Coercion and Consent


[Content note: This post inevitably contains discussion of rape.]

I’m sure we’re all sick of talking about the BBC thing. Since I’m pretty bad at writing these posts in a timely manner, I don’t want to focus on the BBC article itself too much (the NBC write-up of it is very good) but I do want to focus on the underlying myth that “trans women are coercing lesbians to sleep with them”.

Trans Women Are Women

The most obvious objection to this is that trans women are women. TERFs may disagree with this fact, but regardless of that, the fact remains that the reason trans women are interested in lesbians in the first place is that we do not want to date straight women, because straight women are attracted to men, and therefore any straight woman who would date us clearly believes we are not women.

Some TERFs have even pointed this out, saying we want to date lesbians because it is ‘validating’ to be seen as a woman, when dating a straight woman would imply that we are men.

Twitter TERF Andy Lewis claiming that trans women want to date lesbians because it is "validation of their belief that they are a woman too".
Brain-genius TERF. Also absolutely a predator if they think coercion is a “necessary consequence” of having a sexuality, but that’s for a later section.

But because transphobes’ brains are technically a kind of pudding made from the delicious ingredients of vomit and diarrhoea, TERFs fail to notice that the reason we don’t want to date straight women is the exact same reason (well, more accurately, one of the many, many reasons) we don’t want to date transphobes — who also believe we are men — even if they are lesbians.

This is something that logically follows from considering trans people as people, which every TERF, being a fascist, is reluctant to do. This fantasy that trans women are trying to coerce transphobes into sex relies on TERFs imagining that trans women would enjoy being perceived as men, which is not only completely batshit, but even if it were true, completely contradicts the argument about why we want to date lesbians anyway.

I cannot stress this enough: If I wanted to be perceived as a man I simply would not be trans. The reason trans women want to sleep with lesbians as opposed to straight women is that we do not want to sleep with people who think we are men. The reason trans women sleeping with lesbians would be ‘coercive’ is, it is argued, that they do see us as men and we’re trying to convince them otherwise. Therefore, the idea that trans women are coercing lesbians into sex is based on the twin premises that we don’t want to sleep with women who think we are men, and that we do want to sleep with women who think we are men. It’s self-contradictory from the start.

Being Called Transphobic

The second objection is to the idea that calling someone transphobic is a coercive lever. That’s the form of the argument: “they’re forcing us to have sex with them by calling us transphobic if we don’t”.

This is a common form of argument from self-centred bigots who have to make everything about themselves. We’ve all seen the phenomenon where MRA types centre their own feelings and act like calling someone a sexist is worse than actually being a sexist, and it is also true for transphobia, because TERFs share more in common with misogynists than with feminists.

Trans women are quite aware that calling TERFs transphobes will not get them to do what we want them to do (and what we want them to do is not sex, but to stop being transphobic). But we call them transphobes because they are transphobes.

As with MRAs, because TERFs have a vested interest in undermining the idea that we are oppressed, they ascribe an ulterior motive to us naming our oppression. This is of a part with every other TERF objection to the idea that transphobia is a real thing. The point is to discredit that idea that we suffer transphobia, and it is part of the DARVO of TERFism.

You were called a transphobe. That’s not exactly blackmail. We’re not responsible for your distorted thinking that being called a transphobe is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone ever. TERFs talk about how their jobs could be threatened if anyone knows they’re transphobic. This is a larger discussion, but TERFs, with all the confidence of an oppressor class, act with the entitlement of thinking it’s ‘unfair’ that they should face consequences for bigoted behaviour, while simultaneously arguing that intense scrutiny of the targets of their hate is perfectly justified.

Related to this is the claim TERFs make that they are called transphobes just for not wanting to have sex with trans women. This is an outright lie, but it is extremely common for TERFs to editorialise about why they are called transphobes in order to make the charge seem less reasonable than it in fact is. And the media idea that the authority on why someone was called a transphobe is the very person with a vested interest in making that charge seem unreasonable is institutional transphobia.

Putting this together, they simultaneously complain that they might lose their jobs if people find out that they’re transphobic, and also insist they are called transphobic “just” for not wanting to sleep with trans women. If both of these were true, that would suggest that they might lose their jobs for not sleeping with trans women, which is not a real thing that happens. Ever. Almost like TERFs lie.

