Author: channellightvesselautomatic


So, for safety sake, I’m going to delete some of my tweets from yesterday. Given the general hilarity that ensued, I thought I’d preserve some of the threads before I do…

flawed feminism

Prelude – ‘It’s Funny How This Feminism Is So Attractive to Men’








Scene 1 – ‘Trans Ideology Does Not Exist DUH’



Scene 2 – Enter Bro The First, stage left, pursued by beard

‘Trans ideology does not exist duh but some women are born with testicles.’


‘Non-penis people calling penis-people ‘bro’ is phallocentric acadamese, but penis-people telling non-penis people that they get to define their existence is… um.’


‘Trans ideology doesn’t exist duh but a woman is whoever says they’re a woman and anyone who disagrees is a witch.’




‘Trans ideology doesn’t exist duh but changing the definition of woman so it includes penis-people doesn’t affect you because I’m Irish and Brexit.’





‘Trans ideology doesn’t exist duh but I sure showed them bitches*


*See Also

male 8

‘Blessed be the suffering of the Bros’


Scene 3 – Enter Bro The Second, followed by administrators 

‘Trans ideology doesn’t exist duh but belief in sexual dimorphism is a biological phallusy.’



‘Trans ideology doesn’t exist duh but women only exist because forms.’


*Twitter loses its mind*


*Exit the terven, clutching their sides*


The TRA Trope Almanac



awful arguments

The argument proceeding from clownfish.

The argument proceeding from strawberries.

The argument proceeding from seahorses.

“Intersex people are as common as redheads, so sex does not exist.”

“Sex is a spectrum, so males are female.”

“Bio-essentialism!” (Is that like thinking horses and carrots exist?)


“Thinking women exist is like thinking women are livestock,” aka “Stop reducing women to their genitals!”

 “Everything is a social construct.”

 “Because women are Black, disabled, poor, gay, etc,. women do not exist.”

 “Everyone who says they are trans is trans. Except destransitioners. And evil witches. (Ask Owen Jones. He decides. With his sorting hat.).”

 “Men would never bother identifying as woman to abuse women and children.”

“Sex is assigned at birth based on arbitrary genital configurations.”

“Women can’t beat men at sports because they just aren’t trying hard enough.”

“Michael Phelps has got big feet so sport is never fair.”

“Cis women are not oppressed as such.”

‘Cis womanhood is threatened by trans women.”

“I earned my womanhood. So I’m more of a woman than you.”

 “I feel like a woman and I have biology therefore I have female biology.”

“Some women don’t have uteruses, so males can be women.”

“Mythical biological females.”

“But my gold lame pocketbook!”

“Sometimes a male brain grows a woman’s body by mistake.”

 “Women are not oppressed on the basis of their sex. They’re oppressed because they wear lipstick.”

“Sex is an outdated concept.”

“Woman is a palimpsest.”

“Woman is Frankenstein’s Monster.”

“Woman is a loose shifting constellation of biological, political and cultural phenomena that varies according to context, time and space.”

“Woman is a void to be filled by other people’s desire.”

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”


“It’s like gay rights.”

“Women excluding males is the same as white people excluding Black people.”

“Women excluding males is like us excluding immigrants.”

“Women excluding males is like Nazis persecuting Jews.”

“Rad fem ideas about gender are the same as right-wing Christian ideas.”

“If Black women are women then trans women are women.”

“Trans women are to natal women as adoptive parents are to biological parents.”

“But you might be assaulted by a lesbian.”

“But they do it in Iran which is like, really progressive.”

Tome forgot

“Colonialism invented the gender binary.”

“The Stonewall riot was started by trans women.”

“Here is a skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon trans warrior.”

“However, women had no skeleton pre-Enlightenment.”

“Historical cross dressers were appropriating trans identity.”

“Every gender non-conforming person in history was trans. (Yeah, I know we said it’s based on self ID but whatever).”

“Trans women have been using women’s loos for ages so it doesn’t matter if we totally change the legal and social criteria for being trans so big dudes with beards are women.”

“Kaitlyn Jenner was a woman when she won men’s Olympic gold.”


“Trans women are women.”

“Trans men are men.”

“Non-binary is valid.”

“Trans rights are human rights.”

“Sex work is work.”

“Sisters not cis-ters.”

“No debate!”


“It’s descriptive.”

“It’s inclusive.”

“It’s LATIN.”

“It just means ‘the opposite of.”






“Language evolves. *Shrug*”


“Animals eat humans. Gerbils are an animal. Therefore, gerbils eat humans.”


“Tut. And Move Away.”


“But you have gender neutral toilets in your home, don’t you?

“Rights are not a pie.”

“They’re gonna rape you anyway.”

“Women are violent too.”

“How you gonna tell without looking in their pants?”

“Your biology is so high school.”


“You’re just a vagina fetishist!”

“Why are you so obsessed with genitals?”

“What if a woman lost her vagina in an accident?”

“But you can’t see your chromosomes, can you?”

“If I removed your brain and put it in a man’s body you’d still be a woman tho, wouldn’t you?”


“You are denying my right to exist.”

‘You are debating my right to exist.”

“If you say that you’ll make us unsafe.”

“If you say that we’ll kill ourselves.”

“If you say that it will make men kill trans women.”

“If you don’t give us what we want we’ll be murdered.”

“If you don’t affirm a child, they’ll commit suicide.”

“Genital preferences are transphobic.”



“Gatekeeping Womanhood!”


“Literal Violence!”




“Do better!”

“Educate Yourself!”

“Listen and learn!”

“Wrong Side of History.” (My arse)

“Fuck you TERF!”

“Why can’t you just be nice YOU NASTY SWARM OF WITCHES???”

Who’s Removing Whose Rights Anyway?

My god, what a shitshow.

As we all know, yesterday Labour released their new manifesto, in which they made the following pledge:


Twitter erupted, I may or may not have done a backflip, lots of people were rightly more sceptical, and then there was a great deal of anger and name-calling from those who – given how polarised this whole thing now is – we may as well just call ‘the other side.’

Since then, a great deal of smoke and obfuscation has been cast over the pledge. Firstly by Ellie Mae O’Hagan – whose loyalties in this battle are well known (oh hai Owen) – and then subsequently by Dawn Butler, who at this point I think we may as well just regard as a fully paid-up TRA.

Ellie 1

There is a lot to say about this. The first is that both the statement Ellie tweeted, and Dawn’s statement, would seem to directly contradict the pledge made in yesterday’s manifesto, and notably – how odd! – they use exactly the same language to do so. The key phrase here of course is ‘no spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people.’

labour press team

If we were being generous, we might read this as in line with the manifesto, and as a claim that ‘no spaces will be permitted to unlawfully discriminate against trans people.’ And we might read it that way because the facts of the matter are that the Equality Act gives services for female people the right to lawfully restrict the provision of those services on the basis of sex. The relevant section of the Act reads as follows:

equality act section

However, I think we all know that that is not what either the unsourced statement Ellie tweeted, or Dawn Butler intended to convey. What they intended to convey was that the pledge in the manifesto which expressed commitment to the exemptions in the EA2010 was actually not the party’s official policy, and this obfuscation has been amplified by the fact that Butler’s tweet was then retweeted by the Labour Press Team.

