23 thoughts on ““TERFs” turf

  1. I think that a website that claims to be run by feminists, that claims to be for women, should not be using abusive, misogynist language like the term TERF. That’s what I think.

  2. A statement most liberals assent to: Feminity (gender) is a social performance biological females are taught that is not innate to their being born biologically female. Another statement liberals who support the trans movement must also assent to: some individuals are born with an innate sense of their gender, which is bedrock to their identity and includes the need to be socialized as the opposite biological sex of their birth. You can’t support both.

    Feminists used to want to get rid of gender roles. How can they countenance a movement which represents a group of people interested in the preservation of exactly those roles? I’m sad to live in a world where a girl interested in robots is seen to be a potential boy, and a boy interested in barbies is a potential girl. We’re not born with it.

    I disagree with plenty in the linked article, but it does rightly observe that there is a dangerous tendency to silence any kind of disagreement on subjects like these. It is the new taboo.

  3. Can I ask the other commenters to say more? Why is “TERF” misogynist? Why is this article appalling? As a casual blog reader, I’m often frustrated by the expressions of moral outrage without any accompanying explanation. It’s fine to be outraged. I just wish people would try to say something on behalf of that outrage rather than just assume we all share it.

  4. It’s not a great article. However, I would ask the editors of this blog to refrain from using the term “TERF”.

    To call a woman a “TERF” is to vilify her. It is to mark her for ostracism and abuse, and ensure her speech has no uptake. It is a misguiding term because, contrary to its apparent meaning “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, it can be correctly applied to women who are neither trans exclusionary nor radical feminists.

    “TERF” is a political term of art that is deployed to silence dissent. I mean “silence” both in the sense of ensuring women are too scared to speak, and “silence” in the sense that speech uptake is blocked. Labelling the linked article a “TERF piece” makes it the case that the only socially acceptable response to any of its claims is total disagreement, otherwise one is also inviting the label “TERF”.

    A blog dedicated to feminist philosophy should not give currency to terms for which a central function is to stifle discussion and silence women.

  5. To clarify: the kind of thing it takes for the term “TERF” to be considered correctly applied to a woman includes her making statements like “penises are male”.

  6. Anon, each blogger here speaks for themselves so there is no FP editor(s) to supervise the language choices of individual bloggers. Anne is speaking for herself here.

    Speaking only for myself, I agree that using TERF sheds more heat than light since, from what I gather, the term is not (merely) descriptive but derisive. I don’t understand the many intricacies in the debates here, but my own ignorance makes me hesitant to say anything. I guess I’m in something like Monika’s position – not entirely clear about some of the condemnatory language – and also just acutely aware that being unclear and yet participating in discussion may itself invite condemnation. I guess the only reason I’m weighing in here at all is but to say that the bloggers here are not of one mind in their views and that I share reservations about using TERF. My reservations are not informed by any position on the core issues, but rather on what derisive language can to do foreclose discussion and a (likely naïve) wish that internal discourse between feminists not be conducted in ways that replicate the aggression and insult so prevalent elsewhere.

  7. To support what is being said here, I think the purposes of this blog – to facilitate productive dialogue about and within feminist philosophy – and indeed perhaps Anne’s original intent to spark conversation, is undermined by the use of terms like TERF. We can do better.

  8. It is depressing. As Anne said in her comment on the thread, or we could think about gender, but that would be hard (a nice bit of subtle sarcasm, missed by the author of the piece) I think what I find depressing about pieces like this is the relentless reification of gender and especially of gender as biology, something that both trans activists and any feminist have reason to reject. I have long thought that sports, for instance, should use not sex categories but something more akin to weight categories in wrestling or handicaps in horse racing.

  9. I had no idea when I wrote this piece that the term was considered divisive. I do apologize to any one who was disturbed by its appearance, and I’m grateful to those who pointed out how problematic it is.

    I’ve been concerned that the comments didn’t address very fully the question of what makes it a slur term. If you are interested, have a look at Debby Cameron’s article here.

  10. I do think “TERF” is used as a slur, whether or not it’s descriptive. It’s like “negro” or “colored”…the problem is with the intentions of users, not necessarily the literal content. I also think it’s oversimplifying to say that trans-critical feminists won’t let any trans people into the category “woman”. There’s a range of opinion on that, but more agreement that self-identification is not sufficient to make someone a woman. I can think of trans-critical feminists who define “woman” in such a way that there can be trans women, but sheer self-identification doesn’t make it so. There’s also agreement among these people that some kinds of progress for trans people are regressive for cis women. I do think this group of people often express themselves in ways that sound anti-trans, so some of the anger at them is understandable and fair. However, I also think they make some points that feminists should take seriously. So I’m not inclined to dismiss them with a slur.

