The tangled web of sex and gender

As many of you probably know, I have had to take a break from writing recently because of a broken wrist. But I did manage to write responses to this Twitter thread from Shaun Lawson. 

I was uncomfortable about responding on Twitter to Shaun's questions, so decided to write them in a Word document and send them to him privately. But on reflection, I believe my views are every bit as worthy of a hearing as those of the trans activists and gender critical people who express themselves loudly all over social media. Twitter is a bear pit, so I'm publishing them here. 

As the trans rights debate is extremely toxic, comments are moderated. I will delete comments that are personal attacks on me or anyone else or that are grandstanding a personal agenda.  

I dislike the widespread, and often deliberate, conflating of sex-defined terms (“males”, "females") with socially-defined terms ("men", “woman”, “women’s”). So, throughout this piece, I shall use sex-defined and socially-defined terms appropriately as follows:

  • “Male” means a biological male (but not necessarily an anatomical one)
  • “Female” means a biological female (but not necessarily an anatomical one)
  • “Man” means anyone who identifies as male, whether or not they are biologically or anatomically male
  • “Woman” means anyone who identifies as female, whether or not they are biologically or anatomically female.

For the purposes of this discussion I include trans women within the general category “women” and trans men within the general category “men”.

1. Do you think anatomical males should be allowed in protected women's spaces such as prisons, rape refuges, hospital wards or lavatories if they say they’re a woman? If so, why? 

In principle, I think anatomical males should generally be allowed in protected women’s spaces if they identify as women. I see no reason to exclude trans women who have not undergone surgical reassignment, purely on the grounds of their anatomy.  No-one should be forced to undergo invasive and dangerous surgery purely to enable them to live as the social gender they perceive themselves to be.

Generally speaking, if anyone is excluded from protected women’s spaces it should be because they as an individual (not as a group) present a known threat to women, i.e. they have a history of sexual assault or physical violence against other women (including trans women). Such exclusion should be sex-independent, so that biological females with a history of sexual assault or physical violence against women (including trans women) are also excluded. I would similarly exclude biological males with a history of sexual assault or physical violence against men (including trans men) from certain male spaces.

However, the spaces listed in this question present different problems. I shall discuss public lavatories under question 2, since the issues are really the same as for changing rooms.


Firstly, let’s consider who is most at risk here. Trans women are seriously at risk of violence and sexual assault in men’s prisons. They may also be at risk of assault in women’s prisons, but these are safer places for them than men’s prisons. The prison system has a duty of care to inmates. Those calling for trans women to be sent to men’s prisons regardless of the offences they have committed or, for that matter, their protected rights, forget this.

Secondly, if someone has a history of sexual assault and/or violence against women, they should not be in a women’s prison, even if they are biologically female. Similarly, if someone has a history of sexual assault and/or violence against men, they should not be in a men’s prison, even if they are biologically male. It’s worth remembering that Reynhard Sinaga, the UK’s most prolific rapist, preyed on men, not women. Yet he is in a men’s prison. I find this utterly bizarre.

Putting the above points together, a trans woman with no history of sexual assault or violence against women should be in a women’s prison. Forcing her into a men’s prison, or into solitary confinement, purely on the grounds of her anatomy would be violation of her protected rights. But a trans woman with a history of sexual assault and/or violence against women should not be in a women’s prison. However, she shouldn’t be in a men’s prison either, because of the risk to her life and health. Perhaps the prospect of spending their entire sentences either in solitary or in each other’s company might make biological males convicted of sexual assault or violence against women think again about self-declaring as women in order to gain access to women’s prisons?

Rape refuges

Those who wish to deny trans women access to rape refuges seem to ignore the fact that biological males can be victims of rape and domestic abuse. I see no reason to exclude male rape victims from rape refuges, and on that basis, I see no reason to exclude trans women from rape refuges. Furthermore, I regard failure to provide refuges for males (including trans women) escaping from domestic abuse as sex discrimination.

Hospital wards

It is hard to see any justification for excluding trans women from women’s wards, and the potential for harm to the mental health of trans women is considerable.

This is one of many questions that ignored trans men. Excluding trans men from men’s wards would potentially be as harmful to their mental health as excluding trans women from women's wards.

There is also a wider problem regarding access to medical treatment related to biological sex. Some trans men need access to certain services that are currently exclusively available to women, and some trans women similarly need access to certain services currently only availalbe to men. In my view, medical needs should determine the medical treatment to which an individual has access, not gender identity. 

