Transgender People, Bathrooms, and Sexual Predators: What the Data Say
Content Warning: while I will not be describing any actual instances of sexual violence or child sexual abuse, these issues (and false accusations thereof) will be discussed throughout this piece. For more on why such false accusations (against trans people and other marginalized groups) are so pervasive, please check out my 2022 book Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back.
I have been involved in transgender communities since 1994. And those communities had already existed for decades before I appeared on the scene, as any trans-themed history book can attest to. And we’ve been using public restrooms during that whole time, without causing any harm to others. But then suddenly in 2015 — one year after TIME Magazine famously proclaimed the “transgender tipping point” — a slew of so-called “bathroom bills” were proposed in U.S. state legislatures. These bills, in one way or another, set out to prohibit trans people from safely using public restrooms, under the presumption that we must pose some kind of “threat” to women and children in those spaces. Such claims continue to persist, with the most recent bathroom bill being passed into law in Tennessee just last month.
In this piece, I will make three general points in the following sections: 1) I will delve into the actual data that demonstrates that trans people do not pose a threat to anyone in public restrooms, nor are trans-inclusive restroom policies exploited by sexual predators. 2) I will review historical data chronicling how this “bathroom predator” myth has its origins in Religious Right claims from the 1970s and 1980s that centered on how “homosexuals” were supposedly “child molesters” and “pedophiles” who were out to “recruit children.” It was only during the 2000s, just as said claims were losing their effectiveness against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, that Religious Right organizations shifted their efforts toward targeting trans people instead. 3) I will highlight additional ways in which anti-trans campaigners have taken to falsely smearing trans people as “predators” who are out to “groom” and “sexualize” children.
I hope that this piece not only provides a readily citable source for debunking “bathroom bills” and related anti-trans propaganda, but that it also raises awareness about how the “sexual predator” trope is a more general tactic that is repeatedly used to stigmatize and stereotype marginalized groups.
1) Trans People Are Victims, Rather Than Perpetrators, of Harassment and Assault in Public Restrooms
Whenever people raise anti-transgender bathroom concerns, I typically point them to the following three articles:
Carlos Maza and Luke Brinker, “15 Experts Debunk Right-Wing Transgender Bathroom Myth,” Media Matters for America, March 20, 2014.
The byline for this piece reads: Experts in 12 states — including law enforcement officials, government employees, and advocates for victims of sexual assault — have debunked the right-wing myth that sexual predators will exploit transgender non-discrimination laws to sneak into women’s restrooms, calling the myth baseless and “beyond specious.”
Brian S. Barnett, Ariana E. Nesbit, and Renée M. Sorrentino, “The transgender bathroom debate at the intersection of politics, law, ethics, and science,” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 46, no. 2 (2018), 232–241
This is a peer-reviewed study that states in its Conclusions section: “From a scientific and evidence-based perspective, there is no current evidence that granting transgender individuals access to gender-corresponding restrooms results in an increase in sexual offenses.” For additional summary and context, see this ThinkProgress article about this study.
Amira Hasenbush, Andrew R. Flores, and Jody L. Herman, “Gender identity nondiscrimination laws in public accommodations: A review of evidence regarding safety and privacy in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 16, no. 1 (2019), 70–83.
This peer-reviewed study used Massachusetts as a case study “to empirically assess whether reports of safety or privacy violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and dressing rooms change in frequency in localities that have gender identity inclusive public accommodations nondiscrimination ordinances (GIPANDOs) as compared to matched localities without GIPANDOs.” They report that: “By using public records and statistical modeling, we found no evidence that privacy and safety in public restrooms change as a result of the passage of GIPANDOs.” For additional summary and context, see this Teen Vogue article about this study.
While there is *no* empirical evidence to indicate that transgender people pose any kind of threat to cisgender people in public bathrooms, the reverse is not true. That is to say, transgender people are routinely harassed and even assaulted by cis people in such settings. Here are a few studies that address this phenomenon:
Jody L. Herman, “Gendered restrooms and minority stress: The public regulation of gender and its impact on transgender people’s lives,” Journal of Public Management & Social Policy 19, no. 1 (2013), 65–80.