So this is now an utter mess. And I think we all have a right to be wondering what the hell is going on. As I tweeted earlier, from my perspective – and based on conversations with people who were involved in getting the pledge into the manifesto – what is going on is the surfacing of a fundamental split inside the party, which mirrors the basic division over the debate. That is, I believe that those who were instrumental in getting the pledge put into the manifesto did so with genuine intent, and that the TRA-faction lost the debate on this point at the ‘Clause V’ meeting when the manifesto was formulated (see here for info on Clause V). However, it is evident that not everyone in the party is on board with the results of that process, and have, effectively, decided to start legislating Labour party policy from the frontbench, in direct contravention of the party’s own internal democratic procedures. (Julie Bindel quotes several Labour Party insiders on this here). Given the utter contempt for due democratic process we have witnessed from TRAs and their allies over the years, I have to say I find this behaviour not even remotely surprising.

None of this tells us anything about how this will play out. I will say that I don’t think it’s the result of the Labour Party pulling some kind of deliberate bait and switch or making pronouncements to mollify us which they never intended to honour. Rather, as I said, I think it evidences the genuine divisions inside the party, and how completely impossible it is to get people dosed up to their eyeballs on the Kool-Aid to abide by any social or democratic conventions which don’t serve their ends. This may well not reassure anyone, and I think we are all wise to be sceptical here, especially given the contempt with which we have been treated by all major political parties on this question. Given what is happening now, people are right to question if the pledge made in the manifesto would have force were Labour to win the election, and to judge where to place their vote as their both their conscience and intuition dictates. They are also right to worry about how this would interact with the ongoing commitment to reforming the GRA. Even if the pledge in the manifesto stands, there would need to be a great deal of concerted work to ensure that the exemptions could be practicably enforced given how thoroughly Stonewall et al. have muddied the water by running all round the country disseminating legal bullshit.

overton window


That all said, even with my most pessimistic hat on, I do think yesterday’s announcement is significant. Firstly because I think a Labour Party that is openly split on the issue is still a massive improvement on a Labour Party that is unthinkingly reciting TRA-dogma and straightforwardly colluding with the silencing of women’s legitimate concerns. This may not help us all make a decision with respect to this benighted election. But with respect to the long slow grind of this conflict, it is a move in the right direction. For those of us born and bred on the left, who have been putting sweat and soul into making the case for why the trans rights movement is neither progressive, nor good for women, it’s important that the debate is now squarely, and openly, situated inside the Labour Party. We’ve spent the last several years being called Nazis and fascists and segregationist bigots, enduring endless lectures from blue-haired anime avatars about how our position could only indicate a fundamental conservatism. That story no longer stands up. The left is divided on this question. Just as we have always maintained.

The second thing is even more significant. All that the Labour Party did yesterday was reaffirm its commitment to upholding our existing rights as given in law. And the consequence of a political party affirming its commitment to our existing rights in law is an enormous amount of screaming, obfuscation and witch-burning bullshit. What this demonstrates decisively – what this clearly unconceals – is that the objectives of the present form of the trans rights movement is the removal of our existing legal rights. We already knew this of course. We have long known that representatives of the trans rights movement made explicit recommendations to the government that the single-sex exemptions be removed from the Equality Act. And yet, up till now, they have managed to successful frame the debate in terms of a bunch of nasty evil witches who are intent on refusing trans people basic rights they are entitled to, or further, who are trying to remove rights they already possess. This is what’s going on when Dawn-Legislating-From-The-Front-Bench-Butler decides to effectively claim that single-sex services are ‘illegal’ when they are no. such. thing. This then allows the creation of the impression that we are denying trans people their lawful right to unilaterally access female-only spaces, whereas what is actually happening is that the trans rights movement is trying to deny that we have a lawful right to those spaces ‘proportionate to a legitimate aim.’ What the furore over Labour’s commitment to the existing provisions in the EA2010 reveals then is that the direction of power and coercion in this situation is running precisely opposite to the story told by the trans rights movement – a story which has been so central to their efforts to caricature, demonise and silence us. It is not us who are trying to remove rights from trans people. Rather, it is the trans rights movement who is trying to remove rights from us.


Hopefully then this clusterfuck may at least put to bed the claim that there is no rights conflict here, and that we are lying meanie harpies when we say that there is. Were there no conflict, then a political party simply affirming its commitment to our existing rights couldn’t possibly lead to the kind of wailing and denunciation we saw yesterday. As we have seen all too clearly around the defamation and harassment of groups like Woman’s Place – or the fact that students at Reading thought it necessary to protest (peacefully this time) the meeting we had on Wednesday night – ‘trans rights’ is now effectively synonymous with being against women’s sex-based rights (oh yes, that evil terven dog-whistling ‘code’ we use to denote our existing legal rights), and conversely, asserting that women have existing rights in law is effectively synonymous with being ‘anti-trans’ or ‘transphobic.’ Which is more or less to say that the trans rights movement is committed to the proposition that the Equality Act itself is transphobic. Given the opprobrium and intimidation heaped upon us for allegedly being ‘against’ trans rights (no matter how often we reaffirm that trans people should be recognised and fully protected by the law), you’d think that the trans rights movement was morally beholden to the idea that trying to remove a marginalised group’s existing rights is a very bad thing. But they’re not. They’re entirely dedicated to the project of undermining our given rights every which way they can. And the time has come for them to at least be fucking honest about it. Then maybe we could all get onto the business of trying to sort out this complete and utter shitshow fair and square.

Saturday morning ETA:


On ‘Transcendent Truths’ and Oh-Such-Intellectual Sophistication

So, last night this thread turned up, which Lorelei pointed to, because she was, quite rightly, objecting to what she saw as the erasure of the material basis of her disability. It kind of blew my mind and infuriated me in equal measure, and I was wondering if I should get out my virtual pens and scribble all over it. I decided to, partly because what blew my mind and infuriated me might be usefully illustrative, and also, in good part because one of the awesome Scottish women told me that Harry is becoming something of an intellectual star up their way, and so, there might be some service to them in thinking through why this is such a philosophical clusterfuck.

Harry 1

Let’s start by summarising Harry’s main argument. There are two main prongs. The first relies on Harry’s creation of the character of the ‘straw tran,’ who is, basically, the character we claim could abuse self-ID procedures and declare themselves trans for nefarious purposes. As suggested by the nomenclature, Harry’s assertion is that this person could not and does not exist (Wax. My. Balls), and moreover that it shows ‘complete ignorance’ to think this person could exist, because this person does not conform to what Harry understands to be ”actual trans lives.” There is a lot of half-reasonable stuff here (I’ll get on to why only half-reasonable in a mo), about ‘performative gender’ as a “whole set of ways of being in the world over time,” and social identities as “historical being in the world,” and how such identities are not just assumed and lived on the basis of singular speech acts. All of which indubitably conveys Harry’s experience of their own transness and maybe of many of their community, and all of which has absolutely no bearing on the fact that self-ID procedures would involve only a single declarative act and that checking people are involved in a process of meaningful lived transition is precisely why we have the current gatekeeping system embedded in the GRA. So basically Harry, you’ve just produced a really decent account of why the current system is a good idea, and the only thing you’ve got to ground your claim that it’s not is the baseless assertion that there are only good actors in this situation. Which is to say, the baseless assertion that creepy as fuck predatory males do not exist and will not manifestly abuse loopholes around the safeguarding of women and girls. To which I repeat: Wax. My. Balls.

