You can only expect so much objectivity from a podcast with a title like The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. Its latest installment, however, still somehow manages to lower the bar from floor level. This week, we’re apparently diving into a toilet before giving it a good flush. It’s time (once again, for some reason) to discuss J.K. Rowling’s ongoing and already widely debunked “concerns” about trans women in public restrooms.
For the uninitiated, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling comes from Bari Weiss’ new media company The Free Press and purports to explore the ongoing controversy surrounding the Harry Potter author and the many anti-trans remarks she’s made over the years. We began with a mind-numbing two-episode premiere filled with digressions that established Rowling as the podcast’s clear protagonist, and last week we pivoted to the online “culture wars” (with a lot more dog whistles and digressions).
This week’s episode finally arrives at what might just be the meaty section of the podcast. At least, the title—“TERF Wars”—leaves little mystery about its content. As for its perspective? Let’s just say it’s telling that Rowling is allowed to call the word “TERF” a slur without further “debate” while simultaneously raising one questionable point after another. Near the beginning of the episode, The Atlantic critic Helen Lewis—whose own writing about trans people has stoked controversy in the past—tellingly informs us that in her estimation, “‘TERF’ is basically ‘witch.’”
As with each episode before it, “TERF Wars” works overtime to provide the illusion of objectivity while in reality, everything about its construction seems designed to advance a very specific narrative about Rowling and the firestorm around her. The podcast features a couple of trans people as expert sources, but seemingly only when their views support those of its subject. (One of those experts, the YouTuber ContraPoints, disavowed the podcast before its premiere.) This week, we hear from trans psychologist Erica Anderson, who told the Washington Post in 2018 that she’s concerned teens are exploring their gender identities because it’s “trendy” right now.
Four episodes in, it speaks volumes that host Megan Phelps-Roper has not yet interviewed a single trans person who disagrees with Rowling. Instead, Rowling is given free rein to unspool her thoughts about trans people, and especially trans women, unchecked. In the end, we get a comical conversation between Phelps-Roper and New York Times opinion writer Michelle Goldberg, who receives the hilarious assignment of theorizing about why trans people feel the way they do about the “debate” surrounding their own rights. Could The Free Press not find a single trans person who could tell them directly? Ouch!
This week’s episode focused on all the old anti-trans chestnuts we’ve seen in recent years—“concerns” about trans women in sports, trans women in “women-only” private spaces, and young people seeking to medically transition. We also start with some more digressive “context”—in this case, the development of the first women’s domestic violence shelters in 1970s U.K., when Rowling was young—as grounding for her future perspective.
“My feminism must remain grounded in the sex class and the oppressions my sex class suffer,” Rowling says. “That’s the basis of our oppression. That’s my understanding of why certain things have happened to me.”
“TERF Wars” also takes great pains to distinguish between Rowling’s polite worries about trans people being able to use the bathroom they want and the right-wing anti-trans vitriol that has spread through legislatures across the world in recent years. But the episode also advances talking points that even its own experts acknowledge as not entirely reflective of reality. For instance: Should the fact that in 2018, one trans person admitted to sexually assaulting female inmates at a women’s prison preclude all trans women from being housed in women’s prisons or even using women’s public restrooms?
Women’s changing rooms were among Rowling’s chief concerns back in 2020, when she penned the manifesto that first poured the kerosene on this discourse dumpster fire. Then, like now, the risk does not seem to be supported by data—only by anecdote and personal fear. A 2018 study from the the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found no link between trans-inclusive policies and bathroom safety, and a 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics study did find that restrictive bathroom and locker room policies may be associated with higher risk of sexual assaults against trans youth.
It’s also worth remembering that policing a vulnerable population’s access to bathrooms is not a new idea. Before trans people became the danger du jour, it was gay people who were supposedly lurking in the stalls waiting for an unsuspecting straight person to brutalize. And before that, we had segregated bathrooms based on race.
Rowling acknowledges during the podcast that not all trans people are predators, but she also insists, “All a predator wants is access.” Still, she declines to make a suggestion as to what all the non-predator trans people should do when all they want to do is use the bathroom that matches with their gender identity.
The near-billionaire author has never lacked for a platform to express her views unchecked; she’s done so constantly on social media and on her blog, and her opinions never fail to capture attention. The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling dutifully expands on that work with interviews and recorded audio of protests that make trans demonstrators sound as terrifying as Rowling seems to find them. (Disembodied yelling always sounds scary, especially when set against the drab sonic background of two people soberly talking.)
There’s a particularly telling moment at the end of this week’s episode when Goldberg discusses a controversial piece she wrote last year for the New Yorker, titled “What Is a Woman?” After listeners hear a series of vitriolic online threats made against “feminists” voicing certain views about trans people that Goldberg included in her piece, the writer clarifies, “Those quotes that you just read—I don’t think those people are representative of the trans rights movement. But nevertheless, there’s a lot of feminists who feel, like, aggrieved at people constantly saying ‘If you don’t recognize me as a woman, I’m going to rape you.’”
That is, of course, a terrible thing to tell anyone. But if it’s not representative of the movement, why is it a point of discussion at all? If we’re acknowledging, as the podcast does, that even with trans-inclusive policies, the bodily threat to women remains statistically minuscule, why bring it up at all? This week’s episode at least finally acknowledged the very real legislative attacks being made against trans people—after three episodes of steadfastly refusing to do so—but it does so almost as an aside, near the very end.
And even then, the last word must be Rowling’s, as she discusses (again) what made her speak on this issue in the first place—because apparently, that’s more valuable to hear than, say, any actual trans people discussing that aforementioned oppression at the hands of the state. Maybe next week, we’ll get to hear from a trans person who actually disagrees with Rowling. Based on what we’ve heard so far, however, that would require a real plot twist—and a good bit of magic.