From the Abstract: “This paper employs a minority stress framework to discuss findings from an original survey of transgender and gender non-conforming people in Washington, DC about their experiences in gendered public restrooms. Seventy percent of survey respondents reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. These experiences impacted respondents’ education, employment, health, and participation in public life.”
Sandy James, Jody Herman, Susan Rankin, Mara Keisling, Lisa Mottet, and Ma’ayan Anafi, The report of the 2015 US transgender survey, (Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016).
This was a large survey of 27,715 transgender people across the United States. The main bullet-points from their “Experiences in Restrooms” section (pp. 224–230) reads:
- Nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents said that someone had questioned or challenged their presence in a restroom in the past year.
- Nearly one in ten (9%) respondents reported that someone denied them access to a restroom in the past year.
- One in eight (12%) respondents were verbally harassed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted when accessing or using a restroom in the past year.
- More than half (59%) avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of having problems.
- Nearly one-third (32%) limited the amount they ate or drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year.
- Eight percent (8%) reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or another kidney-related problem in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms.
Gabriel R. Murchison, Madina Agénor, Sari L. Reisner, and Ryan J. Watson, “School restroom and locker room restrictions and sexual assault risk among transgender youth,” Pediatrics 143, no. 6 (2019), e20182902.
From the Discussion section: “In our sample of transgender and nonbinary US adolescents, the 12-month prevalence of sexual assault was 25.9%, substantially higher than national rates of 15% among cisgender high school girls and 4% among cisgender boys. After adjusting for potential confounders, compared with nonrestricted youth of the same gender identity and sex assigned at birth, school restroom and locker room restrictions were associated with 1.26 times the risk of sexual assault for transgender boys, 1.42 times the risk for nonbinary youth AFAB, and 2.49 times the risk for transgender girls.”
Of course, this rampant harassment and assault of trans people in public bathrooms inevitably results in some gender non-conforming (GNC) cis people facing similar abuses under the mistaken presumption that they are transgender. Indeed, in the wake of the 2015 “bathroom bill” scourge, Vox published an article entitled Women are getting harassed in bathrooms because of anti-transgender hysteria. An article from earlier in 2021 in the UK (where anti-trans sentiment is even more intense) reads: Butch lesbians are facing “increasing harassment” in public toilets.
At this juncture, it’s worth pointing out that the logic behind “bathroom bills” is two-fold. The first presumption is that trans women are really “biological men” — I debunk that simplistic notion in the linked-to essay. The second presumption is that men are inherently “dangerous” while women are inherently “safe,” and therefore the presence of trans women would disrupt the supposed safety of these women-only settings. However, this presumed safety is proved false by all the cisgender women who are harassing and assaulting trans people and GNC cis women in public bathrooms!
Since there is *no* empirical evidence that trans women, or transgender people more generally, represent a threat to women or children in sex-segregated spaces, anti-trans propagandists have largely taken to citing anecdotal cases of real or imagined sexual misconduct that seemingly involve a transgender individual, and extrapolating from that that we all must be inherently dangerous. But of course, I could do the very same with the significant numbers of cisgender women who commit acts of sexual harassment, coercion, and assault, as summarized in Lara Stemple, Andrew Flores, and Ilan H. Meyer, “Sexual victimization perpetrated by women: Federal data reveal surprising prevalence,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 34 (2017), 302–311 (the lead author also summarizes this research in Scientific American).
It is indisputable that some cisgender women commit acts of sexual violence. But it would be unfathomable to claim that *all* cisgender women should be banned from public restrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms, etcetera, simply because of the actions of a relative few. I’m sure there is near unanimity on this point. To apply a different standard to trans women, despite the lack of valid empirical evidence indicating otherwise, is pure bigotry — no more, no less.
2) Placing Transgender “Bathroom Panics” in Historical Context
Trans people are most certainly not the first marginalized group to ever be demonized as potential predators.
