Analyzing the terms TERF and SWERF

Raleigh, NC. (TFC) – Let’s unpack these terms, shall we? Because I see them everywhere now, and mostly in the context of attempting to shut down a conversation and label someone as anti-feminist. But what do they mean? Well, the literal definition of the acronyms is:

  • TERF: Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism/Feminist
  • SWERF: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism/Feminist

It’s first important to note that the women who are being called this do not want to be.

That’s an important distinction, not only because these terms are used as slurs, but because the people using them insist that they be able to self identify gender and/or sex: male/female/nonbinary/etc. Radical feminists have been pointing out this hypocrisy to the liberal feminist community with no avail. The irony has reached a comical level.

So when talking about TERFs and SWERFs, remember that this is terminology used by the opposition to radical feminism, not self-identifying radical feminists. Terminology used by a political group’s opposition are not likely to accurately represent the ideology of that group.

Secondly, it’s important to note that neither of these terms are true.

Radical feminists do not exclude “sex workers” from their politics or groups. There are women currently in the industry as well as exited women active in the radical feminist communities I am a part of.

Radical feminists do not exclude trans people from their politics, either. I have spoken to transwomen who have been accepted into the radical feminist community because of the alignment of their theories, as well as transmen and gender dysphoric women who have transitioned, de-transitioned, or ended up not transitioning despite their gender dysphoria (I personally belong to this last group).

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Third, it’s a method of shutting down dialog.

If “exclusionary” doesn’t actually mean exclusionary, then what are the terms used for?

From what I’ve seen, they’re used to shut down dialog. By calling someone a TERF or SWERF, the person is trying to paint them as a feminist who isn’t for all women, and thereby is not a feminist or is not doing feminism correctly. The logical extension of this ideology is that TERFs and SWERFs are anti-feminist, or bigots against certain kinds of women.

This is what I call a rhetorical boundary, or a rhetorical institution. There are important conversations that need to happen around these ideologies that are going to require deep analysis and critical thinking, and using quippy acronyms to shut down women who want to engage in this is not helpful to any feminist analysis.

Lastly, shutting down dialog is a dangerous road to take.

The sex industry and trans politics, like any industry, and any political platform, should be subject to analysis. This is a basic civic understanding. What’s that saying? To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize. I don’t know why anyone would think they are above critical thinking, criticism, and having to justify their stances. It’s a controlling position to take saying trans women are women, don’t be a TERF, when other women are trying to address theoretical holes in trans politics. Why can’t we have intellectual conversations on this matter? Is that so scary?

Charles Rae writes about power and social justice. For more women-centered news follow TFC’s the Fem Column: FacebookTwitter, Tumblr.