How feminists can challenge liberal bathroom politics

bathroom bill

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has announced that a “bathroom bill” addressing gender-identity claims in access to bathrooms, showers and locker rooms will be one of his top priorities for this legislative session.

However, House Speaker Joe Straus has made it clear that such a bill is not a priority for him. And, perhaps most importantly, the influential Texas Association of Business, which is most concerned with politics that affect profits, doesn’t want any legislation that stirs up the kind of boycotts that North Carolina faced after passing a similar bill.

The betting money is on Straus and the TAB. But Patrick is a relentless publicity-seeking politician, and we can assume the issue will be in the news. That means we have an opportunity to ask a basic question and make a key point about the transgender movement’s claims that usually get lost in the political shuffle.

The core question: If someone is born unambiguously male as defined by chromosomes, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics, but claims to be female (or vice versa), what does that actually mean? If sex categories are a product of the biological realities of human reproduction — that is, not about how a person feels but about physiology — what could it mean to be clearly in one category but assert a civil right to be in the other?

This is a serious question about biology and reproductive-based sex categories, and the transgender movement has yet to offer a coherent answer. People’s internal subjective experiences may feel coherent to them, but the assertion of such an experience does not constitute an explanation, and public policy should be based on claims that everyone can understand.

The important point: If a person born into a sex category is uncomfortable with the social norms of that category and feels more comfortable in the social norms of the other sex category, that’s easy to understand. Those are questions of culture and gender, defined as the social meaning we make of biological sex differences with the concepts of masculinity and femininity. Feminists, for example, have long rejected the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchal society, encouraging men and women to reject the masculinity/femininity trap.

But such a feminist challenge to the social norms of institutionalized male dominance doesn’t require asserting that a male human can become a female human. This kind of critical feminist response challenges us culturally and politically without making confusing biological claims.

Most public discussions assume that liberals will support and conservatives will reject the transgender movement’s claims. A more radical feminism — one that doesn’t shy away from challenging male dominance — offers a different approach.

Feminism recognizes that institutionalized male dominance is rooted in men’s control of women’s reproductive power (a source of other political struggles in Texas and beyond) and sexuality. In patriarchy, an enduring feature of the lives of girls and women is sexual violence — men’s unwanted intrusions into their lives. Women’s experiences vary, but none escapes this ever-present threat.

I’ve heard many stories from women about men following them into public restrooms or threatening them, a strategy some men use to harass and sexually assault women. Even more common is girls’ struggle with being sexually objectified throughout the culture, which creates a range of difficult emotions about their bodies, especially about being seen by boys and men.

I don’t endorse Patrick’s reactionary right-wing politics, but I do take seriously the experiences of girls and women who have to find ways to live as safely and sanely as possible in patriarchy. Where possible, the best solution is single-person spaces for maximal privacy for everyone. But in public facilities used by large numbers of people at a time, multi-stall bathrooms and collective showering and changing rooms should be segregated by biological sex, and we should guarantee the safety of those spaces.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that male-to-transgender people are waiting to harass and attack women. Instead, this position recognizes that (1) some men will exploit any opportunity to move into female space, and (2) girls and women have a right to be free from the male gaze in such private spaces.

A feminist critique of the ideology of the transgender movement is not an attack on people who identify as transgender but simply asks questions that shouldn’t be glossed over and asserts the rights of women in a patriarchal society. The internal subjective experience of transgender people should not trump the objective threats that girls and women experience routinely.

Patrick’s bathroom bill isn’t likely to pass. But instead of falling into a tired liberal vs. conservative script for the debate, let’s use the moment to deepen the discussion with a critical feminist perspective.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, to be published in January by Spinifex Press. Find more of his work online at RobertJensen.org. He can be reached by email: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu.

This article was originally published at Dallas News and was republished with permission.

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  • Lucia Lola

    “Let me be clear: I am not arguing that male-to-transgender people are waiting to harass and attack women. Instead, this position recognizes that (1) some men will exploit any opportunity to move into female space, and (2) girls and women have a right to be free from the male gaze in such private spaces.”

    That this is ignored, blatantly, is what infuriates me. To be even more clear, why is the systemic and institutionalised harassment and demonstrably proven abuse (physical. sexual, mental and emotional) due purely on the basis of my born sex, disregarded and treated as hysteria?

    Enough with the bloody silencing. I will not move.

  • Marla

    “They are fetishists…”

    I’m starting to believe that’s all they are.

