Ending Demand: The Sisterhood vs The Sex Industry

A brief foreword: this essay is an account of Julie Bindel’s talk at an event hosted by Holyrood’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation on Tuesday the 4th of June, 2019. I hadn’t initially planned to write about it, but this series of essays is specifically focussed on women’s rights – and the sex industry systematically violates those rights on a scale that cannot be ignored. You can read part one here, and part two here.

Dedicated to Julie, who inspired me to be a proud lesbian feminist.


Decriminalising the sex trade means decriminalising violence against women and children. This is the title of the talk Julie Bindel is giving at an event hosted by the Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation. When my invitation arrives, I don’t hesitate before accepting. That it will take me five hours to get to the venue in Edinburgh and back again is a small concern. Julie has devoted much of her adult life to challenging and campaigning to end all forms of male violence against women and girls. She is a meticulous researcher, and has travelled across continents to document the harms on which the sex industry is built. The opportunity to learn from her is a gift.

I arrive half an hour early and whip out my knitting. Anxiety makes earliness feel like being on time, and being on time feel like lateness. The venue is part of a chain of hotels and resorts that run my grandmother’s timeshare in the highlands of Scotland. Although I have never been to this particular hotel, there is a welcome familiarity to it. And even though we haven’t met before, some of the women filtering in recognise me as the author of this blog or @ClaireShrugged from Twitter. In this context – a room full of women – I have the sensation of being seen and fitting into a community.

When Julie joins us, she envelopes me in a hug. I am delighted to see her again – this time, up north. We’ve had our share of disagreements, yet I am properly fond of her. Julie is a woman who says what she means, and means what she says. Although Julie’s irreverent way of talking about feminist politics has been the subject of more than one controversy, it’s also her greatest strength. Julie is straightforward and wickedly funny in a way that wins people over to feminist causes far more than any stilted performance of wokeness. I sometimes wonder if my generation has lost an element of feminist joy that comes so naturally to Julie. While every feminist has a responsibility to herself and her sisters, the women’s liberation movement won’t travel very far if every step is tentatively made.

We go into the conference room, and it’s encouraging to see politicians from different parties and branches of government gathered to listen to this talk on the sex industry. While we’re waiting, I strike up a conversation with an academic who has been pushed out of her staff LGBT Pride Network – which has never been a particularly welcoming place for lesbians – because she resists the idea that gender is an innate, biologically fixed quality. We have both lost friendships with straight women for differentiating between sex and gender in our feminist analysis. For all the social and legal gains made in recent years, this is an isolating time to be a lesbian.

Ruth Maguire MSP, who is Co-Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, welcomes us to the event and introduces Julie with great enthusiasm. She talks about Julie’s work as a journalist, researching and reporting on various forms of male violence against women and girls. As Ruth highlights the importance of her work as co-founder of Justice for Women, I feel frustrated that purity politics prevents more feminists from recognising the tangible good that Julie’s work has brought to countless women’s lives.
img_1482Julie is here to tell us about the research conducted for her book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. She advocates the decriminalisation of selling sex and the criminalisation of buying it – what’s known as the Nordic Model. To Julie, it is abhorrent that any prostituted person should be punished by the legal system. In this we are agreed. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, 85% women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse. Research by CARE describes prostitution as “one of the most dangerous occupations in the world”; it is a minority of women who do not experience violence within the sex trade.

As Julie points out, the vast majority of people selling sex are women. Sex buyers are, overwhelmingly, male – and Julie has more than a few choice words to describe them. In prostitution, we see the sexual politics of patriarchy writ large. Feminists cannot work towards ending male violence against women and girls without engaging fully with the misogyny underpinning the sex trade. The women who survive the sex trade, and the many who do not, are our sisters in feminist struggle.

In my view, those survivors spearheading the abolition movement represent the very best of the feminist movement. I have had the honour of hearing testimonies given by women who have survived prostitution and are now campaigning to end demand. The courage of women like Fiona Broadfoot, Ali-Marie Diamond, Mickey Meji, Ne’cole Daniels, and Bridget Perrier is an inspiration. For all that they have suffered, each of these women works to make the world a safer place for women and girls. I don’t have the words to capture the sheer generosity of spirit this requires. The most powerful voices in the abolition movement are those belonging to the women who have survived the sex industry – and these are the voices Julie amplifies.
img_1502To radical feminists like Julie, it is evident that prostitution hinges on inequality. Hierarchies of race and class as well as gender dictate which women are most vulnerable to the sex industry. Across Europe, “there are so many women in prostitution, many of these women having been imported – by pimps – from African countries.” Julie rejects the professional language used to cover up the reality of this situation, such as the phrase “migrant sex worker.” In her words, the sex industry would have us believe that large groups of African women are “hopping on planes to Sweden to do a bit of sex work.” Trafficking is not spontaneous or casual, but a systematic exploitation of impoverished women living in the global south.

In Julie’s eyes, people who are fine with prostitution but opposed to trafficking are following a twisted logic. Trafficking and prostitution are fundamentally connected. The two cannot be neatly separated, each made into a distinct phenomenon. The sex industry is reliant on trafficking to fulfil demand. Government research shows that only 19% of women working as prostitutes in British flats, parlours and saunas were born in the UK.
The trafficking of women is not an anomaly, but part and parcel of the global sex trade. The EVAW Coalition describes Britain as “a significant site of international and internal child trafficking”; the majority of children trafficked in Britain are aged 14-17, and have been trafficked for sexual abuse and exploitation.

Julie identifies a pattern. Arguments that the buying of sex should be legalised tend to frame it as a rights issue. Decriminalisation is positioned as progressive, likened to legalising gay sex. Words like ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are used by lobby groups to tell us that women want to sell sex. They assert that “it’s a woman’s right to be a sex worker.” But in this process, the men buying the sex are made invisible. We should be asking why men believe they have the right to buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Julie directs a question towards the audience, and it will stay with me for hours afterwards: “What else do we call a sexual act between two people where only one of them is consenting and finding pleasure?”

If indeed these acts of physical and psychological violence occurred in another context, they would be considered as sexual attacks, cruelty, abuse and rape. Why is it that when they occur within prostitution, they are not considered as such? Is it the money that makes them different?European Women’s Lobby

img_1489During her research, Julie has travelled everywhere from New Zealand to Nevada. There are European countries in which a man can pay €60 for a beer, a burger, and the opportunity to abuse as many women as he pleases. Perhaps naively, I am shocked that women’s bodies are served to men alongside food and drink. As Julie talks about everything that she has witnessed, I am filled with admiration at her courage. Documenting the systematic abuse of women, recording and analysing the details of this degradation, is essential feminist work. But it must be difficult to absorb so much human suffering on this scale.

There is one encounter that weighs on her particularly. At a café in Cambodia, a white British man was buying a 16 year old boy to go home and live with him. The parents had agreed, accepting a sum of money from him, and he phoned the British embassy to make the necessary arrangements. 16 is the age of consent. To classic liberals, there is no ethical issue. To those of us campaigning against the sex industry, there is everything wrong with this situation. It is the result of an unholy union between colonialism and capitalism.

In Ukraine, Julie came across a white man from Delaware, Texas who was looking to buy a bride. Bob was approximately 60 years old and recently widowed. He was looking for a young replacement for his wife and opted for a Ukranian woman in the hope that “she would be submissive and compliant”, unlike the women back home who were “too modern” for Bob’s taste. The word “modern”, according to Julie, is easily substituted with “feminist.” Bob wanted a woman easily controlled; someone pliable and impressionable enough to accept his (mis)treatment.

A minority of men currently demand prostitution, but prostitution demands something of them too. They have to be proficient in viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects. It is a prerequisite for a man actually being able to stand having sex with a woman who doesn’t freely want to have it with him, let alone desiring this and forking out for the privilege. In paying for sex, not only do punters deem consideration of the genuine feelings and wants of women they are paying a trifling irrelevance to the act, many require the performance of the brutal charade that [prostituted women] don’t even possess these basic human faculties. – Kat Banyard, Pimp State

Policy makers are told by the sex trade lobby that New Zealand Model is ideal. This means that prostitution, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are all legal. Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue that legalising commercial brothels is preferable, because it means that women in prostitution don’t have to work on the street – where they are more vulnerable to men’s violence. But since New Zealand fully decriminalised the buying and selling of sex fifteen years ago, street prostitution has quadrupled.

The intensity of men’s violence against women in prostitution is horrifying. I find most of Julie’s anecdotes deeply upsetting. In particular, the story she tells about meeting a young woman whose bones had been so badly broken by johns that she needed a zimmer frame to walk – something that plenty of sex-buyers liked. Her health had been ruined by men’s violence, along with drug and alcohol addiction. Research shows that 87% of women involved with street-based prostitution in Britain use heroin. When men’s violence is an everyday reality, any form of escape would be welcome.

The Nordic Model isn’t perfect, in Julie’s view, but “there is a normative shift when the buying of sex is criminalised.” Cultural values are more important than the letter of the law. In the future, Julie wants to see generations of girls and boys raised to see buying sex in the same light as smoking in a public building: unthinkable, harmful, a departure from acceptable behaviour. She doesn’t believe the law alone should be a deterrent. Rather than seeing men in jail for abusing women, Julie wants the pandemic of male violence to cease altogether – and with it, the demand for prostitution.
img_1507While a lot of what Julie describes makes for difficult listening, the alternative is looking away – which means being complicit in the violence men enact against women and children around the world. Julie’s vision of a world free from the sex industry makes me feel optimistic. As she points out, no other manifestation of inequality is treated like it’s inevitable. Child poverty has existed for as long as prostitution, and – rightly – many people work to abolish it. In the same spirit, we must band together and collectively work to dismantle the sex industry.

I leave the hotel with a copy of Julie’s book tucked under my arm. Walking back to Edinburgh Waverley, I try to envision a world in which the choices available to women aren’t defined by poverty, racism, or gender. Even my choice of route to the station – where and when I will walk through which streets – is influenced by a fear of male violence. We have a long way to go. But with women like Julie at the vanguard, a feminist revolution feels possible.

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Lessons from Canada: On Women’s Libraries and Liberation

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. (You can read the first, my account of Meghan Murphy’s talk at the Scottish Parliament, here.) This essay describes the phenomenal talk Bec Wonders gave at the For Women Scotland event held on Friday the 14th of May, detailing her experiences as co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and the value of knowledge produced by second wave feminists. Again, this is my personal account of the event. Although I have tried to be faithful to each contribution in letter and spirit, there is always the potential for human error.

Dedicated to Bec, who truly is a wonder. Never have I met a woman with a more fitting name.


Secret locations and covert meetings are typically associated with espionage, not feminist politics. And yet, in the year 2019, women are often forced to keep the venue secret if we are to meet up and discuss our rights in safety. It is essential for any oppressed group to organise collectively if we are ever to overthrow the system that makes us marginal – in this case, patriarchy. Despite the fresh waves of criticism and controversy, there is a new wave of women’s groups starting to form across the United Kingdom.

Down south there is Woman’s Place UK, who have run a series of successful panel discussions about women’s sex-based rights and recently released a manifesto. Their aims include universal free childcare, sustainable investment in the women’s sector, and increased representation of women in public life. And here up north we have two new grassroots groups campaigning around women’s rights: Women and Girls in Scotland, and For Women Scotland. I have been following their work with interest. And so, when For Women Scotland release tickets for an event in Glasgow, I book a place.

 

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Lessons from Canada is the second official meeting co-ordinated by FWS. The speakers are Meghan Murphy, editor of Feminist Current, and Bec Wonders, co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and doctoral researcher. The day before the event, FWS contacts ticket holders directly with the venue details. Boarding the train to Glasgow, I am filled with a sense of excitement. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, which isn’t an everyday occurrence in the west coast of Scotland. And I am going to spend an evening talking, laughing, and drinking with women from a broad range of backgrounds. What more could a feminist ask for?

When I arrive at the venue, there are two security guards keeping watch. Their presence is a comfort. We have all been told to bring ID as part of the security protocol, so I show my driver’s license and sign in. The FWS team are all generous in their praise of the blog post I published about Meghan’s talk at Holyrood. One woman tells me I took the heat right out of the subject – and considering conversations about gender have reached boiling in Britain, this is the best possible feedback I could have hoped for. Nobody wins when the discussion surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality becomes antagonistic – or rather, nobody wins except straight white men. The sooner this conflict is resolved, the more energy women and gender non-conforming people can direct towards dismantling white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

 
img_1175While waiting to go in to the lecture theatre, I bump into women I know from the digital and analogue spheres of my life. This is one of the great joys that come with occupying feminist space. I am always glad to see Magi Gibson, whose poetry and boldness are both an inspiration. During her time as Reader in Residence at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was too shy to talk to Magi much. But the stories she read us each week, all excerpts of women’s writing, began to nourish a confidence in me.

The books Magi read from, the way they grabbed my imagination and tugged at my heart, unpicked the threads of misogyny I had internalised. After hearing them, it became impossible to think of women’s writing as lesser or insignificant – the way formal education often positions women’s writing in relation to men’s. And seeing the way Magi carries herself, poised with an element of playfulness, was part of what allowed me to stop making myself smaller in public space. Positive female role models make a powerful difference.

When I go through to the lecture theatre, the room is buzzing with positive energy. Crowds are often a source of anxiety for me, and yet I feel at peace in this lecture theatre. The room has a good vibe. Once more, it is mostly women in attendance; women from broadly different social and economic backgrounds finding common cause together.

Susan Smith, from the FWS team, kicks off the proceedings. She tells us that this is only For Women Scotland’s second public meeting, and I am impressed that in such a short period of time they have connected with an international sisterhood. According to Susan, FWS has members from the Scottish borders right up to the highlands. They are keen to support and encourage sister groups around the country.

 

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There is a moment when Susan describes the FWS team as “our ladies” before correcting herself; “women”, Susan says, to applause. Many women in the room, me included, have fought to escape the confines of ‘lady’ – it feels good to hear a term that is loaded with gendered expectations being so roundly rejected. And there’s more applause for Joan McAlpine, the first MSP, and Joanna Cherry, the first MP to bring these conversations about sex and gender into the political mainstream.

On this note Susan introduces Bec Wonders, who is our first speaker of the night. Bec is working on a PhD researching print culture within the second wave of the feminist movement, and from the moment she starts talking it’s evident that Bec has found a sound balance between feminist theory and practice.

img_1224In February 2017, Bec opened Vancouver Women’s Library with a friend. To begin with, the Library consisted of 80 books from their personal collections. It opened from the “shared belief that women’s writing is revolutionary, women’s perspectives are world-changing, and women’s histories profoundly matter.” The Library’s purpose was “sharing books by women among women.”

