On J.K. Rowling’s TERFy sleight of hand

JK Rowling: TERF

By David Futrelle

In a series of tweets, followed by a sprawling, combative blog post, J.K. Rowling has gone full TERF on us. There’s a lot that’s wrong about the assorted arguments she sets forth in her post — and others have started dissecting its flaws and its dishonesties already in everything from magazine articles to Reddit posts to Twitter threads.

But there is one small part of her essay that I haven’t seen addressed so far, and I think it desperately needs some critical attention.

In the passage in question Rowling uses a simple but effective bit of rhetorical sleight of hand meant to demonize critics of TERFy transphobia and claim the mantle of true womanhood for those on her side.

While the basic rhetorical technique she uses is crude, she pulls off the execution with flair. She sets up her magic trick deftly with a (well-deserved) rhetorical attack on the misogynist backlash of the past decade. But then her argument takes quite a turn.

“Never have I seen women denigrated and dehumanised to the extent they are now,” she writes.

From the leader of the free world’s long history of sexual assault accusations and his proud boast of ‘grabbing them by the pussy’, to the incel (‘involuntarily celibate’) movement that rages against women who won’t give them sex, to the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating, men across the political spectrum seem to agree: women are asking for trouble. Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down, or else.

What just happened? Let’s break it down.

Rowling is doing three things here. First and most obviously, she’s putting those who fight against transphobia in the same category as the pussy-grabbing president and the murderously misogynistic incels. It’s a rhetorical move that’s breathtaking in its dishonesty, as trans activists, far from being bigots, have been some of the most dedicated and effective fighters of misogyny I’ve run across over the last decade.

Second, she’s erasing trans women speaking for themselves, dismissing them as “men” trying to talk over women. And third, she’s more broadly claiming the mantle of true womanhood not just for cis women but for a particular subset of cis women, those who oppose trans rights, whom she’s claiming are being shut down by an army of men.

But Rowling and her TERF allies don’t speak for all women, or even all cis women. Far from it. In fact, on many of the issues transphobes have fixated on — from bathroom bans to trans people serving in the military — a clear majority of women disagree with them.

Numerous surveys have revealed that cis straight men are considerably more transphobic than their female counterparts. On the bathroom issue, a TERF obsession which Rowling specifically cites, one study of online comments found that cis men were far more likely than cis women to speak negatively about trans women using women’s bathrooms; 72 percent of the male comments in the study’s sampling were negative, as opposed to only 46% from cis women. A survey by pollsters PPRI found a similar (if somewhat smaller) gender gap, with roughly “half (51%) of men support[ing] requiring transgender individuals to use bathrooms corresponding to their assigned sex at birth, compared to four in ten (40%) women.”  

In other words, TERFs not only don’t represent all cis women; they don’t even represent half of all cis women. By using the rhetoric she does, Rowling not only erases trans women; she erases most cis women as well — making me wonder who exactly is trying to make whom shut up.

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84 replies on “On J.K. Rowling’s TERFy sleight of hand”

In a series of tweets, followed by a sprawling, combative blog post, J.K. Rowling has gone full TERF on us.

Rowling went full TERF years ago. But every time trans people pointed this out, they were dismissed, and Rowling’s repugnant views were patiently explained away.


this impacts as many as 1% of all births.

There might be even more, as many intersex people never know that they are until adulthood or ever. And some variations like PCOS are debated (some say that’s intersex, others say it isn’t) and are much more common (~10% of AFAB people).

Leaving that aside, what the hell does she mean that she can’t discuss sex because sex is a social construct?

It’s a TERF straw man argument.

It’s a TERF straw man argument

Well, that’s not really a suprise. Do they even have any other kinds of arguments? 😆

Thanks to everyone who pointed out how TERF has shifted away from being feminist-but-bigoted to being bigoted-and-trying-to-hide-it.

Do they even have any other kinds of arguments?

Of course they do! There’s a whole world of logical fallacies out there for them to draw on.

@LPO, Catalpa
Well, I guess they can ramble about male violence. Or cite debunked studies on youth desistance. Or they can post somewhat creepy radicalization cartoons (link tw transphobia). So I guess they do have other arguments, just no good ones.

Sort of related: …and today, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shooting, the Trump administration has made it legal for doctors to discriminate against trans* people. This is bad.

Sometimes I wish a member of the “attack helicopter brigade” would put a post somewhere that I can respond to it. I’d like to see their reaction when I say that I’m all for uploading/integrating minds into autonomous vehicles once that becomes possible, if someone truly believes that would improve their quality of life. 😜


Sort of related: …and today, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shooting, the Trump administration has made it legal for doctors to discriminate against trans* people. This is bad.

