“nothing about us without us”: conversations on sex work and transmisogyny

So lately I’ve been doing research on the intersecting exclusions of trans women and sex workers. So far I have been curating information on how trans women are continuously silenced and excluded in feminist, queer, and environmental justice spaces. I have found that many of these spaces fail to specifically address transmisogyny, in the process perpetuating cissexist and heteropatriarchal power dynamics. I have also witnessed dismissals of appeals to move away from organizing within such structures by those who benefit from them.

Much of this knowledge could not have come to me without women who work specifically around issues of transmisogyny within feminism and other circles. Throughout this process I have learned an immense amount about the realities facing trans women, particularly trans women of colour, that as a cis woman I could not have imagined. There is a huge body of work written by trans women themselves, and throughout this process I will try my best to cite trans women. After all this conversation concerns them.

I have also done some research on the current factions within feminist circles divided on the issue of sex work. While my intentions are not to stand firmly on specific policies currently debated, I have deep concerns on the link between trans-misogyny and a strong abolitionist stance against sex work. I will include information I have found here on this issue. Again, deep gratitude is owed to folks who are far more informed on these issues than I am and have shared insights with me based on research and lived experiences alike.

Of course all this is an incomplete summary. There is always much to learn.

Terminology

Transmisogyny is a term I will use in place of transphobia (which de-genders the issue and does not capture who is continuously being targeted) to describe hatred, discrimination, and systemic violence against trans women, as well as all those assigned male at birth (AMAB) and trans. Often times, discourse around such hatred, discrimination, and systemic violence are simply termed transphobia, when in fact this hatred is directed specifically towards trans women and AMAB trans folk. Transmisogyny does not only affect trans women, but for the purpose of this article, mentions of transmisogyny will primarily focus on how it affects trans women.

TERF stands for trans exclusionary radical feminists. This term describes the group of radical feminists who strongly adhere to the influence of (white) lesbian separatists of the 70s, Andrea Dworkin and Janice Raymond being primary examples. Their emphasis on socialization, gender abolitionism, and lesbian separatism centre those who are assigned female at birth (AFAB). As such, they base their feminism almost exclusively around oppressions of being assigned female at birth and socialized at birth, a framework that also assumes that trans women benefit from male privilege. This assumption is inherently transmisogynistic because it fails to recognize trans women as women, and as female. It is more broadly transphobic in its failure to recognize trans folks’ gender and its imposition of perceived biological sex upon not only all trans folks’ parts (which also seems blatantly rooted in patriarchal violence), but their experiences as well. For instance, the action of including trans men or trans masculine folk into womyn-born womyn spaces is one which fails to recognize these people as the gender they are.

TWERF stands for trans women exclusionary radical feminists. I have heard it used as a more specific and accurate name for the above group of radical feminists. TERF is the acronym feminist critics commonly use to describe them and for my purposes I will intermittently use TWERF when especially appropriate.

SWERF stands for sex worker exclusionary radical feminists. This term describes radical feminists who do not centre experiences and voices of sex workers in their stance on the sex trade.

Gender and trans critical are terms that TERFs prefer to call themselves. Since they are used to shield prejudice and de-legitimize trans folks’ identities, I will not be using these terms. From my understanding, being cis or trans in themselves has nothing to do with gender-based oppression.

Womyn-born womyn refer to those who are ‘born female, raised female, and identifying as female.’ In other words, cis women. This is the demographic that TERF spaces such as Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival cater exclusively to.

TERF/TWERF as a Hate Movement

I wasn’t fully aware of the fact that TERFs are a strong movement within feminism until I encountered the hate site Gender Identity Watch (trigger warning for extreme transphobia and transmisogyny). As the title suggests, trans folk who push for equality around gender identity are being “watched.” Indeed, Cathy Brennan, a contemporary and influential TERF, has consistently outed trans folk (in particular trans women) on this site.

You do not have to look too long on the site to find her refusing to respect folks’ pronouns, attacking the legitimacy of trans women’s womanhood, and tracking down and framing trans women as though they are a danger to society (in the same way some conservatives call gay men pedophiles). She consistently uses the law against trans women, as though trans folk are not already extremely marginalized by state policies.

