Writing About Sex and Gender for the Media

The Media in the UK have given a lot of coverage recently to the case of a Scottish double rapist who was sent initially to a female prison. This was in line with what the Scottish prison service understood to be the wishes of the Scottish government in how transgender offenders should be dealt with. Cue a great deal of public outrage followed by furious back-peddling from the Scottish first minister down. And a swift removal of said offender from the women’s estate to a men’s prison.

There was also public consternation expressed at the majority of the media’s decision to refer to the offender as ‘she,’ despite rape only being possible if you have a penis. Many journalists apparently thought that the rapist’s very recent desire to identify as a woman carried more weight than a lifetime of living and behaving as a (deeply unpleasant) man.

The press regulator, Ipso’s, guidance on these matters originally stemmed from the appalling treatment transgender people received at the hands of the press in the past. For example, an eminent scientist who had changed gender identity was gored to death by a deer. Many newspaper front page headlines referred to the ‘cross dressing’ scientist, although this factor was immaterial to the death of someone who had contributed so much to scientific discovery. However, gratuitous sensationalism was not part of the dismay around the recent case. The issue was that a male rapist was put into a female prison on his say-so that he (since being arrested for these offences) was now a woman.

Ipso guidance recommends that “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information.’ The ‘deer’ example above was clearly a distortion. The more recent example of referring to the rapist as ‘she’ and ‘her penis,’ is misleading. Contrary to what some journalists evidently believe, there is no legal obligation to call rapists ‘she,’ however they identify.

Journalists and other writers rarely want to get into controversies that detract from the actual story they want to tell their readers, and the whole issue around writing about transgender issues is currently a bit of a minefield. Which is why the recently launched Media handbook on sex and gender will be invaluable for any writers working on such stories. Both journalists and lawyers have been involved in its preparation and although I am neither, I have read it and feel it really is a useful reference document for writers generally, as well as media folk. Or indeed, anyone who wants to know more about the often confusing vocabulary currently in use around this topic.

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