Life as a gender-critical feminist can be quite strange. The first time I ever entered the Oxford Union, I was a 19-year-old fresher. All I really remember is getting very drunk on peach schnapps, crashing into a trestle table, and being asked to leave.
Fast forward 31 years, and I’m walking in there again, surrounded by security and being chased by photographers, accidentally dressed like a cut-price Kendall Roy from Succession. The image will make national front pages the next day. (Hilariously for our mutual friends, one of the presumed bodyguards is in fact my fellow philosopher friend Rob.)
Hustled by the Union’s reassuringly military-sounding bursar into a secret upstairs room in the building, I check Twitter. Rishi Sunak has tagged me in a supportive tweet. This will be the least weird thing to happen to me all day.
The morning had not started brilliantly — two consecutive trains cancelled, and I’d had to scramble around to find a local taxi driver who didn’t mind a four-hour round trip to London at short notice. By the time I made it, fairly late, to the driver taking me to Oxford, I had already aged several years.
Looking back, the younger version of me didn’t like the Union much, and I hardly ever went there. An institution completely independent of the wider university, it is mostly devoted to having debates. Back then, I thought it was an intimidating and archaic place, full of strident, cocky types who all wanted to be Prime Minister. I didn’t feel it was really for the likes of shy, awkward, comprehensive-schooled me. I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d one day be interviewed by its president about my views on gender.
I switch up my Kendall-Roy look to business-casual in a tiny bathroom, and then chat to committee members and Union staff. They seem excited but tense; occasionally, one wheels away to talk urgently on the phone. At one point, there is a muttered conversation about the welfare rooms being manned and ready to receive visitors. I wonder if that might be a slightly problematic verb to use.
For a while, as we wait, there is dead silence outside in the street, and I start to suspect that the whole thing is going to be rather anticlimactic. Eventually I hear the familiar sound of chanting outside and feel oddly relieved. At least I know this script — and not only from my former workplace.
Last November, I participated in a debate at the Oxford Union’s fellow institution, the Cambridge Union. There was a protest, and an attempt at disinvitation there too. So it seems I’m now a veteran of Oxbridge’s least athletic student Varsity match — and though it pains me to do so, I’m afraid I am going to have to declare the Light Blues the winner.
The motion we debated at The Other Place was not about sex and gender at all, but about whether there is a right to offend. Spoiler alert: I was on the side that argued that there is. The atmosphere as I entered that chamber was sombre and tense. Throughout the event, various young people bobbed up and down to denounce me, mostly for things I hadn’t ever said or written and didn’t believe.
Some appeared to think I was arguing that offence was a positive duty rather than a right (I wasn’t). Others didn’t care what I was saying, or indeed what I had ever said, but just wanted to feel the thrill of the pointed finger. In an update to the traditional mediaeval scenario, one organised chap read out his prepared denunciation from an iPad.
Protestors outside could be heard banging drums loudly, providing an unsettling percussive accompaniment to the speeches inside. The volume of drumming and yelling would increase each time I spoke, as coordinating messages flew between audience members and protestors.
Cambridge also provided a stunning bit of theatre: an undercover non-binary student called Kass cunningly disguised as a six-foot-plus man in a tuxedo. The results of Kass’s intervention upon my emotional equilibrium can be seen in the Channel 4 documentary Gender Wars, which coincidentally aired on the same day as the Oxford event.
Under false pretences, Kass had auditioned to speak for my side of the motion, arriving at the Union in full male-associated attire and dining convivially with me first, before sensationally dropping the act in order to denounce me as “disgusting” to everyone in the chamber. And things only went downhill from there. I was the only female speaker in the debate. Standing at full height next to me during their speech, Kass described to the audience how frightening it was to walk about the streets of Cambridge at night thanks to women like me.
In comparison to all this, the Oxford audience this week barely made any effort to make me feel awful. In fact, they offered enthusiastic applause as I entered the room. And in an unprecedented turn of events, many of my main objectors seemed actually to have read my book.
Even the four protestors who tried to create a rumpus inside the building were relatively meek. One stood up and shouted something, then left. Two others also shouted slogans rather apologetically, unfurled a flag, and threw some leaflets before hastily exiting too. The most intrepid of the four, dramatically unveiling a “No More Dead Trans Kids” T-shirt, used superglue to stick one hand to the floor right in front of me, but still complied docilely when five police officers — armed with blue plastic gloves and solvent, a lot of forms to fill in, and some very patient smiles — eventually arrived to sort it all out. The careful act of glueing itself seemed a bit Blue Peter.
After a nervous build-up, I started to enjoy myself, and it appeared to me that others in the chamber did too. There was a full and frank exchange of views, including some robust criticism of my position. Intellectual blows were landed on both sides. The Union President cornered me on an academic study that I didn’t know much about, while I managed to confuse him about which sense of “gender” he meant exactly (though, given the infinite flexibility of the term, who can blame him?). Various students queued up to quiz me on what they perceived to be errors in my reasoning, evidence base or attitude. I answered as best I could.
