Statement in response to London Young Labour Summer Conference Motion 8 supporting the decriminalisation of sex work

[Reblogged from Sarah Ditum’s blog]

The London Young Labour summer conference takes place this Sunday. Among the motions to be voted on, motion 8 deserves particular scrutiny from feminists: it is titled “Standing up for sex workers’ rights, supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.” It is principally concerned with committing LYL to opposing the Nordic model. A number of feminist activists, academics and frontline service providers have collaborated to critique the claims and evidence offered in this motion.

As a feminist and a Labour Party member, I am publishing the full document below and hope that any delegates attending the LYL conference will consider it carefully before voting. It is a detailed and thorough rebuttal of motion 8, and very much worth reading in full. However, the conclusion is a particularly powerful explanation of why the Labour movement should never legitimise an industry founded in exploitative power relations:

“as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.”

You can read motion 8 here.

You can read the rebuttal here. 


The End of Sympathy: Rape, Sympathy and the Home Office Select Committee Recommendation of Anonymity for Rape Suspects

In the mid-eighteenth century, the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith was one of a number of writers who considered sympathy to be the emotional adhesive through which society cohered. He described it as an act of imagination by which individual subjects might recreate, in themselves, the emotions experienced by others. For Smith, sympathy was partly a spontaneous manifestation of a belief in shared humanity, and partly an emotion that produced, and was produced by, certain rational assumptions about its most deserving recipients. (We might take issue with some of Smith’s criteria for deserving recipients.) Sympathy denoted the possibility of sharing all emotions, positive and negative, but pity and compassion – literally, co-suffering – were particularly important. They functioned therapeutically. In the back-and-forth exchange of feeling between sufferer and sympathiser, the former’s initially violent, potentially isolating emotion is diluted and regulated into something more easily comprehensible, manageable, surmountable and social. Smith referred to this mutual exchange as ‘the healing consolation of sympathy.’

Smith acknowledged that, for the sympathiser, the act of compassion has drawbacks. ‘Grief is painful,’ he wrote, ‘and the mind, even when it is our own misfortune, naturally resists and recoils from it. …Our aversion to grief…constantly prevents us from sympathizing with it in others.’ But Smith was adamant that this narcissistic urge to self-protection must be overcome. Sympathy provides ample compensation for the temporary disruption of the sympathiser’s emotional equilibrium, through the corresponding pleasure that results from sharing in others’ joy; through compensatory knowledge that in the event of one’s own distress, ready sympathisers will not be shy in coming forward; and in the practical, moral and emotional benefits of living socially. Without sympathy, Smith felt, ‘the harmony of society’ is a pipe-dream.

Smith acknowledged that the variability and uniqueness of experiences through which individuals’ emotional temperaments were formed, meant that sympathetic exchanges were necessarily imperfect. I can never know exactly how your grief is constituted or felt, and neither of us can ever know whether the sympathetic sorrow that I feel in return bears any relation to your initial grief. But Smith emphasised that our shared humanity provides sufficient grounds for assuming that at least some elements of our emotional experience are common and communal. Furthermore, he argued that, as the functioning of society depended on sympathy, it was an attempt and an ideal worth upholding. Smith’s contemporary, David Hume, pointed out that the very constitution of emotional experience provided grounds for belief in a shared element. He described how feelings are comprised of (a) consciousness of a physiological element that Hume called ‘the path of impressions’ (eg. blushing, racing heart), which was arguably a common biological phenomena, and (b) ‘the path of ideas’, constituted of personal memory, and individual and social ideas that cluster around particular feelings. The psychoanalyst and sociologist Erich Fromm has pointed to the prominence of language in ‘the path of ideas’: that is to say, different cultures privilege different emotions by providing a label for those experiences. For example, the Czech word litost, ‘a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’, has no easy equivalent in English. It is theoretically possible to recognise the existence of emotions for which we lack a vocabulary, but it is very difficult to prioritise their presence in our day-to-day subjectivity. Individual feelings are therefore able to be shared to a certain extent, because a significant element of our experience of those feelings – the linguistic toolkit with which we narrate our emotional experience to ourselves and others – is itself communal within cultures that share a language.

