Salvaging the ‘RF’: Radical Feminism and Trans Exclusion

by | 3 Feb 2021

In late 2020, I found myself teaching a course on gender, law and development.[1] I decided to start with the basics, including a crash course on feminist legal theory for those of my students who were not familiar with it. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and I was…furiously nodding in approval? It had been almost a decade since my last semi-serious engagement with radical feminism, with which I became intensely, but very briefly, enamoured in the late 2000s. Soon thereafter, I discovered the ‘sex wars’, lesbian separatism, and – worst of all – Judith Butler, who took my thinking about gender toward a radically (?) different direction. MacKinnon’s ongoing commitment to law and law reform as well as her objections to ‘postmodernism’ that more than occasionally hinged on pedestrian anti-intellectualism (‘Nice neutral word, difference, and it has all that French credibility.’) did not help my relationship with radical feminism either. The rise of TERFism (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) in the past few years only solidified my conviction that radical feminism had run its course as a political and intellectual movement. Is it a coincidence – I asked, rather rhetorically – that radical feminists found themselves once again in cahoots with the religious Right?  

But then, there I was, nodding. Around the same time, I came across a surprising (?) interview of MacKinnon, where she shut down without second thought any suggestion that her work and activism was trans exclusionary. Channeling Simone de Beauvoir, MacKinnon insisted that nobody (cis and trans) is born a woman, but we all become one within society. It is this social process of subjugation that concerns her both as a matter of feminist theorising and as an object of social practice. Equally, the late Andrea Dworkin was also trans-inclusive in both her theory and practice. 

Of course, TERFs themselves object to the use of the acronym, arguing that it is a misogynistic slur. Often left unelaborated, this assertion largely equates (intense) disapproval with slurs. There is no doubt that the acronym is used in a derogatory way (I certainly use it in this way), but this does not make it a misogynistic slur – it does not dismiss TERFs for being women, but rather for a political position that they publicly hold. In fact, accusations of TERFism place the politics of the trans-exclusionary individuals at the centre of criticism. Nevertheless, there is something to the claim of Jennifer Saul that the term can be misleading and obscure disagreements not only between different feminisms, but even within radical feminism. Relatedly, Joanne Conaghan has also cast doubt on whether any of the basic TERF propositions are readily recognisable as ‘feminist’. 

This raises another, more specific, question: in what way — if at all — is ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminism’ radical feminism in any meaningful sense? The question is not asked often, not least because of the very vocal, long-standing association of prominent radical feminists, for example Sheila Jeffreys, Janice G. Raymond, and Julie Binder, with positions that are not ‘simply’ exclusionary of trans women (and patronising toward trans men) but outright hostile. The question is further complicated by the fact that many vocal TERFs have not had a long-term engagement with feminism (radical or otherwise), but have adopted feminist self-identifying arguments relatively recently for the sole purpose of opposing the inclusion of trans women in female spaces and of asserting that trans men remain women despite their latter’s insistence that this is not true. 

Bathroom panics are at the heart of these objections. The argument goes as follows: legislation that allows trans women to access female spaces, regardless of whether and what medical procedures they have chosen to undergo, will allow ‘predatory males’ to dress up as women and access restrictive spaces in order to assault them. There are a number of reasons to oppose this reasoning on radical feminist grounds. One would involve the consequences of this line of thinking: indeed, it is highly likely that the victims of a more ‘vigilant’ approach to bathrooms will be non-stereotypically feminine women, either trans or cis. Since going to the loo does not generally involve genetic tests, assessments of whether someone is in the ‘correct’ bathroom hinge on ‘on the fly’ assessments of their conformity with gender norms, assessments that have been used for centuries to police female behaviour and can (and, indeed, have been and still are) be especially harmful even to cis women who are perceived as masculine, notably butch lesbians. In fact, butch lesbians and other gender-non-conforming cis women are reporting increasing levels of harassment in the shadow of rising anti-trans hysteria in the UK. 

However, the biggest tension between this line of thinking and radical feminist theory (and practice) is not the unintended consequences of these bathroom panics, but rather the abandonment and even reversal of core radical feminist propositions about violence, sex and gender in patriarchal societies. The bathroom parable relies on a ‘stranger danger’ understanding of sexual assault and gendered violence: some, arguably particularly monstrous and determined ‘predatory males’ (who might or might not ‘seriously’ perceive themselves as being trans) are willing to ‘put on a dress’ in order to access female spaces and hurt women. In many respects, this is precisely the imaginary of rape and sexual assault that feminists, including radical feminists, have spent the last few decades deconstructing. The idea of gendered and sexualised harm as exceptional, monstrous and spectacular, as taking place in public bathrooms and not in private homes, and — crucially — as being the doing of particularly aggressive men and not as a social structure that benefits all men has been anathema to radical feminist theory and practice. 