2. Do you think anatomical males should be allowed to get changed in women and girls’ changing rooms if they say they’re a woman? If so, why?

I’ve added lavatories to this section as the issues are similar.

In my view anatomical males should be allowed to use women’s public lavatories and changing rooms. Indeed I don’t see how they can realistically be prevented from doing so. Security guards cannot be expected to make decisions about someone’s sex purely on the basis of how they look. There are already reports  of biological females being harassed and intimidated when using women's toilets, or even removed by security, because someone thought they looked like men. This is wholly unacceptable.

There is also an obvious, and potentially serious, discrimination problem if a woman can demand that another woman is excluded from womens’ public lavatories or changing rooms purely because she “makes her feel uncomfortable”. By the same token, black women, or Muslim women, could similarly be excluded because a white British woman “felt uncomfortable”. Where does this end?

Since womens’ public lavatories have lockable cubicles, and unlike men’s lavatories have no communal urinary facilities, in my view it is wholly unnecessary to exclude anatomical males who identify as women from public lavatories. I don’t think women’s public toilets should have urinals. That’s going too far. Trans women who see themselves as female surely won’t want to use urinals.

Issues of privacy and security go far beyond worries about trans women. Some women (including trans women) feel uncomfortable changing in front of other women. And some biological females are predatory on other biological females. Providing more individual cubicles in changing rooms, and ensuring changing rooms are properly staffed, would provide women (including trans women) with better privacy and security.

This question again ignores trans men. Yet trans men have been excluded from men-only facilities because they don’t “look male”. They can use women-only facilities, of course, but they shouldn’t have to. It’s odd how using women-only facilities is being promoted as some kind of privilege, when for some biological females it is anything but.

3. Do you think someone born male should be allowed to compete in women’s sports? If so, why?

I’d rather avoid the whole problem, frankly. Rather than segregating sports by sex, we should segregate by ability. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of sports promoters to develop a system similar to that used in paralympic sports.

4. Do you think schools should have only unisex lavatories? If so, why?

Let’s separate out primary and secondary schools.

There is no reason whatsoever for primary schools to have segregated lavatories. Segregated lavatories in primary schools are a relic from the days when boys and girls had separate entrances, separate corridors and separate playgrounds. Get rid of them.

I also believe that secondary schools should have unisex lavatories. This creates an opportunity for the school to enforce good behaviour and respect for the opposite sex. However, introducing unisex lavatories shouldn’t be done suddenly and must go hand-in-hand with good PHSE education, and schools must commit to policing unisex lavatories and operating a zero-tolerance policy for bad behaviour. It’s worth remembering that Ofsted’s recent report found sexual harassment among schoolchildren was most prevalent in public unsupervised spaces such as parks and parties, in school corridors, and of course online. The problem is lack of supervision and discipline, not unisex facilities per se.

5. Do you think anyone should be able to self-declare as the opposite gender without having transitioned first, and immediately be able to access protected women’s spaces? If so, why?

In principle, I think people who believe themselves to be women and are willing to make a legal declaration to that effect should be able to access protected women’s spaces, subject to the caveats I discussed in previous questions.

The law currently says that someone only has to be “in a process of transition”, not that they must have completed their transition, and that transition is a personal process which may or may not include medication or surgery. I see no reason to tighten the current law to force people to complete their transition and/or undergo invasive medical or surgical treatment.  

I profoundly disagree with people who argue that women’s protected spaces are the “right” of biological females as a sex class. I do not believe that sex has rights. Only gender does, because rights are socially determined and gender, unlike sex, is a social construct.

6. If legislation allows for anyone being able to self-declare as the opposite gender without transitioning first, how do you propose to stop male sexual predators and/or violent criminals claiming to be female and taking advantage of said legislation?

I believe my proposal to prohibit people (regardless of sex or gender) with a history of sexual assault and/or violence against women from being admitted to women’s prisons and other protected spaces would solve this problem.

7. If a child of any age in any circumstances decides one day they’re of the opposite gender, do you think they should be automatically supported in that by their parents, guardians, schools and/or teachers, with no questioning in any way by any of the latter? If so, why?

