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Response: ‘How to Spot TERF Ideology’ at Cambridge SU

Sophie Watson (free speech champion and former president of the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network) responds to the “How to Spot Terf Ideology 2.0” guide produced by Cambridge University’s Student Union “Women’s Campaign.”

The lesser-spotted Cantabrigian feminist is a magnificent if rather fearsome creature, with characteristics which vary across different members of the species. Her hair may be long or short, as may her nails; her eyes and skin may be any colour; she may study anything from English Lit to Advanced Chemistry; she may have gone to a private school or she may have spent her whole childhood on free school meals. Her behaviours vary too. Some are so adept at camouflage that you may have shared a supervision with one (or a drink, or even a friendship) without guessing at the bright green and purple scales she hides beneath her clothes. As with most hunted species, her use of camouflage is adaptive, a necessary response to the hostile habitat she finds herself in – and some of them are better at it than others. One way of testing if a woman is in fact a feminist (assuming you’ve already tried ducking her in the Cam) is to loudly proclaim your belief that lesbians who don’t want your “girl dick” need to unlearn their internalised transphobia. Most feminists will (at the very least) begin to twitch.

Since the feminist (or ‘TERF’) cannot be identified conclusively from her outward appearance, we must turn to her opinions and beliefs, as Cambridge University’s Student Union “Women’s Campaign” did this week. Womcam has an erstwhile tradition of TERF-hunting that goes all the way back to 2018, when they published their very first “How To Spot TERF Ideology” guide. This document contained several discoveries which made the scientific community sit up and take note, at least one of which deserves an honorable mention. It transpired that “the ‘sex binary’ is a colonial fiction created to oppress trans, queer, and gender-non-conforming people (esp. of indigenous genders), and people of colour as a whole, as well as women.” (p.3) In other words, no one outside of Europe knew what a man or a woman was until white people arrived.

I had been waiting for the sequel with no small amount of anticipation and was not disappointed. This second edition of the guide informs us that the TERF defines misogyny as “sex-based oppression, which results from being ‘biologically female’ (a term they define flexibly, but can often be taken to mean people who are assigned female at birth.)” This directly contradicts the next sentence, in which they claim that the TERF “works on a narrow definition of what constitutes ‘biological sex.’” (p.2) But then, dogmatic religious texts often contradict themselves.

Another fascinating insight: “some people who experience misogyny are not women.” (p.2) This one is up there with “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” as a mystery for the ages, or at least for the staff of a well-funded Gender Studies department. And another: the TERF “co-opts the language of sexual violence to refer to trans people existing in public spaces” (p.3), i.e. the bathrooms, changing rooms, and prison cells where women happen to exist and be vulnerable too. This part of the gospel according to Womcam is far easier to interpret: women ought to shut up about sexual violence. Women, stay in your lane – not everything is about you.

These pearls of wisdom notwithstanding, the most important point made in the “How To Spot TERF Ideology” guide comes near the end. “Like a lot of reactionary ideology,” the author writes sagely, “there comes a point where the particular argument becomes unimportant. It won’t be helpful to unpick the false assumptions if someone is committed to the underlying ideology.” (p.5) The message is clear: if you want to avoid “falling prey” (p.6) to a TERF, avoid engaging with her at all costs. The most dangerous thing about her is that she might change your mind.