Why Terfs aren’t feminists

CW rape and domestic abuse

Trans-excluding ‘radical feminists’ are not feminist for a number of reasons. Their insistence on reducing femininity to the narrowest of biological definitions is harmful to women. Right now, the obsession with trans women as an imagined threat to female safety is distracting from some really big and genuine issues.

Abusive men don’t ‘pretend’ to be women to get access to women. If you wanted easier access, you might join the police force, or just pretend friendship or the desire for a relationship. Abuse is a common experience for women. Most of that abuse does not come from strangers in toilets – although that’s not what you’d think if you listen to the terfs.

We are all most likely to be abused or killed by someone we know. There’s no gender component to that statistic. 

In this last year we’ve seen a young woman raped and murdered in the UK, by a polic officer. At her vigil, the police were excessively aggressive towards women. Failure to take female safety seriously is a real problem, and it is a problem that needs a change of police culture to fix it. Prosecution rates for rapists are notoriously low. There are major questions to ask around what is presented in court as consent or invitation in the first place, the assumptions the courts, the media and the public make about women coming forward as victims, and the way in which we prioritise male reputations over female safety.

No group of people is free from abusers. There are women who abuse. There are non-binary folk and trans folk who abuse – it’s a people issue and no one is exempt or beyond criticism. However, there are cultural and systemic underpinnings to the ways in which men are able to abuse women. That men are also victims of male violence stems from the same cultural issues and it would take far more than one blog post to properly unpack all of that. Feminism is about taking down the patriarchal structures that support and enable male violence – for the benefit of women (cis and trans alike) for the benefit of male victims, and even for the benefit of male perpetrators. Systems of male violence do horrible things to everyone caught up in them. 

If your feminism is about making a group of people more vulnerable to violence – it’s not feminism. If your feminism doesn’t recognise that hatred towards trans-women makes all non-gender-conforming women more vulnerable, you aren’t any sort of feminist. If you think attacking trans-women is more likely to increase female safety than taking on the much more dangerous work of challenging the police… I’m not honestly sure what planet you’re living on right now.

If your feminism rests on the idea that men (or anyone who has ever had a penis) are the problem, and not that the systems of patriarchy are the problem, you’re not going to disrupt patriarchy. You may however end up co-opting it and supporting it and benefiting from it.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

13 responses to “Why Terfs aren’t feminists

  • Vala

    I assume you’ve unfamiliar with terfisaslur.com – you may want to check it out, if you can handle the threats of violence, the slurs against noncompliant women, and the misogyny. Unless you think all of that is justified against women who want to retain single sex spaces.

    • Nimue Brown

      I do not like the use of terf as an attack – I’m not actually in favour of violence against anyone. That’s very much my point here. We don’t increase anyone’s safety that way.

    • Nimue Brown

      Also I have no problem with single sex spaces for anyone, so long as there is provision for everyone. Everyone needs safe spaces, everyone needs to feel safe. In adequate provision of resources is something we could unite to challenge.

  • karenenneagram

    Sometimes, Nimue, I find your posts frustrating because you adopt the philosopher’s stance – you write upon a subject that obviously had a specific relevance for you, and you generalise upon that without letting us know what in particular prompted it. Your prerogative of course. This is one, and I’m mentioning that only because:

    it’s unlike you, in my experience, to use exclusionary language, and yet the acronym terf is precisely that. It’s meaningless. Apart from anything else, TE and RF simply don’t necessarily go together. It’s as useless a box as antivaxxer, which covers anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated, from rabid anti-COVIDers through G5 et al conspiracy theorists to people who have looked at the science and decided not to do it, via anti-state-control people.

    In other words, it’s a way of conveniently labelling and excluding ‘difficult’ people without having to understand or enquire about what they’re actually thinking, or think about what the label actually means. Another tool for hate.

    Having said which, I agree with most of what you say once I get past my dislike of your use of terf. I’d like to know what prompted this blog, because I was once unfriended and labelled terf – a few years ago now – for saying I thought it might be a good idea for ‘the authorities’ to give some more thought as to how women with penises who had been convicted of rape against women were integrated into women’s prisons.I didn’t think or imply that (as you refer) they might be posing as women for access, just that it wasn’t a simple or easy transition for anyone involved. And they didn’t like my saying that I thought it reasonable that teenage girls-from-birth might find unisex toilets in school hard to negotiate, and vote for a return to same-sex. Does that make me TE? Or RF? I am neither. Would you call me terf on the basis of that? And if not, what is the terf that has you so passionately exercised? (And if so, why? What did I think wrong?)

    PS I tried Vala’s link, but no joy – but certainly a lot of references to hate against terfs on Reddit. What is this hate about? It interests me too that there seems to be no such hate group on behalf of trans men against TE radical males – of whom there are certainly quite a few (irony). This in itself is a topic I’d gladly explore with someone.