  11. I’m glad to see a consensus that TERF is a slur. I agree with Anon that it is used crudely to silence any woman who questions the trans activist narrative, it’s never used on men who ask similar questions. I feel the blog itself highlights major issues that need to be addressed by all of us and that can only be done through discussion and research, both of which are being shut down in the pursuit of so called progressive politics. There’s much here that I feel is worthy of discussion in a group such as this. It’s deeply concerning that we’ve been spending decades trying to eradicate gender roles and gender stereotypes that they are now being promoted and used by trans activists to advocate for medically transitioning children before the age of 18. The risks to these children is immense not only medically (reliance on hormones, major surgeries that result in sterility and an inability to achieve sexual pleasure) but also in potential regrets over procedures that cannot be reversed. That is one issue but there’s also a fundamental one at the core of the trans argument and that is that biology is not real and is irrelevant, ie a denial of facts. A ‘feeling’ does not a woman make neither does the wearing of a dress. It is our sex that has led to the subjugation and oppression of women throughout the world. It is by recording sex that we are able to monitor, record and track the experiences of women in our society, recording a feeling about gender (over 60 genders so far) does not enable us to do that. That is not to say that a trans woman or trans man or any member of any other groups should not have the same rights as everyone else, they should and they do.

  12. I don’t happen to find the term problematic, personally, but I also don’t share views with anti-trans feminists about these issues, which means it doesn’t apply to me so I don’t have much of a stake in it. So I’m fine with not using it.

    So setting aside the question of terminology, what I do have a serious problem, with, are people who are happy to speculate about gender identity, and whether trans women are really women, as though it were an abstract philosophical puzzle to be solved, and not something that is about actual living people. When taking one side of an argument involves the invalidation of a lot of people’s identity and lived experience I think it’s right that we be extremely hesitant to take it. That’s not to say it’s entirely off limits to talk about gender identity or to disagree with trans folks or other feminist philosophers. Not all trans folks or feminist philosophers agree with each other on these issues anyway. But cis people and trans people have a different stake in the matter. And a view that says trans folks are just wrong, deluded, deceptive (etc) when they make sincere claims about themselves is to discount and marginalize them as participants in the discussion. Whereas believing them may have consequences that some people believe will be ultimately detrimental to cis women, it still doesn’t marginalize cis women or say that cis women are systematically mistaken about themselves in really fundamental ways.

  13. “And a view that says trans folks are just wrong, deluded, deceptive (etc) when they make sincere claims about themselves is to discount and marginalize them as participants in the discussion.”

    While I think that trans folk are wrong, I do not say that they are deluded or deceptive. Further, I call people what they want to be called. This has worked in my experience: my trans friends know that I don’t think that they are e.g. a man or woman, but I continue to address them as such, and we get along just fine. Furthermore, not all trans folk think that they are a man or woman full stop, and we shouldn’t pretend that they all do. Finally, my holding these views and expressing them does not discount or marginalize anyone as a participant in the discussion. We need to recognize that there is room for rational disagreement here: issues pertaining to gender and what it is are not obvious, and it is not a reductio of a position on gender that it excludes trans folk. I know that the author of the comment probably wasn’t meaning to deny any of this, but figured I’d lay it out explicitly.

    (Some people say the same for, religious experiences or NDEs: the subjects are not lying about their experience or deluded. Rather, they are just mistaken.)

    (There’s a fine book by Charolette Witt titled ‘The Metaphysics of Gender’ in which a third gender category is offered for trans folk, since, according to the author’s theory, they don’t fall in the category of ‘woman’. Might be of interest to some readers here.)

  14. I’m curious how far our difficulties in thinking through these issues are related to the lack of discussion of trans men. Perhaps because that was the first trans person i know, I find it odd that our debates – and public controversies – seem to focus on trans women only. Our expectations of support, identification and solidarity amongst women seem to lie behind some of the debates (and the anger and pain) that we find, so I’d be keen to see whether/how these debates play out amongst men and, if they do not (as seems to be the case), why not. After all, if male violence is a problem for trans women, (as well as cis women), we need also to consider its consequences for cis and trans men.
    And as we know that men can disadvantage and discriminate against other men, perhaps even our intuitions about the stakes in matters of antidiscrimination law and affirmative action might be helped by widening the lens so that it is not so tightly focused on conflicts within and between cis and trans women.

    ps apologies…i couldn’t download the original article (kids eaten up our internet quota trying to watch football where we live), so am mainly reacting to the comments here, and elsewhere.

  15. It is, I think, *very* important not to confuse support for trans persons’ gender self-identification with support for the imposition of traditional gender roles. I know of no evidence that trans persons, or supporters of trans identifications, are more likely than others to support the imposition of traditional roles, and my own limited experience strongly suggests the opposite. Meanwhile, support for people’s gender self-identification pulls flatly against the imposition of trans identities on gender nonconforming people who identify with the gender to which they’ve been assigned.