This is all DARVO. TERFs, having been routinely massively transphobic, are called transphobic, and then they deny they’re transphobic and the narrative of sexual coercion is woven to attack the accusers. For the BBC to participate in that kind of abuse is unconscionable.

There are many, many reasons to call TERFs transphobes, and it is not unreasonable, given that, to presume that their objection to having sex with trans women is also motivated by transphobia.

And if there were any doubt that it were motivated by transphobia, that is completely dispelled by TERFs subsequently insinuating that trans women are rapists just (and it is ‘just’) for having a sexuality while trans.

Sex and Sexibility Sexuality

Which is what’s happening. TERFs are painting the very idea of trans sexuality as a threat. Because TERFs are fascists, they act like there can be no such thing as healthy trans sexuality.

This is partly down to the characteristic reductiveness of bigotry, the assumption that trans people are only trans. This is what feeds into the hate of the likes of the LGB Alliance, the principle being that since being trans has nothing to do with sexuality, trans people don’t belong in the LGBT+.

But trans people are not only trans, and trans people, being people — again, a fact TERFs are reluctant to acknowledge — have a sexuality, and trans people are attacked for that sexuality, which is why trans people belong in a community for people who are attacked for their sexuality. Because even if being trans has nothing to do with sexuality, transphobia sure has a lot to do with sexuality.

The distinction between trans people and cis LGB people is that we are not so much attacked for our specific sexuality as we are for having one at all, but that’s mostly a distinction without a difference. The only real difference is that straight trans people are also attacked for their sexuality, whereas straight cis people are not.

And the specific ways in which trans people are attacked for having a sexuality are mostly just recycled homophobia from the 80s. The panic about toilets and locker rooms, the assumption of predatory intent, the dire warnings about “danger to children”, accusations of promiscuity and fetishism, sexualised caricature… All of these were once levelled at cis lesbians and gays, with the purpose of invalidating those sexualities. The LGB Alliance, attempting to invalidate trans sexualities in exactly the same way, is as much homophobic as it is transphobic, regardless of how much they hypocritically bluster about how the “real” homophobia is having a sexuality that they regard with suspicion and disgust.

To TERFs, if a trans woman is attracted to men, that is “gay conversion therapy”, while if a trans woman is attracted to women, they are “really straight men”. (Naturally, they mostly forget about bisexual people.) In this way, they create the absurd and indefensible position that no matter whom a trans person is attracted to, they are straight, which isn’t how sexuality works, even under TERFs’ twisted definition that being gay is “same-sex attraction” (a term, incidentally, itself used primarily by evangelical Christian conversion therapists).

It is also worth pointing out that about 95% of cis people are straight (update: in 2023 this fell to about 93%, but the point still stands), whereas trans people have no majority sexuality. Between the six major sexualities of gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and asexual, trans people are nearly equally divided. If “trans is gay conversion therapy,” then, given how much fewer trans people are straight than cis people, it is really bad at it. The LGB Alliance dishonestly frames this as “a majority of trans people are attracted to people of the opposite gender”. While this is technically true, it is also true that a majority of trans people are attracted to people of the same gender. This isn’t a contradiction because you get a majority whether you add bisexual, pansexual and straight together, or add bisexual, pansexual, and gay together. Last I checked, bi and pan people aren’t straight, though.

A pie chart of the sexuality of the US population according to a Gallup 2020 poll, showing 94.6% straight or heterosexual, 2.1% gay or lesbian, 3.1% bisexual, and 0.2% other.
Sexual orientation in the US. Since the percentage of trans people in the results is so small (0.6%), this can be taken as a reasonable proxy of cis people’s sexual orientation.
A pie chart of transgender sexual orientation according the the 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality survey, showing 15.96% straight or heterosexual, 17.02% gay or lesbian, 14.89% bisexual, 19.15% pansexual, 22.34% queer, and 10.64% asexual.
Sexual orientation in the US among trans people.

