Have you enconutered the term ‘TERF’ and left wondering: Wait, what’s that?
There are some people, TERFs mostly, who think that TERF is a slur. It’s not; slurs are terms used to direct social power against a marginalised group. If you shout TERF at someone on the street, they’re not going to assume someone else is going to attack them because of being so painted. If they are, they’re incredibly paranoid, because TERFs are typically very privileged people who are afraid of being criticised by trans people.
It may sound like I am overdoing it, but I really am not. The typical TERF discourse is an attempt to weaponise outrage at the idea of women facing disagreement from, pretty consistently, other women. But what is a TERF? And what about those other -ERF terms I’ve heard?
So, content warning: TERF stuff! And SWERF stuff! And BLERF stuff! What’s a BLERF? Well, after the fold.
The -ERF grouping of letters stands for -Exclusionary Radical Feminist. To further break that down, let’s work backwards.
Feminist means someone who aligns themselves, politically, with the position of feminism – that is, that there has been a system of power in our society that has directly imposed on women, and, once further examined, many, many groups, and the removal of these power systems will be to the benefit of everyone.
Radical means that there is a direct advocation of change. That is, it’s not enough to vote for these things, or to hope things get better on their own, or just do the things the best way you can in your own life. Radical change is advocated for, in the change of systems and removal of power structures. This is important, a radical feminist is someone who both recognises and wants to change structural power systems in our society that marginalise women.
Exclusionary and here’s the place where the problem starts. Because I’m down for radical feminism. It’s this word, where the term suddenly takes on a term. This is the letter that signals that this person has a radical feminist position but there is someone excluded from it.
So there are a couple of -ERFs, and they’re defined by who they exclude from their feminism. The most notable and commonly known are TERFs, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. This position is that yes, feminism is one thing and it’s very good and we need to dismanle all the systems in place that make gender enforcement unfair and that marginalise women, but we also need to make sure that any progress doesn’t benefit trans women. This is obviously shitty as hell, but it also works against itself. Suddenly, there are all these projects that have to be scaled back or done more carefully and more unhelpfully just because ‘well, what if a trans woman benefited as much as a cis woman?’
SWERFs are SEX WORKER Exclusionary Radical Feminists. That is, they think that anything to do with sex workers is somehow outside of feminism. This leads to some weird ideas like the notion that sex workers performing sex work are ‘doing men’s work for them,’ or ‘oppressing themselves,’ which sounds like an interesting academic conversation to have but it’s not an academic conversation, it’s a conversation which involves telling women doing work that they like and they are willing to do that the problems aren’t abusive labor practices or people refusing to pay them, their problem is that they’re only doing this for bad reasons.
Swerfs also tend to have to ignore a lot of things like the presence of nonbinary people, or, uh male-on-male gay porn. That’s pretty weird!
And my newest favourite is BLERFs. That is Bi Lesbian Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The conversation about ‘bi lesbians’ is one of those ones that should kind of not reach beyond the boundaries of ‘oh, that’s a bit silly.’
The idea is that some lesbians describe themselves as bi lesbians. Some other presumably non-bi lesbians, or, conspicuously, non-lesbians, object to this, usually framed as it being somehow harmful to the idea of lesbians to allow it to include lesbians who are bi.
This is, at its core, a disagreement over a word that could be regarded as a sort of clerical disagreement in a style guide, but that would require BLERFs to have an ounce of chill. Instead, BLERFs, as other ERFs, believe in radical, transformative, change-based feminism that extends to all of humanity, except lesbians who describe themselves as ‘bi lesbians.’ And the result is a kind of public discourse where people who rail at the idea of ‘bi lesbians’ say things that kind of give away why they are so annoyed by the idea of ‘bi lesbian.’ It inevitably starts to be about definitional arguments and brings in a wing of toxic conversation about things like ‘gold star lesbians.’
It’s important to remember that -ERFs aren’t just your run of the mill anti-sex worker or transphobic dickheads. -ERFs are still people who are wedded, in their own mind to the project of radical feminism – that is, feminism that sees the world as in need of change. Conservatives aren’t TERFs, they’re just assholes.
Part of why I think recognising -ERFs is that it’s important to have a way to recognise the people that you think might be on your side, but aren’t on the side of the other people on your side. If your aunt is pretty progressive on some things but isn’t okay with trans people, that indicates she’s already drawing lines about who the project of feminism shouldn’t be allowed to include – and that is a problem.