harry 2

The second prong of the argument is where it gets more philosophically interesting, and also where I get FUCKING INFURIATED. This is the place where Harry tries to completely elide the difference and relation between being the member of a class on the basis of material givens, and being the member of a class on the basis of a deliberately assumed and lived social identity. Both of these things exist, and both of them are meaningful, although I think it is only correct to call the second ‘identity.’ For example, I am a member of the class of female persons, I am not a member of that class by virtue of an act of identification, I am a member of that class by virtue of the material fact that I am female. As Harry says, that can then also – but I’d add, not necessarily – be coupled with a political identification, in my case as ‘woman-identified’ or ‘feminist,’ which is a deliberate, assumed and lived identification with the political interests of female people as an oppressed class. But these are two different (although interacting) things. There are many many many female people who do not have class consciousness as female, who do not identify themselves with the political interests of female people, and who do not see the events of their lives through the lens of how power acts on female people. None of which means they are a) not members of the class of female people or b) not being affected by power because they are female. Here’s the funny thing about reality. It doesn’t just depend on your perceptions of it. And thinking that it does is called idealism.

harry 3

All of which brings me to where I get infuriated by this. There’s a lot of lip-service in this thread on how a social model of identity doesn’t imply “disregard” for the “material facts of bodies” which effectively just handwaves the fact that claiming you can identify into a social class which you don’t materially belong to is exactly disregarding the material facts of bodies (in the case of race, sex or disability), or of socio-economic reality (in the case of class). Yes of course those material facts interact with social and lived experience in complex way which means that the ‘material facts’ are not the sum total of what it means to belong to that class. But being a member of the class of females is a matter of being female, and politically identifying with the interests of females is a matter of how the world treats females because they are female. You can tell me that you identify with the political interests of women, but if you persistently refuse to understand that many woman-identified women understand that identification in terms of how power acts on them because of their material reality, then I’m afraid your identification is being conducted in complete disregard of our experience, and isn’t worth a great deal to us. It is your need, and your interests, that leads you to assert that the material basis of our political identification is nugatory, and no amount of flinging Butlerian distortions of Beauvoir at us is going to convince us that our political interests are best served by playing make believe about our femaleness.

harry 4

Of course, what we get to, under all this, is just one more iteration of the common trans trope that anyone who believes in material reality is guilty of some egregious ontological naivety that all the most erudite and oh-so-sophisticated thinkers have cleansed themselves of. This is why Harry asserts that ALL the gender critical philosophers are of the Analytic flavour, because then Harry can paint a caricature of a bunch of leaden dolts who are still committed to preposterous positivist ideas about reality actually existing. (Apologies to my esteemed colleagues…apparently you all stopped reading after Language, Truth and Logic). This pisses me right off. It pisses me off on a personal level because I’m a Continental philosopher, and I’m trained in exactly the traditions that Harry thinks supports their case, and it pisses me off especially because the fact that Harry thinks it supports their case is because Harry doesn’t understand that the deconstructive feminist strand of French thought, when properly understood, doesn’t get you to fucking idealism. It is, in fact, exactly intended as a critique of idealism.


To explain: According to Harry, Kathleen and the rest of us all think – a century after Wittgenstein no less! – that concepts or words still “refer completely and coherently to transcendent truths.” (Oh, how sweet!) That is, Harry is claiming, basically, that we are all committed to a fundamentally Platonic, or essentialist, account of meaning… In Plato’s model, words have meaning, and in fact, objects only exist, because they are what we would call ‘instantiations’ of essences. The best way to understand this is through the system that was informing Plato’s account of how all this worked, which was geometry. So for example, the ‘essence’ of a triangle, the thing that makes a triangle and triangle, and the ‘core’ of the concept which allows us to identify a triangle as a triangle, is ‘something with three sides whose angles add up to 180 degrees.’ What’s important about geometrical concepts is that they are entirely abstract, immaterial and contextless. A triangle is a triangle in any time or place, it never changes, and arguably, if you destroyed all the material instantiations of triangles on the face of the planet, the core of the being of a triangle – the idea of a triangle – would still exist. Plato basically thought that this model was how all concepts worked… up in the sky was the land of immaterial conceptual forms or ideas, and all the things down in the world were just material copies of these forms, which we’re able to identify because we also have the same form in our heads (how the form gets there is a bit of a problem, burble something about seeing it in the world of the forms before we were born and then recollecting that later so, um yeah…). Anyway, the point is this… people using this metaphysics think that things exist because they are instantiations of ‘transcendent truths’ or essences, and that concepts function by us perceiving such essences… which, in good part they don’t.

Harry 5

There is a lot of good and important philosophy which explain what is wrong with essentialist accounts of meaning – as Harry suggests, possibly the greatest of these is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, written after Wittgenstein was doing some hammering on his sister’s roof and suddenly realised that his crystalline account of how meaning worked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was a pile of idealist bullshit. The hammering is important. It turns up also in Heidegger. And it matters, because one of the main issues with idealist, Platonic accounts of meaning is that they fail to understand that language is not, principally, a mental picture or representation of reality. It is, rather, a tool with which we interact with the world around us. Not understanding this is why we tie ourselves into endless, and frankly fucking tedious, epistemological pretzels about how we know whether our concepts map the world accurately, and spend our stoned adolescences wondering whether we are all just solipsistic Keanu Reeves’s with our brains in a vat. Once people have grasped that they are able to successfully walk across their living room without stepping on the cat or have somehow managed to consistently avoid being hit by heavy machinery moving down the road I really do wonder why they’re still worrying about it. We are, as Harry says, beings-in-the-world. And a major part of successfully being-in-the-world is using concepts to accurately interact with and navigate material reality all the fucking time.

What really pisses me off here is that people take the critique of essentialist or idealist accounts of how meaning arises – when they read, say, Wittgenstein or Derrida – and because they are still implicitly committed to an idealist or essentialist account of how concepts work, they then conclude that concepts don’t work at all, and actually, they’re not mapping onto anything in the world, and that therefore we just make shit up willy-nilly. But concepts are like a hammer. And if there’s no nail there, you’ll learn about it fast. The reason why I think ‘female’ is a useful concept, and why I’m committed to the grave ontological naivety of thinking female people actually exist, is not, fundamentally, because I think ‘makes large gametes’ tells me something about the essence of what it means to be female. The reason why is because the concept of ‘woman’ has served reliably since at least the beginning of written records (and I’d wager long before) to meaningfully pick out and facilitate consistent and accurate interaction with a certain aspect of material existence – which also happens, in this case, to be a central part of my own material existence. If the sex-based concept of ‘woman’ didn’t map on to anything meaningful we wouldn’t have been using it for so long, and we wouldn’t still be using it in so many places in our social organization. Concepts don’t last if they don’t work. And the point here is that when we try to substitute a sex-based concept of woman for one based on gender identity, it turns out it wreaks havoc all over our social processes.

harry 6

What Harry is doing, by claiming we could only appeal to a material reality – we could only think it meaningful to refer to ‘female people’ – on the basis of a belief in ‘transcendent truth,’ is, fundamentally, to assert that things only exist or are meaningful because they have essences, and that, further, anyone who thinks things exist or are meaningful is simply not sophisticated enough to understand that essences are basically bullshit. But the correct conclusion to draw from the critique of essence is not that things don’t exist or have meaning, but that things don’t exist or have meaning by virtue of possessing essences, and in fact, they never did. What Harry completely fails to grasp is that by suggesting that female people could only exist on the basis of ‘transcendent truth’ they are still, in fact, committed to the idea that essences must be how this whole thing works, and they’re not and never were. And what Harry then further, infuriatingly, fails to grasp is that they are still, therefore, trapped inside an idealist account of meaning and existence. It is one of the great ironies of the history of philosophy that a critique that should have led to a greater understanding that we are beings-in-the-world whose concepts develop through the constant interplay between ourselves and the social and material world actually collapsed into another iteration of the thought that our concepts are just things that exist inside our heads – or that they only arise because of that mass amplification of our heads we could call ‘discourse’ or ‘history’ or ‘social construction,’ but not, you positivist fools, because of the ways our being-in-the-world is shaped and constrained by given material or psychophysical limits.

