That small thing? I saw a referer pop up from Butterflies and Wheels, when one of Ophelia Benson’s commenters linked to me as an example of outrageous behaviour. Whenever that happens, I refer back to the rule I established three years ago.
For my part, I wrote myself into a corner with that last post. “Ophelia Benson is transphobic” became a “dog bites man” story, there wasn’t anything new or notable about it. The best evidence was on the table, people had entrenched in their opinions, and there seemed little point in flogging that horse further. So I hate-read Benson for a few weeks or so, then got bored and stopped caring. Maybe twice in that time she’s been mentioned in my circles, I checked back in, asked myself and others “does this qualify as noteworthy?,” then after some deliberation decided it wasn’t.
This time, it was. So I did my homework, typed up the first of a two-part post, and promptly got distracted. I promised to return to it during Trans Awareness Week, then broke that promise as academics and life caught up to me. PZ’s post landed just as I was clawing back towards a more stable spot, so I dusted off those old drafts.
A quick summary of where we left off: no longer sharing a space with transgender people on FtB, Benson no longer had to worry about offending them or receiving push-back. The result was a stream of transphobia, and a big influx of TERF commenters, the opposite of what you’d expect from someone falsely accused of being a transphobe.
A few comments on PZ’s post made me realise something new: whether she intends this or not, Ophelia Benson is a near-perfect gateway to bigotry.
Back in October I did a census of two hundred of her posts. By my estimation, 32 had transphobic content. The optimistic view is this shows she’s more of a feminist than a transphobe; the pessimistic is that it’s a lot easier to ignore or dismiss 16% of her posts if you enjoy the remaining 84%. Even if you don’t agree with her transphobia, you might hold your nose and stay for her anti-Trump rants.
If you do stay, you’ll get exposed to virulent transphobia. Even though 16% of her posts were transphobic, over a third of the comments Ophelia Benson received was on those transphobic posts. As her commenters are more openly bigoted than Benson is, she does nothing to moderate them, and they’ve driven away anyone pushing back on transphobia, the result is an echo chamber where a half-dozen or more people spout off misinformation and bigotry. Via the Bandwagon Effect, repeated exposure to those comments will make you more sympathetic to hating on transgender people.
The alt-Right uses the same playbook: the “alt-Lite” holds many of the same views as the alt-Right, but by disavowing the most extreme of them and focusing on “optics” it tries to live in a cloud of plausible deniability that disguises the level of bigotry. Self-described white supremacists were drawn to white supremacy by Carl Benjamin, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, and Gavin McInnes, all of whom would be offended if you called them members of the alt-Right. Yet the triple punch of significant ideological overlap, hanging out with fellow fans who are also alt-Right, and a refusal by those people to outright disavow bigotry allows them to act as recruiters for the alt-Right nonetheless. The outlines of how this happens are well mapped, and in rare cases we can watch it happen to an individual.
Exploiting plausible deniability is very difficult, though. Milo Yiannopoulos used to be one of the best, until his true face was revealed and splashed across the media. He disappeared quickly once his fig leaf was stripped away. Gavin McInnes may have claimed he didn’t promote violence, but after he reenacted the murder of a left-wing politician at a Republican event those denials were untenable. He too has been rapidly fading. You can only dance on the line of plausible deniability so long before you accidentally cross it, and the human tendency to view bigotry as a binary will flip you from “non-bigot” to “bigot.” The best hope for recovery is to fade out and take the rubber ducky route.
The same forces that radicalise readers of Ophelia Benson’s blog are also radicalising her, making it more difficult to walk that tightrope of plausible deniability. It was inevitable that she’d slip up and reveal her bigotry. For PZ Myers, that line was crossed when Ophelia Benson called gender dysphoria a “bizarre delusion” in December.
[Insert Callback Here]
For me, that line came after a series of posts on Hannah Mouncey. She’s an Australian rugby player who wished to play in the pro leagues under the gender she identifies. The Australian Football League ignored their own rules and denied Mouncey the chance, timing their decision to make an appeal impossible. This made headlines, leading Mouncey to become a popular topic in the TERF community and worthy of a mention in the Manosphere. Ophelia Benson was happy to chime in too.
If you didn’t know better, you’d look at the picture and think the “not ok” bit was the huge man playing football on a women’s team…but no, that’s not what Hannah Mouncey means at all. What Hannah Mouncey means is “not ok” is excluding huge men from playing football on women’s teams. It’s not ok to say “No, you can’t endanger women by playing on their teams when you’re built like a god damn tank.”
