Why Are There Sex-Segregated Spaces Anyway?

If a man identifies as a woman, and is recognized as such, that is the slogan “trans women are women” is assumed as true, then a male has access to female-only spaces, such as bathrooms and locker-rooms, which means that sex-segregated arrangements are effectively erased since the trans woman remains objective a male.

There are many reason why a male presenting as a woman may seek to access exclusively women’s spaces. Some of these have to do with gender identity. There is also the fetish autogynephilia, where a man derives sexual gratification by identifying a woman. Whatever the reasons, we’re now seeing men being housed in public facilities, such as the Washington Corrections Center for Women, sharing cells with women.

As with bathrooms and locker-rooms, there’s a reason prisons are sex-segregated. Historically, segregating prisons by sex had nothing to do with construct of gender identity, which is a fairly recent ideological invention (I will have a blog on the history of this construct soon). After you meet Tiffany Scott, I will tell you why.

This is Tiffany Scott.

Prisons have been segregated by sex for much of their history, with separate facilities for men and women. The origins of this segregation can be traced back to societal beliefs about gender roles and the differences between men and women. In the early days of the prison system (the penitentiary emerged it the late eighteenth century in the trans-Atlantic context), men and women were often housed together in the same facilities. However, as concerns about safety and morality grew, separate facilities were established for men and women. These facilities were often designed to reflect the differences between men and women, with men’s prisons characterized as harsh and punitive, while women’s prisons designed to be more rehabilitative and focused on nurturing and caring. At least initially.

One of the main reasons for segregating prisons by sex was to protect female inmates from sexual assault and other forms of abuse by male inmates and prison staff. It was obvious to prison reformers in the nineteenth century that male exploitation of females is a perennial risk. They did not need modern statistical analysis or radical feminist theory to know that (a) males are far more likely than females to engage in sexual predation, a fact observed in most, if not all, societies, independent of cultural and societal contexts; and (b) females are far more likely to be victims of sexual offenses compared to males. To some degree, they understood the multiple factors that contribute to gender disparity in victimization: gender-based inequalities, objectification, and asymmetrical power relations all play a role in creating environments where females are more vulnerable to sexual violence. As prisoners are a literal captive audience, male predation on women was seen as a particular concern given the power dynamics and gendered norms that existed within the prison system.

Another reason for the segregation of prisons by sex was to provide gender-specific programming and services that were tailored to the unique needs and experiences of male and female inmates. For example, women’s prisons often provided programs and services focused on issues such as domestic violence, parenting, and substance abuse, which were more common among female inmates. The segregation of prisons by sex became more widespread in the 20th century, as the prison system grew and became more institutionalized. Today, most prisons around the world are segregated by sex.

Relatedly, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that age segregation in prisons became institutionalized and common. Prior to this time, prisons often housed inmates of all ages together, regardless of their offense or criminal history. The emergence of age-segregated prisons can also be traced back to the growth of the prison system in the nineteenth century, which led to overcrowding and the need for more specialized facilities. In response, prisons began to establish separate facilities for different types of inmates, including those who were considered too young or too old to be housed with the general prison population. Today, most prisons around the world have separate facilities for juvenile offenders, elderly inmates, and other special populations. The aim of age-segregated prisons is to provide a more appropriate and effective environment for these populations, with programs and services tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.

In other words, the segregation of prisons by sex and age is based on the recognition that women and different from men and girls are different from women. If a man claimed to be a different age than he was, it would not allow him to be housed in a juvenile facility. That would pose a risk to the juveniles there. So why is a man claiming to be a different gender than he is a legitimate reason to house him with women? The selective denial of reality and harm are curious phenomena in contemporary Western culture. And if you aren’t wondering why prisons aren’t segregated by race, good for you for intrinsically understanding that race is different from the hard biological realities of sex and age.

* * *

It’s not just sex-segregation in prisoners that is challenged by the crackpot theories of gender ideology. I don’t need to inform readers that sex-segregation in sports is unraveling. There is pushback, but the dismantling of structures protecting women from unfair competition continues. (I have blogged about this topic before. See NPR, State Propaganda Organ, Reveals Who and What have Captured the State Apparatus; Is Title IX Kaput? Or Was it Always Incomprehensible?; The Casual Use of Propagandistic Language Surrounding Sex and Gender.)

As will prisons, the origins of sex-segregated sports can be traced back to cultural and societal beliefs about gender roles and physical differences between men and women. These beliefs led to the assumption that men and women were naturally suited to different types of physical activity, with men being viewed as have a range of advantages over women. On the basis of these beliefs, much of which are supported by science, sports were divided into separate categories for men and women, with men’s sports typically receiving more attention and resources. At first, women were often excluded from participating in sports altogether or were relegated to second-class status with limited access to facilities and equipment. Over time, these assumptions and beliefs were challenged by women who wanted to participate in sports and compete at the same level as men, which the aggregate average differences between male and female continued the need for sex segregation.

The emergence of women’s sports in the 20th century challenged the notion that women were not capable of competing at a high level and helped to break down the barriers that had prevented women from participating in sports. However, to achieve equality in this area, it was recognized that the biological differences must be taken into account. In the United States, the passage of Title IX in 1972 was a significant turning point in the development of women’s sports. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, including athletics. This law required schools to provide equal opportunities for male and female athletes, which led to a surge in the number of women’s sports programs and increased funding for female athletes.

While sex-segregated sports remain the norm, the reasons for this concern physical differences between men and women, such as differences in strength and body composition, as determinable by science, rather than assumptions about gender roles and abilities. All this was due in part to the growing influence of feminism and the civil rights movement, which challenged traditional gender roles and advocated for equal opportunities for women. The movement to desegregate sports by sex is an assault on the decades of progress women have made in Western society.

* * *

The point of these examples is to show that equality before the law requires taking account of grouped and qualitative differences between classes of people. Men and woman are not the same. Nor are adults and children. To treat individuals from these categories equally, and to avoid injustices, the fact that they are not the same must be taken into account. If a man is defined as a woman and treated like a woman, the distinction between two objectively different groups is erased in practice and women—not trans women nor men—are disadvantaged. The same is true when children are treated as adults. If age of consent rules were abolished, children would be put a greater risk of sexual exploitation by adults since children are not as a matter of developmental status capable of voluntarily consenting to sex. This is what it is so important to maintain objective categories that accurately convey the relevant facts, in this case correctly gendering a person to avoid disadvantaging women and putting their health and safety at risk.

As for men performing as women, believing the individual to be the opposite sex opens opportunities and spaces to men that are principally reserved for women. The honest way to open those opportunities and spaces is to eliminate sex-segregated spaces and erase sex-based rights, not require individuals to appear as things they are not. Whatever differences there are will sort themselves out in competition. And society won’t have to manipulate gay boys into thinking they’re girls. However, when an ideology results in rapists being able to identify as women and transfer to cells with the class of persons who represent their primary victim pool, then something has gone profoundly wrong in society.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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