harassment, sexually, violent

The Cotton Ceiling Is a Continuation of Rape Culture by Other Means

Attempts by men to coerce sex from women have only been further legitimised by the idea of the Cotton Ceiling.

Almost all women have stories of men attempting to pressure them into sex. Men we have been in relationships with. Men we have met in a bar or club. Even just men we have walked past in the street. Sometimes we laugh them off as pathetic. At the time, it seemed more hilarious than threatening when my friends and I (just 18) found ourselves shouted at on a night out – to ‘prove’ we weren’t lesbians by fellating a middle aged man. But what (other than copious amounts of alcohol) gave him the audacity to shout that across a busy street to a group of teenagers? It was the fact he knew that we, and the bystanders who heard it, would laugh it off.

We would laugh it off because we live in a society that tolerates, and worse, expects, this sort of behaviour. We live in a rape culture. 

In recent days, we have seen it asserted by people who should know better that pressuring and persuading women into sex they have not enthusiastically consented to is not inherently coercive.

This is rape culture writ large. The idea that as long as violence or the threat of violence isn’t used, then whatever else is done to wring consent from a woman is fair game. We frequently see this in popular culture. It’s a staple of romantic comedies. Women say no, are relentlessly pursued, and eventually give in and everyone lives happily ever after. She just didn’t know what was good for her, but luckily a man did. Of course, we do sometimes see the roles reversed, but art imitates life. Persistent women are ‘bunny boilers’, persistent men are ‘romantic’.

When the BBC News website published a piece about research done by Angela Wild of Get the L Out into the coercing of lesbians into sex with trans-identified males, the outrage from certain quarters was almost visible from space. It will come as no surprise to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the gender no debate that Owen Jones was at his hyperbolic worst, describing the piece as “That burning skip of a transphobic BBC article”.

So far, so entirely predictable. Complaints were duly dispatched to the BBC and in recent weeks the Head of the Editorial Complaints Unit issued his findings. He was at pains to make clear the distinction between “coercion (which would generally be regarded as reprehensible) and persuasion or advocacy” when it came to trans-identified males attempting to have sex with lesbians. Alongside society as a whole, the Head of the ECU at the BBC deems it okay for men to try advocate for their right to have sex with lesbians. If there is no violence or clear threat of it, it’s okay to ‘give it a go’. The implication being that the only reason that lesbians haven’t been sleeping with men until now is because they just haven’t thought it through. No doesn’t appear to mean no if there is a way to wear down a woman’s boundaries.

Those boundaries are often described by trans activists as the ‘Cotton Ceiling’. A grotesque term which borrows from the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ that women must break through to advance their careers, the cotton ceiling refers to lesbian’s underwear. Yes, that’s right. In order to be fully validated ‘as a woman’ some heterosexual trans-identified males believe that they must smash through the underwear of lesbians with their womanly penises. This was a major theme of Allison Bailey’s employment tribunal as barrister after barrister made it clear that they believed breaking through the cotton ceiling was a noble endeavour and not at all evidence of a rape culture.

The most egregious example was from Cathryn McGahey QC, who as vice-chair of the Bar Council’s ethics committee had been consulted during an investigation into Allison Bailey’s tweet about a workshop designed to help overcome the Cotton Ceiling. McGahey started by repeating the all to familiar line that persuading a lesbian to sleep with a man who says he is a woman is not necessarily coercive, before diving headfirst into Stonewall levels of battshittery and comparing the workshop to “South Africa attempting to racially integrate society”. If helping men to integrate their penises with lesbians isn’t an example of rape culture, then what is?

McGahey was just following the path laid down by Nancy Kelley, who as CEO of Stonewall, believes that lesbians not wanting to sleep with trans-identified males is down to ‘societal prejudices’ and is akin to racism or ableism. And just like that we are back to rape culture – the idea that no does not actually mean no, that it’s the start of a negotiation. Let’s be honest – if you have to wheedle your way into sex, if you have to wear down your partner’s boundaries, if you have to suggest that it’s somehow ‘phobic’ to not interact with your penis, you are not taking part in a consensual sexual act, you are a rapist. 

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