  • Liz

    Anon and Kris, interesting! How strange that I never thought to wonder whether their safety claims are disingenuous. And I dare to consider myself a skeptic.

  • Marla

    Haven’t you heard? It’s more than an “identity” now, why, it’s a “revolution.” Or at least that’s what these bourgeois fish wrap magazines tell me to believe.

    There is one word I keep reading from many posters that has opened my eyes and has in a sense disturbed me as well: “erasure.”

    Makes clear sense to me. Women’s rights, opinions, accomplishments and now personal safety are being scrubbed out. All in the name of “revolution.”

    • Mar Iguana

      Check out “Female Erasure. What You Need to Know About Gender Politics’ War on Women, the Female Sex and Human Rights,” an anthology edited by Ruth Barrett, forward by Germaine Greer.

  • Cassandra

    You’re not going to get in trouble here; we are not liberal feminists nor liberals, really, and we believe females have the right to privacy in intimate spaces. “Lynched,” however, may be a word you can find a synonym for.

  • Just Passing Through

    This ^

  • pyrite00

    May be to our benefit that Trump simply does not care what goes on in women’s spaces —- on a personal level he is fine with a rich dude like Jenner getting his fetish on in women’s restroom but on a policy level, I think Trump will make his minions happy and let them have free rein on anti-trans policies. He just does not care enough personally to make a principled stand either way.

    • Cassandra

      Yeah, you’re probably right. The tragic part is that trans has derailed so much and your average Jill and Joe see the LGB supporting this, as well as so-called feminists, and lump it altogether. Truly a Gordian knot that’s going to take years to unravel.

      • cday881@gmail.com

        Perhaps we should, as Alexander, simply cut the Gordian knot?

    • cday881@gmail.com

      May be to our benefit that Trump simply does not care what goes on in women’s spaces

      Some beauty pageant contestants might disagree:

      https://thinkprogress.org/trump-beauty-pageants-naked-2dc4b6c6d507#.6mtmm5j2q

  • melissa

    “So it’s always possible that the ranks will swell. ”

    Boy, i really hope you’re right.

    ” I went from believing myself an exception to the rule cool-girl type of feminism denier to a radical feminist in a matter of about two-ish years.”

    Yea, can relate to this too.Although i was always a feminist at heart and sexist, unjust behavior always stuck out to me in society, when you keep seeing women at the fore front of defending so many misogynistic bs, either religious misogyny, BDSM, porn, prostitution, trans female/male brain bs, for a second, i almost started to think it must be women themselves there somethings off with. Instead of understanding the deeply misogynistic shit show of a wold we’ve inherited.

    “I wanted to see clearly and to understand the world I live in. I believe a lot of women feel this need, and I hope it leads them to radical feminism. ”

    True.The problem is, not only is your average woman not easily exposed to any coherent radfem ideas, they learn its this hateful, extreme Serf/Terf cult that no one likes.Your average person interested in feminism is met with a wave of incoherent counter productive nonsense that gaslights and grooms them into feeling more comfortable with the status quo, while creating sheetlike, unquestioning misogyny enablers, under the guise of “feminism” itself.Which give more reasons for conservative men/woman to mock and sneer at “feminism”, confirming rightness and superiority of their worldview and alienating them further.

    Perhaps someday, if not anytime soon(maybe when I’m long gone too), we’ll get something like the second wave again, coming together despite the resistance and toxicity. We’ll really have our work cut out for us this time.The traditionalist type misogyny is now looking so much simpler to argue against than the obfuscating, obstructionist, manipulative, Orwellian mind games the left is indoctrinating people with. I cant believe there was a time i actually thought we’ll all just be walking off into the sunset as soon as the old, backwards conservatives die out.Not only is the young generation of conservatives even more misogynistic(the Trump and Alt right crew don’t even bother to hide it), the Left it right there with them.

  • Cassandra

    We don’t consider any person with a penis to be female, either. Peace.

  • libkid08

    Hi! I completely agree. Im not a proponent of single stall just to appear less offensive to men. We tend to do that as women. Inch our way towards eventually giving the demanding men what they want. The locker rooms, saunas, bathrooms I spend plenty of time in are the places some of the coolest personal, social, political and business conversations happen. Also at a restaurant yesterday i gave a crying woman i never met a hug. I don’t want men in my space. I don’t want to eliminate womens spaces either. Although I do know for centuries men have demanded women stop getting together. This just feels like par for the course.

  • Lipstick_Traces

    Yeah, I know about isolation too. Finding radfems online resisting has been a revelation. We can all take heart in that.

