Davina Ayrton and prison rape

The argument around allowing self identification when it comes to gender has led to a new, disturbing version of bathroom panic. Karen Pollock explores the issues around rape, prison and transphobia.

At the weekend many of the Sunday papers were very excited about the idea of the self definition of gender. Maria Miller, the chair of the Women’s and Equality committee in the Houses of Parliament has suggested that people be able to self declare their gender and that gender markers be removed from driving licenses and passports. Removal of the gatekeeping of the medical establishment is a vital requirement in the fight for trans rights and against transphobia. The idea that you have to prove how closely you adhere to cisnormative, binary, ideal of masculinity and femininity has caused immeasurable pain to so many trans people. As Ada Cable and @UKtransinfo wrote in this comprehensive post, it’s about more than simply changing passports however,and there is a wider conversation being had, including not leaving non binary trans people behind.

Be under no misapprehension, it is a conversation, with varying viewpoints. Some trans people want their gender on passports, as it is an official document that can be used in the face of recalcitrant banks, utilities companies, and so forth.Others feel removing them will be a huge step forward, especially for non binary people. As Paris Lees writes here, getting that moment of official recognition can be hugely validating. Others argue that a medical proof of dysmorphia (as a wider class of medical issues than dysphoria) is a defence of trans people’s rights, and argue those rights will be diluted if people no longer have to prove a medical condition exists. 

In both my therapeutic work, and private life I have encountered a range of attitudes, it seems to me that it is the conversation with all its nuance and complexity which matters. However over the weekend another far darker conversation was taking place. In a number of places I saw people claiming that if anyone could simply declare their gender, without having “experts” rule upon it, then men convicted of crimes would declare themselves women to be sent to women’s prisons.

Removal of the gatekeeping of the medical establishment is a vital requirement in the fight for trans rights and against transphobia

It seems we have a new, disturbing version of the bathroom panic. According to some evangelical Christians and terfs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) people must not be allowed to use the bathroom appropriate to their gender because of the risk of assault. Not, as happens even at Pride rallies, the risk of the trans person being assaulted, but the risk that the trans person would assault other bathroom users. Despite there being not a single recorded case of this happening a well funded campaign has ramped up a classic moral panic around the idea, and opposed legislation which would make trans people (and in many cases all LGBTQ+ people) better protected. There is a comprehensive analysis of how the bathroom panic defence has been used across America here.

The new claim is that men will “falsely” claim to be women, get assigned to a woman’s prison simply in order to rape women.

There is so much to unpack there it may take some time.

When dealing with claims of men “pretending” to be women (or vice versa) it is always vital to look at the previous attitude towards trans people. Many terfs and Christian campaigners advocate biological essentialism when it comes to gender (whilst ignoring the actual science around chromosomal sex determination). They never accept any one is anything but the gender put on their birth certificate (and seem completely unaware of the existence of Intersex people). When people claim men “will dress as women” many are actually including trans women in this group, since they insist on calling them men. As Sarah Brown (long term campaigner for trans rights, Lib Dem politician and member of the Stonewall  Trans Advisory Group) said to me in researching this article

              “It’s  dog whistle transphobia, trying to conflate some of the women most at risk of violence and assault with the perpetrators”

The idea that being trans is a performance put on by men in order to gain access to women only spaces, such as bathrooms or prisons, is not only transphobic, but, as Sarah Brown mentions, actively endangers vulnerable people.The suicide of Vicky Thompson  starkly highlighted the risks to trans women are all too real when they are put in a male prison.

“Every time we try to talk about how practices like this put transgender women at risk, someone pops up to say, “ah, but if we protect you against violence than men will pretend to be you to rape!” said Sarah Brown.

There seems to be  an acceptance that rape and sexual assault occurs within the prison system, from so called jokes, to the openly  transphobic claims of the terfs and religious extremists. The Howard League (who campaign for prison reform) believe that rape and sexual assault are under reported in prison. This is no surprise given that they have also found, in their “Sex In Prison” report that staff take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” to all sexual activity within prison. Technically any sex in prison breaks the rules, coerced or not, and the head in the sand attitude makes reporting a rape or an assault exceptionally difficult.

It is clear to me that those most vulnerable in our society outside of prison will continue to be vulnerable within prison walls. Trans people are vulnerable to both physical and sexual assault, prison simply replicates the outside world. However in the outside world we do not turn a blind eye to sexual assault, nor do we see it as inevitable or even worse, an added form of punishment.

When people claim men “will dress as women” many are actually including trans women in this group, since they insist on calling them men

It is impossible to write this piece without discussing the case of Davina Ayrton, a trans woman accused of rape. We must of course be careful discussing a live court case, walking the fine line of believing victims and of innocent until proved guilty. I have no comment on the facts of the case. What I have seen however is people using this case as evidence that trans women are violent, and demanding Ayrton be sent to a male prison, to supposedly protect other women.

