Complex Back Stories: Feminism, Survivor Politics and Trans Rights

Credit: Kate Carr. Reproduced here with permission,

On June 10, author JK Rowling published an article on her website, ‘JK Rowling Writes About her Reasons for Speaking Out about Sex and Gender Issues’ which offered a rationale for her public interventions opposing legislation in the UK designed to legally recognise transgender rights and identities.

While the article began by minimising Rowling’s interventions, which she claimed boiled down to an ‘accidental like’ of a tweet by a prominent campaigner against transgender rights, and emphasising the vitriol directed against her, it’s primary purpose was to explain her reasons ‘for being worried about the new trans activism, and deciding I need to speak up’. Rowling mentioned her work in charities safeguarding vulnerable women and children, her commitment to free speech and her belief in an ‘explosion’ of young women and girls transitioning as a confused response to their experiences of sexism and homophobia. However, the primary justification for the statement, as well as the focus of most media attention, was her disclosure that she is a survivor of domestic and sexual violence.

Two newspaper headlines in the days following Rowling’s statement help to demonstrate the reasons that Rowling’s statement matters, and the stakes and contours for feminists and others interested in the struggle against gendered violence. On June 12, The Sun published a truly horrific front page (deliberately not linked to) with a headline quote from Rowling’s abusive ex-husband, ‘I slapped JK and I’m not sorry’ accompanied by a picture of the couple on their wedding day. On June 14, The Sunday Times front page carried the headline, ‘PM Scraps Plan to Make Gender Change Easier’. It would be absurd to blame this decision, which explicitly goes against the wishes of 70% of submissions received in the public consultation, on Rowling individually. However, the sub-heading, ‘Women-only facilities will be protected’ and details in the article of plans to introduce legislation to ‘safeguard female-only spaces, including refuges and public lavatories, to stop them being used by those with male anatomy’, indicate that the type of thinking, and of feminism, Rowling exemplifies in this piece, is an influence on the removal of rights and protections from trans people, and particularly from trans women.

Rowling’s piece has been widely, and rightly, critiqued on social media for its selective use of research, its distorted representations of innocent women and children targeted by abusive trans activists, and for its timing, released both in Pride month and in a week in which public attention was focused on the systemic and violent institutional racism directed against black people, in the UK and elsewhere. In addition to these criticisms, I do not intend here, as a cis woman, to engage in a ‘debate’ with Rowling about trans people’s rights to have their existence recognised and respected.

However, I believe that it is important to discuss what both Rowling’s article and the Sun front page tell us about contemporary feminism and broader cultural understandings of sexual violence. In particular, they illustrate the ways in which overt misogyny, such as that demonstrated by the Sun, can co-exist with the weaponization of certain brands of survivor politics within feminism to delegitimise marginalised voices. This co-existence means that we can and must offer a critique of the crude and cruel violence of the Sun alongside an analysis of the way Rowling uses her privileged platform to construct a politics of survivorhood that is inherently exclusionary. In other words, the obviously reprehensible violence of the former should not be allowed to occlude the more subtle violence of the latter.

A political and feminist response requires us to both express solidarity with Rowling in relation to the Sun while also acknowledging the harmful effects of her statement. In that sense, the issues surrounding Rowling’s articles are not simply a distraction from the urgent and necessary insistence that black and trans lives matter. They also provide insight into problems that exist within powerful strands of contemporary feminist politics that feminists, especially those of us who are cis and white, need to confront and engage with.

In her mobilisation of her identity as a survivor to authorise her ability to ‘speak out’, Rowling is drawing on a feminist tradition dating back to the early 1970s. When the second-wave feminists of that era began to analyse and expose the ways in which societies like the UK minimised and denied the significance and prevalence of sexual violence they saw that a key part of this denial was silencing and delegitimating the very people who could testify to this violence, survivors. Survivors were cast as ‘mad’ or ‘bad’, liars or fantasists, or even to blame for the violence committed against them.

