Transgender Prisoners

The case of Karen White has been the subject of bitter controversy in recent months. White is a convicted sex offender who identified as trans and was incarcerated in a women’s prison. White committed four sexual assaults while a prisoner. Campaigning feminist groups have seized upon White’s case as an embodiment of the challenge to women’s rights that thy argue is presented by self-identification. Trans activists claim that White had a previous history of sexual offending and thus, according to the Government’s own rules should never have been sent to a women’s prison.

The debate about gender identity seems to be driven by strong feelings, but “facts” are seized upon and used by both sides. In the spirit of “More or Less”, I wanted to examine some statistical aspects of transgender prisoners.

“48% of Trans Prisoners are Sex Offenders”

This extraordinary statistic was placed into the public domain by campaigning group Fair Play for Women, following a freedom of information request to the UK Government. To be precise, in the year to March 2017, 60 out of 125 transgender prisoners known to the Ministry of Justice are sex offenders. The BBC Fact Check web page offered a few thoughts on the statistic. First, the figure does not include any prisoners with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), because they would be recorded as female prisoners. Second, the data only relate to prisoners serving longer sentences (ie. convicted of serious offences) – there are no statistics for the broader prison population. The BBC Fact Check web page suggested that the proportion might well be much reduced if those serving shorter sentences (ie. deemed to have committed less serious offences) were included in the figures.

This provoked a significant amount of bile from right-wing reactionary journalists like Andrew Gilligan, who accused the BBC of collaborating with transgender activists to promote their agenda. However, it’s a matter of fact (not opinion – although in UK newspapers the distinction appears often to be lost on journalists) that sex offences are by definition serious and thus tend to carry longer sentences. If we add to the total number of serious crimes the (much larger) total number of minor crimes, the numerator will remain the same but the denominator will be much increased.

The 48% figure is clearly a powerful rhetorical tool. It achieves two results at once: first it dramatises the debate about dealing with transgender prisoners; and second, it plays to a popular trope among many of those who have lined up against trans activists – that to be trans is by definition to be some sort of pervert.

Sex offenders make up 17% of the wider prison population (ie. including all types of crime). I must admit that I found this to be an alarmingly large figure. Bearing in mind that 48% was the percentage of serious criminals identified as trans who were also sex offenders, and the fact that crimes such as theft (2,009,697 offences in the year to March 2018 according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics) greatly outnumber sexual offences (150,732 in the same period), it may well be the case (although I have no hard data to test the hypothesis) that the number of trans prisoners who are sex offenders is no greater than 17% when the whole prison population is considered.

Of the 125 sex trans prisoners in 2017, only 22 were MTF prisoners who were accommodated in female prisons according to Fair Play for Women (25 according to the Independent). It is not clear from the ONS data, which were the source of information cited by Fair Play for Women, whether any of these prisoners were sex offenders.

In summary, it is not at all clear what significance we can draw from this statistic. The most that we can reasonably say is that sex offenders represent a somewhat high fraction of the prison population, and it seems that transgender prisoners are not significantly different from other prisoners in this regard. The use of these statistics by Fair Play for Women contributes nothing meaningful to the debate – it is a rhetorical device.

“This is about the feelings of male-bodied people”

According to the Guardian, Labour anti-trans activist Pilgrim Tucker says: “Almost half of trans women prisoners are sex offenders. We urgently need to start prioritising the safeguarding of women and girls over the feelings of male-bodied people.” As demonstrated above, the 48% figure is much less meaningful than it seems to be at first sight, and there are, moreover, no publicly available data that support the claim that trans sex offenders are normally accommodated in women’s prisons; on the prison service’s own admission, Karen White should never have been incarcerated in a women’s prison in the first place and represents a tragic anomaly. However, for many feminist critics the issue boils down to a simple conflict between the protection of women and, as Tucker puts it, “the feelings of male-bodied people”.

For trans prisoners there is in fact a great deal more at stake than hurt feelings. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has published detailed statistical information on a variety of aspects of the lives of prisoners, including rates of sexual victimisation. For the year 2011-12, 4.0% of prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization. In the same year, the corresponding figures were 34.6% and 34.0% respectively for transgender prisoners. Thus the mean figure for transgender prisoners is approximately an order of magnitude greater than that for the prison population as a whole. Prisons are dangerous places, but they are disproportionately dangerous for transgender prisoners.

