SERF ‘n’ TERF
As I sit down to write this, I am haunted by images circulating in the wake of another brutal murder. In one of them the person in question, still living, has the gloved hands of a Turkish riot cop on her arm. Hande Kader, may she rest in power, was a sex-working trans woman of colour whose life we have, once again, collectively allowed haters and the state to take away. To say ‘rest in power’ is obviously the very least we can do. Now Kader becomes another of our foremothers.
A friend is starting out in sex-work and is isolated and scared. Another likely can’t afford the electrolysis she isn’t sure she wants (along with the other components of the medical ‘pathway’) but she’s just purchased some hormones illegally, exactly as she warned her clueless GP she would, having had her NHS wait-time for gender reassignment extended further into the future than she could bear.
Soon, we will invoke Hande Kader on Transgender Day of Remembrance. How many corpses can one memorialise in one lifetime?
It is always difficult to see the point of arguing with those who, even if they don’t literally slash people, contrive to cut people like Kader discursively into pieces with their carceral, so-called ‘gender-critical feminism’. The acronyms TERF and SWERF designate a group of what Brooke Beloso has called ‘ontologically oriented’ Anglo-Australian and Euro-American feminists. They stand for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’ and ‘sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminist’ respectively. The aim in coining these shorthands, as many Salvage readers will know, was to refuse to cede the legacy of radical feminism wholesale to those self-identified ‘radfems’ who want to exclude those who don’t ‘cyclically secrete luteinising hormone’ – a quote from Kathy Scarbrough at Left Forum 2016 – from their organising, and who support criminalising the purchase of sex, theorising it as rape. #notallradfems, in other words.
Difficult, right now, to see much of a difference between the SWERFs and TERFs who are the focus of what follows, and those who burned Kader.
Because there is a death-wish directed at trans people and prostitutes, epitomised historically by Magdalene laundries[*] (now defunct) and other ‘reparative’ conversion therapies for the deviant (still thriving). Most of us act in complicity with it, whether we are prepared to own up to it, or whether we ‘only’ acquiesce to what, borrowing R. W. Gilmore’s definition, is the ‘state-sanctioned and extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’. We make harlots and other ‘deviants’ killable.
The close association between sex-working and transness is well-recognised. ‘I often say that there isn’t a TERF who isn’t a SWERF’, writes one blogger of her experience of both[†]. ‘But I am beginning to think separating the two is in some ways a false distinction. For those claiming trans women are not women, part of the reason may well be in order to silence a group who understand that sex work can be a choice even when you are homeless, impoverished, and desperate for the drugs that will keep you alive. It’s a feedback loop: part of the reason they want to silence sex workers is so they can remove a group who, in fighting for sex workers rights, will make trans people safer.’[‡]
Adversaries are not all that sex workers and trans people have in common. Both sex workers and gender-nonconforming people have both been sexualised, tainted with criminality, subjected to reparative treatment and/or punitive rehabilitation, and pathologised (in particular, associated with childhood trauma and abuse). Both trans people and sex workers are still systematically regarded as sacrificial or bare life by police and bourgeois courts. Those who attack, rape and/or kill them are frequently never prosecuted (especially if the perpetrators are representatives of the law), else they’re exculpated, vindicated as if they were themselves attacked (as in the prosecution of CeCe McDonald or Lynne Tansey), or considered simply not worth tracking down (especially if the victims are migrants, undocumented or indigenous). The Philadelphia judge Teresa Carr Deni ruled recently that a sex worker who was raped at gunpoint by four men was not ‘truly’ raped but rather suffered ‘theft of services’. Such an attitude of course is connected to – a punitive obverse of – the carceral control of forced childbearing. And there is a widespread denial that these are class issues.
Amid a broad, if flip-flopping, trend towards ‘criminalisation of the buyer’ rather than the seller of sex, both of which endanger sex workers, attempts have been made (for instance in France) to keep penalties for ‘passive solicitation’, the crime of being in the street. At the same time as ruling out a minimum wage, laws have been proposed to criminalise entering a public bathroom whose designation isn’t mentioned on one’s birth certificate. And yet, decriminalisation and trans advocacy campaigns have successfully challenged these, and are winning demands around health, safety, recognition, dignity, and access to basic resources and rights in most parts of the world. This is despite the persistence of systematic police violence against both groups, backed up, like all police violence, by various other social and infrastructural persecution.
There are signs that the Nordic model (or ‘sex-buyer law’) may soon be fully discredited thanks to the data grassroots sex-worker projects have relentlessly fed to key transnational bodies (for example, the Lancet, UN and Amnesty International). And in the wake of a wave of defeats for transphobic law-makers in the USA, we can anticipate class victories where binary state-identification requirements and basic-care access rules are concerned. New forms of reproductive and non-reproductive justice will be built (if this inspires you, as it does me, consider donating to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which is bridging trans and non-trans repro politics)[§].