  • Lipstick_Traces

    Yep, best term for these cockwombles is “brogressives” and “brocialism”.

  • Ash Moylan

    Being the sex “in charge” is nailing it so well – some men seem to think that we don’t need our “personal” spaces (even that it’s “sexist”) but the FACT that they are in charge and, I fear, always will be, means that anyone not male,
    white, able-bodied, and/or heterosexual NEEDS a private space.

  • Ash Moylan

    FierceMild – this is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read: “The needs of women and girls with regard to sex segregated spaces cannot be overstated”. Right On!!

    If I’m in a women’s/girls’ locker room and a boy OF ANY AGE comes I speak to the woman/girl responsible. Really young boys I have to give way on – but I try not to on older.

    I would love to see a sign in all women’s rooms saying
    “No Penises Permitted – Or Pay a Fine Of £1000 (or $1500)”.

  • FierceMild

    Your parents must have been awesome to grow up with.

  • melissa

    Thank u!:)

  • Meghan Murphy

    So glad you found us, Koryo! You are not at all alone (though I know it can feel that way sometimes). Solidarity.

    • Koryo

      Thank you both so much!!

  • FierceMild

    Welcome!

  • Denise Denning

    I’ve been saying for a couple of years that the solution lies in making the men’s room gender-neutral. This kills two birds: it offers respect to people with gender non-conforming identities, and it also helps deal with the overcrowding in the women’s that frequently happens at well-attended events.

  • Tired feminist

    Yeah and this is serious, because victims of sexual assault have a hard time to be believed even when there ARE witnesses…

    • FierceMild

      Absolutely.

  • Ash Moylan

    I’d be happy with upping the “penis fine” as long as 50% of it goes to women’s causes!

  • Meghan Murphy

    “Jensen is concerned about protecting the safety and privacy of women and girls in bathrooms – a concern that leaves readers with the impression that trans women are potential predators.”

    The point is not that trans people are predators — it’s that males are predators. Identifying as trans does not change that reality.

  • -Asphyxia-

    I’m new here too. I feel like the older I’m gettting, the more radical views I’ve started to adopt. Does anyone know of any message boards or things like that online that are good resources? Thanks!

  • FierceMild

    Intersex people are intersex, not trans. The two are completely unrelated.

    The rest of your post is utter gibberish and would be considered ‘transphobic’ for the (apparent?) recognition that transwomen are biologically male…even though you tried to argue that there is no such thing as biological sex categories a few paragraphs before making that claim.

    • Lisa Tremblay

      Thanks. I’m aware that intersex isn’t trans. My point is that, as a culture, we force everyone into a male or female category.
      I apologize if my post was confusing. I think our society is rigid about male and female categories. We make them seem perfectly natural leading us to think male and female are opposites when in reality we’re more similar than different. I question the extent to which we need to use these categories.
      I’m not sure what part of my post is transphobic. I find the trans terms on this site confusing as participants use words that might have different meanings for different people. Robert Jensen used the term “male-to-transgender” which I’ve never heard of. We don’t even use the same pronoun to describe the same person on this site. So if I’ve made an error in language, I will apologize.
      I’m sorry that you consider the rest of my post “utter gibberish.” I’ll add it to the list of feedback that other participants have given to me.

      • Meghan Murphy

        We don’t force people into male or female categories…. They exist regardless of society…

      • FierceMild

        It really is simple. The categories of male and female are biological and grounded in the physical body – and immutable, just look up the way males and females react to the same drugs – intersex exists, but it is an anomaly and not the same thing as transness.

        As for your ramblings and faux apologies, you may keep them both. Go and spout your nonsense on Everyday Feminism. They’ll be happy to oblige you by pretending the physical world is a big nasty transphobic bigot.

  • FierceMild

    I don’t want to nitpick. I want us to go to bat for each other and leave everybody else to one side when we need to. Because we’re important and worthy in our own right.

  • Exactly, focus on women’s reproductive rights which are under attack all over the country. Focus on men’s violence and unwanted intrusions into our lives and let’s not align ourselves with the anti women politicians. When practical issues are at stake. Not abstract philosophical goal scoring which is more in tune with the conservative gender politics of our time and not with radical feminist gender theory.

    Single unit bathrooms are a acceptable adjustment for many places and the rest can stay as they were, and transgender men and women will continue to use the bathroom they want too like they have always done. No need to back discriminatory legislation that far from making things safer will just make things more dangerous for trans men and women and do nothing else.

