‘TERF’ is a Gift to the Misogynistic ‘Left’

Note: This piece assumes that readers have a basic familiarity with what TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) means to transactivists, and that it is applied to women whose views are not in alignment with any facet of transactivism whether or not they are actually radical feminists.  Readers who are not familiar with this term may want to read the links provided at the end of this piece first, as time will not be spent on the term’s definition or lack of legitimacy.

The misogynistic left and progressives have always had a problem with women.  From socialist revolutions to anti-racist and indigenous rights movements to gay liberation, misogynistic leftists and progressives (abbreviated here to “misogynistic ‘left’” for simplicity’s sake)* have expected women to struggle in the service of ‘their’ men and to be silent about women’s oppression or to put women’s concerns on hold until men have achieved their goals.  In 1964, American Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael infamously said, “The position of women in [the organization] is prone.”  Whether he meant it as a joke or not–so often the excuse we still hear to this day–the statement was emblematic of the environment female activists endured throughout the left.  The misogyny of the New Left, an unbroken legacy of patriarchy’s thousands of years of existence, has not been resolved half a century later.

Radical feminists and other leftist feminists are quite familiar with misogyny from all points on the political spectrum.  However, this blanket condemnation of a subset of women who recognize the relevance of biological sex and gendered socialization–a minority of activists in neoliberal centres of capitalism, perhaps, but the vast majority of women worldwide–is uniquely weaponized by the misogynistic ‘left.’  In the past, it was more difficult for liberals leftists to find broad support for their overt misogyny because they were not as easily able to hide behind virtue-signalling in order to deflect criticism onto “problematic” women and turn focus onto ejecting women from their own movement.  The creation of the concept of ‘TERF’ has been a gift to the misogynistic ‘left,’ from the increasingly accepted and constantly escalating threats of violence to concrete acts of violence against women labelled ‘TERF.’

A brief examination of the functions of ‘TERF’ is important for understanding how its use has come to be an acceptable expression of misogyny.  Radical feminists and other theorists critical of the ‘TERF’ terminology have varying opinions about whether or not ‘TERF’ can be considered a slur or hate speech.  (Readers can consider the links in this post or do additional research and come to their own conclusions.)  However, these facts about ‘TERF’ are clear:

Regardless of the intent behind the creation of the ‘TERF’ label nearly a decade ago, it is clear that in 2017, ‘TERF’ is imposed upon women in order to prevent critical thought, silence, slander, dehumanize, threaten, instill fear, and in some cases, ruin lives.  Because these are the virtually inevitable and irreversible consequences of accusing someone of being a ‘TERF,’ any use of ‘TERF’ against an individual is a statement of acceptance of these consequences.

What is the solution, then, to this excuse of misogyny on “feminist” grounds?  Although misogyny will exist until patriarchy is eradicated, it can and must be opposed.

The primary responsibility belongs to men on the left.  Men, if you truly want to be allies to women, you will condemn misogyny, even against women you disagree with.  You must refuse to exploit the brand of ‘TERF’ or ‘SWERF’ in order to silence women, and recognize that terrifying women out of speaking or asking questions is not winning a debate.  You must not accept divide-and-conquer tactics being used to exploit rifts within feminism purely to undermine female solidarity and shared goals.  You must respect women’s right to our own spaces where your participation may not be welcome, and our right to define and shape our own movement without your uninvited input.  Most importantly, you must challenge the misogyny of other men and never allow it to be considered acceptable activism in your movements.

Women must recognize misogynistic tactics regardless of who they come from.  We must refuse the use of ‘TERF,’ ‘SWERF,’ and other anti-feminist labels.  We must not sacrifice other women on the altar of leftist misogyny–least of all the trafficked, impoverished, abused, and enslaved women and girls here and around the world for whom biology is all too consequential.  We must not fall for externally-created, artificial divisions between women and instead must work to end racism and uplift marginalized women within feminism.  We are not obligated to brand ourselves with a label that does not represent us, or that classifies us as subhumans deserving of violence.  We are not obligated to unquestioningly follow ideologies that deny material reality.  We are not obligated to shut up and do as we’re told.

