Emily Brothers, former Labour parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, writes that Labour needs ‘trans respect not transphobia’. It is a shame that she makes this call using language that is, at best, dismissive of the feminist movement and at worst taps into profound misogyny. The move towards greater public acceptance and institutional recognition for trans people has been one of the fastest-moving developments in equalities, but it is not a development without conflicts.
Being really neither about the future nor consistently about sex, Future Sex is a disappointment. Its pitch is a big idea on an urgent theme – a kind of state of the insemination address, or The Way We Frig Now. But what Emily Witt delivers is an accidental exemplar of another modern malaise: the essay collection ransacked from various outlets and contorted into a fictive autobiographical and intellectual arc.
There are no protests outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London, when I arrive. There have been no petitions, and no angry pleas for the venue to cancel the event I’ve come to see: a two-day conference called “The New Normal: Tackling Sexuality and Gender Confusion Amongst Children and Young People”, put on by conservative campaign group Christian Concern. The quiet is unsettling. Any discussion of transgenderism that goes beyond the affirmative now tends to attract extreme hostility.
In Canada, a doctor has been fired and his clinic shut down under pressure from trans activists. Feminists who hold that sex is more politically relevant than gender identity are accused of causing violence against trans people. The organisation Radfem Collective, which has been attacked as trans exclusionary for its women-only attendance policy, now doesn’t reveal the location of its conferences until the day before the event – sensibly, given that pressure from protesters over another women-only event in 2012 led to the venue pulling out and the event being cancelled.
The New Normal outstrips any of these targets. It features, among other things, an “ex-gay” counsellor who claims he can guide his clients out of “unwanted same-sex feelings”; a former Ukip parliamentary candidate who claims that homosexuality is connected to pedophilia and bestiality; and two speakers who describe themselves as “COGs” (short for “children of gays”), and claim that same-sex parenting is a violation of children’s rights. Christian Concern itself is currently providing legal support for a mother and father who could lose custody having refused to acknowledge their trans child’s gender.
One of those things that supposedly never happens, happened. Luke Mallaband was convicted of six voyeurism offences after a female student at the University of East Anglia found his phone hidden in the university library’s gender-neutral toilets. The probation report described him as “high risk of posing serious harm to females”.
That creepy men would abuse mixed-sex intimate spaces in order to breach women’s privacy seems, perhaps, a predictable outcome; but it’s not something that the UEA students’ union took into account when it recommended installing more gender-neutral toilets.
“It’s about extending safe spaces to everyone regardless of gender. Once you’re in a cubicle, what does it matter who’s in the cubicle next door?” said LGBT+ officer Richard Laverick at the time. “All issues surrounding toilets and safety would occur regardless of the existence of gender neutral toilets,” said a blithe 2015 report into facilities on the UEA campus. But who you share a space with makes a considerable difference to how safe it is – especially for groups of people liable to become victims of male violence, which means women and transwomen in particular.
Why should we read? The magazine Project Calm set me the task of explaining how books can sharpen your brain, strengthen your sympathies and make you more resilient (and yes, I do prescribe strong doses of Middlemarch for all conditions). The magazine is on sale now, and features beautiful illustrations by Jody Thomas alongside my words.
For as long as novels have existed, there have been moralists to warn of their dangers. Late Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason chided that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel, to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.” Recent research, though, has claimed that rather than inducing a slow death, reading books can actually keep you alive: a study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that those who read a book for 30 minutes a day had a 23-month survival advantage, regardless of their wealth, education, health or sex. And fascinatingly, this advantage was specific to books. No other reading material did so much good for its readers.
Feminism has done a thorough job of establishing the existence of sex-based inequality, but less so of explaining where this gross unfairness came from. Instead, feminist engagement with evolutionary theories has been mostly of the debunking kind: Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that women are adapted to nurture while men are adapted for conquest; Cordelia Fine patiently explains why this isn’t true; and everyone resumes his or her place to repeat the same debate in another five years’ time.
Naomi Alderman takes a look at this depressing situation, grasps the whole lot in her fist and crushes it down to a new beginning. The Power starts with a simple question: what if women got the edge? What if, somehow, nature placed a thumb on the scale so that women’s tendency to be smaller and weaker than men no longer mattered? This edge, whatever it is, would have to be more significant than physical parity, because it would have to overcome more than bodily difference: something sufficient to upturn millennia of male dominance and all the traditions that sustain it.
In the dismal sleep-deprived afternoon of yesterday’s mourning, I appeared on Shelagh Fogarty’s LBC show, talking about why I’d chosen to address Trump’s victory in an open letter to my daughter, and what other parents should tell their children about his presidency. I didn’t mention the one piece of solid practical advice I’d urge, which is to move above sea level as quickly as you can, but I did say the election had been a “referendum on women’s role in public life”, which is quite a good line. (We lost.)