Thu 2 Mar 2023 — 7 min

A stock image of some jeans

It is a necessary requirement of extinguishing trans people that trans women in women’s spaces be monstered. Portrayed as the enemy. Of course, this has a real human cost. In the last few days, this monstering has taken the form of a serious allegation of sexual harassment against an anonymous trans woman, accused of declaring her intention to wipe her hand on her penis as part of an otherwise innocuous conversation in a women’s bathroom. However, the more probable account of events outlined by Sophie from Mars - the trans woman in question - emphasises the media’s relentless frenzy to weaponise any and all narratives which monster trans women for transmisogynistic ends, regardless of whether such narratives are based in reality.

Some Concerning Allegations

On Saturday the 25th of February, the Daily Mail published an article in which Conservative Party Councillor, Ruby Sampson, accused an unnamed trans woman of sexual harassment in a women’s toilet.

In the article, Sampson details her conversation with a woman in a pub toilet, identified by Sampson as trans due to her height, shoulders, and voice. According to Sampson, the conversation was initially a friendly one about the poor quality of the toilets. However, this all changed when both women were about to leave, and Sampson noted that due to a lack of functioning hand dryer, the women would have ‘no choice but to awkwardly shake [their] hands dry’.

In response to this, Sampson details the trans woman’s disturbing reply, uttered before promptly leaving:

‘I'm going to wipe my hands on my penis’

Following this, Sampson was ‘frozen to the spot in shock’, convinced that this comment amounted to a ‘threat of sorts’. This is, of course, understandable. It is not uncommon for women and gender non-conforming people to experience sexual harassment in public spaces, and this comment, if made, would certainly be an example of such harassment. Regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, it is vital that we stand with survivors against the continued infliction of such violence.

However, in this case, it may be that all is not as it first appears.

A Reality Check

The reality is that the version of events outlined by Sampson likely never happened.

This is clear from the alternative version of events presented by the trans woman against whom the allegations were made, Sophie From Mars, who identified herself as the woman in Sampson’s story in a Twitter thread on Monday.

It is almost certain that the article by Sampson describes an interaction between her and Sophie, as the details given in the story by Sampson exactly match a conversation had by Sophie in the same pub, at the same time.

Sophie and Sampson’s versions of events match exactly, except for one key detail - Sophie states that she made a comment about wiping her hands on her ‘jeans’, not her ‘penis’.

That this is clearly the more likely narrative requires little justification. I know I at least have resorted to using my trousers to wipe my hands in absence of a paper towel. Given this was the very focus of the women’s ‘friendly’ conversation, it is entirely probable that such a comment was made. Who would dry their hands on a penis? And why would a woman in the middle of an insofar friendly conversation make such a comment before immediately leaving? In my experience, those who sexually harass you in such a way stick around afterwards - their pleasure comes from your uncomfortable reaction. The events as outlined by Sampson seem a much more odd scenario.

Given the similarity in sound between ‘jeans’ and ‘penis’, it seems that Sampson simply made a mistake; simply misheard. As previously mentioned, many women do experience public sexual harassment, and the #MeToo movement highlights the collective trauma which women carry in relation to such experiences. A key feature of trauma is that it makes you see danger in places where danger does not exist. It is entirely unsurprising that a woman with such experiences would react to a word she thought she heard, rather than considering that that might not have been what was said.

However, it is another step entirely to publish such an experience - where what happened was incredibly odd and where there is a clear possibility that you may have misheard what was said - in a national newspaper. This is potentially explainable by Sampson’s anger at what she believed to be sexual harassment overcoming her good sense. More concerning, is that an editor at the Daily Mail decided that this story was acceptable to publish, rather than considering whether Sampson’s version of events, odd and unbelievable as its contents are, might reflect an obvious misunderstanding rather than reality. This is, of course, central to the job of an editor.

So - why was this allowed to happen?

A Method of Monstering

It is unsurprising that a misheard comment about jeans has spiralled into a campaign against trans women in women’s toilets. This is evident when we properly situate this affair within the wider monstering of trans women in women’s spaces.

The article by Sampson is not a mere recounting of an incident of supposed sexual harassment. Rather, this incident acts as the framing for Sampson’s broader commentary on the ‘erosion of women’s spaces’.

The article employs deeply transmisogynistic language. Sampson crudely emphasises the aspects of Sophie’s appearance - ‘towered over me’; ‘a skimpy top which made her shoulders seem bigger’; ‘a strikingly deep voice’ - which allowed Sampson to ‘clock’ Sophie. Sampson takes the opportunity to emphasise that the conversation with Sophie, albeit ‘friendly’, was not ‘girly’ - whatever that means.

The article then descends into the usual ‘gender critical’ rhetoric - ‘single-sex spaces’; ‘women are in danger; ‘the fear that every time we use a public toilet we might encounter a threatening trans woman with a penis’ - ignoring the fact that trans women are a cohort of women who research suggests may be far more likely to experience the sexual violence that women’s spaces are supposedly designed to protect against.

Indeed, Sampson mentions in her article that she wrote a letter to Kemi Badenoch on the issue, demanding that more is done to protect single-sex spaces - all over an incident that seems likely never happened.

All of this must be understood as part of the transphobic apparatus which operates to monster trans people, especially transfems. It is perhaps apt that this incident occurred on the evening in which Sophie attended a vigil for Brianna Ghey, a 16-year-old trans girl who was killed during a period of relentless hostility towards trans people in the UK. Following Brianna’s death, the Daily Mail - the newspaper in which Sampson’s article was published - were the first to report Brianna’s deadname, which they discovered by contacting her optician. After significant backlash, both the Daily Mail and The Times were forced to remove this reference.

It is important to understand the role of the press in the continued monstering of trans women, feeding on a culture war in service of a machine, an entire system, committed to extinguishing trans people. The emotional harm done to Sophie with the publication of this article is, at best, an acceptable cost of the monstering machine, or, more likely, an actively desirable outcome. Trans suffering is the ultimate result, whether those perpetuating the hate themselves believe it to be the goal.

Photo by Claire Abdo on Unsplash