Harry 7

This defence of materiality is all, ha ha, a bit metaphysically abstract… but I do think it matters. It matters because an awful lot of what is going on in trans ideological argument is pointing at the existence of female people and trying to undermine it by making anti-essentialist arguments that posit themselves as the height of intellectual sophistication but are based on a fundamental fucking error. Mountains don’t exist because they are instantiations of a concept of ‘massive pointy lump of rock,’ and the fact that we can’t quite point to a line when a large hill becomes a small mountain doesn’t mean that ‘hill’ and ‘mountain’ are meaningless ideas. The world is not made of triangles. And it’s not made ex nihilo from our great massive Godbrains either. All material things for which we have names have edge cases and exceptions because material reality isn’t geometric ideality, and yet, somehow, the words still work. The reverse-essentialist arguments being leveraged against the class of female people could just as well be used to undermine the meaningful existence of pretty much every group of people or any object in the world. And they’re not. They’re being leveraged against us because our material existence is anathema to the fulfilment of the desires of those who want to appropriate that existence. And male people’s desire has always mattered more than the trifling matter of female people’s bodies. So, let’s just be clear about what’s going on here. This is sex-based domination. Dressed up in swaths of oh-such-sophisticated bullshit.



Why Feminists Are Not Nazis

So, in the light of the events in Toronto of the last few weeks, and especially the decision by Toronto City Council to review how the the library could possibly have let the evil. terven. speak, I got back into thinking about the work that analogies between gender critical feminism and Nazism are doing in this conflict.

We have to reflect on how incredible it is that a city council can vote almost unanimously to review library policies with the intent of ensuring that women speaking about their sexed-based rights  ‘doesn’t happen again,’ and that nobody even stops to interrogate the basis of why these women should be censured. And this unthinking willingness has a great deal to do with how effectively trans rights discourse has convinced many that it’s completely normal to aggressively besiege women talking about their rights in libraries on the basis that such talk is hateful, and represents a ‘literally violent’ harm to trans women. I have talked elsewhere about some of the – totally implausible – ways this claim of harm has been filled out by trans ideology. But I was today reminded that a lot of the intuitive appeal is also resting on the analogy with Nazism and other forms of far-right or nationalist thinking.

So, anyway, while the actions in Toronto raise a pretty terrifying spectre of actual democratic abnegation, I thought I’d post the text and visuals from the talk I gave in Reading earlier this year, on the subject of why accusing feminists of being Nazis is a load of propagandist, totalitarian bullshit….



Access to the full PowerPoint presentation here.

Good evening everyone, thank you all for coming, and thank you especially to the University of Reading for hosting this event. Under the present political circumstances I think it’s vital that we continue to model public academic discourse, and the university’s commitment to that is immeasurably important, so yes, thank you to everyone who’s worked to make this event possible.

So, following on from Holly’s paper, I’d like to bring our attention to the way this debate is being both explicitly and implicitly structured by what we might understand as ‘metaphors of sovereignty,’ or what I’m going to call here, ‘the sovereign imaginary.’ I’m using ‘imaginary’ here in the Lacanian, or more specifically, Irigarayan sense, to talk about the way discourse is underpinned by certain spatialized images or topologies which express certain metaphysical assumptions, and which therefore function to structure our thinking about certain issues. And my general claim is that a great deal of what is happening in the present conversation is being determined by a set of metaphysical assumptions embedded in a particular imaginary, or, rather, in the rejection of a particular imaginary, and that we might be able to unpick some of the bad-thinking going on here if we can unpack that a little.


So, what I want to do here is basically two things.

First, I want to trace the structure of the sovereign imaginary for you, and explore the role that it’s playing in this conversation, with particular attention to how the left- wing rejection of the sovereign imaginary is underpinning the apparently unimpeachable moral imperative of ‘inclusion,’ and how this also helps us understand the intuitive appeal of the prima facie implausible claim that the political thought of left-wing radical feminist women is now indistinguishable from that of the Pope, Conservative Evangelicals, the alt-right, the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church.

Secondly, I want to explore why it is gratuitously inappropriate to posit that female people’s desire to be protected from males is an expression of the sovereign imaginary, and should be legitimately censured as such by all decent right-thinking people. As we’ll see in more depth, as well as being the animating principle of right- wing nationalism and its nostalgia for primordial ethnic purity, the sovereign imaginary is the fundamental ontological infrastructure of patriarchal masculinity. Women’s bodies are the territory on which male fantasies of purity and virginity and invasion and conquest are played out. And the meaning of those fantasies is evidently very different for the women whose bodies are marked by them, than for the males who enact them, unless, of course, you’ve forgotten that women actually exist in their own right, and have their own experiences of the world distinct from the projections of the masculine imagination.


So, as some of you know, my background is in French post-structuralist philosophy, and in particular, in the Derridean and psychoanalytic feminist strand of post- structuralist thought. As I’ve discussed in some detail on my blog, another of the tropes of the present conversation is the tendency to attribute the erasure of materiality we see in trans ideology to ‘postmodernism’ or ‘post-structuralism,’ understood as a kind of ‘discourse all the way down’ idealism. To my mind, however, post-structuralism is principally an ontological project aimed at critiquing the metaphysical structure we are discussing here today under the sign of sovereignty, although that is only one of its many possible manifestations.

In my work I have chosen to discuss this figure under the sign of sovereignty because this points us most clearly towards the intertwining of power and authority with the incision of space. Sovereignty is a spatial, or territorial, structure, and, as Wendy Brown points to here, it comes into existence only through the creation of demarcated borders, axiomatically imagined – because of the invulnerability imperative which drives sovereign logic – through the image of high, impregnable walls.

The ontology of the sovereign imaginary thus has several notable characteristics, the first of which is:

  • Boundedness – A defined or delimited spatial area in which the inside is clearly demarcated from the outside.
  • Internal self-identity. According to the ideal of the sovereign imaginary, and, to underline, we are not talking here about the composition of actual sovereign states, we’re taking about a sovereigntist or nationalist imaginary, the area inside the border is marked by a perfect and pure homogeneity. It is a realm of absolute sameness. Which therefore also implies.
  • External exclusion. In order for the inside to be perfectly self-same, everything outside, or other, must be rigorously excluded. The crucial point to grasp here then is that the sovereign imaginary is the fundamental figure of all purity logics, in which the purity of the inside can only be maintained by excluding anything other or different which might pollute or contaminate it.


Okay, so I think it’s fairly evident how this kind of spatialized purity logic is at play in the drive to sovereignty which is presently fueling the right-wing populism of both Trump and Brexit, and specifically, the tendency to respond to economic insecurity by retreating into the fantasy of absolute territorial security promised by enclosing the homeland within impregnable borders. The President of the United States has never given a cogent account of why the Great Wall of Trump will ‘Make America Great Again’, just as the Brexiteers can’t actually explain why unplugging us from our economic matrices before we’ve rebuilt our domestic economy will cure a malaise that is fundamentally economic in nature, but the whole point is that they don’t actually need to provide a cogent account of anything, because the power of their discourse relies entirely on the sovereign imaginary, and the networks of anxiety and invulnerability it mobilizes.