Risking the women’s broken bones, concussions, smashed faces – that’s perfectly fine, and it’s progressive, and it’s top intersectional.
What a selfish pig, and proud of it. It’s astounding.
Women might get injured if Mouncey plays rugby? WOMEN MIGHT GET INJURED DURING RUGBY?!?! HOW CAN-
… huh. Ok, so maybe football is a rough game where women are celebrated for playing with a broken nose, where the typical player can expect one injury per 15-23 games, which will sideline them for 40-75 days. But maybe Mouncey might make rugby MORE physical?!?! There ought to be rules against such conduct!!!
I apologise if my prior post led you to believe Benson was making a reasonable argument. Nope, the best she can manage is posting photos of Mouncey and howling “what about the WOMEN?!?!” In this context she actually has a more pessimistic and infantalized view of women than some Men’s Right’s Advocates, no mean feat when those people are domestic violence apologists.
We again find TERFs and MRAs using the same tactics. They’re taking reasonable stances like “domestic violence is disproportionately committed by men” or “women are no more fragile than any other human being” and perverting them well outside of reason. It’s hilarious to hear both obsessing about Mouncey’s 189 cm height without realising she’s the same size as a fellow cis player. They fret about Mouncey breaking women’s bodies, only to have her finish the season without any apparent disqualification and a score typical of someone who’s played football for years.
Bigotry always rhymes, even if the exact words differ.
We don’t have to imagine an alternative universe where both groups get their wish. Mack Beggs is a wrestler from Texas who identifies as a man. Because he was assigned a female sex at birth, though, the relevant athletic association has forced him to play as a woman, even though testosterone treatments have long since given him a physique more common to male athletes. Are women safer because of this move? Not if we go by strength, as Beggs’ record over two seasons was 57-0 and 32-0.
Instead, by forcing Beggs onto the women’s team he’s made even more conspicuous, increasing the odds of him being harassed or shamed for being different. Normally, winning the state title with a record that solid would make you a hero; Mack Beggs instead earned boos for his effort.
TERFs may say their goal is protecting women, some may even believe it, but when confronted with Beggs they will gloat over the hypothetical harm done to women or chastise him for cheating. Given the choice between protecting women and hating on people who don’t conform to their stereotypes, they side with hate.
Welcome to TERF-ville
I’m getting distracted, though. If you’ve read my prior writing about Benson, you’ll notice I haven’t explicitly called her a TERF. When asked if trans women were women, three and a half years ago, she equivocated and squirmed but never explicitly denied they were. Her ambiguity was enough to make her status as a TERF ill-defined, at least in my books. In my later writing you can see me starting to change my mind, as the latter part of “directly and otherwise” started gaining evidence.
In that September 2018 post on Mouncey, though, there was no ambiguity. Ophelia Benson explicitly called Mouncey a man.
What Hannah Mouncey means is “not ok” is excluding huge men from playing football on women’s teams.
So in other words a male athlete can simply decide his “gender identity” is female in order to compete with women rather than men. It won’t matter how tall or massive he is, his declared “gender identity” is all he needs.
What [Rachel] McKinnon fails to see is that much of the shit he talks is doing harm to women, to say nothing of the harm his competing against women in cycling does to those women.
Her defense of this misgendering? McKinnon doesn’t act the way a woman should, therefore is worthy of being hated.
Julie Bindel: McKinnon, who I will refer to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ as his behavior appears to me to be classic male machismo, demanded that Navratilova apologize and criticized the comments.
Ophelia Benson: Precisely. That’s why I did, too. Demanding to be called “she” and “her” while brandishing all the weapons in the macho bully playbook in the faces of women is not social justice but a fucking insult.
I may have been a fan of Benson’s in the past, but I was never as close to her as PZ Myers was. It doesn’t hurt me nearly as much to be explicit and unambiguous.
Ophelia Benson is a TERF.
Put another way, Ophelia Benson hates women who do not conform to her ideal of woman-hood.
Intentionally or not, Ophelia Benson’s blog is encouraging more people to hate women.
The first two points were what I wanted to blog about back in October. The commenters on PZ Myers’ post allowed me to add that last bullet point.
 Ma, Richard, et al. “Injury Profile of American Women’s Rugby-7s.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 48.10 (2016): 1957-1966.