From her research, Bec has reached the conclusion that “women’s presses, bookstores, and libraries were not intended to exist in isolation.” She describes reading as “relational, a call to action that demands feminist accountability.” There must always be a connection between feminist ideas and feminist actions – this, I agree with completely.

A feminism that is rooted solely in academia runs the risk of valuing the production of knowledge over women’s lived realities – it is unlikely to take the action required to change those lived realities for the better. Equally, it isn’t possible to unlock the full revolutionary power of feminism without a grasp of the principles and beliefs that have driven generations of change-makers. To Bec, the unnatural split between theory and practice is why so many younger feminists are trying to reinvent the wheel instead of understanding themselves as part of a movement that has spanned continents and decades.

Publications like WIRES – the Women’s Information and Referral Enquiry Service – emerged as a “reaction to the way women found themselves trapped and isolated” by the patriarchal division between public and private spheres. Women shared information across channels that were not controlled or regulated by men, which was an incredibly powerful strategy for resistance.

In recent years, Bec believes that feminist publishing has regressed. Although we are seeing a resurgence of feminist titles, and even reprints of classics by writers such as Audre Lorde and Simone de Beauvoir, there are fewer independent feminist presses, bookshops, and community spaces now than there were back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Mainstream publishing houses are interested in movement as market.”

Van_Womens_Library_DXGiven the need for feminist spaces that exist independently of the market, the importance of learning resources available to all women without the barrier of cost, it would be natural to assume that Vancouver’s feminist scene would welcome the addition of a Women’s Library. Many local women did – when they opened, the VWL team were overwhelmed by women trying to sign up as members and participate in Library life. But there was also intense and malicious anti-feminist backlash.

When Vancouver Women’s Library held their launch party, an organisation known as Gays Against Gentrification crashed the celebration. A group of 24 protestors intimidated women, and physically barred them from entering the Library despite the evening’s sub-zero temperature. They poured wine on books, tore down a poster of Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto, spray painted the outside of the venue, stole wine from the Library’s makeshift bar, and pulled the fire alarm in an effort to prevent women from gathering there. Protestors chanted “No SWERFs! No TERFs!”, disrupting multiple women’s attempts at mediation.

Listening to Bec recount these horrors, I am filled with fury that anybody would treat a women’s community space in this way. The culprits were allegedly ‘against gentrification’, but there is nothing further from gentrification than a Library set up by grassroots feminist organising. From this angle, their motivation looks much more like woman-hating than anti-capitalist protest.

In addition, GAG demanded that the Library remove 20 out of their 80 books from circulation. The books GAG found objectionable were mostly written by second wave feminists, many of whom are lesbians. GAG claimed that VWL “enact[s] violence on sex workers by working to deny their access to resources and support. They work alongside the colonial government to pass bills that do direct violence to sex workers, such as Bill C-36.” However, Bill C-36 was introduced in 2013 – four years before the inception of Vancouver Women’s Library. More to the point, the Library contained the accounts and political writings of multiple Indigenous women who survived the sex industry. Living at the intersection of race, class, and gender, Indigenous women are grossly over-represented in Canada’s sex trade.

To say that women who take a global view of prostitution and see it in a context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny — [feminists] who aren’t just focused on white Western middle class camgirls — are ‘exclusionary’ makes no sense. It doesn’t hold up to any cognitive scrutiny.Jindi Mehat

GAG also objected to the Library’s statement of values, which said “we welcome all women regardless of creed/class/gender/race/sexuality.” GAG’s statement denounced this advocacy of intersectional sisterhood, saying “…this language is used by cis women as a move to innocence from their complicity in violence against transwomen. It is used to mark transwomen as ‘Other’ and centre themselves as victims of patriarchy.”

GAG, like any other members of the public, were free to use the Library’s suggestion function to influence which books would become part of the collection, and whose voices could be found within the Library’s shelves. Bec tells us that not a single protestor used the suggestion before or after GAG’s attempts to shut down the Library launch. I believe that it is important for the voices of all people made marginal in a society to be heard and recognised. That being said, women have been made marginal for centuries – so it is a radical and subversive act to confer value on women’s writing.

According to Bec, it is right and good for women to centre ourselves as victims of patriarchy. In this we are agreed. From birth, girls are encouraged to prioritise the interests of other people over their own needs. It is part of feminine socialisation, designed to make us into compliant women who do not resist men’s attempts to subordinate us.

From her work with the Vancouver Women’s Library, Bec has learned “not to let men take up my time with arguments meant to distract us.” This is a worthwhile lesson, as efforts to derail feminist action and conversation are designed to direct us back towards the status quo: patriarchy. Bec describes sisterhood as “powerful”, but “necessarily difficult if we are to take it seriously.”

Bec points out the sexist double standard of venerating male philosophers like Freud, Foucault, Plato, and Nietzsche while dismissing great feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Andrea Dworkin as outdated. There is love in her voice as Bec describes the “rich treasure trove” of resources on women’s resistance and organising written by earlier generations of feminists. She is passionate about the importance of learning from the women who have gone before us, the necessity of modern day feminists understanding ourselves as a continuation of a powerful social movement.

After Bec and Meghan finish talking, there is an interesting Q&A. Women talk openly about everything from sexual violence to traumatic experiences of childbirth. I think that it’s a mark of successful feminist space when women feel comfortable disclosing such deeply personal harms. One woman speaks about the way queer community fails lesbian women, and how isolated her daughter feels as a consequence. What she says resonates deeply with me. Gill Smith talks about the way she was pathologised by doctors as a lesbian teenager, and rejected by the LGBT community when she de-transitioned and resumed life as a lesbian. Julie Bindel, Gill says, is one of the few people who stood up for women like her.

A young academic tells us that she’s part of the generation who were taught that all women’s major battles were won, but now she’s feeling the same struggle that our foremothers did – and it’s “fucking awful.” She’s not wrong. Still, there is one great consolation: we are heading to the pub. When Susan announces the name of the bar, where FWS have booked a room for us, there is a mass exodus.
img_1247I have been on many a night out in Glasgow. But this is the first night out when I have managed to let go of anxiety to the point that I stop worrying about the time and simply enjoy life. It is an amazing opportunity to speak in person with women I have, until this point, only ever communicated with online. It is a delight to meet Shona Craven, a journalist who has made valuable contributions to the Scottish conversation about sex and gender. A young lesbian feminist speaks with me about the possibility of organising together. I accept with enthusiasm. Gill and I talk about Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics. I also meet Councillor Caroline McAllister, and quickly come to admire her – she’s a welcome change from the posh white men who gravitate towards life as career politicians.

I also speak to Meghan, which is a real treat. While the internet is amazing at connecting women across continents, you can’t take meeting a sister in person for granted when there are ordinarily thousands of kilometres and an ocean between you. Though she hasn’t been here for long, the steady calm and rationality Meghan has brought to the gender debate has inspired several Scottish feminists – me included. Meghan has enjoyed her tour of the UK, though she has spent more time in lecture halls and pubs than seeing the sights. Her next visit, Meghan vows, will involve more time exploring. I am glad that there will be a next time.

img_1235The night flies by. I connect with women and drink gin – the best way to spend a Friday night. After a round of photographs to document the celebration, I glance at my phone and see that it’s almost time for the last train home. I make a hasty exit; if I’m quick, there’s enough time to get some chips to eat during the journey.

As the train glides out of Central Station, I am perfectly content. Bec’s perspective on the feminist movement, Meghan’s ideas about sex and gender, and my conversations with women all flit through my mind. Bec is right that sisterhood is complicated; as a Black lesbian, it’s not something I can safely assume extends to women like me in every feminist space. Still, sisterhood is the driving force behind my life and politics. I believe in a sisterhood that bridges differences of race, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and age to encompass all women – and that is what I found in these Lessons from Canada.

Sisterhood and Shortbread: Meghan Murphy at the Scottish Parliament

A brief foreword: this essay is the first in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. Each of these events is taking place within the space of a fortnight, and it feels like a turning point in mainstream conversations about sex and gender – worth a spot of feminist documentation. This one describes Meghan Murphy’s talk at Holyrood on Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2019. It is my personal account of the event, and – although I have tried to be faithful to every contribution in letter and spirit – prone to human error. In the next instalment I will write fully about the perspective of Bec Wonders, another Canadian feminist and badass who deserves an essay of her own.

Dedicated to Joan McAlpine, MSP, for her courage.


When Joan McAlpine invites me to the Scottish Parliament, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s a real privilege to receive an invite to Holyrood, and a delight to have the opportunity to hear Meghan Murphy speak. Meghan is the founder of Feminist Current, a radical feminist blog and podcast. I have followed her work for a number of years, and contributed to Feminist Current at the beginning of my life as a feminist blogger. Meghan writes about abortion rights, male violence against women and girls, the harms of the sex industry, misogyny in popular culture, and – increasingly – the competing political interests of women and people identifying as transgender.

Though based in Canada, Meghan uses the platform she has built to highlight feminist issues around the world and amplify the voices of women across different backgrounds. I particularly enjoy the work of Raquel Rosario Sanchez, a bold and brilliant feminist writer from the Dominican Republic who contributes regularly to Feminist Current. Meghan is someone who never flinches from speaking truth to power. She is also a fellow Mean Girls enthusiast. And so I am looking forward to learning from her directly.

Just as I’m about to begin the journey to Edinburgh, my phone pings with an email alert. It’s an invitation to appear on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, subject to change with any major announcements from the Prime Minister. They want me to discuss Meghan Murphy’s visit to Holyrood, and the protests that have been planned as a result.

Until this point I have refused any and all TV requests for two reasons. The first is a deep-rooted fear of the racist, sexist abuse that is directed towards Black women who are visible to the public eye – just look at how Fiona Bruce mistreated Diane Abbott, during her most recent appearance on BBC Question Time. Bruce implied that the first Black woman to be elected as an MP gained a position in the Shadow Cabinet due to a past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. She interrupted Abbott more than any other panellist, and wrongly contradicted Abbott’s statistics. Bruce’s behaviour normalised the constant stream of misogynoir directed towards Diane Abbott and any other Black woman who claims a place in public life.

The second reason I have declined previous TV requests is a strong distaste for confrontational formats that are designed to bring about arguments instead of creating the space for consensus building – again, see BBC Question Time. But The Nine is a new programme on a new channel. BBC Scotland’s representative speaks to me about wanting to host a respectful discussion instead of a rammy, taking a sensitive approach to the subject at hand and those talking about it. The Nine could be an opportunity for a different, less aggressively macho way of hosting public conversations to take root in television. And so I say yes.

By the time I’ve transferred over to the Edinburgh train, the BBC Scotland representative has called to say the segment has been cancelled owing to Theresa May’s latest announcement. They are keen to cover this subject and have me on to discuss it in the future, but think that it’s irresponsible to squeeze something so important into a couple of sound-bites. I agree wholeheartedly, and appreciate the principles that go into making The Nine. When the time comes, I will gladly accept another invitation from them.

This leaves only anxiety about the planned protest, and the bout of Imposter Syndrome that tells me a mistake has been made, my name won’t be on the guest list, and I’ll have to leave the Parliament under a cloud of embarrassment. Neither worry, it turns out, was worth stressing over. I arrive early enough to avoid the protestors, and am ushered upstairs to a conference room without incident.

Before the talk begins, there is a palpable sense of excitement. There is a community vibe that is characteristic of the most enjoyable feminist spaces – although we are in parliament, many of the women here are from grassroots feminist organisations that receive no government funding, or women’s services that receive altogether too little of it. A woman behind me shares out a packet of sweeties. Another woman, when she finds out that there isn’t any catering on offer, goes out to buy biscuits for everybody and offers them round on a tray. In this moment, I am quite literally sustained by shortbread and sisterhood. Looking at the women around me – for it is primarily women here – I wonder how protestors would reconcile their idea of hate-filled “TERFs” with the clear-eyed and generous feminists in this room.

img_1085When our speakers arrive, there is a heartfelt round of applause. Joan McAlpine, the MSP who organised this event, opens the meeting by reminding everyone to keep the discussion respectful. She points out that not everybody in this room shares the same views, which is a positive sign about the openness of this conversation. Joan goes on to point out the pattern of women on the progressive left who have devoted so much of their lives to women’s rights being demonised – Linda Bellos, the gay & lesbian rights activist who brought Black History Month to Britain, Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, and Helen Steel, a woman who has shown immense courage speaking out against undercover police officers spying on so-called “left-wing extremism.”

For Joan, the “privacy, safety, and dignity of women” are crucial. She condemns the violent threats and abusive language that have come to define gender discourse online – in particular the misogyny and anti-Semitism directed towards Professor Rosa Freedman, a legal scholar, for her opposition to sex and gender being conflated in the Scottish Census.

Joan herself is resistant to attempts to reframe sex as gender, reminding us that sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. She opposes self-identification policies, highlighting the infamous case of Alex Drummond – a member of Stonewall’s advisory board. Drummond is a self-described ‘lesbian’, despite being bearded and male-bodied. Some would argue it is offensive to deny that Alex Drummond is a woman or a lesbian. To Joan, the risks self-ID policies create around women’s safety are what should be considered truly objectionable:

I find it offensive that any man who has a history of abusing women may declare himself a woman and access women’s spaces without any experience of what it is to be a woman.

When Meghan begins speaking, she is like a breath of fresh air. Despite the abuse and threats that have been hurled her way since she became vocal about the differences between sex and gender, she betrays not a flicker of fear. Her voice is steady, her words rational. Meghan starts by defining each of the terms she uses. By ‘sex’ she means biology; whether an individual is male or female. “When I say gender, what I mean is the stereotypes and social roles that are imposed on men and women because of their sex.” By woman, Meghan means “adult human female.” By man, “adult human male.”

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More controversial is the phrase “gender ideology.” It’s not an expression I have ever used, because I expect the average person who identifies as trans is more worried about the challenges of rejecting the gender role they have been socialised into since birth than imposing an ideology on anybody. But what Meghan says makes sense. She defines ‘gender ideology’ as the belief that it is possible for someone to be born in the wrong body or change sex. And like a great many feminists , she completely rejects the label of ‘cisgender’. By saying there are women naturally suited to the feminine gender role, a person argues that there are women who are naturally suited to the oppression enacted within patriarchal society.

I do not use the term ‘cis.’ I do not have a gender identity. No-one does. I refuse to define myself by a set of stereotypes used to oppress women.

As a feminist, Meghan believes that we should encourage all people to step outside of traditional gender roles. She wants to live in a world where how we define ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ isn’t limited to a restrictive set of sex stereotypes. A girl is still a girl when she plays with what are labelled boys’ toys. A boy is still a boy is he wears clothes that are classed as girl’s clothes. And vice versa. With this, I am in complete agreement. “Gender under patriarchy is not our friend, is not liberatory, and not to be embraced.”

