Professor clashes with journal over trans women in study sample

Jo Phoenix says researchers need a ‘decent database’ to get beyond ‘political mantras’

September 10, 2021
Woman in handcuffs
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“I tweeted because I was pissed off,” said Jo Phoenix, professor of criminology at the Open University.

“I’m a senior professor, known across the world, well-published – and it’s the very first time I’ve had a publication accepted and then rejected.” She was referring to a thread about correspondence she had had with The Lancet Psychiatry concerning a paper it published in May.

This was titled “Associations between significant head injury and persisting disability and violent crime in women in prison in Scotland, UK”. The lead author was Tom McMillan, professor emeritus at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing. The study recruited 109 of the 355 women held in four Scottish prisons and carried out a statistical analysis indicating that suffering from a significant head injury was “associated with violent crime but not other crimes”. Such a finding, argued the authors, was “consistent with predicted behavioural effects of reduced emotional control and impulsive aggression” and now needed “to be taken into account in rehabilitation programmes in the criminal justice system”.

“I haven’t got a problem with the overall objective of the study,” Professor Phoenix told Times Higher Education, but she did feel that one statement raised significant methodological issues: “Five of the individuals [in the sample] identified as transgender women.”

“A sample has to be coherent,” she explained, “and the inclusion of trans women adulterates the sample” – in three separate ways. Most obviously, this was because “biological sex is not just a strong independent variable but the strongest predictor of crime…Criminal statistics show us continuously that men are more violent than women.” Second, cis women were “likely to have higher instances of head injuries than trans women because most of the women who end up in prison in this country are there because they’ve had really complicated pasts which often involve domestic violence”. Finally, the study did not make clear whether the five women concerned were “self-identifying as trans women or in possession of a Gender Recognition Certificate…Those two categories are socially located in quite different ways.”

In order to raise such concerns, Professor Phoenix and others wrote a letter to The Lancet Psychiatry arguing that, “in the analysis of phenomena where women’s experiences are markedly different from men’s, the inclusion of males in the female category has the potential to skew research findings significantly”. This was accepted for publication and later rejected on the grounds that the editorial team had decided that “the points it makes do not add substantially to the scientific issues raised in the original paper”. A spokesperson for the Lancet journals declined to offer any further clarification and Professor McMillan did not respond to a request for a comment.

This is not the first time that Professor Phoenix’s views on transgender issues have attracted controversy. A seminar on “trans rights, imprisonment and the criminal justice system” that Professor Phoenix was due to deliver at the University of Essex in December 2019 was cancelled after protesters described her as a “transphobe”, although the university later admitted to “serious mistakes” and apologised for “infring[ing] your freedom of speech without justification”. How far was her response to the particular paper linked to her views on wider transgender issues?

“When people think I’m just being trans-exclusionary,” she responded, “I get a little frustrated because my starting point to all this is: how do we know? If we haven’t got a decent database, all we are doing is reproducing this, that or the other political mantra…The ability to describe, in really simple but not transphobic terms, sameness and difference is absolutely the single foundation upon which any criminological research should be based.”

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Reader's comments (1)

This is really shoddy journalism. Terrible, unclear writing throughout.