On SWERFs, TERFs and good girls

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.


25 thoughts on “On SWERFs, TERFs and good girls

  1. Well said. I wish I felt so brave about my own convictions at times, but you’re right. The internet isn’t a safe space, and there’s so much to think about. So many opinions and arguments for every side that it’s hard to find your own voice sometimes.

    1. I’m not always sure what I think, and change my mind (and am more comfortable with that than I used to be) but I worry that increasingly, online feminism is telling women not to trust themselves and that they need to wait in line to be told the “right” thing to believe about their own liberation (and if they fail to do so they will be condemned and called names, with no way back). It all strikes me as a replication of how women are treated in real life – not trustworthy, necessarily dependent on a higher authority, child-like.

  2. Great post. I’ve spoken to a number of women who have said that the internet and Twitter is where they came to to find out more about feminism but are too scared to ask questions or voice an opinion so they never engage. In all of the roaring online we are missing out on the vast majority of women’s lives and views.

    I’m actually, possibly stupidly optimistically, beginning to think that this will lead to more real-life local organising. The internet would still be used as an organising tool which connects people who may otherwise be isolated, but that they physically meet to discuss and debate and campaign. Maybe even consciousness raise, in circles, with mirrors. We can still create safe spaces but not online.

  3. we will not be silenced. even if our only voices are screams of rage to the sky. we will not be silenced until we are free from male violence.

    thank you sister, may you be warmed by the fiery truth of your words. the sisterhood is alive and potent.

      1. Sex worker excluding radical feminist and trans excluding radical feminist (or is it exclusive? Never can remember). But they are applied very freely to critiques of gender or objectification, to undermine the authority of the speaker, suggesting her opinions are merely expressions of some pathological hatred rather than any engagement with structures of oppression.

  4. It felt deeply freeing to read those first four paragraphs. I am afraid of all those things too. And I can feel the sick rising up in my throat as I think about them now.

    It’s a huge comfort to know that someone else has those fears yet continues anyway. Fuck the fear and start living.

  5. Thank you for your bravery and clarity in writing this post. It is both refreshing and inspiring.

    This is my favorite line; it points to the lie–and hopefully the undoing–of identity politics:

    “…presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.”

    Exactly. Playing musical chairs with social roles and identites that have been pre-fabricated (by patriarchy), then re-casting them as natural/essential is far from radical and far from politically effective. Self-definition is idealism, nothing more. It does not illuminate or deconstruct the power dynamics that give rise to oppression in the first place. It is a poor substitute for political analysis and activism.

    Yes a million times to this: ” I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one.”

    I always dislike being called a TERF, but I am proud to be gender-critical and I will not be silenced or intimidated by lazy thinkers who prefer hostile insults to counter-arguments. Thank you for standing tall and strong in your convictions. It’s a beautiful thing!

  6. I believe that the most radical question you can ask anyone is, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” It sounds like you are also brave enough to ask that question of yourself. May you find the support you need to experiment with your own answer to that question. You can find that support from me if you wish to.

  7. But the problem is that TERF and SWERF behaviour really is the nasty face of ‘feminism’ (although myself I think any ‘feminism’ that embraces TERFs isn’t really feminism at all). There’s no getting away from the hate-filled rhetoric that is common among TERF sites. One only has to go look at Gender Identity Watch and see their behaviour to understand that they are a very nasty hate group indeed.

    The problem then seems to be that among certain people who self-identify as radical feminists there is a certain fascination with these extremists because they seem to espouse a full on attack against patriarchy instead of the messy, pragmatic, approach that real mainstream feminists adopt. Like radical jihadist islam, there is a definite appeal to those who are uncomfortable with the shades of grey of the real world and want to burn with the fire of self-righteousness. SWERF behaviour is similar as it never fails to amaze me how SWERFs are prepared to throw other women to the wolves in pursuit of their own agenda.