Research purporting to show children deciding “out of the blue” that they are trans as a result of social media contagion is disputed by clinical professionals working in the field of paediatrics. Other research suggests that trans identity develops early in life and is often ignored or resisted by parents, schools and other significant adults. Much misery would be avoided if children were believed. There is also a safeguarding issue here: refusing to allow a child to identify as the opposite sex, and persistently attempting to “talk them out of it”, is emotional abuse.

It’s not so long since adults refused to believe that children could decide they were gay, insisting they were “influenced” by being taught about homosexuality in schools. I remember Section 28 all too well. It didn’t stop children being gay, but it made coming out a whole lot more difficult. Do we really want the same culture of disbelief, discrimination and abuse for trans children?

8. If you answered ‘yes’ to all or most of the above, how do you propose to deal with any issues around safeguarding?

The scope of the term “safeguarding” here needs clarifying. Questions concerning adult females don’t have a safeguarding dimension. Only questions concerning children and vulnerable adults do.

Firstly,  I must dismiss the poisonous claim by some “gender critical” people” that excluding trans women from women-only spaces would protect children or vulnerable adults. This is not only a gross calumny against trans women, it is nonsense from a safeguarding point of view. 

Adult females can and do abuse young children: in addition to recent high-profile cases of severe physical abuse, child sexual abuse by adult females is widespread. And older boys and male vulnerable adults are of course excluded from women’s spaces. I personally know two convicted male paedophiles, neither of whom is trans and both of whom preyed on boys aged 11-14. Excluding trans women from women-only spaces would not have protected those boys.

I remember when many people thought gay men were dangerous to children and wanted them banned from jobs involving contact with children, such as teaching. Thankfully most people don’t think that way now, and equality legislation prevents such blatant discrimination against gay men. But the “paedophile fear” seems to have migrated to trans women, again with little or no justification, and again resulting in calls for direct discrimination and violation of their rights.

The reality is that paedophiles can be straight, gay, lesbian or trans. They should really be regarded as a separate group. People are just as wrong now to assume that all trans women are actual or potential paedophiles as they were to assume that all gay men are. Excluding trans women from women-only spaces would not address safeguarding concerns for children and vulnerable adults.

This question also failed to address the safeguarding needs of trans children. Trans children can be viciously bullied by their peers, by older children, and even by adults. Parents, schools and organisers of activities for children and young people need to be vigilant about this and operate a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment.

9. Do you refer to ‘pregnant women’ or ‘pregnant people’? If the latter, why?

I use the term “pregnant people”. Women are people. And trans men can and do become pregnant. There is no reason whatsoever to discriminate against trans men by forcing them to identify as “women” when they are pregnant. Those objecting to the term “pregnant people” are trying to pretend that trans men don’t exist. I don’t think that denying the existence of a group of people is acceptable in a civilised society.

As I said earlier, access medical treatment should be determined by medical need, not by gender identity.

10. Do you refer to ‘women’ or ‘cervix havers’ / ‘menstruators’ / ‘bodies with vaginas’? If any of the latter three terms, why?

These three terms do not equate to “women”. ;Someone who is biologically female and identifies as a woman, but has had a hysterectomy, doesnt't have a cervix and doesn't menstruate. A woman past the menopause doesn't menstruate either. Some biological females are born without vaginas or wombs, but nevertheless see themselves as women. Trans men might have cervixes, wombs and vaginas, and might menstruate, but nevertheless see themselves as men. 

These terms do need to be used by medical professionals and teachers when giving information about the female reproductive system to biological females who don’t identify as women. And similarly, medical professionals and teachers should use terms such as "people with testicles" and "bodies with prostates" when discussing the male reproductive system. But otherwise, I would prefer these terms not to be used. I don’t think people are defined by their reproductive systems.

11. Do you think rape survivors should be required in court or elsewhere to refer to anatomically male rapists by their preferred pronouns? If so why?

I totally understand why a rape victim might want to use the terms “he/her” about her (or his) rapist. But I’m not sure what purpose it would serve except to vent anger. The court knows that the accused is a biological male. The point doesn’t need reinforcing.

I’d point out too that pronouns are social constructs and therefore reflect gender, not sex. Some languages (French, German, Italian) use gendered pronouns about inanimate objects. We are surely not going to argue that a table is biologically female just because the French noun “table” takes “la” instead of “le”, are we?

Politeness is important in courts of law, particularly in difficult court cases. So it would be better to use the preferred pronouns if possible. However, I would hope a court would be understanding if a rape victim found this too painful.