This demand is based on two ideas, the first that trans women are not women. To that I simply say, they are. Women can, and do commit sexual assault and rape. To argue that behaviour determines gender is to base gender on an arbitrary set of standards, ones rooted in a sexist view of women as the “gentler sex”.

There seems to be  an acceptance that rape and sexual assault occurs within the prison system, from so called jokes, to the openly  transphobic claims of the terfs and religious extremists

The second idea, and one I feel must also be challenged, is our tacit acceptance  of rape within the prison system. By saying that putting a convicted  female rapist in a women’s prison you are endangering women you are saying that the system is incapable of preventing rape within prison. This also impacts the treatment of trans men, a group rarely discussed when this topic comes up. Trans men convicted of a crime belong in a male prison. Under our current see no evil policy they are placed in extreme danger. As are trans women wrongly sent to male prisons. 

This is unacceptable within a civilised society. Yes, rape occurs in many different spaces, however we do not simply turn a blind eye to it. The fact someone is in prison should not change that fact. If someone is in prison for rape then somehow suggesting that they will go onto rape in prison, and we can do nothing to stop that, is unconscionable. If our prisons can not keep people safe from rape, then we need to be demanding reform. We must not allow transphobic and transmisogynistic people to use prison rape as the next bathroom panic, playing on prejudices in order to make life more difficult for trans people and putting their very lives at risk

You can follow Karen Pollock on Twitter @CounsellingKaz

End of the world prison” by Luis Argerich from Buenos Aires, Argentina – End of the world prison. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


15 thoughts on “Davina Ayrton and prison rape

  1. Hi, I agree that we shouldn’t base our understanding of gender on arbitrary and sexist standards! So maybe you could tell me how [a person with XY chromosomes born with male genitalia and socialized as a boy] is a woman, *without* reference to arbitrary (it’s a feeling! it’s between the ears!) or sexist (I don’t feel manly! I like dresses! I like masochistic sex! A woman is just a man without a penis! Brainsex!) standards? I’ll be waiting with baited breath. 🙂


    1. I suppose I take a similar stance to Judith Butler, all gender is performative, influenced by a number of factors external and internal. What is anyones sense of gender but a feeling? Or as De Beauvoir put it so wonderfully, one is not born a woman, one becomes one.


      1. I have we clearly have taken different things from it, perhaps because I read it as part of a philosophy degree rather than as a purely feminist work? Great ideas are like that though, its why we study and analyse them


      2. De Beauvoir was speaking of the other which is defined as woman, being not man, and how that other always informed our sense of what not man meant. I think trans women speak to that and on that exceptionally eloquently, as Butler herself pointed out.


  2. Burden prison authorities with ensuring people are safe from rape, but bathroom facilities must surely be off limits without proof of surgical and medical transition.


      1. Perhaps one reason I could suggest is r right of women to go the toilet only in the company of their fellow sex; a right afforded to them in civilized society. Another reason, to avoid threat of rape perhaps? Another? To avoid voyeurs.

        I doubt any of those reasons will be enough for you as you clearly don’t support women.


  3. “Despite there being not a single recorded case of this happening a well funded campaign has ramped up a classic moral panic around the idea…”

    Google “Christopher Hambrook.” Sure, trans activists are eager to say he was not a “real trans” but who are they to say that, since he called himself a “trans” (even if he was lying) and where he was it is illegal even to question that claim. This is what happens when subjective and vague notion of “gender identity” takes over the previous gatekeeping methods as employed by medical and legal professionals.

    “Women can, and do commit sexual assault and rape.” Yes, but risk management is all about statistical probability. Males are far more likely to commit sexual assault than females. Super-majority of rape cases involve use of penis, and females do not have that, which significantly reduces the probability of women becoming rapists (rape using inanimate objects may or may not be considered rape depending on the laws of where you are).

    “you are saying that the system is incapable of preventing rape within prison.” Apparently we are discussing this very issue BECAUSE for the most part even the maximum-security prisons are incapable of preventing rape, with exceptions of places such as ADX Florence in Colorado, USA where by design inmates will never interact with one another. Trans activists want transgenders in women’s prison because they are likely to be raped by men (inmates or guards). If the system is indeed capable of preventing rape this debate would not have even happened in the first place.

    This is a sensitive issue because prisons by their very nature are concentration of criminals. Some are there for nonviolent and victimless “crimes” such as drug use or immigration violation, but many are in for murder, aggravated assault, and sexual crimes.


  4. You clearly have a limited knowledge of the prison system. Violence and sexual assault are fairly common from staff and inmates. Yes, we desperately need prison reform to protect inmates. A large proportion of female inmates have experienced male violence in the form of DV or childhood sexual abuse. Mental health issues are widespread.


  5. And nowhere did I say I need to be protected from you. If you can’t understand the very real reasons women may at times need or want to be in a separate space from men then you are lacking in something.


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