When does it matter to know whether someone was born male or female? This question has recently become the focus of a sensitive debate.
Early this year several papers reported that a woman had been found guilty of downloading horrifying videos of child sexual abuse.
It is extremely rare for women to be convicted of such offences. So a case like this stands out and is newsworthy. It nudges us towards thinking a little differently about women.
But should it? What happens if it emerges that a person convicted in these circumstances was born male?
The press reports in such cases will take their lead from advice issued to the courts and the media about how to handle cases involving transgender people.
They have been told that as far as possible, people should be described based on whether they identify as a woman or a man (their “gender identity”), and their sex treated as private information.
Many might assume that such advice only affects the very small number of people who have either undergone what is sometimes called sex change surgery, and/or have gone through the formal process of changing their sex in law.
But the advice here covers a much larger group, to which neither of these conditions apply.
Nor is this just about individual cases. It also affects the reliability of the figures that underpin policy-making and resource allocation.
Rise in abuse cases raises questions
It was recently reported in England that the number of women convicted of child sexual abuse had nearly doubled in the last five years.
But it turned out that no-one could say how much of this increase was because the authorities have begun to record cases as female that in the past would have been logged as male.
A recent FoI response from Police Scotland suggests the same problem will apply here.
It said that if a rape or attempted rape is perpetrated by a “male who self-identifies as a woman … the male who self-identifies as a woman would be expected to be recorded as a female on relevant police systems.”
Recording gender identity instead of sex is mainly justified by privacy concerns. There are times when it really is no-one’s else’s business what sex another person is.
But there are also times when accurately reporting sex matters, because the experiences and behaviours of men and women are so different.
Public trust at stake
At the heart of this are questions about truth and trust. The risk here is of the media and public institutions losing the latter.
The response when the child abuse case was first reported showed this.
Within days, people were scouring public records and posting material on social media, to prove what appears already to have been known to those in the local community, those present in court, or both: that this was not in fact a case of female offending.
This surely cannot have felt like an ideal outcome to anyone.
Newspapers will rightly be wary of publishing anything that risks feeding an unfair negative narrative about trans people.
But public opinion polling shows that there is in fact a very high degree of sympathy for people who feel distress at being born one sex and take steps to reduce that by changing aspects of how they live.
Newspapers should trust their readers to be able to distinguish between one case and an entire group. Reporting should be neither misleading nor sensationalist.
An election issue?
“When does it matter to know someone’s sex?” may not be a question that Holyrood candidates are expecting to deal with on the doorstep over the next few weeks.
And with lives turned upside down over the past year, it might not look so important. But recent times have shown us how much public trust in the media and in official statistics matters to a working democracy.
Recent events show how the local press can suddenly find itself right at the sharp end of this global issue.
Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a former senior civil servant and postgraduate research student at the University of Edinburgh who works as part of policy analysis collective MurrayBlackburnMackenzie.