In Why Are Right-Wing Conspiracies so Obsessed With Pedophilia?, Ali Breland revisits several “moral panics” from over the last half-century, all of which raise similar concerns about protecting children from some imagined insidious threat. The gist of the article is captured in its byline: “The story is the same, from the day-care panics to QAnon: It’s not really about the kids. It’s about fears of a changing social order.”
In The Anti-Trans Bathroom Nightmare Has Its Roots in Racial Segregation, Gillian Frank points out how fears of sexual predation were routinely invoked by segregationists during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, who “claimed racial integration would grant black men sexual access to white women” and “white women also emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” Frank goes onto discuss how these racist stereotypes were later invoked by opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s: “Anti-ERA activists asserted that among the ERA’s consequences would be mixed-gender bathrooms. Here anti-ERA activists applied widely shared racial codes to the Equal Rights Amendment, particularly in their idea that the sex integration of bathrooms would lead to black sexual violence against white women and children.”
Warren J. Blumenfeld’s article How LGBTQ people and Jews were stereotyped as violent predators highlights the history of how the straight white Christian majority has “. . . long accused both Jews and LGBTQ people of acting as dangerous predators concentrated on ensnaring, torturing, and devouring primarily women and children of the dominant group.”
Both the Frank and Blumenfeld articles also mention the most recent and direct predecessor to today’s trans “bathroom panics”: Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign. The premise was simple: Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people had been making progress in getting nondiscrimination ordinances passed in an increasing number of jurisdictions. Bryant and other social conservatives effectively thwarted that progress by claiming or insinuating that LGB people posed a specific threat to children. If you’ve ever heard claims that LGB people are “pedophiles” or “child molesters” who are out to “recruit children,” all these ideas were popularized by Bryant and other social conservatives during that time period. While most people nowadays understand these claims to be false and harmful stereotypes, they did a lot of damage back in the day — both in undermining LGB rights and exacerbating anti-LGB hate crimes.
In a recent study entitled Frame Variation in Child Protectionist Claims: Constructions of Gay Men and Transgender Women as Strangers, sociologist Amy L. Stone examined Religious Right campaigns spanning the years of 1974 through 2013, analyzing them for their shifting themes regarding potential threats to children. Campaigns from the 1970s through 1990s focused primarily on imagined gay male sexual predators who were supposedly becoming teachers to “seduce” young children, or else “infiltrating organizations like the Boy Scouts and Big Brothers to establish child pornography and prostitution rackets.” But by the 2000s, there was a precipitous shift in these child protectionist campaigns away from the specter of “gay teachers” and towards trans women. The latter were inevitably portrayed as “men in dresses” who posed “a danger to women and girls in the bathroom and locker room.” Here is a graph from Stone’s paper which illustrates this dramatic shift in messaging:
So remember, the next time you come across anti-trans-themed “bathroom panics,” what you are actually witnessing is merely a rehashed version of the “homosexuals are child molesters” campaigns of the past.
3) Who Is “Sexualizing” Whom?
Once bigots stereotype a marginalized group as “sexual predators,” then it becomes relatively easy for them to wield language intended to describe actual sexual violence against members of that group, even in scenarios where sex or sexuality never even come into play.
One flagrant example of this can be found in the blogpost Pronouns Are Rohypnol, which has been widely cited and celebrated in U.K. “gender critical” circles. Rohypnol is better known by its street name: roofies — i.e., the infamous date rape drug. “Pronouns Are Rohypnol” argues that merely using a trans person’s pronouns “slows you down, confuses you, makes you less reactive . . . They dull your defences. They change your inhibitions . . . They remove our instinctive safety responses.” The implication that acknowledging a trans person’s pronouns is tantamount to, or enables, sexual violence is cemented in the closing passage: “I owe this to girls. I don’t want to play even the tiniest part in grooming them to disregard their natural protective instincts. Those instincts are there for a reason. To keep them safe.”