Let me elaborate: radical feminists have been making a number of inter-connected claims about women, sex, and violence in patriarchal societies. The first is an empirical one: radical feminists (rightly) claimed that rape, sexual assault and violence against women are much more prevalent in society than commonly assumed, but because of the all-encompassing nature of male power women do not necessarily recognise them as such in a spontaneous manner. Rather, collective processes of consciousness-raising were necessary to de-atomise women’s experience with the patriarchy and allow us to understand our position as one of thorough subordination. The role of black radical feminists was nothing short of pioneering in that regard. Secondly, radical feminists posited that even men who were not themselves physically violent and sexually aggressive against women nevertheless benefited from this structure of violent subordination. When MacKinnon urges us to conceptualise rape, prostitution (her words) or pornography as forms of torture — a label commonly reserved for violence inflicted by state officials for political purposes – she is not simply saying that these practices are extremely harmful (even though she was certainly also pushing against the minimisation harm in these contexts).[2] Rather, she was also pointing at the political functions of these acts as the ‘enforcement’ mechanisms of a much broader and deeper structure of masculine power. Much like state-sponsored torture, rape, violence and misogynistic intimidation serve a ‘public’ rather than a purely private purpose, in the sense that they ensure the unequal distribution of power between men and women. 

These realisations raised the question whether heterosexual intimacy and sex could ever be even notionally free from the all-encompassing nature of masculine power. The question was especially urgent since for radical feminists the locus of women’s oppression was not some supposedly socially unmediated ability to menstruate, bear children or simply be in possession of a vagina (as many TERFs would have it), but rather compulsory heterosexuality , the naturalisation of heterosexuality, its turning into the inescapable horizon of women’s existence.[3] For some (but certainly not all) feminists the answer became obvious: lesbianism was the only option if women wanted to live a fulfilling, non-violent life away from patriarchal oppression. Needless to say, political lesbianism did not fair particularly well, not least because, as Andrea Long Chu noted, attempting to make desire conform with political principle is as easy as trying to give a cat a bath (I am myself a feminist who has been dieting on and off since I was 12, so I would know). 

My intention here is not to re-litigate the merits of political lesbianism, even though it is arguably more attractive than the ‘born this way’ discourse that took over the LGBT+ movement the past few decades. My purpose, instead, is to observe the marked absence of all and any of these arguments in TERF reasoning. Indeed, for heterosexual trans-exclusionary feminists, the idea that the main danger to them does not linger in the public restroom, but in their own living room might be disconcerting, but it is a core proposition of radical feminism (there is also a lot to be said about the fact that lesbian TERFs seem to have forgotten their own arguments that straight and bisexual women ‘sleep with the enemy’). If politics is all about prioritisation, trans-exclusionary feminists have decided to obsess over the entirely fictional scenario of the dress-wearing bathroom predator over the ever-present masculine violence – especially at a time when women find themselves in lockdown with their abusers and working class women of colour face the economic consequences of the collapse of the service sectors in advanced capitalist economies. None of this should be taken to mean that aspects of radical feminism were not open to the type of arguments TERFs make against trans women. For one, radical feminists, including MacKinnon, often found themselves oscillating between making sophisticated arguments about the eroticisation of domination under the patriarchy to elevating sex into the prime (if not, de facto, exclusive) site where women’s oppression is articulated, notably to the detriment of wage labour and social reproduction.  However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that a re-appreciation of the basics of radical feminism would, in fact, help us make the case for a trans-inclusive feminism and, fundamentally, for a feminism that confronts the root of women’s oppression instead of devolving into moral panics. In so doing, we can only benefit from engaging carefully with the writings of trans feminists themselves, who have long been articulating careful and generative readings both of radical feminism but also of women’s oppression through intersectional lenses that remain alive to the horizon of comprehensive human liberation


* With many thanks to Yvette Russell for her careful reading and comments. 

