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Artillery Row

The curse of “TERF”

The term is intended to dehumanise dissenting women

One of the easiest things to do, in order to emotionally destabilise someone, is to call them dehumanising names. Even if someone isn’t hurt by the term used, because they know it is untrue, they are still shocked at such unprovoked verbal attacks. 

Women who are victims of domestic abuse know this well. An abusive man uses terms like “slag” and “bitch” towards a woman who, at the time, believes he loves her, in order to make her feel insecure and wound her mentally and emotionally. She may try to prove that he is wrong, defending herself against the cruel words — giving examples of why she is not what he has accused her of being — or she may go quiet and hope he stops. He is not to be appeased, because his intention was only to control her; he has chosen the words that allow him to do so, and he has chosen very carefully. Abused women know that name-calling is often the entry point to abuse, but a fist to the face or a hand round the throat is the dangerous progression.

The term “TERF” has risen to stratospheric popularity — as a way to hold women in place

Outside of such a domestic context, but abusive nonetheless, the term “TERF” has risen to stratospheric popularity — as a way to hold women in place and mark them out as “bad” or even inherently evil people. The term was originally an acronym for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist” though what this actually meant was anyone’s guess. Years ago, it stopped feminist women in their tracks as they attempted to discuss issues pertaining to their oppression as female people, by male people, in all its forms. It suggested they were doing something cruel, and many feminist women knew that this was ridiculous. Wanting to keep men out of spaces designated for women’s privacy and safety isn’t cruel — it’s sensible. It was also usually a huge, attention-seeking diversion, to what those women were campaigning against or for. The elimination of prostitution, the provision of refuge and rape crisis, abortion rights, better healthcare provision and prison conditions to name but a few. 

Good women were forced to explain until they were blue in the face that they were not hateful bigots, but that they believed this or that about women’s rights, usually with good reason. These appeals fell on purposely deaf ears. A word had been found to swiftly silence and dismiss women and it was as effective as “bitch”, “slag”, or “witch” ever were. 

Women explained that they did not want to exclude trans-identifying individuals from anything, other than to prioritise the safety, privacy and dignity of women and to protect the rights they have in law. It mattered not one bit — and the misogynist, feverish excitement around the word “TERF” spread like a pernicious virus. It has been embraced most wholeheartedly over the years, and predominantly by men of the left. This felt an extra slap in the face because the women were, at the time the term surfaced and was used, mainly of the political left. 

So how did this word grow and gain such power to shut down women as they speak, throw them from their jobs and ensure that they were seen as morally reprehensible, hate-filled bigots to be isolated from society? 

I think because it lacks specificity. It is largely meaningless and has become less meaningful over time. It simply means “those women who don’t believe as I do” or “those women who won’t shut up about their rights” or even, and I believe this is in many cases just “women”, because the level of hatred holding aloft the accusation “TERF” is palpably misogynist. It means “bitch” and it means it hard. 

As Dworkin said, “feminism is hated because women are hated” and this whole crazy show started with feminist activism and the trans identified men who wanted to reverse some of those feminist gains. The men who hate us call a very disparate group of women, and now some men, “The TERFs”, and talk about them in much the way you would an enemy who you don’t want to engage with but must somehow viciously defeat.

If a woman discusses why she takes a position in favour of single-sex service provision, listing her reasons as past trauma at the hands of men, she is accused of “weaponising her victimhood”. Her actual wounds are used to continue wounding her.  It feels insane. Women who have fled male violence now have their wings pinned to a board if they try to discuss it. 

When men are flinging around the term “TERF” at women they don’t actually know, it is because they want to bring her down — and there is, for the woman on the receiving end, an accompanying implied threat of violence whenever it is used. Sticks and stones will break her bones, and if it comes with the name-calling of “TERF” then it is intended to do more than hurt feelings; it is intended to shut women up about their rights for good. 

Once a woman has been marked as “TERF” all of her previous achievements and good behaviour count for nothing. She can point to her career history, her good character, her generosity, her work for other women, her awards or records of charity work. All the things she has done that have made her proud of herself are kicked into the dust beneath the accusation that she is a “bad woman” on the “wrong side of history”. 