    You can always tell someone by the company they keep, and on twitter that’s even more apparent. There’s a small group of well know TERF sympathisers that follow each other and re-enforce their own prejudices. A constant re-enforcing ‘your attitude is ok’ stream of tweets whenever dealing with trans/cis attitudes develops a culture where TERF attitudes are seen as normal and fine, and if you cannot see that you should be afraid – because hating people, denying their right to exist or telling them their self-identity is an illness or delusion (common that, because trans identity doesn’t fit with a certain radfem understanding of gender) is wrong and even evil, no matter how is is excused as ‘supporting real women’.

    1. The trouble is, if these terms are applied to any woman who is perceived to have committed some minor infraction – said the word “vagina” or said they want to support women leaving sex work – they have no real meaning. And that is how they are applied.
      Furthermore, I have serious issues with feminists who wish others dead or to commit acts of violence on them, and I’ve seen that said by many kinds of activist. I don’t dismiss the opinions and values of all other feminists because of this. That’s just lazy and cruel, and betrays exactly the kind of extremist thinking you claim to be arguing against.
      Finally, the whole issue with feminists being seen interacting with the “wrong kind” of other feminist online – seriously? Should a woman’s contacts be monitored in this way? Does every feminist need the online equivalent of a psychologically abusive partner to keep her in check? I tend to think not.

    2. sarah, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from men. they are determined to use and exploit us. no matter what. there is no end to the depths of their depraved imaginations. none.

      from the content of your comment, you seem to believe that accommodating male mental abuse (in the form of forcing women to believe that a penis is male) will make men magically stop killing/raping/abusing us. it will not.

      so, it seems that the most dignified option in this horrific shit-show we call “society” is to refuse to let them break us. resistance is a powerful and joyous state of being free in place, while standing in the blood-soaked killing fields of our cities and towns.

      the truth is plain and simple: penises are male. men and women are two biologically distinct beings. male and female are not “feelings.” i refuse to let men and their handmaidens break my mind. i will not be led to spew their lies.

      men are no longer my concern. i embrace you as my sister (if you are a woman), and hope that you one day wake up to the glory of your precious humanity. you are more than a fucktoy/breeder/servant/mouthpiece. you are a woman. proud and perfect, just as you are. human.

  8. If knowing that woman = female makes me a TERF then I’ll wear it as a badge of honor. I am not a thought in a man’s head. I am not a feeling. I am a female human being – I was born female and I will die female. Not once on this arc of life will I submit to pretending otherwise than woman = female.

    If knowing that prostitution = rape makes me a SWERF then I’ll wear that as a badge of honor, too. Woman are not commodities to be bought, used and discarded. We’re not human condoms. We’re not living sex toys. I will never submit to pretending otherwise than prostitution = rape.

    If the tsunami of ignorance and filth that currently flows through the Internet has infected the minds of young feminists, then I stand ready with the antidote to this mental poison, prepared to support their healing whenever they are ready to face up to reality.

      1. I think terf and swerf are good describing words. I have seen a friend of mine be described as a terf although she runs three trans inclusive forums. But these are from cis allies 😦

  9. Truly? This isn’t a parody account? You’re truly trying to make out that people who are against transphobia are only doing so in order to suck up to men? I can’t believe how insulting that is.

    1. Calling women you don’t like TERFs isn’t opposing transphobia in any way, shape or form. Standing up to transphobia takes guts; just being nasty to women, on the other hand, is a piece of piss.

  10. Many thanks for a fascinating post – I read this page by acident when looking up some intersectional stuff to do with institutional racism and the TERF/SWERF debate reminds me that some anti-racist campaigners (younger ones) no longer believe race to be a construct (though modern DNA sequencing says it is – it’s nice when top-level science and social conscience agree) in the same way many younger feminists refute that gender is a construct. It seems to me that the digital and uber-capitalist age has brought about a more polar atitude to many issues because being seen not to be absolute is a sign of weakness. But I find the more I hear that either gender or race are inherent, the more I’m inclined to say they’re not – not because I wish to have a strong atomistic position but because I support a relative position in which we all need varying support for the constructs with which society burdens us.

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