I guess Trump is using this time as his opportunity to further attack LGBTIA+ rights. Only last week his administration urged the supreme court to allow adoption agencies to be able to reject same sex couples under the cover of ‘religious freedom’. Which sounds totally legit. /s We all know that Jesus of “let the man without sin throw the first stone” fame spent all those zero pages in the bible explaining how people must be straight in order to be parents.

Jesus did say that you should feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and give shelter to travelers. (One of Solomon’s sins, and in fact some argue Solomon’s only sin, was being inhospitable to others). Funny that the “religious freedom” people were no-where to be found when the Trump administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy against Christians for giving humanitarian aid to migrants as part of their faith. Suprise surprise, could it be that “religious freedom” is only a cover for their bigotry?


Only last week his administration urged the supreme court to allow adoption agencies to be able to reject same sex couples under the cover of ‘religious freedom’.

Just the fact that the US allows this kind of private adoption agencies to exist, or any other for that matter, is abhorrent to me. AFAIC, adoptions should be handled exclusively by public institutions, with the costs kept from a bare minimum to zero if possible.

@Reaktor : I agree on alway being public, but I don’t think a fee is a bad thing as long as it’s a fixed fee who is completely disconnected from any performance evaluation

It’s a pragmatic thing : while a fee isn’t needed to prevent abusive adoptions, it can help make some abusers think twice about trying.

If it isn’t needed to prevent abusive adoptions, then all it does is exclude the poor. Unless you don’t think people below a certain income should have children, that’s just classism, and if you do, it’s not only classism, but how do you plan to enforce that nobody below a certain income line has sex?

@Surplus : could you *please* not use logical fallacies ?

“something is not needed for X” don’t mean, and will never mean “something is useless for X”. That’s stupid to pretend that.

So, yes, it will do something else than exclude the poors, and if you do it somewhat correctly it won’t even exclude the poor. It can be a % of income, or simply it can be low enough that anyone unable to pay for it probably need social help ASAP.

I am also very much in the camp that having children isn’t like having enough food or a house in that it’s not essential and the state isn’t supposed to guarantee you can have one if you want, just that if you want one the state won’t get in the way.

(I find ironic how on a post where we call out Rowling for using rhetoric trickery, someone – perhaps unvolontary – use a logical fallacy after finding the views of someone else abhorrent)

If it isn’t needed to prevent abusive adoptions, then all it does is exclude the poor. Unless you don’t think people below a certain income should have children, that’s just classism, and if you do, it’s not only classism, but how do you plan to enforce that nobody below a certain income line has sex?

Equating adoption with natural reproduction is a weird stance to take. Poor people absolutely have a right to have children, but that doesn’t mean the state is required to facilitate that. There’s a huge difference between “you have a right to do X” and “I am going to subsidize your ability to do X.”

While some of the expense of adoption is an arbitrary fee due to the agency, a lot of it is is not. Even if agencies do their work free of charge, there is still a lot of legal expense involved, which has to be covered by somebody. Maybe there is a charity out there that takes donations and covers those fees for poor people who want to adopt, but I don’t personally know of any, so you’re talking about state subsidies now. Should people have the right to state-subsidized fertility treatments, too? You know, in case they want biological children rather than adopted children. There doesn’t appear to be much moral difference.

I’m generally of the mind that if something is a) a barrier and b) unnecessary then it shouldn’t exist.

But then, I might be biased, seeing as I’m someone who’s had a lot of experience running into such barriers in my life — most of them unnecessarily demanding that someone either have a car or have good credit, and occasionally something else, on a couple of occasions even “you must have a computer printer” for something that did not inherently of its nature require dead-tree paper documents.

It does make me acutely aware of how environments can be hostile often due to lazy assumptions made by (usually) middle-class people, typically an assumption that boils down to “everyone is middle class”. Here’s another: there are very few public, outdoor benches or other things suitable for sitting at least semi-comfortably around my town. The assumption is that every weary traveler has brought their own chair (along with the rest of a car) with them, an assumption that is demonstrably false since I haven’t.

So I don’t tend to react well when someone proposes putting up a barrier that isn’t inherently necessary to the thing in question. I don’t like it when people are needlessly excluded, and I think all barriers should be viewed skeptically, and be required to justify themselves with proof that there’s no way to make the thing in question more inclusive without an insurmountable problem of some sort (safety, free-rider, or something). I also think a nonskeptical attitude toward barriers constitutes a right-wing position, as such an attitude is inherently both exclusionary and authoritarian (“Why? Because I say so, that’s why! You don’t need a better reason than that.”) in character.