We are currently living through a nadir of sympathy. This is particularly visible in the treatment of rape victims. We wrangle with the precise circumstances under which we are prepared to mete out tiny portions of pity. We contort ourselves carping and qualifying the definition of ‘rape’. A 2013 survey showed one third of 1000 women failed to identify an assault as ‘rape’ if a victim did not fight back, a quarter failed to if the victim was drunk, and almost two-thirds if the victim did not or was not able to say ‘No’. In a 2010 survey, 71% of 712 women thought female victims were partly responsible for rape if they willingly got into bed with an assailant. A 2010 survey on behalf of rape crisis centre the Havens found that half of the male respondents, aged between 18 and 25, did not consider sex with a woman who had changed her mind to be ‘rape’.

Survivors of rape are suspected, disbelieved and blamed. In 1998, a survey revealed that 68% of female and 81% of male participants agreed with the statement that ‘women cry rape the next day when really they have second thoughts’. On all sides, voices pipe up dismissing, blaming, laughing. The CPS barrister who described a thirteen-year-old child as ‘predatory in all her actions’. The barrister in the Oxford child sex abuse case who dismissed the victims as ‘naughty girls’. The manufacturers, vendors & consumers of t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I’m feeling rapey’ or ‘No sometimes means yes’. The victim of the convicted rapist Ched Evans has suffered such harassment and abuse that she has been forced to change her name and move house five times.

Last week, on Friday 20 March, the Home Affairs Select Committee made a recommendation that those suspected of a sex offence should be protected by anonymity unless and until they are charged. Anonymity is not granted to those suspected of any other crime, and the recommendation flies in the face of evidence that rapists are very often serial offenders and that, in some recent, prominent cases, the open reporting of suspects’ names has prompted other victims to come forward and convictions to be secured. The recommendation is based on a completely erroneous placement of sympathy, arguing that the tiny minority of men who are wrongfully accused of rape are more worthy of sympathy than the staggering number of women who suffer rape or sexual assault each year and who are, overwhelmingly, failed by the criminal justice system. This also fails to take into account that, in the few convictions for false rape accusations, the women involved are often themselves sufferers of mental illness, addiction or childhood abuse, and arguably deserving of sympathy too. (I doubt very much whether this applies, in the same proportions, to male perpetrators of rape.)

The Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office of National Statistics estimate that between 60,000 and 95,000 women are raped annually, and over 400,000 sexually assaulted. Of this estimated figure, only 15,670 cases of rape were reported to the police between 2010 and 2013, out of which 1070 were prosecuted. In comparison, only an average of two cases of false accusations per month were prosecuted over a period of 17 months between 2012 and 2013: around 35 prosecutions in total, compared to 1070 prosecutions of rape in the same period (and remember that this figure is estimated to be less than a fifth of the total number of rapes that occurred).

Just as Smith pointed out that the direction of our sympathetic response can and should be, at least partly, governed by rational concerns, it makes no sense here – where there are two directly conflicting claims to sympathy – to place our emotional support with the tiny minority of men whose reputations suffer from false rape accusations. To do so, is to withdraw support from the enormous number of women whose bodies and wellbeing are routinely violated by rapists. It is to claim that the risk of damage to a few men’s reputations is worse than the reality of physical and emotional harm to millions of women. The protection of suspected rapists through anonymity is directly opposed to the right of raped women to have their cases adequately investigated. In this case, there can be no other logical response than to place sympathy with the victims of rape. I urge you to sign this petition calling on the Home Affairs Select Committee to review their recommendation, and to write to your MP to the same effect.