    On the other hand, resistance to self-identification *increases* the pressure on trans people to conform to traditional gender roles and characteristics, by placing the onus on them to prove their right to their gender identity.

    I don’t think that those of us who resist the imposition of traditional gender roles need feel any dissonance whatever in recognizing trans identities.

  16. I take Audrey’s point quite seriously, but it is also true that people can be wrong about themselves; it is not even particularly uncommon. Cartesian transparency has gone out of favor for good reasons! There is a serious danger of people being much too quick to be dismissive of other’s self-reports and too trusting of their own intuitions about themselves, and of course in particular of being more dismissive of marginal people, but completely ruling out discussion of the possibility of such errors because it might be disrespectful doesn’t seem workable either. There has to be some middle option where such discussions are permitted if engaged in with sufficient care and sensitivity.

  17. “Our expectations of support, identification and solidarity amongst women seem to lie behind some of the debates (and the anger and pain) that we find, so I’d be keen to see whether/how these debates play out amongst men and, if they do not (as seems to be the case), why not.”

    This is a very interesting question, though I would not have volunteered a response without prompting. (I’m a nonwhite, hetero cis male. I’m not an expert on trans issues, but I am familiar with them and have had constructive conversations with persons, including philosophers, who are trans and/or queer.)

    Presumably, “these debates” would be corresponding debates about whether transmen are men (whatever exactly that is supposed to mean, which is not obvious). Among cis males broadly, there indeed seems to be no debate. They take “men” simply to refer to standard biological males (pace Julia Serano). So no live question arises as to whether transmen are relevantly indistinguishable from or equivalent to men. I am not defending this, just describing what seems true as a generalization.

    Among cis males broadly, biological females — trans or not — do not have standing or direct influence to define who or what a man is or should be. This preempts potentially divisive “expectations of support, identification, and solidarity” that could extend to transmen. Attempts to get debate going on this front are likely to be met with a shrug by cis males, including outliers who might be sympathetic.

    Setting aside the patently transphobic, there’s nothing much at stake for cis males about the identity status of transmen. So-called “men’s sports” are now in effect open divisions: anyone could compete in them, regardless or sex or gender. The sex/gender controversy in sports is almost entirely on the women’s side. See, for example, the recent IAAF rules on testosterone and what has happened with the women’s 800m race at the elite level.

    It’s worth noting that there seems to be no real push from transmen to be accepted as men by cis males. Three main explanations come to mind. One, transmen realize this is a nonstarter among cis males broadly. Two, transmen don’t particularly care about acceptance by cis males since the target audience, so to speak, of most transmen is persons who are not cis males. Three, transmen have nothing to gain in resources and opportunities by pressing acceptance as men.

  18. I used to find the term unproblematic back when I was seeing “terf” used exclusively for the likes of Bug Brennan. She’s straightforwardly trans-exclusionary and straightforwardly a radfem, so “terf” seemed like a fine and straightforward descriptor for her and people like her. Perhaps it tweaked their noses a bit — “terf” is a ridiculous-sounding word that they did not choose for themselves — but surely no more than that. A few trans-exclusionary radical feminists set up a fuss about how “terf” is a slur, and I rolled my eyes at them.

    Since then, I’ve seen the use of “terf” expanded to include the most mild of liberal feminists. Speaking of menstruation as a phenomenon of “women’s bodies” is enough to get a woman slapped with the “terf” label. (With the exception of Jesse Singal, all the people I’ve seen called “terfs” are women.) The days of mild nosetweaking are over; being a terf apparently means now not just that you’re disagreeable but that punching you is an act without moral error.

    I am horrified. I had spoken on behalf of “terf”, and now I see that the terfs were right: “terf” is a slur. I am regret ever supporting the use of that term.

  19. It seems that radical feminist criticisms of trans identity theory are often rooted in attempts at material analysis, and that the issue, from a material perspective, is that there is no material to speak of if identity is wholly subjective, and thus that material analysis of oppression, which is taken to be crucial to the feminist cause, loses force. But then would these feminists feel solidarity with and accepting of trans men, if trans men share certain material axes of oppression with non-trans-women, such as being marked for rape by having a “female” anatomy or the burden of spending on a lifetime (or perhaps just some years’ worth) supply of tampons or being subject to sex-linked diseases? What is the “gender critical” position on trans men? May trans men join non-trans-women in “woman only” spaces, etc? If so, then their criticisms of trans identity theory don’t seem to be essentially anti-trans. But if not, then they are being inconsistent and thus appear to be unjustifiably/unjustly anti-trans.

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