Housing biological males in women’s prisons is unfair to women. Why is it controversial to say so?

Housing biological males in women’s prisons is unfair to women. Why is it controversial to say so?

On 13 January, James Treadwell, a Professor of Criminology at Stafford University in the UK, announced that he is being investigated by his university following anonymous complaints about “transphobic” tweets. These complaints followed Treadwell’s support, three days earlier, for the #KeepPrisonSingleSex Twitter thread in which he said:

“over half of female prisoners have experiences (sic) sexual violence and abuse. Many have been damaged by men time and again. I cannot see any case for now why we should do anything but #KeepPrisonSingleSex”.

The #KeepPrisonSingleSex arguments are manifestly reasonable. As a Criminologist, Treadwell would be familiar with the fact that men and women have distinct offending patterns; sexual violence is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a male crime. Having worked with women in prison, Treadwell has observed the harm they have suffered from sexual violence and trauma. He further observes:

“Women in prison are the poorest and most vulnerable, few speak for them, especially men. Many shouldn’t be there, but they shouldn’t be there with men.”

In a rational universe, pointing out that housing males (including those with records for crimes of sexual violence) in prison cells with women (including those who have a history of sexual victimisation) is unfair to women should be uncontroversial.

The hostile response to Treadwell’s common-sense observation follows an established pattern that will be all too familiar for advocates of women’s safety; people like Melinda Tankard Reist (Australian anti-pornography campaigner) or Abigail Shrier (American author of “Irreversible Harm: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters”), or J.K. Rowling (whose recent book, Troubled Blood, featured a serial killer who dons women’s clothing to carry out his attacks). For as long as campaigners have insisted on protections for women, they have been opposed by vested interests – pimps, predators and pornographers – that benefit either personally or financially from the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. The battlelines have been clearly drawn for upward of a century. For those familiar with this debate, the fact that one side now chooses to couch its objections to women’s safety in terms of “transphobia” represents a mere shift in tactics, rather than a change of objective. While there are undoubtedly commentators and activists who are genuinely concerned about trans prisoners’ safety, there are equally those whose motivations are deeply misogynistic and predatory. And it should be noted that for all their good intentions, the former have still been willing to sacrifice women’s safety in the face of evidence and common sense that housing biological males in female prisons is dangerous for women.

Where the collective moral compass guides public opinion to condemn threats of violence from a powerful individual or group against a recognised weaker antagonist, male threats against women will be easily identified and condemned. However, a transgender identity works to complicate the moral calculation by creating uncertainty about the relative power between transwomen and women. The outcome of a particular debate ultimately depends on who successfully claims the moral high ground – that is, who manages to cast themselves as the “vulnerable victim” and their opponent as the “powerful aggressor”.  A transgender identity allows activists to cast advocates for women’s safety who insist on the importance of biological reality in the latter role.

So, for example, Rowling has satirised the trans activist rage generated by her advocacy for women’s safety, pointing out that this response only proves the validity of her arguments:

Countering this, Jezebel.com attempted to recast the contention between Rowling and trans activists by presenting Rowling as the oppressor who willfully “misreads feminism” to position herself as the victim: 

“[H]ere’s what’s most glaring about Rowling’s responses: Her insistence on framing this as gendered violence against women, perpetrated by men. Rowling cannot accept that the transgender women who have clowned her, who have told her to “go die,” who have been the loudest critics of her TERF agenda, are women. It’s easier for her to simply dismiss them as men, and regard their anger as male violence directed at her, a “real” woman. It’s a convenient misreading of feminism that positions Rowling as the vulnerable victim of dangerous men.”

In the context of the debate about appropriate prison accommodation, the claim of a transgender status is advantageous to those who oppose women’s safety for a number of reasons. 1) It creates doubt about the safety of transwomen in male prisons where they might be the victims of male-patterned violence. 2) The assertion of a female identity provides the rationale for moving these biological males to a women’s prison. 3) It also creates a disconnect in the logic that would usually recognise biological males as an inherent threat to the safety of women. 

Those like Treadwell, who are familiar with the workings of the criminal mind, represent a considerable obstacle if these claims are to succeed. An expert criminologist would be acutely aware of the fact that all of the transwomen claiming the right to be accommodated in a women’s prison have an established criminal history. These are not truth-telling innocents. There is no reason to take their claims of victimisation on trust. Experts like Treadwell, seeing what the predator sees, will understand only too well the potential for a trans identity to open the door to otherwise undreamed-of opportunities for further offending. 

As we have written previously (here and here), all efforts must be made to ensure the safety of all prisoners. While safety for trans prisoners may mean that they are not housed in male prisons, it does not follow that the solution to the problem is to accommodate them with women. Having regard for the safety of female prisoners means ensuring they are not housed with biological males.

In response to his Twitter critics, Treadwell doubled down on his advocacy for single-sex prisons, pointing out that laws to safeguard the vulnerable are never based on the premise that everyone will behave themselves. If that were so, no laws would be needed. By inference, the argument that trans-identified males will abandon their former male-patterned sexual offending and can therefore be transferred to women’s prisons without consequence for women is fantasy. “Those who invite us to legislate based on a dreamworld are dangerous”.

Quite independently of Treadwell, the US psychologist Jon Uhler, has voiced exactly the same concerns about men applying for transfer to women’s prisons:

Like Treadwell, Uhler is routinely accused by online critics of “transphobia”. He sloughs off these slurs as the predictable response of predators who are thwarted in their objective.

The more concerning aspect of Stafford University’s current investigation of Treadwell is that it demonstrates the university administration is unwilling to support their academics against spurious activist claims. A simple reading of Treadwell’s Twitter posts demonstrates nothing more than an insistence on the importance of protecting incarcerated women. Why open an investigation at all, on the basis of no evidence?

In his last posts of 13 January, Treadwell voiced an understandable sense of grievance against the university for their lack of support. He sounds this warning to other academics:

“If this can happen to me it can happen to any of you. It can certainly happen to younger ECRs and others at the start of their career. Universities want us on social media, but is your back covered? Who has it?”

By entertaining these accusations, the University becomes the cat’s paw of trans activists who understand that the process is the punishment; Treadwell can be used as an example to discourage others from defending politically inconvenient academic positions. In this way, a spineless University administration undermines the academic integrity that should form the bedrock of any university worthy of the name.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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