ex-elite cyclist Anne-Marije Rook proclaimed that “fairness of competition should be determined by the athletes that are currently competing”. In the same week Kate Osborne MP, after chairing the Women and Equalities Select Committee meeting on the SRE curriculum, tweeted, “We need to safeguard children and that means education — education enables them to protect themselves from harm.” 

The buzzwords of the moment, “agency” and “empowerment”, are being misappropriated by people whose interests lie in dismantling rules, regulations and boundaries. It is sold as empowering that female cyclists, or children, have agency and should be allowed to make their own decisions. In reality, it can lead to the opposite: needs can get sidelined when each challenge has to be tackled anew, on a case-by-case basis. Without a structure or framework based on what has gone before and what we already know, women and girls are left on their own, continually reinventing the wheel. Some broad-brush rules need to be in place so that basic safety and security exist as a bare minimum, within which it is possible to concentrate on what you do best, whether that is riding a bike or being a child. Without that framework, attention is diverted and energy is wasted, as well as safety and fairness compromised. 

For a variety of reasons, women and girls directly involved in an activity do not always act in their own best interests. It is sometimes suggested that because some girls “don’t mind” sharing toilets with their trans-identified male friends at school, we should discard the rules. Twitter is currently full of women falling over themselves to get across their message of “acceptance without exception” by insisting they would be completely happy to stand next to Eddie Izzard in a queue for the Ladies. If you look hard enough, you will always find at least one female athlete willing to say she doesn’t mind competing against a man who identifies as a woman. Sometimes this is due to a genuine belief that “trans women are women”, but often it is to do with silencing and coercion. 

The reasons lie partly in female socialisation and partly in the current climate of identity politics, which promotes on the one hand individual agency and lived experience, and on the other a vicious policing of what is permissible to do or say around trans people. Activists promote an RSE curriculum to children at school that assumes they are robust enough to be exposed to extreme kink and gender identity ideology in the service of “queering the curriculum”, but at the same time they insist that students at universities are so fragile that they need to be protected from the dangers of listening to middle-aged women talk about sex and gender. 

The best way to ensure honesty is to guarantee anonymity

There are serious sanctions for speaking up: female prisoners lose privileges; female athletes are instructed to keep quiet by clubs and associations, and they risk losing places and sponsors if they disobey. Anyone who does speak up will be subject to a smear campaign, as evidenced by the current attack on Inga Thompson and equivalent treatment of Sharron Davies in the UK and Martina Navratilova in the US. Older women who have retired from sport stand to lose less than the younger women still involved, but they still lose, in terms of reputation and legacy. It’s lucky then that the older a woman gets, the more likely she is to subscribe to the sentiments behind a recent tweet from another unfairly maligned woman, JK Rowling: “Trust me, the best thing about aging is how few fucks you have left to give.”

For younger women, in the thick of it, the best way to ensure honesty is to guarantee anonymity. When Sex Matters conducted a confidential online survey, thousands of women responded with their reasons for needing and valuing single-sex provision. When female athletes and coaches were consulted confidentially by World Athletics, the vast majority of them said it was unsafe and unfair to let males compete alongside females, and WA changed its trans policy as a result. 

The attempt to transfer what should be collective responsibility onto the individual ignores the good reasons for legislation, policies and social conventions that take some decisions out of individual hands. If decisions about the inclusion of males are to be delegated to currently competing athletes or current service users, at the same time as freedom to speak honestly is impaired, the result will be unfairness and less safety for everyone. Equality rights are assumed by many people to be done and dusted, but these rights — at least as regards sex — are currently not being applied in all the circumstances where sex matters. Sexism remains whilst the equality structures meant to protect us are crumbling. 

Rachel Hewitt, in her new book In Her Nature, details the outrageous historic exclusion of women from sport and the outdoors:

The exclusion of women was a founding principle of the modern Olympic Games. De Coubertin emphasised that the Games were based on the concept of “solemn and periodic exaltations of male athleticism.” Later, he stated that the very “Philosophic Foundations” of the Olympics were that women’s “role should be above all to crown the (male) victors, as was the case in the ancient tournaments”. Women should be handkerchief-fluttering spectators. As late as the 1970s, Olympic officials were justifying their exclusion of women from any running events longer than 1,500 metres on the basis that “women are too weak and fragile” and that their “reproductive organs would get damaged.” A women’s marathon event wouldn’t be introduced until 1984, and this was because of men who, like de Coubertin, believed that women’s sports were “against the laws of nature.”

There is plenty to be angry about in this history of women’s sport, and it is hard not to compare it to the influence of more recent male commentators, such as the current IOC medical director Richard Budgett. In defence of IOC rules, he claimed that “everyone agrees that transgender women are women”. It is a reminder that sexism is often structural, historically built into the institutions we know today, and beyond the scope of individual women to influence. 

Safeguarding practice is an adult responsibility. Children cannot protect themselves

Trans allies frequently put forward the argument that the sex exceptions in the Equality Act do not allow for blanket bans on men who identify as women, and they claim that exclusion needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The job of rules and policies for all, however, is to prevent the views of one or two people ruining it for everyone. In the case of refuges and rape crisis centres, as well as public toilets, hospital wards and changing rooms, it is not ethical to impose consent on any other woman. If you are happy to share a space with men when you are vulnerable or in a state of undress, that is your prerogative, but you ought not impose that on others who may be less happy. If you don’t think you need that particular concession, it should never mean you can remove it for others who do. 

Children are particularly in need of rules based on evidence and research, as laid out by Tanya Carter of Safe Schools Alliance in her evidence for the WESC meeting. Safeguarding practice is an adult responsibility. You misunderstand safeguarding principles if you reframe it as “children protecting themselves from harm”. Individual children cannot protect themselves. They need the adults around them to stick to evidenced best practice, even, and maybe especially, when it is unpopular to do so. 

Case-by-case doesn’t work for trans people either. It suggests that some trans people might be more worthy than others and that their fate might be at the mercy of different individuals on different days, with ever changing “gatekeepers”. Just as women need to know that “single-sex” means single-sex, so that they do not risk being surprised by an unexpected male in the changing area, trans people need to be certain of the rules of where they can and cannot go, to avoid distress and embarrassment. There has never been a better example of the need for the “It’s not my rule; it’s a school rule” method of preventing things becoming personal. 

Sex-based legislation means that all women and girls are protected, whatever their beliefs, whether it is against male sexual predatory behaviour or male sporting advantage. Just like safeguarding, it is a societal responsibility, and a matter of equality — not something which should ever be left up to the individual or be decided on a case-by-case basis. 

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