My feminism is not about being afraid.

Of course, I am afraid of lots of things. I am afraid of not being considered attractive. I am afraid of not being liked. I am afraid of being considered sluttish, or stupid, or frigid. I am afraid of being excluded, and I’m afraid of excluding, too.

I am afraid of being considered “just” a woman. I’m afraid of not knowing what being a woman means. I’m afraid of being a bad mother, a poor worker, a useless partner, a selfish friend. I am afraid of being poor. I am afraid of being physically or psychologically abused. I am afraid of rape and murder.

I am afraid of the structures that maintain oppression. I am afraid of describing them. I am afraid of not saying the right thing. I am afraid of saying anything at all.

A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.

Last night a friend and I were discussing the rise of SWERF and TERF, insults that are increasingly used against feminists who attack, not sex workers nor trans people, but gendered structures of oppression. Fear-based feminism would deny that these are insults at all. It would argue that the word “exclusion” is never used in vain. It would send tweets to itself and the world at large, using capital letters: TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR. It would say “it’s descriptive,” all the while making note of the latest unsayables (gender is a construct, reproduction is a feminist issue, misogyny is associated with hatred of the female body). It would watch as all space for discussion and compassion collapsed in on itself. It would think “as long as I am safe. As long as I am neither SWERF nor TERF.”

Fear-based feminism is all about attacking individuals, not intersecting structures of oppression. “Kick up, not down.” Just as long as you’re kicking someone, and as long as the person being kicked isn’t you. As long as you are the one saying “STFU” and “sit down” and “cis white feminist tears” and shaking your damn head at someone else’s supreme ignorance. As long as you are not creating (because you might create the wrong thing!). As long as you are knocking down.

A critique of gender, objectification, sex work and reproductive oppression within the context of “being a woman” should be within the scope of anyone’s feminism. And yet, if I were a younger feminist – if I didn’t already have the support of other feminists — I would be too frightened to have written that sentence. I would think it was easier left unsaid. Best focus on the surface and the individual. I would not trust myself with more, and I’d be scared of ever wavering from this. I would want to be a good girl, one who swears and fucks in all the right places, wishes suffering on the right people, says “sorry” to those she fears and “die, scum” to those whom she doesn’t want to be. I would tweet SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR. I would have no faith in my own ability to listen and make my own moral judgments. I’d be bloody terrified of ever getting this wrong, and I’d be right to be.

Internet feminism is fraught not because women cannot support one another. It is fraught because it is not a safe space. We still need the approval of heterosexual men. We don’t want to be “the wrong kind of feminist,” one who likes women too much and sucks dick too little (hence the rampant lesophobia of the most right-on masses). We want to be able to blame “the wrong kind of feminist” for everything, from slut-shaming to transphobia to the murder of sex workers. This has no bearing on reality but it makes feminism appear a far easier enterprise. Kick other women and nothing else needs to change.

The truth is that feminism is not about exclusion, or irrevocable judgment, or leaving others exposed to physical danger. Nevertheless, it challenges the structures in which we’re enmeshed and shifts the ground beneath our feet. It does not always feel protective – how could it? But it can be respectful, kind and humane, and it should also be brave.

I am a fearful person, but mine isn’t a feminism of fear. I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge. And when I talk about “fear-based feminism” I do mean it as a criticism, but not as a damning description of another human being. To be a feminist and to be fearful is human. Fears can be recalibrated. This is not a slur.