Our society is broadly and incessantly transphobic. But these TERFs are specifically transmisogynistic, because their so-called ‘feminist’ hatred of men and fear of penises translate into a hatred and fear of trans women. The specificity of this hatred entails a conversation much larger than this one, but the important point is that there is nothing leftist, radical, or feminist about transmisogyny.

TERFs are not merely a group of dissenting radical feminists. They have a fundamentally erroneous understanding of their radical feminist roots, as this tumblr post argues. Their so-called feminist foundations are rooted in white feminism. Regardless of what they prefer to call themselves, their actions around excluding and dismissing trans women are unconscionable.

Many institutions on unceded Coast Salish territories are exclusionary in extremely harmful ways. I would argue that TWERFs can be rightfully compared to Christian ministries which offer conversion therapy to gay and lesbian Christians. These institutions are legally sanctioned, and they both feed off of societal transphobia, transmisogyny, and traditional sexism: Vancouver Rape Relief won their court case regarding the right to exclude Kim Nixon, a trans women, from their membership and capacity to act as a counsellor. Similarly, ministries offering conversion therapy such as Living Waters are registered charities.

At the crux of any hate movement is the imposition of assumptions and norms upon a group of people. By definition, this is done without these people’s consent. An imposition of orthodox sexual morality regarding queer and trans people upholds rape culture, a tool of settler colonialism used to control not only indigenous societies through heteropatriarchy, but also white women within European heteropatriarchy (see Andrea Smith’s Conquest). Such impositions are not feminist.

As a non-Christian person I cannot make claims about whether this imposition is Christian or not (though I think the power and ethics of liberation theologies are greatly needed in our predominantly conservative Christian society), but I do want to seriously call into question the ethics of telling young people that their gender and/or sexualities are wrong. These Christian ministries do this to children, and the ministry in the states called Desert Stream have been guilty of sexual abuse against its members (trigger warning for discussions of sexual abuse within conversion therapies.). Meanwhile, TERFs make claims to everyone that trans women are stealing from their womanhood when they transition, ostensibly calling trans women evil, devious, sinful, the same way conservative Christians call all queer and trans folk sinful.

(This is a beautiful piece by a Christian trans woman, calling out VRR inviting Janice Raymond to speak at their December 6th event.)

I have an extremely hard time taking the likes of Cathy Brennan seriously, but by virtue of the hate she spreads about and commits against trans women – by virtue of the fact that she is a TWERF – her influence ought to be considered dangerous.

Decolonizing Feminism?

When we remember our Traditional teachings, we are reminded that we were all put here on this earth for a reason. We are all related, and it is in this worldview that we offer this booklet to help understand and make changes in how we view Aboriginal Trans-people.  

– Our Relatives Said: A Wise Practices Guide

Transmisogyny is certainly not decolonial. As a Han Chinese person, I am not affected by colonialism the same way Indigenous people experience and are affected by white settler colonialism. I recognize that gender and sexuality figure differently in contemporary Chinese culture than it does in contemporary Western ones. For example, the terms lo po and tomboy are used to refer to specific kinds of relationships in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They can’t be said to be the same as femme and butch. The same can be said for various Indigenous nations and cultures on Turtle Island. A richer understanding of these can be done through an engagement with Native feminist theories that centre indigenous people’s diverse voices.

While I cannot speak for the complexities of ways different Indigenous people and their nations relate to gender and sexuality, I can point to plenty of evidence that contemporary indigenizing movements are not throwing trans women under the bus. For better or for worse, TWERF organizations such as Vancouver Rape Relief use their apparent focus on indigenous women and decolonizing praxis to shield the fact that they do not deal with trans women fairly.

The PDF I link above points to the importance of respecting indigenous trans folk from indigenous cultural perspectives, and also points to discrimination within and beyond indigenous communities against indigenous trans folk. Acknowledging a strong need to provide care and respect for indigenous trans folk from an indigenous perspective is crucial in centring indigenous trans voices:

Trans-people are part of our extended family and hold a place in the circle. Only when we recognize all of Creator’s expressions of diversity will our circle be strengthened. We all – you, your loved ones and everyone else on Mother Earth – benefit when we talk openly, educate, and work to address the issues and barriers of Aboriginal Trans-people.