Of course, the fact that currently certain developments in neoliberalism happen to benefit trans people and sex workers is no reason to conflate trans and sex-worker self-organisation with neoliberalism (or individualism, identitarianism, postmodernism, and all the rest of it). The economic contexts of these developments is the same as for the neoliberal selling back of ‘freedom’ as zero-hours or flexi-time, and the selling back of the right to choose as the obligation to be entirely self-responsible. One need only skim the mainstream media to see niche pockets of boutique sex-work becoming gentrified (viz the Verge app for ‘paid dating’), while A-list representatives of a particularly bioconservative notion of trans as consumerism are becoming mainstream (viz Caitlyn Jenner).
The more such shifts occur, the more the ‘defence’ of these lives – the rights of trans people and sex workers, solidarity with their liberation – can become associated with free-market ideology and bourgeois libertarianism. As sex-industry union organiser Carol Leigh says, the price we have paid for decreases in sexual protectionism has been ‘more potential for exploitation’. The challenge is ‘the very long haul of owning our erotic labor as individuals and communities’, of communising gender relations under conditions of patriarchy, and ‘learning to work together through these divisions’.
A non-soundbiteable message such as that, of course, does not make for digestible TV. What can relatively easily be vindicated and/or exotified in public is the individual autonomy, privacy and ‘choice’ of some relatively well-off binary post-op transitioners and ‘high-class’ sex workers, and/or the personality of the odd celebrity or middle-class artist or entrepreneur who does not fear the police.
This type of ‘progressive’ prostitution and trans politics does not get in the way, after all, of the intensive policing of the vast majority of poor, precarious and racialised sex workers and trans people. As Dean Spade and others have relentlessly hammered home, this is a class-blind, gender-dichotomist distortion of the dreams of those who first kicked off at Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall.
The bottom-up trans/sex-worker movements are not primarily under siege from SWERFs and TERFs, nor even from Caitlyn Jenner, but from terrorists and cops. Only with this significant qualification should one turn to the attacks operating from the right, coming from anti-feminists and feminists alike.
Just as ‘sex work is work’ and ‘trans women are women’ have been useful if imperfect slogans on our side, implying transitional demands, so corresponding ripostes ‘sex work isn’t work’ and ‘trans women aren’t women’ have become clarion calls for a bipartisan coalition of bioconservatives – even including some trans people.[**]
On the one hand, they are ‘pro-life’ conservatives of the climate-denialist type, Family Research Council and their ilk. On the other, they are people who call their politics left-wing and (often) ‘ecological’: Deep Green Resistance, for instance, and sundry Radfem collectives. Key players include Lierre Keith, Janice Raymond, Kathleen Barry, the former Mary Daly, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Elizabeth Hungerford, Cathy Brennan and Sheila Jeffreys. It is admittedly an odd alliance: ‘The person I find I agree with most … is Norman Tebbitt’, said Jeffreys recently, regarding the UK Gender Recognition Act (which she, of course, abhorred).
But no wonder. In a strange way (as Melinda Cooper and others have theorised), these two ideological formations are very much compatible. In both frameworks, sexuate difference is naturalised and seen as preceding class. Whereas conservative Christians like to make class invisible and underline the sacred naturalness of procreative purpose, radfems by and large theorise a binarising interpretation of reproductive biology as class. The latter aren’t very numerous nor nearly as well-funded as the right-wingers, but they are academically privileged, well-networked, and have sometimes teamed up outright with the filthy-rich right-wing evangelicals to promote anti-transgender petitions or, as histories of FINRRAGE – Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, an abolitionist anti-surrogacy advocacy network mainly operative in the ’80s. – attest, oppose IVF and surrogacy. It is, of course, this ostensibly left-wing faction of the Anglo anti-trans and anti-decriminalisation lobby whom I have amused myself by invoking in the title of this piece.
My observation is that those of us who beg to differ from prevalent ascriptions of our own gender, or who sell or have sold sex, denaturalise a concept of the human body to which many people have a wounded attachment – even if they profess to be combating it. The claim of this declarative ‘gender-abolitionism’ is self-contradictory. Take Sheila Jeffreys, ever a quotable exemplar. ‘You can’t create a hierarchical sex caste system if you don’t know who is female and who is male’, she says. So, not knowing would be good, right? Wrong. It seems we have to double down on the knowability of femaleness and maleness created under that very system.
Why fan the flames of a counterrevolution in its lonely, resentful death-throes? It is worth remembering that the ontologically-oriented denial of trans and sex-working subjectivities is common sense – albeit common sense that is being eroded – in most colonial and settler-colonial liberal democracies as well as on the ‘left’. Despite or because of the bad-faith brainwaves of some leftish public figures (such as Julie Burchill, Camille Paglia and Slavoj Žižek) – ‘if you think about it, we are all whores!’ or ‘we’re all trans! I’m trans!’ – efforts in left circles are seldom ploughed into destigmatisation, institutional debinarisation, and safer workplace conditions for workers. The uncritical use of words like ‘whorebaggery’ to refer to the mode of accumulation of individual hate-speech-mongers shows there is still a way to go. Warnings from Paglia and Žižek that the rise and ‘toleration’ of trans signify western civilisational decay (a bad thing, apparently) are confirmation that, while TERFism and SWERFism might be rotten blossoms, they have healthy roots.