As the literature handed out says, male free spaces exist for a reason. Meghan points out that single-sex spaces were created in the understanding that women fear men because men are a threat to our safety.

Feminists fought to build transition houses [shelters] for women fleeing domestic violence, and are now being told single-sex spaces are discriminatory. Funding to Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s longest running service, was cut after an orchestrated complaint challenging the fact they don’t allow males to train as counsellors or access the shelter. The city pulled their grant for public education about relationships and health, which VRR provided to everyone – male or female – for free.

Meghan says that “there’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights and provide services specific to people who step outside of the gender boundaries attached to their sex while acknowledging sexual dimorphism.” This is a good point. In Britain, women of marginalised ethnic and religious backgrounds have made it their life’s work to build specific services. Southall Black Sisters, Jewish Women’s Aid, Imkaan, Hemat Gryffe, and Shakti are all examples of this vital work. Why not also build services specific to trans and non-binary identified people?

Often, conversations surrounding gender a directed towards feelings. This is not necessarily a bad thing – holding compassion across difference is something I consider key to feminist praxis. However, as Meghan points out, not all feelings are ascribed equal value in this discussion:

If we’re going to talk about feelings, I want to know why the feelings of women don’t matter. What about the feelings of girls who don’t want to see a man’s penis as they change? Survivors of male violence who are afraid to share shelters with male-bodied people? Women competing against male-bodied athletes in sport? We’re putting women and girls in danger to accommodate the feelings of a tiny minority of people. We can treat people with dignity and provide them with the services they need without throwing women under the bus.

Meghan finishes to great applause. Joan opens the floor for questions. I ask how Meghan manages to keep going the face of intense misogynistic abuse, violent threats, and being treated like a pariah. I have a lot of time for Meghan’s politics, but her resilience is what has truly inspired me tonight. Her response: get offline and go to the bar. On a more serious note, Meghan recommends having a solid community of women.

Johann Lamont MSP observes that feminists have spent years fighting for the right to recognise and identify predatory males. She makes a neat analogy: just as criticisms of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church aren’t about saying all priests are predatory, talking about the risks of self-ID isn’t about framing transgender people as a threat. “Predatory men understand how to create a space for themselves with vulnerable people. All of history shows us how devious violent men can be.” And self-ID policies are ultimately exploitable.

Inevitably, the subject of Scotland’s women’s sector is raised. To avoid putting anyone on the spot, I will not name any individual women or the organisations for which they work. A representative from one women’s org is struggling to find ways to voice concern over self-ID. The women’s sector is massively underfunded, and no organisation wants to be put in the same predicament as Vancouver Rape Relief.

A woman who works within this organisation – let’s call her V – told us that women accessing this service want single-sex spaces. When the organisation asked for their views, women accessing the service expressed anxiety over sharing communal spaces with anyone male-bodied. V talked about the potential for further traumatisation, as the overwhelming majority of women are accessing the service as a consequence of experiencing male violence.

According to communications Joan has received from women spread across various organisations, single-sex services are effectively provided in the everyday – but messages coming from the top of certain organisations are causing some women to self-exclude over reservations about accessing a space operating with the policy of self-ID. This is hugely worrying.
img_1139Still, there is cause for optimism. Women holding a broad range of political perspectives have found consensus in this area. Politicians representing different left-wing political parties are a part of the audience, receptive to what Meghan has said. While women are at risk of public shaming, abusive messages, and threats of violence for echoing Meghan’s views, it is clear that many are unwilling to cave in and fall silent.

Joan McAlpine opened by talking about some of the abuse she had received for differentiating between sex and gender in her feminist analysis. But as she closed, Joan talked about the cards and messages of thanks women from across the length of the country and breadth of the political spectrum had sent her. I’ve decided to send Joan a thank you card of my own.

Womanhood: On Sex, Gender Roles, and Self-Identification

A (not so) brief foreword: this essay was originally commissioned by an independent publisher looking to release an anthology on gender. In 2017 they asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on womanhood. I was a little surprised, the publisher being explicitly queer and me being a radical feminist, but ultimately pleased: their goal was to publish a collection with plural perspectives on gender, and I believe wholeheartedly that having the space for plural perspectives on any issue is essential for healthy, open public discourse. I knew that my lesbian feminist essay would probably be in a minority standpoint, and felt comfortable with it being published alongside contradictory perspectives. Given the extreme polarity of gender discourse, which results in a painful stalemate between queer activists and radical feminists, it was encouraging to think we had reached a point where multiple views could be held and explored together.

So I wrote the essay, made the requested edits, and produced a final draft with which the publisher and I were both delighted. Their words: “We’re really happy with the edits you’ve done and the areas you’ve developed on upon our request. You did a splendid job refining the essay.” However, certain people objected to the inclusion of my essay before having read it. Some early readers gave the feedback that they were unhappy to find a perspective that they were not expecting, and alarmed that I had connected my personal experience of gender as a woman to the wider sociopolitical context we inhabit. Backlash escalated to the point that the publishing house faced the risk of having their business undermined and their debut collection jeopardised.

They gave me the option of writing another essay for the gender anthology, or having this essay published in a future collection. I declined both choices, as neither felt right – fortunately, there are more projects on my horizon. That being said I have great sympathy for the publisher’s position, and find it regrettable that their bold and brilliant venture should be compromised by the very people it was designed to support. Furthermore, I wish the publisher every success with this project, and all future endeavours. As for the essay, controversial even before being read, I have instead decided to publish it here as the seventh part of the series on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is, in my opinion, a good essay and deserves to see the light of day.

If you enjoy or learn from this essay, and can afford to do so, please consider donating to cover the lost commission of this work. [UPDATE: the publisher has offered partial payment depending on the success of their crowdfunding campaign. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.]


 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. – Ntozake Shange

I absolutely love women. I love women in a way that leaves me breathless, in a way that catches just behind my ribs and gently tugs at my heartstrings until they unravel. I love women with a depth and fervour that is fundamentally lesbian. And in loving women I find extraordinary reserves of strength, the will to keep on challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984), the motivation to chip away at every hierarchy and oppression that acts as a pillar upholding the ills of society. A love of women is central to my feminism, for bonds between women – links of solidarity and sisterhood in particular – have a revolutionary power unequal to any force on this earth.

According to Adrienne Rich, “the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” The connections shared by women, and all that flows across connections between women, open the possibility for radical social change – which is why lesbian existence and feminist politics are complimentary forces in a woman’s life.

Loving women as I do, I have spent a great deal of time musing upon what it is to be a woman, from where the appeal of women springs. As many young lesbians do, I speculate about the nature of the draw which compels us to watch all sorts of random crap on television simply because the middle-aged actress we fancy has a small role in the production. Having grown up in this world as a girl and subsequently learned how to negotiate this world as a woman, I have also reflected upon the social and political significance of the category – the weight which is undeniable. The question of what it means to be a woman has been central to feminist discourse for hundreds of years: establishing what womanhood is, pinpointing the means and motive behind woman’s oppression under patriarchy, and working out how to end that oppression are central feminist concerns.

At present the feminist movement is split in two over how to conceptualise woman and woman’s oppression. The tensions between queer ideology and sexual politics have proven every bit as divisive as the sex wars of the 1980s. The source of the split lies within gender – specifically, whether gender ought to be conceptualised as a hierarchy or as an identity within feminist analysis. Feminists have historically identified gender as the means of women’s oppression: patriarchy is reliant on gender to establish and maintain a hierarchy that enables men to dominate women.  But by the turn of the century queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam began to suggest that gender may be subverted and experimented with until the very fabric of society is no longer recognisable.

Owing to the mainstreaming of queer ideology, we have entered an unprecedented era governed by the logic of postmodernism – a time in which the relationship between the physical body and material reality is untethered by the politics of identity.  As such, those engaging with the progressive politics – be they liberal or radical – begin asking ourselves anew: what does it mean to be a woman?

Woman as a Sex Class

A key element of feminist analysis is the recognition of woman as a sex class. By this I do not mean that all women’s experiences meet the same universal standards, or that all women are positioned similarly within the world’s power structures: factors such as race, disability, social class, and sexuality all shape where a woman is situated in relation to power. Rather, this perspective offers an acknowledgement of the role in which patriarchy plays in determining the power dynamic between women and men. Women’s struggle against patriarchy is collective, and emancipation from systemic oppression cannot be found through individualising a structural issue. Women of all colours and creeds, women of all classes and castes, are actively subjugated from birth – a political analysis which fails to incorporate this reality cannot truly be thought of as feminist. Women’s oppression is a direct result of having been born female-bodied into a patriarchal society. Considering woman as a sex class is, therefore, fundamental to meaningful feminist critique of patriarchy.

This mode of analysis – radically feminist analysis – can grate when misapplied by white women who seek to deny any difference between women’s lives. But when carried out correctly, with rigour and consideration, it has the potential to change the world.

My own womanhood is hardly conventional, Black and lesbian as it is. I do not meet white Eurocentric standards of female beauty or womanhood and no longer aspire towards those standards, which are rooted in racism and misogyny. Owing to skin pigmentation and hair texture, my Blackness is impossible to conceal – even if it were possible, having begun to unpick the misogynoir I have internalised from an early age, I would not choose to hide it in order to assimilate. To be visibly Other is to live with an increased vulnerability, to be perpetually open to manifestations of structural oppression. For a time I despised both my Blackness and my womanhood as a result of the painful alienation misogynoir brought into my life. I have since learned to place the blame firmly where it belongs, with the source of these cruelties: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Since embracing radical politics I have learned to love both Blackness and womanhood, to love myself as a Black woman, in a way that was never possible during my pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

My lesbian presentation (Tongson, 2005) is a further rejection of those beauty standards. I style my hair in a fashion that is distinctly lesbian and have maintained a crisp undercut since coming out. At various points certain members of my family have attempted to enforce compulsory heterosexuality by shaming any outward presentation of a lesbian aesthetic, endeavouring to guide me back into the feminine role. I am told that returning to conventionally feminine presentation would render me “softer”, “more approachable”, and closer to the ideal of beauty. And while I could choose to pass for heterosexual, allowing an assumption that I am available and receptive to men to cushion me from a degree of marginalisation, I do not. I have no desire to appear soft or approachable, least of all to men – the oppressor class. Alice Walker proclaimed that “resistance is the secret of joy”, and she was quite right: there is a feeling of pure elation that flows from resisting the trap and trappings of heteropatriarchy.

Like every single woman living in a patriarchal society, I experience systematic oppression as a consequence of being female. Women – all women – are bound by the rigidity of the gender role ascribed to us on the basis of our biological sex. We are socialised from birth to be soft, compliant, nurturing so that we are primed to adopt the caring role required for upholding the domestic sphere owned by a man, be he husband or father. As Mary Wollstonecraft notably lamented, women are actively discouraged from pursuing our full potential as self-actualised human beings. Instead, women are subjected to a deliberate social (and often economic) pressure designed to create in us an ornamental source of sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour for men.

From Sojourner Truth to Simone de Beauvoir, there is a long and proud tradition of feminists critiquing the role of femininity. During her time as an abolitionist orator, Truth deconstructed womanhood to great effect, asking “ain’t I a woman?” Arguing against the hierarchies of race and gender that determined how the category of woman was understood in North American society during the heights of the transatlantic slave trade, Truth offered her own story as testimony to the falsehood of femininity. Truth used her own strength and endurance as empirical evidence, asserting that womanhood was in no way dependent on or related to the characteristics which construct femininity. Her opposition to gender essentialism and white supremacy continues to influence feminists’ perspectives on womanhood to this very day.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir further critiqued femininity, connecting the socialisation of gender to the oppression of women by men. She theorised that man was the normative standard of humanity and woman understood purely in relation to him:

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

That woman is relegated to the Other, lacking in positive definition, mandates a life that is male-centric. If woman exists as the negative image of man, she is forever bound to him. Self-definition has long been recognised as a necessary tool for the liberation of an oppressed group, and if women remain dependent on men for definition then the root cause of our oppression can never be fully tackled. Adrienne Rich once claimed that “until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves” – as is often the case, her words contain more than a little truth.

Gender is normalised through essentialism, positioned as a natural and inevitable part of life. From the get-out-of-accountability-free card that is ‘boys will be boys’ to the constant refrain of “she was asking for it” when men act upon the cultural conditioning that assures them they are entitled to women’s bodies, the hierarchy of gender maintains the gross power imbalance at the root of sexual politics. Here is how I understand the connection between biological sex and gender roles:

Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men.

We teach boys to dominate others and disavow their emotions. We teach girls to nurture others at the expense of their own. And I think this world would be a better place if we encouraged more empathy in boys and more daring in girls. If gender were abolished, if we raised boys and girls in the same way, patriarchy would crumble. Like a great many feminists before her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates the elimination of gender:

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

It is impossible to consider the position of women in society, the reality that we are second-class citizens by design of patriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of the harm done by gender. Womanhood is caught up in the constraints of the feminine gender role, prevented from escaping male dominion. In the abolition of gender lies a radical alternative. In the abolition of gender lies women’s liberation.

Therefore, recent reframing of gender as an innately held identity has proven problematic in ongoing feminist struggle. Gender identity politics rely on essentialism that feminists have fought for hundreds of years, an essentialism that argues women are naturally suited to the means of our oppression. If gender is inherent – a natural phenomenon after all – then the oppression of women under patriarchy is legitimised.

Womanhood

During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1969; French, 1986; Dworkin, 1987) made the case that womanhood could and should exist purely as a biological category, unfettered by the feminine gender role – a vision of women’s liberation. This perspective is directly contradicted by a queer understanding of gender, which primarily focuses on gender as self-expression:

The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

A queer notion of gender presents it as a matter of performativity, arguing that dominant power structures may be subverted through transgressing the barriers of masculine and feminine gender roles. Identification with the characteristics associated with a gender role is taken as belonging to the category. Those who identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as cisgender. Those who do not identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as transgender. From a queer standpoint, sex is not a fixed category but rather an unstable one. Queer politics are formed gender as a mode of personal identification. Radical feminist analysis, in which gender is understood as a hierarchy, is dismissed as old-fashioned.

If one cannot say with absolutely clarity what is woman and what is man, the oppressed and oppressor classes are rendered unspeakable. Subsequently the hierarchy of gender is made invisible and feminist analysis of patriarchy grows impossible. Without words used as markers to convey specific meaning, women are deprived of the vocabulary required to name and oppose our oppression. Postmodernism and political analysis of power structures make uneasy bedfellows.

Here is where the controversy lies, where gender discourse grows explosive beyond the point of reconciliation between queer and radical feminism. If gender is a matter of personal identification, it is a purely individual matter and, therefore, depoliticised. The power differential between oppressed and oppressor is negated by a failure to consider man and woman as two distinct sex classes. Gender ceases to be visible as a means of oppression, further obscured as the categories of man and woman are considered immaterial. If sex classes are unspeakable, so too are the sexual politics of patriarchy.