12. Do you think statistics on violence against women and girls should treat anatomically male perpetrators as ‘women’ if they self-identify as a woman or girls?

I think violence both by trans women and on trans women should be separately reported.

The question does not ask about trans men - even though they are at risk of violence and sexual abuse from other men - but in my view violence both by trans men and on trans men should similarly be separately reported.

13. Do you think surveys such as but not limited to the census should ask for someone’s sex, or their gender?

They should ask for both, with “prefer not to say” as an option for both questions. And gender needs to include a wider range than just “man” and “woman”.

14. Is it 'transphobic' or in any way bigoted not to be sexually attracted to someone who does not have the same anatomical parts as you, but who considers themselves to be a woman? If so, why?

Shaun originally addressed this question to lesbians. For completeness, I have included it here. However, I would not presume to tell lesbians how they should feel.

I do however feel deeply saddened by the way in which sexual relationships are being reduced to simply a matter of "what does that body look like". Whatever happened to the things that go beyond sex, that make enduring relationships possible through thick and thin - such as love, companionship, faithfulness?

15. Do you think it’s possible for someone to change sex? If so, how?

At present, is not possible for a human being to change their biological sex. We are not clown fish.

However, biological sex and legal sex are not necessarily the same thing. And some people do genuinely believe they are the “wrong” sex. In a civilised, compassionate society, a person should be able to become the legal sex they perceive themselves to be, and live as that sex without opprobrium, discrimination or persecution.

The state of medical technology at the present time is such that someone who chooses to become a different legal sex can undergo treatment that will give them the physical characteristics of that biological sex, but the reproductive characteristics of that sex, such as the ability to bear and suckle children, or the ability to ejaculate sperm, are still denied to them. But these capabilities are also denied to some people who are not trans. Why should we not, as a society, help all of these people to live the fullest lives they can? And if, at some time in the future, medical advances made it possible for biological males and other people without female reproductive apparatus to bear and suckle children, I for one would rejoice - not just for trans women, but for all women, since it would end the "motherhood penalty" that impoverishes far too many biological females.

16. How do you define “woman”?

No-one should define “woman” without also defining “man”. It is sex discrimination to take the definition of "man" for granted while fighting to the death over the definition of "woman". And assuming that "man" means a biological male excludes some groups, notably trans men who are biologically female. The invisibility of trans men was painfully evident in these questions. We must do better. 

On that basis, therefore, I defined both "woman" and "man" at the head of this essay.

Image of tangled web from Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: fir0002  flagstaffotos [at] Canon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, GFDL 1.2 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Related reading:

Maya Forstater's human rights problem

HOC Women and Equalities Committee came out strongly for self-declaration of gender, Robin White

Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, Women and Equalities Committee, House of Commons


  1. The prisons issue is particularly vexxed because most take the brutality of the present system as a given and debate its consequences. If we addressed that we'd likely obviate the need for much of the hand wringing. And of course it's worth noting that men are already present in womens prisons as guards, so it's frustrating that people want to punch down at trans women prisoners rather than look at where the possibilities for abuse already exist.

  2. A very rational approach to (de)segregation in sports and prisons etc. The logical extension of the prisons argument, which I support, would be desegregated prisons. One further proposal: remove the gender flag altogether where it serves no purpose, eg. passports. Come to think of it, is there anywhere where the gender flag *does* serve a purpose?

  3. Thank you. You put it across so much better than I could have hoped to.

  4. Thank you very much for this. It's the first comprehensive response to these issues that I am able to wholeheartedly agree with. It's also very clearly argued.

    One small editing point. The following sentence (from answer 15) is missing something - or perhaps "who genuinely" could be deleted, and "genuinely be inserted before "perceive"?: "In a civilised, compassionate society, someone who genuinely should be able to become the legal sex they perceive themselves to be, and live as that sex without opprobrium, discrimination or persecution."

    1. Hi Simon, I spotted that glitch myself earlier today and have corrected it.

  5. This may sound harsh, but I don't think he should have a choice. After all, other non-violent men are also at risk, especially if they are young, and they don't have a choice. As I said in the post, in my view it would be better to ensure that men with a history of physical and/or sexual violence against other men (including trans men) were not held in ordinary men's prisons.

  6. Francis - why do you think there should be (or are) prisons, refuges, toilets, changing rooms and so on that are separated between men and women?

    Surely your argument means that all these situations should be mixed?

    1. No, my argument does not mean that. My argument is simply that people (whether men or women) who are known to be a danger to women should not be in women's spaces. And similarly, that people (whether men or women) who are known to be a danger to men should not be in men's spaces.

    2. But why should women's spaces be allowed at all?

      My husband is not a known danger to women. Should he be allowed in women's communal changing rooms as the gym. If not why not?

    3. I've made my views clear, Maya. I have nothing more to add.

  7. I'm a man, and have had issues with gender identity enough to have had to do some research as a teenager and as an adult. I've read your blog for a few years for the economics.

    I think there is a difference between what should be legislated for, and what happens in real life.

    I think for legislation, there should just be a clear rule that says single sex spaces should be single sex.

    I couldn't support legislation that would say that in some cases females would be expected, by legislation, to sometimes share spaces with some males. It's not even necessarily that I think that those males will always be a threat, but there are also reasons of privacy and dignity.

    I think there are some women who wouldn't mind opening their spaces up to others, but also don't think that women who don't feel comfortable with doing this are bigots. Then there are girls, who cannot really be expected to be able to consent to some males being in their spaces.

    As a man, I would find it untenable to try and justify legislation that says females would be sometimes be expected to share their spaces with some males in a room, if even one woman or girl in that room said "No, sorry, I don't want this", because there is simply no argument against that, and especially no argument I could make, particularly as a man, without feeling abusive.

    In real life, around the usage of public facilities, I expect there will continue to be instances where transsexuals who are perceived as the opposite sex will bend the rules. However I would also expect them to not talk about it, as it would be hypocritical for them to undermine a rule and norm that they would also be benefiting from. I have spoken with some transsexuals who agree with this, and want to completely blend in with societal norms. They want no part in the activism supposedly undertaken under their name.

    No doubt there will continue to be mistakes, e.g. in the case of masculine women, but unless they are Buck Angel, I would really expect a service provider to quickly realise they have made a mistake after a brief interaction with the individual. I don't think mistakes justify watering down the rule itself, and don't think watering down the rule will stop mistakes from happening.

    But I do think legislation should just say "single sex" and that the one woman or girl in the room who says "No" should know, or be taught in the case of girls, that she has legislation unambiguously on her side if she were ever to feel in any way uncomfortable in a single sex space. I don't think that it can ethically or safely be any other way.

    In the case of prisons, third spaces can be provided for those at risk of sexual assault due to being perceived as the opposite sex. These need not necessarily be solitary isolation. In the case of sports, I think leagues should just be single sex. The ECHR Goodwin ruling that underpins the legislation around this issue is a right to private life, I don't think this was ever intended to mean the right to compete against the opposite sex at a championship level, and again many transsexuals think so too, and want nothing to do with the activism, again, supposedly undertaken under their name.

  8. Reading this, the obvious question is: why have spaces specifically for men and/or women in the first place? Since you say sports should be made sex-neutral (not sure any women will win after this change is made, tbf), why not make everything else co-ed as well?

    1. Most sports leagues are already co-ed really. Women are allowed to play in the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. They created women's league specifically so that women would have a place to compete. In reality we have gender neutral leagues and women only leagues.

  9. I feel like your sports argument is a bit of a cop out. I understand why. But I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to divide sports by ability. Mens sports is orders of magnitude larger than the Paralympics, with ungodly amounts of money involved. How many professional paralympic athletes are there? Like athletes who make a living solely from their sport? There are 50k professional male footballers in the UK alone. Now most of those would have other jobs too, but that's 50k paid male athletes. A decent amount make their living from their sport alone. And "ability" is so vague a term.
    Like in combat sports will you quantify someone's ability to hit hard? Or take a punch? Speed? How? We separate them by weight class to make it fair, and obviously by gender/sex. Thing is we will likely never see a trans male competing with other men, but we have cases of trans women competing with women, and in those times where it seems they have a power advantage it looks problematic. But many people in general are also "born" with power as well. Would we have said Foreman can't compete with Frazier because he has way more power?

    I think there should be a separate category for trans athletes personally. But it's a really tough situation and I can see people arguing for different solutions.

    The waters have been so muddied it's hard to have a fair conversation about it now. So I appreciate a respectful place to talk about it.



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