Women who would be considered ‘TERFs’ have always been the left, and the left could not exist without us.  There is no liberation without the full liberation of women and the end of patriarchy.  It’s time for the rest of the left to realize that.

 

Further Reading on arguments for TERF as a slur or hate speech:
Deborah Cameron – What makes a word a slur?
Sarah Ditum – How ‘TERF’ works
Sarah Ditum – What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur
Terry MacDonald – Are you now or have you ever been a TERF?
TERF is a Slur: Documenting the abuse, harassment and misogyny of transgender identity politics
Meghan Murphy – ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech
Mumsnet Discussion on ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech
Sister Outrider – ‘Punch a TERF’ Rhetoric Encourages Violence Against Women

 

Footnote:
*The misogynistic ‘left’ is, unfortunately, not just men.  See Miranda Yardley’s videos for the perspective of a gender-critical transwoman who was a scheduled speaker and eye-witness to the attack at Speakers’ Corner.  Particularly notable is a young woman who says she’s “glad” that a transactivist hit a woman, and who is later seen flinching away from the aggressive action of the male attacker on ‘her side’ of the conflict.  Misogynistic men benefit from/instigate/encourage divisions between women, utilize women against each other, and discard them when they are no longer of use.  Women who side with misogyny eventually tend to find out that they are not safe from it.  However, since the root of this problem is patriarchy and the victims are largely women, the male misogynistic ‘left’ remain the focus of criticism.

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The Women’s March on Washington—Toronto

In response to the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, a Women’s March on Washington was held in the U.S. capital and sister marches were held in many cities across the world. The purpose of these marches was to protest the type of right-wing political sentiment that has increased across our continent as a result of Trump’s election, which has caused an increase in racist, misogynist and anti-immigrant attitudes, behaviors, and hate crimes in the United States as well as in Canada.

The mission of the Women’s March on Washington, from their web page, is the following:

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.

In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.

We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society. We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”

In Toronto, a women’s march also took place, and was attended by members of Radical Feminists Unite. We agree with many aspects of the march’s vision, such as the need to end racism, violence against women, and homophobia, and the need to protect worker’s rights. As radical feminists, we are against capitalist patriarchy and want justice for all people currently oppressed by systems of power.

womens-march-toronto
The Women’s March on Washington—Toronto. Photo by Jessica Wilkes

We have some criticisms to make, however, of the neoliberal nature of the march which seeks to be so “inclusive” of various identities that it fails to name women as a distinct class of people and refuses to name exactly where our oppression is coming from. The paragraph from the march’s Guiding Vision, available in their PDF statement, demonstrates this problem:

“We believe in Gender Justice. We must have the power to control our bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations and stereotypes. We must free ourselves and our society from the institution of awarding power, agency and resources disproportionately to masculinity to the exclusion of others.”

This statement about “gender justice” confuses what gender is and hides the reality of sex-based oppression in order to align itself with transgender politics. Women are oppressed because of our sex— that is, our female biology. The reason we are targeted for such hate crimes as rape, incest, sexual assault, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, and sexual slavery is because we are members of the class of people who can become pregnant and the system of patriarchy gives men power over us and the use of our female bodies. Women are not oppressed on the basis of our identities as women. Male abusers do not check to find out what a woman’s identity is before abusing her—if they did, they wouldn’t abuse any of us, because all of us identify as human beings deserving of rights and none of us identify in such a way as to invite male violence against us. Male abusers target women because they can identify that we are female and our patriarchal society gives them the power to harm females.

The paragraph above claims that power is given to “masculinity,” but this is not true—power is given to males. Women who display masculinity are not given any power; in fact, they are ostracized and they are targets for sexism due to the fact that they deviate from the social norms placed on women. It is males, as a class, who have power over females, as a class, and masculinity is a part of the social manifestation of that power.

It is terrible that a Women’s March would cater to a set of politics that erases the existence of the class of people who experience sex-based oppression, women. The politics and activism being put forward by the transgender community is in direct opposition to women’s rights, since it imagines women to be in a position of privilege over men who feel they have a gender identity, and seeks to eliminate sex-segregated spaces for women in order to include such men in women’s spaces. A Women’s March should recognize what women are (human females), should name sex-based oppression and should name the perpetrators and beneficiaries of patriarchy: men.