If womanhood can be reduced to the performance of the feminine gender role and a personal identification with that gender role, there is little scope for distinguishing between the oppressor and oppressed. Womanhood ceases to be indicated by the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics and instead becomes a matter of self-identification. The oppressor may even benefit from a lifetime of the privilege conferred upon men through the subordination of woman and then claim womanhood. Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour, came under fire for highlighting that prior to transition, transwomen benefit from the social and economic privileges accorded to men in patriarchy. Shortly afterwards, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received backlash for differentiating between the experiences of women born as such and transwomen:

 I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.

If it is no longer possible to consider the experiences of those born female, to analyse the relationship between sex and socioeconomic power, feminists can no longer identify or challenge the workings of patriarchy. This is a particularly unfortunate consequence of embracing queer ideology. Women’s rights are human rights, as the slogan goes – inalienable and absolutely worth fighting for. The injustices faced by women around the globe are intolerable: one in three women will be subject to male violence within her lifetime. Yet, if the linguistic tools necessary to critique patriarchy are removed from the feminist lexicon, women’s liberation hits an insurmountable stumbling block: you cannot challenge an oppression you cannot name, after all.

The cultural significance attached to the word woman is in a state of flux. As queer politics would have it, womanhood is simply the performance of the female gender role. As radical feminism would have it, the female gender role exists purely as a sexist stereotype of woman rooted in essentialism and misogyny. The only escape queer politics offers women from patriarchal oppression is for all those who are biologically female to identify out of the category ‘woman’. To claim the label of non-binary, genderfluid, or transmasculine – anything other than a cisgender woman, who is naturally suited to her status as a second-class citizen – is the only route queer politics offers biological women to being recognised as fully human.

Women, by queer logic, cannot be self-actualised and have no meaningful inner-lives. We are simply Other to men. It is for this reason that queer ideology has been able to reduce women to “non-men” – to “pregnant people”, “uterus-havers”, and “menstruators.”  It is worth asking: does trans-inclusivity depend upon women being written out of existence? While queer theory has reflected upon the nature of masculinity, it has not deconstructed the category of man beyond the point of recognition. Just as in mainstream patriarchal society, man is the normative standard of humanity and woman defined in relation to him. The positive definition of womanhood is treated as expendable within queer discourse.

As linguist Deborah Cameron asserts, women’s power to self-define is of immense political significance:

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.

However one understands the category of woman, its erasure can surely be recognised as a disastrous impediment to the liberation of women.

Lesbian Sexuality

The controversy over how womanhood is defined manifests most acutely around lesbian sexuality. An unfortunate consequence of queer politics is the problematising of homosexuality. Lesbian women and to a lesser extent gay men (for it is women’s bodies and sexual practices that are fiercely policed within patriarchy) routinely face allegations of transphobia within queer discourse. A lesbian is a woman who exclusively experiences same-sex attraction. It is the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create at least the potential for lesbian desire – gender identity is of little relevance to the parameters of same-sex attraction. As it is governed on the basis of biological sex rather than personal identification with gender, the sexuality of lesbian women is under scrutiny within queer discourse.

These words are not written with detachment. It is not an abstract concern alive only in theory. The reality is, this is a particularly uncomfortable window of time in which to be lesbian. We face mounting pressure to expand the boundaries of our sexuality until sex that involves a penis is considered a viable option. And sex that involves a penis quite simply isn’t lesbian, whether it belongs to a man or a transwoman.

I am deeply concerned by the shaming and coercion of lesbian women that now happens within queer discourse. The queer devaluation of lesbian sexuality – from the insistence that lesbians are a boring old anachronism to the pathologising of lesbian sexuality that occurs when we are branded “vagina fetishists” – is identical to the lesbophobia pedalled by social conservatives. Both the queer left and religious right go out of their way to imply something is wrong with lesbians because we desire other women.

Lesbian women are attracted by the female form. In addition to sharing a profound emotional and mental connection with other women, lesbians appreciate the female form – the beauty of women’s bodies is what sparks our desire. If biological sex ceases to be recognised as determining womanhood (or, indeed, manhood), it can no longer be said that there is such a body as a woman’s body. If the distinct set of sex characteristics which combine to form womanhood are rendered unspeakable, attraction inspired by those characteristics – lesbian desire – is made invisible. Something vital is lost when women are deprived of the language to articulate how and why we love other women (Rich, 1980).

Lesbians are being coerced back into the closet within the LGBT+ community. We receive strong encouragement to abandon the label of lesbian, which we are told is comically archaic, and embrace the umbrella term of queer in the name of inclusivity. But no sexuality is universally inclusive – by definition, sexuality is a specific set of factors which when met offer the potential for attraction. It is unreasonable – and frankly delusional – to imagine that sexuality can be stripped of any meaningful criteria.

A queer woman is less challenging to the status quo than a lesbian, easier for men to get behind, for queer is a vague term that deliberately eschews solid definitions – a queer woman may well be sexually available to men, her sexuality in no way an impediment to offering men the emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour upon which patriarchy is dependent.

Queer stigmatising of lesbians is a tactical manoeuvre designed to undermine acknowledgement of the female sex category. If there is no need to address same-sex attraction between women, the significance and permanence of sex categories demands no scrutiny. That encouraging lesbian women to consider sex that involves a penis has become newly acceptable, a legitimate line of discourse within the progressive left, is a terrible puzzle. The logic of it is straightforward enough, yet the underlying truths about what is happening within LGBT+ politics are not easy to look at. Yet still I cannot help turn it over and over in my mind, working at the ideas like a Rubik’s cube until the pieces fall into place. Queer ideology seeks to enforce compulsory heterosexuality in the lives of lesbian women just as surely as the standards set by patriarchy. By denying the possibility of lesbians exclusively loving other women, by delegitimising lesbians living woman-centric lives, queer politics undermines our liberation.

Conclusion

There is a persistent thread of misogyny running through queer politics, from the inception of queer to its present incarnation. Queer was the product of gay men’s activism, concerned primarily with sexual freedom and transgression: as such, queer did not represent the interests of lesbian women when it came into being during the 1980s and does not represent the interests of lesbian women now (Jeffreys, 2003). Queer is less about collectively challenging structural inequalities at their root than an individualised subversion of social norms.

Though it promised a radical, exciting alternative – one which many women have embraced, along with men – queer politics are ill equipped to dismantle systematic oppressions. Queer erasure of womanhood, queer disregard for women’s boundaries if they happen to be lesbian, and queer obscuring of the gender hierarchy breathes a new lease of life into patriarchy, if anything.

I dream of a world without gender. I dream of a world where men can wear dresses and be gentle without either being treated as a negation of manhood. But much more than that, I dream of a world where no assumptions are made about what it means to be woman beyond the realm of biological fact. And if that makes me a heretic in the church of gender, so be it – I’m an atheist.

Gender roles and the hierarchy they maintain are incompatible with the liberation of women and girls from patriarchal oppression. It is because I love women, and because I am a woman, that I cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Embracing gender as an identity is the equivalent of decorating the interior of a cell: it is a superficial perspective which offers no freedom.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage

Judith Butler. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge

Andrea Dworkin. (1987). Intercourse. New York: Free Press

Marilyn French. (1986). Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. California: Ballantine Books

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press

Jack Halberstam. (1998). Female Masculinity. Carolina: Duke University Press

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press

Kate Millett. (1969). Sexual Politics. Columbia: Columbia University Press

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate

Adrienne Rich. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

Ntozake Shange. (1982). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. New York: Picador

Karen Tongson. (2005). Lesbian Aesthetics, Aestheticizing Lesbianism. IN Nineteenth Century Literature

Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

 

‘Punch a TERF’ Rhetoric Encourages Violence Against Women

A brief foreword. This is the sixth of my essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 available here.) I suspect it’s also the least polished, as I was shaken by the assault of Maria MacLachlan and wrote this to work through my thoughts, but it was written from a place of truth.


My grandmother is a brilliant woman. She is clever, compassionate, and unfailingly kind. She is selfless, generous with her time, and loyal to those she loves. I have lived with my grandmother since birth – during childhood she read me Swallows and Amazons at night, sat by the pool during my swimming lessons, and took me to the cinema to see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the film which opened my eyes to the magic of cinema as a child. Nana also sat through Shrek and, with thinly-veiled disgust, Shrek 2. If that’s not love, what is? My grandmother and I have always been close. Since my grandfather died last year, and it has been just the two of us in the house, we have grown closer still – we live like what I’d describe as an infinitely more interesting version of the Gilmour Girls.

I’ve also noticed that my grandmother has grown a bit more radical in that time. She has stopped trying to convince me that men have their uses, which she often did after I came out to her as lesbian. She now has faith in my ability to do what were once considered “man jobs”, like building furniture or running heavy things to the dump. She will readily call racism by its name is and receptive to having racism pointed out. She has identified an abusive relationship and asked me for the relevant details about shelters to pass on and how best to support the woman in question as she left the relationship – I’m very proud of her for that.

My grandmother is also pro-life. She does not believe that abortion is legitimate or morally acceptable. She’s a committed Catholic and gets letters from SPUC every so often. I once joked to her that with my advocacy of abortion and her opposition to it, the output from our household basically cancelled itself out. It’s quite strange to think that Nana is roughly the same age as Angela Davis. I used to reason that, being of a different generation, it was to be expected that she held those views. But then, especially as I grew familiar with feminists who were active during the Women’s Liberation Movement and read more feminist books from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it seemed ridiculous to reduce her politics to a matter of age. Either way, I don’t agree with Nana about abortion. She certainly doesn’t agree with me. But we love each other very much and that disagreement – the most fundamental disagreement in our relationship – doesn’t alter the fact we’re ride or die.

what_is_gender_flyerOn our way out this afternoon, she gently pointed out that I seemed a bit down. My depression has been severe this year, and I know Nana worries. At first I didn’t say much. But months of therapy have made it substantially easier to divine the root cause of a problem. I told her that a 60 year old woman was beaten yesterday in London – that Maria MacLachlan was punched and choked for going to a talk about the Gender Recognition Act. I explained that the original venue, New Cross Learning, had backed out after being harassed into cancelling – the intensity of protest had the library worried about safety of staff, volunteers, and those accessing the community space. I briefly outlined the schism between a queer and a radical feminist understanding of gender. Mostly, I told Nana that I felt heartsick that a woman had been beaten.

Nana didn’t ask if I knew the woman in question, and I loved her for that – for getting that a woman being assaulted, any woman being hurt, was painful to hear of. What she did ask is if the police caught those behind the attack, if feminist women were challenging it. The mechanics of digital media are as much a mystery to Nana as her daily Sudoku puzzles are to me, but she sees me glued to my phone all day long and understands enough to know that if women gather our energies to make a fuss over injustice then something will come of it. And I told her the truth, a truth that left me even more heartsick: not exactly. There are women who have rallied, and there are women who have looked the other way.


And my Nana said what dozens and dozens of seasoned feminists lack the courage to say: that the attackers were brutes. She asked what sort of horrible, small-minded person would deliberately hurt a woman in her sixties.

For a split-second I wondered what the response to describing those behind the attack as ‘horrible’ or ‘brutes’ would be on Twitter. TERF, obviously – that’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist, for the uninitiated. Maybe Nazi. (More and more, I’ve noticed radical feminists who are lesbian described as Nazi – without the slightest recognition that lesbian women were persecuted, rounded up as “asocials” for their refusal to produce blonde-haired blue-eyed babies, and killed by the Nazi regime.) And then I knew, as is so often the case, that my grandmother was right. They are horrible. They are brutes.

The footage is difficult to watch. A group of women gathered at the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where they had arranged to meet before moving on to the venue – which had

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“NO TERFS ON OUR TURF!” Shared by Sisters Uncut

been kept secret owing to the risk involved. The protest – organised by Action for Trans Health London, Sisters Uncut, and Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society – is in full swing. There’s a lot of shouting. The atmosphere is febrile. Amidst the clusters of people, Maria MacLachlan holds a camera to document the proceedings. She is set upon by someone substantially bigger than her. Two more attackers join in after MacLachlan pulls down her assailant’s hood so that they may be identified, as though the beating of a sixty year old woman is too great an undertaking for one man alone. MacLachlan gave her account of her assault to Feminist Current:

[She] had been trying to film the protest when some of the trans activists began to shout, “When TERFs attack, we fight back.” She asked them, “Who’s attacking?” At this point, MacLachlan says a young man in a hoodie tried to grab her camera. “I think he knocked it out of my hand but it was looped to my wrist. He turned back and tried to grab it again. I hung onto it.” As the two struggled, MacLachlan pulled back the hood of the man holding her camera, so onlookers could photograph his face, and another man ran over and began punching MacLachlan. Wood and a third man pushed her to the ground, where she says she was kicked and punched.

The whole incident is disturbing. There is a long history of violence being used to discourage women from collectively organising, and the assault of Maria MacLachlan FB_IMG_1505469664006opens the latest chapter of a story called patriarchy. Both the violence and the context that enabled it to happen must be scrutinised.

How have we reached a point where beating a 60 year old woman can be credited to the politics of liberation? How have we reached a point where feminists can ignore that a 60 year old woman was beaten? How have we reached a point where some self-proclaimed feminists read about this assault and questioned whether a woman was lying about violence, if it really happened, or – if it did happen – she provoked the attack? The silence and disbelief of other women, women who call themselves feminist, is like salt in a wound. Our whole movement is built around the belief that no woman should be subject to violence, and that those women who do experience violence are fully deserving of our support.

The deeper we go into feminist politics and spaces – especially digital feminist spaces – the easier it becomes to forget about certain realities of feminist struggle. The gap between ideas and reality, between the theory being developed and the everyday unfolding of women’s lives, grows until something vital is lost through the cracks of that in-between space. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that queer politics and gender ideology have flourished in the internet age; when so much of our lives are lived online, it is easier to lose focus on the significance of material reality.

While it is certainly shocking that Maria MacLachlan was beaten by trans activists, it was not altogether unpredictable. Last year a transwoman called Dana Rivers murdered an interracial lesbian couple and their son. Not long before committing triple homicide, Rivers protested the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival on the grounds that it was trans-exclusionary. For the last few years, a steady flow of violent rhetoric has been levelled against women, in particular lesbians – much of it from self-identified feminists. Kill all TERFs. Punch all TERFs. Knife a TERF. Burn a TERF. Rivers shot and stabbed the Wright family before setting fire to their house, violence that is mirrored by the language directed towards the women denounced as TERFs. The violence trans activists and allies enacted when Vancouver Women’s Library launched was similarly normalised by misogynistic, abusive language. Given that “punch a TERF” has become something of a rallying cry for those invested in upholding gender ideology, women cannot afford to feign surprise when it actually happens.