These data indicate that the problem here is not merely “the feelings of male-bodied people”: there is a real risk of serious harm. This is not to say that there is necessarily an argument for accommodating trans prisoners in women’s prisons; however the high risk of harm to transgender prisoners needs to be dealt with appropriately in the prison system.

Prison is a poor place to look for answers to complex societal problems

In the US DOJ reports referred to above, the rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual incidents were 1.7 and 7.2 % for male and female prisons, respectively. Thus it is clear that in all-female prison environments women are capable of exhibiting high rates of sexual violence. There are a great many things that one could infer from these data, but most important of all, they must surely suggest that prison is a rather unusual place where normal presuppositions about human behaviour may no longer apply.

The case of Karen White does not prove that transgendered people represent a specific threat to women, but it does show that a sex offender may make a pretense of transition in order to obtain access to women for the purpose of committing further offenses. The prison system plainly needs an effective means to deal with the threat posed by a sexual predator who “transitions” in order to access women prisoners. However, the US DOJ data also show that there are real and substantial risks to transgender prisoners. A solution is required for prisons that allows both of these concerns to be addressed.

Adolescent mental health

Further to yesterday’s post, the Guardian reports that Gus O’Donnell (Britain’s most senior civil servant under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron) has spoken out about the declining mental health of teenagers in the UK. Figures published recently by the NHS show that 20% of girls aged 17-19 and 10% of boys the same age had self-harmed or tried to kill themselves. Non-heterosexual youths were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from a mental health disorder than heterosexuals of the same age. The Guardian notes that “experts described the figures as deeply worrying and raised questions about the damage that social media, pressure to look good and sexual violence were doing to the mental welfare of young women in England.”

Adolescence has always been a time of emotional turmoil, but new pressures (particularly because of the pervasive influence of social media and the impact of the widespread availability of hardcore pornography) are intensifying these challenges. For example, doctors have begin to report a new condition called “Snapchat dysmorphia“, in which some people are seeking surgical interventions to make their appearance match better the greatly enhanced representations of themselves that are produced so quickly and effectively by algorithms on their phones.

The objectification and denigration of women is not new, but modern media create intense pressures on adolescent women at a time of great vulnerability. In the context of the debate about how to respond to gender non-conformity in children, it is significant that recent years have seen an explosion in the number of young women coming forward to seek help from gender identity services. Many of these young women first present after the onset of puberty, raising the possibility of what has com to be referred to as “rapid onset gender dysphoria”. There was a storm of protest recently when Brown University academic Lisa Littman published a study of this phenomenon. Littman was interested in the possibility that

“the belief that non-specific symptoms (including the symptoms associated with trauma, symptoms of psychiatric problems, and symptoms that are part of normal puberty) should be perceived as gender dysphoria and their presence as proof of being transgender; 2) the belief that the only path to happiness is transition; and 3) the belief that anyone who disagrees with the self-assessment of being transgender or the plan for transition is transphobic, abusive, and should be cut out of one’s life.”1

Littman’s conclusion is that making an accurate diagnosis can be extraordinarily complex – self reported cases of gender dysphoria post puberty may, she argues, have complex causes. It is possible that they are an expression of latent gender dysphoria, but perhaps they are also a modern expression of the much older challenge for young women of coming to terms with the sexualisation and objectification of their bodies. Glosswitch has argued powerfully that the latter is the case.

A team from the UK’s national Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) has examined the rapid recent rise in the number of referrals of birth-assigned females.2 They explored a variety of possible explanations, including the possibility that “‘coming out’ …may be easier for birth-assigned females than it is for birth- assigned males”, and the impact of the digitisation of adolescents’ social interactions, in particular the way “that influences of socially constructed views of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ and the way these are being displayed on social media may have an impact on the increase of birth-assigned female referrals, especially for those who do not feel they fit this stereotype”.

This is a complex matter and I am not competent to weigh the arguments. Certainly there is an epidemic of mental ill-health among young people, and whether this is the cause or the consequence of expressions on gender dysphoria in some cases, it is an enormous problem that urgently needs attention.

References

1. L. Littman, PLoSONE 2018, 13(8), e0202330.

2. N. M. de Graaf, G. Giovanardi, C. Zitz and P. Carmichael, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2018, 47, 1301–1304.

More or Less?

This post (and the next couple) take their inspiration from a favourite programme on Radio 4, “More or Less“, in which statisticians explore the numerical data behind headlines in the news or oft-repeated pieces of popular wisdom. In my brief exploration of Twitterspace, I found that debate raged hotly about some important statistics.