TERF is very much designed to convey that women are evil people

Similarly, if a man declares himself “trans” in one of its many current incarnations, special provision can be made for him; he deserves sympathy, understanding and respect. When he puts on a dress and makeup and performs as a woman he is automatically “stunning and brave”. A woman defending the word “woman” from him, is a “fascist bigot” and threatened with violence or reputational harm unless she mends her ways. If he grows his hair and wears colourful clothes, declaring himself “non-binary”, he achieves significant protection under the Equality Act — but women, also provided for, cannot claim their rights which contradict him under the same act without being seen as “far right allies” or “anti-trans”. Any woman who challenges his assertions — because it would be detrimental to her safety to concede to such demands — is accused of pushing him towards suicide. Some labels are negotiable and nuanced but “good” and “evil” are not. “TERF” is very much designed to convey that women are evil people, bad humans, flawed, filthy and legitimate targets of harm. 

By contrast, if a man declares he is “trans” even had he raped a woman or child, doors would open for him — doors straight into female prisons if some of the Labour front bench had their way. If you appeared in court, you could put your victim back on her knees by forcing her to call you “she” throughout your trial and a judge would go along with all this according to the Bench rules, penalising any TERF who refused. Maria McLaughlan, the victim of assault by a trans-identified man,  refused and she was given lesser damages as a result. Correctly reading someone’s sex as male and saying so, using the word “man”, is not on a par with the name-calling of “TERF”, which is intended to dehumanise women making it easier to justify hurting them in some way. A man is not dehumanised by being called male — he is simply told the truth. 

When the term TERF first surfaced we tried to point out that the word was a slur, that it was intended to mark us out for harsh treatment and ostracization. And it certainly was. Initially women defended themselves against it but finally, in more recent years embraced it for what else could we do? We put it on t-shirts. We wore our former shame with pride. 

Yet even for brave women the name-calling of “TERF” has power over their lives. We can wear the terfy t-shirts, speak on the news shows, write in the magazines and still, we are well aware that if we meet someone new we will need to explain and justify ourselves in case they walk away from us believing that we are bad people. The word TERF is so tainted and so loaded. I don’t care so much what people think of me — it’s been years of smears and accusations — but I sometimes fear attaching myself publicly to friends in case they are affected by the association. I feel marked. 

When women join men to name-call in this way I think it is a means of distancing themselves from the “bad” women. They think they earn themselves protection from the men who would otherwise turn on them too. They have an innate fear of being targeted. The witch trials are not so far in our past that echoes don’t tap on the shoulder of dissenting women. The word “TERF” has the power to turn women against other women they should be united with. 

A man declaring himself “trans” builds himself a shield and a pedestal at the same time. He can be the “first” to achieve awards or prizes, whilst also being the “most marginalised in society”. Women, meanwhile, are being bought and sold on the streets, raped, brutalised and murdered at a rate of once every three days. I don’t know how women labelled “TERF” stop themselves from screaming some days, but I fear if we started we would never stop so we take a deep breath and hold it together. 

Now there has been a side-step. As women embrace “TERF” to reduce its sting, the trans lobby are stepping around it with the term “anti-trans”. This encompasses the word of goodness and the opposite in one term. It’s neat but it’s just as deceitful. 

Calling a man a woman is often compelled but never true, whilst calling a woman “TERF” or “anti-trans” is acceptable whilst also an abusive lie. 

Progression to “anti-trans” grants the entitlement to strip from women their means of financial survival. Without romantically-attached men to financially support them, women may be doomed to poverty and many of the women labelled “TERF” are lesbian women. This will return some women to the position of financial dependence on men, the escape from which was a basic driver for feminism. Luckily, and thanks to recent successful legal challenges they can’t sack us all. 

So where does this end? As Dr Jane Clare Jones said this morning — a feminist woman who has been labelled TERF by the trans activists but also “SocFem” and “Head Girl” by other “TERFs” — “I’d be pleased if everyone could stop calling other people names”. Amen to that sister. 

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