It seemed to me that the four protestors were not representative. I could be wrong, but I got the feeling that many in the chamber were pushing back against the sort of tired and hyperbolic cliches usually wielded to shut them up. Certainly, there was little apparent sympathy in the room for the superglued superhero, eventually escorted out to the sound of good-natured cheers and some booing. At times, the atmosphere bordered on riotous rather than rioting.
I found all of this quite promising. And even during the earlier Cambridge event, there had been another hopeful sign, not featured in the documentary. When it came to the moment for those in the packed room to file out and vote, the majority voted for our side of the motion, and the existence of a right to offend.
At both Cambridge and Oxford, I also had several enriching encounters with staunch defenders of my right to speak. A lot of these were with young gender-critical feminists, fired up by noticing the obvious inconsistencies and injustices in a supposedly “kind” worldview that tells women to put their own needs last. Some wanted me to sign their copies of my book. Others were keen to tell me their own stories of horrible social shunning for their beliefs.
One first year Cambridge student told me that, after writing a mildly gender-critical blog in defence of me, she had been ostracised and shamed by all the other women in her college year group, as well as by her own tutor. Another story I heard on Tuesday was about a young lesbian who had read my book and watched my talks, decided to defend my free speech publicly, and been kicked out of the Oxford LGBTQ+ student society as a result.
Other supportive students in Oxford, neither feminist nor anti-feminist, just seemed fed up with being emotionally blackmailed into stifled silence by a small group of childish and histrionic narcissists — among which they doubtless would include the occasional lecturer. And from within each Union, the committee members responsible for inviting me were totally impressive, standing resolute against pressure and showing exemplary resilience in the face of harsh criticism from some peers.
And I’m afraid I have even more disappointing news for those with unhealthy emotional attachments to the present culture wars. There were — indeed, undoubtedly still are — plenty of students who feel like this at my former workplace. I know they are there, either because they told me outright at the time, or because they demonstrated it to me via the open, inquisitive way they conducted themselves in the classroom.
I am sure that such students exist in every single UK university at the moment; I suspect there are thousands of them out there right now, muttering inwardly while listening to ever more dramatic tales of self-centring woe from fellow students, or eye-rolling inwardly as their lecturers give them pious homilies.
These students are a largely untapped asset to the project of detoxifying the current discourse around identity politics. Thanks to their relative youth, they tend to be sensitive, curious, idealistic but not fanatical, and genuinely want to understand the world. But they also want to play — with ideas, with jokes, with each other. Many have sufficiently rebellious or anarchic instincts to shrink from blatant attempts to manipulate and guilt-trip them. They are sick of being imprisoned in other people’s shame, guilt and paranoia. All we have to do is set them free.
This is not the fatuous argument, made by opportunistic identitarians and anti-woke warriors alike, that we should “listen to young people” — usually made while smoothly guiding listeners to exactly those young people whose views happen to coincide with their own. Nor is it the pretence that we oldies should just shut up and listen to young people generally, no matter what they say — as if today’s youth had miraculously gained hitherto unknown oracular powers, what with all that gaming and watching of TikTok videos. Of course, we shouldn’t be shy of arguing robustly with younger generations, when they talk what appears to be nonsense. They can both dish it and take it. The question is: can we?
In looking at some of the media coverage of my Oxford trip, it’s striking to me that certain journalists’ idea of balanced reporting is to interview, on one hand, Stock the supposedly offensive speaker, and on the other, students who say they feel threatened and frightened by my terrifying words. (The rough format goes as follows. Student: “I just feel exhausted constantly having to justify my existence every day!”. Interviewer: “What do you, Stock, say to the students who feel exhausted having to justify their existence every day?” Me, looking at said students, apparently with enough energy to drum and chant for hours: “Erm … I’m not sure. Maybe get their iron levels checked?”.)
Yet these are not the only students who have interests at stake. There are those who long to have robust arguments and vigorous disagreements with peers and elders, free from the fear that they will say something offensive and be punished accordingly. But these students don’t seem to get interviewed remotely as often. I don’t believe it’s because they wouldn’t speak to the media, in principle. Or at least — I think that if we collectively made it easier for some of them to ask for such things, greater argumentative disinhibition would become a more accepted norm quite fast, and a generation would collectively breathe a sigh of relief.
I don’t know how the younger version of me would look at present committee members, so impressively self-assured and full of vim, but this version of me (the Kendall Roy wannabe, that is) looks on with great affection and respect. In standing firm and holding a space where students are free to engage with big ideas in time-honoured, age-appropriate ways — whether by arguing, shouting, laughing, emoting wildly, or indeed glueing themselves to wooden floors — they are doing the world an enormous service. Perhaps we can relax a bit about the future after all.