As far as I know, indigenous cultures on Turtle Island consider women sacred. Trans women are women. Even if trans people have a different place within indigenous cultures, that does not mean that trans women are deserving of any less respect, inclusion, and love than cis women.

Meanwhile, Cathy Brennan does not seem to respect this and has, as far as I can tell, never at any point talked about her relationality as a settler on Turtle Island. I have a hard time seeing her actions as anything but what this piece (Decolonizing Feminism) terms whitestream feminism, an incredibly hateful, disreputable one that violently re-enforces the eurocentric gender binary.

Here are some of the ways in which issues of gender and sexuality can be and are being decolonized (articulated better than I can!). They don’t involve gender policing.

Eco-feminism and Environmental Justice

TERFs are often eco-feminists. Broadly speaking, their feminism works to achieve a specific form of environmental justice, but do so in extremely transmisogynistic terms.  Particularly central to this eco-feminist transmisogyny is the environmental group Deep Green Resistance. Here is their stance on gender:

Deep Green Resistance is a radical feminist organization. Men as a class are waging a war against women. Rape, battering, incest, prostitution, pornography, poverty, and gynocide are both the main weapons in this war and the conditions that create the sex-class women. Gender is not natural, not a choice, and not a feeling: it is the structure of women’s oppression. Attempts to create more “choices” within the sex-caste system only serve to reinforce the brutal realities of male power. As radicals, we intend to dismantle gender and the entire system of patriarchy which it embodies. The freedom of women as a class cannot be separated from the resistance to the dominant culture as a whole.

Thankfully, DGR has been strongly dis-endorsed by many environmental groups, including Vancouver-based ones. These groups have clearly articulated how Deep Green Resistance has not actually done meaningful environmentalist activism. I won’t link DGR here, but this Autostraddle article further unpacks DGR’s bigotry, which are along race lines as well. Indeed, they have basically said that they want to dismantle, abolish, and annihilate race and class:

We see nothing in the creation of gender to celebrate or embrace. Patriarchy is a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power, and we want to see it dismantled so that the category of gender no longer exists. This is also our position on race and class.

Here is another piece on DGR, further articulating just how racist their stance is.

Radical Abolitionist Politics: Masking and Proliferating Transmisogyny

My main argument is that given the recent ruling by the supreme court of Canada to strike down three laws on prostitution as unconstitutional,  TERF groups have focused much of their media and resources on sex work abolitionism both as a strategy to distract from their transmisogyny but also as a further perpetuation of that transmisogyny. The issue of laws on sex work has been incredibly divisive among feminists, and the arguments haven’t gotten any less heated. After all, the courts haven’t changed any laws: they still have one year to come up with new legislations on prostitution which are constitutional. But a pertinent question to ask is, why are so many abolitionists TERFs, and basically no TERF a sex workers’ rights advocate?

TERFs and SWERFs rely on the fact that many trans women and sex workers, given the condition in which they find themselves in our society, cannot afford to ‘come out’ as who they are and declare the legitimacy of their identity and work, respectively. One of the prostitution laws, after all, restricts communication. It is easy (though of course not any less malicious or cruel) to call trans women liars for not disclosing the fact they are trans to their employers, given how transphobic and transmisogynistic our society is. It is also easy to capitalize and exploit the precarious nature of sex workers’ work, and in particular on the traumas experienced by those who have left the trade.

The narratives that “exited” women answer to can easily be ones which wholesale condemn the trade, because it is true that the industry brutally targets poor women, women of colour, and indigenous women, and most certainly exposes them to the worst forms of heteropatriarchal violence under settler colonialism.  However, even if these narratives themselves are justification enough to warrant an abolition of the sex trade, it is still disturbing that trans* voices are never incorporated into  and centred in these narratives. The reality is that trans women, and in particular trans women of colour, are extremely at risk for entering the sex trade and experiencing violence within it. Just read Janet Mock’s own experiences in the trade.

Transmisogyny manifests in porn through fetishizing trans women. Trans women of colour are also incredibly targeted by the police, as the arrest of activist Monica Jones exemplifies.