To counter this, feminists insisted on the right of survivors to be granted belief and be recognised as truth-tellers. Beyond this, they argued, the experience of sexual violence gave survivors special insights into the truth of violence and male domination. For feminist activist and author, Susan Griffin, writing in 1979, one ‘of the untold burdens of the survivor of rape is what she has come to know. She has been left holding the truth’. The political insights of survivors became central to the development of feminist understandings of sexual violence and to feminist attempts to combat and eradicate this violence.

In many ways this politics has been highly successful. We speak and think differently about sexual violence because of the brave survivors who have told their stories despite the stigma and victim-blaming that accompany it, and which, as the Sun shows, remain a risk for survivors, even highly privileged survivors, who speak out to this day.

At the same time, as I have written about in my study of the history of survivors ‘speaking out’, this politics has limitations and recurrent political failings. Some of the most significant of these problems are central to Rowling’s use of her survivor status to validate her statements on trans lives and experiences.

As black feminists such as Tarana Burke, founder of ‘Me Too’ and Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the original ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign have pointed out, within feminism not all women, or all survivors are given equal space and not all stories count in the same way. However, feminist tendencies to privilege white, middle-class voices while simultaneously insisting on the commonalities of the experience of sexual violence, means that figures like Rowling claim the authority to speak on behalf of all survivors.  This can be seen in Rowling’s claim that she has publicly spoken out now, not in order to ‘garner sympathy, but out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces’. As a speaking survivor, Rowling is both representative and exceptional, and when she speaks she claims to do so not solely on her own authority but on the basis of her status as a representative of the ‘millions’ of other survivors who think like her but who do not have the same ability to speak.

The logical consequence of this is that, as Rowling says, the group of those she is speaking for, ‘excludes only those privileged or lucky enough never to have come up against male violence or sexual assault, and who’ve never troubled to educate themselves on how prevalent it is’. Those who disagree with Rowling obviously cannot share the ‘burden’ of the survivor who has come to know the truth, and indeed, they do not care about their ignorance. This not only disregards the simple fact that there are many survivors of sexual and domestic violence, such as myself, and indeed many sexual violence activists and researchers, such as myself, who disagree with Rowling on trans issues. It also, as Alison Phipps has argued, operates within an ‘experiential economy’ where the experiences of violence of relatively privileged women such as Rowling are prioritised while the experiences of others, and particularly of trans women, as rendered as worth less if they are even acknowledged at all. This is how Rowling is able to acknowledge that many trans women do experience gendered violence without that knowledge affecting her conclusions or politics.

Further, and more insidiously, it suggests that knowing and caring about trans women is a way of not caring, or not sufficiently caring, about sexual and gendered violence as defined by Rowling. Implicitly, the violence committed against cis women is cast as the real and authentic experience of sexual violence while violence against trans women is cast as something different, at best a special case and at worst a distraction from the real problem of sexual and gendered violence.

As numerous feminists of colour have argued, allowing a limited range of relatively privileged voices to define what it means to be and to support survivors excludes the women most at risk of violence, such as black and trans women, and especially black trans women. Feminists groups such as Critical Resistance and Incite! campaigning around violence in racialised communities have, for instance, written repeatedly about their concerns about racialised policing and criminalisation being dismissed by dominant anti-sexual violence movements. This marginalisation has in turn seen mainstream feminist anti-violence movements uncritically embrace criminal justice ‘solutions’ to sexual violence, so that listening to and supporting survivors has all too often been interpreted as supporting policies whose main effect is to disproportionately criminalise racialised, and especially black, men. In other words, failing to properly attend to the experiences of marginalised women has all too often curtailed the radical possibilities of feminist politics.

In concluding her statement, Rowling calls for recognition of her own ‘complex back story’ and the way it shapes her ‘fears, interests and opinions’, before calling for ‘empathy’ and ‘understanding’ to be extended to the ‘many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse’. The Sun front cover is a perfect example of dominant cultural tendencies to refuse this to empathise with or fully acknowledge the humanity of survivors while giving space to the stories and justifications of perpetrators. However, Rowling also engages in this reductiveness, refusing to offer empathy to the ‘complex back stories’ of trans women and their supporters, or to acknowledge the ways that their and our histories of surviving violence and abuse also shape our ‘fears, interests and opinions’.

