TERF Wars: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Feminism

By Robin

I had an interesting experience the other day. I got into a Facebook argument (I know) with a friend of a friend of a friend (I know) about feminism (I KNOW, mistakes were made okay?).  This debate took place because the friend of a friend had posted a petition calling for a boycott of Teen Vogue’s recent article about the basic how-to’s and why’s of anal sex. The friends of this friend of a friend were all arguing some pretty odd things: that this amounted to forcing young women to engage in unwanted anal sex, that anal sex is inherently painful, degrading, and undesirable, and most bizarrely that the lack of mention of clitoral stimulation and the referral to people as “prostate havers” and “non prostate havers” was…female erasure?

It was at this point that I should have realized that nothing good could come of confrontation and walked away. But dammit I am an optimist and someone who does not cotton to transphobia or people who are against positive sex education. So I helpfully and politely pointed out that referring to “prostate havers” and “non prostate havers” is a way to be inclusive to trans folks. After all, not all people with prostates are men, and not all people without prostates are women (I mean, even setting aside trans men, some cis men have to have their prostates removed and that doesn’t make them magically stop being men). This, as you might imagine, did not go well. I was called, among other things, an MRA (men’s rights activist, which is ridiculous because this is actually me every day), and a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, also preposterous, because I was literally arguing against TERFS about their…TERFing? TERFitiude? TERFocity?). I was even told that intersectional feminists like me want to create a hierarchy that places men’s rights above those of women??? This, you might recognize, is ludicrous given the actual meaning of intersectionality.

Intersectionality, coined by civil rights advocate/feminist scholar/lawyer/badass Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is a way of describing how different identities come together to result in unique experiences and oppressions. The basic idea is that two members of the same oppressed group (for example, women) will face some similar struggles based on that shared identity and different struggles based on other identities (race, sexual orientation, ability). In short, the way a black queer woman moves through the world is different from the way a straight white woman moves through the world. Both will experience gender discrimination, but only one will face homophobia and racism as well. This is NOT, as is popularly suggested by anti feminists, a way to establish who is “most oppressed”. The Great Audre Lorde herself famously said “There is no hierarchy of oppressions”. No true intersectional feminist is here for Oppression Olympics. What we are here for is a fight against the systems of oppression that supports ALL of us in all our glorious differences. When Lorde says there is no hierarchy, she describes how it does no good to her as an activist to fight for queer rights if the queer movement does not support her blackness. Likewise, there is little point in her participating in black activism that refuses to acknowledge her queerness or support her feminism. She writes that she cannot separate her identities, as they are all a part of her. All issues of social justice are feminist issues, because women are affected by all of them. If you are engaged in a discussion with someone and they start to get salty about how your experiences differ, or start trying to engage you in Oppression Olympics, that’s your cue that this probably isn’t going anywhere helpful. I find I get a lot of push back on this from White Feminists, usually in response to them being called out for ignoring the intersections of sexism and racism, or sexism and really anything else.

I did eventually walk away from the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the Facebook comment argument, because by the time that kind of name calling comes out you know you’re not getting anywhere, and I felt I had made my point. Plus I was hangry, which never lends itself to productive conversation. However, this nonsense percolated around in my brain all day. How could someone call themselves a feminist and be so bigoted and hateful? How could anyone argue that an article that doesn’t include information about clitoral stimulation (amid lots of others that do) claim “female erasure” with a straight face? How can radical feminists argue that trans women want to rape them while simultaneously minimizing the epidemic of violence against trans people? I let all these thoughts simmer for a while and pretty soon I had come up with my favorite thing in the whole world: an analogy.

There’s a debate that comes up in linguistics about whether the field should be prescriptive (telling people how they should communicate) or descriptive (documenting how people actually communicate). You see this rear its head every time a new slang word is added to the dictionary, and is described by someone with far more expertise than I will ever have on this subject here. Basically, there’s a struggle between people who think language is rigid and fixed and should be strictly maintained in terms of right and wrong, and people who think language is fluid and malleable and should be allowed to evolve and grow. (I used the word “hangry” earlier, so no points for guessing which camp I’m in.) I see this applying to gender theory as well. We have our radical feminists/TERFs, who argue that gender is a strict binary defined by biological sex, and that trans women somehow usurp “real” women’s experiences and struggles. Then we have our intersectional feminists, who aren’t jerks and believe that gender is a social construct totally separate from biological sex, and that we have to be inclusive of trans peoples’ experiences in order to truly be advocates for justice. (Again, no cigar for guessing which school of thought I subscribe to.)

It’s not that prescriptive linguistics (feminism) is inherently evil or bad, more that it’s outdated and limiting and can result in people being hurt and left out of crucial discussions. And descriptive linguistics (feminism) is not just a bunch of hippie liberal morons with no sense of decency or morality, they’re just new and excited about all the possibilities. The one came from the other, and took it further. Improved on it. Saw ways to include more voices. Wants to broaden the discussion.

I think this analogy bears out well when looking at the example of the “cotton ceiling” and how it was twisted by TERFs to create fear and backlash against trans lesbians. Basically, there’s a common idea circulated among some TERFs that trans women want to force cisgender lesbians to have sex with them. This fits in well with the TERF narrative of trans women as “men” who want to dominate and rape cis women. The problem is, it simply isn’t true. No one is saying people aren’t allowed to have preferences, or that you should force yourself to have sex when you don’t want to. What trans women are saying (to cis men as well as cis women) is that it is imperative to examine WHY we have these preferences, and to explore them and the ways they might be rooted in transphobia/transmisogyny. Much like people of color throw shade at white people who won’t date them because of “totes not racist” preferences, or how I roll my eyes at people who “just aren’t attracted to fat people at all”. Trans people, particularly trans women, face incredible amounts of stigma, invalidation, and even violence from their romantic partners. Obviously you don’t have to be attracted to everyone. You don’t have an obligation to sleep with anyone (prescriptive). But you can’t pretend that socialization in a world that prioritizes thin, white, cisgender, able bodies didn’t help shape those preferences. You do have an obligation to examine your biases. You do need to take note of how your environment shaped you and what that might mean for you and your relationships (descriptive).

So, the next time you hear a TERF doing their TERF thing, think critically about what they’re really saying. Are they setting rules and strict boundaries that leave people out? Are they using pseudo science to back up their hateful claims? (Looking at you, Laci Green.) When you hear intersectional feminists sharing their stories, think about that too. Think about how freeing it is to describe our lives rather than limit them. To embrace new ideas and new ways of connecting and being in solidarity with each other. Think about feminism like language, something that grows and breathes and changes with each generation. Something that has historically left people of color, poor people, non-native speakers behind but is stretching to include them. And remember that just as every non progressive movement has given way to something better, TERFs too shall pass.




One thought on “TERF Wars: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Feminism

  1. Thank you for the clarification of intersectionality! And the grammar metaphor (for predictive vs. descriptive) is excellent. I used to be the former, and have changed to the latter. “Ought to” is good for better behavior (supposedly!). “What is” gets us farther along to understanding what’s actually going on.


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