Why do we, as a society, find it so hard to sympathise with raped women? I think that one element of our society’s failure to adequately deal with the crime of rape is related to a widespread fear of feeling negative emotion; a narcissistic self-protection that is increasingly culturally prioritised over the social duty of sympathy. It is easier to sympathise with a few male victims of false rape accusation than the very very many female victims of bodily violation, because to do the latter is to willingly give up a state of tranquil indifference in return for abject sorrow and anger. Sympathising with loss of reputation does not entail the same distressing vulnerability as sympathy with survivors of sexual violence.

A month ago, I wrote, for the first time, about the experience of being raped, and the personal healing I found in friendships with women. The response of many people who disagreed with my moderate request that women who experienced worth in women-only spaces be allowed to testify to that experience, was to dismiss the validity of every aspect of my article, to dismiss my humanity and my experience of rape. (Jon Ronson’s latest book on internet shaming points out that one of the effects of social media is that it becomes hard to remember that its users’ identities exceed their political positions: individuals are whole nuanced beings with feelings.) They hit where it could only have hurt the most. The blogger Zoe Stavri accused me of ‘thinking like a rapist’, and has consistently refused to apologise; the academic Sara Ahmed tweeted that she would ‘challenge every word’ of my account of being raped (she has since deleted the original tweet).

Screenshot 2015-03-23 13.51.09

These responses were not unfamiliar. By far the majority of the few friends I had told over the decade prior to publishing my article, had responded inadequately. Silence; averted eyes; a swift change of conversation; once or twice preceded by an accusation: ‘You’ve really upset me by telling me this.’ From the person I thought of at the time as my best friend: ‘It is not my job to deal with this. Talk to someone else.’ Only one friend phoned in concerned response to a flippant text message; met with me, asked me gently, hugged me, cried with me. And it made all the difference.

To sympathise with a raped woman, to believe her, to encourage her to speak and to really listen, to cry with her, are essential to her rehabilitation in a society that has grossly injured her, and crucial first steps in the provision of adequate legal justice. She must not be made to feel that she now lives beyond the pale; that her experience was beyond the boundaries of empathy. This duty to sympathise applies to everyone who is willing to believe the enormous bank of statistical evidence that testifies to the sheer number of women raped and sexually assaulted each year. It particularly applies to anyone who considers themselves a feminist. To believe a rape victim – even if you disagree on other issues; to attempt to sympathise and support; to recognise in her pain some of the pain that the patriarchy inflicts worldwide on all women: this is the foundation stone of feminism. Without the recognition of our common humanity, without the recognition of shared hurt at the hands of men, without hope in solidarity and shared anger, there is no political movement.

Many people, especially women, have simply been too traumatised by violence and abuse to be able to do the work of sympathy, and genuinely benefit from protection from certain discussions, subjects or people who are likely to trigger traumatic emotional responses. These sufferers deserve all the compassion and emotional support that we can offer as individuals and as a society: adequate therapy, safe spaces, sympathetic responses. Fundamentally, the emotional acts of sympathising and being sympathised with constitute us as social beings, and therapy’s aim is to help damaged individuals reconstitute themselves as emotionally functioning social entities, able to play a full part in social relationships, able to both accept and provide sympathetic support. Only each individual subject can know whether they are truly capable of providing, as well as receiving, sympathy. But to fail to provide sympathy, when it is within your capacity, is the opposite of going above and beyond the call of duty. It is suberogatory; the emotional and political equivalent of tax-avoidance.

Adam Smith was wary of the misuse of the rhetoric of ‘safety’ to prioritise individuals’ emotional tranquillity over their duty as social beings to temporarily open themselves up to the personal distress that is an inevitable element of compassion. He wrote that sympathy fails when ‘the thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon’ individuals. Inevitably, sympathy involves temporarily giving up one’s own emotional tranquillity. It feels pretty shit, doesn’t it, to feel the truth that around 1 in 5 of your friends has been raped by a man (and how do we really absorb a fact if we don’t feel it?)? That, in fact, some of your male friends are likely to be rapists? That, if you’re a British woman, you have a 20% chance of being raped by a man? It’s not much fun, is it, when a friend on whom you used to rely to make you feel happy, can’t stop crying? Kinda brings you down, doesn’t it?

