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The Gayle Newland case is startling, but not for the obvious reason

November 13, 2015

Gayle Newland was convinced of sexual assault yesterday, for “posing as a man” while having sex with a woman she met online. The words in quotes come from the Metro, which makes no secret in its disgust and incredulity over the matter.

Undoubtedly, there was deceit here that led to a violation – Newland duped somebody into thinking she was someone she wasn’t, and that is never OK. People are misusing the internet to this effect all over the world – this is hardly the first fake identity set up on dating profiles, under the delusion that this will help with individual “find love.” People cut their faces out of profile pictures, they lie about their age and use outdated or deliberately ambiguous photos.

Lying about your sex and using a completely fabricated identity is the extreme end of this, and there is a cautionary tale here – the victim was overly trusting to agree to being blindfolded during every sexual encounter. Alarm bells should have gone off the moment she was asked to wear a blindfold during a sexual encounter for anything other than kinky reasons. She agreed because Newland make up a reason about body embarrassment due to scars. The fact that the victim didn’t think too much about it until after several encounters says something alarming about how overly trusting we can be in situations where suspicion works in our favour. In other words, more education on the matter is needed.

I said that Newland made up a reason for the blindfold by saying she was embarrassed about her body. But, that in itself is clearly not untrue. I cannot think that someone who binds their breasts and curves, wears a prosthetic penis during sex and throughout everything pretends to be biologically male can possibly be comfortable with their body. Indeed, this is more serious than a few scars: her lawyers said that she had “developed her alter-ego from the age of 13, later finding it hard to tell reality from fantasy” (Metro).

Yet, there is not a hint of any sympathy for Newland’s confused gender or sexual identity. She will go to a women’s prison, automatically a sign that those issues are being roundly ignored. Throughout this whole thing, it’s the reaction of Judge Roger Dutton that alarms me the most. He called her “an intelligent, obsessional, highly manipulative, deceitful, scheming and thoroughly determined young woman.”

I wasn’t in the court so I don’t know the details, but that sounds like the kind of insult that comes from the gut and not from the evidence. He paid a lot of credence to the victim’s view of the situation: she said that the victim poisoned her life and “took her youth”. I’m not sure how that’s possible, since the perpetrator and the victim were the same age. We aren’t looking at an older person online, a predator who picks up young and innocent girls.

To start with, these people were both 25. I am 25, and I am unlikely to consent to being blindfolded by someone I’ve never met during multiple sexual encounters over a few scars. The victim in this case agreed to that, and feels that their life has been poisoned by the deception. Deception happens a lot in sexual encounters – many people feel upset by it, but it is not an issue of law. Indeed, I’m not sure what about this is a matter of law – lying online; having sex with someone who willingly wears a blindfold without evidence of any coercion; or wearing a prosthetic penis.

I question how traumatic it can be to discover that your lover is not the biological sex they said they were. Yet, people seem to react with such visceral disgust, verging on fear, during discussion of the mere possibility of it. What makes it so bad, that it can be counted as abuse? Enquiring minds want to know. Meanwhile, people like Newland know that they will never be accepted as male during sex if they are not male. Little wonder then, that they pretend.

Then there is the question of whether deception itself is abusive. I wonder to what extent the knowledge of deception in sexual matters equates to abuse. Does having lied about the context in which one has had sexual relationships effect people so badly, that it should be legally counted as abuse? I do not know the answer; until we all do know what effect deception has, we will have many more cases like this.

Once we know that deception in sexual relationships is abusive, we can begin a drive in education against this type of dishonesty. But in order for it to be credible, and thus change people’s behaviour, we have to be able to show that negative effect and its severity. Not to mention its reach over time; a person’s immediate feelings about the matter might not justify a criminal case because this response may fleeting and thus insignificant.

To some extent, law intervenes to exact revenge in the place of the victim upon the perpetrator – however, if it overplays this role by punishing too harshly one individual just to pander to the knee-jerk response of another, it misses the nuance of the situation; it ignores, as the judge in this case has, the perpetrator’s personal problems and possible issues with society.

In addition, no one seems to be questioning the mental state of the victim. If she is so upset by deception, so upset by the sex of her sexual partner, and so willing to wear a blindfold during sex with a stranger, she might not be mentally healthy herself. Clearly, Newland is not. Convicting someone who has mental problems is one thing; convicting them off the back of the testimony of someone who also has problems sounds like a gross injustice.

Something insidious lies at the heart of the story, and it has nothing to do with lies and fake identities. It is the obvious question; why would someone undertake such a spectacular deception simply to to engage in a relationship with someone of the same sex? The lawyers say that Newland has had problems with gender and sexuality since the age of 13. Evidently, this problem was not addressed. I wonder what kind of society Newland has been living in to feel the need to go to such lengths just to have sex that (s)he found fulfilling.

We’re surrounded on all sides by people who question a person’s right to express their gender and sexuality the way that suits them best. What this case shows is that restricting this, and the subsequent toll it takes on honesty during sexual and romantic relationships, is actually dangerous.

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