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Bittersweet Victories: What the Fight for Women's Spaces Says About Society
It's a fight we shouldn't have to be fighting
As the Gender Wars rage on with seemingly no end in sight, we have at least had a few wins to celebrate over the past little while. Here and there, people are waking up to the necessity of protecting women’s spaces. For example, Florida recently enacted a law reifying single-sex restrooms and changing facilities, and Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for sports cycling, even more recently adopted new rules limiting the female category to those who have not gone through male puberty.
Such wins are important and necessary—but bittersweet. It is a sad indictment on society that we need to make these rules in the first place. Whenever I read about these kinds of rules, laws, and policies being enacted, first I celebrate, and then I hear two lines from Chapter 18 of the Dao De Jing (Roger T. Ames and David T. Hall translation) in my head:
It is when grand way-making is abandoned
That authoritative conduct and appropriateness appear
Let me explain by taking a closer look at my two examples.
The Florida “bathroom bill” (officially titled the Safety in Private Spaces Act) sets out to protect sex-segregated facilities in public buildings and institutions (including schools and prisons). In my opinion, it is a great bill that puts the power over women’s spaces back into the hands of women, where it should be. The bill essentially makes it an act of trespassing for a man to wilfully enter a woman’s restroom or changing room and refuse to leave when asked to do so. I think it should serve as a model for other jurisdictions.
I did see a lot of commentary online from my own allies on this issue that the bill doesn’t go far enough—that it should immediately be considered trespassing for a man to enter a women’s space without the need to be asked to leave. Quite frankly, I am not sure how commentators would expect such a thing to be enforced aside from ID checks at bathroom doors, which is not practical nor, in my opinion, desirable.
So, I do support the bill as written, but I hate that it was necessary in the first place.
Not too long ago, people would be shocked at the idea that we need to spell out, in law, that women’s restrooms and changing rooms are for women and men’s restrooms and changing rooms are for men. Trans activists are right when they point out that there was nothing keeping men out of women’s spaces before but a sign on the bathroom door, that it was never actually illegal for them to go in. But they completely miss what a sad commentary it is on society that we now require such laws.
As the quote from the Dao De Jing says, “authoritative conduct” and “appropriateness” only appear when we have lost our way.
What does this mean, exactly? Well, first I have to point out that the Dao De Jing comes in an array of translations, and even these two simple lines can be translated in a startling variety of ways. Here are a few different versions of the same lines:
Great Tao lost,
There came the duty to man and right conduct.
When the great Dao is in decline,
Benevolence and loyalty appear.
When the Tao disappears, humanity and justice will appear by themselves.
When the way of the Tao is forgotten,
morality and ethics need to be stressed.
When the greatness of Tao is present action arises from one’s own heart
When the greatness of Tao is absent action comes from the rules of kindness and justice.
(You can find the translations and check out many more versions of these lines here.)
Despite the fact that these lines can be translated in so many different ways, they all express the same idea which I think is well articulated in the commentary of my own translation:
When the authentic way of being human is thriving in the world, the family-based natural morality of the community takes care of itself, enabling its members to flourish and prosper. It is only in a period of decadence and decline that philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in doing so, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalizing artificial alternatives that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment. What was spontaneous natural feeling becomes external rules of conduct, where the invocation of moral rules as an alternative to the spontaneous expression of feeling is dehumanizing.
We have never before needed laws explaining that women’s restrooms and changing rooms are for women because the social contract was so strong and it was something that people understood intuitively without needing to put it into words. But now we find ourselves dealing with a trend of men using women’s spaces for purposes of narcissistic validation and sexual fulfillment backed by a vocal and rabid contingent of supporters, and we are suddenly in a position of having to explain the obvious.
It is the upstanding people who care about ethics, justice, appropriateness, and morality who are fighting for and making these changes but, as the Dao De Jing points out, there should not even be such a distinction among us. Justice and morality should be natural impulses written on everyone’s hearts, and having to institutionalize such rules only serves to highlight this distinction, potentially further suppressing the spontaneous expression of these values.
For example, now that this is a partisan issue, perhaps there are more left-wingers than there would have been otherwise supporting the incursion of men into women’s spaces out of fear that not supporting it would paint them as right-wing.
But what can we do? I understand the Dao De Jing’s philosophical warning and, in fact, I see it playing out before my very eyes, and yet I have no choice but to support such bills as the Safety in Private Spaces Act because I do want women to retain power and recourse in our own spaces.
I also support the UCI policy, as imperfect as it is, which says that:
From now on, female transgender athletes who have transitioned after (male) puberty will be prohibited from participating in women's events on the UCI International Calendar – in all categories – in the various disciplines.
Note that these are not “females” of any sort that are being referred to. These are men. They may wish others to believe that they are women, but they are men.
Neither should “male puberty” be the deciding factor for who cannot compete in the women’s category, but the state of being male. The “no male puberty” loophole only gives trans activists the ammunition to argue for sterilizing and castrating young boys as early as possible.
My gripes aside, the policy is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the entire path itself is a downward spiral.
I mean, here we are trying to argue that men should not be competing against women in sports. We actually have to make rules stipulating that women’s categories are for women. We have to meticulously spell out the obvious reality of sexual dimorphism, argue for the value of fair competition, and highlight the issue of safety. The people who stand up, advocate, and get these changes done should be celebrated. The society that needs them to do it should not.
Once again, the politicization of this issue is also driving people to take the absurd position that allowing men into women’s sports is the “caring” and “inclusive” thing to do because it signifies their allegiance to their progressive tribe. The policy itself, as necessary as it is, is only galvanizing its own opposition.
What can be done? I am grateful that there are people out there working to change laws and policies so that the obvious is clearly articulated and we have some hope of protecting women’s spaces, sports, and services. But I think it is also very important to try to enact change on the “hearts and minds” front—on the cultural rather than the political front.
Even if no other jurisdiction ever enacts another law protecting women’s restrooms and changing rooms, I want to impress upon society that women need and deserve our own sex-segregated spaces and I want to make it shameful and unthinkable that a man would use these spaces for his own narcissistic and sexual ends. I want to encourage people to stand up for what they know is right regardless of what the rules say. I want us to spontaneously and genuinely respect one another without being commanded to.
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