Radical feminists have warned against the violent rhetoric attached to the term TERF for years, and been dismissed as bigots for our trouble. Jokes and threats involving violence against women, often indistinguishable, are now commonplace on queer corners of the internet. Etsy stock badges that conflate trans liberation with violence against women. We have reached a bizarre point at which violence against women is circulated as a bold message of resistance by people who claim to be feminists.

Painful disagreements and challenging ideas need not result in abuse. I can’t imagine a single woman campaigning for abortion rights and access to reproductive healthcare beating up my grandmother for her opposing views. Nor could I imagine any of the campaigners who have got in touch with my grandmother beating pro-choice women, even if they do think we’re heading for an afterlife of eternal damnation. The conversations I’ve had with Nana about abortion have been hard for both of us. Realistically, we’re never going to agree. But that doesn’t mean those conversations have to be destructive.

Screenshot_20170914-220321There must be a way to talk about the tensions between gender ideology and sexual politics without abusive language or acts of violence. The subject is fraught, uncomfortable, and certainly not abstract for anyone involved with gender discourse – which is all the more reason to bring empathy to the table. Dehumanising women to the point where we are considered legitimate targets of violence only upholds the values set by patriarchy. We do not approach the subject of gender from a position of power – gender has been used, for hundreds upon hundreds of years, to oppress women. That gender is fundamental to the oppression of women is too often overlooked in gender discourse.

No matter what your politics, we should all recognise that beating up a 60 year old woman doesn’t liberate. It’s violence against women. If your politics justify violence against women, they are shitty and misogynistic politics. It is not complicated. There is no justification. Women are not legitimate targets of violence. Not for having different views to you. Not for listening to or engaging with ideas you disagree with. Never. Plenty of the progressive left looked the other way at “punch a TERF” rhetoric normalising violence against women, and this is what it led to: a woman being beaten.

Violence against women has no place in the politics of liberation. If you ignore this Screenshot_20170915-132601assault to keep your ally cookies on queer identity politics, you’re complicit. If you give language that normalises violence against women, you’re complicit. Violence against women has no place in any context. That is what radical feminists consistently argue. Radical feminist women are depicted as violent simply for our ideas about gender – meanwhile, those who perpetrate physical acts of violence against women are framed as our victims.

When radical feminists critique gender, we are accused of debating trans-identified people’s right to live free from violence or even accused of exterminating trans-identified people. Aside from being falsehoods, these claims serve to discredit radical feminists’ explorations of gender. Writing for Trouble and Strife, Jane Clare Jones unpicks queer misrepresentations of radical feminism:

[Gender] debate is not academic for anyone involved. For both trans and non-trans women, what is at stake is the ability to understand themselves in a way that makes their lives livable. For feminist women, the axiom ‘trans women are women,’ when understood to mean ‘womanhood is gender identity and hence, trans women are women in exactly the same way as non-trans women are women’ is experienced as an extreme erasure of the way our being-as-women is marked by a system of patriarchal violence that aims to control our sexed bodies.
This system of patriarchal violence also marks the lives of trans women, who are indubitably victims of the kinds of male violence feminists have spent years attempting to resist. To cast certain feminists as the principal threat to trans existence, it is therefore necessary for trans-ideology to sideline the patriarchal violence that affects both women and trans people, and instead, position feminists at the apex of a structure of oppression.

Reframing women’s oppression as a form of privilege has enabled the disciples of gender ideology to target women as the oppressor and feel legitimate in doing so. But this perspective fails to consider the reality of the situation: women are an oppressed class, marginalised as a result of having been born female into a patriarchal society. Women do not hold a wealth of structural power over trans-identified people, and claiming that women challenging the means of our oppression are enacting anti-trans violence is ludicrous. Radical feminists are the staunchest and most consistent critics of male violence, which is the cause of transphobic attacks.

If you’re a feminist who has ever used the term TERF to describe a radical feminist, stop and think about the violent misogyny it’s used in conjunction with. Think about how “punch a TERF” led to Maria MacLachlan being assaulted. Think about whether you want to be complicit in violence against women, or play a part in challenging that violence – I suspect it’s the latter.

And if you’re going to keep branding women TERFs, remember: you cannot beat dissent out of women. Trying to do so only recreates patriarchal values, which started the pattern of using violence to render women compliant. It isn’t decent human behaviour, never mind feminist. Women are resilient – we have to be, to make it through life under patriarchy. And we will not fall silent.


 

Bibliography

Marilyn Frye. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.

Audre Lorde. (1983). The Master’s Toois Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.

Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy

A brief foreword: this is the fifth essay in my series on sex, gender, and sexuality. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available here on Sister Outrider. With this essay, I challenge the notion that gender can be repurposed as anything other than a hierarchy. This one is dedicated to E, a stellar lesbian and feminist.


 

“It is impossible to name and act against oppression if there are no nameable oppressors.” – Mary Daly

What is Gender?

Gender is a fiction created by patriarchy, a hierarchy imposed by men to ensure their dominance over women. The idea of a gender binary was established in order to justify the subordination of women by positioning our oppression by men as a natural state of affairs, the result of how characteristics innately held by men and women manifest. Framing gender as natural not only serves to depoliticise the hierarchy, but uses essentialism in order to convince women that radical resistance to gender – the means of our oppression – is futile. Hopelessness breeds apathy, which undermines social change more effectively than any overt challenge. If abolishing gender (and therefore dismantling patriarchy) is an unobtainable goal, women have no choice but to accept our status as second-class citizens of the world. To treat gender as inherent is to accept a patriarchal blueprint for the design of society.

gender imageGender is a hierarchy that enables men to be dominant and conditions women into subservience. As gender is a fundamental element of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984) it is particularly disconcerting to see elements of queer discourse argue that gender is not only innately held but sacrosanct. Far from being a radical alternative to the status quo, the project of “queering” gender only serves to replicate the standards set by patriarchy through its essentialism. A queer understanding of gender does not challenge patriarchy in any meaningful way – rather than encouraging people to resist the standards set by patriarchy, it offers them a way to embrace it. Queer politics have not challenged traditional gender roles so much as breathed fresh life into them – therein lies the danger.

To argue that gender could or should be “queered” is to lose sight of how gender functions as a system of oppression. Hierarchies cannot, by definition, be assimilated into the politics of liberation. Structural power imbalances cannot be subverted out of existence – reducing gender to a matter of performativity or personal identification denies its practical function as a hierarchy. Any ideology which flagrantly disregards gender as the method of women’s oppression cannot be described as feminist – indeed, as queer ideology remains largely uncritical of the power disparity behind sexual politics, it is anti-woman.

The logic of gender identity is fundamentally flawed, resting on the premise that gender is innately held. As feminists have argued for decades, gender is socially constructed – a fabrication designed to grant men dominion over women. The upbringing of children, 1600-Genderbread-Persongendered even before birth, serves to divide the sexes into a dominant and subservient class. Feminism recognises that biological sex exists while opposing essentialism, opposing the idea that sex dictate who or what we are capable of being as humans. Feminism asserts that our character, qualities, and personality are not defined by whether we are male or female. Conversely, queer theory argues that one set of traits is inherently masculine and another set of traits is inherently feminine, and our identity is dependent on how we align with those traits.

 

Instead of acknowledging that there are multitudes of ways to be a man or a woman, queer theory pigeonholes people into an ever-increasing range of categories organised by stereotype. There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of gendered brains, and claims of inherently gendered brains are the product of neurosexism (Fine, 2010). Yet queer ideology positions gender as an innately held identity, claiming that gender “is what you feel.”

“The manacles of a lifetime of cultural conditioning that has tried to convince me that gender is a biological fact rather than a social construct are more difficult to shake off than I would like.” – Louise O’Neill, I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

The Trouble with Gender Identity

Despite its essentialism, the queer understanding of gender has grown increasingly mainstream within progressive and feminist spaces. It is not difficult to understand why. Gender ideology acknowledges that a binary of male and female gender roles are restrictive for individuals, but instead of advocating the extensive work required to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, it offers a far easier solution: an individual opt-out clause that enables people to make peace with patriarchy. To embrace gender ideology is to embrace a narrative of exceptionalism. To embrace gender ideology is to accept that there is a class of people naturally suited to their position within the hierarchy of gender (be it oppressed or oppressor), and a class of people who are exceptions to the traditional rules of gender.

There is a fundamental problem with queer gender ideology. As I have previously written, that problem is misogyny. To claim certain groups are naturally suited to the gender role imposed upon their sex category – “cis” people – is to endorse misogyny. The women categorised as cis, by the logic of gender identity, are inherently suited to being oppressed by men. The whole system of patriarchy is therefore whitewashed by gender ideology, presented as a natural occurrence as opposed to a system of oppression built to grant men dominion over women.

As queer identity politics are built around a narrative of exceptionalism, the power dynamics of sexual politics to be ignored altogether. Through the linguistic twist of “cis”, women’s oppression is reframed as a privilege and therefore the liberation of “cis” women from patriarchal oppression ceases to be a priority. Sexual politics are negated by self-identification, through which membership of a sex class is rendered politically invisible.

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“So many genders and yet we still know, magically, which half of the human race is expected to wipe arses and scrub floors.” – Victoria Smith, @glosswitch

 

Gender is a prison, and I have compassion for everyone constricted by it. It is abhorrent that men are discouraged from empathy, kindness, and creative self-expression.  There is real cruelty in socialising boys into masculinity. That being said, there is a connection between gender ideology and the laundering of male privilege that demands scrutiny.

This issue is exemplified by the case of Ben Hopkins, one half of the punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologically male and, as such, was socialised into masculinity. Like a great many famous persons who are biologically male, Hopkins exploited his fame and power to sexually abuse female fans. According to one of his victims, Hopkins is a “known sexual predator who has perpetrated multiple assaults, bullied other people in the queer community, and has made unwanted advances towards underage minors.” What allegedly sets Hopkins apart from a longstanding tradition of powerful male abusers is that he identifies as genderqueer. As such, queer perspective would have it that Hopkins’ actions cannot be considered male violence against women. Queer exceptionalism as it manifests through the logic of gender identity makes it impossible to name or challenge male violence as such.

PWR-BTTM-sexual-abuse-screenshot

Statement from Survivor

Men are taught from birth that they are entitled to women’s time, women’s attention, women’s love, women’s energy, and women’s bodies. Yet, in accordance with the logic of gender ideology, unfortunate yet random as opposed to a likely consequence of the gendered socialisation men receive in patriarchal society. Despite identifying as genderqueer, the sexual violence Hopkins enacted against women with dramatically less social power than him follows perfectly the logic of masculinity. In what sense can a man who carries out the most toxic behaviour rooted in masculinity claim to be queering or resisting gender?

As his actions make clear, Hopkins has not consciously unlearned male socialisation or entitlement to women’s bodies. How Hopkins chooses to identify has little bearing upon the grim reality of the situation. Yet in claiming the label of genderqueer, Hopkins attempted to erase the male privilege from which he continued to benefit. Writing for Feminist Current, Jen Izaakson clearly articulates the paradox of Hopkins claiming to queer gender:

“…Hopkins used glitter, eyeliner, and vintage dresses to demonstrate an understanding of and adherence to queer ideals, to illustrate a rejection of “toxic masculinity” and the gender norms socially ascribed to males. But wearing flowery dresses and lip gloss does not necessarily lead to an actual rejection of the male entitlement and male dominance of men under patriarchy. By centering self-defined identities, individual expression, and performativity, instead of scrutinizing male violence and unequal systems of power, queer discourse has allowed misogyny easy access to the party.”

Similarly, trans activist Cherno Biko (born male) openly confessed to raping a transman (born female) with the fantasy and intention of impregnating them against their will.  Despite having publicly acknowledged committing sexual abuse, Biko was invited to speak on stage at the Women’s March in Washington and served as Co-Chair of the Young Women’s Advisory Council for New York City. This raises questions not only about the apparent lack of accountability for sexual abuse within feminist spaces, but also the extent to which progressive political movements are prepared to overlook instances of violence against women if the perpetrator identifies as transgender or genderqueer.

Acts of violence against women are both cause and consequence of patriarchy, and they are normalised by the logic of gender. Gender ideology disregards the power disparity of sexual politics – a hierarchy instituted through gender itself – and instead considers gender purely as a matter of self-identification. The queer perspective deliberately individualises the issue of identity in order to depoliticise gender, thereby avoiding difficult questions about power and patriarchy.

We are told that gender is a deeply personal matter and therefore, as all good liberals know, not to be scrutinised. Yet research demonstrates that transwomen retained a male pattern regarding criminality following sex reassignment surgery, and that the same was true regarding violent crime.” Given that one in three women will experience male violence in her lifetime, this is no small matter: 96% of people who commit acts of sexual violence are biologically male. The safety of women and girls is never an acceptable price to pay, not even in the name of inclusion. Masculine socialisation plays a demonstrable role in shaping attitude and behaviour – if women cannot name the violence we experience or identify the system that makes it possible, we cannot challenge it.

“When Simone de Beauvoir wrote that a girl is not born a woman but rather becomes one, she did not mean that an individual born into the male sex, socialised into the expectation of the masculine gender, can simply decide to take hormones and maybe have surgery and ‘become a woman’.”Dame Jenni Murray

Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressor may shed his male privilege and claim the status of oppressed. Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressed may also reject the grounds of their oppression by means of self-identification. Gender ideology aims to repurpose a hierarchy as an identity. Unfortunately, one cannot simply opt out of an oppression that is structural and systematic in nature – although queer discourse presents this as a legitimate route to women. Man is the default standard of humanity, with woman relegated to “Other” – defined purely in relation to men (Beauvoir, 1949). Is it no wonder that a growing number of women, dissatisfied by the limitations imposed by the feminine gender role and conscious that self-actualised human beings are more than the hollow stereotype of femininity, cease to identify as women.

Instead of identifying the feminine gender role as the problem, and working to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, women are encouraged to stop identifying as such if they behave or feel as human beings do. Instead of giving women the tools to unlearn internalised misogyny, gender ideology encourages them to disown womanhood and claim to be individual exceptions to the rule of gender. Through positioning full humanity and womanhood as being mutually exclusive, gender ideology invites women to participate in I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls: Queer Edition.

It is understandable that women are eager to escape the feminine gender role – indeed, women’s liberation from the hierarchy of gender is a core feminist objective. But the feminist movement advocates the liberation of all women from all forms of oppression, not simply the liberation of those who believe their individual oppression through gender is wrong – those who “don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood.”

