In a recent congressional hearing, I beseeched lawmakers to keep women’s physical safety in mind when considering policies that affect women-only spaces like locker rooms. The issue is close to my heart: I was a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania alongside my transgender teammate Lia Thomas, whose participation on the women’s team raised serious questions about the eligibility of athletes who identify as a different sex to the one they were born as.
In my comments before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government, I reminded members of Congress of the #MeToo movement that started in 2017 in response to horrific revelations of se uaI abuse in Hollywood. The movement raised awareness of the seemingly ubiquitous experience of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of mistreatment toward women.
The #MeToo movement quickly – like so many well-intentioned social movements – became politicised. Some slogans like “Believe All Women’’ were met with criticism, because they conflicted with the important principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and due process for the accused. But we can all agree that the intimidation and harassment of women is wrong. What a shame, then, that we can’t seem to agree on what a woman actually is.
The politics of womanhood has become increasingly bizarre in the aftermath of the #MeToo revolution. In 2020, the otherwise left-leaning British author JK Rowling fired the tweet heard around the world when she mildly criticised the excesses of the transgender rights movement. Like me, Rowling is a victim of sexual violence, and felt that the admission of male bodies into women-only spaces could pose a risk.
In a podcast series entitled “The Witch Trials of JK Rowling,” the journalist Helen Lewis explained the concerns of Rowling and other like-minded feminists who are now raising this issue internationally: “When you’re doing safeguarding, you can’t have a rosy view of humanity. You have to look at what the worst that could happen is.”
While sports is the most high-profile example, there are many sex-segregated arenas that have, in recent years, exchanged their sex-based eligibility for one based on “gender identity.” Most Americans are likely unaware that, due to a quiet administrative change, the federal Violence Against Women law is now being misused to violate the privacy rights of women in the most vulnerable of situations: domestic violence shelters.
It was not long ago that Americans across the political spectrum, including many left-leaning women involved in the #MeToo movement, recognised that male bodies pose an inherent risk to women’s safety. While we should all balk at broad-stroke mischaracterisations of trans-identifying people as all being potentially violent, we should keep in mind that the inherent biological characteristics and functions of male bodies pose a risk.
Given today’s shift, a man – perhaps a domestic abuser with no history of gender dysphoria – could potentially follow his female victim to a women-only shelter, and those tasked with safeguarding would be powerless to deny him entry to what once was a sacred safe space. After-all, he only need tell them that he identifies as a woman to gain entry.
It’s worth mentioning that people who identify as transgender are also disproportionately victims of sexual violence. There should be safe spaces for all people who are at risk of violence, including men. But we can make thoughtful accommodations for all people without a wholesale redefinition of womanhood. Crucially, we must never force women to relive the trauma of their sexual assault by undressing in front of transgender women, as was the case for me and Lia Thomas.
One might wonder what happened to the #MeToo movement – a movement that seemed ideally positioned to advocate for the safeguarding of women’s safety from physical and sexual violence – during these recent gender debates. The obvious answer is that #MeToo was absorbed, as so sadly has been the case with many other women’s organisations in the US, into the Democratic Party. They have prioritised the advancement of “trans rights” over the concerns of women, in the mistaken belief that this is somehow more compassionate and progressive. It’s not too late for #MeToo-aligned organisations to change course and stand with women: we deserve safety, privacy, and equal opportunity in all areas of life, just like everybody else.