The ‘radfem’ brand designated specifically by those terms exists today mainly as a contrarian conference network – Radfem, Radfem Rebooted, Radfems Respond, etc – with significantly more voluntarist energy than resources or credibility. Such Radfems™ may be no less internally incoherent and intellectually lazy than Paglia and Žižek, but they are happy to be single-issue zealots unified around a set of endlessly repeated memes: ‘we want to abolish gender, you want to abolish reality’; ‘sex-worker unions prevent us from combating trafficking’; ‘the term sex work stops us mentioning male violence’; ‘cis is a slur’; ‘transgender ideology promotes insulting pastiches of women by envious men appropriating/raping the sisterhood’s ‘energy’; ‘trans-ing [sic] is child abuse’ linked to systemic ‘erasure of the ‘the female’; ‘perfectly healthy bodies are being abused’; ‘men can now say they are women in order to force real lesbians to suck their dicks’. Such ideologues are distinct from the wider culture in which their ideas have purchase, however much their enthusiastic activism materially abets the murderous slashing of healthcare provision and the expansion of police power.
Anti-prostitution and anti-trans activists admonish us all to love and respect our bodies and accept ourselves the way we are. Yet what seems to incense them the most is when we manage, against all odds, to do so. Consider Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s discourse:
Many people justifiably assume that the word ‘transgender’ … means something like having dysphoria and distress about your sexed body …. But according to the current terminology of gender identity politics … ‘transgender’ [applies] even if you are perfectly happy and content in the body you possess.
Perfectly happy and content, yet trans? What next?
Or consider the direction of ‘feminist’ ire and bamboozlement, not so much towards the sources of shame and whore-stigma, but towards individual sex workers’ portrayal of themselves as normal, untraumatised beings who hate some aspects of the work, love other aspects, are neither empowered by it, nor particularly debased. This is often characterised by seemingly compulsive mentions of blowjobs and cumshots (how dare you imply you don’t need rescuing from the tawdry scene I’ve conjured in my head!). As Ana Lopes and Callum Macrae put it, ‘We may think we want labour rights, the argument goes, but in fact we are so debased by our circumstances that we don’t know what we want.’ Radfems promote body acceptance, but they have in mind bodies that perform certain genders, not others. They have in mind the bodies cavorting around a fire at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or bodies stacking shelves and changing nappies, but not bodies selling sexual services.
There are certain exceptions to the rule that ‘sex work isn’t work’ and ‘trans women aren’t women’ make a pair. Neoconservatives, libertarians and neoliberals sometimes reject one of the two propositions, while embracing the other. ‘Antitrafficking’ celebrity Nick Kristof, for instance, does not consider what prostitutes do to be work, yet has vocally affirmed and defended the identity of Caitlyn Jenner (who, incidentally, almost certainly agrees with him about the other thing). Conversely, a number of street-level charitable services, including religious ones, take what ‘working girls’ (or boys) do seriously and hence support the full decriminalisation of sex work – yet all the while arbitrarily deny trans femmes access to certain spaces and services. Evie Embrechts is a trans revolutionary socialist who makes sound arguments against separating trans struggle from feminism, yet is an avowed porn abolitionist who considers sex-work, specifically, ‘a horrible crime against humanity’. And there are post-op transsexual women who stand in solidarity with sex workers, while refusing solidarity with pre-op trans sisters.
Nevertheless, generally speaking, invalidating the perceived basis of trans liberation and advocating for criminalising the sex industry are coextensive obsessive activities.
SWERFs and TERFs are very much not synonymous with the history of radical feminism in theory and practice. This is amply evidenced by the work of (for example) Cristan Williams at The Trans Advocate, Zagria at the Gender Variance Who’s Who, Leslie Feinberg, Selma James, Wages for Housework, the Transgender Studies Quarterly and the archives of magazines like TransSisters. To be absolutely clear, the ideological mainstay of ‘radfem’ ought to be thought of as chromosome-reductivism or Dalyism or sex-essentialism or simply, as the acronyms suggest, as two vigorously pursued projects of exclusion. It should certainly not be understood as representing a ‘radical’ wing within feminism, since it is rather, as I hope to show, the reactionary right wing of the struggle against patriarchy.
As Emma Heaney and others remind us, the spectacular transmisogyny of certain radical feminists is best regarded as pushback against a 1970s radical trans and trans-inclusive feminism, the thriving of which we rarely learn so much about as we do about its persecution and ousting.
