By David Futrelle
In a series of tweets, followed by a sprawling, combative blog post, J.K. Rowling has gone full TERF on us. There’s a lot that’s wrong about the assorted arguments she sets forth in her post — and others have started dissecting its flaws and its dishonesties already in everything from magazine articles to Reddit posts to Twitter threads.
But there is one small part of her essay that I haven’t seen addressed so far, and I think it desperately needs some critical attention.
In the passage in question Rowling uses a simple but effective bit of rhetorical sleight of hand meant to demonize critics of TERFy transphobia and claim the mantle of true womanhood for those on her side.
While the basic rhetorical technique she uses is crude, she pulls off the execution with flair. She sets up her magic trick deftly with a (well-deserved) rhetorical attack on the misogynist backlash of the past decade. But then her argument takes quite a turn.
“Never have I seen women denigrated and dehumanised to the extent they are now,” she writes.
From the leader of the free world’s long history of sexual assault accusations and his proud boast of ‘grabbing them by the pussy’, to the incel (‘involuntarily celibate’) movement that rages against women who won’t give them sex, to the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating, men across the political spectrum seem to agree: women are asking for trouble. Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down, or else.
What just happened? Let’s break it down.
Rowling is doing three things here. First and most obviously, she’s putting those who fight against transphobia in the same category as the pussy-grabbing president and the murderously misogynistic incels. It’s a rhetorical move that’s breathtaking in its dishonesty, as trans activists, far from being bigots, have been some of the most dedicated and effective fighters of misogyny I’ve run across over the last decade.
Second, she’s erasing trans women speaking for themselves, dismissing them as “men” trying to talk over women. And third, she’s more broadly claiming the mantle of true womanhood not just for cis women but for a particular subset of cis women, those who oppose trans rights, whom she’s claiming are being shut down by an army of men.
But Rowling and her TERF allies don’t speak for all women, or even all cis women. Far from it. In fact, on many of the issues transphobes have fixated on — from bathroom bans to trans people serving in the military — a clear majority of women disagree with them.
Numerous surveys have revealed that cis straight men are considerably more transphobic than their female counterparts. On the bathroom issue, a TERF obsession which Rowling specifically cites, one study of online comments found that cis men were far more likely than cis women to speak negatively about trans women using women’s bathrooms; 72 percent of the male comments in the study’s sampling were negative, as opposed to only 46% from cis women. A survey by pollsters PPRI found a similar (if somewhat smaller) gender gap, with roughly “half (51%) of men support[ing] requiring transgender individuals to use bathrooms corresponding to their assigned sex at birth, compared to four in ten (40%) women.”
In other words, TERFs not only don’t represent all cis women; they don’t even represent half of all cis women. By using the rhetoric she does, Rowling not only erases trans women; she erases most cis women as well — making me wonder who exactly is trying to make whom shut up.
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