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On Noticing the Obvious
The Oakville trans teacher, and knowing without knowing why
Note: In the essay below, I am using he/him/his pronouns for a biological male who likely identifies otherwise (although I have not verified their preference). I am also generally referring to them as a man and not a trans woman. It is not the case that I am in principle against using preferred pronouns—on the contrary, despite my feelings about gender ideology, it feels natural to use them for some trans people. However, I believe pronouns are a social courtesy not a right, and that it is nonsensical and dangerous to grant someone trans status every time it is claimed. For a variety of reasons (some discussed below), it feels wrong to grant either to this individual.
Therefore, I will use the noun and pronouns common to their sex.
It requires considerable credulity—even, naïveté—to imagine that self-identity as the main criteria of establishing transgender status is anything but a disaster waiting to happen. However, it is fast becoming the sole criteria: corporations and institutions are implementing it within their company policies, while activists strong-arm clinicians to adopt it indirectly by maligning “gatekeeping” and “non-affirming” therapies.
Today, for all intents and purposes, one is trans if they say they are trans.
In the coming years, we will be increasingly forced to face the repercussions of the refusal to consider the obvious drawbacks and risks of self-ID—many of which will, in the end, also damage transgender acceptance.
A taste of what is to come was shared this month on social media: the alarming image of a man with enormous prosthetic breasts, protruding nipples, a tight shirt, and a short skirt. The photos appeared to be taken by bewildered teens—evidently, the man is a teacher in Oakville, Ontario, and this spectacle is taking place at a school.
The individual instigated horror on social media, but I was more interested in the ensuing discussion.
It isn’t hard to guess what about this picture evokes in many powerful feelings of alarm, unease, even disgust.
But can we justify the emotional response with clear, impartial reasoning?
Peter Boghossian wondered about this explicitly on Twitter, asking those who reacted badly to the picture to specify exactly what is the problem, betting that many of us would be unable to pinpoint what it is.
I was surprised and intrigued by this question: It seemed obvious to me. But guessing from many of the thousands of replies, it appears he is mostly right—it isn’t easy for many to justify their feelings, however strongly they feel them.
Is the problem the overt sexuality of the display? Or is it the lack of consent from the captive audience of minor school children?
Yes, and yes. But we are ignoring the obvious.
Given the tawdry nature, few serious writers covered the busty Oakville teacher. But I did find one article from Phoebe Maltz Bovy for the Globe and Mail, attempting to do what Boghossian asked: justify her reaction logically.
She concludes, after some bit of throat-clearing (“gender identity is not a choice”), that the problem is that this is a deliberate, sexually provocative display, one that would never be allowed if a teenage school girl did it. There is something about the “decision to wear enormous fake breasts to class as a reasonable form of self-expression that makes a mockery of countless young girls who’ve been told at school that their bodies – developing bodies they themselves are still getting used to – are a distraction,” she finishes.
Natal women cannot get away with such a display, therefore, we are only being equitable when we ask a trans teacher to abide by the same code. A claim for equality is literally asking to treat transwomen as women, which means that it is a safely progressive stance.
Indeed, it is the only move available to her. All writers not explicitly conservative have the same instinct, anchored by decades of feminist ideological priming that has gone unchallenged except by conservatives (the untouchables of literary society).
Malz Bovy is allowed to protest unequal treatment; she cannot, however, advocate for it.
But of course, this is precisely the kind of situation that calls for uneven treatment.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical. Visualize a naturally voluptuous middle-aged woman, a little overweight perhaps, teaching a classroom. Not an impossible feat—there are many such naturally endowed, portly ladies around who would fit the bill. Then imagine that one day, her nipples are found to be protruding through her cardigan.
Do you feel that this is a threatening situation? Does it raise “red flags” the way the Oakville teacher does? I doubt it.
Do we suppose it more likely that her nipples are erect because she is aroused, or do we imagine a more common scenario—that she is cold or mistakenly chose a too-thin sweater?
Maybe that is an unfair comparison. Let us make it more similar still. Now imagine that this woman isn’t all natural—she has achieved this unusual figure via extreme plastic surgery. Certainly, this plastic woman is a much more provocative figure—one might be tempted to question her state of mind, or her ability to interact healthily with young, impressionable people.
Still—is this imaginary figure evoking the same feelings within us as the busty Oakville blonde? Clearly, they are both unsettling figures, but are they unsettling in the same way? Do we imagine both are suffering from the same problems?
The answer is, still, no.