The March on Washington also claims to support ‘the sex workers’ rights movement.’ The ‘sex workers rights’ movement is a movement of people who support the sexual exploitation of women and girls, rebranding it as a woman’s choice. The term ‘sex worker’ can include anyone in the sex trade, including the perpetrators of crimes against women, such as pimps, procurers and profiteers, who obviously do not have the best interest of women in mind. The rebranding of prostitution as ‘sex work’ is a deliberate attempt to hide the violence inherent in prostitution and silence the voices of prostitution survivors. A march that was truly for women would take a position against the crime of prostitution, elevate the voices of the survivors who speak out, and demand that male abusers of women (pimps and johns) be held accountable for their violence.

Here in Toronto, survivors Natasha Falle and Bridget Perrier of the group SexTrade101 issued a statement to the local women’s march, after they attempted to use their photos on their page:

“As a prostitution survivor coalition (SexTrade101), we do not agree with your use of terminology (sex-work-er) when referring to the sexual exploitation and abuse of women in the sex trade. Your decision to legitimize this form of violence against women is both appalling and offensive to our survivor sisters (and bros). We do not wish to be affiliated with your March, as it excludes a countless number of voices who tell the truth about prostitution violence, and using terminology as such, discredits our traumatic experiences with pimps; escort owners/mgt, strip club owners/mgt, massage parlour owners/mgt, street level pimps, drug dealer pimps, etc, and buyers of sex.”

Natasha Falle & Bridget Perrier
Survivors of Prostitution
Founders
Sextrade101

womens-march-message

We believe in supporting the most marginalized women, not the most privileged. The majority of women in the sex trade are there due to lack of other options and wish to get out. It is those women who should be prioritized, not the vocal minority of women who claim empowerment through ‘sex work.’

Despite our differences with the stated mission of the march and some of their neoliberal politics, we found it necessary to attend the march, to show our solidarity with progressive values, to oppose the inauguration of Donald Trump and to bring with us a radical feminist message. We were pleased to see lots of signs that clearly focused on women’s rights and that contained images of female biology. Clearly, there is a large mass of women who still know who feminism is for. Although several of us noted that we felt it was dangerous to put explicitly radical feminist slogans on our signs, for fear of harassment, we did name male violence against women and misogyny on our signs. We felt that it was necessary to be clearly feminist in our messaging.

Two days after the march, we have seen the photos pouring in on social media and we’ve witnessed how large and widespread the women’s march has been. We’ve also seen the backlash coming from trans activists who complain the march focused too much on female biology. It is our hope that this event, and the reason behind it (Trump taking away women’s rights and a rise in misogyny in the country in general) will galvanize more women into feminist organizing. Our rights are always under attack, and over the next few years there will be lots of work to do.

Film Screening: Pornland by Gail Dines

On Saturday, April 9, seven members of Radical Feminists Unite got together for a potluck and film screening of Gail Dines’ documentary Pornland. You can rent this film for only $10 on this website and we highly recommend it.

Gail Dines

The film presents similar information to what she wrote about in her book by the same name. It describes how the porn industry is connected to other mainstream industries, the way porn has changed over the years and the violence perpetrated against female performers. The difference between the book and the film is that the film shows actual clips and screenshots from porn films and websites and therefore offers visual evidence of the violence that occurs. It was very difficult to watch, but very informative.

It is clear that the porn industry is deeply embedded within global capitalism, since mainstream industries such as banks, credit card companies, Internet companies, and hotel chains are all profiting from porn. Pornography is a business that sells violence against women for a profit.

We had an excellent discussion after viewing the film about the way pornography affects our lives and our relationships. We talked about the expectations that men have during sex and the way we navigate the dating world. We also talked about the reasons why women watch porn, such as a desire to look “cool” in front of boyfriends and being so used to misogyny that it’s hard to even see. Women who have watched porn uncritically and who haven’t had a chance to develop a feminist consciousness will often accept violence and abuse as normal in their intimate relationships—a terrible consequence of living in a porn culture.

If you are a woman in the Toronto area who would like to discuss the effects of porn culture in a female-only feminist environment, please contact us!