My own intellectual interest in the sovereign imaginary has a lot to do with how fantasies of invulnerability necessarily involve a denial of dependency and the way that leads, more or less inexorably, to acts of domination, colonization and appropriation, whether that be of ‘unconquered’ territory, or ‘unconquered’ bodies. What is primarily at play in this debate, however, is the somewhat more straightforward observation that the drive to ”keep the outside out” as Derrida would say, is often about those on the inside needing to evacuate their anxiety by xenophobically projecting it outside themselves, onto the other, as is manifestly the case with respect to Brexit and Trump. And it’s this structure – and the instinctive left- wing antipathy to this structure – which is, I’d argue, undergirding a number of crucial claims in this debate:


1. That all acts of ‘exclusion’ are always and only motivated by the projection of anxiety or fear. That such fears are necessarily irrational, and that any reasons given for exclusion are always and only a pretext for the psychological benefits accrued by the projection of fear and/or hatred, i.e. they are scapegoating. This is where the claim that any expression of women’s political interests in this conflict is in fact transphobia gets all its traction from.

2. From this, it would follow that there are never any legitimate grounds to exclude, that ‘inclusion’ is a universal moral good, and ‘exclusion’ a universal moral harm. It’s worth noting here that there moral opprobrium denoted by the word ‘TERF’ inheres entirely in the word ‘exclusionary,’ despite the fact that advocates of trans ideology will happily argue that queer, trans and people of colour have the right to exclude, an inconsistency which effectively amounts to the denial that women are oppressed qua women, more of which later.

3. The left-wing recognition that these sovereigntist mechanisms are inherent in all forms of atavistic and ethnic nationalisms, as well as all discourses of ethnic and racial purity or superiority, is, moreover, providing the intuitive infrastructure of the claim that someone like me – a Marxist, post-structuralist, radical eco-feminist – is, in fact, a white supremacist neo-Nazi.

4. And it’s this association between gender critical feminism and various iterations of right-wing ideology which is further giving credence to the claim that our speech is hate speech, that it is ‘literal violence,’ that by expressing our views we are harming trans people and inciting harm against trans people, and that, therefore, it is legitimate for our speech to be censured.


So, we’re just going to look a few examples of how this plays out in the discourse, and to be clear, as always, the principle object of my concern is the discourse as it’s being practiced out there in the public sphere, rather than in a purely academic context, so all of my examples here will be from twitter.

The first is from a human rights activist from New Zealand. At the time this was tweeted I got into an exchange with the writer, both because I was struck that she could go through this thought process as if she was having an entirely original insight, given how rhetorically well-worn these associations are, and, as we’ll see in the next part of my argument, because of all the reasons why it is inappropriate to apply this analogy to women’s exclusion of males.


 Here’s some more examples making evident the way the rejection of a sovereign logic of exclusion, boundedness, purity and corruption is underpinning the moral opprobrium being mobilized against gender critical women, and how frequently that is expressed through analogies between gender critical feminism and racism.


Further examples of the association between gender critical feminism and fascism or racism, from two people of note in this debate, the transactivist Canadian politician Morgane Oger, and the transactivist philosopher and cyclist Rachel McKinnon, as well as a tweet from the philosopher Jason Stanley linking ’hysteria’ about trans women to fascism.

I’d like to take a moment here just to underline the inaccuracy and absurdity of elements of these statements. McKinnon’s claim that gender critical women are always white is just factually untrue, and is an erasure of Black radical feminists and the women from the global South who are resisting the arrival of trans ideology in their nations. Oger, hilariously, seems to think that Nazis had some kind of leftish political aversion to being called Nazis. And Stanley gets close to implying that anyone who criticizes Judith Butler is probably a fascist, which I’m sure is news to Martha Nussbaum. We’ll come back to Stanley’s work on fascism a bit later.


A couple of really explicit invocations of the critique of sovereign purity logic from a conversation I had with Morgane Oger.

This was quite an interesting exchange… given that I wrote my PhD on sovereigntism and its connection to sexual and colonial violence, I was kind of like ‘yes Morgane, I have considered it.’


Lastly, a variety of tweets linking ‘TERF’s with Nazism, racism, white supremacy, and the Ku Klux Klan, including a number of tweets justifying violence and censuring of gender critical feminists on that basis. 


Okay, so, as I I’ve suggested here, I actually have a great deal of time for the critique of the sovereign imaginary. It was developed by French philosophers, many of them Jewish, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and it is, indeed, an incredibly useful analytic for understanding the mechanics of ethnic fascism and racial supremacy, among other things. However, as I’ve also intimated, my problem here is that applying this analytic to the position of female people in a patriarchal culture is wildly inappropriate, for several reasons I will go on to elucidate.

First off, the main reason that I, as a feminist philosopher, spent the best part of my training studying the structure of the sovereign imaginary, from its early Greek appearance in Parmenidean Being and the Platonic idea, to its rebirth in modernity in the figure of the Cartesian cogito, is because, as well as illuminating the mechanics of ethno-fascism, the sovereign imaginary is also the fundamental ontological infrastructure of patriarchal masculinity. It’s not an accident that along with ‘the metaphysics of presence,’ and ‘the economy of the same,’ one of the philosophical epithets for this ontological infrastructure is ‘phallocentrism,’ or, in Derrida’s memorable coining, ‘phallogocentrism.’ The sovereign imaginary is, I’d argue, the architecture of that impossible fantasy of narcissistic omnipotence, mastery, and impenetrable potency that psychoanalysis calls ‘the phallus’ – the figure of the phallic-ego, which, according to Lacan, is ”symbolized in dreams by a fortress.”


Okay, so, before I go on with this next part of the argument I just want to stop and do a little more unpacking of how the sovereign imaginary is structuring this conversation, and specifically, the gendering and sexualization of that structuring.

So, to return to our sovereign circle as the representation of the bounded incision of space.

First off, evidently, we are fighting about access to spaces, and we can include in this actual physical spaces, as well as virtual, social and conceptual spaces. It’s worth briefly noting here that the language we use to talk about the determination of meaning is also explicitly spatialized, we talk about de-fining, and de-lineating concepts. And it’s worth further noting that while I am a great advocate of both/and thinking, and of not thinking things that are not spatialized spatially, we are here talking about access to spaces, and that means that we are dealing with an either/or choice – either spaces and resources are provided on the basis of sex, or they are provided on the basis of gender identity…that means that in this case, rights are actually a pie, and for the trans rights movement to insist that changing the basis of the allocation of spaces has no effect on female people is, at best, extremely disingenuous.

Anyway, what I particularly want to highlight here is the extent to which the thinking of spaces, and the meaning of entering spaces, is gendered and sexualized in the sovereign imaginary. That becomes evident, for example, if we think back to a couple of the words associated with the inside of the circle of sovereignty in our earlier diagram. What this comes down to is that the sovereign imaginary thinks bodies as territory and territory as bodies, it thinks sexual penetration through the territorial metaphors of invasion and conquest, and territorial invasion through sexual metaphors. Indeed, this is not a case of merging only in ‘rhetoric and metaphor.’ Acts of invasion are almost always accompanied by rape. And the structure of the sovereign imaginary is at play in why that is the case.