Abolitionists not only have no trans voices in their midst, they also do not listen to current sex workers. They do not see sex work as a job or a choice (trigger warning for the a talk by Janice Raymond, an influential TERF and abolitionist famous to have said that trans folk should be “morally mandated out of existence”), which means they do not worry about sex workers’ labour rights and protections. They can simply write off sex workers’ voices, many of whom would prefer to see full decriminalization.

Meanwhile, sex worker rights’ activists would reject the legitimacy of questions that abolitionists pose. The pragmatic nature of sex work rights’ activists involve focusing on the immediate safety concerns facing sex workers. These aren’t trivial concerns and a lot of resources are required to adequately deal with them. In Vancouver, we have three organizations which dedicate resources specifically to meeting these needs, Wish Drop-In, PACE society, and Pivot Legal. Focusing on meeting short- and long-term needs, rather than appealing to public anxieties about prostitution, is the goal of each of these organizations.

Arguably, the policed landscape of sex work in Harper’s prohibitionist context makes criminalizing johns, which the Nordic model strives for, a dubious undertaking for sex workers’ safety. The same police officers who rape and abuse sex workers in the DTES will not, regardless of changes in the law (and especially if you create laws which enact criminalization), suddenly become equitable to poor, indigenous, and/or trans women in the trade.

For this reason loud prostitution abolitionists are ultimately calling for more policing from the settler colonial state, which undermines their outwardly decolonizing project (I read their inclusion of indigenous and Asian voices as tokenizing; to centre indigenous voices when sex workers’ voices are more immediately relevant seems dubious). For further perspectives on this argument, here is Sarah Hunt’s eloquent piece on decolonial approaches to sex workers’ rights and this is her talk on the same topic. This is Native Youth Sexual Health’s statement that supports centring sex workers in the process of seeking justice.

Deep Green Resistance, Vancouver Rape Relief, and other groups that call for sex work abolition without a) mentioning trans sex workers, and b) hearing sex workers’ own voices are all rooted in their transmisogynistic radical feminist ideology. These groups make feminist activism extremely unsafe, not only for trans folk, sex workers, and their allies, but also to well-meaning radical feminists among them. They are organizations which churns out specific modes of doing feminism, and at the core of it, I argue, is transmisogyny.

A friend of mine would like to call TERFs/SWERFs a crusade. Here, I call them a hate movement. They can also be conceived as a cult, with specific kinds of strategies for characterizing their enemy. In Meghan Murphy’s recent piece (only click if you want Feminist Current to receive page hits!), she hashes out a familiar defence of her position on sex work, explaining the backlash she receives as internalized misogyny. In this piece, she also mischaracterizes the critique she receives as rooted in liberal feminism:

Liberal feminism takes an individualistic perspective on women’s liberation. So the priority, for liberal feminists (for the record, it’s very rare for any individual to actually identify as a liberal feminist, so you’re going to have to make your own assessments based on their approach to feminism), is about the ability of individuals to make choices. Liberal feminism also focuses on achieving “equality” through legislative reform. What this means is that liberal feminists don’t aim to attack the root of the problem, but rather make changes within the system that already exists in order to help enable women to hold equal status to men in society.

This is a fair critique if her critics were actually so individualistic. Feminists critiquing her radical feminism have never lost sight of heteropatriarchy, but moving in activist circles where a ‘feminist critique of gender’ is hailed as ‘radical,’ rather than inherently transphobic, can wear on one’s spirit (regardless if you are trans or not).

I believe that Meghan Murphy’s defence of Vancouver Rape Relief and Deep Green Resistance are unconscionable. While she has never (to my knowledge) misgendered and attacked trans women the way Cathy Brennan does continuously, it needs to be pointed out that she is calling for radical feminism at the same time as defending systemic violence against trans folk. Shame.

Meghan Murphy, Cathy Brennan, Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, and all willing, active supporters of Vancouver Rape Relief and Deep Green Resistance, no matter how much they seek support from their respective feminist causes, no matter how much they equivocate on their trans inclusion policies, are all transmisogynistic in how they do feminism. Actions count. Supporting them is resources spent away from making the world safer for trans folk and sex workers. Supporting their abolitionist movement is creating space in the Left for religious conservatism and its policies, even if they come from a radical feminist ideology.

Who should speak for sex workers and trans folk but sex workers and trans folk? 

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