So I don’t tend to react well when someone proposes putting up a barrier that isn’t inherently necessary to the thing in question.

Adoptions are expensive in terms of legal costs, and it’s not unnecessary to expect lawyers and courts to charge for their services. Agencies sometimes are businesses, and need to charge fees to stay in business. The ones that are cheap or free are usually arms of well-heeled religious orgs, which presents a whole different set of problems.


Should people have the right to state-subsidized fertility treatments, too? You know, in case they want biological children rather than adopted children. There doesn’t appear to be much moral difference.

I don’t think that you can morally compare children that already exist with potential children that don’t yet exist, although I guess pregnancy surrogacy might be a better example of your point.

I understand that it costs money to move things through the court system in the US, and I agree that taxpayers shouldn’t pay court costs and attorney’s fee’s, but still I think the 40k to 50k average private adoption fee (with discounts sometimes for disabled children) seems to be a little high for a country that supposedly bans selling children. Especially since this case literally involves a fight over using taxpayer money to help pay for the cost of adoption fees.

This whole case is about a religious adoption agency feeling entitled to a contract that allows them to use taxpayer’s money to fund their discriminatory practices. It’s not even about the government telling them who to adopt to, it’s just a hissy fit about not receiving public funding. For people who claim to love the founding father’s writings so much, so much for the so-called “seperation of church and state”.

Also, I just reread my above post and realized that Sodom, as in the biblical city that was destroyed along with Gomorrah supposedly for homosexuality, was autocorrected to “Solomon”. Oops. I really need to start proofreading.


There’s a lot of BS around adoptions, not just the agency fees. The thing that drives the fees is that those agencies procure babies, which are in demand, rather than older children, which are not in demand. White babies are particularly easy to adopt out, although more people are willing to adopt transracially now than used to be the case.

If more people were willing to foster and adopt older children, which are much more abundant than newborns, the agencies would not be able to command such high fees. Older children often have behavioral and mental problems from their family of origin and/or abandonment by same, and many prospective parents don’t want to deal with that. They want cute babies who are tabula rasa, not difficult teenagers.


Should people have the right to state-subsidized fertility treatments

You can get fertility treatment on the NHS here.

Although the waiting lists can be long and, generally, there’s a limit on how many courses of assisted conception they’ll fund.


That’s part of medical care, though. That’s like insurance covering infertility treatment, which some do; socialized medicine is a different animal entirely. I wish we had it, and then covering infertility through that program would make 100% sense. But it doesn’t make as much sense if the state doesn’t cover cancer treatment but does cover infertility.


What does AMAB and AFAB stand for if anybody is willing to answer that?

AMAB means “assigned male at birth”
AFAB means “assigned female at birth”

Well, this should make Rowling & co. happy.

According to the Sunday Times, about 100,000 responses to the public consultation were received with an overwhelming majority – about 70% – in favour of allowing people to self-identify as a man or a woman.

Officials were said to believe that the results had been “skewed” by an “avalanche” of responses generated by trans rights groups, although transgender people, including non-binary people, are estimated to make up about 1% of the UK population.

I like how open about it they’re being. “We did a public consultation, but we didn’t like the results, so we’ve decided they aren’t real.”

I mean, I don’t doubt there’s a grain of truth to their belief, but still.

@Rabid Rabbit
Yup. And just after the US rolls back medical anti discrimination protections for LGBT people and people who have had abortions. Nice going TERFs, so very feminist. /s

If anything, the results were skewed the other way by TERF groups. Groups like Women’s Place UK posted pre filled consultation forms listing exactly how to respond and mass-submitted them. Trans* people certainly did fill out the consultation, but British trans* people and allies are the ones who should be filling out consultations and whose voices should matter; they’re the ones actually affected by GRA reform. Minorities’ rights shouldn’t be determined by people who have no connection to them and don’t know about them.


Yup — it’s the old question: “What exactly does it take away from you to give these minorities these particular rights?” I suppose with TERFs I can at least understand that they’ll feel it devalues their sooper-speshiul womanhood, but aside from that?

@Rabid Rabbit
In reality, they’d lose nothing, but conservatives (including TERFs) are incapable of understanding non zero sum systems. They think that whenever anyone else gains rights that must be taking away their own rights. In fact, at least in the US the opposite is true: the same action that legalized discrimination against LGBT people in medicine also made it legal to discriminate against anyone who has had an abortion, meaning a lot of women (and such a very feminist thing to do /s).