Today, those who claim the name ‘radfem’ are best-known for invisibilising trans men while coercively brandishing the few trans women who agree with their axioms in the face of their critics. ‘De-transitioned’ penitents get brandished, too. They speak as, but more often for, ‘survivors of prostitution’, ‘survivors of transing’. They ventriloquise and tokenise the harmed, the injured, and the dead. They sometimes partner with so-called ‘good men’ (like Chris Hedges and Robert Jensen) who see prostitution as rape/slavery too, and who advocate for the Swedish model.
Of course, TERFs and SWERFs have no monopoly on ‘abolitionism’: they’re just doing abolitionism wrong, as James implies. For instance, the organisation Red and Black Leeds stands for the ultimate abolition of gender and of sex work – indeed of work – from their perspective as trans sex workers who have no intention of either quitting sex work or detransitioning. As one trans member of RABL puts it: ‘I have no wish for the sex industry to develop and expand or be promoted. The fact that I think those of us working in it should be permitted to advertise independently, or work from the same premises, does not contradict this.’ This same political consciousness undergirds their critical analysis of (both) sex and gender essentialisms: ‘stop blaming trans people for the sexist ideology that oppresses all of us’.
We who stand with work-abolitionist groups like RABL are in a stand-off, then, against these other abolitionists. It is a situation in which all charges boomerang right back – ‘You’re conflating sex and gender’; ‘No you are’; ‘You’re reducing us to our genitalia!’; ‘No you’re reducing us to our genitalia!’; ‘You’re speaking for child victims of trafficking’; ‘No you’, etcetera etcetera.
The Radfems™ are eclectic, influenced by a recent, ‘womyn-born-womyn’ modification of lesbian separatism, but also borrowing truncated elements of Marxism (specifically the concepts of alienation and commodification, which they morally abhor). They also overlap substantially with ‘Dianic’ Wiccanism (which encourages the proliferation of modernday ‘wombyn’ priestesses). They signal their affiliations by mourning Michfest – the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a yearly cult event (since 1976) which ostensibly folded in 2015 rather than admit ‘penises’ onto its ‘Land’ following decades of extraordinary antisectarian protest at its gates[††]. They present as victims of this unreasonableness (i.e. victims of Camp Trans), ‘concerned mothers’, ‘heretic’ youth, humiliated elders, oppressed lesbians, defenders of ‘female sovereign space’ and (perhaps most horrifically) ‘trans widows’ (implying that their former husbands bereaved them – died! – when they ‘transgendered’ (sic)).
At their fevered fringes they are protesters against the alleged female-eliminationist reengineering of the human race (yes, seriously). The names of forty or so of the people involved can be found on the contents page of a forthcoming anthology called Female Erasure: What You Need to Know About Gender Politics’ War On Women, the Female Sex and Human Rights[‡‡]. Hundreds of other, often more academically respectable names have also appeared on various petitions protesting ‘forbidden discourse’, pitting ‘safer space’ against ‘free speech’, and expressing support for the Morning Star’s ‘defences of the female’ (sic).
It is a consciousness that pits gay and lesbian firmly against queer; that perceives the ‘invention’ of ‘gender identity’ as an orchestrated assault on ‘women and children’; and detects in street sex workers’ organisations the invisible hand of slave-traders, state-sponsored pimps, and Big Porn. Where this comes in the guise of avowedly ‘gender critical’ feminism, it is of course nothing of the sort, and where it uses the phrase ‘violence against women’ in the context of sex work, it isn’t interested in defining either of those two terms. It’s an immensely voluminous fury, but one that often signifies nothing.
A speaker at one radfem panel this year, giving her full name (Penny White) and referring to herself as This Mother, read out a short text: ‘To my little Girl who thinks She’s a Boy’, written ‘anonymously’ for The Guardian years ago. I single it out because it made the SWERFism of TERFism explicit, and vice versa. White contends that the existence of porn and prostitution, alongside catcalling and sexual harassment, are the reason why girls don’t want to be girls (and I agree that manifestations of patriarchy are factors in producing the desire to quit femaleness). She concludes politically that for feminism’s sake, girls have to be girls – they have to learn to become women (here I demur).
‘Dear daughter’, White whispers faux-secretively, ‘I don’t disagree with you openly when you say you’re a boy … but I know you’re not a boy.’ A tragic image is conjured of the threat of a surgical knife looming over the child’s ‘perfect body’; the menace of hormonal ‘poisoning’. The letter ends defiantly by folding its arms around the innocent child-victim of transgender ideology: ‘My girl. Nothing can change that.’ The letter has now been vindicated, she implies, because the grown-up child in question has ‘detransitioned’ or rather – as ‘This Mother’ puts it triumphantly – ‘she has embraced her lesbian identity’. Somehow: problem solved.