This selective empathy works to prioritise the fears and ‘feelings of safety’ of Rowling and those who agree with her over the real dangers and harms that lack of legislative and social protection inflicts on trans people. Making people ‘feel’ safe can involve placing others, generally those who are most socially marginalised, in danger. It can, for instance, lead anti-sexual violence measures to focus on ‘stranger danger’ rather than the far greater threat of gendered violence within families and among people known to each other. And, as black lives matter protests, and the images that provoke them, make so compelling clear, the ‘dangerous stranger’ is not a neutral identity. Prioritising white middle-class fears, for instance, can and does contribute to the over-policing of black communities. Similarly, prioritising the fears of some cis women contributes to the demonization and discrimination directed against trans people while denying their structural vulnerability to violence.

Rowling’s statement matters because it is not a unique cultural artefact demonstrating only the partial perspective of one privileged cis woman. It operates within a long-standing feminist history of using the moral and political force of experiences of sexual violence in ways that devalue the lives and experiences of women and others who are not white, middle-class and cis-gendered. It attempts to disguise the political harm of anti-trans policies and statements by invoking the moral force of images of cis women’s suffering. This is how, despite her statements to the contrary, Rowling’s statement, and the politics it is based on, works to deny that trans lives really do matter, or at least matter in the same way as cis women such as herself.

Tanya Serisier is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck College. She researches the cultural politics of feminism, sexual violence and survivor discourse. @tanyaserisier. 

  4 comments for “Complex Back Stories: Feminism, Survivor Politics and Trans Rights

  1. blank
    Alessandra Asteriti
    18 June 2020 at 3:36 pm

    I do not think you can demand that I consider transwomen women when I experience them as males.
    This is an unacceptable demand from any man, and an absurd capitulation from any woman.
    You submit to males if you want to.
    I retain my power of self-determination, and bodily autonomy and integrity.
    It pains me to see that critical thinking has been abandoned so completely by critical legal scholars.
    Bowing to male-dictated mantras (on pain of sexual violence: ‘some women have penises, and if you are bothered by this, you can suck my dick’) un-moored from physical reality, is contrary to my socialism, my feminism, and my ownership of a critical mind.
    You obviously renounced the first two (if you ever were), and submitted the third to the demands of males.

  2. Sandy
    18 June 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Transwomen are males. That is why they are excluded from female spaces. Not because they are trans but because they are males. Rowling did not weaponize her trauma, she used it as an explanation of why she understood what other women were saying.
    Single sex spaces and sports came about for the privacy, dignity, and safety of females because we have a different biology and biological needs from males. Female spaces are not validation places for males who want to be or think they are women. People with penises are not women. The very definition of woman specifically excludes people with penises.
    This isn’t about bigotry, it is about biology.

  3. blank
    Alex
    29 June 2020 at 10:36 pm

    Well, all those people who whine about trans women being men and therefore to be excluded from their oh so precious internal-anatomy-only-spaces hopefully then don’t mind of trans masculine people come into those spaces.

    I feel quite invited, in fact. And I am sure they won’t mind; after all, I once was able to breed, which seems to be the only thing that counts for some people. (How exactly does one manage to claim this is a feminist point of view, btw? Really curious about that one.)

    • blank
      Alessandra Asteriti
      29 June 2020 at 10:45 pm

      Alex you seem like a very troubled person. The feminist point of view rests in being able to determine one’s reality and not having to obey males. If you do not understand this there is no hope. As for your reference to breeding, it evinces a hatred of women that would make me fear for my safety, if your cowardice in hiding your name would not reassure me that you do not have the guts to confront me in person, or even online. But please get your hatred treated and in control.

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