Content warning: this article discusses the topics of sexual assault and violence.
Have you ever been in a social situation where you’re pretty sure someone nearby is speculating about what your genitals are like? It’s weird, to say the least, but for trans people like me, it’s sometimes a daily experience. In the ever-escalating culture war against trans people, conservative politicians and activists are becoming increasingly willing to drop any semblance of decorum and demand to know whether any given trans person has a dick.
Late last week Tory councillor Ruby Sampson came forward with a wild story about a chance encounter she had with a trans woman in a London pub bathroom. According to Sampson, the woman she shared a bathroom with wore a top that revealed “her broad shoulders.” There was apparently a faulty hand dryer in the ladies loo and after making small talk with a trans woman also using the bathroom, Sampson claimed the trans woman turned to her and said “I’ll just wipe my hands on my penis.”
Now, on its face, Sampson’s story just doesn’t add up. Firstly, no one would ever say to someone else that they’ll wipe their hands on their genitals. I’m not aware of any absorbent ability of the bag of flesh known as a penis. Why risk looking like you’ve peed your pants? I’d rather have wet hands.
Still, somehow it was a believable enough story for the institutionally transphobic press: the Daily Mail ran an initial first-person story written by Sampson about the incident, which prompted a bunch of other conservative outlets to run copycat content parroting her original claim.
It turns out a few days later, however, that streamer and YouTuber Sophie from Mars, believing herself to be the trans woman in question, came forward earlier this week to tell her side of the story. According to her, what she actually said was “I’ll just wipe my hands on my jeans,” which is, you know, a normal thing for someone to say when the dryer isn’t working.
Taking a step back from the situation, it’s clear that Sampson was likely thinking about Sophie’s genitalia throughout the entirety of their short conversation. Mistaking “jeans” for “penis” is an easy thing for someone’s brain to do when it’s obsessively focusing on the latter word. While auditory mix-ups happen, normal people might stop and think about whether they heard such an outrageous phrase right before running to the newspapers.
This junk talk isn’t limited to just one Tory from London. Several weeks ago, trans pharmacist Gwendolyn Herzig was testifying to the Arkansas state legislature about a trans-related bill when Republican state Sen. Matt McKee just straight out asked her out of nowhere if she had a penis.
Taken aback, Herzig eventually inquired about her right to decline answering the question while McKee tried to blame his question on her trans status.
In yet another incident last September, Republican Frisco ISD board trustee Marvin Lowe cornered a 16-year-old trans adolescent who had just finished a panel discussion at the Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators Convention and went on a bizarre rant about male genitalia in locker rooms. After growing increasingly unhinged, and being confronted by the teen’s mother, Lowe was eventually forcibly removed from the room.
It’s not normal when people look at trans people and only think about their genitals. There are other categories of people where genitalia is a weirdo’s first thought (I’m thinking of Andrew Sullivan’s frequent takes about Black men’s penis size), but trans people are uniquely viewed solely for their genital capacity.
It’s not only trans people whom gender criticals and conservatives reduce to genitals, cis people get hit as well. Prominent anti-trans campaigner Maya Forstater once made a tweet ostensibly about trans women in women’s prisons where she essentially called cis women “holes,” because they have vaginas. It has since been deleted.
There’s an infamous meme in trans- and “gender critical” circles called the Staniland question which is derived from anti-trans activist Helen Staniland. The question is as follows: “Do you believe that male-bodied people with a penis should have the right to undress in front of women and young girls?”
It’s a deliberately provocative question, meant to incite a neutral reader or listener into imagining trans women’s penises. But it boils down a much more complex situation into an opportunity for revulsion or bigotry. What trans woman wants anyone to see their penis in public? That certainly was never my experience before I had bottom surgery. Even now, I don’t want anyone to see my genitalia in any public space.
The Staniland question isn’t really based in any real-life situations of trans women using women’s spaces. Instead it’s meant to stoke the entitlement cis people feel toward knowing what a trans person’s genitals look like.
As the trans women readers of this piece are probably already aware, that entitlement can often turn deadly. In 2002, 17-year-old trans girl Gwen Araujo was beaten and murdered in California in 2002. Before her killing, she had attended a party wherein other partygoers began speculating about her genitals and then subsequently humiliated and sexually assaulted her by publicly revealing her crotch to the people attending the party.
This precipitated the attack by four cis men that left young Araujo’s body lifeless. Rather than outrage, society seemed to shrug off the murder in which the four men drove 150 miles away to bury her body in the Sierra wilderness. “[S]He was not honest with them and had [s]he been, none of this would have happened,” wrote student journalist Zach Calef. One of the mothers of the perpetrators said to the press, “If you find out the beautiful woman you’re with is really a man, it would make any man go crazy.”
Araujo’s murder was depicted as a case of “trans deception,” with cis people imagining that these men, some of whom had already been intimate with Araujo, suddenly found out she was trans and then blanked out and killed her. But the facts show that this group had speculated for days about her trans status before killing her and attempting to cover it up. They all felt they were somehow owed knowledge about the shape of her genitals.
Feminist philosopher Kate Manne analyzed the facts of the case for her 2020 book Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women and similarly concluded that Aruajo’s murder was an act of entitlement. “Their subsequent violent rage was plausibly rooted in a sense of entitlement—to have Araujo’s genitals and the sex she was assigned at birth match their expectations, given her gender presentation and their sexual desire for her,” wrote Manne.
The preoccupation that conservatives and transphobes have with trans genitalia is, at least, extremely weird, and at most, very dangerous for trans people. If you find yourself wondering about whether the trans person next to you has a penis, knock it off, it’s creepy.
We extend the courtesy of not constantly thinking about genitals to literally everyone else on this planet, so we should apply it to trans people as well.