This blog post was written by Heather Milligan, Communications Intern for the Global Justice Academy. The blog reports on a recent seminar event hosted by the Centre for Law and Society at The University of Edinburgh and led by Professor Alex Sharpe of Keele University on sexual intimacy, gender identity and fraud.
The Centre for Law and Society at the University of Edinburgh recently hosted a presentation and seminar discussion on sexual intimacy, gender identity and fraud. Participants from a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds compared legal, cultural and ethical standpoints to debate convictions of gender identity fraud: either as demonstrating respect for the sexual autonomy of female complainants, or as a concerning example of criminal law overreach. The discussion was framed and contextualised by a series of sexual offence prosecutions brought against young gender non-conforming people (designated female at birth) in recent years in the United Kingdom on the basis of gender identity fraud, all of whom were convicted and placed on the Sex Offenders Register. Professor Alex Sharpe (Keele University) introduced the topic with a brief film clip from the 1992 film ‘The Crying Game’ in order to illustrate the type of intimate encounter between cisgender and transgender individuals that has led to such convictions. The film also served to demonstrate the complainants’ typical responses to cis-trans intimacy, in which the defendant’s gender history is (apparently) not disclosed and this non-disclosure is later perceived as deceptive and harmful.
Professor Sharpe put forward a persuasive argument for bringing an end to the criminalisation and prosecution of these cases, advocating greater individual responsibility for sexual intimacy while remaining sensitive to the difficulties involved in questioning the statements of rape complainants. Her initial presentation was structured around three key philosophical and criminal law concepts: consent, harm and deception. Firstly, the point was made that claims of non-consent in the discussed cases relied heavily on a ‘right to know’ ideology, in which complainants foregrounded an entitlement to the defendants’ gender history, simultaneously dismissing and overruling the defendants’ rights to privacy and dignity. The seminar group discussed the idea that this apparent right to know is often conflated with a desire to define transmen as women against their will: an act of degradation. The discussion prompted resonant legal and ethical questions: should there be an obligation to disclose information prior to intimacy, or should our ethical response be to scrutinise the cisgender demand to know? With implications for sexual offences more broadly, for consent to be informed, how transparent must sexual partners be, and at what cost?
Other examples of desire-led intimacy were put forward to suggest that individuals may wish to know many facts about their sexual partners – for example age, income, drug use, criminal conviction – yet the omission of this information would never lead to prosecution. The specific targeting of gender history is an issue of inconsistency further indicative of the discriminatory effects of civil society and criminal law. These cases seemed motivated by the underlying transphobic (and homophobic) assumptions that no cisgender person would, with full disclosure of their gender history, willingly have intimate relations with a transgender person. This led to interesting audience reflection that complainants often only come forward when encouraged to do so by family or community members, and that the pressure of homophobic society, the fear of being identified as a lesbian by others and internal crises of identity and sexuality, may have motivated the complaints. The societal presumption that any non-cis non-heterosexual intimacy is inherently harmful was identified as an aggressive amplifier in these cases.
Finally, a distinction between acts of omission and acts of deception was drawn. It was argued that in cases of gender history and identity disclosure, most often these were instances of ‘not saying’ rather than active or intentional deception, and that these entailed a variety of valid justifications – not least the physical and psychological risk involved in acts of disclosure. Professor Sharpe invited the audience to understand these cases as a balancing of potential harms, weighing the complainants’ feelings of betrayal and distress (potentially a response conditioned by transphobic and homophobic anxieties) against the defenders’ risk of degradation and abuse. Opening up questions and discussion to the audience encouraged a lively discussion on related issues such as the ethics of sexual preference and the reproduction of power dynamics; the (positive) ambiguity of desire; what acts can really be said to constitute disclosure; and, ultimately, whether pleasurable acts retrospectively re-imagined can truly be labelled as harmful.