Last week Cambridge University Student Union published a guide to “Spotting TERFS in the Field”
In the 15th century, a popular treatise called the Malleus maleficarum advised on the proper methods for identifying and interrogating witches. At witch trials, women were stripped and inspected for a “devils’ mark” (a mole or birthmark) on their skin. More recently, Roald Dahl warned children that witches are “bald as a boiled egg” — though it’s hard to tell, since they wear expensive wigs that look like real hair.
And just last week, Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) published a guide to identifying something called “TERF ideology”, featuring section headings such as Spotting TERFS in the Field and Signs Of A TERF. We learn from this guide that “the language of TERFS is ever changing” and that “the unique danger of TERF rhetoric is that it is styled to sound like feminism”. That’s the trouble with witches, you see. They look just like ordinary women — your colleague, your mum, your friend.
What a manipulative creature is the TERF!
This eight page guide, intended for incoming students at the Freshers’ Fair, is an expansion of an earlier version published in 2019. It sits on the student union website alongside guides to exams, careers and student finance. There are no guides to spotting racist, sexist, or homophobic ideology: detecting TERFs is apparently a matter of unparalleled urgency. CUSU tells us it is vital to “prevent yourself falling prey” to the TERFs’ siren call of bigotry. If you suspect someone you know of having TERF sympathies, “the first thing is to try and figure out where they got it from”, like when your dog is chewing on something it shouldn’t.
What a manipulative creature is the TERF! Naive onlookers might think what she says is reasonable, but readers of CUSU’s guide will know better: she merely chooses her words “with the aim of sounding reasonable”, serpent-tongued schemer that she is. She’ll talk her feminist talk about preventing sexual violence, but don’t be fooled. All she wants is to cause harm by “co-opting the language of sexual violence” (emphases mine).
What is a TERF? TERF, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”, is the label given to a woman who insists that biological sex is a meaningful concept. Critically, this means freedom to recognise as a neutral fact that some people who identify as women are biologically male rather than female. TERFs believe there should be a word to refer to members of the female sex, rather than the linguistic dismemberment of splitting us by bodily function: “menstruators”, “chestfeeders”, “bodies with vaginas”. Most shockingly of all, TERFs think that female people have political interests distinct from those of males and that, just like other marginalised groups, we should be allowed to have a movement to advocate for ourselves. This necessarily means sometimes saying “no” to males, even those who think they should be exceptions because they identify as women.
However it’s phrased, it is this tiny, resistant seed of a “no”— no, this space is for us; no, we are not the same, even though you want me to say we are — that enrages. We are told that anti-TERF sentiment is a reaction to hatefulness and bigotry. But what feminists have repeatedly found is that there is no way to argue that females are a group distinct from males — no amount of generosity, reasonableness, progressive credentials, or baring of personal trauma — that can make this “no” acceptable.
TERF finders represent a nasty strain of misogyny
Coincidentally, the release of How To Spot TERF Ideology came in the same week as an escalation in the long-running campaign against one of the UK’s most famous so-called TERFs, philosophy professor Kathleen Stock. At the University of Sussex where she teaches, a group called Anti-Terf Sussex have begun sticking posters around campus calling for her firing. Balaclava-clad protesters, who would look at home in 1970s Belfast, pose with smoke flares and signs reading “STOCK OUT”. Stock has temporarily stepped back from her teaching role due to stress, and police have reportedly advised her not to return to campus without security. This has not satisfied Anti-Terf Sussex, whose manifesto menacingly demands: “Fire Stock. Until then, you’ll see us around.”
Kathleen Stock demonstrates that it is often the most moderate women — those whose “no” is the most compassionate, polite and well-reasoned — marked out as targets for the anti-TERF crowd. Stock’s recent book, Material Girls, makes the case for political recognition of the female sex in a way that is eminently fair-minded and clear. Her work speaks for itself, and so it is important that it is not allowed to. She must be tainted with accusations of bigotry and as far as possible deprived of a platform. This is the approach endorsed by the CUSU handbook, which repeatedly insinuates that the principal danger of TERFs is how reasonable they are. How should one talk to TERFs, one section asks? “The key advice is don’t.”
The targeting of moderate voices also sends a message pour encourager les autres — one toe out of line and you’ll get this too. Last year, JK Rowling published an affecting essay making many of the same arguments as Stock, which was met with a retaliatory deluge of sexualised abuse. If you found the essay persuasive prior to seeing the response, the effect is bewildering. Is it possible that you too are in danger of harbouring unacceptable thoughts? Are you a bad person? For any students in this position, the subtext of Signs Of A TERF is that yes, you have sinned, but you are redeemable — all you have to do is unquestioningly accept what we tell you from now on. If you can’t or won’t, you are not welcome at this university, and you will be found out.
How To Spot TERF Ideology stands in sharp contrast with one of CUSU’s other projects: “Preventing Prevent”. Many argue that the government strategy to prevent radicalisation in educational institutions is underpinned by Islamophobia, and that it places innocent people under undue surveillance. The hostility of monitoring people for possible thought crimes is in this case recognised and vehemently opposed.
These self-appointed TERF finders represent a nasty strain of misogyny spilling over into sinister antidemocratic behaviour. We cannot allow academics to be dropped from universities in response to intimidation campaigns, nor feminist movements to be cowed by guilt-tripping bullies. We’ll decide what to think for ourselves, thank you very much.
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