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Trust and the TERF wars

Why should feminists trust anyone again?

There are many reasons why victims of domestic abuse don’t speak out. Perhaps you are too frightened, or think you deserve it, or are not sure you’ll be believed. Maybe none of these things apply, but still you stay silent. People will believe you, you’re sure of that, but it will only make things worse.

They’ll believe you but they’ll decide it must have been your fault. “But what did you do?” they’ll ask. “He wouldn’t do that for no reason — what is it you’re not telling me?” After this has happened once or twice, you won’t bother again. If you keep your mouth shut, at least you can pretend people’s lack of concern is down to ignorance rather than a conscious choice.

You might end up having fantasies of the “great reveal”, when everyone discovers — without your having to say anything, because you always say it wrong — what your abuser was really like, and that none of it was down to you. There’s no point in trying to bring about such a thing in real life, though. In real life, whenever you speak, you are shamed.

As a young adult, I used to think there was no point trusting anyone, not even myself, with an account of abuse. People will always find a way to position the abuser as more vulnerable and more sympathetic. As Judith Herman wrote in Trauma and Recovery, “The people closest to the victim will not necessarily rally to her aid; in fact, her community may be more supportive to the offender than to her.” Herman describes survivors being “thus placed in a situation where they must choose between expressing their own point of view and remaining in connection with others”.

For many women, finding feminism has meant coming to terms with how much this silence has cost us. We learned to be good girls; we learned not to trust others; we learned our stories didn’t count. Feminism — the old-style, consciousness-raising type — has meant unlearning all of this. It has given us the space to speak about hurt and not be judged for it.

For me, one of the worst things the past decade of “TERF wars” has done is removing this space from feminism. I used to think it was only possible that others would not view you in the same way as an abuser, if you never disclose the abuse. It was through feminism that I learned not to believe it. Thanks to the behaviour of people in positions of responsibility, many of them identifying as feminists, I fear that I have started to believe it all over again.

I’d made myself look bad for even complaining

Nine years ago I wrote a piece for the New Statesman about my discomfort with the concept of “cisness” and “cis privilege”. Like so many women before and after me, I thought it would be clear I bore nobody any ill-will. I felt, quite simply, that “cis” allowed no space for those of us who don’t feel particularly comfortable with gender or our sexed bodies, but who still know sex is real and politically important. The response to the piece shocked me. What horrified me most was how obvious it was — a bunch of male people who hate women, saying the things male people who hate women always say, but using “you can’t call me a man!” and “cis privilege!” as protective shields. It was so clear and direct — just as all of the insults and threats directed at “TERFs” tend to be.

Feeling alone and frightened, I showed some examples of the abuse to someone close to me, who didn’t have any particular disagreement with the piece itself. The response was first to say that obviously these people were very upset about something, and second to ask whether I wasn’t highlighting those particular responses just to make trans people look bad. My own feelings, it seemed, didn’t matter. Suddenly I was back in the place where you’re being asked what you really said, what you really meant, because hey, those vulnerable people wouldn’t treat you like that for no reason. I’d made myself look bad for even complaining. To say this was triggering would be an understatement. Once again, how hard he hits you is a measure of how bad you are.

After that, I learned to compartmentalise. Other than with other women who have been branded as “TERFs”, I don’t talk to anyone about this in real life. I can’t imagine telling a friend or relative I’m upset because I’ve been added to another list of “hateful fascists”, or a Lib Dem Councillor has invented a story about my organising an offline hate campaign, or a bunch of publishing activists have chosen to associate my book about middle-aged women with trans genocide. I don’t talk about it because it all sounds so insane, in much the same way “that nice man whom you all know and love is actually an abuser” sounds insane. I am sure that if I told people the truth, they would think worse of me — though some of them doubtless know and are politely avoiding the topic, which again is what happens in so many “nice guy / abuser” scenarios. People see, but they tell themselves there must be two sides. If that many people want you to choke to death on their dick, there must be something about you that you’re hiding.

This loneliness — this loss of trust — is not something women discuss very often. The social, emotional and psychological cost of being branded a “TERF” is easier to keep hidden, at least if you do not wish to be accused of “weaponising trauma” and shedding “cis tears”. After all, you could have just never said anything to start with, couldn’t you? As many have done, you could have waited in the wings whilst other women took all the hits. For so many of us, describing our own reality is treated as an indulgence for which we should be willing to pay a price, a kind of “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out” deal. Only the first “it” is comprised of threats, lies and ostracism; the second, just the truth.

In her 2020 blogpost “Harry Potter and the Reverse Voltaire”, the philosopher Mary Leng described a scenario with which many “TERFs” are familiar. People know that what you are arguing is not incorrect, but they believe you must never articulate it out loud: “I agree completely with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death to prevent you from saying it.” If you do continue to speak, this shows that you are wilfully cruel and deserve all the pushback you receive.

No retraction or apology can undo the past decade

This position fails to recognise just how often women, especially women with histories of abuse, have subordinated their perceptions of reality to other people’s. What this has taken from them is no small thing, and it shocks me how many self-described feminists refuse to see this. It shocks me how many do not recognise that this replicates the dynamics of coercive control. There is an enormous emotional and psychological toll when women who have spent decades fighting to speak their truths are told that actually, the nice thing to do is to repeat whatever words other people want you to say, irrespective of what you see and feel.

Recently, Janice Turner wrote a piece in response to Keir Starmer’s apparent realisation that a woman is an adult female, in which she asked “is it safe for women to trust Labour again?” It’s a good question, though one I also ponder is “is it safe for women who’ve been branded ‘TERFs’ to trust anyone again?” The trust I had in others when I first wrote about this issue had taken me decades to build. I am not sure I can build it again.

There is no retraction or apology that can undo the past decade. Moreover, there is no reason to think that people who claim to believe things they know are not true, whilst demonising others over one issue, would not do it over another. The way I have seen certain politicians and professional feminists behave with regard to “the trans issue” is exactly how I think they would behave if you were to approach them as an individual facing abuse from a partner or colleague. They’d not disbelieve you as such, but test the waters, see how high-value you were in relation to your abuser, and they wouldn’t even notice they were doing it. They’re the goodies, after all.

It’s not that I don’t have hope, or I wouldn’t be writing. For things to be different, though, this erosion of trust must be recognised. It’s not a job or a space or words or a body part. It’s not even a friendship, but it matters.

Some of us might feel this way for the rest of our lives. Before we are asked to be kind or conciliatory or forgiving, I want an acknowledgement of everything that has been lost.

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