And, “Why don’t trans women date each other?” TERFs whine. But trans women do date each other. Very frequently. And this is important because, regardless of whether you think trans women are women or not, a trans woman dating another trans woman is very obviously gay. Since there’s no way to pretend the very common fact of trans women dating each other is not gay, since the truth undermines their venomous rhetoric about trans people’s sexuality being illegitimate, TERFs resort to pretending it doesn’t happen.

This is manufactured under the assumption that straights are “the enemy”, because straight people have privilege whereas LGB people do not. But straight people have privilege because they’re not attacked for being straight: As soon as one is attacked for being straight (as trans people are, whether, in fact, they’re straight or not), one ceases to have that privilege.

TERFs use the conspiracy-theory of the “cotton ceiling“, which was the title of a workshop held by bête noire of the far-right Planned Parenthood, and attended by a whole seven people. This workshop was about discussing trans sexuality and “overcoming barriers” related to that. TERFs, believing trans sexuality to be degenerate and having a vested interest in pretending transphobia isn’t real, pretend that those ‘barriers’ are “women saying no” and not, you know, all the aforementioned stigma around trans people having a sexuality, leading to a fascist mythology that the “cotton ceiling” is about how to rape lesbians.

Rape and Apologism

And we need to talk about rape, because being trans is a very long and unnecessary way to go to rape someone. The idea that trans women transition in order to rape lesbians seems to imply the existence of some magical forcefield that presents cis men from raping lesbians. Unfortunately, no such thing exists.

TERFs talk about trans women transitioning to “gain access to lesbians”. I’m sure some straight men have fantasies about getting with lesbians, but straight men don’t deny themselves straight women to pursue that. But more importantly, this claim raises alarming red flags about how they think this ‘access’ works. Sexual ‘access’ (must we call it that? It’s gross, right? It’s not just me?) is granted by saying ‘yes’ and denied by not saying ‘yes’. It really is quite that simple.

Because sexuality is not consent to begin with. I’m not sure why I need to say that. This isn’t some new hyper-advanced pomo Queer Theory the woke kids are into: It’s been mainstream for decades. I remember an episode of Dawson’s Creek 25 years ago (I’ll be honest with you: it’s the only episode I remember) where this was a plot point, where a gay character wasn’t interested in another gay character, and said to his friends something like, “What, did you think I would be just because I’m gay?”

But it’s overspecific to say sexuality isn’t consent. The only thing that is consent is, well, consent. It’s important that I didn’t say sexual consent (yeah, I’m done calling it ‘access’, ugh) is denied by saying ‘no’. I said it’s denied by “not saying ‘yes'”. Because when you require explicit consent, a lot of these problems go away. Most trans people I know follow the feminist principle that consent should be explicit, enthusiastic, and continuous, but TERFs conjure up scare stories about “what if a trans person thinks I consent and I actually don’t?” But what if a cis person thinks that? Would that be better? The problem there isn’t trans people, but the very model of implicit consent itself. TERFs decide it’s about trans people because they are (a) transphobic, and (b) don’t actually much care about consent.

TERFs love to point out that, in UK law, rape requires a penis. This is true, but a bit misleading, because the almost identical offence of assault by penetration exists and is, in principle, treated with the same severity. The only differences are that rape involves a penis while assault by penetration involves another body part or object, and that rape includes oral penetration, while assault by penetration does not. That’s the whole difference: Sticking a dick in someone’s mouth without consent is rape; sticking anything else in someone’s mouth without consent is not assault by penetration (but, of course, might still be regular assault).

But the way the term ‘rape’ is used generally (especially by actual feminists) is broader than the legal definition. Importantly, under the legal definition, pressuring someone to agree to have sex is not rape (usually: it depends on whether the kind of pressure used restricts someone’s “freedom [or] capacity to make [the] choice”), but TERFs are quite happy to call it rape. And so am I — mark this red-letter day in your calendars, folks, because I agree with TERFs on something! — but the difference is my willingness to call it rape doesn’t contradict other things I’ve said on the matter. It does raise questions about the sincerity of TERFs’ belief in the legal definition.