So what we’re going to do now is explore how what we’ve just looked at, which I’d call ‘the metaphysics of penetration,’ plays out in the sovereign imaginary, and in particular, in its most extreme ethno-fascist iterations.

So, the first thing to understand, returning to our Lacanian idea of the phallic- ego as fortress is that patriarchal masculinity is fundamentally structured by the imperative of invulnerability as impenetrability. While, by contrast, women are constructed as penetrable, as either virgin or conquered territory. This, while we’re here, is the basis of the traditional patriarchal horror of male homosexuality, which is driven by the fear of being made woman through penetration.

This metaphoric infrastructure is what is at play in ethno-fascist invocations of foreign or racialized others as sexual threat, figured either, or both, as a threat to the body of the nation or group, or, most often, as a threat to the bodies of women as ciphers for the body of the nation or group.

We see this, for instance, in Islamophobic claims that Europe is in the grip of a Muslim rape epidemic, a trope which recurs in the thought of the Norwegian ethno- fascist mass-murderer Anders Breivik and which I’ve written about previouslyWe see it in the deployment of fears about Black men raping white women, and the horrendous role such narratives played during slavery and segregation, and we see it in Trump’s charge that Mexican immigrants are rapists and that immigration is the reason why, allegedly, “Women are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before.”

Jason Stanley, who we met earlier criticizing the ‘hysteria’ about trans women, touches on this in his recent book, How Fascism Works.

See above quote.

Clearly, Stanley understands here that fascist rhetoric functions by using the specter of rape as a threat to the purity of the nation in its psycho-ontological interrelation with patriarchal manhood, but his understanding is a little blunt, because, I’d argue, he doesn’t fully grasp the structure of the sovereign imaginary, and crucially for our argument here, how the sovereign imaginary plays out its interwoven sexual and territorial anxieties by projecting them onto the bodies of women. In fact, women – the ‘members of the chosen nation’ who will be raped by the targeted group – have been invisibilised in this citation because, notably, and this is one way of stating the crux of my argument, it’s not women who experience rape as a threat to their impenetrable manhood.


As this image makes almost comically apparent, what is going on in ethno-fascist invocations of rape is, to be blunt, masculine penetration anxiety, and note here also the colour scheme of the escalator and the cliffs, and the way it alludes to the racialised dynamics at work. I’d also like to stop here for a moment and observe that images like this are kind of indicative of why I have such a huge problem with being lectured about how unimportant genitals are, and being told that my concerns are ‘creepy.’ A vast swath of the psycho-ontological infrastructure of our culture is informed by the morphology of genitals and the resultant metaphysics of sex, and until we have taken phallocentrism apart in its deepest aspects, I reserve the right to think that genitals matter very much indeed.

Okay, so, finally, after a fair amount of backstory we get to the point, which is this. All of this projected penetration anxiety about the other as rapist, and the playing out of fantasies of absolute sovereign security on the bodies of women is all about men’s symbolic systems, and has almost nothing to do with actual women’s actual experience of sexual violation, along the entire continuum from unwanted predatory looking and touching to sexual assault. The kind of men who whip up fears about the other-as-rapist are markedly unconcerned, indeed, are usually the first to flatly deny, the existence of any kind of ‘epidemic’ of rape that does not cross racialised lines, because, for them, the crime only signifies within the sovereign imaginary. Such men are frequently extreme misogynists, evaluate women on the basis of a stark hierarchy of sexual purity and pollution, and, as in the case of Breivik, will frequently link immigration-cum-rape to feminism’s alleged emasculation of the nation and corruption of women’s sexual morals. They are, moreover, wedded to a logic of phallic sexual dominance and often, the heroism of conquest by force. It is no coincidence that the man obsessed with the Great Big Wall is also, infamously, the Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief.

All of this is a million miles away from what rape means to women and why radical feminism is so centrally concerned with the devastation of women’s lives by rape. There is nothing in male discourses about purity and pollution and conquest and invasion that expresses concern for the actual harm caused to actual women by sexual trauma, and the fact that we are damaged not by an invasion of territory but rather, by a profound assault on our humanity and personhood. We are not just bits of land on which men play out their sovereigntist fantasies and battles, we are persons, in our own right, and assaults against our personhood mean what they mean, to us. We are not worried, for example, about non-female people in rape crisis centres because we trying to recreate the primordial tribal purity of women and have, to that end, conjured a figment of invading contaminating males. We are worried about male-bodied people in rape crisis centres because they are highly likely to be a source of trauma to women who have been sexually assaulted by males. To assimilate women’s concerns about compromises to their dignity, comfort, and sexual safety to ethno-fascist discourses structured by masculinist metaphysics, is, therefore, to deny that women have their own experience of the world apart from male symbolic projections, to effectively position women as men, and hence, most fundamentally, to erase the specificity of women’s own existence. It is to insist that women, and especially feminist women, understand and experience male violence in masculine symbolic terms, when our entire political project is precisely about challenging the assumptions of the phallic construction of our social world. To wit, what rape means to feminist women is not the same as what rape means to phallocentric right-wing racist white men, and it’s actually absurd, and exhibits profound disregard for women’s experience, to suggest otherwise.


Which brings me to my second point, one which echoes the argument Holly just made.

It’s no accident that the examples we just looked at of fascist rhetoric all featured white people, and specifically, white men, using sovereign purity logic to construct non-white men as a threat. Indeed, being able to comfortably read an accusation that an other constitutes a threat as an illegitimate instance of ethno-fascist logic depends, in good part, on the accuser being a member of a dominant class attempting to vilify a member of a minority class. Notably, according to left-wing political rubric, if a member of a minority class claims that a member of a dominant class is a threat to them or is trying to dominate them, the tendency is for them to be believed.

Well, usually.

By left-wing political logic then, the entire claim that it’s ethno-fascist for feminist women to be concerned about giving trans women unilateral access to our spaces must rely on positing women unambiguously as the dominant class vis-à-vis trans women. Indeed, left wing political thinking accepts without hesitation the claim that minority classes have the right to exclude oppressor classes from their spaces and resources, in order to allow them to organise and congregate away from those who are perceived to be a source of harm.

Given that female people are an oppressed class, and that sex, along with race and class, is one of the three main axes of structural oppression, it is then, somewhat staggering that vast chunks of purportedly progressive people have been swayed by an analysis which only holds if we deny that women are oppressed qua women, and that posits, instead, that we are a dominant and privileged class, and hence, that the protection of our spaces and resources is analogous to the exclusion of racial minorities by white supremacists.

One of the main ways this has been effected, I’d argue, is by the creation of the cis/trans binary, a device which functions to posit all non-trans people, and hence, ‘cis’ women, as the de facto oppressors of trans people. This strategy has been supplemented by a massive amount of rhetoric aimed at underlining the absolute vulnerability of trans people, while simultaneously hand-waving women’s appeals to their own vulnerability and oppression as ‘weaponization’ or ‘scaremongering.’ The result of this is that spaces and resources allocated to female people to protect them from male people, or to compensate them for structural disadvantages incurred by living in a male-dominated society, have been recontextualised as egregious instances of exclusionary privilege which must rightly be taken away without due process or protest. And notably, the cis/trans binary underpinning this works according to exactly the kind of inside/outside, us and them structure characteristic of sovereign purity logic, and posits ‘cis’ women, unequivocally, as the ‘bad other’. The trans rights movement’s claim that ‘cis’ is just an innocuous Latin prefix which merely distinguishes trans from non-trans people is, hence, I’d argue, another instance of extreme disingenuity.