One reason we might not hold the same feelings is that we are bigots—holding transwomen to standards we do not hold the privileged biological women. We judge the situation of transwomen as more threatening and alarming simply because it is a presentation and orientation we do not understand, one that our closed minds simply cannot comprehend.
This is a possibility and in which case, the solution is probably to learn to be more tolerant.
I am going to offer another possibility: We treat this situation as unlike any involving a biological female, because that is the correct and proper response. We respond more defensively to one not because of “intolerance”, but because of bone-deep and hard-won instincts that have evolved to protect us. These instincts are not borne of hate, but from a reasonable and useful assessment of risk.
More simply: The situation is different because males and females are different.
This is for reasons we all used to recognize as obvious but—alarmingly—can no longer articulate clearly and openly, lest we be accused of noticing what we are not supposed to notice.
We know that—in general—male sexuality is not the same as female sexuality in important ways. Men have higher libidos, find certain acts more appealing, and are far more visible at the extreme ends of the sexual spectrum. Unusual fetishes are almost exclusively a male province, as is violent sexual assault. (The latter may have as much to do with desire as it does with capability—we know males also possess a physicality far more able to coerce.)
Intuitively, therefore, most humans recognize that an aroused man and an aroused woman are not interchangeable—that facing one is not equivalent to facing the other. They are, in fact, very different situations and thus warrant different responses.
Of course, these generalizations are not always true—some women are strong and predatory, and most men wouldn’t dream of sexual coercion of any sort and have sexual tastes well within the norm. But while these intuitions are not an accurate portrayal of every man and every woman, they exist because they are valuable, because it is safer to assume they apply, if not all the time then certainly in some sensitive situations.
Not every bear you come upon is likely to eat your face, in fact, most will not. But it is better to treat all bears as capable of maulings. This is, of course, a terribly unfair assumption to make about peaceful bears simply having a stroll, minding their own business.
But we do not repress our caution around bears for fear of unfairly profiling them. We merely take into account the risk of harm. For someone looking to optimize for remaining not-mauled, this is a wise course of action.
Anyways, back to Peter’s question.
We now have an overarching, obvious answer on top of those others have already listed.
Yes, the busty, sexualized man is disturbing because he is too sexual.
Yes, the busty, sexualized man is disturbing because he is displaying an overtly sexual costume in front of minors who cannot dissent.
Finally….Yes, the busty, sexualized man is disturbing because he is a busty, sexualized man.
Because this is a man and not a woman his sexualized form represents a threat in a way it simply wouldn’t if he was not born male.
(Note: the above, totally obvious claim can be made in polite society, but only if one changes “born male” to “socialized as a man”. Mainstream feminists, of course, have no problem blaming toxic behaviors on men, with the caveat that those behaviors are bred into them. No matter how negatively modern feminism treats men and masculinity, it will never go so far as to accuse men of possessing inherent traits to a different degree than women—because the idea that “men have some negative traits unique to men” opens up the door to “men have some positive traits unique to men”, and this latter idea is the most dangerous, unforgivable heresy).
I have another addition to the list, more elementary and at the same time, more controversial.
Imagine 20 years from now, the gender revolution has won sweepingly. We are all gender-bending to various degrees, and on top of that, we are accepting of open, public sexual expression. Displays formerly considered too sexual to expose to children are now thought to have been exaggerated fearmongering.
In this very progressive world, this man might draw less alarm for the very simple reason that he is normalized. But our context is different. In our society, such a display necessarily gives off a different signal—one of abnormality. Abnormality, on its own, is a reasonable red flag (or at least, a yellow one).
“But Sarah!”, you might say. “Going against norms is not a reliable heuristic! In fact, it is often a terrible one, used to restrict human behavior unfairly and to subjugate minorities. You know who was also deemed abnormal not too long ago? Gays! Lesbians!”
Yes, yes. I agree!
But there are two different questions at play:
1. Is society right to consider a behavior aberrant? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. In the case of gays and lesbians, it was not, and thankfully, this is a view that we have come to accept.
2. What does it mean that an individual displays aberrant behavior in their specific time and place despite knowing that their behavior will be considered aberrant?
That is to say, there is a question of the act in a vacuum, then, there is a more contextual question of what the act signifies in that particular time and place.
Imagine a deeply patriarchal society in which women routinely covered their bodies head to toe, as any display of the female form is considered too sexual. In this society, “abnormality” might be a woman lifting up her skirts and showing her ankles—the sight of her bare skin considered obscene to all but her husband and male relations.
As far as the act is concerned, I think we can all agree. This (not very fictive) society is wrong to consider ankle-display immoral, and it is wrong to consider the female form inherently immoral.