The Homophobia of Queering Gender

gay liberationDespite talk of queer community, an alliance between members of the LGBT+ alphabet soup, homophobia has always been at the root of queer politics. Queer ideology emerged as backlash to lesbian feminist principles, which advocated radical social change through the transformation of personal lives (Jeffreys, 2003). The political interests of lesbian women and marginalised gay men – primarily the abolition of gender roles – were dismissed within queer spheres. Individualism precluding any concentrated focus on feminist and gay liberation politics, which queer discourse began to describe as old-fashioned, dull, or anti-sex.

In recent years, this derision has escalated into openly anti-gay sentiment. Attempts to erase lesbian women and gay men are now standard practice within a queer setting. In an opinion piece that questions whether lesbian identity can “survive the gender revolution”, Shannon Keating claims that lesbian and gay sexualities are obsolete:

“Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?”

There is a persistent strain of homophobia within gender ideology. It manifests so regularly because that homophobia is woven into queer gender politics. Same-sex attraction is relentlessly problematised because it acknowledges both the existence of biological sex and its significance in determining the potential for attraction – a contradiction of the claim that gender, not sex, is the defining unit of identity.

Earlier this year Juno Dawson, author of The Gender Games, claimed that being a gay man was merely a “consolation prize” for those unprepared to opt into a life of transwomanhood. Prior to transition, Dawson lived and loved as a gay man – therefore, it is particularly troubling that Dawson proclaimed homosexuality to be anything less than worthy of respect and recognition as legitimate. Dawson positioned life as a gay man as an inferior alternative, a poor substitute, for repressed transwomanhood. When gay men and lesbian women objected to this homophobia, Dawson delivered a non-apology which hit upon a fundamental truth about the politics of gender identity and sexuality: “Lots of trans men and women previously lived as gay men or lesbians prior to transition so I think it’s a really important thing to discuss…”

It is wildly regressive to argue that gay men are really unfulfilled women on the inside. By that logic, only the most straight and toxic of masculinities is authentically male. And if gay men are really straight transwomen, there is no such thing as gay men. Homosexuality has been ‘cured’ – an agenda that traditionally belonged to social conservatives, but can now be found within queer ideology. And it is not coincidence that so many of those who choose to undergo surgical or medical transition are gay men or lesbian women who, upon undertaking transition, live as heterosexuals. In Iran, where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, clerics are prepared to “accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex.”

Gender ideology is fundamentally conservative. It is based on the premise that gender roles are absolute, that those who stray from the gender role ascribed to their sex must belong to another category. Lesbian women and gay men defy the gender roles simply by loving someone of the same sex, by deviating from the heteropatriarchal patterns of dominance to create a sexual politics of equality. If we are transitioned into heterosexuality, into compliance with gender roles, we are made to conform to the gender roles mapped out by patriarchy.

Nobody is born in the wrong body. A body cannot, by definition, be wrong. The system of gender, on the other hand, is wrong in every way. Problematising bodies as opposed to the hierarchy which confines them only replicates the destructive ideology at the heart of patriarchy. It is an upside-down approach to the politics of liberation, misguided at best and complicit with patriarchy at worst.

Conclusion

Critiquing gender ideology is strongly discouraged – I suspect this is because the more one explores the queer perspective of gender, the more apparent its misogyny and homophobia become. Once the progressive veneer begins to crack – once it grows clear that gender ideology is at best complacent about patriarchy and the harms patriarchy visits upon women – queer politics become much harder to sell to the general populace.

fuck gr

And so those feminists who do question gender ideology are branded bigots, the criticisms and those women brave enough to make them rendered illegitimate. Women who question gender ideology are derided as TERFs – we are told time and time again that their only motive in critiquing gender is malice, as opposed to meaningful concern for the well-being of women and girls. To that, I echo the words of Mary Shelley: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Any attempt to discourage women from addressing our oppression is deeply suspect.

Gender ideology creates a false dichotomy of people who are innately bound to traditional gender roles and those exceptional few who are not. Gender politics are the most elaborate and harmful example of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Why queer gender when we can abolish it? Why waste energy trying to subvert oppressive practice when we can do away with it altogether?

Woman is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. Man is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. To claim the scope of our identity is defined by the gender role pressed onto our sex class is to legitimise the project of patriarchy. As a feminist, as a woman, I reject queer politics and the gender ideology it advocates. Instead, I argue that women and men living outside of the script set by gender – be it the queer or patriarchal classifications – should be embraced as revolutionaries. Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller (eds.). (1996). All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism.

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics.

Audre Lorde. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.

Cherríe Moraga & Gloria E. Anzaldúa (eds.). (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Bonnie J. Morris. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture.

Victoria Pepe (ed.). (2015). I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. More Radical with Age.

 

 

Dear Roxane – An Open Letter on Queer Feminism & Lesbophobia

A brief foreword: this letter was written as an invitation for queer, bisexual, and straight women who call themselves feminist to reflect upon their lesbophobia.


 

Dear Roxane,

As every woman active in the modern day feminist movement knows, there is a growing schism between queer ideology and sexual politics. The conversation has grown fraught, with those on either position growing heartsick from the conflict. It’s difficult, because points of connection are missed, especially on social media – where everything becomes somehow more polar, more about point-scoring than moments of political connection. And it was my aim to connect with you in raising the issue of lesbophobia, to share a meaningful engagement from which we could both develop, because otherwise nothing ever changes and the same mistakes are repeated ad infinitum – and a feminist movement that replicates the hierarchies of mainstream society is in no way equipped to dismantle them.

I am not writing with the intention of ridiculing you, nor do I claim to be some paragon of feminist virtue. The reality of the situation is that I’m just about as bougie as a Black girl can be, and held onto some shitty class politics until turning twenty two, politics which I will spend the rest of my life unlearning and resisting. While it is embarrassing to get things wrong, devastating to realise you have been complicit in the oppression of others, the real shame would be in turning your back on the women who try to address behaviour born of politics that are damaging to them. With this in mind, I hold compassion for you as I address the lesbophobia you displayed on Twitter.

In response to Kat Blaque’s Tweets about a confrontation with Arielle Scarcella, you said the following: “Oh my god. I am on the edge of my seat. Slap her.”

Roxane 1 beta

From the context I gather this remark was intended with humour, a pass-the-popcorn type jibe about the drama, but the joke falls flat when we consider just how vulnerable lesbian women are in heteropatriarchy. Just this week it was announced that Aderonke Apata, a Nigerian lesbian rights activist, won her claim for asylum in Britain after a 13-year struggle to have the state recognise that as a lesbian she was at extreme risk of violence if forcibly repatriated. Lesbian women are treated with revulsion simply for loving women. We are disparaged and degraded for experiencing same-sex attraction, and abused – often brutally – for living woman-centric lives. By all means, criqitue Arielle Scarcella’s videos – I’m not stopping you. But please do not suggest that violence against a lesbian woman becomes legitimate simply because she subscribes to a set of politics that are not aligned with your own. Not even in jest.

Blaque is a well-known trans blogger. Scarcella is a well-known lesbian blogger. Blaque has made numerous videos denouncing Scarcella, and the beef between them is well known in the sphere of LGBT+ online community.  In many ways, this issue goes beyond the drama that happens between them, stretching to encompass all the tensions of gender discourse.

Gender discourse isn’t abstract. How the politics of gender manifest in our lives has very real consequences for everyone involved. You know this, and have written about it with great eloquence. The tensions within gender discourse have grown particularly explosive where lesbian sexuality is involved. What is sometimes referred to as the cotton ceiling issue – whether lesbian women ought to consider those identifying as transwomen as potential sexual partners – has become hugely controversial in the last few years.

For me, it is obvious: lesbians are women who exclusively experience same-sex attraction. As transwomen are biologically male, lesbian sexuality does not extend to include them. That is not to say lesbian women would not consider taking trans-identified lovers – as I have previously written, the boundary between a butch lesbian and a transman is often blurred, and many non-binary identified people are biologically female too – but rather that our interest is reserved for those who are physically, biologically female. It is also worth pointing out that approximately two thirds of transgender people have reported undergoing some form of gender-confirming surgery, meaning that the majority of transwomen are in possession of a penis – a definite no insofar as lesbian sexuality is concerned.

From what I have seen of her videos, Arielle Scarcella is of a similar view – she defends lesbian women’s right to assert sexual boundaries and the validity of same-sex attraction. No matter your opinion on Scarcella’s work, one question arises when considering the accusations of transphobia levelled against her: why, in 2017, is it contentious for a lesbian to categorically reject sex involving a penis? The short answer is homophobia and misogyny, both of which can be found in abundance in queer attitudes towards lesbian women.

Roxane 3 betaWhen I pointed out that your words were lesbophobic, you claimed this could not be because you are “queer as the day is long.” Since you are queer as opposed to lesbian, it is not for you to decide what is lesbophobic or not. Being queer does not inoculate you against homophobia or, indeed, lesbophobia. Queer is an umbrella term, a catch-all which may encompass all but the most rigid practice of heterosexuality. It is not a stable category or coherent political ideology, as anything considered even slightly transgressive may be labelled queer. Queer is a deliberately amorphous expression, avoiding specific definitions and fixed meanings. It need not relate to the politics of resistance, and indeed cannot relate to the politics of resistance because queer lacks the vocabulary to positively identify oppressed and oppressor classes. Queer seeks to subvert the dominant values of society through performativity and playfulness as opposed to deconstructing those values by presenting a radical alternative to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Queer is the master’s tools trying to dismantle the master’s house, and – inevitably – failing. Predictably, queer replicates the misogyny of mainstream society. As lesbophobia is essentially misogyny squared, identifying as queer in no way indicates a politics that values lesbian women.

Being a lesbian woman is not the same as being a queer woman. That observation is not rooted in purism, but fact: lesbian and queer are two different realities. Devoid of concrete definitions, to be queer is to be sexually fluid – meaning the term queer is male-inclusive. Within the possibilities implied by queer, there remains scope for men to gain sexual access to women. As queer women’s sexualities do not explicitly – or even implicitly – reject men, queer womanhood is accepted in a way that lesbian womanhood will never be. The lesbian woman represents a threat to the status quo, to male dominion over women, in a way that the queer woman by definition (or lack of) never could. As a result, lesbians have been consistently pathologised and abused since the 1800s. I do not dispute that there are difficulties in the lives of queer women, but a degree of social acceptance may be purchased through vocally disparaging lesbian women in the way that you disparaged Arielle Scarcella.

To publicly shame and ridicule lesbians in an effort to alter our sexual boundaries is to follow the blueprint created by compulsory heterosexuality. And make no mistake – it is Arielle Scarcella’s adherence to lesbian sexual boundaries that Kat Blaque takes issue with, the outspoken self-definition of a lesbian woman, that have resulted in allegations of transphobia. The problematising of gay and lesbian sexuality is an unfortunate product of queer politics. If biological sex is unspeakable, so too is same-sex attraction; if same-sex attraction is unspeakable, so too is lesbian sexuality – the logic of queer forces us back into the closet by insisting that lesbian women and gay men abandon self-definition. And self-definition is fundamental to the liberation of any oppressed group. Sooner or later, those embracing the label of queer must reckon with that homophobia.

Arielle Scarcella sought to address the tensions between queer people and lesbian women in her videos – which, regardless of whether or not one agrees with her content, is a brave thing to have done. Few feminists want to speak publicly in a candid, heartfelt way about the relationship between gender and sexual politics because, irrespective of whether or not one speaks in good faith, a witch hunt is all too likely to ensue. Without having exhaustive knowledge of her work, I can at least say that I’m grateful Scarcella is speaking up for herself and her lesbian sisters. Even and especially within LGBT+ community, this is a particularly unpleasant time to be a lesbian.

The long answer as to why it is newly acceptable to pressure lesbians into altering our sexual boundaries reflects upon the history of anti-lesbian sentiment within feminism, from Betty Friedan branding us the “lavender menace” to Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating dismissing us as “stale and stodgy.” Lesbians are routinely used as a foil to reassure the wider world that ‘normal’ women can engage in feminism without ending up ugly, angry, and bitter like the dykes. We are caricatured with great cruelty, presented as a malevolent extreme or reduced to a joke. The comparatively mainstream branches of feminism, be they liberal or radical, actively engage in the devaluation of lesbian womanhood.

The only reason your ‘joke’ about slapping Arielle happened is because she is a lesbian who categorically rejects dick. Queer politics have created a strange, painful context where lesbian women are acceptable hate figures in feminism for simply maintaining our sexual boundaries. But lesbians are not the whipping girls of other women, queer or bisexual or straight, nor do we exist as your symbol for all that is wrong within the feminist movement. Using lesbian women as such builds upon a long history of lesbophobia.

If lesbian women are suggesting to you (as many of us did) that your words contain lesbophobia, it is time to listen. Lesbians are not the oppressor class, and we certainly don’t hold the lion’s share of the power in an LGBT+ or feminist setting. Brushing us off as malicious TERFs is a whole lot easier than engaging with anything we have to say about the relationship between gender and sexual politics, a slick manoeuvre that enables queer discourse to delegitimise our words and the women with the courage to speak them. Lesbian women are lesbian precisely because we love women – not because we feel hatred towards any other demographic, although a respectable case has been made for misandry. Lesbian women do not exist to provide validation. The sole purpose of our sexuality is certainly not to provide affirmation. Lesbian sexuality is not a litmus test for transwomanhood.

When it comes to queer politics, lesbians are made into some sort of bogeyman – a spectre that haunts the progressive left. “Cis lesbian” and “TERF” are used almost interchangeably in queer discourse, used as shorthand to convey how utterly contemptible we supposedly are. If our concerns about coercion within queer culture are “TERF nonsense”, our sexual boundaries can be challenged without compunction. There is an Othering, a monstering of lesbian women, that is fundamental to this process. Demonising lesbians for being lesbian means that we are not worthy of compassion or basic human decency, that jokes about slapping, punching, raping, and otherwise abusing us are fair game in feminism.

Demonising lesbians for our sexual orientation is lesbophobia, no matter how you look at it. And I hope that you do look at it, Roxane, that you – and other women, be they queer or bisexual or straight – have some honest, critical self-reflection about why bits of your feminism come at the expense of lesbian women, about why you think that is an acceptable trade to make. This conversation is long overdue.

Yours Sincerely,

Claire

The Vanishing Point: A Reflection Upon Lesbian Erasure

No longer would these truths be contained inside me, and so it is time to send these words out into the world.

Part four in my series of essays on sex and gender – here are parts 1, 2, and 3. This one is dedicated to E for The Argonauts and the encouragement.


 

This is a strange time to be a young lesbian woman. Well, young-ish. In the time it has taken me to evolve from a fledgling baby dyke into a fully formed lesbian, the tension between queer identity politics and women’s liberation has become pretty much unbearable. Facebook added Pride flag reactions in the same month they started banning lesbian women for describing ourselves as dykes. As equal marriage legislation and same-sex adoption rights grow increasingly standard in mainstream society, the right of lesbian women to self-define and declare sexual boundaries is undermined within the LGBT+ community. Such contradictions are characteristic of this era, but that doesn’t make them any easier to live with from day to day.