Seemingly oblivious to the real epidemic of trans adolescent suicide, White stubbornly equates trans identity (though not cis identity, for some reason) with a liberal assimilationist solution to patriarchy. In this, and in her disavowal of the existence of ‘gender identity’, White presents the characteristic framing in radfem discourse. It would be nice if such a framing looked likely to die out with the generation, but Magdalen Berns has mastered how to do it in fairly slick v-logs on YouTube, and twenty-somethings Meghan Murphy and Rachel Ivey are also injecting new life into the cause.
The account goes like this: as feminists we face a zero-sum game: ‘allow’ or ‘encourage’ girls not to be girls, or combat the system that makes girls hate the idea of being girls in the first place. Meanwhile, all that is required in the short-term to reconcile apostates, it seems, is promoting the celebration of separatist lesbianism and menstruation: the ‘good blood’.
In the UK context, Victoria Smith chimed in on the website of Socialist Resistance: ‘trans activists’ make ‘the exploitation of sexed bodies under patriarchy’ ‘unmentionable’. Since Radfem excludes specific (presumably unsexed?) bodies from its spaces, she writes, ‘the impression is that we are cruel’.
Well, consider for yourself. Smith’s article ends with the image of someone standing in front of two bathroom doors, presenting the reader with two options: ‘the feminist solution’ or ‘the trans solution’. Smith agrees that the dilemma facing trans people is ‘get yelled at’ or ‘get beaten up’. So the question is what to do. Incredibly, in performing her choice ‘for feminism’, Smith writes that ‘the trans solution’ – namely, ‘demanding entry into the ‘get yelled at’ space’ – is tantamount to ‘accepting male violence as a fact of life’. In other words, transfeminine people should continue to get beaten up in the ‘male’ room on the road to revolution in the name of their cis sisters, for otherwise, ‘beaters’ might fraudulently receive access to ‘female’ space. Analogous reasoning pins part of the blame for men’s sexual violence on the fact that workers exist who ‘open the door’ to those men every day. It is a terrifying, sacrificial argument.
Trans-denying and antiprostitution sentiments like these frequently seek to position themselves as anti-postmodern and anti-bourgeois. But the homogenising and ventriloquising of working-class morality that is required to sustain this falls apart at a glance. The historic gay and lesbian association of trans and sex-working people with the elite sexological academies of Berlin and New York that studied them (and yes, sometimes catered to them conditionally) is also more and more widely understood as the mistake that it obviously is.
While the most common claims about trans people are probably the most dangerous – we don’t believe you, we don’t trust you, we have nothing against you but we won’t help you – there are various other disingenuous ‘takes’ available, intended to give the semblance of non-hostility to the TERF/SWERF cause. Namely: trans and sex-working people are conventional-minded and unimaginative (Julie Burchill); they tragically hate their bodies (Julie Bindel). Trans women are willing victims of a eugenic conspiracy (Janice Raymond). Which is it? As Juliet Jacques says: ‘The simultaneous characterisation of trans women [this goes for sex workers too] as unthinking supporters of male-defined roles and politically aware enough to convince hardened feminists to admit them is a theoretical clusterfuck’.
Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen can always be relied upon for some of the more lurid claims: ‘The unfit are being chemically sterilised once again’. How sad and how emblematic of the ecological apocalypse, they write, that anybody could think they were in the ‘wrong body’. If only ‘wrong body’ discourse hadn’t been theorised critically by trans people for the past three decades!
What’s clear is how hatred of sex workers and trans people’s bodies is projected onto sex workers and trans men and women themselves, who become death-eaters (though occasionally oscillating into victims if their attitude is right). It’s no coincidence that the same activists abhor BDSM and try to ban pornography. They think that trans women and sex workers are pornography. They look at us and they see men, contamination by men, rape.
Emi Koyama is among those who embrace rather than repudiate the ‘wrongness’, the threateningness of the trans whore to established ‘feminism’. She argues, in fact, that men and SWERFs/TERFs understand much better than we do how threatening we are to them. ‘It is the same kind of threat,’ she writes, ‘bisexual and pansexual politics present to gay identity’. She inveighs particularly against ‘racist feminist arrogance’ and against the nonsense of ‘chromosomes as the source of political affiliations’. After all, ‘white skin is just as much a reminder of violence as a penis’. Controversially, she charts a course apart from history-revising and non-dynamic models of gender affiliation. We must not deny any of the genders we have incarnated. ‘The fact that many transsexual women have experienced some form of male privilege is not a burden to their feminist consciousness and credibility, but an asset – that is, provided they have the integrity and conscience to recognise and confront this and other privileges they may have received’.
Koyama is thus entirely unafraid to claim a transfeminine relationship with masculinity and maleness. In contrast, in SWERF and TERF screeds, the looming presence is a predatory and spectral maleness that can never, despite the stated aim being gender abolition, be made safe. This anti-material idea of patriarchy is, as a result, oddly impressed with the power it believes emanates from people it considers to be men – this is a magical and ubiquitous power, vested in the humble cock.
