How ‘TERF’ works

Pay attention, if you’re not already neck-deep in the gender wars of online feminism. TERF is an acronym for “Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist” that its users claim is applied purely descriptively. Critics of the term point out that it is not used neutrally, but in all cases pejoratively: TERF is a curse word used solely against women, a version of “bitch” that liberals can feel OK saying. “TERFs” are charged with inciting and inflicting violence against transgender people, despite the fact that violence against transgender people, like all violence, is overwhelmingly committed by men and not by feminists of any stripe.

The definition of TERF is extraordinarily loose: what one is supposed to be excluding trans people from is never identified. To state that male and female bodies exist can be enough to win the TERF label; to state that the division of sex is the foundation of sexual oppression is more than sufficient. (If your observations of reality have led you to believe that sexual dimorphism in humans is both real and socially relevant, you may be confused to learn that acknowledging this is now deemed evidence of bigotry in some quarters.)  It is also a highly toxic definition to apply to someone, both because of the intimation of violence, and because there is a hefty taboo within the left at large against “excluding” anyone.

Vague in meaning, powerful in effect — two qualities which combine to mean that the word TERF is incredibly handy for anyone who wishes to stop women from discussing our oppression as women, by men. (Who wants to stop women discussing our oppression by men? Usually men, of course.) It is a thought-stopper extraordinaire. Here’s an example. This morning, I tweeted the following in response to a discussion about domestic violence I heard on the Today Programme:


Lindy West — brilliant, funny Jezebel writer Lindy West, wrote that hilarious thing about SATC2 — retweeted it. Great! My small act of feminism has been shared by a writer with a following thousands of times greater than my own, surely the revolution in sexual consciousness is just around the corner, etc etc. But wait! A man has something to say:


Note that this is his response to a feminist sharing a comment by another feminist about domestic violence. Not solidarity against male violence, not horror at the fact that a woman has been killed by male violence every 2.3 days in the UK this year, but concern that the person speaking (in this case, me) is somehow unclean. Don’t worry though, he’s not entirely lacking in self-awareness. He knows it’s not really his place – as a man – to tell a woman what she should and shouldn’t say, even though he’s just, um, told a woman what she should and shouldn’t say. His disavowals aside, the word “TERF” does its work:


Am I a TERF? West didn’t have the time to check: avoiding any association with a tainted form of feminism took precedence over sharing a message about domestic violence. And she acted perfectly rationally in this: to associate herself with me, even by merely RTing a statement she agreed with, could be enough to make her a “known TERF” in turn and lead to her being similarly denounced in public. But note the end result of this: a feminist has withdrawn support for another feminist speaking against male violence, because a man told her to.

This is what the word TERF does. This is why it is misogynist’s dream, and this is why – if you’re a feminist or even if you simply see yourself as not-anti-feminist – you should never trust it and never, never use it against other women.

This post was originally published at and is republished with permission from the author.

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