How we are to correctly understand the power relations between women and trans women is a complicated and difficult question. Trans women’s position vis-a-vis women is not straightforward, because they are both and at the same time a vulnerable minority, and, with respect to women, members of the oppressor class. This, to a great degree, is what is fuelling the conflict over the attempt to change definitions from sex to gender identity, because women, and especially women with a developed awareness of male dominance, strongly object to the demand that we must not perceive, and must not name, male people as male. According to the doctrine of gender identity, what I have just said is, in itself, a heresy which constitutes an act of hatred, but I would strongly assert that it is simply a fact, that moreover, in a world of male dominance it is a highly pertinent fact, and that decreeing that women may not even utter this fact is an act of mass gaslighting on a scale I would never have conceived. To wit, women are not concerned about the presence of trans women in women’s spaces because we are determined to mobilise sovereign logic against a demonised sexual minority or are obsessed with the purity of some mythical idea of ‘womanhood.’ We are concerned about the presence of trans women in women’s spaces because trans women are male, and women are oppressed by male people.

If then, as Holly suggests, we emphasise trans women vulnerability vis-à-vis the larger class of males, what we have is a rights-conflict over resources between two vulnerable groups who are both subject to patriarchal violence, and which should be adjudicated as such. If, on the other hand, we emphasise trans women status as males vis-à-vis female people, what we have is members of the dominant class attempting to colonise the resources of the subjugated class. I think there’s truth to both of these readings, but I’d like to underline here that the trans rights movement’s present strategy of trying to aggressively coerce women’s boundaries could not be a more effective method of making us incline towards the second interpretation. And what that means, effectively, is that what the trans rights movement likes to characterise as a dominant class scapegoating and violently excluding a vulnerable minority, we are experiencing as an attempt to resist an act of coercive domination by our historic oppressor. And people wonder why this debate is so toxic.


Before I go onto my final point, with respect to the degree that trans ideology’s moral calculus rests on denying that women are oppressed, I’d just like to pause to look at this exchange, which took place between myself and the Georgetown Philosophy Professor, Rebecca Kukla. The conversation ensued from my responding to a woman who was claiming that because she, as a rape survivor, doesn’t feel the need to exclude trans women from female spaces, then apparently no women should feel that need.

And I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that if you find your ideology necessitates denying that female people are oppressed qua female people, it’s anti- feminist.


What the discussion in our previous point shows then, is that the evaluation of a demand for access to spaces or resources is inflected by our understanding of the power relation between the two parties. A wealthy, largely white, sovereign nation attempting to deny asylum or immigration status to poor, non-white refugees or migrants by casting them as a sexual threat to the purity of the body politic is quite different from say, efforts by Native Americans to resist further encroachment on tribal lands. The fact that advocates of trans ideology would, correctly I think, defend the right of queer, trans, and people of colour to their own spaces, and indeed, are adamant about the necessity of excluding gender critical women from public discourse because it violates their notional ‘safe space,’ suggests that not even those who wield the charge of ‘exclusion’ as if it was an invariant mark of moral turpitude really think it is invariant. Sometimes, that is, there are reasons why excluding people is morally justified.

This becomes even more readily apparent if we attempt to entirely dispense with thinking about this issue from within the infrastructure of the sovereign imaginary. To the trans woman who suggested in the NYT that ‘womanhood’ was like a land she could immigrate to, and that anyone who would exclude her was essentially a Trumpian wall-builder, what I want to say is this. Women, are not, in fact, countries.

And neither are changing rooms, or consciousness raising classes, or rape crisis centers. What we are talking about, when we talk about women’s boundaries, is not first and foremost an incision of space, but an expression of women’s needs. We inscribe spaces and set them apart because doing so allows them to fulfil certain functions and meet certain needs. When we express concern about the presence of male people in female people’s space it is because including male people in those spaces will impact the way they meet female people’s needs. And justice, I’d argue, is a matter of recognizing and adjudicating between people’s needs, not applying some facile rubric of ‘inclusion good’ ‘exclusion bad.’

What is actually going on here, when we strip away all the sovereign metaphors, is a stand off between two groups of people and their needs. Trans women want to be included in female people’s spaces because it affirms their identity as women and gives them protection from the people who are actually a threat to them, namely men. Female people are concerned about how we may be impacted or harmed by including people who are not female in female people’s spaces. Given that trans women are male, that male people are socialized in a culture which inculcates male dominance, and that female people are oppressed by male people, we maintain that our concerns are not a confection of ethno-fascist scaremongering, that we have every right to raise them, and that full and open consideration should be given to the implications of changing all provision which has hitherto been provided to women on the basis of sex. We maintain, furthermore, that what is actually going on under all this rhetorical sovereign window-dressing, and the reason why progressive people seem suddenly so confused about whether women are an oppressed class with rights to their own resources, is, when it comes down to it, the wide-spread and age-old intuition that male people’s needs should be prioritized over female people’s. Male people have a need and are in pain, female people, as ever, are expected to bend, and accommodate, and give service to that need, even at their own expense, and those that refuse to comply are hateful and unkind, those who insist that women have their own needs, will be persistently, violently and indeed, gleefully, vilified.


Which is all to say, that what is going on here, actually, is just patriarchy as usual. Thank you.

Alice Roberts


There is a man in your mentions medusa1

Congratulating you

And calling all the women

Who disagreed with you

(For reasons you will not hear)

A pitchfork mob, while he

Conjures up

A pit of



You should know this tale.

The mouth

Ringed about with teeth

(He imagines)


In its defiance.medusa

We women who




To his demand that we

Are pliable and pretty

But still possess

The power of life,

Against his sovereign will,


He cannot stand it.


There, at the start,

Amidst the waves

Of chaostiamat__sea_goddess_by_mephmmb

The great mother Tiamat

Threatened to engulf him.

The first of the longest line,

Perseus, the hero,

Sent to slay the woman

Turned all to snakes

As punishment for




Will unsheathe his sword

And slice her head clean off.


What could he do?

He must birth himself anew hellmouth

On solid ground,

Far from the living, beating waves

The teeming nest

And the chaos

Of a chasm

He can never conquer



He cannot stand it.


We have been here contra


And will remain

Long after his

Dreaming towers


Crashing to the ground

And he learns

For the first time

Some humility,




And those women with their

Sunshine smiles

Full of eagerness

To side

With the men that call us witches?


We understand you Alice,

For once, in another life,

We too


Traitors to our sex.



The Radical Notion That Women Are People

reducing the first

So, after a summer recess of trying to forget that the world is manifoldly going to hell in a handcart, this week’s exciting ‘Back to Twitter’ experience has involved a good deal of feminists being berated for ‘reducing women to their genitals/biology/anatomy/whatever.’ This woke-approved soundbite has been around for an AGE, and my usual reaction to it is a long slow disbelieving blink. (It’s always slightly staggering when some wokebro comes along to pronounce on your ‘unstellar feminism’ based on his complete inability to grasp the relation between ‘biology’ and ‘destiny’). Anyway, I’m not about to write a thousand-odd words to clarify this for the benefit of the TRAs (it’s pretty clear the TRAs are not interested in anything being clarified) or even for their male accomplices (who evidently have no intention of relinquishing their shiny new ‘get out of misogyny free’ cards). I do, however, care about the many young women who are buying this bullshit, and I especially care about the degree to which they are buying this bullshit because of uninterrogated, internalised assumptions about the horror of being female. (Women? Being raised to devalue their femaleness? In a patriarchy? Nah mate).

