Late in the 1980’s, in the time when I was an insufferable and glam rock obsessed adolescent (don’t judge me), there was a particular science lesson in which my usual absent window gazing was interrupted. Sat at the desk in front — and no doubt equally bored — some plooky specimen had taken it upon himself to swivel around in his chair and call my best friend, “a slag.”
My initial response of “male chauvinist pig” elicited only a blank expression, so I elaborated with a short lecture on double standards, followed by my quick assessment of what his problem was. “You just don’t think boys and girls should be the same,” I said, “because you don’t like girls.”
His expression went from blank to contemptuous. “Course I like girls,” he said, “I just don’t like slags.”
Recent times have seen a debate rage over whether anyone at all who wishes to self identify as a woman should be able to do so, with no checks or rules in place. Such an individual would need no medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, or to provide any evidence of having embarked on a course of physical or social transition, to be considered legally and literally a woman and therefore able to access spaces and opportunities specifically reserved for women, after filling out a form online.
Unsurprisingly, many women have come forward to express their concerns about what the implications might be when people who are not only biologically, but recognisably physiologically male, can identify as women and access sex segregated spaces such as prisons, refuges, and changing rooms, where women and girls are typically vulnerable. When women are still so far from being equally represented in terms of positions of power and influence, what might it mean for our fight against sexism when those positions can be filled on the basis of gender identity, rather than sex? And what might be the consequences for female people — historically oppressed by male people because of their sex — when their freedom to define and discuss their sexed reality is curtailed?
In a free and open society, one should be at liberty to ask reasonable questions regarding such a huge change in the law, and explore possible alternatives. Third, trans inclusive and gender neutral changing rooms would, for example, ensure the safety of trans people while also preserving safe, sex segregated spaces for natal women. Specific LGBT shortlists could help to ensure the political representation of trans people without the need for women to give up scarce and hard earned spaces only recently reserved for them.
Any attempt to discuss these issues however, has been met with huge efforts to shut it down and been framed only in the most extreme terms, with women’s concerns dismissed as neurotic and invalid, even oppressive and violent. Any woman who dares stray outside the realm of unquestioning support for this brand new idea risks being labelled a trans exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, and held up as a figure of loathing. Openly critical women have been harassed, smeared, and even physically assaulted.
Through centuries men have often sought to control women by dividing them into those they deem worthy by virtue of their adherence to patriarchal dictates, and those they consider beyond the pale. We can be nice girls or slags; hot or otherwise worthless; virtuous mothers or selfish monsters; now acceptable feminists or TERFS. Women, with no choice other than to try to thrive in a world where they do not make the rules, are as likely to enforce these divides as to reject them.
The sexism inherent in trans activism, and the aggressive push for self identification, is scooping up increasing numbers of so called ‘cis’ men and welcoming them on board for the ride: a ride they clearly find thrilling. Men in the UK Labour party, having suddenly discovered a burning passion for a feminism that seeks to centre those whose biology matches their own, are being galvanised in their droves. Are they campaigning against the male violence that kills so many trans sex workers in The Americas? Are they working to secure funding for trans support services, specifically tailored to meet the needs of trans women and men? They are not. Instead they are compiling secret lists of women with opinions they don’t like and abusing them online.
“TERF” as an insult is thrown around with palpable glee until these brave boys feel untouchable, lips get looser, and it becomes “BITCH” and “CUNT.” For too long, it seems, they have felt shackled by such pesky social rules as having to pretend they might actually consider women worth listening to. Now, having been presented with a group of women they are allowed to insult and dehumanise, it is as though they can finally breathe and say out loud all they have suppressed for so long. There is an air of giddyness about them, like a five year old at a party given too many sweeties.
What have women done to deserve this abuse? What crime could possibly warrant such invective? A recognition of women as defined by female biology, along with a desire to retain the sex based rights feminists fought hard for. That is all. If you are a woman who believes in the sexed reality of male and female bodies as significant, would like some say in who you must share your private spaces with, and what language you can use to describe your distinctly female experience, then you are a TERF, a bitch, a cunt.
A lack of censure has emboldened the enemies of natal women’s rights to the point where they feel confident openly parading their contempt. Lily Madigan, a young trans activist made women’s officer for Rochester and Strood, recently publicly attacked a well respected and much admired female MP for tweeting a statement about female representation at an awards ceremony.
Despite so much having been written about the use of TERF as a slur often associated with threats of violence, Madigan also judged this an appropriate public statement for someone whose specific role it is to encourage female participation in politics.
Meanwhile Riley J Dennis, American transactivist and Youtuber, recently made a video that includes the very clear statement: “Hating TERFS means supporting trans women”.
Here Dennis presents men with a gift of absolution. Not only does hating women who have committed the unthinkable crime of wishing to preserve their sex based rights actually make them a good person, but — Dennis goes on — any accusations of misogyny are completely unfounded. After all, there are perfectly acceptable feminists out there who don’t complain, and everybody likes them just fine.
See? Course they like women. They just don’t like cunts.
This escalation in woman hating rhetoric should alarm all right thinking people. We must be brave and call out what we see: that groups of ‘cis’ men and trans women are working hard in tandem to create an atmosphere so poisonous, so threatening, that all women will be frightened into silence and compliance; and that this is in direct response to resistance from women who value the sex based rights they see under threat and wish to hold in trust for their daughters.
The Labour Party — indeed all political parties — must now take a serious stand against this deliberate intimidation and degradation of female members and voters. It has no place in civilised politics, and in silence has been allowed to thrive. Open discussions and promised consultations with women must be allowed to take place before decisions are made that so deeply affect their lives, or we are effectively rendered voiceless.
In expressing our concerns for women’s rights and safety, we have done no wrong. Women are entitled to participate in politics and we are entitled to advocate for ourselves. Feminists won us this right long ago, and we intend to keep it.