As Charlotte Shane says; ‘it seems ironic to me that you can’t talk about the needs of people who sell sex without a self-identified feminist demanding that men who buy it occupy equal space in the conversation. You can observe this in the insistence of those who opposed Amnesty International’s vote … They maintained the proposition enshrined the “right” of men to buy sex, when in fact the policy centered the safety of those who sell.’ Likewise, as former (recanted) ‘gendercrit’ activist, Aoife, says in a recent interview: ‘In the sex-essentialist model of trans women, the entire trans phenomenon is solely about desire, lust, and the triumph of the male orgasm’. In fact, it has the potential to destabilise men’s supremacy.
‘Lesbophobia’ (which in pratice seems to denote something like ‘butchphobia’) has unfortunately become the rallying cry of Radfems in opposition to ‘queer’ culture, which they feel marginalises lesbians. And, to be fair, I’ve found that the types of everyday diminishment inflicted on butch and transmasculine people are, indeed, rarely even registered in political circles of my acquaintance. The reasons for this failure are complex. RABL offers this comment: ‘when some advocates of a certain trans politics put misogyny experienced by afab (assigned female at birth) trans people under the heading of “misgendering” without noting the additional misogyny, this dismisses the patriarchy’s inherent cissexism, and ignores the structures that build our identities in reality.’
But the fulcrum of the twin disgust for prostitution and affirmative gender expression is an anti-feminine and, more recently, specifically anti-femme animus. ‘Femme’, here, is not remotely confined to the category ‘lesbian’ anymore, whence it arose. In fact, it was driven from some (Radfem™) quarters of lesbian culture by femme-phobia. The anti-trans sex-trafficking UN lobbyist Elizabeth Hungerford (platformed at Counterpunch worrying at great length about the misuse of ‘gender identity’ for fraudulent purposes) puts this clearly: ‘stereotypical femininity is regarded by feminists as a harmful social construct that no person should adopt, perform, celebrate, or identify with’.
Yet materially and aesthetically, a kind of open-ended femme-inism and ‘femme4femme’ solidarity is burgeoning in many politically radical and in particular black political cultures. ‘Femme’ has come to denote a politicised, queered, non-white, performative, hustling, hackable open-access femininity. Far from anti-butch, in my experience it tends to welcomingly enfold a wide variety of butchness (if willing) rather liberatingly within it. And, while it is more than possible to be a femme (noun), the word has also emerged as a kind of verb, evoking the ensemble of comradely practices of an internationalist, gender-diverse neo-sisterhood whose feminism is much more ‘cyborg’ than ‘goddess’.
Characterised by a reformulation of wages-for-housework demands (particularly around emotionally reproductive labour), femme frequently attracts derision and contempt from a wing of feminism that thinks of itself, not as masculinist, but as down-to-earth and anti-artificiality. Think of the mocking of Serena Williams’ femme blackness on-court by the white tennis-player Caroline Wozniacki with towels stuffed down her bra and underpants (recently documented by Claudia Rankine). Or of Suzanne Moore’s claim that ‘We [sic] are angry at ourselves for … not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual’, which managed to dehumanise a group of people subject to one of the highest rates of murder worldwide (hardly the ideal embodiment) in order to express its resentful whorephobia. Or of Ariel Levy whining ‘why is laboring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering?’
Levy was bewailing what she sees as a trans/hooker tyranny responsible for dictating a form of fashion-based ‘empowerment’ to a world of what would presumably otherwise be anxiety-free androgynous butches. And this kind of explicit condemnation of modernday ‘femme’ culture as an outgrowth of sex-worker and trans solidarity can be found in myriad Radfem™ titles including Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and Being and Being Bought by Kajsa Ekman. But contempt for femininity goes far beyond Radfem™ and has a long history among mainstream (including social-democratic) feminism’s chauvinistic right wing.
For example, in the view of the Radicalesbians trans-exclusionary statement on the separatist ‘Woman-Identified Woman’ in 1970, ‘being feminine and being a whole person are irreconcilable’. Cast a look across this tradition of Anglo antiprostitution and trans-bashing public hate-speech (also known as ‘gender-critical feminism’ or ‘questioning of narratives’) and you’ll find all those shame-filled references to cum and blowjobs, jeering at ‘bad wigs’, imputations of mutilation, butchery, ‘holes’, genital stink, necrosis, and pitiably obvious artificiality, such as lipstick (garish, pathetic and debased), and insinuations (here with added mental-health stigma) of ‘bed-wetting’. Under the guise of standing for something loftier than mere bullying – an end to degradation, an end to ‘gender’ itself – these people participate full-bloodedly in an abusive society’s double-edged shaming rituals aimed at the aesthetics, accessories and body-modification practices of femmes and fags, bitches and butches, queens, sluts, hustlers, and whores.