But imagine also that, in this taliban-esque world, very occasionally, a woman chooses to show her ankles. Maybe she exposes them deliberately to a group of strange men. Given the context in which this woman displays her body—what can we surmise about this woman, who is presumably in full knowledge of the limitations of her culture, and how her actions will be perceived?
Perhaps she is a woman's rights activist, way, way before her time, freeing her ankles like the Iranian women uncover their hair. But of course, this is not the only possibility. Perhaps she accepts the message that will be received, and wants to send it. What then?
In the case of the Oakville teacher, “normal” society agrees (at the moment) that his costume was entirely inappropriate, even pornographic.
So either it is the case that this man has no idea of the inappropriateness of his attire, in which case, we might wonder about his fitness as a teacher.
Or, he knows exactly how inappropriate it is and doesn't care—showing a disregard for the comfort of his students.
Both, to varying degrees, red flags.
Or perhaps, worst of all, the inappropriateness was entirely the point. Maybe he knows exactly how his body will be perceived by his class of mostly teenage boys (he is a shop teacher), and enjoys the reactions he is sure to receive. He might also be aware that he lives in an interesting time in which his display has the power to shock (hence, retaining the thrill), but it has become deeply unfashionable, even hateful to doubt intentions, no matter how obvious he makes them.
Of course, I readily agree that none of the many red flags listed above are anything other than that—possibilities. My goal was not to determine any fundamental qualities about the Oakville teacher, but rather to explain why this person causes an immediate sense of alarm in many, and to establish that this alarm is not unreasonable.
It is true that the reaction is not a final conclusion of airtight, sequential logical steps: it is perhaps the opposite. It is a highly discriminating, highly contextual risk assessment: A set of independent red flags, each of which alone are not disqualifying, but together compound into a feeling of deep unease. But despite the fact that the reasons behind the alarm are not immediately legible or easily articulated, this alarm is entirely sensible, even wise.
This is rightfully called intuition, yes, but there is no “moral dumbfounding” here. Intuition is a form of reasoning, not antithetical to it. Emotions such as disgust or unease might make us less tolerant of our fellow man, but their primary function is protection. We disregard them at our peril.
In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker expands on the usefulness of intuition as an unmatched mechanism for protection—expanding on dozens of cases of individuals who avoided serious injury, even death, by listening to their internal sense of fear or unease, and acting on it. It also follows other cases with less happy endings—the victims ignoring or suppressing unease in order to maintain politeness or avoid embarrassment. Some shush away their intuitions as silly emotionalizing, allowing them to be overruled by pronouncements of their neocortex.
De Becker considers this misguided: What “many others want to dismiss as a coincidence or a gut feeling is in fact a cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the familiar step-by-step thinking we rely on so willingly”, he explains. “We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height at which it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous. Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why.”
However, even if, in the Oakville case, we can know why, we may have more troubling saying why, or otherwise acting on that intuition.
As I write this, there are parents picketing the Oakville school. They have a strong interest in safeguarding their children, but the school has a strong interest in not being sued. The school board has agreed to meet to review the dress code, but they must remain respectful of gender expression. If I had to bet, I would guess that the protruding nipples will go, but as nothing else can be acknowledged as problematic, that will be it.
Having said that, I doubt this teacher is a big threat. Due to the media exposure, they are unlikely to hurt anyone—I might even argue that (notwithstanding the harms relating to potential exhibitionism), they are now the teacher least capable of “getting away” with untoward behavior. Nor do I think this case says much about trans people, as it is obviously a bizarre outlier.
Rather, this case is valuable because of what it reveals about the incoherence of the ideologies that have allowed things to get this far.
No one can question the nature of this person’s trans status, as for some reason this is the one disorder in which all that is required is simple declaration, and a whole host of accommodations, medications, and operations become accessible, even “a right”. And due to the protection the claimed trans identity grants, neither can we point to the fact that this person remains male. Again, for reasons that are never explained, when trans identity is declared, one becomes exempt from the behaviors and dispositions common to one’s sex, and to assert otherwise is to propagate hate.
The inability of our mainstream ideologies (both feminist and gender) to account for such a case, make sense of it, and to safeguard against it exposes deep flaws in their modeling—flaws which will almost certainly lead to bad policies, bad medicine, and bad norms.
In the coming years and decades, my suspicion is that the clown shows that these flawed ideologies both allow and apologize for will lead to their undoing. This may include, to the sorrow of many, a public rejection of the aspects of these ideologies that are decidedly good and useful. We must hope to stop the train before then.
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