The word “grooming” refers to when an adult befriends a child and builds up their trust over time, in order to make it easier to eventually sexually exploit or abuse them. But in the hands of vehement transphobes, “grooming” can be hurled at any trans person for virtually anything they do — such as teaching adult college students about queer theory. Many other similarly absurd accusations of “grooming” are chronicled in Katy Montgomerie and Christa Peterson’s YouTube video Gender Critical is painting LGBT people as paedophiles.
If you search online for “transgender” + “grooming,” many of the results (including “Transgender or Trans-grooming?” — the top result in my search) mention or obsess over Drag Queen Story Hour, a recurring event where drag queens simply read children’s books to a group of children in public libraries. Despite there being no discussions of sex of any kind, conservative media outlets went hog-wild with accusations of “grooming” — see Melissa Gira Grant’s The Right-Wing War on Trans Youth Was Hiding in Plain Sight, and Brianna January’s Fox guest says that drag queens and LGBTQ people are grooming youth “into their unhealthy lifestyle” that includes “HIV and AIDS,” for further coverage of such incidents.
Those latter two articles also mention another common allegation, namely, that transgender people are “sexualizing” young children. Outside of anti-trans propaganda, the term “sexualization” is typically used to refer to when a person is reduced to their (real or imagined) sexual body or behaviors, to the exclusion of other characteristics. So in other words, if, rather than see me as a complex person with lots of traits, some transphobe reduces me to the stereotype of a “transgender sexual predator,” they are sexualizing me. Or, if social conservatives “adultify” trans children in order to portray them as potential “sexual threats” to other students (as described in Amy L. Stone, Gender Panics About Transgender Children in Religious Right Discourse, Journal of LGBT Youth 15, no. 1 (2018), 1–15), then they are sexualizing those trans children.
One way in which people can be sexualized is if they are reduced to the status of a sexual object to be used by others. This is clearly the connotation that anti-trans campaigners are attempting to evoke when they assert that trans people are “sexualizing” children. But even a cursory glance at the content of these claims reveals that this is not at all what’s actually going on.
Take for instance the Family Policy Alliance article “NJ Senate Passes Bill That Would Sexualize Kindergarten” — holy cow, you’d think they were legalizing child sexual abuse in schools given the title! But according to the more mainstream NJ.com, the bill in question (A4454) would simply “update the New Jersey Student Learning Standards to promote ‘economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance.’” In other words, diversity and inclusion are tantamount to “sexualizing children” in the minds of anti-LGBTQ+ propagandists.
Of the many examples of such claims that I came across in my research, perhaps the quintessential one was the Heritage Foundation’s “We Must Fight the Sexualization of Children by Adults.” It begins with more general fears about child pornography, sexual abuse, and sex trafficking. But then it abruptly turns to “drag queen story hours,” sex education that includes “transgender theory,” the Equality Act (which would amend the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity), trans-inclusive bathroom policies, and “gender-affirming medical treatment.” It’s as if anything and everything associated with transgender and LGBTQ+ people constitutes “sexualization of children” in their eyes.
In April of this year, Republicans in the Texas Senate filed Bill 1646, which “defines parents of trans kids consenting to healthcare as ‘child abusers’,” and “places Texas parents consenting to gender-affirming care for their trans kids alongside those who create child porn, sexually abuse children, give illegal drugs to children and those who facilitate forced child marriages” (quotes from Pink News). Thankfully, the bill did not ultimately pass. But it provides an illuminating and frightening example of how far these “transgender = sexualizing children” conflations can go.
I will end this section with a cartoon by Barry Deutsch and Becky Hawkins that highlights the hypocrisies underlying what gets deemed “sexualizing” and what does not in these debates:
In summary, child sexual abuse is very real. But the overwhelming majority of such incidents are committed by family members and other close acquaintances. The chances that some transgender stranger in a public restroom might endanger your child is vanishingly small. Those who indiscriminately hurl accusations of “sexual predator,” “grooming,” and “sexualization” at gender and sexual minorities en masse are not only engaging in bigotry, but they are doing a grave disservice to actual survivors of sexual violence. We, as a society, should not tolerate their tactics.
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