How a public service broadcaster could have tackled the question of genital preferences

Chris Northwood
5 min readNov 2, 2021

Well, the past week has been a roller coaster of emotion for me as a trans person. It’s felt like vast swathes of the media sector see us as fair game, writing pieces influenced by those loud anti-trans voices which seem to inspect trans people as if we’re an “other”, peering at us through a window and coldly analysing us in an “unbiased” way. Of course, we’re not aliens, and these pieces seemingly take no account of our own humanity and the impact it has on us as a minority group. It has particularly hurt to see this come as viciously as it has from the BBC, an institution which I have a deep connection with.

So, let’s talk about that article. You know, the one that has the headline that says that some trans women are coercing people into having sex with them. (“Some”, of course, being left deliberately vague such that a person can read into the scale of the problem as they wish). Plenty has been said about the content of it, and another trans blogger screaming into the void won’t add much to. But then the response from the BBC appeared and it hurt. Especially the statement that the piece “provides appropriate context”. It shows an institutional lack of understanding of trans lives if they believe that the article contains appropriate context. This was then followed up by tweets from senior BBC journalists to hammer the nail in further, especially as some of those seem to misunderstand the subject of the anger towards the post, saying it’s appropriate for the BBC to cover this subject.

And you know what? They’re right! The question of “is genital preference transphobic?” is an interesting issue that has no clear answer, and is one that the BBC should be allowed to tackle. But the published piece takes such a narrow view of that question, that my criticism of the BBC instead focuses on the question: is this particular framing of the subject the most appropriate way to cover this story? Does it uphold the BBC’s public purposes? And does it do so in an unbiased way? To me it seems clearly not. The choice of headline and the lack of balance within the article are clear to me that this framing fails to inform audiences of the subject in a balanced way. It’s hard to read the article and not come away from it thinking “trans women are coercing people into sex”. Which is a play into the good old slur of trans women as “traps”.

Now, my time at the BBC was spent primarly in engineering roles, skirting close to production only when producing an interactive cookery show, and some live music and comedy events, but I did do a course on BBC editorial policy whilst I was there, am a published author and had a stint doing some student journalism during my time at York. So I’m going to let my hubris get the better of me, and have a go at a draft structure of how the BBC could have approached this issue instead. (I’ve annotated as I go to contrast it to the current article).

“As a lesbian I don’t want to have sex with a woman with a penis. Does that make me a transphobe?”

Still a bold and divisive question to grab someone’s attention, but sets the stage better for the topic to be addressed, rather than taking someone to a conclusion.

A section setting the scene — some lesbians don’t want to have sex with trans women who have penises, but they are being told that that is a transphobic position by some people (trans and cis).

A paragraph explaining that this isn’t a universally held position, and many trans women condemn anyone pressuring anyone into sex for any reason.

A sentence outlining that the subject is controversial and heated, with strongly held views on both sides.
The article has most of these first paragraphs but seems to have deliberately used provocative language, like bringing up Hitler, rather than approach it in a way that informs the audience. It uses the narrative device of using quotes from interviewees to give a sense of detachment from the issue as a way of maintaining BBC impartiality, but lacks editorial balance.

A section emphasising that the extent of people’s feelings and how many people feel pressured into ignoring genital preference into having sex with someone is really not understood well at all. Use individual stories instead of surveys to express this to the reader.
Better to use no survey than a bad survey with dubious provenance that could actively mislead an audience member into believing it.

A paragraph explaining that for some lesbians, the idea goes beyond genital preference and they would refuse to sleep with trans women no matter what they look like, who they are and what genitalia they have. Follow-up with explanation that many consider this to be bigotry hiding behind genital preference.
The existing article has this, apart from the last bit appears further down, so this adds some balance here.

A section bringing up the issue from the point of view of trans women, such as mentioning slurs like “traps” which are used to refer to trans women, and the increased risk of sexual violence a trans woman is subject to as a result. Use individual stories to make this idea seem concrete
This just doesn’t exist in the article — there’s absolutely no attempt to present this from the point of view of trans women and the risk genital preference presents to us, just attempts to force trans women into a defensive position against lesbians.

A follow-up paragraph bringing up how some cis people take genital preference the opposite direction and turn it into an object of fetishism through the use of trans women in pornography, or the concept of “chasers”.
Again, this section doesn’t exist and adds a different perspective to the question of genital preference.

A further section explaining how for many trans women they do not believe that genital preferences are discriminatory but can hide bigotry.
This is in the article, but buried quite deep, and under the heading “Who else was approached?” which, ngl, sounds more like the author covering their own back with some balance after they did most of their piece, rather than try to bake it in throughout.

A section talking about how trans lesbians can find it hard to form relationships either due to fear of judgement, bigotry or genital preferences themselves. Explain how t4t relationships are used by some as a way of avoiding this.
This section takes a very narrow look at it, primarily through a single phrase where the author seems to have struggled to find any evidence. Taking a broader approach would have been more informative.

Stories emphasising this this is primarily an online social media thing, and how the discussion is evolving online, and not just from the perspective of lesbians but trans people too. End with a summary showing how there’s no clear answer, it’s messy, and more research needed.

Things not to include: quotes from trans hate groups, quotes from people who call for every trans women to be killed, quotes from cis lesbians accused of sexual assault themself who allege to represent the views of trans women, and basically every story being about one side of the argument.

This is the piece the BBC could have run. It wouldn’t have been without controversy, but it would have been more balanced and met the BBC’s supposedly high editorial standards. I’m probably still shouting into the void, but maybe someone will listen and it’ll open some eyes inside the BBC.



Chris Northwood

A technologist wanting to share knowledge and iterate towards a better world.