The thing is, in either definition, people who rape are mostly men. In the expanded definition, we acknowledge that women can rape to help survivors of attacks by women to feel like they will be taken seriously, not to make any kind of statistical point. The reason TERFs are so keen on the legal, penis definition is that it provides an excuse to lump trans women in with men. TERFs have tried to prove that trans women have the same criminal patterns as men, or that most trans prisoners are incarcerated for sexual offences, but have failed. To the former, the author of the study they cited directly rebuked them for misrepresenting the study (criminality is discussed at the end of the linked piece). To the latter, they really only considered long-term prisoners, which is obviously a selection bias for serious crimes to begin with. So they retreat to, “Well the law says…”

The argument is “trans women must be rapists because men are rapists and trans women are men”. But “most rapists are men” doesn’t mean the same thing as “most men are rapists” in the first place, and on top of that, “trans women are men” is a transphobic assumption that TERFs insist must be taken as fact despite having failed to demonstrate the same patterns of criminality.

But it’s not just transphobic; it’s also rape apologism. TERFs insist that the problem is “male-bodied” people. So desperate are they to insist that trans women are men that they end up taking the position that the motivation to rape is physiological, not social and psychological. The idea that trans women must be rapists “because they are men” thereby necessarily also implies the myth that “men can’t help it”.

On top of this is the weaponisation of “believe survivors”. This is, certainly, a feminist maxim, but the TERF interpretation of it misrepresents what we should believe survivors about. It’s important to believe survivors because actually proving sexual violence occurred is quite difficult (depending on your standard for ‘proof’, it may even be impossible), which is an unfair burden on people who have already been traumatised. But it turns out surviving sexual violence doesn’t turn one into the proverbial guard who can only tell the truth. We should believe survivors when they say they’ve experienced sexual violence, and we should (at the very least provisionally) believe survivors when they make a concrete accusation about named culprits. But should we really believe survivors when they wave in the general direction of a minority and say “those people”?

And where is this “believe survivors” principle for trans people? When I point out to TERFs that trans people are far more likely to be victims of sexual violence than perpetrators, that nearly half of all trans people (and a majority of trans people of colour) experience sexual violence in their lifetime, they laugh. They laugh!

Is It Transphobic?

But is it transphobic to not want to have sex with trans people?

Yes, it is.

Let me be clear: It is not transphobic to not want to have sex with a trans person. The important thing here is the distinction between person and people. Because TERFs don’t see trans people as people, they see us as interchangeable, and therefore fail to see that distinction, but it’s an important one. TERFs, being liars, mischaracterise the objection as “if you don’t have sex with me, you’re transphobic”. But it’s not about me.

If you categorically say you don’t want to have sex with trans women, then, the diversity of trans women notwithstanding, the only possible reason for that is because they are trans. The only thing all trans women have in common is, after all, being trans women. And if you don’t want to have sex with someone because they are trans, that is transphobic.

A common thread among TERF excuses in that BBC piece for why they’re not attracted to trans women is that they’re all stereotypes. Which is certainly an odd choice for a hate movement whose stated objection to so-called “gender ideology” is that “gender is just stereotypes” (which is untrue to begin with, and I’m working on my piece about that, but that’s not really the important part here). Not one of these things is true of all trans women, but TERFs are happy to let their decisions be guided by stereotyped prejudice. And still claim that’s “not transphobic”.

There has been some talk about “genital preferences are transphobic”, as one of the quotes in the BBC article was in fact a response to a TERF false-flag, where a TERF put up stickers with the statement “genital preferences are transphobic” in order to make trans people appear unreasonable. But I’m not going to get into that. In the spirit of “what trans women have in common”, it’s a red herring. Which is to say: I might be more inclined to believe TERF claims that what they really object to is penis if they treated trans women who have vaginas any differently, but they do not. Many TERFs in fact insist that a trans woman’s vagina is “still a penis”. Yes, really.

You can refuse to have sex with someone because you’re just not attracted to them, and there is no issue with that, but you’re the one who decided it was important to go on a weird rant about how it’s because they’re trans. How could that not be transphobic?

This is, again, that dehumanisation of not seeing trans people as people at work. TERFs present a dichotomy — the danger, they say, is that either they’re allowed to reject people for being trans or they’re, terrifyingly, not allowed to reject trans people. But that false dichotomy is a result of the aforementioned fact that the bigots don’t see us as anything but trans. There are a ton of reasons to reject me that are not the fact that I’m trans, and almost all of them are absolutely fair. But that would involve affording me the most basic of basic respect of at least seeing me as a full person and not just as a token of the group you hate.

