The label ‘TERF’, or ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’:
- Is not a meaningful description of any feminist politics.
Radical feminism is an approach to analysing the oppression and exploitation of the class of female people by the class of male people. It seeks to uncover and challenge the root causes and origins of that system of oppression, which it labels patriarchy. Different radical feminist analyses will emphasise different elements – access to female reproductive labour, sexual access to women’s bodies, compulsory heterosexuality, male-dominated religion – as central to understanding the function and continued maintenance of patriarchy. So we should not assume that there is unity or homogeneity among those whose views can be called radical feminist. However, a key assumption underpinning radical feminist analyses is that the word “female” denotes a biological category, referring to the class of persons capable of menstruating, ovulating, gestating, and lactating. Radical feminist analysis starts from the assumption that living in a sexed body brings with it particular experiences that are of social and political significance, and that if we are to explain and dismantle patriarchy, we need to be able to describe and understand those experiences.
For this reason, it makes little sense to describe, and still less to criticise, a radical feminist approach as “trans exclusionary”. Radical feminism seeks to make sense of the social and political reality of living in a particular type of body – a female body – and to eradicate the oppression and exploitation associated with the social relations between female-bodied people and male-bodied people. Therefore, its analysis of patriarchy as a system of sex-based oppression has little to say about the experiences of people who identify as women but do not inhabit female bodies. This is not an oversight or an illegitimate act of exclusion. It is simply not the aim or purpose of radical feminist theory to seek to analyse or explain the specific experiences of transwomen, which will, necessarily, be importantly different from those of female people. None of this is to deny that transwomen will experience marginalisation, discrimination and injustice. It is merely to note that these injustices are not rooted in biological sex, unlike the oppression of female people. Insofar as they are not, they are not intended to fall under the purview of radical feminist analysis. To criticise radical feminist analysis for being trans-exclusionary is to operate under the false assumption that the aim and purpose of radical feminism should be to explain and dismantle all forms of injustice and marginalisation, rather than to limit its focus to the sex-based oppression of female people. It is legitimate and reasonable for radical feminists to focus narrowly on analysing and dismantling sex-based oppression, and therefore criticism that their efforts do not also explain and challenge other unrelated social ills is misplaced.
- Is rarely, if ever, accurately applied, even if it were a meaningful label.
Many of the people who are labelled TERFs do not meet the description of any of the words included in the phrase. The label TERF is often applied to men, to people who are not feminists of any kind, radical or otherwise, and even to anti-feminists. You can be called a TERF for believing that female and male are biological distinctions, rather than identities. Statements such as “only female people can get pregnant”, or “the penis is the male sex organ”, will frequently attract accusations that the speaker is a TERF. One need not subscribe to the analysis of sex-based oppression outlined in point 1 to be called a TERF. It is sufficient that one believes that female and male are real biological categories, and that there are genuine differences between the two that cannot be reduced to identity or feelings, to be labelled a TERF.
Furthermore, the first half of the phrase is equally ill-defined, and inaccurately applied. It is not clear what, exactly, transwomen (or transpeople more generally) are being excluded from. Many people would argue, quite reasonably, that male-bodied people who identify as women should not have an absolute and unqualified right of access to all women’s spaces, where this includes women’s prisons, refuges, or changing facilities. It does not follow from this that those people think all transwomen should be excluded from all women’s spaces, or from all feminist projects and activism. Add to this the vagueness and lack of clarity about what the word “trans” actually means, and what criteria a person has to meet to be defined as “trans”, and it becomes even more apparent that the description “trans-exclusionary” is so vague and ill-defined as to be incapable of being applied meaningfully and accurately.
- Is inextricably associated with misogynistic, abusive, violent rhetoric.
The vast majority of people who use the word TERF intend it to be an insult, and apply it indiscriminately, frequently accompanied by threatening, aggressive and abusive language. Those who label women TERFs routinely threaten violence, employ misogynistic slurs and anti-lesbian rhetoric. There is no shortage of evidence of this; there is far, far more evidence of the word being used as an abusive slur, than there is of it being employed as a neutral description of a political position. Given that it is overwhelmingly used as a term of vitriol and abuse, and often accompanied by violent threats, it is not a term that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a credible political commentator should be using, or attempting to rehabilitate.
Furthermore, commonly invoked attempts to present it as a neutral descriptive label fall flat when it is compared with other comparable slurs. It is often said that it cannot be abusive because it is merely an acronym; however, few would suggest that the word “tranny” is not a slur, because it is merely an abbreviation. Context, intent and actual usage matter hugely, as do the perceptions of the person to whom the label is directed. Most transpeople justifiably perceive the word “tranny” to be more than just an abbreviation. It is an offensive term of abuse intended to belittle, demean and dehumanise, and as such, it is perceived as a slur by those subjected to it. Those people may or may not choose to reclaim it and refer to themselves by that term, but those who are not subjected to it have no authority to tell transpeople that they ought not to find the word offensive, or ought not to feel threatened and dehumanised by those who use it. The same considerations apply to the word ‘TERF’. No feminist, radical or otherwise, adopts the label as a description of herself or her politics. Most if not all to whom it is applied perceive it as a slur, and given its connotations, will feel threatened or belittled by it.
It is sometimes claimed that the word cannot be a slur because it was allegedly coined by self-described radical feminists who wanted to distance themselves from other radical feminists who they perceived to have the wrong politics. It’s not clear if this is true, since various trans activists have claimed that they are responsible for coining or popularising the term. But it makes little difference, since the history and etymology of the word does not determine its current usage. What matters is the context in which the word is now used and the connotations it currently has, and those are undoubtedly abusive and misogynistic.
All those who perceive themselves to have progressive politics and to be allies to women should stop using the word TERF immediately.