I used to write a lot about sex and gender here. I don’t do so quite as much these days for a few reasons, one of which is that the issues involved are now better recognised and better handled by people whose job it is to deal with the complexities of policies and conflicts of rights and arguments.
An example of that came at the weekend when Baroness Falkner, the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, told the Times that women should not be penalised or abused if they believe that transgender women do not become female by dint of their professed identity.
‘Someone can believe that people who self-identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self-identify,’ she said. ‘A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.’
In other words, the UK’s human rights authority says you don’t have to accept that trans women are female. That’s a big deal, as anyone who has followed this debate will know. It’s also a sign that it’s getting easier to debate the implications of policy and practice around sex and gender, which is a good thing for all concerned. Policies that are properly debated can gain public confidence in a way that is impossible for policies that are implemented quietly and without open discussion.
When I started writing about these issues, it was partly because I was worried that politics was failing to facilitate those discussions. In a few months in 2018, I collected dozens of private accounts from serving parliamentarians from several parties, who said they believed that some policies and practices aimed at benefiting trans people could have adverse effects on other people’s rights, status and services, especially women. Yet almost none of those politicians would say so publicly, because they felt the climate around the issue was simply too hostile and toxic.
That worried me, and in some cases annoyed me. I fully understand that politicians are human and don’t relish jumping into a vipers’ nest of anger and abuse, but it’s also the job of politicians to lead, even when that’s difficult. That means finding ways to drain the poison from the public debate and having the courage to discuss complicated, contentious things, even if doing so makes some people unhappy.
So, having been a bit rude about politicians and their failure to debate sex, gender and public policy, I feel like I should be nice about those who do their job and discuss these things. Which is why most of the rest of this column is the text of a short speech by Tonia Antoniazzi, the Labour MP for Gower.
She was speaking in the House of Commons in a debate about crime and ‘safe streets for all’.
Her speech, which deserves to be read in full, is here:
“‘To find effective solutions we must fully understand the problem, and accurate data is key in tackling the causes of crime, protecting the public, providing justice to victims, and rehabilitating offenders. Data must be accurately sex-disaggregated in order to fully understand the impact of all crimes on women and girls. In order to combat sexism, we need to count sex, and in order to combat discrimination against other groups, there is a need to record separate and additional data. The offending patterns of men and of women show the highest differential of all, so we need to monitor the sex of victims and of perpetrators of all crimes. For example, the proportion of women among those prosecuted in 2019 was 2 per cent for sexual offences, 8 per cent for robbery, and 7 per cent for possession of a weapon.‘We all want to live in a society that is respectful and tolerant and strives for equality. Gender reassignment is rightly a protected characteristic and we must respect the privacy of transgender people, but in order to protect everyone when it comes to official records of offences, particularly against women and girls, we need accurate records of the biological sex of the victims and the perpetrators of crime, in addition to data on the gender identity of victims and perpetrators. Why then are police forces recording the self-identified gender of victims of suspected offenders and not their biological sex?‘I understand that at least 16 regional police forces now record suspects’ sex on the basis of gender identity, following the advice of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Data based only on self-identified gender does not give accurate data on which to build a violence against women and girls strategy, nor to effectively plan services that support all victims and target all perpetrators whatever their sex or however they identify.‘If police records are not robust and correctly disaggregated by sex, we end up with unreliable and potentially misleading data in reporting. For example, the BBC asked 45 regional police forces in the UK for data on reported cases of female perpetrators’ child sex abuse from 2015 to 2019. The data received indicated that there was an increase of 84 per cent. Data corruption means that we cannot tell whether this large increase is due to an increase in female offenders or those identifying as women, and that detail matters.‘Women make up 3 per cent of the arrests for all sexual offences. The number of women convicted for these crimes is so low that the mis-recording of the sex of the perpetrator skews the data very quickly. Where offence categories are very rarely committed by women, the addition of just one or two people can have a significant impact on data. For example, a biological man convicted of attempted murder and other offences at Birmingham Crown court in 2017 was recorded as female, thus falsely elevating the number of females convicted of attempted murder that year in England and Wales by around 20 per cent. We need to know what action the Government will take to ensure correct police record keeping and prevent the potential corruption of data on crimes and their impact on women and girls.’
Antoniazzi is asking serious and important questions there. In that, she’s drawing on the research of organisations such as Fair Play For Women and echoing the concerns about sex, gender and data raised by academics such as Professor Alice Sullivan of UCL. (For what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about this too.)
Sex and gender isn’t a linguistic game or an online debating point. As that speech demonstrates, this stuff matters. Policy and politics should always be based on facts; official data should illuminate, not obscure. It’s an open question as to whether by allowing self-described gender identity to eclipse biological sex, police forces and other public bodies are creating the misleading impression of increasing female involvement in serious crime. These are things that should be debated in Parliament.
The fact that an MP is doing so is a good thing, a sign that the debate about sex and gender is becoming easier and more normal. But Tonia Antoniazzi still deserves praise for asking those questions. She also deserves answers.