Presentation for the panel “Deconstructing Gender Identity Under Male Supremacy” at New York City’s Left Forum 2016
(intro cut from video)
I’m a linguist by education and I’ve been politically organizing radical feminists against prostitution for 14 years. This segment will combine those skills and examine how the new vocabulary of transgenderism functions to erase women and silence women’s speech.
Although I had been friends with and worked with transgendered people for many years in Portland — which is where I live, Portland, Oregon — it was through the issue of prostitution that I first came to question the possible harms of transgender politics.
Georgina Beyer lived as a white male in New Zealand before transition at the age of 27. Georgina had prostituted as a gay male before winning a seat in New Zealand’s parliament and pushing for the legalization of prostitution. When the law passed in 2003 legalizing prostitution, no female sex workers were serving in New Zealand’s parliament.
This fact led me to learn that many so-called “sex worker rights” organizations around the world have transwomen in prominent leadership positions, and I’ve had to put a lot of thought into why such a small demographic among prostitutes are given such a disproportionate media platform. With everything I know about how hierarchy in gender operates in prostitution, I could no longer ignore the increase in transgender activists being heard over women’s voices on laws that almost wholly concern women’s lives.
I’ve put on many conferences and events fighting prostitution, and I’ve long dealt with verbally abusive backlash from the sex industry, but I didn’t get my first credible threats of violence until 2012 when I directed a radical feminist conference in Portland. That’s when transgender activists started harassing conference venues I’d rented to make them rescind the rentals they had agreed to, and they started putting out public calls to assault the women I had invited to attend my conferences. They put up the list of the hotels they were staying at and said, “Go get them, go follow them, hit them in the head with bricks.”
I could speak about those terrorizing threats for many hours, but I only have fifteen minutes so I’m going to segue here into when I first started getting called SWERF and TERF.
SWERF and TERF definitions
As an anti-prostitution activist, my articles and my work revolve around the sex industry, so my status as a SWERF (sex work exclusionary radical feminist) was affirmed but my TERF status was only implied because I don’t write about transgender issues, I mainly care about prostitution.
Many radical feminists are themselves formerly prostituted women, but as with all of the words I’ll be going over today, the point is not accurate description, the point is verbal abuse.
A slow walk through any porn store should demonstrate how endlessly creative men can be coming up with ways to speak their contempt for women. There has been no coinage of slurs for the men who purchase sex, they’re still just known as johns. The johns who cause the rapes, assaults, and murders of prostitutes still get called johns. It’s almost as if the alleged crime of feminist exclusion is somehow the worst abuse prostitutes face. I promise you it is not.
Here are some examples of TERF in action. I could pluck thousands of these but I tried to pluck a couple just to give you a sense of what’s going on here…and then there’s this person…
Similarly, as there’s no new word for johns to talk about their violence, there is no word to talk about the men who disproportionately harm transgender people. SWERF and TERF were not created to shed light on the real problems that trans individuals face, which are significant. These words are used to bully women, to blacklist women, and to shut down women’s right to political assembly.
Another linguistic device that transactivists use is the prefix cis-. Popular transgender advocate Janet Mock wrote a book titled Redefining Realness that defines cis- as a term “for people who are not trans and more likely to identify with the gender that correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth”.
Fun little fact about Janet Mock’s book is the original title was Fish Food before it was Redefining Realness. “Fish” is a transgender term for a transwoman who is so convincingly passing as a female you can practically smell the fish on her. Just in case there are some sweetly naive persons in the room, men have long said that women’s vaginas smell like fish. I’m going to just assume most of you have heard this.
Back to cis-; cis- is supposed to be more neutral than TERF but still functions as a cudgel against women.
Cis-woman confers a power to women that women do not have. While it is true that trans-people suffer enormous discrimination, it doesn’t logically follow that makes being a cis-woman a privilege. In our misogynistic world, being a woman brings forth discrimination and disrespect at nearly every social intersection. Being seen as a women does not provide advantages, resources, or power by its being.
Also, not everyone who is not transgender is cis-gender. The most obvious example of that is lesbians. Lesbians are most definitely not acting in ways expected of women when they romantically love other women. Many other examples are easy to find.
There is nothing the prefix cis- accomplishes that the term “not trans” can’t accomplish without relegating literally billions of women into a subcategory. We’re already placed in subhuman categories, we don’t need to be subbed any more.