One of the most controversial topics in the debate about self-identification is the rate of suicide among transgendered individuals. A recent article in GQ presents a statistic that has been reported very widely in the media: it states that 41% of transgendered people attempt suicide, and that this figure is ten times that for the population as a whole. I have found this figure to be widely deployed on both sides of the self-ID war. For activists it is the proof required that self-ID is necessary – the wait for recognition of gender is driving people to suicide; and for gender-critical feminists, the claim of a 41% attempted suicide rate is plainly and self-evidently preposterous, and evidence of the preparedness of activists to say whatever they like, true or not, in their attempt to coerce society to collude with them in their misogynistic masterplan.

It is widely alleged by sceptics that the figure originates in a Stonewall report that contained no properly validated statistical data. I also suspect that the figure is false. I’ve been out and about on the trans scene for some time and nobody that I know has committed suicide. On the other hand, my experience also tells me that rates of mental illness are rather high among trans people. I’d say that compared to my colleagues at work, a much larger fraction of trans people suffer from mental illness.

A recent TV drama, “Butterfly”, explored the challenges experienced by transgender children and their parents. The drama was produced in consultation with the transgender children’s charity Mermaids. Mermaids believes that if a child says they are trans, then this is not a matter of debate or exploration, but an expression of an identity that must be respcted. If a boy says he is a girl then he must be a girl.

This position is founded on both an assertion of the right of the individual to self-expression, and also on a rejection of the eminently reasonable hypothesis that children are continually developing, so that what seems unalterable truth at one stage may prove to be a passing phase with the benefit of hindsight. Canadian psychologist Ken Zucker lost his job for propounding the hypothesis that many children who identify as trans may go on to become gay adults who are happy in their birth sex, reflecting the worrying trend that some ideas – though capable of precise, objective, scientific formulation – have been determined to be unthinkable. (Zucker recently received a public apology for his dismissal and a settlement.) Actor Rupert Everett recently described his own development from gender dysphoric child to gay adult: “I really wanted to be a girl. Thank God the world of now wasn’t then, because I’d be on hormones and I’d be a woman. After I was 15 I never wanted to be a woman again.” Of course, many of us who wanted to be women before 15 still want to be women long after the halcyon days of our youth have disappeared over the horizon, so I’d not like to suggest that Rupert Everett has the last word on this. But Zucker’s hypothesis is at least interesting and worthy of consideration.

Mermaids and other transgender organisations counter Zucker with a hefty emotional stick: rejecting a child’s gender identity will lead to the collapse of their mental health, and may very well drive them to suicide. To the parent of a gender dysphoric child, the thermonuclear character of this particular ordnance is clear: to question a child’s gender identity is in fact to put their life at risk. What parent would choose to do that? To parents grappling with these very complex problems, the notion that a false move may drive their child to suicide may be overwhelming: it is emotional blackmail of the first order.

Butterfly created a stage upon which the dramatic force of this argument could be played out for millions of viewers: in episode 1 the unhappy gender dysphoric child at the centre of the drama, whose father refused to recognise him as a girl, cut his wrists. The message could not be made more clear.

So what’s the truth? Is Mermaids playing fast and loose with data or is there a real problem with suicide among transgendered individuals?

Transgender Trend is an anti-trans lobbying group. It articulates scepticism about trans suicide rates very clearly, and has provided ammunition for those who would like to reject the notion of a high suicide rate. It reports summaries of two studies conducted in the UK that do seem to suggest that suicide rates are higher among transgendered youths.

Transgender Trend claims that the first of these studies, led by academics, was not based upon randomly selected subjects, but was based on responses to a questionnaire completed by only 27 transgender subjects. These are reasonable concerns, but may be levelled at many studies in the field. For example, Ray Blanchard’s seminal work expounding his theory of autogynephlia was based on studies of comparatively small numbers of subjects who presented in his clinic, and Lisa Littman’s paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria – which Transgender Trend reports with approval – was based on questionnaire responses from parents who had joined web sites specifically set up to support parents who believed their children had rapid onset gender dysphoria (let me think…might there be a possibility of confirmation bias?). So there is quite a bit of inconsistency here. As a physical scientist, I struggle to come to terms with the low threshold for “evidence” in much psychological research when compared with, for example, the rather exacting standards laid down for clinical trials of drugs. But human beings are extraordinarily complex; perhaps the poor statistics in much psychological research and the absence of appropriate controls are a reflection of this intrinsic complexity. If we apply strict standards of rigor, we must certainly apply them across the board. I think there is an important methodological debate here. The response to the Littman furore from many professional psychologists was to defend the methodology used as being normal in the field. This may be the case, but what if the professional standards of psychological research are rotten? When the pronouncements of professional psychologists are used to legitimate the formulation of public policy we have a moral obligation to ensure that they are founded on properly validated studies with rigorous methodology and proper control experiments.