Re: Redefining sex discrimination to remove the federal ban against doctors discriminating against trans people for, uh, “personal reasons.”

One thing I’m wondering about is where all the licensing and medical ethics boards are standing with all of this? I would hope they would step in and do the right thing to pick up the slack, but then again, I guess I should’t hold my breath.



Can’t say any of that is making me feel that the process is less like “selling children”. :/

I’d like to point out that sometimes people *do* lose something when others gain rights – either the ability to act on their supposed “goodness” by abusing certain others, or the ability to raise their children free from openly-displayed counterexamples to their teachings. (An example of the latter: “gay is a sin” is a harder sell if same-sex marriage exists.) It deprives them the “right” (more like privilege) to be the keepers of all that is good and right and just, according to their own definitions.

Some liberals like to pretend that allowing full equality to all groups is value-neutral. It isn’t. Even ignoring the fact that we don’t literally advocate full equality for *all* people, or at least not on their own terms (for example, neo-nazis, pedophilia advocates, pro-rape advocates, serial killers, arguably young children…), it’s promoting the specific value that full equality for all groups is a good and necessary thing, which clearly not everyone agrees with. Pretending otherwise is just as delusional and/or self-deceptive as we commonly accuse them as being.

Yes, I recognize that. I was talking about this particular instance: trans* people having nondiscrimination protections in medicine does not take rights away from or endanger cis women.
Speaking of which, UK TERFs seem rather confused by what their friends in the US have done; evidently it didn’t occur to them that the leopards eating faces party would eat their faces.

When my husband and I were adopting our sons, the local social services department (branch of the county government) covered all administrative expenses. We were, however, obligated to take and pass a ten-week training program.

I admit to being slightly nettled by assertions that access to adoption by prospective parents is limited by the costs associated; we could no more have paid ten or twenty thousand dollars to a private agency than we could have flown by flapping our arms, but we were willing, indeed enthusiastic, about adopting older children. Both our sons were five when we met them, and both had been in foster care for years.

I genuinely don’t understand the massive blindspot you have for misogynistic abuse by bad faith agitators acting under the guise of trans rights.

How is this different from gamergate?

How is this different from run of the mill MGTOW misogyny?

How do you simply not see that you’re providing cover for the people you’re supposedly exposing? The abusive misogynists have found a word that gives them permission to say and do what they like. As long as the woman they target is a TERF, any abuse is acceptable.

People who should be standing up against it are cheering it on, because they have decided that the targets deserve it. This is shameful.

As for the survey – ask a different question, get a different answer:

Two surveys showing 80% of UK women don’t want male bodies in single-sex spaces. Single-sex spaces and services that are currently a right, in UK law.

Proposals to change that law are creating a conflict of rights.

Trans people in this country have more rights and protections than  women do in the US, and they have those entirely separate from sex-based protections. Trans rights are not under threat. Not even remotely. Anyone that says Rowling is advocating them being rolled back (such as the links you provide) is either badly mistaken or lying.

She is allowed to talk about it. We all are. You are using bullying, misogynistic language to silence and threaten women you disagree with, based on an issue you simply don’t understand, because you seem to know absolutely nothing about the framework of equality legislation in the UK.

And the links you provide in support are appalling groupthink circlejerkery. For example, the reddit thread says this (via NBC), about the Forstater case:

> in fact it was about whether Forstater should have the right to engage in a sustained campaign of harassment of her trans and cis coworkers.

This is a complete and utter lie.

There was no harrassment of coworkers, nor would her case permit such harrassment were she to succeed on appeal – trans people are already protected under discrimination law. All of the information is in the public domain, and if you investigated this you could find all this out, rather than relying on partisan commentary. She was ousted from her job principally because someone at the Gates Foundation objected to her tweeting and blogging in her private capacity about the conflict with sex-based rights that arises from proposed legal reforms to our Gender Recognition Act and Equality Act. How can a society function if people aren’t even allowed to talk about the rights they currently have?

You are perpetuating a lie against someone who has been bullied out of her job for describing UK rights as they currently are, and vilified relentlessly ever since by people who can’t spare 10 minutes to read her submissions to the employment tribunal, rather than some garbage lie-filled NBC opinion piece by Rachel McKinnon/Veronica Ivy of all people.

At some point, I sincerely hope you and people like you will have a moment of clarity and realise how you’ve been used.

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