The UK Select Committee recently reported this definition of gender identity, “Gender Identity is the gender with which a person associates themselves.” Your gender identity is your gender identity. That’s a terrible definition. You don’t need a degree in linguistics to know that is a horrible and useless definition.
Without some objective foundation for gender identity, gender identity seems to mainly refer to sex-role stereotypes. I have yet to see a definition of gender identity that doesn’t rely on either biological facts or sex-role stereotypes.
But if we’re not supposed to use biology, we need to know the new criteria for how we define men and women anymore. What is that criteria? The purpose of this particular segment on language is to get at how I’d love to be able to critique definitions of gender identity that make sense to me, but they keep shifting and refer to themselves so I can’t even find a foundation from which to start.
genderfluid and genderqueer
Genderfluid and genderqueer are terms used by people who identify themselves as being off the binary, they identify as not male and not female. They are non-binary.
Except, if gender is a spectrum, and not a binary, then everyone is non-binary. Nobody is a pure cartoonish stereotype of the pink box of femininity on one side and the blue box of masculinity on the other side. Penises and vaginas do not determine innate personality traits.
Genderfluid and genderqueer people assume themselves to be outside the pink and blue boxes, but we all live outside the pink and blue boxes. Nobody wants to be put in a box. I’m boxless too, don’t box me either. So are you. Gender boxes are a bad fit for human beings and feminists have known this for a very long time and railed against them for a very long time.
We need to break the power that gendered stereotypes have in shaping human experiences and stop insisting that men and women must identify with the pink and blue caricatures of human beings.
cis-sexism and transmisogyny
So on to cis-sexism, which is never going to roll off my tongue easily, and transmisogyny. Transmisogyny is committed by cis-sexists. One key rule of patriarchy is to excuse and obscure male supremacy and the mechanisms that maintain it, bonus points if you can blame it on a woman.
Accusations of transmisogyny are mostly leveled at women – mostly feminist women — much more than they are ever used to describe the men who commit the real violence that happens to transpeople. It’s as if it takes the transgender blood that men are spilling and smears women’s hands with it, but we are not causing this violence.
Feminine gender conformity, now being called cis-womanhood, does not protect women from being oppressed. For women, gender is most commonly a burdensome, threatening experience.
I wish I could count how many times men have told me about prostitution, “Gosh, I wish I could get paid just for having sex, that sounds awesome, Best Job Ever!” as if men bribing poverty-stricken women into sex they do not want is a privilege that you get for being a woman. Lucky us, huh?
It’s no accident that the stereotype of a prostitute is of a hyperfeminized woman wearing too much makeup, showing too much skin, wearing those stripper heels, as they’re called. The highest of the high heels that high heels can get are stripper heels. Prostitutes are the most feminized women of women, and they are the most raped women, and the most murdered women of all womankind.
Cis-sexism prevents women from addressing issues like prostitution which disproportionately and sometimes uniquely affect females. We can no longer say that misogyny experienced by females is a problem — that’s exclusionary. We have entered a politics that acknowledges transmisogyny as a problem and misogyny as a privilege women have over transgendered people.
As Sarah Ditum said, “I am trying to live as a woman in a patriarchal world, and frankly that sucks enough on its own without being told the female body my culture punishes me for is a privilege in itself.”
Here are some examples of how accusations of transmisogyny are literally making the sexism that happens to women impossible to speak:
Raise your hand if you’re a uterus-bearer!
The Amherst student newspaper published an article on abortion rights and they filed it under their new category, “uterus-bearer’s rights”.
I have a theory as to why it’s unethical to say that women have vaginas but progressive to say that women have uteruses. That theory is based on the fact that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of slang terms for women’s breasts and vaginas — I’m sure we can all think of many words for that — but have you considered there is no slang term for the uterus? There is no slang term for an ovary. There is no slang term for a cervix. Women are judged by what men see, and they don’t see our uterus and our ovaries and our cervix, so who cares?
Men have not really shown much interest in the inner lives or the inner bodies of women, and I think this is coming out in these words.
This cartoon promotes awareness of abortion and they thought it was a good idea to replace woman with the term “adult uterus’d people”.
Laws restricting abortion are of course directed at women because we are women. It’s about society trying to control women’s bodies because only women can produce new human beings. We can’t disconnect the abortion debate from the oppression of women since the entire debate about abortion only exists because it’s based on the resource production that only women can do.
birthing parent and chestfeeding
The Midwives Alliance of North America in their 2014 Core Competencies Manual replaced the words woman and mother with “pregnant individual” and “birthing parent”.