There’s no coercion there. Even if I did want to sleep with you, if you said no, there is no problem with that. What there’s a problem with is ruling out sleeping with any trans woman. You might never sleep with any trans woman. You probably won’t, to be honest. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is that the reason for not wanting to sleep with trans women is the belief that they’re not women. And that is transphobic.

The TERF objection to that is invariably, “it’s not ‘transphobic’ to say trans women are men”. But of course it fucking is! TERFs like to accuse trans people of “just calling anything transphobic”, but TERFs, by contrast, like to pretend that nothing is transphobic, up to and including denying that being trans is legitimate. The authoritarianism that runs through TERFism denies that womanhood is a public common, insisting instead that it is subject to their approval and permission.

As a thought experiment, let’s suppose for a moment that I were a cis woman, what TERFs would invidiously refer to as a ‘real’ woman. Would a TERF then be obligated to have sex with me? Of course not! TERFs ridiculously insinuate that us asserting our womanhood creates an obligation, when in reality it creates no more obligation than any other woman’s existence. Because TERFs are fascists who, as fascists do, want to pretend trans people are a threat.

I have to say this for clarity, because TERFs will misrepresent anything a trans person says: Everyone has a right to refuse sex for any reason. Even transphobic reasons. What they don’t have is the right to demand that we pretend transphobic reasons aren’t transphobic.

They’re Taking Our Lesbians

We can’t talk about this without talking about how TERFs simultaneously claim to speak for all lesbians and viciously harass any lesbian who happens to disagree. I want to call out this harassment, but I really don’t want to go into too much detail, because it is absolutely disgusting. Particularly vile is how they tell rape survivors who support trans women that they want to be raped again.

Much like the failure to distinguish between ‘person’ and ‘people’ for trans women, TERFs also fail to distinguish between ‘person’ and ‘people’ for lesbians. They don’t stop at saying “I don’t want to have sex with trans women”, but continue on to “no lesbian should want to have sex with trans women”. Frequently, they use these statements interchangeably, to falsely cast their personal position as the position of a marginalised group and thereby play victim.

The BBC article mentions “Gold Star lesbians” in reference to Lily Cade (who is herself allegedly a self-confessed serial rapist, but since she is cis, Caroline Lowbridge and the BBC obviously did not feel that that context might be relevant in an article about sexual coercion). A Gold Star lesbian is technically a cis woman who has only ever had sex with cis women (some people may not include the ‘cis’ requirement, but most do, although they treat it as implied because of their weird objection to the word cis, which I covered in my last post). More importantly, it’s someone who thinks it’s important to make a point of that.

For someone to describe themselves as a “gold star lesbian” isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but the term “gold star” implies a certain superiority which seems to make a judgement of other lesbians, which is the focus here. Importantly, it expresses superiority, but it’s not aspirational: By definition, like a virgin, one cannot become a gold star lesbian — one can only always have been one.

TERF ideology when it comes to lesbians is thus based on the fascist ideal of ‘purity’. It is an ideology that paints trans inclusion in the lesbian community as a kind of contamination. I don’t think the idea of “gold star lesbians” was necessarily fascist to begin with, but its use by TERFs has to be taken in the context of TERFs replicating neo-Nazi Great Replacement rhetoric.

When TERFs like Julie Burchill ask “What’s happened to all the lesbians?”, it’s because they don’t consider trans-inclusive lesbians to be “real” lesbians. The most recent Gallup LGBT survey of Americans found that there are proportionally twice as many Generation-Z lesbians (1.4%) as Generation-X lesbians (0.7%), and twice as many Millennial lesbians (0.8%) as Baby Boomer lesbians (0.4%). The sleight of hand required to reach Burchill’s (and other TERFs’) doomsaying about lesbians ‘disappearing’ in the face of data showing quite the opposite is to define ‘lesbian’ with an overly restrictive purity test and then act like the purported endangerment of lesbians isn’t a direct result of that restrictive definition.

