Editors’ note: This article was temporarily taken down due to legal complaints. The complaints were duly investigated and this article has now been restored in its entirety.
As most Oxford students know, Oxfess is one of the primary (unofficial) forums for the student body. It is the go-to place to anonymously make complaints and ask questions, tell jokes and stories, debate on any number of subjects, getting advice, and more: depending on the level of controversy and the Facebook algorithm, an Oxfess post can reach many thousands of people.
Billing themselves as a forum for free speech (“Have beef? Unfinished drama? Got milk?”), the various iterations of Oxfess (my year-and-a-bit at Oxford has seen at least three different pages come and go) have gained a reputation for platforming offensive and controversial opinions to various extents (frequently removing them after complaints). As with most anonymous discussion pages, it is rather more unpleasant than the population it caters to. However, even by those low standards, I’ve been surprised by the number of blatantly transphobic posts on the newest iteration (which uses the tag #therealoxfess).
Although this piece is based on various confirmed (anonymous) sources and investigations, I feel it important to discuss the human impact of some of the issues I will raise, and I can only do so in personal terms.
There have been a significant number of transphobic submissions which have been accepted by the moderators and only deleted after an outcry in the comments section. It may be tempting to describe these instances as mistakes, and that may sometimes be the case—for example, the moderators may not have realised that a post defending Woman’s Place UK is transphobic. However, posts like the following:
“It shocks me each day that there are people possessing the intelligence to go to Oxford who not only go along with transgender language to be polite but genuinely believe the claims of current gender theory”
are clearly transphobic—I don’t see how it can be a mistake. That particular post was accepted just three minutes after being submitted, but the moderators waited two hours before removing it.
Last week, there was another post, responding to someone lauding Scotland for disagreeing with the recent High Court ruling on puberty blockers, by saying,
“Nope, just child abusers instead. Look when people are 18 and they want to make these decisions as adults, fine. But the high court correctly ruled that children cannot possibly understand the consequences of such a decision and that the idea that puberty blockers are life-saving treatment is absurd, and frankly it’s child abuse perpetuated by politically motivated virtue-signalling parents.”
Again, this is quite obviously transphobic, and again it was only later taken down. I include the full quotes to make it clear that the problems with these posts are not subtle or easy for moderators to miss. A relatively large number of such posts that have been published recently (and then removed): at this point, they are not exceptions, but the rule.
On the flip side, there is a clear pattern of moderators rejecting submissions that support trans rights or attempt to call out transphobia. In the past two weeks, there have been at least four submissions addressing the moderators directly, asking them to stop posting transphobic submissions or at least add a content notice: all were rejected. In the same time period, at least six other submissions calling out transphobic posts were rejected, while another six posts validating trans rights and identities were rejected.
While it is natural for Oxfess to reject some submissions (one previous iteration said they rejected about 30% of them), there appears to be no objective reason to reject so many pro-trans rights ones. Amongst the most innocent of those that were rejected were submissions saying,
“If being trans is bad, why are we so sexy”
“[…] trans people exist, gender fluid people exist, non cis people exist, please grow up if you don’t think they do”
and at least two posts explaining why ”puberty blockers are life-saving”. For a forum that prides itself on free debate, it is rather strange that they seem to be censoring the very voices that are most marginalised already (and their allies), some of whom seem willing to make the effort to engage in debates about their own existence and treatment.
When moderators reject sixteen pro-trans-rights posts, while accepting at least three transphobic ones in the same two-week period, it appears that the people running Oxfess are using their power to amplify transphobic voices and silence trans people. To be clear: I am not saying that these actions are intended maliciously. However, to many trans people such as myself, this feels like just another facet of the ingrained biases and prejudice we already face—why do so many transphobic posts ‘slip through’ when the affirming ones are rejected? Following Oxfess, one would imagine Oxford students to all be raging transphobes, while in fact, that illusion is the work of a small group of moderators who are—perhaps subconsciously—silencing trans people and amplifying transphobic views. So much for “free speech”.
This new Oxfess is notable in non-transphobia-related ways as well. Some of the moderators also run OxMatch (a blind-date service of sorts for students), and the newly founded OxFeuds. Specifically, one of the admins founded an access initiative and owns OxTickets, while another one recently ran unsuccessfully for Oxford Union President in the face of multiple racism allegations. This range of influence is concerning for multiple reasons.
Firstly, there is the issue of censorship. I’ve already described how Oxfess moderators censor trans people (some of the pro-trans-rights posts were rejected by the official OxMatch account, showing the link between it and Oxfess). However, they also censor other groups: the Oxfess moderators deleted posts advertising another blind dating service, and have rejected subsequent submissions relating to it, while continuing to accept submissions that praise OxMatch. A platform billed as a place for people to air their views anonymously seems to function as a megaphone for the moderators’ own opinions, biases, and interests.
Secondly, there is the issue of other forms of discrimination. My investigation was sparked by, and has focused on, the pervasiveness of transphobia on Oxfess. There have, however, also been complaints about racist, classist, and ableist posts. While one of the moderators has previously been accused of racism, it is unclear to what extent these posts reflect their personal views in general. However, it is quite concerning that people who start access initiatives, run dating services, have prominent roles in other societies, and have such a large platform might consider it acceptable to post such racist, classist, ableist, and transphobic submissions, or allow them to ‘slip through’. I’m concerned that the same biases that led them to accept discriminatory submissions and reject affirming ones might also affect their decisions elsewhere (e.g. when matchmaking or considering access issues). I don’t think I’d want to join a dating service run by someone who thinks it’s okay to post content that dehumanises and discriminates against people like me.
In addition, anonymous confession sites (especially Oxfess, but others as well) are frequently advertised as voices of the community to prospective students. This is already an issue because, as I’ve said before, such pages are usually controversial and unrepresentative of the student body, but when such a page is actively being used to promote discrimination and prejudice, it can discourage prospective students from applying. It is another example of the racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia that is so pervasive at Oxford.
Finally, there is an accountability and transparency issue. It is natural that moderators want to remain anonymous, and there’s generally not much anyone can do about it. But, as I’ve said before, it is genuinely concerning if they use their power to do harm (as seems to be the case here), and it is also concerning when they have such influential roles in societies and university life. There is a disconnect between the right to remain anonymous, and the responsibilities and scrutiny that come with power, and that is a problem that is yet to be resolved.
It is clear that the moderators of Oxfess have the power to silence some groups while platforming others. They have used that power to help create a more oppressive environment for trans people and other marginalised groups at Oxford. At the same time, they trumpet inclusivity for their other projects (and censor competing ones). As far as I’m aware, this level of censorship and influence is unique to this iteration of Oxfess and these particular moderators. But that does not mean we should take it any less seriously.
When approached for comment, Oxfess responded, “On every occasion that someone has told us they want a post taken down, we have done so within minutes. No questions asked.”