(audience member adds, “In Spanish, you would translate “parent” as “father”.)
Just two weeks ago, transactivists were taking to social media to complain about how Mother’s Day is transphobic.
No longer do women breastfeed, now we chestfeed. Chestfeeding is being recommended because breasts are transphobic now. Mind you, men have breasts too. When men get breast cancer, they call it breast cancer, they don’t call it chest cancer to spare their hurt little man feelings. The biological term chest encompasses so much more than the mammary glands formerly known as breasts.
And now for the front hole formerly known as vagina.
Mount Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic play The Vagina Monologues, and here’s the quote on why they cancelled, “It provided an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.”
Writing in the New York Times about the play’s cancellation, Elinor Burkett notes that transactivists are pushing “front hole” and “internal genitalia” as alternatives to the word vagina.
Look for the new play, The Front Hole Monologues, coming to you soon.
These irrational demands are sabotaging feminist fundraisers and they’re cancelling performances of feminist plays. This is not fringe stuff, it may have started there but it’s in The New York Times, and New York Magazine and The Nation and The Guardian. This is our world now: front holes, chestfeeding, adult uterus’d person.
Capitalism offers an infinite choice between irrelevant choices, but little choice on the most important, life-affecting choices. You can get underarm deodorant in a stick, a spray, a roll on, a cream, a gel, a powder, and a freaking rock, but your choices for president are Democrat and Republican.
Capitalism loves focusing on you the buyer, you the individual, you’re so special, instead of communities of class, race, and sex because it loves fragmenting people into ever more marketable demographics. Removing the word “woman” from the English language, and presumably all languages if transactivist goals are to be reached, makes feminism impossible by denying that women are a definable class. Women will remain the sexually exploited and will remain oppressed, but now we can’t talk about it without being accused of oppressing others.
Capitalism loves eternally shifting language games that splinter people into ever more groups, and the 50+ genders of Facebook shows that it’s impossible to keep up with the lightening-fast pace of these new terms. But a wall covered in mud is still a wall no matter how much mud you throw at it, and a woman with dirt stuffed into her mouth so she can’t speak anymore is still a woman. Thank you.
published at Feminist Current October 31, 2013
Halloween is my Christmas. Even if I wasn’t born on November 1st and named after a witch, the Samhain season would still be holiday numero uno for me due to the candy, costumes, and supernatural spookies celebrated in the absence of religious, nationalist or familial obligations.
Since autumn reaps harvests of nostalgia, I thought it might be festive to brush aromatic leaves off the headstones of pro-prostitution arguments put in the ground years ago. Not the dippy slogan “sex work is work”, not comparisons to Prohibition regularly karate chopped with reminders that women are people and not beverages, I’m talking the doozies that haven’t horrified me with their lazy logic in a long time.
Only flyby commenters and paid-by-the-pageview writers pull out the “world’s oldest profession” artifact anymore because there’s no winning reply to the retort that slavery is historical but shouldn’t be legal. However, it pokes its victim-blaming head into the media enough to be disqualified from my criteria that these moans haven’t been heard by me in the last year. Progress!
1. Men will use prostituted children less if legal, adult prostitutes are made available.
Anyone with the slightest sociological curiosity could have debunked the catharsis theory where men can ejaculate the will to rape children out of their systems. Note the twisted appeal to “think of the children!” while offering up young women’s bodies as collateral damage.
As ruthlessly libertarian as the champions of swapping gals for girls imagine themselves, the precedent hasn’t been set in any marketplace because men who want to rape little girls don’t do so in the absence of adult women owned by the same pimp. Libertarians have gone apoplectic when I propose the precedent they’re actually operating from is the misogynistic, homophobic Bible story of Lot giving gay rapists his daughters so they wouldn’t sodomize male angels:
“Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof,” (Gen. 19:8).
The oxymoronic variant, “Men will rape some women less if allowed to rape some women more” remains popular but the specific appeal to reduce pedophilia with prostitution hasn’t made me want to punch someone for about a decade.
2. Legal prostitution will lead women to pay for sex in nearly the numbers men pay for sex.
Here’s one that used to ride with the equally addlebrained, “More porn for women will improve the porn industry” some morbidly optimistic yahoos still believe. Folks, even Susie Bright has stopped repeating that mainstay of her repertoire, give it a rest.