  • Meghan Murphy

    But transwomen are socialized as men…. I’m not ‘making them seem dangerous’ and neither is Robert — we’re just saying that men who identify as women are still male, and therefore there still should be boundaries, in terms of women’s spaces. I don’t have any interest in forcing transwomen into men’s bathrooms, but we need a solution to this issue that respects the rights of women and girls.

    • FierceMild

      Such as…a third bathroom!!!! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?!…oh wait they have and the transwomen say that’s not good enough because it’s not about having a pee in safety, it’s about forcing women to play along with their ladyface charade.

  • FierceMild

    You really thought “utter gibberish” was harsh? I was trying to be gentle and kind…I didn’t even use any strong language.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Oh my god I am fucking fuming at that TIME piece!

    “An employee at the center who spoke on condition of anonymity says the individual using the locker room appears to present as a man—wearing swim shorts or trunks to swim, with sideburns going down into a beard—which is partly what alarms the girls and their parents. Staff members have also been warned that asking individuals to prove their gender identity would be discriminatory. ‘Our hands are tied,’ the worker said. ‘We can’t say anything about it.'”

    This is EXACTLY what this kind of policy/legislation leads to. In-fucking-sane.

    • Wren

      This kills me.
      “And lastly, ensuring the rights of transgender people to claim their
      identity without having to prove it, while taking into consideration the
      sensitivities of young people can be extremely problematic.”

      Taking into consideration their “sensitivities”????!! Way to make little girls sound… just, oh I don’t know…JUST FUCKING SENSITIVE??? Way to minimize them, all so a a fucking pervert can change in their locker room. The coverage at TIME is so apologetic and stupid. What happened to laws against indecent exposure?? Why should any of us be patient when dealing with the safety of girls and women??? I’m so fucking mad. God I wish I was there, I would fucking kick him in the fucking balls. I don’t believe this “hands are tied” shit either. It’s not possible that there’s not one cop in NYC who wouldn’t see this for what it truly is – a predator on the loose.

      • JingFei

        You bring up a very good, yet alarming point; wow will this mess with indecent exposure laws. As for police, I know a police officer where I live, and it’s really hard for them because everyone runs to the media and Human Rights coalition immediately these days.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I mean they are literally male… Like that is their biological sex.

    Why do you believe that simply because a male identifies as transgender he doesn’t pose a threat to women? Or that he wouldn’t make women and girls feel intimidated or scared in their own spaces?

    http://www.torontosun.com/2014/02/26/predator-who-claimed-to-be-transgender-declared-dangerous-offender
    http://boston.edgemedianetwork.com/news/news/206869/trans_woman_accused_in_oakland_triple_slaying
    http://www.ktvq.com/story/33740628/montana-woman-charged-with-raping-a-minor
    http://time.com/4324687/even-in-liberal-communities-transgender-bathroom-laws-worry-parents/

    All ‘transwoman’ means is that a male has decided to take on stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics (or that he suffers from body dysmorphia and believes he ‘should’ be female-bodied ). It doesn’t mean he is somehow an entirely different sex. “Trans” isn’t a sex, it’s just an identity — one that can only exist in a society where there is a gender binary, at that…

    • Lisa Tremblay

      Thanks for clarifying Meghan and for including the links. I understand that there are cases where trans women have committed violence against women and girls but I don’t think that makes trans women or girls, in general, a threat. Some gay men cruise boys but that doesn’t make gay men, in general, a threat to boys.
      Social policy, even it’s about bathrooms, should be made on the basis of evidence – including research, information from other jurisdictions, statistics, advice from experts and community consultation. A gender based analysis should always be done to ensure that women and girls’ safety and equity are considered.
      I understand that trans people generally speaking haven’t changed their sex category but biological sex isn’t as clear cut as we think. There’s a lot of variation so it’s difficult for anyone outside the individual to know how someone’s particular mix of hormones, genes and anatomy line up with these binary sex categories. All I know is that transgendering is a reality. To me, that means something is happening in our society and I’d rather learn from it and figure out what to do about it.
      Locker and shower rooms are all unique so, where there aren’t a variety of options, organizations have to talk to people, look at what other places have done and figure out how to go about protecting women and girls from feeling exposed, scared or abused and trans women/girls from being singled out, exposed or abused. Evaluations from schools or other facilities might help us learn what’s working and what’s not. I’m open to other suggestions that you might have.

  • Meghan Murphy

    It really, really does matter, actually. http://magazine.jhsph.edu/2016/fall/forum/rethinking-sex-matters/

    Also, do you honestly not think that the fact women can get pregnant and men can’t is kind of a big deal? The kinds of health services women require are very different from those men require.

