Statement from the Sexualities Stream of the Gender Inclusion Network (GIN)

As a network of academics with a wide range of expertise in sexualities and gender studies, we have grave concerns over the ethical and methodological rigour of a BBC News article published on Tuesday 26th October 2021. The article by Caroline Lowbridge, titled “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women”, drew on an informal survey of 80 social media users connected with an anti-trans group (Get The L Out), alongside a handful of selective anecdotes to draw problematic inferences about both lesbians and trans women.

The research quoted is based on a self-selecting survey of no statistical merit, and demonstrates a very slight majority acquired from a low sample size, which is then backed up by hearsay quotations. Yet nowhere in the article does the BBC draw any attention to the unreliability or biased nature of this survey. As thousands of people have already noted in formal complaints, the article fell short of the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines, including Sections 3 (Accuracy), 4 (Impartiality), and 5 (Harm and Offence).

In our professional assessment, the article had all the hallmarks of what feminist scholars identified as a ‘sex panic’ during the 1980s. Sex panics are dangerous, they set up what Carole Vance (1984) has characterised as ‘volatile battles over sexuality’, drawing on unrepresentative individual testimonies designed to stir up strong public feeling and outrage. Sex panics have a chilling effect on research, politics and public debate. They also impact on the lives of individuals in negative ways, making them much more vulnerable to violence and harassment. 

Presciently, Gayle Rubin (1984) described how sex panics tend to become ‘vehicles for displacing social anxieties’ during times of great political stress such as our own. Usually framed around conspiratorial fears of ‘hidden dangers’ to (white) women and children, historical examples include the increased criminalisation of prostitution and homosexuality in the 1880s, the construction of Black men as rapists in the 1900s, the conflation of gay rights with communism and paedophilia in the 1950s, and campaigns against pornography in the 1980s alongside increased sexual stigma in response to HIV/AIDS.

The BBC News article bears a striking resemblance to how gay men were constructed as “deviant”, “menacing”, and “threatening” during these periods. For example, views of gay men as sexual predators were used to support the passing of homophobic legislation in the 1980s. As the BBC’s own resource on the impact of Section 28 documents, such laws legitimised school-wide bullying and homophobic abuse and made it much harder for LGBT+ people to access sex education.

The kind of reporting represented by the BBC News article is likely to contribute to further discrimination and harassment of trans and non-binary people in the UK. As Stonewall’s Trans Report of 2018 – a report based on the  experiences of more than 800 trans and non-binary people – has shown:

  • Almost half (48 per cent) of trans people don’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment.
  • A third of trans people (34 per cent) have been discriminated against because of their gender identity when using a cafe, restaurant, bar or nightclub in the last year.
  • More than two in five trans people (44 per cent) avoid certain streets because they don’t feel safe there as an LGBT person.
  • One in four (25 per cent) were discriminated against when looking for a house or flat to rent or buy in the last year. One in five non-bianry people (20 per cent) have experienced discrimination while looking for a new home.
  • More than a third of trans students (36 per cent) in higher education have experienced negative comments or behaviour from staff in the last year.

The BBC News article drew on two or three women’s narratives of sexual coercion. As feminists we hold that such narratives deserve to be heard and taken seriously. Unfortunately, this is much less likely to happen due to the transphobic intentions of the authors and editors involved in the article’s publication. Experiences of sexual violence should not be co-opted in the service of ideological goals other than ending sexual violence. To single out a vulnerable minority group and present them as a unique threat to women undermines this crucial objective.

In the week since the article’s publication, it has been highlighted that the BBC did not thoroughly investigate the sources quoted. In particular, not only has one of the women interviewed, Lily Cade, apologised for sexually assaulting multiple cis women, she has gone on to call for trans women to be ‘lynched’. By uncritically platforming this person, the BBC has contributed directly to the promotion of hate speech and violence directed towards trans people.

Only a single interview quote in the BBC News article, from Stonewall’s Nancy Kelley, highlighted the intersecting problems with the arguments presented:

Nobody should ever be pressured into dating, or pressured into dating people they aren’t attracted to. But if you find that when dating, you are writing off entire groups of people, like people of colour, fat people, disabled people or trans people, then it’s worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions.

Judith Butler has recently and repeatedly described anti-trans ideology as a form of contemporary fascism, and the implications of this article – namely that ableism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are acceptable – contribute further evidence to this argument.

We call on the BBC to retract this article and accept responsibility for the harm it has caused to trans, non-binary and gender diverse people, alongside survivors of sexual violence and the majority of cis women who support full rights and respect for trans people.