Impressions of IWD Toronto 2016

 IWD participants gather outside of OISE before the march.
IWD participants gather blurrily outside of OISE before the march.

The annual International Women’s Day march was held yesterday here in Toronto, drawing a turnout of around 3,000, according to CityNews.  Two of our members attended part of the rally and the march from OISE at the University of Toronto to the Student Campus Centre at Ryerson University.  Following are the impressions of one member speaking as a radical/socialist feminist, and not claiming to speak for every member of RFU.  These impressions come with the caveat that, due to the adventure of commuting by TTC on weekends, I missed most of the rally (up to the point of the final set of speakers) and did not visit every table at the fair.  

The Good:

  • The proletarian history of IWD was highly visible with various socialist/Marxist/communist groups present, and working class issues made central.  Many union and industry worker groups were behind banners, as well as 15 & Fairness, which aims to raise the minimum wage to $15 and create better conditions for low-income workers (we were near a Chinese contingent of this group that increased access to their message by carrying Chinese language signs).
  • The international intent of the day was not just lip service.  Groups representing workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Latin America, etc. were in the march.  (We were behind the Communist Party of Iraq, whose slogans included “No to Discriminating [Against] Women in Iraq,” “No to Iraqi Personal Code, which is inspired by Sharia,” and “Separation of Religion is the demand of Iraqi mass.”) Canadian First Nations women were at the forefront with Idle No More and demands for the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
  • After a great disappointment with Take Back the Night 2014 being used as a pulpit for the prostitution lobby, I had low expectations for acceptance of the sex commodification industry in large mainstream ‘feminist’ demonstrations like this one.  However, I did not personally see this happening at IWD.
  • IWD hasn’t been taken over by corporate interests like Pride unfortunately has (I say that as someone who marched in World Pride 2014).
  • There was some opportunity to carry forward with activism (more about my issues with this subject below).  The most concrete example of one organization giving women the means to do something tangible was the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.  They handed out stickers to put on TTC and street ads for crisis pregnancy centres in order to warn women that these organizations are anti-choice.
  • The march generated a lot of interest (and surprise) from people on the street.  I only heard one person yelling at us that we’re slaves and should go to hell or something.

The Not So Good:

  • As a proletarian event, I felt that the focus on women and the roots of our oppression was sometimes lost.  Women’s lived realities are of course inseparable from our class, race, immigration status, and so on, but women’s activism is uniquely expected to cater to every other issue, even if it means putting our oppression as women last on our list of concerns.
  • There was not as much female-erasing / trans-centric language as I feared, but there was a general lack of identifying the source of women’s oppression: patriarchy and men as a class.  What appeared to be the overarching theme of “No More Violence, No More Hate” does not name the perpetrator and holds no one accountable for misogyny.  The (hundreds) of men who attended got to pat themselves on the back for their participation without having to consider–much less change–their own misogynistic thoughts and behaviour.  In fact, there was so much focus on labour issues that it would be easy to march without having to think about women much at all.
  • Though I didn’t see pro-prostitution and porn messages at the march, I also didn’t see anything calling them out as violence against women.  (Please comment below if you saw messages about the ‘sex’ industry in either direction!)
  • Amnesty International was there.
  • This may be an inherent challenge for rallies and demonstrations like this, but I left with little sense of what we can do going forward other than “donate money” and the questionably effective “sign this petition.”  Consciousness-raising has long been a central component of radical feminism, so I respect that it’s necessary, but we can’t stop there.

Overall, it was encouraging to see everyone coming together in good spirits with some class consciousness and the desire to amplify the voices of marginalized women, but I left ambivalent about the effectiveness of the day.  To elaborate on my last point, as a radical/socialist feminist, I want to leave an event with the feeling that something has been accomplished, or the sense of a concrete plan going forward.  I didn’t leave feeling this way, but I hope that other women did.  I hope that they discovered new groups and women to build community with.  I hope that they find a way to engage with feminist activism that doesn’t set women back with empowerful pole dancing and Slutwalking.  I hope that the events of the day will inspire women to actually get involved with feminism, and not just stick on the label because the label is all the rage these days.

If you attended (or if you didn’t) and this post has clicked with you, please feel free to contact us via comment or email.  Let’s get together and plan the smashing of patriarchy!