The second study was conducted by a Cambridge University academic on behalf of Stonewall, and Transgender Trend makes the allegation that although the lead academic was asked to provide their methodology they did not do so. I believe this is the foundation for the argument that the Stonewall study is methodologically unsound. If the study was done without proper methodology, and the figures contained within it have been widely cited by Stonewall, then this is a serious state of affairs. However, a failure to respond to a request for information from Transgender Trend does not in itself invalidate a study.

As an academic I was keen to find peer-reviewed literature on the subject. Toomey et al recently published a study of 120 617 adolescents (ages 11 – 19) for whom data were collected over a 36 month period.1 They found that male to female transgender youths reported a rate of attempted suicide approximately three times that of male adolescents (29.9% compared to 9.8%), while female to male transgender youths reported a rate of attempted suicide of 50.8% compared to 17.6% for female adolescents. These data certainly suggest an increased rate of attempted suicide – for both MTF and FTM transgendered youths, the rate is approximately three times that associated with adolescents of the same birth gender. Perhaps the most shocking statistic, however, is that 14% of all adolescents reported a previous suicide attempt. This seems to me to be a worryingly large number – indicative of deep and widespread unhappiness and poor mental health among a very vulnerable sub-set of the population.

A further study by Barboza et al focussed primarily on the incidence of physical attacks upon transgender people.2 They noted that 37% of transgendered people questioned had experienced physical attacks, and that on average these people reported approximately 4 attacks. Such people reported higher rates of attempted suicide, suggesting a connection between victimisation of trans people as a potential cause of poor mental health. Overall they reported a rate of attempted suicide of 25%, with 38% reporting suicidal ideation.

It is clear that there is a shortage of peer-reviewed literature in this field. However, it also appears that critics are incorrect in claiming “foul” when transgender activists claim that rates of suicide are higher among the trans population.

A more difficult question concerns the big stick wielded by Mermaids: is a questioning approach to childhood expressions of gender dysphoria a likely trigger for suicide? This was clearly the message of Butterfly. However, the peer-reviewed work that I have cited suggests a more complex state of affairs. In particular, Barboza et al reported a connection between victimisation of trans people and attempted suicide, while Toomey et al, discussing the different rates of suicide observed among the groups identified in their study, note the importance of sociological factors (eg. previously published work demonstrating higher rates of discrimination against FTM transsexuals than among their MTF counterparts). If this kind of analysis is correct, it suggests that elevated suicide rates among transgender individuals are correlated with difficulties encountered in their interactions with wider society.

At the very least, one might say that there is no evidence in these studies that there is a direct connection between suicide and the adoption of the kind of “watchful waiting” approach favoured by the UK’s Tavistock Centre. Indeed, the Tavistock Centre published a firm response to the suicide scene in Butterfly, commenting:

Tragically, there is a higher risk of self-harm and suicidal ideation or attempts found in LGBT communities compared to their cisgender or straight peers. Suicidality in young people attending the GIDS is similar to that of young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services. It is not helpful to suggest that suicidality is an inevitable part of this condition.

To conclude, therefore, it seems that there is good peer-reviewed evidence that suicide rates are higher among transgender individuals than among the population at large, reflecting my own experience that many trans people suffer mental health problems, but not 10 times as large (as is widely quoted) – perhaps 2-3 times as large. A risk of suicide is not intrinsic to individuals with gender dysphoria, but is perhaps best understood as reflecting the increased tendency of marginalised groups to suffer from mental health problems. I leave the last word to the Tavistock Centre:

“Our focus is on supporting young people to be resilient and positive and many of the young people we see are doing very well. It is important to note that it would be very unusual for younger children referred to the service to make suicidal attempts.”

References

  1. Russell B. Toomey, Amy K. Syvertsen, Maura Shramko, Pediatrics 2018, 142, e20174218.
  2. E. Barboza, S. Dominguez and . Chance, Prev. Med. Rep. 2016, 4, 385-90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.08.003.