Love is love, unless you happen to be a lesbian woman – in which case your sexuality will be relentlessly deconstructed under suspicion of being exclusionary. love is loveAs I have written before, every sexuality is by its very definition exclusionary. Sexuality is a set of parameters that govern the characteristics we are potentially attracted to in others. For lesbians, it’s the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create (but do not guarantee) the possibility of attraction. Sex, not gender (nor even gender identity), is the key factor. But in a queer setting, as in mainstream patriarchal society, lesbian is a contentious label.

Lesbian women are instead encouraged to describe ourselves as queer, a term so broad and nebulous as to be devoid of specific meaning, on the grounds that nobody in possession of a penis is read as being entirely outside of our sexual boundaries. Jocelyn MacDonald rounds it up nicely:

“Lesbians are women, and women are taught that we’re supposed to be sexually available objects of public consumption. So we spend a lot of time saying “No.” No, we won’t fuck or partner with men; no, we won’t change our minds about this; no, this body is a no-man’s land. Lesbian, straight or bi, women are punished whenever we try to assert a boundary. Queer as a catchall term makes it really hard for lesbians to assert and maintain this boundary, because it makes it impossible to name this boundary.”

In a time when acknowledging biological sex is treated as an act of bigotry, homosexuality is automatically problematised – the unforeseen consequences of queer identity politics are wide and far-reaching. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say, lesbian sexuality is made problematic: the idea of women exclusively directing our desires and energies towards one another remains suspect. Somehow, the pattern of men centring men in their lives never receives the same backlash. Lesbians are a threat to the status quo, whether it’s part of heteropatriarchy or queer culture. When lesbians dismiss the idea of taking on a partner with a penis, we are branded “vagina fetishists” and “gynephiles” – given that lesbian sexuality is routinely pathologised in queer discourse, just as lesbian sexuality is pathologised by social conservatism, it’s no surprise to me that so many young women succumb to social pressure and drop lesbian in favour of queer. Self-erasure is the price of acceptance.

“It is no secret that fear and hatred of homosexuals permeate our society. But the contempt for lesbians is distinct. It is directly rooted in the abhorrence of the self-defined woman, the self-determining woman, the woman who is not controlled by male need, imperative, or manipulation. Contempt for lesbians is most often a political repudiation of women who organize in their own behalf to achieve public presence, significant power, visible integrity.

 

Enemies of women, those who are determined to deny us freedom and dignity, use the word lesbian to provoke a hatred of women who do not conform. This hatred rumbles everywhere. This hatred is sustained and expressed by virtually every institution. When male power is challenged, this hatred can be intensified and inflamed so that it is volatile, palpable. The threat is that this hatred will explode into violence. The threat is omnipresent because violence against women is culturally applauded. And so the word lesbian, hurled or whispered as accusation, is used to focus male hostility on women who dare to rebel, and it is also used to frighten and bully women who have not yet rebelled.” – Andrea Dworkin

As queer identity politics would have it, biological women being exclusively interested in being with other women is a sign of bigotry. Let’s not waste paragraphs on equivocation. This world contains more than enough silences around the subject of gender, and it is invariably women who pay the highest price for those silences – in this case, women who love other women. And so I will say it: for lesbians to categorically deny the possibility of taking a partner with a penis is framed as transphobic by queer politics because it does not include transwomen in the sphere of lesbian desire. The inherent lesbophobia of reducing lesbian sexuality to a source of validation is, of course, given a free pass.

Yet, lesbian sexuality doesn’t necessarily exclude people who identify as trans. Lesbian sexuality can extend to biologically female people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer. Lesbian sexuality can extend to biologically female people who identify as transmen. As a comparatively high proportion of self-identified transmen lived as butch lesbians prior to transition, it is not unheard of for transmen to be part of lesbian relationships.

Where is the boundary between a butch lesbian and a transman? During her reflections on lesbian life, Roey Thorpe considers that “…invariably, someone asks: Where have all the butches gone?” The short answer is transmasculinity (and the long answer requires an essay of its own). At what point within the spectrum of identity does butch end and trans begin?

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The border is amorphous, though in an imaginative sort of way Maggie Nelson attempts to chart it within The Argonauts. Her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, Nelson describes as a “debonair butch on T.” To Nelson’s thinking, “whatever sameness I’ve noticed in my relationships with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” Dodge is fluidly gendered and masculine presenting. Testosterone and top surgery do not remove an understanding of what it is to be located, in this world, as female. Those truths coexist.

The idea that lesbians are transphobic because our sexual boundaries do not extend to accommodate penis is a phallocentric fallacy. And the pressure on lesbians to redefine those boundaries is frankly terrifying – it rests on an attitude of entitlement towards women’s bodies, an entitlement that is part of patriarchy and now being replicated within queer space. Lesbian women do not exist as sex objects or sources of validation, but self-actualised human beings with desires and boundaries of our own.

Talking about queer politics with gay male friends my age is something of an eye-opener. I am reminded of two things: With men, no is accepted as the closing word. With women, no is treated as the opening of a negotiation. Most gay men in my life are in turns horrified and amused by the notion that the parameters of their sexuality could or should be expected to move in accordance with the dictates of queer politics. Some (the fortunate ones – ignorance here is bliss) are unfamiliar with the rabbit hole of queer theory. Others (the newly initiated) are, unsurprisingly, resistant to the queer problematising of homosexuality. One went so far as to suggest gays, lesbians, and bisexuals break away from the alphabet soup of queer politics and self-organise specifically around the lines of sexuality – given that numerous dykes have been  subject to the TERF witch-hunt for making the same case, it was at once uplifting and depressing to hear a man outside of radical feminism voice the same views without fear of censure.

I am glad to say that none of the gay men I call friend have opted for what can be described as the Owen Jones route: dismissing the concerns lesbian women as bigotry in pursuit of those tasty, rainbow-sprinkled ally cookies. The trend of left-wing men cashing in on misogyny to bolster their own reputations is a tale as old as patriarchy. That it happens in the context of queer community comes as no great surprise, as queer culture is male-dominated.

Queer community can ultimately be an alienating for lesbian women. Although I participated in queer spaces around the time of coming out, I have grown steadily more withdrawn from that context over time. I am by no means alone in that – plenty of lesbian women within my age bracket feel conscious of being erased and displaced in queer settings, places we are told that we are meant to belong. It’s not purely older lesbians who are resistant to queer politics, although god knows they warned us about its misogyny. My only regret is not listening sooner – that I wasted time and energy trying to bridge the ideological gap between queer and radical feminisms.

Queer discourse uses something of a carrot and stick approach to shoehorn young lesbians into conforming – either we can embrace queer and belong, or we can be irrelevant outsiders just like boring older lesbians. This approach, reliant as it is on ageist misogyny, was misjudged: I can think of nothing I would like to be so much as an older lesbian, and it is pretty wonderful to know that’s the future in front of me. The depth of thought older lesbians extend towards me, the way they challenge and guide me through the process of feminist consciousness, plays a pivotal role in shaping both my sense of the world and how I understand my place in it. If I am really fortunate, one day I will have those soaring (and, at times, intellectually gruelling) conversations with future generations of baby dykes.

Although I appreciate the support and sisterhood of older lesbians (by far my favourite demographic of human beings), in certain respects I also envy them the relative simplicity of lesbian existence during the 1970s and ‘80s. The reason for that envy: they lived lesbian lives in the time before queer politics went mainstream. I do not say that lightly, or to imply that the past was some utopia for gay and lesbian rights. It wasn’t. Their generation(s) had Section 28 and mine has same-sex marriage. What gains my generation benefit from are the direct product of their struggle. Yet they were allowed to live at least part of their lives in a time when, of all the reasons the word lesbian was met with disgust, being deemed “too exclusionary” was not one of them. There was no impetus, within a feminist or gay context, to “queer” lesbian sexuality.

Some things haven’t changed a great deal. Lesbian sexuality is still routinely degraded. Lesbian women are still the posterdykes for “don’t worry, I’m not that type of feminist.” Only now, when I check my Twitter notifications, it genuinely takes a moment to work out whether my being a lesbian has offended the alt-right or the queer left. Does it particularly matter? The lesbophobia takes the same format. The hatred of women is identical.

women's libOver Pride, a picture of a smiling transwoman clad in a bloodstained t-shirt proclaiming “I punch TERFs” circulated on social media. The image was captioned “this is what gay liberation looks like.” That those of us living at the intersection of gay identity and womanhood – lesbians – are often branded TERFs purely by virtue of our sexuality makes this claim particularly dubious. Considering that we live in a world where one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, I cannot share in the amusement – there’s nothing revolutionary or countercultural in making a joke about punching women. Violence against women was glorified without a second thought, positioned as an objective of liberation politics. And we all know that TERFs are women, as men who assert boundaries are rarely subject to such vitriol. Pointing out the misogyny of course results in a fresh deluge of misogyny.

There is one favourite rejoinder reserved for feminists critiquing the sexual politics of gender identity, a retort associated more with surly teenage boys than any politics of resistance: “suck my girldick.” Or, if malice couples with a stab at originality, “choke on my girldick.” Being told to choke on a girldick doesn’t feel any different from being told to choke on a garden variety dick, yet it has become almost a routine part of gender discourse unfolding on Twitter. The act remains the same. The misogyny remains the same. And it’s telling that in this scenario the sexual gratification is derived through an act that quite literally silences women.

An iconic line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet proclaims that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” With this in mind (for there is far more of tragedy than romance about this situation), I argue that a penis by any other name would sexually repel lesbians. And that’s fine. Sexual disinterest doesn’t equate to discrimination, oppression, or marginalisation. Sexual entitlement, however, does: it plays a fundamental part in the oppression of women, and manifests clearly through rape culture. Within a queer framing there is no space given over to discussions about the misogyny that enables entitlement towards sexual accessing lesbian women’s bodies. Simply acknowledging that the issue exists is considered beyond the pale and, as a result, that misogyny is protected by layers and layers of silence.

This is not such a brilliant time to be a lesbian. The unwillingness of queer politics to simply accept lesbian sexuality as valid in its own right is deeply isolating, at points privileging the desire to have sex over the right to refuse sex. And yet lesbian connection persists, as it always has done. Lesbian relationships continue to nourish whilst offering a radical alternative to heteropatriarchy – just because it’s not particularly visible right now, just because it doesn’t have the mainstream (i.e. patriarchal) appeal of queer culture, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Lesbians are everywhere  – that will not change.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.


Bibliography

Margaret Atwood. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale

Andrea Dworkin. (1978). The Power of Words

Cherríe Moraga. (2009). Still Loving in the (Still) War Years: On Keeping Queer Queer

Maggie Nelson. (2015). The Argonauts

Adrienne Rich. (1976). Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism

A brief foreword: a number of young women have contacted me in the last year, writing to ask about what it is like to be publicly radical in my feminism. That young women embrace radical feminism makes me optimistic for the future. That young women are too scared to be open about their radical feminism is utterly grim. And so this post is dedicated to every young woman bold enough to ask questions and challenge answers.

Update: this post has since been translated into French.


 

Why does radical feminism get so much bad press?

Radical feminism isn’t popular. That’s not exactly a secret – Pat Robertson’s infamous Holy Cow! Too Funny!!!!!!claim that the feminist agenda “…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” has set the tone for mainstream discussions of radical feminism. While Robertson’s perspective on radical feminism verges upon parody, his misogyny served with a side of blatant lesbophobia, it has also served to frame radical feminism as suspect.

If radical feminism can be written off as something sinister or dismissed as the butt of a joke, none of the difficult questions about the patriarchal structuring of society need to be answered – subsequently, power need not be redistributed, and members of the oppressor classes are saved from any challenging self-reflection. Rendering radical feminism monstrous is a highly effective way of shutting down meaningful political change, of maintaining the status quo. It is, therefore, predictable that the socially conservative right are opposed to radical feminism.

What’s often more difficult to anticipate is the venom directed towards radical feminism thought by the progressive left, which is assumed to support the politics of social justice. For women to achieve that justice, we must be liberated from patriarchy – including the constraints of gender, which is both a cause and consequence of male dominance. Yet, when one considers why that hostility emerged, it becomes sadly predictable.

Two factors enabled the left to legitimise its opposition to radical feminism. Firstly, the way in which liberation politics have been atomised by neoliberalism and replaced by the politics of choice (Walter). Personal choice, not political context, has become the preferred unit of feminist analysis. Therefore, critical analysis of personal choice – as advocated by radical feminism – has become a matter of contention despite its necessity in driving meaningful social change. The second factor is the gradual mainstreaming of a queer approach to gender. Instead of considering gender as a hierarchy to be opposed and abolished, queer politics position it as a form of identity, a part to be performed or subverted. This approach ultimately depoliticises gender, which is far from subversive, disregarding its role in maintaining women’s oppression by men. Feminists who are critical of gender are treated as the enemy, not gender in itself.

As a result, we find ourselves in a context where radical feminism is reviled across the political spectrum. On social media it feels as though radical feminists are just as likely to be abused by self-proclaimed queer feminists as we are men’s rights activists – the main difference between the two groups is that MRAs are honest about the fact they hate women.

Young women in particular are discouraged from taking up the mantle of radical feminism. We have been raised on a diet of hollow buzzwords like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, taught to pursue equality instead of liberation. From the ‘90s onwards, feminism has been presented as a brand accessed through commercialism and slogans instead of a social movement with the objective of dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

guerilla girlaThe third wave of feminism was marketed as a playful alternative to the seriousness of the second wave, which is routinely misrepresented as joyless and dour. Manifestations of women’s oppression, such as the sex industry, were repackaged as harmless choices with the potential to empower (Murphy). If young women are not prepared to accept pole dancing and prostitution as a harmless bit of fun, we risk being tarred by the same boring brush as the second wave; we are denied the label of “cool girl” and all the perks that come with remaining unchallenging to patriarchy. It is no coincidence that “pearl-clutching” and “prude”, accusations commonly directed towards radical feminists, are loaded with ageist misogyny – if radical feminists are presumed to be older women, the logic of patriarchy dictates that radical feminism must be boring and irrelevant. Both the desire for male approval that is drilled into girls from birth and the tacit threat of being associated with older women are used to keep young women from identifying with radical feminism.

Liberal feminism has gained mainstream appeal precisely because it doesn’t threaten the status quo. If the powerful are comfortable with a particular form of feminism – liberal feminism, corporate “lean in” feminism, sex-positive feminism – it is because that feminism presents no challenge to the hierarchies from which their power stems. Such feminism can offer no meaningful social change and is therefore incapable of benefiting any oppressed class.

What are the negative consequences of being openly radical?