The last time I encountered this ghost was 2009 when convicted pimp Heidi Fleiss opened the Shady Lady Ranch for women despite the Nevada law forbidding convicted pimps from running brothels. After two months and less than ten paying customers, Nevada’s first legal male prostitute Markus quit and the brothel went kaput soon after. I think women are a statistically insignificant number of prostitute-users for the same reason 80-85% of men don’t use prostitutes, because the idea of being intimate with a stranger faking desire for you is repugnant.
Every feminist has met the Women-Do-It-Too dude who insists women are inherently just as violent as men. Many women believe that too, unfortunately, and they show off their use of pornstituted women (mainly through porn and strippers) as a performance of how aspirationally masculine their sexuality is. I’ll never forget the woman who beamed to me with pride that her lover said she fucked like a man.
Men’s sadistic sexuality, including prostitutes used in the flesh and via the canned cunt of porn, is the default norm in our culture. It takes a whole lot of capitalistic indoctrination to come to the conclusion that women NOT paying for sex is a misogynistic aberration that will be fixed when women have enough economic and social power to comfortably consume sex workers.
I hope this argument is vanishing because we have evolved from wishing women could be as exploitative as men are to considering that men can be as bad as women and rape as infrequently as women do.
3. Making condoms 100% mandatory, as was done in Thailand in the 1990s, saves sex worker lives.
In 1991, Thailand put concerted effort into reducing the spread of HIV by adopting a goal of 100% condom usage in the illegal brothels. It was a successful campaign with some reports stating new infections had decreased 75% in five years, and Thailand’s safer sex example was held up as an international model. Disease rates have since risen and research from 2009 reports that Thailand has the highest prevalence of HIV in all of Asia.
Prostitution defenders praised the mandatory condom policy as a lifesaver. Abolitionists and sex capitalists alike agreed that mandatory health regulations were necessary, so what happened to this seemingly rational policy to push it out of favor with sex capitalists?
The proverbial poop flew when healthcare professionals in California decided to import Thailand’s model to the porn industry which had gotten used to getting away with ignoring workplace safety laws. Suddenly the same pro-prostitution mouthpieces who praised the Thai model and supported an ACLU lawsuit premised on selling condoms cheaply in Asian brothels began trashing condoms as more dangerous to sex workers than unprotected sex.
Pornographers like Nina Hartley and pornstitution profiteers like Charlie Glickman and Hugo Schwyzer writing for Jezebel.com declared themselves more knowledgeable about condoms than the venerable Alan Guttmacher Institute. They told stories of potential death by latex allergies, condom friction increasing disease transmission, and threats to move porn production into dangerous underground lairs if forced to protect employee health. I can’t think of a reason why they would say mandating condoms will push Californian sex workers underground when they had lauded mandatory condoms for Thai sex workers as a means to bring brothels ‘above ground’ where transparency provides safety. Oh wait, I forgot racism, greed, and sexsationalistic clickbaiting.
The contradictions and fake science coming from the porn lobby were bad public relations that inhibited a slick retreat to their prior “yay condoms!” stance. This particular specter is one I wouldn’t mind seeing sex worker rights groups reincarnate.
4. Under the Nordic Model, women (not necessarily sex workers) will make fake accusations of prostitution solicitation to blackmail men.
When the Swedish law passed in 1999, a flurry of blogs, articles, and position papers were published decrying the injustice to men. Professor Don Kulick wrote a paper implying that women with the ability to accuse men of commercial sexual predation will abuse it to hurt innocent men because women are conniving gold-diggers like that:
“The only positive thing for sexworkers that perhaps can to be said to have emerged from this law is that it seems that some of them have used it to rob clients or blackmail them, telling them that if they didn’t cough up more money, they would turn them into the police.”
Kulick doesn’t provide examples or sources to verify if any femme fatale extortions happened and he offers a mild counter argument:
“Of course, both robbery and blackmail are much more serious crimes than purchasing sexual services, so if a client goes to the police, the sexworker risks much harsher penalties than the client she robbed or attempted to blackmail.”
Because Kulick is a man incapable of empathizing with prostituted women, he neglects what women know about the kinds of “harsher penalties” men inflict on disobedient prostitutes.
While it’s theoretically possible women might pretend to be prostitutes (who don’t fear men’s insane amount of violence towards hookers for some reason) to extort money from men, women have been able to “cry rape” against any man, punter or not, for many years and that hasn’t been occurring.
5. The worst harm of prostitution is the shame/stigma.
Some “professional erotic technicians” have said the weight of the shame should their families and friends discover their criminal secret is their biggest problem. Frankly, as someone who had a loved one suffer and die from prostitution, I find that declaration a relief because I believe sex workers when they say they haven’t dealt with violent johns or pimps and I’m grateful for their good luck.