But it is only by believing and feeling deeply that rape and the threat of rape is common and wrong and extremely traumatic; it is only by sympathising with rape victims, who are overwhelmingly female, that we can truly comprehend the violence and damage done to women by patriarchy. Only by feeling it to be wrong, can we convert that distress into righteous and effective anger at men who rape and condone rape. Increasingly there are attempts to protect students from arguments, speakers, or facts that might pose a threat to their emotional tranquillity, regardless of their emotional resilience, their capacity to provide sympathy. Increasingly the discourse of ‘safe spaces’ is misused to maintain students in a coddled, ignorant state of intellectual infantilisation and emotional avoidance. But in doing so they prioritise their own wellbeing, their state of tranquil indifference, over the possibility of social change and over the support of people more in need of sympathy than themselves.

Sympathy, especially towards women, can be truly revolutionary: to believe women’s subjectivity is worthy of sympathetic response is to acknowledge women are fully human. It is to feel the enormity and devastation of violence towards women, and it is to feel that violence as wrong. It is to say ‘I believe you’ in response to testimonials of trauma. It is the emotional means by which movements of solidarity and social change are cohered.

The only alternative is an atomisation that leaves one sector of the population traumatised without hope of rehabilitation and the other in cold indifferent narcissism. ‘If you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me,…we can no longer converse upon these subjects,’ Smith wrote. ‘We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, nor you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.’ This is the breakdown of the very possibility of all conversation, mutual feeling or solidarity. Is this how we want to live?


The recent spate of actual or effective no-platforming incidents (most recently, Kate Smurthwaite’s effectual no-platforming by Goldsmith’s College) has brought into the public eye a cultural shift by which I am greatly worried. Political opinions – particularly feminist ones – which used to be regarded as reasonably uncontroversial (except by overt misogynists), which are not libellous, and which do not incite violence, are being widely labelled by many in universities, on social media, and in mainstream political parties, as offensive. Their proponents are accused of ‘bigotry’, and such opinions are being driven out of the realm of legitimate political debate by tactics such as ‘no platforming’, allegations of ‘hate speech’, and extreme misrepresentations of those political positions.

I have increasingly become aware that many writers (past and present), whom I greatly admire, and my own feminist views – political philosophy on which I was raised; feminism that I was schooled in alongside, for example, the history of the Civil Rights movement – are falling foul of this cultural shift. For this reason, I have felt uneasy for some time about writing or talking openly about feminism. But it is an issue about which I care passionately, so I want to add my voice to those protesting against illiberal attempts to silence such debate.

As an academic as well as a writer, I fervently believe that universities should encourage students and academics to read and listen to a range of opinions far beyond their own comforting, personal ‘truths’. I do not consider it desirable or beneficial to enshrine protection from the possibility of ‘taking offence’. If an argument offends (either by challenging beliefs, or by seeming incoherent or plain wrong), then research, think, read, talk, listen, write, and construct a counter-argument. As long as debate remains non-libellous, does not promote physical violence, and does not involve physical abuse in its construction, then I believe it should be heard, even if – sometimes especially if – that leads to its considered refutation.

Before I begin blogging on individual issues, I want to set out exactly what I do, and do not, believe.

My feminist views derive from movements variously labelled as second wave, socialist, Marxist, radical, and gender-critical feminism.

I do not believe that men and women currently occupy an equal status, either in Britain or globally. Among the 27 EU member states, there is a gender pay gap (relative difference in average gross hourly earnings) between men and women of 17.5%. A woman working full-time in the UK earns, on average, £5000 less per year than a man doing the equivalent job. Men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, and out of a cabinet of 23, only 4 are women. 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. Approximately 85,000 women on average are raped in England and Wales each year, by men.

I believe that the key forms of oppression against women are structural, rooted in the operations of the state’s dominant institutions and systems (one example is unequal maternity and paternity leave policies). These interweave with oppression perpetuated by cultural norms and shibboleths (eg. ideas of boys’ and girls’ ‘innate’ behaviour). Together with the physical oppression of one sex by another (through rape, abuse and domestic violence), these constitute patriarchy. Oppression *is* often carried out by individuals, upon other individuals, but it is usually bolstered, facilitated, and approved by the structures and culture of patriarchy. Individuals’ behaviour can often be most usefully analysed in terms of structural patterns.

I believe that women’s bodies are often the site upon which patriarchal oppression operates, either directly, through domestic violence, rape and FGM, or indirectly, through damaging norms of beauty or lack of scientific research into female physical processes (eg. female ‘ejaculation’). It has also been argued that class inequality between men and women is predicated on the exploitation of women’s bodies, particularly their reproductive capacity, which renders women either a resource to be managed, or physically weaker for a period of time. I believe it is fundamentally important to talk about women’s bodies, both as sites of oppression and violence, but also as sources of lived experience, both positive and negative, and as sites of knowledge and research. I believe that the language and concept of sex, of ‘male’ and ‘female’, is useful for the purpose.

I believe that the concept of ‘gender’ (that is, a collection of socially constructed norms and expectations pertaining to and differentiating between, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, usually mapped onto, respectively, men’s and women’s bodies) constricts the full potential of ‘human’. Plenty of excellent research debunks the notion that men and women’s brains innately predispose them to certain skills (cf the neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender). Little girls in Britain in 2014 tend to like pink, not out of any innate predisposition, but because, among other contributory factors, they receive praise (overt and/or covert) for conforming to gender norms.

I believe that, in a patriarchy, gender is a key part of the cultural reinforcement of patriarchal power structures. For example, gender norms encourage little girls to wear constricting clothing (dresses and heels), to play quietly, to be mindful of others (often in a submissive role), and to play with toys relating to domestic roles and the development of emotional acuity. Gender norms encourage little boys to play boisterously and assertively, to develop independence and dominance, to wear clothes practical for physical exploration, and to play in a way that develops physical strength, spatial awareness and knowledge. These gender norms operate through mechanisms that include many toys, parenting books, ideogically-driven research, parents themselves, folklore, websites, and children’s TV.

I believe that the patriarchal construction of gender is damaging and constricting for all concerned, boys as well as girls. For both sexes, gender norms constrict the full possibilities of being human. However, because patriarchy assigns greater economic, political, physical and cultural power to boys and men, women’s oppression under patriarchy in general, and under the patriarchal concept of gender specifically, is greater than men’s. Gender is one means by which men oppress women.

I believe that a chief objective of feminism is to dismantle the constrictions of gender norms. This is not a matter of rejecting everything associated with ‘femininity’ as inferior, and allowing women into the ‘masculine’ club. ‘Equality’ is not so much the aim; liberation is. *Everyone* needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed by gender. In a post-gender world, boys and girls might, without judgement, all be able to (indeed, would be equally likely to) wear dresses and cargo pants, play with dolls, toy kitchens, cars, construction toys, climb trees, wade through mud, sit in a corner quietly reading, shout and woop, or cuddle and comfort. In adult society, so-called domestic work (child-rearing etc) would be valued as much as, if not more than, traditionally masculine activities such as economics, business or politics. Men and women might engage in almost everything in equal numbers, and be assigned equal value for doing so. The sex categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ would continue to exist as descriptive terms for biological attributes, but, stripped of the gender assumptions that are usually mapped onto them, would no longer represent unequal power. As a society, as a world, we are clearly not there. An important feminist strategy is to witness, document, ‘call out’, question and critique unsubstantiated claims of gender essentialism. Recognising such claims exist, and pointing out their influence, is certainly not the same as approving of their existence.