Obviously, many prostitutes and trans people are not femme. But that fact has never been allowed to get in the way of the whipping of culture’s mythical abjects – its whipping girls, as Julia Serano puts it – whippings inflicted both for femininity displayed in conjunction with the wrong (especially racialised, male-coded) body and for a lack of femininity. (Note: anyone can be a whipping-girl, not just girls). In fact, not performing femme while occupying the whipping-girl’s position can make things even more difficult, since one is then simultaneously feminised and encouraged to participate in femmephobia – as the ‘exception’. For example, the friend who most recently introduced me to ‘full-service escorting’ is a trans man, and both clients and ‘comrades’ frequently consider him simply mistaken about who he is and what is happening to him and his vagina when he labours.
And hegemonic, not just dedicatedly TERF/SWERF, feminisms routinely scrutinise both groups, trans and hooker, as though they were both sources and symptoms, ciphers, ‘topics’, victims, ‘figures’ whose speech does not fully count, who invite their bad treatment. As though trans people are trans, and whores whores, to make a political point. Mainstream opinion analyses them, with scarcely veiled zoological fascination and then inevitably scapegoats them if (when) they are found lacking in ‘feminism’.
In this way, whether rad-fem or anti-feminist, pro- or (avowedly) anti-capitalist, most of the people who abhor sex work and reject trans-ness share the belief that the matter of ‘being a woman’ isn’t agentive, isn’t work, isn’t a performance, and isn’t a relation. Their belief fundamentally has to do with their anti-utopian understanding of labour-power as necessarily alienated (rather than alienated in capitalism); and their concomitant view of most alienated work as fundamentally natural and okay.
Pro- and anti-feminists of such analyses share a notion of the body as bearing an a priori, ahistoric, healthful legibility; an immanent selfhood they see as bounded, rational, autonomous and given – capitalism notwithstanding. If only we would accept and claim its truth, and ‘love our perfectly healthy bodies’! This conception of a royal road to liberation from gender is essentially identitarian. According to it, there is a positive way of living womanness which patriarchy buried, tarred and cursed, but which the sisterhood can collectively recover. As Monique Wittig recognised when she provocatively suggested that lesbians aren’t women, it is a beguiling identitarianism. But confusingly, it is as identitarians that today’s pseudoleftist radfems mock and lambast transfeminists.
They imply too that capitalism’s vectors – relations like jobs and technology – are simply out there in the world, waiting for us to slot into them as and when. When in fact – as anyone knows who consorts with Paul Preciado’s communoid genderhack experiments, reads Octavia Butler’s afrofuturism, dreams Ursula LeGuin’s post-value dreams, or took to heart the Cyborg Manifesto – matrices of labour and technology permeate our boundaries full-time, co-constituting practically every aspect of our selves (including, perhaps especially, our sex and gender) as part of a battle and contradiction between the liberatory and creative functions of social reproduction and its ‘merely’ reproductive functions.
So many transphobes also oppose the decriminalisation of sex work because both these abolitionisms have a flawed understanding of the relationships between the forces and relations of production: a flawed understanding of the relationship between the human body, human labour-power, human selfhood, technology, and the commodity form. They are nihilists, in a sense: they understand capitalism and patriarchy to be evils one must live with but which, at the same time, one must opt out of rather than struggle through. They are misogynist feminists, too: they are upset at the production of more women. This might sound like a bit of a cheap shot, but despite their occasional wombyn-priestess schtick, since they see conversion to womanhood as insulting, they clearly don’t actually like women.
Whether they be avowedly feminist or anti-feminist, pro- or anti-capitalist, the voices that reject trans-ness and sexwork are perpetuating a bourgeois myth about the relationship between capitalism and individual selves/bodies. It’s a myth that says that we can and must protect our selves and bodies from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work (whether as revolutionaries or as capitalist evangelicals).
It should go without saying that there is nothing inherently or automatically radical about working, including in the sex industry, or transitioning into a different societal role, position and identity. At the same time, we can tell there must be something unruly in both spheres, or else neoliberal assimilationist politics would not be rushing to recuperate and neutralise them by gentrifying sex-work and mainstreaming a liberal, carceral version of transgender advocacy. Manufacturing new sexes and genders, and commercially producing intimate experiences and affects that may be identical to those most prized by bourgeois ideology as sacred markers of the authentic and ‘free’ (love, i.e. part of the housework economy).
Sex workers and trans people share an outcast and liminal status at this point in history (one or the other label may of course shed this status, through revolutionary struggle or as a result of capitalist assimilation). As a result, they are typically under no illusions about the disavowed underbelly of the capitalist production-reproduction dyad. If so inclined, they are well placed to garner proscribed knowledge from the wrong side of their assigned locations, trafficking as they do in activities that simultaneously explode and undergird the mythic dyad of formal value production and national reproduction. While there is no dictating any group of people’s politics, trans people and/or sex workers are in unique situations vis-à-vis systems of racialised patriarchy and capitalism, and militants among them have cause to regard themselves as at the very epicentre of contemporary class struggle.