The tightest argument against stigma causing the bulk of damage to sex workers is that the men most likely to seriously harm them are precisely the pimps and johns most likely to accept prostitution as a natural, necessary business transaction. By the stigma rationale, paying johns should be the least likely to harm prostituted women, yet the evidence overwhelmingly shows otherwise. The oft-repeated description of men’s experiences with prostitutes being “emotionless” sex doesn’t translate into “stigmaless” sex, but someone intent on attributing rape to criminalization instead of toxic masculinity has to detach the rapist from his motivation to rape somehow.
On the sex worker side of things I agree that feeling ashamed sucks, but I can provide a very long list of prostitution-related harms that suck a whole lot more. Thanks to trafficking awareness campaigns plus the eternally creative imaginations of pimpographers, the average citizen can also whip up a hefty list of brutal nasties faced by the average prostituted woman which transcend shame. Consequently, I more commonly see stigma listed among prostitution’s many problems or as a thematic connection between a group of problems than as The Problem.
Industry lobbyists think they can replace the well-known threat pimps and johns pose to prostitutes with the specious assertion that feminists and police officers are worse. Fortunately that’s not been working well for them.
I tried to think of a new pro-prostitution argument encountered in the past year and the only one that comes to mind declares Sweden a sexually repressive, totalitarian gender dystopia disguised as a socialist democracy. Iceland also got some slander slapped on it in 2013 when they stopped pretending that the women in pornography can be sex workers without consumers of pornography being sex worker clients, aka johns.
Such weak lobs play well to the Julian Assange fanclub but I’m quite sure, “Scandinavia hates sexual freedom” has fresh dirt under its nails from digging a grave in the cemetery of pointless pro-prostitution polemics.
- Sam Berg: Words in the World of Gender Identity March 28, 2017
- Melania Trump, America’s first sex worker First Lady December 22, 2016
- Brock Turner and porn users share a culture of sexual entitlement July 22, 2016
- Dead Rentboys tell no tales September 7, 2015
- From Norway to New Zealand, pro-prostitution research is its own worst enemy November 24, 2014
- I want 140 characters which will end rape June 12, 2014
- “The City of Roses shall no longer tolerate feminism!” May 30, 2014
- Ghosts of Prostitution Debates Past October 31, 2013
- Sam Berg’s Statement on Radfem Rise Up! 2013 July 11, 2013
- Rain & Thunder Activist Spotlight: Samantha Berg, United States June 12, 2013
- Norwegian prostitution research solid like iceberg February 8, 2013
- New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence? January 22, 2013
- Who votes against decriminalizing prostituted children? November 9, 2012
- Radfem Reboot Wrap-up August 20, 2012
- Christine Stark’s “Nickels”, a tale of association January 17, 2012
- The Internet Swear Jar December 15, 2011
- Feminism and Occupy Portland November 6, 2011
- Three days of radical feminist SCUM October 25, 2011
- On the Feminists-in-Underwear Walks October 9, 2011
- Scotland: Don’t be like US May 5, 2010
- New coalition challenges the status quo of “Pornland, OR” February 14, 2010
- Extra, extra! Newspaper reporter interviews radical feminist! January 2, 2010
- Radical Feminism on the Web: The Carnival of Radical Feminists November 9, 2009
- Samantha Berg: HerStories interview October 28, 2008
- Paradigm shifts and paying for sex May 2, 2008
- The quest to be human: An interview with “Getting Off” author Robert Jensen November 22, 2007
- Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture September 14, 2007
- The New Antipornography Slide Show September 14, 2007
- Pornography, Prostitution & Sex Trafficking: How Do You Tell the Difference? September 14, 2007
- Hey, progressives! Cathouse got your tongue? July 9, 2006
- Portland at crossroads of human trafficking April 6, 2006
- “It’s up to you”: Prostitution, Censorship and Sweden January 4, 2006
- Female Chauvinist Liz: Third wave feminism through the songs of Liz Phair October 31, 2005
- The Harms of Gay Male Pornography: A Sexual Equality Perspective August 14, 2005
- Memorial for civil rights leader Andrea Dworkin July 1, 2005
- Giving the marginalized the tools to speak their voices April 10, 2005
- Sex trafficking strikes closer to home than thought November 13, 2004
- Media critics blind towards Playboy’s soft porn June 1, 2004
- All naked women are created equal January 3, 2004