The first thing to note about the way this apparently seductive soundbite works is that it relies on equivocations in the meanings of ‘defined by’ and ‘reduced to.’ And, moreover, these equivocations hinge, fundamentally, on an inability to think both the ‘female’ AND the ‘human’ bit contained in the proposition ‘women = adult human female.’

reducing a

So, let’s for a moment take out the ‘human’ bit of the meaning of woman, and just think about the meaning of ‘female.’ Female is a biological or anatomical classification. It is ‘being the member of the reproductive sex class that produces large immobile gametes,’ a classification that exists reliably across the vast majority of living species, and is accompanied by a range of secondary sexual characteristics (like seriously people, we called the whole class of animals we belong to ‘mammals’ because the females have mammary glands capable of producing milk and now you want everyone to pretend that whether female people have boobs or not is all staggeringly opaque.) Anyway, I have mostly resisted getting involved in the conversation about what ‘woman’ means because I find it all basically irrelevant to the current debate. (‘Female people exist. Existence precedes essence. Next.’ As far as I’m concerned).[1] To wit: What I’m interested in is defending the political rights of female people, and no matter how many times TRAs insist on telling us sex in unfathomably ‘complex,’ it really isn’t. Female animals make big gametes. That’s just what female means.

reducing b

The idea, therefore, that there is something ‘reductive’ about saying that female animals are female because they belong to the sex class that makes big gametes makes absolutely no sense. What must be meant, therefore, is that there is something damaging, or harmful, or morally bad, about ‘defining’ women by, or ‘reducing women’ to their anatomical reproductive function. Which of course there is. But the sense conveyed here, notably, involves bringing the ‘human’ bit of ‘adult human female’ back into play. When we say women are adult human females we are defining the female part of their being in terms of a reproductive and, when it comes down to it, animal function. We are very much not, however, ‘defining’ the entirety of the being of adult human females in terms of that function (what is conveyed by this second sense of ‘defined by’ is actually something more like ‘limiting the entire existence of women to their reproductive function,’ which would make us um, Thomas Aquinas (‘Yes Judy, I know you think we’re all mad Catholics’)). What is going on here, in the minds of the TRAs and their allies (I’m being generous here, I don’t think the TRAs actually believe half the shit they throw at the ‘let’s undermine the existence of women’ wall), is, as always, the endless inability to think sex independently of gender. This is the sense in which they are, in fact, entirely in hock to a conservative patriarchal metaphysics of gender (which they then project onto us, before merrily accusing us of being the anti-feminists). If feminists insist that women are female, then, they suppose, we must mean that women are thereby yoked to all the patriarchal bullshit about how female people should or should not behave, and we must mean that the lives of women are to be valued solely in terms of their reproductive function. While of course, because we have a sex/gender distinction, we mean nothing of the sort.

reducing c

It’s worth noting here that this abject failure to understand the difference and relation between sex and gender is a manifestation of a more general problem which permeates trans activist discourse (and maddeningly also, the minds of the third wave feminists who support them)…that is, the abject failure to adequately think the difference and relation between nature and culture, or between biology and history. This one comes up over and over. We see it especially in discussions around the origins of patriarchy, or when we try and get TRAs to produce an even barely passable account of why women are oppressed. When we make the claim that women are oppressed because of their biology, we are obviously not claiming that the patriarchal system of gender which positions women as a reproductive and sexual resource arose inevitably on the basis of that biology (Firestone was wrong on this one). Patriarchy is a socio-historical construct. Feminists are not biological determinists. But socio-historical constructs do not arise willy-nilly with no relation to material constraints. (As I say when I get exasperated, try building a house out of candy-floss and tell me how ‘arbitrary’ social constructs are.) Turning women into a resource in a manner which abnegated their humanity and freedom was not a necessary outcome of their biology – to explain that you have to explain why a certain form of masculinity is so. damn. committed. to turning its material dependencies into appropriable property. But for persons to be converted into materially appropriable resources, they have to have some quality that makes them valuable as such. Which, in women’s case, was our reproductive and sexual use to men (first and foremost, followed closely by our domestic and emotional service). That is, women’s biology is a necessary but not sufficient condition of patriarchal domination and, therefore, any undoing of patriarchy will have to reckon with women’s reproductive and sexual function and men’s long-inculcated entitlement to it. Beauvoir was right that biology is not destiny. But delivering that promise demands we challenge the entire socio-historic edifice that has constrained women’s destiny in order to appropriate their biology, and we won’t get there by playing make-believe with unicorns and piles of glitter.


The thing that really concerns me here, however, is why this little soundbite is seemingly so seductive to young women. To return to our proposition about women being ‘adult human females’ what this comes down to is an inability to think the being-together of femaleness and humanness. This is not at all surprising. Patriarchy has constructed the being of women as a kind of maternal-bovine non-being, a life made up of self-abnegating sexual-reproductive service, while dispensing all the exciting, creative, self-actualising, human-like activity to the penis people. (Note: I am not saying this is what maternity is, I am saying this is what ‘woman-as-mother’ is in the patriarchal imaginary). Given that we’re all raised inside the patriarchal imagination, it is pretty easy to see why girls and young women decide they rather fancy the ‘human-box,’ and then further conclude that the way to do this is to renounce their femaleness. Pretty much every feminist I know has walked this way. Pretty much all of us were, at some point or other, the kind of woman who considered it an unerring compliment to be told that we were ‘one of the boys.’ Pretty much all of us believed that unlike those other silly girls we were never going to be constrained by either the yoke of femininity or the obdurateness of embodiment. Until we got pregnant. Or were sexually assaulted. Or discovered that no matter how rational and male-identified we were, the penis people were still never going to take us seriously. Because we were women.

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At some point in there, it occurred to us that in trying to divest ourselves (impossibly) of our femaleness, we were simply agreeing that women were lesser humans. It occurred to us that all the patriarchal devaluation about what female people are and what female people can do, all the images, too, of motherhood as bovine-passivity rather than an active and axiomatically creative endeavour, were just so much masculinist hogwash held in place by the enormous edifice of binary hierarchy our adversaries seem so certain they’re smashing. There is no challenge to patriarchal gender in colluding with its devaluation of femaleness. There is no challenge to patriarchal metaphysics in recoiling from the body, in thinking that because it is the historic and ongoing site of our appropriation, freedom depends on dissolving into an immaterial masculinist mind. And there is no path to liberation for human females in thinking our humanity can only be won by renouncing our femaleness.

The task of feminism is to assert, and to fight for, the humanity of female people.

It is the radical notion that women are people.

Not the radical notion that if women are people, they cannot be female.

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[1] To note, I don’t think the whole ‘what is a woman’-conversation is entirely pointless, insofar as we can sensibly discuss whether woman means only ‘adult human female’ and the extent to which that definition can be supplemented (maybe) or replaced (no) by one grounded entirely in gender. However, insofar as a great deal of my concern with this debate is about the erasure of sex, I am entirely uninterested in getting sidetracked into quibbling about what a woman is when people are outright trying to undermine the existence of female people. They exist. They have rights. Get the fuck over it.