Author JK Rowling (Image: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP, File)

When is it OK to send someone a death threat? Occasionally? Sometimes? How about never? 

A week ago, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper published a review of Troubled Blood, the latest book from best-selling author JK Rowling, which she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It contained the following sentence: “One wonders what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress.”

In fact, the review was seemingly written purely to provoke outrage. There is no transgender character in the 927-page book; just a male character who disguises himself in a woman’s coat and hat to approach a victim.  

Transgender YouTube star Rose of Dawn said on UK television last week that the book was not offensive to trans people; in fact there was only one line in the book where the killer’s cross-dressing was actually mentioned.

“There is no trans rhetoric coming out of this book at all,” she said.

Nevertheless, the reaction to the Telegraph review was immediate. The hashtag #RIPJKRowling started trending on Twitter, indicating that it had been used tens of thousands of times. Many of the tweets including threats of rape and murder.

Women in the public eye routinely receive death threats for making statements which earn their male counterparts almost no reaction. A few men have made public statements in support of Rowling’s views to muted response.

Here in Australia, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and chief health officer (CHO) Jeannette Young were given round-the-clock police guards due to death threats they received over the relaying of COVID rules. At the same time, Victorian CHO Brett Sutton — whose messaging has been almost identical — is the subject of adulatory articles about his physical attractiveness. Photos of him have even been printed onto bedlinen.  

Rowling, who wrote the best-selling Harry Potter series, has become a figure of controversy over her belief in the science of sex as opposed to gender. In June, she released this statement setting out her views. According to Rowling and other “gender-critical” feminists, how we define “women” is crucial to many issues including the gathering of data around crime, employment, pay and health statistics, and the monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap.

These beliefs conflict with those of transgender rights activists, who have been lobbying for anyone who self-identifies as a woman to be given access to women-only spaces, including sporting teams, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis services. 

According to philosophy academic Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, the death and rape threats to Rowling are designed to stop other women from speaking out. 

“The response to JK Rowling has been hateful, vindictive, and wildly disproportionate,” she told Crikey. “What was her crime? Having opinions while female. She had the audacity to defend women-only spaces, because she has experienced domestic violence and knows why we need them, and because she donates money to foundations providing women-only services and understands that these are under threat.” 

UK-based political campaigner Kristina Harrison told Crikey that many politically vocal trans people “have swallowed a very dogmatic and intrinsically misogynistic narrative around identity, one that simply cannot permit any acknowledgement of men and women as meaningful biological realities”.  

“This dogma … inevitably leads people to (unjustly) attack, demonise as transphobic and dehumanise women like JK Rowling, including with the appalling RIP hashtag, because as a prominent woman with a mass following, she had the temerity to dare say the impermissible: that women and girls exist as a sex, have unique needs, interests and rights, unique biological issues and sex-based oppression issues which are of great significance to most of them.”

Nicki Norman, acting CEO at Women’s Aid Federation of England, said on Twitter that she condemned “the abuse of women that’s been so visible on social media recently and ask that people consider the harmful impacts of this on all women. The violent verbal abuse of women in public life is intrinsically linked to the abuse of women in private.”

“For those asking, yes of course I mean JK Rowling, along with the many other women who are experiencing misogynistic abuse online. And I know what I’m seeing is just the tip of an iceberg,” she added.

Whatever’s happening on Twitter, it seems to have had little effect on the author’s book sales. Despite the social media photos of former fans publicly burning books, Troubled Blood has topped the sales charts wherever it has been released. Hachette Australia confirmed that 35,000 copies had been shipped to Australia for the launch and that the book had sold 100,000 copies on its first day in the UK market. 

In 2020, it’s perfectly valid to debate Rowling’s views on sex and gender. But does the author deserve rape and death threats? Absolutely not. 

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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