The backlash to being openly radical is the least fortunate element of it. I won’t lie: in the beginning, that can be intimidating. With time that fear will fade, if not dissipate. You will stop thinking “I couldn’t possibly say that” and start wondering “why didn’t I say that sooner?” The truth demands to be told, regardless of whether or not it happens to be convenient. Backlash and abuse directed towards radical feminists is a silencing tactic, plain and simple. Whether it comes from the conservative right or queer feminist left, that backlash (Faludi) is a means of silencing dissenting women’s voices. This realisation is freeing, both on a personal and political level. Personally, the good opinion of misogynists is of little value. Politically, it becomes clear that speaking out is an act of resistance. You will simply stop caring.

It takes energy, carrying the hatred people direct towards you – at some point you will realise that you’re not obliged to shoulder that burden and give yourself permission to set it down. Spend that energy on yourself instead. Read a book. Play an instrument. Talk with your mum. Do your nails. Binge-watch The Walking Dead. The time you spend worrying what people say about you, worrying if people like you, is a precious resource that cannot be recovered. Do not give them the gift of your worry – it is exactly what they want. Evict haters from your headspace.

You’re scared of being called a TERF. Let’s be real. That fear of being branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is why so many feminists are afraid to be openly radical, are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge gender as a hierarchy. And that’s alright to feel that fear – it’s meant to be scary. However, the fear needs to be put into perspective. The first time I was ever called “TERF” was for sharing a petition opposing female genital mutilation on Twitter. And when I pointed out that girls were at risk of FGM precisely because they were born female in patriarchy, that the girls who are cut are often of colour, often living within the global south (Spivak) – not exactly enjoying a wealth of cis privilege – the accusations only continued.

It spreads like wildfire. Because I did not repent for sharing that petition, because I did not condemn other women to save myself in the court of public opinion, it went on. That I am a lesbian (a woman who experiences same-sex attraction, i.e. disinterested in sex involving a penis) has only fanned the flames. My name can now be found on various shit lists and auto-block tools across the internet, which is pretty funny. Sometimes you do just have to laugh – it’s the only way to stay sane.

What’s less amusing is being told that I am dangerous. There is an insidious idea that any feminist who queries or critiques a queer perspective on gender is some sort of menace to society. Women who have devoted their adult lives to ending male violence against women are now described, without a trace of irony, as being violent. On a political level, it’s disturbing that disagreement over the nature of gender is positioned as violence within feminist discourse. There is an undeniably Orwellian quality to those opposing violence being described as violent, a double-speak perfected by queer politics. Framing gender-critical feminists as violent erases the reality that men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of violence against trans people and, in doing so, removes any possibility for men to be held accountable for that violence. Men are not blamed for their deeds, no matter how much harm they cause, whereas women are often brutally targeted for our ideas – in this respect, queer discourse mirrors the standards set by patriarchy.

Radical feminism is commonly treated as being synonymous with or indicative of transphobia, which is deeply misleading. The word transphobia implies a revulsion or disgust that simply is not there in radical feminism. I want all people identifying as trans to be safe from harm, persecution, and discrimination. I want all people identifying as trans to be treated with respect and dignity. And I do not know another radical feminist who would argue for anything less. Although radical and queer perspectives on gender are conflicting, this does not stem from bigotry on the part of the former. Abolishing the hierarchy of gender has always been a key aim of radical feminism, a necessary step in liberating women from our oppression by men.

As is often the case with structural analysis, it is necessary to think in terms of the oppressor class and the oppressed class. Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed – that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy – deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression. Therein sits the tension.

joan jettUltimately, getting called names on the internet is a cost I am more than willing to pay if it is the price required to oppose violence against women and girls. Were it otherwise, I would be unable to call myself a feminist.

Did I choose to be ‘out’ as radical?

At no point did I make a decision to be publicly radical. Even in its most basic form, my feminism understood that ‘sex positivity’ and porn culture were repackaging women’s exploitation as ‘empowering’, that endless talk about choice only served to obscure the context in which those choices are made. I also recall being puzzled by the words sex and gender being used interchangeably in contemporary discourse – the former is a biological category, the latter is a social construction fabricated to enable the oppression of women by men. Seeing gender treated as an amusing provocation or, worse, something innate in our minds, was deeply disconcerting – after all, if gender is natural or inherent, so too is patriarchy. I was conscious that my views were considered old-fashioned but, although it was slightly isolating, not troubled by the tension between me and what I now know to be liberal feminism.

It was only through finding radical feminist Twitter that I realised plenty of International-Feminism-01contemporary feminists thought with the same framework, that these ideas did not exist solely in books that had been written some twenty years before I was born. I do not say this to disparage the feminism of the 1970s, but rather to point out that there was an almost wishful nostalgia to my conceptualisation of that era and the politics it embodied. The second wave felt impossibly far away – thinking about it was like thinking of a party for which you are already decades too late. It felt like that feminism, of radical ideas and action, was gone. Now I realise that is exactly what young women are conditioned to think in the hope that we will grow complacent and accept our oppression instead of challenging it at the root.

Having grown up and developed my ideas, it now seems unlikely I would have found a place had I been of that context – as lesbian feminists go, I am fairly apolitical with regard to sexuality: I’m still not convinced it is possible to choose to be a lesbian, do not know that I would choose to be a lesbian even if the option had been there (there is an undeniable appeal to being slightly more ‘of’ than Other), and oppose the notion that bisexual women are being half-hearted in their feminist praxis because they will not ‘become’ lesbians. Yet, I would not have found my way into those conversations without radical feminist Twitter.

As my political consciousness was catalysed by radical feminist Twitter, a community that continues to challenge and delight me, it seemed natural to participate in that discourse publicly. I was more concerned about developing my ideas – learning from and, later on, teaching other women – than any potential reaction. Perhaps naïvely, I had not fully considered the convenience of closeting my politics. Being connected to radical feminist discourse, engaging with its ideas and the women behind them, was always the priority. I did not initially consider the possibility of acquiring public profile, and now consider it as a largely unfortunate by-product of my participation in feminist discourse as opposed to something worth maintaining in its own right – perhaps why I do not self-censor for the sake of popularity.

Are there professional consequences for being a radical feminist?

It depends on what you do. Countless radical feminists have been reported to their employers for differentiating between sex and gender. Being openly radical when you work in the women’s sector carries a particular risk. Similarly, women who are academics or hold some form of institutional power are in a delicate position, faced with the dilemma of jeopardising a career or speaking out. I know dozens of radical feminists who achieve more social good for other women by saying nothing explicitly radical whilst doing the most extraordinary, necessary work. None of that work would be possible if those women chose to die on the hill of gender politics. A direct result of that would be other women losing out – from literacy classes to policy on male violence, there would be very real consequences if covertly radical women lost their positions. There are times when staying quiet is the smarter option, particularly in conversations about gender politics, and I will not condemn women who make that tactical decision.

My career is freelance – in this respect, being directly accountable only to myself is useful. That being said, a freelance career is dependent on organisations being willing to commission my writing or workshops. Becoming a pariah is fairly counterproductive in that respect. At points people have contacted (or at least threatened to contact) places where I study, volunteer, and write. Nothing has ever come of it. Why? Their accusations are false. I have nothing to hide about feminism – there is no shameful secret at the heart of my sexual politics. I will only ever say what I believe in, what I can back up with evidence, what a substantial body of feminist theory supports.

Being able to speak with conviction and follow through when questioned is crucial. Those qualities are also what appeal to the people and organisations who hire me. A recurring theme with commissions: at least one person within the organisation has covertly voiced support for my radical feminism. Radical feminism is less of an anathema than we are made to believe.

I am commissioned to produce work that I believe in. Nothing my detractors have said or done changes that fact. To quote Beyoncé, the best revenge is your paper.

How do non-radical feminists react?

Badly. Not always, but often. Some of the most rewarding and thought-provoking engagements are with women who are not radical feminists yet engage in good faith. Unfortunately, those interactions are in the minority.

Abuse from strangers, while it can be frightening, is something to which I have grown habituated. I report it to the relevant authorities and move on. Following the most concentrated period of abuse I have endured, it was not the threats that weighed on my mind, but the responses of queer and liberal feminists. A number openly celebrated my abuse and its consequences. Theirs is the type of feminism that is opposed to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. up until the point those prejudices damage someone whose politics do not align with their own. That was disconcerting. Be prepared for those moments. Be prepared to lose false friends, too.

It’s a strange position to be in. If the label TERF has ever been applied to you, it strips away something of your humanity in the eyes of the wider public. You are no longer viewed as a worthy recipient of empathy or even basic human decency. This isn’t surprising, because TERF is often used in conjunction with violent threats and graphic descriptions of abuse. It legitimises violence against women.

TERF functions something like “witch” in The Crucible. Only by condemning other women can you avoid that condemnation yourself. There is a frantic edge behind the panic it spreads. There are plenty of feminists who will be prepared to monster you to save their own reputations. They are not worth your respect, let alone the time it would take to puzzle out their motives.

It is also worth considering the responses of feminists who are not publicly radical. Women routinely tell me that I am saying what they believe, express gratitude that I speak out, tell me that my words resonate. And this is gratifying, yes, but it is also isolating. An almost supernatural courage is projected onto openly radical women, an exceptionalism that is often used by other women to justify their silence. Glosswitch often speaks about this phenomenon, and she is right – it would be far more rewarding if the women who offer private support would publicly claim their own radical politics instead, provided they are in a position to do so.


 

Bibliography

bell hooks. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Feminist Current

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.). (2015). Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

Gayatri Spivak. (1987). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1, 2, & 4). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update: this essay is now available in French and Spanish.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has hosted BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity.

When asked “does it matter how you arrived at being a woman?” Adichie did what few feminists are presently prepared to do because of the extremity within debate surrounding gender. She gave a candid public response:

“So when people talk about ‘are transwomen women?’, my feeling is transwomen are transwomen. I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

In the court of queer opinion, Adichie’s crime was to differentiate between those who are biologically female and raised as such, and those who transition from male to female (and were, for all intents and purposes, treated as male before undergoing transition), in her description of womanhood.  Within queer discourse the prefixes of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are designed to draw precisely that distinction, yet it is only when feminist women articulate and explore those differences that their acknowledgement becomes a source of ire.

Adichie’s statement is perfectly logical: it is ludicrous to imagine that those socialised and Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie_photo1read as female during their formative years have the same experiences as those socialised and read as male. Patriarchal society depends upon the imposition of gender as a means of subordinating women and granting men dominance. Conflating the experiences of women and transwomen erases the male privilege that transwomen held prior to transition and negates the legacy of learned male behaviour. It denies the true significance of how one arrives at womanhood in shaping that experience of womanhood. It denies both sets of truths.

Everyday Feminism published a piece outlining seven points that prove transwomen never held male privilege, a piece which would perhaps have been more effective in advocating feminist solidarity if it didn’t direct ageist misogyny towards second wave feminists in the opening line. Within this article, Kai Cheng Thom argues that “…if [transwomen] are women, that means we cannot receive male privilege – because male privilege is by definition something that only men and masculine-identified people can experience.”

Here is crux of the matter – the tension that exists between material reality and self-identification in shaping definitions of womanhood. If transwomanhood is synonymous with womanhood, the hallmarks of women’s oppression cease to recognisable as women’s experiences. Gender cannot be categorised as a socially constructed means of oppression if it is also to be considered as an innate identity. The connection between biological sex and the primary function of gender – oppressing women for the benefit of men – is erased. As Adichie stated, this conflation is at best unhelpful. If we cannot acknowledge the privileges those recognised and treated as male hold over their female counterparts, we cannot acknowledge the existence of patriarchy.

Biology is not destiny. However, within patriarchal society, it determines the roles ascribed to girls and boys at birth. And there is a fundamental difference in how those biologically male and biologically female are positioned by dominant structures of power, irrespective of gender identity.

“Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning. A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own. Because the truth about societal privilege is that it isn’t about how you feel. It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If women can no longer be identified as members of a sex class for political purposes, women’s oppression cannot be directly addressed or challenged. Subsequently, feminist objectives are undermined by queer politics.

Linguist Deborah Cameron has identified the trend of “the amazing disappearing woman”, highlighting the pattern of women’s lived realities and oppression being rendered invisible by gender-neutral language. Whereas womanhood is relentlessly deconstructed within queer discourse, the category of manhood is yet to be disputed.

no womenIt is not an accident that masculinity remains uncontested even as the word woman is treated as offensive, exclusionary. Man is positioned as the normative standard of humanity, woman as other-to-man. In reducing women to “non-men”, as the Green Party attempted to,  in reducing women to “pregnant people”, as the British Medical Association advised, queer discourse perpetuates the framing of woman as other. Queer ideology takes patriarchal conventions to their logical conclusion by quite literally writing women out of existence.

Defining the oppressed class in relation to the oppressor, denying the oppressed the language to speak of how they are marginalised, only serves to ratify the hierarchy of gender. Though such linguistic shifts appear inclusive at first glance, they have the unforeseen consequence of perpetuating misogyny.

“Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past.”Vonny Moyes

Addressing the issues of biological sex and gendered socialisation have become increasingly controversial, with more extreme elements of queer ideology positioning both subjects as TERF “myth”. It would be easy to wish the connection between women’s biology and our oppression, the consequences of gendered socialisation, were myths. In such a scenario, those in possession of a female body – women – could simply identify our way out of structural oppression, choose to be part of any group other than an oppressed class. Yet exploitation of female biology and gendered socialisation both play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the oppression of women by men.

Queer politics repackages women’s oppression as a position of inherent privilege whilst simultaneously depriving us of the language required to address and oppose that very oppression. The issue of gender identity leaves feminists in something of a double-bind: either accept that being marginalised on account of your sex is cis privilege or speak up and risk being branded a TERF. There is no space for dissenting voices in this conversation – not if those voices belong to women. In this respect, there is very little difference between the standards set by queer discourse and those governing patriarchal norms.

The word woman is important. With a name comes power. As Patricia Hill Collins observes (2000), self-definition is a key component of political resistance. If womanhood cannot be positively articulated, if womanhood is understood only as a negative of manhood, women are held in the position of object. It is only through considering women as the subject – as self-actualised human beings with the right to self-determination – that liberation becomes possible.

“The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.”Deborah Cameron

Without proud and open use of word woman, feminist politics lack the scope to mount anyradfem-symbol real resistance to women’s subordination. You cannot liberate a class of people that may not even be named. Womanhood is devalued by these insidious attempts to render it invisible. If women do not consider ourselves worth the inconvenience caused by naming us directly, specifically, we can hardly argue that we are worth the difficulties that liberation must bring.

Any potential offence caused by referring unequivocally to the female body is minor compared to the abuse and exploitation of our female bodies under patriarchy. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”


Bibliography

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism