One of the most prominent voices (at least until recently when Twitter finally took her to task and removed her from the platform permanently) in the Gender Critical movement is Helen Staniland. She is mostly known by both GCs and the LGBTQIA+ community alike as the proprietor of “The Staniland Question”; supposedly a giant gotcha to expose trans people as promoting the exposure of women and children to potential sexual harassment under the guise of trans rights.
The image shown above is actually a slighter tamer version. Prior to her unceremonious twitter booting, Staniland was favouring a more direct-to-fearmonger version:
“Do you believe that male-bodied people with a penis should have the right to undress in front of women and young girls?”
The Stages of Bigotry
Before we continue, it is important to understand that any bigotry goes through 5 distinct phases:
Everyone knows about, engages in it, and nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with it.
OK, so it’s wrong and a fair chunk of society is trying not to, but there’s no real attempt at eliminating it.
Being flat out bigoted is a bad idea, but if you can phrase your argument to look like a genuine concern, nobody pulls you up on it.
It’s not acceptable anywhere, but there are pockets that still continue because laws are too weak to do anything about it, or because the societal system doesn’t care enough to stop it.
It’s been completely eliminated from society.
The big four still in circulation are at various phases. Racism and sexism are at “Unacceptance”, we all know they’re wrong and we cast disdain at anyone pushing it, but there is still systemic racism and sexism evident. Homophobia is moving from “Intelligence” to “Unacceptance”, but it’s not quite there yet.
This brings us back to Staniland. Transphobia is currently well and truly in the “Intelligence” phase. If you’re flat out transphobic, you’ll be shunned, but arguments like the Staniland arugment are specifically phrased to be transphobic, without appearing to be transphobic. This avoid the scrutiny of the casual observer who wants to do good, and the minorities that want to point out the obvious transphobia can be plausibly shouted down using the trope “are you against healthy debate and discussion?”.
The trans community has been very careful in addressing The Staniland Question. It’s almost a trap question, reminiscent of childish men through the ages. “Have you stopped hitting your wife yet?” If you say yes, you imply you were to begin with. If you say no, you imply you still are. There’s no way to win.
Similarly, with Staniland, if one answers “yes”, you come across as advocating for putting women and children in danger. If you say “no”, you deny your own rights. There’s no way to win, and that’s the point. Fortunately, the LGBTQIA+ community is better than this.
The correct answer is that nobody has a right to undress in front of anyone, neither legally nor morally. In truth, there are “societal understandings”; a kind of broader version of the “gentlemen’s agreement”. For example, we understand that a happily married couple consent to be naked in each other’s presence. There is no legal or moral right to that, nor is there any form of implied consent simply because they are married. It is understood because of the nature of the arrangement. Either party can contest that understanding at any point.
In the same vein, it is understood that if you enter a changing room, you consent to be naked in front of whoever is permitted to be in there. If you wish to challenge that understanding however, the situation does not play the way Staniland would prefer.
The Equality Act regarding Service Providers
The United Kingdom has a piece of legislation in place that protects 9 different classes of people, derived by amalgamating numerous pieces of earlier legislation; the earliest being the Equaly Pay act of 1974. Those in the Gender Critical movement love to point to this as evidence of their “sex-based rights”, given that sex is indeed a protected class.
But the Equality Act, does not in fact confer any rights on the basis of any of those classes. Rather, it is an act of prohibiting discrimination. It states that you cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. As an absolute, this presents problems for society. There are places where obviously discrimination by sex is not only acceptable, but warranted. To this end, the Equality Act defines exemptions wherein a service provider may undertake discrimination on the basis of sex. What is important about this, is that these exemptions are to be implemented at the discretion of the service provider, not the demand of the member of the protected class.
This means that a service provider (such as a gym) can provide unisex facilities, OR they can legally provide single-sex facilities, without fear of violating the act. At no point does the act require that single-sex facilities are provided.
When it comes to transgender people, the act uses slightly fuzzy language. It define “Gender Reassignment” as a protected class, defined as “anyone who has undergone, is undergoing, or proposes to undergo a process of gender reassignment”. This is taken to include social transition, and thus does not require medical treatment.
Latterly, it describes that under the exemptions on the basis of sex, transgender people are to be treated as having the sex of their acquired gender, “except as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. While many in the Gender Critical movement consider “I don’t wanna” as legitimate, it has been confirmed by Queen’s Counsel that this is not a valid argument.
In the interests of balance, a legitimate aim would be a victim of sexual assault by a man, who is faced with an intimate examination by somebody they perceive as male. In this instance, it is a legitimate aim to request an alternative examiner to reduce emotional distress. However “I just don’t want a trans woman here” is not legitimate. It’s transphobic.
So where does that leave us with the Staniland Question? We already covered that nobody has a right to undress in front of anybody. The societal understanding is that if you use a communal changing room you surrender all rights to privacy and accept the presence of anyone in there. The service provider is not under any obligation to please you, and in fact will be violating the law if they exclude a trans woman on your say so. If you cannot stand the idea that a trans woman may be in there, then you options are: 1) suck it up, 2) leave.
The Gender Critical movement will say that there is a risk to women by allowing trans women access. However, this is not the case. Numerous studies have found that allowing trans women access to women’s spaces poses no increased risk. That doesn’t mean that there are no cases of sexual assault by trans women (the GCs at this point can put away their pictures of Karen White and Katie Dolotowski), what it means is that whether you allow trans women in or not, the level of risk is identical.
Nor is that saying, as one GC tried to frame me as saying, “they’re going to rape, you might as well let it happen”. The point is, that preventing access by trans women is a non-action. It has no effect positive or negative. The energies would be better spent preventing sexual assault in the first place, rather than banning trans women and hoping the problem goes away.
In the absence of an increased risk, if you accept a limitation of privacy from cis women, you must accept the same limitation of privacy from trans women, or else you are just engaging in pure prejudice.
It is worth reminding at this point, that there is no guarantee that chromosomal makeup of a woman is no guarantee of safety. The Guardian estimated that there were up to 64,000 cis woman sexual offenders operating in the UK. If the argument is that someone who has suffered sexual assault may be uncomfortable with a trans woman being naked in front of them (as Kathleen Stock recently told the Women & Equalities Comittee in a deposition) then it is unfair to tell those women who have suffered sexual assault at the hands of a cis woman that their suffering is worth less.
So far, I’ve concentrated on the facts of the matter. The stages in which bigotry goes through, the way the question conflicts with the law and empirical evidence. Now I’d like to move to the speculative.
In all the discussion I’ve seen from Staniland, I’ve never seen any proposals regarding changing cubicles. If privacy is a concern, then energies would be better directed towards the following proposals:
- All new-build changing facilities to built using cubicles and not communal changing facilities.
- Grants to be made available for remodelling works to include updating changing facilities from communal to cubicle-based.
Staniland has never once argued in favour of these proposals.
Lastly, we can look at the phrasing of the question itself to see how Staniland deliberately puts it to incite hatred. The question is essentially in two parts; the who and the what.
The who is phrased very specifically. “Male-bodied persons with a penis” rather than “trans women who have not had genital surgery”. The reason for this is clear. Staniland is trying to paint a picture in your mind of a man, rather than a trans woman.
Specifying a trans woman might garner sympathy, so the phrasing is chosen to conjure the image of a burly, hairy chested man looming over all near him. By saying “Male-bodied person” most people automatically think of a man. Adding “with a penis” cements the idea: “We’re talking about manly, man, MEN” rather than trans women.
Then we come to the what, and suddenly Staniland’s language has become sweeter. “undressing in front of women and girls”. No longer are we going to clinical terms like “female-bodied persons with a vagina”; Staniland is quite direct and traditional here. She is trying to place the established manly man in a setting with vulnerable women. Specifically, conjuring the idea of the helpless woman or young girl.
The Staniland Question is not a tool of honest debate, as it is being framed. It is not some lynchpin of discussion that, as the Gender Critical movement would put, “TRAs are unwilling to answer”. It is a deliberated phrased question designed to incite hatred for trans women, that plays on a narrative that simply doesn’t exist in society. It has no moral basis for being asked, it has no legal basis, and in eventuality, it has no useful purpose.
Trans women aren’t going to stop using women’s spaces on the say-so of a bunch of cranks who think they have the ear of the law. Nor are genuine sexual assaults going to sulk off home in reluctance and regret that the law no longer permits them access. Relocating sexual assault (even if the implied proposals worked) is not fixing the problem.
The Staniland Question is about blaming an innocent class of people for the actions of the abhorrent, and demanding to know why the rest of society isn’t joining in.