    • Lisa Tremblay

      Thanks for the link to the Public Health document. I worked in Public Health before I retired so I understand that sex differences affect health and researchers often fail to take this into account.
      It’s obviously important for individuals and their health care providers to know their biological sex. My issue is with the ‘public’ identification of sex at birth. Why does the public need to know whether a baby is a girl or boy? Maybe sex should be considered personal health information and people can decide for themselves when to tell others.

  • Wren

    Well you also don’t think that girls should learn self-defense to avoid assaults from men in either pants or dresses, so I’m kinda thinking you’re just another man, or at least acting like one!

  • Anita Perry

    Robert Jensen is a true feminist ally, and he was attacked by trans activists who tried to get some book stores to stop selling his books. Jensen has incredible courage and integrity, and has collaborated with Gail Dines.

  • JingFei

    I always ask the same question because I have looked and looked. There are no article I can find where a trans woman has been attacked in a men’s washroom. And if you ask that of the screaming Transactivists and Liberal/Queer feminists?

    *Crickets*

    or you get blocked.

  • Lisa Tremblay

    You say that trans women who pass can use the women’s bathroom but not the ones who look like men. It’s not always easy to figure out if someone is a woman or a man. Women have been known to challenge butch lesbians when they walk into women’s bathrooms – mistaking them for men.
    I agree that choices have consequences. Our door isn’t automatically open to trans women. Behaviour matters. I’ve met the gentlest trans woman and someone obnoxious. I’ve read about lots of bad behavior – storming rooms, shouting, telling us we can’t use words like vagina.
    Women’s space is sacred. We don’t want to experience bad male behavior in our sacred spaces. Every woman wants to feel the comfort of being with just women and find places she can go where she’s not oppressed.

    • Wren

      Just to be clear, I don’t want MEN in my bathroom, well-behaved or not.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Personally I want to know if a commenter is male instead of female, because it changes how I engage with them. But usually you can tell if someone is male, based on how they engage… I also personally don’t want men out of every space. I appreciate a lot of the comments and contributions from (actual) male allies here. I certainly think some spaces and conversations should be for women alone, but not all of them. We have, I’m sorry to say, men who are better ‘feminists’ than many women these days, due to third wave garbage.

  • Lisa Tremblay

    Trans activists who are willing to advocate for and invite violent rapists into their movement obviously don’t care about violence against women and girls. They seem willing to risk our lives despite the fact that many of them want to be women.
    The prison system should not give in to the demands of sexually violent men who change their gender and then want access to women’s prison facilities. It’s truly pathetic that lawyers and trans activists support them without any concern for women inmates.

  • Socialist Guerrilla

    Hello Ash, I am a straight male , just a genuine question here. I would consider Feminist current a ”womens website”, as you put it , of course. I read it frequently and I just genuinely love it since I would consider myself a feminist. Do you feel like I am invading your privacy or that I shouldn’t be using these kind of resources? Genuine question by the way , please don’t think that I am sarcastic or anything like that. Thanks!

    • Ash Moylan

      Fair point. No I don’t consider that you’re invading my privacy by reading this site, just as I could read a board about Men’s Health or Football. But I wouldn’t comment on one, partly as I wouldn’t feel I had the right to, partly because I know from the experience of friends that I’d be laughed at or ignored.
      We tend to be – or try to be – accepting of men for fear of being criticised for not living up to our principles of wanting a fairer world for all. But in trying for that fairer world we need to be able to organise and discuss between us rather than have the involvement of the gender we’re trying to generally or individually prove the equal of.
      Personally I don’t feel totally at ease raising points or making comments if men are involving themselves. I’m sure you wouldn’t feel happy making comments about women if you knew that I was listening and likely to respond!
      Btw, that is all my personal opinion – obviously other women here will feel differently.

      • Socialist Guerrilla

        wow. probably my opinion doesn’t really matter but, I couldn’t disagree more. So what does ”football” have anything to do with feminism? thats absolute madness….so you are basically saying that ”football” is man-stuff and I should stick to football sites instead of reading a feminist magazine? sorry like but that doesn’t make any sense to me. Also how is the absolute pathetic sexist magazine called mens health any relevant with this. You see thats the problem , you think that I should stick with ”mens health” instead of reading about feminism. How will men stop being sexist if they keep reading about ”football” and ”mens health” , by the way I hate football and Ive never read mens health, lol.