    • Nimue Brown

      I would agree that terf is a messy, largely useless term, but it’s a shortcut and when trying to write under 1000 words, that’s sometimes necessary. The people identified that way do tend to self identify as both trans-excluding and as radical feminists, but I also hate how it is also co-opted as a term of misogynistic abuse sometimes. Toilets and prisons – whole books could be written. The toilets were a place of fear for me as a teenager, a likely location for bullying. And yeah, no arguing with what you say about prisons, and it does need proper though, and its a shitty, inadequate system in all ways. As for why I wrote this – I’m tall, solidly built, not gender conforming, I’m exactly the sort of born-female person this kind of ‘feminism’ excludes and hurts and sometimes I get cross about it. Got to say, trans women do not scare me, and this kind of feminism really does,

      • Vala

        Try “gender critical” instead of terf.

      • Jessica Urquhart

        That’s interesting that you feel “threatened”, for lack of a quicker description, by feminists. I always had quite the impression that feminists, particularly so in those more radical, were all about breaking the molds, not conforming to what men and society expected women to be. Feminine, lady like. What is lady like if you take away the preconceptions? I’ve also always considered myself a tomboy. Although, at some point, I just naturally embraced my feminine side, which for years I’d tried to ignore. But I never got caught up in all these discussions of gender identity and political influences. I did wonder for a brief time if I might be attracted to women, and put it to the test. Short answer, I’m definitely straight. I just have high standards, which few men live up to. 😅 But why should your appearance and your more Yang personality and traits be a reason for not being accepted by feminists of any variety? I honestly don’t get that.
        Then I also don’t get why society feels the need to for e the whole world go embrace trans and other people who break gender norms as whatever gender they feel like identifying with. Of course people should be allowed to express themselves in they way that makes them feel most comfortable in their own skin, but with only a very few exceptions, people are in fact born one gender or the other. It’s not a construct, it’s just simple reality. Gender norms are the social construct, not gender itself. But imagine someone getting cosmetic surgery to look like an elf and this person insisting they are an elf. Would everyone be expected to accept that this person is an elf? Why is it not enough to just wish you were something, dress the part if you want, but not demand that everyone else plays along?
        When it comes to the safe spaces issues, we’re entering dangerous territory by openly permitting everyone of access to any space they choose by simple saying they identify as male or female or whatever. There are messed up people in this world who will and do take advantage of this. Better to just denounce violence, and let people fly under the radar. If you look female, then just fly under the radar and use the women’s bathroom. Don’t make a big thing about it. If you look male, ditto. And yes, male and female do have natural differences.
        But when I was a teenage girl, there were definitely some gender bending boys I would not have wanted prowling the girls bathrooms at school. It was already uncomfortable enough sharing bathrooms with girls who were not exactly kind. But some of those boys I knew, and possibly a few I didn’t know, would most definitely have used such scenarios to their advantage. To live in society, we need clear boundaries. That doesn’t justify cruelty and unkindness towards people who are different, and in the event that the need arises, there can be very simple solutions without compromising other people’s welfare, even if is only a matter of comfort zones. Single person bathrooms are one option which I’ve seen recommended on occasion. For prisons, what about a ward for male to female trans, and vice versa?
        Honestly, I can seriously understand the stance of feminists who oppose accepting trans women as real women. They aren’t. They’re men playing dress up. That doesn’t mean that trans women are not empathic and sensitive to women’s issues, but they’re not women. They’re something else entirely with their own struggles to deal with. Sometimes I feel like people are expected to enable other people’s fantasies and, to risk pissing a lot of people off, delusions. Being tolerant and compassionate are one thing, but this whole trans thing has gone way to far in recent years, IMO.

  • karenenneagram

    And since we’re talking about abuse, is Billie Eilish a swerf, or just a young woman trying to prevent other, younger, people being abused by online memes? That RF suffix, and the group (definitely not feminists) who call themselves radical feminists who gave rise to it, is what needs to be challenged. As you did, Nimue.

  • Colette Stone

    Trans women are literally being endangered by TERF rhetoric and yet the comments section is full of a individuals that are quibbling over the label TERF itself than the harm being espoused by such ideas. Trans women’s safety weighs more than your discomfort with a term being used as a shorthand for particular ideology.

    Great clear writing in the original article by the way, just disappointed with the comments on trans issues as always.

  • Yvonne Aburrow

    I’ve just stumbled across this post. It’s great.

    TERF is not a slur, it’s a descriptor for a group of people.

    Radical feminism is a belief that men-as-a-class oppress women-as-a-class. Trans-excluding radical “feminists” are radical feminists who believe that trans women are not women. So you could potentially be a trans-INCLUSIVE radical feminist.

    I’m a feminist and also nonbinary and I am in solidarity with trans women and trans men.

    Trans women in women’s toilets are much more likely to be attacked by cis women than the other way around, due to the anti-trans rhetoric bandied around by TERFs.

    As to prisons : they’re a mess as you say, but there have been no incidents of trans women assaulting cis women in women’s prisons either.

    So anyway, yep, I agree: TERFs are not feminists.

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