If I may be permitted an essentialist lens, even through that lens it’s still true to say that being a transphobe is not an essential characteristic of being a lesbian (no matter how much bigots like Joanna Cherry might like to pretend otherwise). They pretend ‘lesbian’ and ‘transphobe’ are interchangeable so that they can claim they’re being attacked for being lesbians whenever anyone notices they’re transphobic. This is why I frequently have to make the beyond-obvious statement: “the problem trans people have with transphobes is all of that transphobia”. Seriously, you have no idea how many times I need to say the thing that shouldn’t even need to be said once.

TERFs say that lesbians are under threat because they believe that lesbians rightfully belong to them. They believe that lesbians should (creeping towards ‘must’) share their beliefs and prejudices. As the fascists they are, they see a more inclusive lesbian cohort as a contamination, a corruption, a threat to their purity coming from outside — much like the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. As with the LGB Alliance’s hypocrisy on trans sexuality, they see an expression of lesbian sexuality they don’t approve of and call it homophobic.

The proprietary attitude TERFs exhibit towards lesbians (and, for that matter, trans men) in this way echoes the common racist refrain of “they’re taking our women!” This was always not only racist, but misogynist as well, because it implies that if white women are sleeping with men of colour, said women have no agency in that decision. It is a position that sees women as the passive property of men. Or, in this case, other women.

This same misogyny is also present in the infantilisation of adult cis women who are capable of and do consent to sex with trans women. To carry on the pretence that trans women are rapists, TERFs must necessarily deny the agency of those women, implying that they are, like children, incapable of making their own decisions.

And this is the absolute core of the TERF myth that trans sexuality is coercive: it’s not that it’s coercive because these cis women don’t consent, but that it’s ‘coercive’ because TERFs don’t think these cis women should consent.

TERFs will go so far as to describe consensual sex between two women, one of whom is trans, as “corrective rape” — the barbaric conversion practice where a man rapes a lesbian to try to get her to stop being a lesbian. But consensual sex, quite obviously, does not fall within the legal definition of rape they keep insisting on. Or the expanded definition either, for that matter. In a reflection of the far-right Christian meme The Myth of “Consensual” Sex, it’s not enough that the parties involved in the actual act consent: TERFs call it ‘rape’ because they don’t approve of it. In line with their proprietary attitude towards lesbians, they’re using ‘rape’ in the old sense of the term, when it was considered not an attack on a woman, but an attack on the person to whom that woman belonged. Well, they can go consensually fuck themselves.

At the end of the day, the goal is not the protection of cis women, but the control of cis women and the alienation of trans women. It’s a denial of the legitimacy of trans and trans-inclusive sexuality, in an attempt to exclude trans people from the community.

Final Thoughts

For all this, TERFs tried to pretend that the BBC article wasn’t really transphobic (because of course they would), because it said that it was only a minority of trans women doing this — the headline even used the word ‘some’ to pretend it wasn’t transphobic! But here’s the thing about that: a minority of any gender, cis or trans, coerces people into sex. If it’s a minority of trans women, that doesn’t distinguish trans women, and raises the question of the motive behind singling out trans women. Just kidding, there’s no question: the motive is transphobia.

It’s also worth noting that trans women who like women don’t just want to have sex with cis lesbians. Trans women date each other (which TERFs keep pretending doesn’t happen), and bisexuals (whom TERFs keep forgetting exist even though they’re a majority of all LGBT people). Some trans women are asexual (and TERFs, apparently, don’t even know what that means but they know they hate it).

Having written all this, I still can’t quite believe the absolute absurdity of TERFs. We say, “stop calling us men”, and their response is “how dare you demand I sleep with you?” It’d almost be funny if the accusation of being sexually predatory weren’t frequently used by fascist extremists such as these as a justification for violence.

Update 2021-11-02: As if desperate to prove me right, Lily Cade (mentioned above) has written a screed about trans women, calling for specific named trans women to be ‘lynched’, and explicitly calling for lethal violence against and/or suicide of trans women more generally. Oh, and she also explicitly namedrops the neo-Nazi Great Replacement conspiracy theory as justification for her violent views, in case you thought I was exaggerating about that. But sure, she’s called a transphobe “because she doesn’t want to sleep with trans women” and definitely not for all that other shit.