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I disagree with Mistress Matisse on women-only spaces

Recently, famous blogger and columnist Mistress Matisse addressed admissions standards at women-only sex parties. Surprisingly, this is a rather thorny issue.

Some folks allow only “cisgendered” women (fancy jargon for women born female). Some have adopted the “dick in a drawer” rule (if a woman has a dick, she must be able to slam it in a drawer and walk away in order to attend). More enlightened types have gone with a “female ID” rule. And many, including the ever-lovely Midori allow anyone who identifies as female, recognizing that trans women face significant legal and financial obstacles in obtaining a female ID.

Matisse concluded her analysis by quoting Kate Bornstein:

“How to handle opportunistic cisgender men? I haven’t got a clue. But there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with being gender exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived safety. It all boils down to ‘don’t be mean.'”

Apparently, Matisse received several responses along the lines of “because it’s wrong to exclude a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation, then it’s always wrong to exclude anyone, ever.” She replied to one such writer with her inimitable snark, accusing him of intellectual laziness and “nursery-school thinking,” before ultimately concluding that his argument was “clearly not true.”

Now, I agree with Matisse that her correspondent’s argument was intellectually lazy. Gender does not automatically equate with race, age, religion, or any other identity. And there is such a thing as context. But neither Matisse nor Bornstein give much thought to why some forms of discrimination are wrong and others aren’t.

Personally, I fall back on the rational basis test: there’s nothing wrong with discrimination that serves a rational purpose. For instance, few would argue with the producers of “Full House” casting the Olsen twins over Morgan Freeman, despite his being a far superior actor. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with making sure that a women-only sex party is, in fact, women-only. That’s rational.

However, it is morally and ethically wrong to discriminate without such a rational basis. This duty is especially imperative for those of us in the sex-positive community given how often, and how capriciously, we are discriminated against. And it is here that I take issue.

Bornstein characterizes the situation as discrimination to protect “self-perceived safety.” And Matisse is sufficiently impressed with Bornstein’s qualifications – she is a well-educated academic who uses gender-neutral pronouns (even if ze slips up sometimes) – that Matisse is inclined to accept this characterization “on faith.” But I am not. I can get pretty academic myself, and we theologians have a term-of-art for this claim of “self-perceived safety”: bulls**t.

To suggest that anyone with a penis poses an inherent threat to the personal safety of all women is the absolute worst sort of Dworkinist caricature, it bears absolutely no relation to objective reality, and is frankly so ridiculous that I refuse to engage it seriously.

As for the more nebulous part of the argument, “self-perception” – after all, who am I to tell women what they perceive? – there are two objections. Firstly, for us to be willing to indulge the “perceived” needs of others, there must be some requirement of reasonableness. After all, if we started honoring the perceived needs of paranoid schizophrenics, or Glenn Beck, the world would rapidly become unlivable.

Moreover, this claim of “self-perceived” safety has the intellectual consistency of day-old grits. The fact that these women choose to live in modern society means that they have chosen to deal with men. At work. At the grocery store. Even at the occasional women’s basketball game. They do not “self-perceive” enough danger to move to a rural lesbian commune. But they’re suddenly scared to go to a regulated play-space with sixty other lesbians because a dude might be watching? Please.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about. Lesbians don’t want dirty men getting voyeuristic pleasure from watching them. They think it’s icky. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m a proud, card-carrying member of the Penises Are Icky Club (PAIC). But let’s be honest: we’re talking about comfort. Not safety.

Again, note Bornstein’s language – these cisgender men are not dangerous. They’re “opportunistic.” The “fear” here is not “some cross-dressing dude is going to sneak in and axe murder me, because clearly all men are axe murderers.” It’s “some cross-dressing dude might secretly be getting off watching this and that’s just gross.”

Given the obstacles that we face in the sex-positive community and the extreme, unthinkable obstacles that transgendered individuals face in their daily lives, it is flatly wrong – morally, ethically, and any other which way you cut it – for us to take any action which has the effect, direct or implied, of denying an individual the right of self-determination with regard to gender.

Matisse herself admits that power dynamics play a major role here – stating (rightly) that discrimination by a socially dominant group is different than a socially less-powerful group “creating space for itself.” In my terminology, the latter has a rational basis, while the former does not. And it is here that we have to remember that transgendered individuals are part of the larger alternative community – not by choice, but by necessity.

We are the dominant group. We are the privileged. We are the hegemons. As such, if an individual claims to identify as female, she should be entitled to a presumption of good faith. As a community, we certainly owe her nothing less.

This is not to say that such a presumption should be irrebuttable – if Tom Selleck drops by, calling himself Jane, kick him out by all means. Or, as Justice Stewart would say, “you know it when you see it.” But if someone looks and acts like a woman, and claims to identify as one, what’s the greater danger: emotionally scarring a vulnerable trans woman or having some cross-dressing dude get turned on? Plus there’s the plain old practical aspect to all of this – if one of those parties encounters a trans woman with equipment like mine, she just might crack their desk drawer. And that would be a shame.