[1] In a sense, this post is also a commentary on the tendency of the neoliberal university to treat teaching as feminised labour and to devalue it accordingly, especially in relation to research which is often coded as masculine. I learn with and from my students as much, if not more than, I learn in my ‘research time’ and for this,I am extremely grateful.  

[2] Sex workers themselves have retorted that equating rape with all sex work obscures the harm inflicted on them when they do get raped: Juno Mac, Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (Verso, 2018). 

[3] This insight also enables us to see in different light the TERFy argument that trans inclusion makes homosexuality – understood as same sex attraction -impossible. It is the entire structure of patriarchal societies that makes homosexuality often unthinkable and nevertheless, queer women have been overcoming these odds for centuries. The ‘concern’ is not only hypocritical and patronising, but also reveals a profound ignorance not only of feminist theorising but also of the lives of queer women. 

11 Comments

  1. Lmfao female is not a feeling and when you teach, keep politics and your personal views out of the facts.

    Reply
    • Strawman.

      “Woman” isn’t a feeling, it is a social condition defined by one’s actual material condition in the patriarchy. When a cis, trans, or intersex woman is told to smile more, is beaten, is raped –or any of the crimes that, as Dworkin said in Right Wing Women, “keep women women”– they are being targeted because of their social condition. Women are NOT targeted because of any TERF’s ontology, anyone’s ideas about chromosomes, or even fecundity; women are targeted as a class because of their social condition, the very thing that makes them a class, like it or not. As Dworkin said, like it or not, the liberation of cis women depends upon the liberation of ALL women.

      Reply
    • as a mackinnonite and delphy-niste “the main enemy,” etc etc since the 70s still find the piece fabulously fairminded…sexclass is sexclass ….oppression is such….a material relation.doesnt exclude inclusion.

      Reply
  2. So if a man tells you he is a woman you believe him and not your own eyes and brain. I do not know which brand of feminism this is, but I thought feminism was not about obeying males. I am sure men love it though.
    Also, not sure Marx would believe that material conditions are irrelevant and you can identify out of your oppression.
    I can see why you blocked me on Twitter. When you have no arguments, you block people. Enjoy your corporate friendly ideology.

    Reply
    • Nobody gets to choose their sexed class is. Nobody. Culture does the choosing.

      If a cis, trans, or intersex person’s social condition is defined by the social conditions that, as Dworkin said, “keeps women women,” then their sexed class is “woman.”

      Reply
      • Biology does the choosing. Not culture. Are you denying evolution? Humans have evolved as a sexually binary species. Culture dictates which roles the two classes perform, not what they are biologically.

        Reply
  3. Women are targeted because of their sex. Gender is the system of oppression built on our material condition. Our material condition, which is inescapable, is our female body. I find this denial of the body creepy and fascistic. Not a single male is killed at birth for being male.

    Reply
  4. Sadly, I think there is wilful misunderstanding and distortion of arguments in this article. That is a shame, especially from someone who claims to subscribe to a political theory based around recognition of the material.

    Material reality matters here and the author ignores or obfuscates its relevance. Nearly all humans are instantly identifiable as falling into one of two sexes. Yes, we are developing more sophisticated understandings of genetics and biology but this doesn’t change that humans can be grouped by sight into these categories, as many other species can. And, importantly, they are treated very differently depending on whether they are male or female. This starts from birth, or even pre-birth in the tragic case of sex-selective abortions in many parts of the world. Being born female brings about a very different experience than being born male (some of it biological, a lot of it social, but ultimately tied to being one sex rather than the other).

    Recognition of this material reality and its direct link to less favourable treatment absolutely does not constitute biological essentialism, as is often argued by those, including this author, who want to misunderstand. For instance, it doesn’t matter, as a woman, whether I have children. The fact that I am clearly identifiable as belonging to the class of humans who *can* do so has an impact on how I am treated by society, especially in the case of employment. Nor is a description the same as essentialism. By saying that women are the class of people who menstruate and give birth, I am not saying that these are essential qualities of some mythical status of ‘womanhood’ and that a female person who does not menstruate or is infertile is not a ‘real woman’. Nor would my description of humans as bipedal exclude amputees from being human.