Which is of course not to say that trans people and sex workers exist simply in order to struggle against capitalism, any more than that they exist to reproduce it, any more than anybody else does. It does not escape their notice, however, that their lives imply a threat to the naturalised categories that have happened to order bourgeois society for most of its history (not to mention the relation between them) – love, sex, gender, the family, the unified sexed body, the self, the commodity, work, not-work. Capitalist patriarchy may prove capable of domesticating the threat. But fragmenting, refusing, literalising, exposing, masking, professionalising and/or repurposing sex and gender in the way that trans/sex workers do, in multiple different ways, immanently suggests the possibility of a different order of things – while carrying no guarantee of radicality.
Irrespective of attempts by various paternalists – at Counterpunch, Morning Star, Feminist Current or Logos journal – to lock down the rules of ‘gender abolition’ and to proclaim its historic subject, many trans and/or sex-working comrades are getting on with dismantling gender oppression via the cunning of surviving. They are disproportionately engaged in the everyday organising that helps their communities thrive. And at the same time they are often abolishing themselves as trans people and sex workers, as has been well articulated by Emma Heaney. Heaney delineates the key generative tension directing the future genealogy of trans/feminism with reference to two iconic moments in trans history. The two stand in dialectic tension with each other: the affirmation of the transcendence of ‘woman’, and the affirmation of women’s space. Says Heaney: ‘The[se] two strains of trans feminism that advocate, in turn, for the transcendence of gender and women’s autonomy are mutually enabling political practices that confront both enforcement of gender norms and misogyny. Trans women’s autonomy in all its forms is the necessary pretext for such a conversation to unfold, not between trans feminists and trans misogynists, but among feminists of trans experience and their sisters and siblings who have received the gift of trans-feminist autonomist legacies.’
One of the younger generation of the old guard, Meghan Murphy at Feminist Current is complaining bitterly, to my great satisfaction, that the left is increasingly ‘focusing only on the “work” aspect of sex work’. She clearly feels put out that talk of the ‘feminist war on sex-workers’ will reflect badly – as it should – on her and her feminist heroes. What trans and sex worker liberation will hopefully demonstrate to Murphy and her ilk, by whatever means necessary, is that imagining that we can instantiate the world as we would want it to be by fiat is a terrible way of engaging with the world as it actually is.
Justified hatred of (sex) work in no way justifies attacks on (sex) workers’ self-organisation. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nobody will abolish (sex) work but (sex) workers themselves. And neither surgery nor the absence of surgery nor chromosomes nor lipstick nor cocks have anything to do with the class composition of this struggle against the gendered division of work and gender oppression generally. As Riki Anne Wilchins put it in 1994: ‘if pre-ops are excluded, then I am pre-op. If non-ops are excluded then I am non-op. For that matter, if post-ops are excluded, then I am post-op.’ Let’s take over the factories of our own bodies and have no truck with efforts to police the bounds of womanhood or, for that matter, humanity, let alone ‘productivity’. Being practically all of us whores, it’s about time we learned to fight as such, especially for our trans sisters, and against the tyranny of work.
[*] Madgalene laundries were Ireland’s church-operated workhouse-asylums for ‘fallen women’ – i.e. unmarried mothers and women working as, or deemed to be working as, prostitutes. The last laundry closed in 1996.
[†] Jemima at sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com, a blog on BDSM and socialism.
[‡] Unsurprisingly, we are often the same people: a large proportion of trans people are sex workers and a large proportion of sex workers are trans. Action for Trans Healthcare is just one of the groups who have recently confirmed this in a study of their constituency.
[§] For information on trainings, legal support, resources and how to donate, visit: srlp.org.
[**] Among those who say ‘trans women aren’t women’ worldwide are trans people. In the Anglo world, some among them are ‘truscum’ (this bizarre term of abuse, which isn’t an acronym but rather a hybridisation of the words ‘true’ and ‘scrum’, has been reclaimed by some of the individuals in question). So-called ‘truscum’ subscribe to a medicalised and sexualised (‘true’) model of identity-transition and, on that basis, avow a trans-separatist, often also ‘gender-critical’ or ‘gender-abolitionist’ position. The ‘truscum’ position is associated with aggressively policing the bounds of authentic trans-ness, and overlaps with those who derive their identity from the supposed legitimacy of a ‘congenital’ dysphoric condition called ‘Harry Benjamin Syndrome’ (HBS).
[††] While Camp Trans is a convenient scapegoat, the reasons for Michfest closing were in fact manifold, including financial difficulty and declining attendance.
[‡‡] Female Erasure is edited by Ruth Barrett and prefaced by Germaine Greer. It proposes a return to ‘language referring to females as a distinct biological class’ and features a gleaming white ‘Eve’ on its cover. Its forty-eight contributors supposedly expose the evils of ‘gender identity politics’ and expose the ‘profits of an emerging medical transgenderism industry.’