Penises don’t kill people, people with penises do

Jess Bradley, the first trans officer for the NUS in the UK, was recently suspended after pictures of an exposed penis in various public places were discovered on Bradley’s Tumblr blog. One of the photos appears to have been taken at what looks like Bradley’s desk. The blog, which has since been taken down, was called “Exhibitionizm” —  referring to fetishes and fantasies that involve engaging in sexual acts in public (or in places where one might be seen or “caught”), such as flashing or masturbating.

Bradley has not denied ownership of the photos or penis, but has expressed confidence that the law has not been broken. A statement published by Bradley reads: “I am able to tell you that I am confident that none of my behaviour has been unlawful, and that I have not engaged in sexual activity with anyone, or in the view of anyone, without their consent.”

In an article published on Medium, an author writing under the pseudonym “Cursed E” argues that, with regard to the response to these allegations, Bradley is being wronged in two ways: first, by being “kink shamed,” and second, by being construed as representative of all transwomen. On the first, characterizing the deliberate public exposure of genitals for the purposes of sexual titillation to “kink shaming” is troubling. It implies that the act of an adult flashing their penis or masturbating publicly is harmless. As women and girls who have been subject this kind of sexual misconduct can attest, such behaviour is not harmless. Even if the perpetrator does not intend to be seen, risking being seen for the purpose of sexual arousal shows unacceptable disregard for those who are at risk of seeing.

On the second, the argument that criticism of Bradley’s alleged behaviour unfairly targets transwomen is misguided. “Cursed E” writes:

“Whenever a trans person does something bad its automatically applied as if its a standard to all trans women. So because one trans woman is allegedly an exhibitionist flasher, we all could be and so things like women’s spaces should keep us out, for the protection of women.”

The author goes on to argue that to cite the Bradley case as justification to exclude transwomen from women’s spaces (such as change rooms) would be “literally no different to racism.” The logic is that, just as it is racist to generalize from the harmful actions of one member of a race to all members of a race, it is likewise prejudicial to generalize from the harmful actions of one transwoman to all transwomen. “Cursed E” argues that people who have concerns about opening women-only spaces to transwomen have a prejudice that “stems from viewing penises as weapons. So anyone who has one is automatically a bad person.” The author’s conclusion is similar to the line, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” — namely, that penises don’t rape and otherwise commit violence against women, but rather the males attached to them do that, and #notall[males].

“Cursed E” is, of course, completely correct that it is prejudicial to generalize from the harmful actions of one member of a group to all members of the group, especially when the group is a stigmatized or vulnerable minority. And it is true that some people stereotype all of those who identify as transgender as “perverted” or “sick.” When people cite cases such as Bradley’s as justification for maintaining sex-segregated spaces, some trans activists and allies may hear or construe these concerns as saying, “all transwomen are sexual predators.”

But the feminist argument for retaining and safeguarding female spaces is not about transwomen per se. It is about male people — the sex class into which all transwomen were born. Because of the reality and ubiquity of male violence (including various degrees and forms of sexual violence), and female vulnerability to male violence, certain spaces ought to remain off limits to males, for the protection of females. While there is no specific or additional threat from transwomen, a person who is still a member of the male sex class is part of the class of people who are given a blanket exclusion from certain spaces designed for female safety and privacy.

If, as “Cursed E” argues, it is akin to racism to exclude transwomen from certain spaces, it is also akin to racism to exclude any males at all from certain spaces. But we think the argument runs the other way: for exactly the same reasons that it is not prejudicial to exclude males from certain spaces (contrary to the howls of MRAs), it is not prejudicial to exclude transwomen from certain spaces. It is as equally facile to say that certain spaces are off-limits to transwomen because some people think having a penis makes you a bad person, as it is to say that certain spaces are off-limits to males because some people think having a penis makes you a bad person.

This means that the argument to allow all transwomen access to spaces that exclude all males will need to show one of two things:

1) That the statistical threat of male violence does not provide sufficient reason to retain and safeguard spaces that exclude males, so there should be no sex-segregation on safety and privacy grounds. If that argument is successful, then transwomen will have the right to access spaces previously designed for the safety and privacy of females because all males will have that right.

2) That there is something about identifying as a transwoman, having body dysmorphia that causes someone born male to self-identify as a woman, taking estrogen, wearing “feminine” clothing, or presenting with the other (apparent) accoutrements of femininity, that removes or sufficiently reduces the statistical threat to females. There are interesting empirical questions here. For example, is male violence socialized, and at what stage? Does taking estrogen impact impulses to violence? Is socialized sexism or misogyny likely to simply disappear upon identifying as a woman?

We are interested in this information if it does indeed exist, but until we are presented with evidence, we think there is sufficient reason to keep certain spaces off limits to males. The burden of proof is on those who would like to make exceptions for some males, and not on us. Cases like Bradley’s are striking not because they represent transwomen, but because they show misconduct that is characteristically male, but not characteristic of females.

In the wake of #MeToo, writers like “Cursed E” should consider cases like Bradley’s as an opportunity to take a stand against male violence and sexual misconduct. Instead of going into damage control and using minimization tactics for political reasons, everyone — including trans activists and allies — should demonstrate zero tolerance for perpetrators of violence and sexual misconduct, regardless of how they identify or their political affiliation. The short term imperatives of securing the privacy, rights, and safety of those who identify as transgender — without jeopardizing the privacy, rights, and safety of females — should be something we can all agree on. And in the long run, males especially should work toward making male violence and sexual misconduct a thing of past, if they wish to obviate the need for sex-segregated spaces.

Holly Lawford-Smith is a senior lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

Emily Vicendese is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

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