    Trans people face discrimination but this discrimination is different from the sex-discrimination that women face, although its impacts may well feel similar. The material reality of being female is not the same as the material reality of being born and raised male and then dealing with gender dysphoria and a hostile reception to transition. There will be some situations where the physical differences between the sexes cannot be ignored and the law rightly recognises this (despite numerous attempts by organisation, including universities, to deny that sex is a protected characteristic). Sport participation is one. Female people are shorter and weaker than male people, and a woman will generally be considerably weaker than a shorter and lighter male. Hormone treatments do not fully correct this imbalance. It is quite simply unfair to allow someone male to compete against someone female and especially unfair if that person has not undergone any medical treatment (as is the case in High School track running in the US).

    We also do not accept that identity equals reality in other cases and the case has never been convincingly made as to why biological sex should be treated differently. For instance, we don’t argue that white people who identify strongly with black people genuinely are black or share the experience of being black. We don’t accept that someone can identify as being younger than their chronological age. Another interesting point is that even those who, like the author, believe that recognition of biological reality amounts to bigotry, accept that there is a need for segregation between men and women in some circumstances. Where they differ is on the definition of ‘woman’ and they prefer an identity-based definition (‘feeling like a woman’) to a biology-based one (‘member of the female sex’). But they don’t tend to dispute that there should be e.g. female changing rooms. In fact, the danger that trans women could face from men is often used as an argument for allowing them to use female facilities, including prisons. We certainly don’t call anyone a misandrist for pointing out that men commit violent crime at a much higher rate than women. What the author and others argue for is the ability for some males to identify out of their sex-class as long as their belief is strong and genuine enough. However, there is no attempt to define the point at which a male person becomes a female person and, in fact, most argue that medical transition is completely unnecessary to recognition as the opposite sex. That leads us to the illogical position where a woman is fully within her rights to object to undressing in front of a male but is a bigot or hysterical if that male has a genuine belief that they are really female. I find it odd that lawyers of all people should defend such a position without at least examining it more fully.

    It is also notable that the recent furore over ‘transphobia’ in the SNP was largely based around hostility to those who wanted to enable a rape victim to demand that any medical examination be carried out by a member of the same sex. Again, we readily accept that this is entirely necessary most of the time, yet would accuse the victim of bigotry in the case of a male (and very visibly so to the victim) who claims to feel female. It is not about scaremongering or irrational fear, as is suggested here. It is something that is entirely evidence-based and accepted without question by all but with an exception made where someone claims to identify out of their sex-class. All feminists (or TERFs as you charmingly put it) are saying is that we do not believe this is a legitimate, robust or evidence-based exception.

    Reply
    • Excellent points Annie. No-one can ever tell us how exactly these males become females. And they need to misrepresent our position in order to refute it. No one is saying men will put on a dress to enter toilets. If toilets become effectively unisex, and no hormones, surgery or dress is necessary to identify someone as a woman, any man can enter female toilets. There are no genital inspections, just like there are no control over whether a woman is pregnant before letting her on a rollercoster. It is assumed the woman will know, and it is assumed anyone will know their sex and therefore use the correct sex segregated facilities. It is particularly horrid that they refer to genital inspections, as millions of women are subjected to them, including virginity tests. For transwomen (ie, males) to use this against women is appalling.
      There is no single experience that transwomen share with women, because they are fundamentally opposite from us. Their discrimination is based on their trans status, not them being female. Denying this not only affects women and denies them agency, but also erases the specific status of transgender people (nobody ever cares about transmen of course, except abusing those who detransition, accusing them of never having been trans, in a typical move of cult-like groups).

      Reply
  5. i loved this article! i would love to see more trans inclusive radical feminism. and sorry about the terfs in the comments leaving long transphobic rants lol

    Reply
  6. This article is flawed in conflating all gender critical feminists with some alt-right ideology. Many women like myself have considered ourselves progressive all our lives. Having valid questions and concerns about radical trans activism does not suddenly place us in the #MAGA crowd, that is unjust generalization.

    It seems nuance is sorely lacking in online discourse. How can you dismiss any women’s concerns about protecting single-sex spaces as alt-right hysteria?

    We need nuance. Not all gender critical feminists are radical ‘terfs’ wielding a copy of the SCUM Manifesto. Not all trans people are AGP ‘transbian’ lunatics who make violent threats to women online. But these people exist.

    There are stories coming out of prisons of women being raped by transgender inmates. These stories exist, and we need to discuss them. Inclusion should not override safeguarding measures, and yes, transgender people need their own safeguards as well.

    Why is it politically correct to only acknowledge one side’s lunatics? Don’t coddle the predators within the LGBTQ community, ILGA learned that in the 90s.

    Reply

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