On anti-trans panic in the self-defense community

I am seeing an increasing number of self-defense specialists jump on the anti-trans bandwagon under the guise of helping to protect cis women from cis men. I’ve got some problems with this (and no, it’s not just because I’m trans).

The core issue is that good self-defense should focus on teaching people realistic tactics to deal with real problems. If someone is teaching you tactics that don’t work, or tactics that work against imaginary or highly unlikely problems, you might want to question what you’re actually learning and what for.

Working out if a tactic is realistic or not is relatively easy:

  • Can you actually do it?
  • When you do it, does it do what it’s supposed to?
  • Are you likely to be able to pull it off in the relevant situation?

If the answer is NO to any of those questions, then the tactic in question is not realistic for you. It might be perfectly good for a different person who has a different body that responds differently to the same situations, but that won’t do you a lick of good. Self-defense should help you defend yourself. If it doesn’t, then it’s not self-defense.

Working out whether a problem is real is either really unpleasant, or a little bit more complex. If you have already faced that problem, or you personally know people who have faced that problem, then you know that the problem is real. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they are gaslighting you, and they are a problem.

If you have no personal or second-hand experience of a given problem, we can do one of two things:

  • We can look at the statistics of that problem occurring;
  • We can carry out a risk assessment.

Statistics require us to have access to the relevant data – e.g., hospital, police, or court records. These statistics can give us an idea of how prevalent a problem is, but have some serious limitations. Firstly, not all self-defense issues make it into official records because not all self-defense issues are classed as crimes – if you have checked my work on creeps, you already know why this is important. Secondly, statistics don’t tell us whether a problem is likely to impact us. For instance, 1 in 5 emergency room visits in the United States are allegedly due to injuries sustained at night clubs or bars. That’s really sad, but if you don’t anywhere near night clubs or bars, those statistics do not apply to you.

Risk assessments are more specific. They are procedures that require an assessment of:

  • The likelihood of a problem occurring – i.e., how likely you are to have to deal with it;
  • The potential impact of it occurring – i.e., how badly you’re likely to get hurt if it does happen.

Both of these factors need to be taken into account when assessing a risk. For instance, were I attacked by a crocodile, I would most likely die a horrible death. However, as the nearest crocodile is in a zoo 138 miles away from me (I checked), I am not going to prioritise crocodile defense at present. In fact, were I to do so, I would be displaying signs of a mental health condition (most likely a Specific Anxiety Disorder, aka a phobia).

Let’s apply these concept back to the issue of how dangerous trans people are in public spaces – which, for the majority of the public, is… not actually about trans people. The most common concern is that cis men will pretend to be trans women in order to access women-only spaces, where they will be able to attack cis women. As a result, some people claim that in order to protect cis women from cis men we should restrict the rights of trans women – e.g., by banning them from public bathrooms, changing rooms, and so on. Let’s ignore the fact that this approach punishes trans women for the potential misdeeds of cis men, and focus on the risk assessment side of things.

Are cis men pretending to be trans women a potential hazard to the safety of women? Yes, inasmuch as literally any person is a potential hazard to literally any other person. I’m the size of a twelve year old, and I can still think of a dozen ways in which I could hurt someone considerably bigger than me. People can hurt people. It’s a thing that can happen and does happen. How likely are these particular people to hurt women, though? What is the actual likelihood of the average cis woman to have to defend against a cis man masquerading as a trans woman?

As we discussed earlier, there are two ways of looking at this: statistics, and risk assessments.

Have you noticed how when people talk about real or pretend trans women attacking cis women, they never seem to quote an actual instance of this issue occurring? I noticed it because it’s pretty weird – in most instances where people talk of clear and present dangers, they tend to refer to past instances of that danger taking place. So I did a bit of research, and I could not find any instances of any such assault taking place. There could be an issue of underreporting, but even then it’s unlikely that it would result in literally NO reports (if you know of any, please link in the comments! I am genuinely interested.)

There are numerous reports of attack involving trans people in single-gender spaces, but in all of those incidences, the trans people were the victims. So, yeah, current statistics do not support this concern.

As for risk assessments, the questions we have to ask are:

  • How likely is it that a cis man would masquerade as a trans woman in order to attack cis women?
  • What is the likely outcome of such an attack?

As for the first question, it is conceivably possible that a cis man might decide to do that. However, that person would have to overcome serious difficulties and put himself at great risk.

For a person who went through a testosterone-led puberty, changing one’s body in order to “pass” as a woman requires ongoing medical care in the form of hormone treatments as a minimum, and often also permanent treatments like surgery and hair removal. In order to access those, in the UK one must:

  • Change one’s legal name to one that matches the gender they claim to be.
  • Live under that legal name for a minimum of two years.
  • Either wait 3.5+ years for Gender Care consultation through the NHS, or pay in the region of £1k+ for private treatment.
  • Undergo psychological evaluations over the course of a year and a half, during which time one must convince two or three different therapists of one’s need to transition.
  • Once one has been formally “diagnosed” as trans, they must either wait anything from six months to three years for treatment through the NHS, or pay thousands of pounds for private treatment.

A cis guy could, of course, just claim to be a trans woman without medically or socially transitioning. However as “non-passing” trans women are subject to intense public scrutiny, his chances of being able to harass women would actually be less than if he’d just carried on presenting himself as a cis guy. Furthermore, as trans women are disproportionately at risk of interpersonal violence, he’d be risking his life in the process.

It is conceivable that a cis guy might be willing to go through all that, but it is unlikely. There are much easier and much less risky ways of gaining access to potential victims. Joining a mixed self-defense class, for instance, would be quicker, cheaper, and safer, and carries a much greater chance of success.

What about outcomes? If a cis guy did decide to masquerade as a trans woman to attack women, the outcome could be awful, same as if he attacked women without going through the masquerade. We’re talking anything up to rape and death, so, yeah, not great. However, this does not erase the significance of current statistics and risk assessments. A terrible outcome with a near zero chance of taking place doth not an emergency make.

I’m not gonna rant about transphobia here, because I don’t see the point. However, I’d like for people to consider this question: if a self-defense instructor is trying to make us fear a non-issue, are they a good self-defense instructor? Do they deserve our time and money? Would we be willing to buy their products if they tried to sell us an equally unlikely fear, and if not, why not?