An unremarkable film that nonetheless raises some far-reaching questions.
I recently watched the documentary Adult Human Female. It gives an outline of the main arguments raised in what we might call the gender critical response to gender identity theory as it is applied by trans activists. I tuned in after seeing an article in the Guardian newspaper reporting on a row taking place at Edinburgh University about whether or not it should be shown on campus. It isn’t difficult to find – it’s readily available on YouTube for those wanting to try and understand what the dispute is about. For me, the film raised three questions, only one directly related to the Edinburgh story.
The first question is, I suppose, why does anybody think the film should be banned? It takes the form of inter-cut pieces to camera from various people with some claim to relevant expertise – in law, medicine, and philosophy for example. There’s nothing here that would be novel to anybody who has taken even a non-specialist interest in trans debates in the last few years. The style is, in places, challenging but there’s nothing remotely illegal in it, or anything that could be reasonably described as aimed at inciting violence or hatred towards trans people. The main objection I can find online is the usual one that any opposition to the gender identity theory proposed by trans activists must necessarily be offensive and transphobic.
Two other questions came to mind while I was thinking about this: neither at all original but prompted, I think, by watching the case being presented on film rather than by reading about it.
One of those questions is – I can see what’s gained by tackling single issues as case studies, but what’s lost? The specific example raised by the film is sexual violence in prisons. For sure, I think most people can see that putting violent sexual offenders with male genitalia into female prisons is not a great idea. But the focus on this issue can easily overshadow a wider problem of sexual violence in prisons. Not long after I watched the film I read a newspaper report indicating that in the past 13 years there have been nearly 1000 rapes and more than 2000 sexual assaults in our prisons. The main lesson is that overcrowding and understaffing mean that it’s all but impossible to make prisons safe for those in them. Rather lost, then, in the furore about the threat from trans women is that sexual violence in prisons is best viewed not through the lens of identity politics but as an indictment of national government policy, and especially that pursued by successive Tory governments in the name of austerity.
And the third question – gender reassignment, sex and sexual orientation are all protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, but what exactly is the point of protected characteristics? They are difficult to define (see eg Malleson K. Equality law and the protected characteristics. The Modern Law Review. 2018 Jul;81(4):598-621.) and despite now extending to nine they still don’t include obvious targets for discrimination like body weight, socio-economic status or non-disabling mental disorder. When Diane Abbott MP wrote an ill-considered incoherent letter to the Observer newspaper about racism and prejudice, she was accused of trying to argue for a hierarchy of discrimination where none exists. And yet that feels like the whole point of protected characteristics – they are labels for sorts of discrimination we want to legislate against and therefore implicitly they label by omission states that don’t merit legislation.
Maybe I misunderstand, but it strikes me that these aren’t easy decisions to make, and they are made harder by the style of public debate that involves striking positions and affecting certainty – with the direction of travel seeming to be away from nuance and acknowledgement of uncertainty. What a shame that Edinburgh University students can’t lead the way in modelling what a proper debate might look like.