We know what a man is

Gender ideology has provided a backdoor for misogynistic ideas and language to sneak back into public discourse

Artillery Row

I’ve never been especially interested in sports. There are certain events – last year’s Women’s Euros, for instance – that have grabbed me, but most of the time I don’t notice. 

When it comes to the trans debate in sports, on the other hand, the whole thing fascinates me. It’s not the science, nor the history of it. It’s not because I think losing out on a record is the most pressing feminist issue of our time (though I don’t think it’s as trivial as some would imply). It’s because so much of it isn’t about sport or transness. It cuts to the heart of feminism itself. 

Female inner lives getting in the way of males feeling valid!

This is an issue that has laid bare the truth about gender: what it is, how it functions, who is required to give what to whom. All too often, these questions lurk beneath the surface. We’re so used to women giving, men taking, and the whole thing looking natural. It’s only when the give-take scenario is reformulated – not men vs women, but women (1) vs women (2) – that you notice how stark and unchanging the giver vs taker designations remain. Only then do you see gender isn’t about what you’re called, but about who is deemed to owe what to whom. 

Last week I saw a twitter thread that featured the following tweets:

“What is the social value of mildly rejiggering who wins competitions in particular women’s sports that makes it more important than affirming trans women’s legitimacy? […] While I understand why some cis female athletes might be unhappy with it, frankly their interest in being 3rd instead of 4th place are not remotely important as a policy matter.”

Not for the first time, it struck me how funny it was, to see a man making such fundamentally patriarchal demands, all in the name of smashing the gender binary. Female people being told they must set aside their own interests – so petty, so trivial! – to prioritise the needs of male people – so  fundamental, so human! A male person’s very legitimacy depending on being able to take things from female people! Female inner lives getting in the way of males feeling valid! And yes, the funniest thing of all is how passionately certain men make this case – not for themselves, you understand, but for vulnerable trans women. It’s nothing to do with their rights. It’s pure altruism that prompts them to tell female athletes to STFU and know their place.   

What I am getting from this is not an argument that is specifically related to trans women, or to sport. In Pornography, Andrea Dworkin argued that “the first tenet of male supremacist ideology is that men have this self and that women must, by definition, lack it”:

“To him it is given, by faith and action, from birth. To her it is denied, by faith and action, from birth. His is never big enough; hers is always too big, however small.”

That’s what I’m feeling when I read those tweets. Damn these female athletes and their inconvenient selves! Don’t they know there are male selves requiring more space? 

It’s a thing I notice again and again. The trans debate allows familiar arguments against women’s rights to be made without the speaker having to resort to the indignity – the sheer obviousness – of using the words “men” and “women”. It allows a principle to be restated while pretending it’s not a principle – it’s just about this one issue, just this tiny minority. Only it isn’t. What is a stake here, whether the tweeter in question admits it or not, isn’t whether trans women feel left out; it’s whether male people in general, himself included, must suffer the slight of female self-sufficiency. What’s at stake is the right to restate, as a principle, that female feelings are less important than male ones. 

Refusing to see the bigger picture allows principles such as these to become deeply embedded. In a recent Observer article, Kathryn Bromwich declared that “there is so much more for us to worry about than men masquerading as women to access single-sex spaces”. I’d agree with this. We have loads more to worry about (not that articles trivialising this particular worry help). Bromwich pointed out that the vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by men who aren’t masquerading as anything. She also, like her Guardian colleague Arwa Mahdawi, noted that you can’t really tell who’s a man or a woman anyhow. Who are you, the gender police? The upshot of both articles was that men are the real threat, but women who worry about whether a man is in a woman-only space are bigots. When it comes to strangers, we’ve no idea which ones are men, just that they’re the potential baddies!

It is pretty obvious to me which principle is being restated here: women cannot, under any circumstances, express wariness of male people they do not know. You cannot fear a stranger on a dark street; you can’t suspect a provider of intimate care of being a man; you can’t trust your instincts, but must constantly overwrite them. You must doubt all your judgements and if you can’t do that, this means you are a bad person. In the end, this has nothing to do with whether or not you encounter a trans person, or someone pretending to be trans. It’s about how we’re meant to feel as women: insecure, guilty, always assuming male people are the authorities on what matters and what is real. I am sure Bromwich and Mahdawi would say that is not what they believe. It is, nonetheless, the logical conclusion of what they argue. 

We do not deserve to be bullied and gaslighted into pandering to male egos in the name of “being kind“

As a feminist, I am not “just” concerned about sport and toilets. I am concerned about the dismantling of feminist theory and protest in their entirety via the pretence that we don’t know what male and femaleness are. It staggers me that there are people who seem to think that “no one can tell who’s a man anyways” isn’t an argument that hands entitlements back to all men, whether or not all men choose to use it. It is not something you can trot out for a newspaper column on the basis that this is just part of “the trans issue”, as though life itself can be controlled by topic tags. 

So many deeply misogynistic, anti-feminist arguments have been given new life via the “no one knows who the men are” excuse. Let me be clear. When you say “you have gender neutral toilets in your home”, you’re offering a rehash of the incel’s “you consented with him, why not with me?” tactic. When you ask questions such as “where exactly does womanhood reside? In your ovaries, your cervix, your womb, your breasts?”, you justify a return to bikini medicine on the basis that female bodies aren’t female all the way through.  When you suggest seeing women as female “reduces women to their reproductive systems”, you imply that female people are nothing more than that (whereas some women, the proper humans, are male). When you sneer about women focusing “insistently on genitalia”, you echo the abuser who tells his victim she only dwells on her trauma because she’s obsessed. 

I am not afraid of trans people. I am afraid of losing the principle – within feminism, of all places – that female lives matter as much as male ones. That our desires are not trivial, selfish, frivolous, whereas those of male people are a matter of life and death. That our perceptions of reality are as valid as male ones. That we do not deserve to be bullied and gaslighted into pandering to male egos in the name of “being kind“. That we are not privileged airheads who should say yes to everything because hey, what does it cost us? What do we know about pain? What even are we?  

It is pointless to lecture women on men being “the real threat” while supporting ideas which lead back to men – all men – being able to take whatever they want without women being able to protest. Yes, women do have more things to worry about than men masquerading as women to access single-sex spaces. Why, then, deny us the language and concepts to deal with them? 

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