On Wednesday, following a rather spectacularly transphobic Twitter rampage, J.K. Rowling, the wildly rich author of some inexplicably popular children’s books and poorly written adult thrillers, made the strange decision to explain the origins of and reasoning behind her transphobia in an extremely long blog post on her website.
That Rowling used terms like “gender critical” (the preferred descriptor of TERFs rather than, well, TERF); that she believes laws that enable trans people to use the bathrooms and changing rooms that match their gender identity will “open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” which she says is the “simple truth” but is not backed up by any evidence whatsoever; and that she paints the movement for trans rights as one that is “doing demonstrable harm” to women and girls and is “offering cover to predators like few before it” is proof enough of what her views are and who she aligns herself with, for all of her protestations that she has trans friends and cares about the safety of trans women.
None of this is new; it’s been obvious for a while now that Rowling has eagerly embraced transphobic views, bigoted ideas that have been dressed up with a feminist bow but at their core are just a steaming pile of shit. Quite frankly, her views are so boringly odious and easily debunked that they’re almost worth not writing about. But there’s one part of her blog post that bears a little more unpacking, and that’s her approving citation of Lisa Littman, whose seriously flawed study on what Littman coined “rapid onset gender dysphoria” has become an often-cited piece of research by people who would likely prefer that trans people not exist.
In her blog post, Rowling explained how she became interested in “trans issues,” and shares that she’s done her homework:
My interest in trans issues pre-dated Maya’s case by almost two years, during which I followed the debate around the concept of gender identity closely. I’ve met trans people, and read sundry books, blogs and articles by trans people, gender specialists, intersex people, psychologists, safeguarding experts, social workers and doctors, and followed the discourse online and in traditional media.
But she doesn’t cite anything from her supposedly extensive research, which allegedly includes “books, blogs and articles by trans people,” except for Littman’s research, which makes me suspect that all of her research was done on Mumsnet or some ugly corner of Reddit. Rowling wrote that she is “concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition,” pointing to statistics that show a 4,400 percent increase in the U.K. in young people who were assigned female at birth who have transitioned in the past decade, which does certainly seem like a lot of people (and why would that be a problem?) until one realizes that in total numbers, it’s not that many at all.
The same phenomenon has been seen in the US. In 2018, American physician and researcher Lisa Littman set out to explore it. In an interview, she said:
‘Parents online were describing a very unusual pattern of transgender-identification where multiple friends and even entire friend groups became transgender-identified at the same time. I would have been remiss had I not considered social contagion and peer influences as potential factors.’
Littman mentioned Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube as contributing factors to Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, where she believes that in the realm of transgender identification ‘youth have created particularly insular echo chambers.’
Her paper caused a furore. She was accused of bias and of spreading misinformation about transgender people, subjected to a tsunami of abuse and a concerted campaign to discredit both her and her work. The journal took the paper offline and re-reviewed it before republishing it. However, her career took a similar hit to that suffered by Maya Forstater. Lisa Littman had dared challenge one of the central tenets of trans activism, which is that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation. Nobody, the activists insisted, could ever be persuaded into being trans.
Rowling is correct that Littman’s research “caused a furor.” What Rowling decided not to share is that Littman’s research was criticized in large part because her methodology was hugely flawed and riddled with her own bias.
Here’s how BuzzFeed described Littman’s study on what she called “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” which Littman claimed was the result of “social and peer contagion”:
But scientific critics and trans advocates have long criticized the methods chosen by the paper’s author, Lisa Littman of Brown University. Within a week of its publication in August 2018, PLOS One, the journal in which the study appeared, announced that it would seek “further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses,” citing reader concerns. This, in turn, prompted Brown to remove a press release touting its findings. Just last month, PLOS One published a correction and an apology, while also noting that the study’s results were largely unchanged.
Arjee Restar, a trans researcher in the same department as Littman at Brown, told BuzzFeed News that even in the corrected version of the study, “the methods remain unchanged, flawed, and below scientific standards.”
A major flaw with the study is that it relied on a self-selected group of parents of trans kids. Littman, it turns out, posted her survey and recruited participants only from websites that are hotbeds for transphobia. Again, per BuzzFeed:
The biggest scientific problem with the study, according to Restar, is how it obtained its data. Littman placed a 90-question survey on three websites — 4thWaveNow, Transgender Trend, and Youth Trans Critical Professionals — and received responses from 256 parents.
Before filling out the survey, the parents had to sign consent forms for participation. And in those forms, Littman describes “social and peer contagion” extensively. This, according to Restar, could have easily biased the respondents to give answers confirming the idea of social contagion. What’s more, those three websites are known for their trans-critical views.
“From a methods standpoint, one could say she was looking for individuals who have specific beliefs that could confirm her hypothesis — which is a symptom of biased sampling,” Restar said.
In addition to the seriously flawed methodology, painting being as trans as some sort of social contagion helps only two groups of people: parents who are transphobic and the political activists and elected officials who can now conveniently cloak their transphobia under the guide of concern for young children. As the trans scientist and activist Julia Serano wrote:
While ROGD is scientifically specious, the concept serves a very clear practical purpose. It provides reluctant parents with an excuse to disbelieve and disaffirm their child’s gender identity, under the presumption that it is merely a by-product of ROGD. It also provides a rationale for restricting their child’s interactions with transgender peers and access to trans-related information, as such things are the imagined cause of the condition.
In addition to these parental motivations, ROGD provides political cover for those who wish to rollback trans rights and healthcare. For instance, anti-trans groups can cite ROGD as a rationale for excluding trans kids and censoring trans-related media and resources (under the presumption that these things are causing ROGD in other children), and limiting or eliminating the ability to transition (under the presumption that some kids who seek this out are merely ROGD, and/or because ROGD is a brand new medical condition that will require years of further study). And if anyone objects to such measures, these ROGD proponents can conveniently claim that they are not anti-trans — after all, they acknowledge the existence of transgender people and gender dysphoria! (in some cases, at least) — it’s just that they are acting primarily out of concern for “ROGD kids.”
Which is, no surprises here, exactly what Rowling did in her blog post on Wednesday. “I’m an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity, which gives me an interest in both education and safeguarding,” Rowling wrote, adding, “Like many others, I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both.”
There was another interesting tidbit in Rowling’s blog:
The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.
J.K., it’s not too late!