I do not believe that women’s achievement of power within traditional patriarchal structures – eg. acquiring ‘erotic capital’ by exploiting particular attributes (especially beauty and sex appeal) deemed praiseworthy by patriarchal capitalism – is satisfactory or ambitious enough. In some cases, I believe it is abuse. As a ‘radical’ (meaning, ‘to the roots’) feminist, I want to see those structures dismantled for the benefit of the many, not upheld for the benefit of a few. In a post-gender world, pornography might be possible, if the industry were run by men and women in equal numbers, for men and women in equal numbers; if there was no exploitation; no abuse; if the visual and verbal aesthetics could take the female gaze (and other preferences) into account. But I have no idea what such truly post-gender pornography would look like.

Because I don’t believe in the existence of innately masculine or feminine brains, and because I believe in the aspiration to dismantle gender, I personally do not believe that there needs to be a correlation between an individual’s sex and an individual’s so-called ‘gender identity’. In fact, from a philosophical viewpoint, I believe that the claim that someone has ‘a woman’s brain’ (either in a man’s body or in a woman’s body) reinforces the essentialist claim that such a thing as a ‘woman’s brain’ even exists in a meaningful way. It upholds the notion of gender. Sometimes people refer to having, not so much a gendered brain, but a gendered essence, something like a soul: ‘I feel like a woman’. Beyond recognising that I have a woman’s body, and that society treats me like a woman, much of which treatment I inevitably internalise, I do not personally feel that I have a gendered essence – just a personality. But I accept that some people feel that they do have such a gendered essence. (Likewise, I don’t feel that I have a soul, but I accept that others feel that they do.) Similarly, although I don’t see the upholding of gender norms to be a form of personal liberation or social change, in a society in which all sorts of cosmetic surgery is freely available, I believe that sane adult individuals have the right to alter their bodies however they please, for whatever reason: including in order to synchronise their sex with their perceived gender identity. I believe they have the right to do this without facing harassment or discrimination.

I believe that the relevance of the question ‘what is a woman?’ depends upon the context in which it is being asked (this could equally apply to the question ‘what is a man?’, but because this issue is most hotly contested as it pertains to women, I’ll use that terminology). For the most part, I believe that the category ‘woman’ is constituted by two or three constituent factors. The first two are:

(1) biological attributes

(2) subjection to patriarchal gender norms via socialisation. As Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has written, as well as knowing that ‘I’m a woman [because of…] my physical body, my biology’, ‘I know that I am a woman because everybody I meet treats me as if I were a woman, and they always have done’. Often (1) and (2) are intertwined: the way in which society treats a woman is often fundamentally linked to that woman’s physicality.

Sometimes these two factors that comprise the category ‘woman’ are joined by a third claim:

(3) that in order to be a woman, what is necessary is to feel like a woman, or identify as a woman. (As I have said, if this feeling is something separate from biology and socialisation, I personally don’t know what it is. However, as I have also said, I am willing to accept that some people feel that they do have such a sense. The claim ‘I identify as a woman’ seems to be something different, however: a statement of wanting to be (like) a woman.)

I believe that the relevance of the claims (1), (2) and (3) to the definition of ‘woman’ shift according to context.

In a theatrical production, it isn’t necessary for an actor to have (1) a woman’s biological attributes, or (2) to usually be treated as a woman in the wider social landscape, in order to play a woman’s part. In such contexts, (3), feeling like a woman, identifying as a woman, is more important.

But sometimes (3) is not sufficient to claim the category of ‘woman’ if (1) or (2) are lacking. For example, at a recent Green Party hustings, the chair observed that women had hardly spoken at all, having previously been dominated in the discussion by men. The chair asked to hear from a woman. A man called Simon, who ‘present[s] as male’ but ‘identi[fies] as a woman’, asked to speak and was welcomed. In this context, the chair asked women to speak because the way in which women are socialised from birth means they are usually encouraged to be quiet and submissive, and that the hustings had upheld that oppressive pattern. Whether or not Simon currently identifies as a woman was irrelevant in this context: society treats him as male, and his socialisation has encouraged him to be louder and more dominant. It was not appropriate, in this context, for him to claim the category ‘woman’.

Another example: it has been reported that the US Supreme Court has recently upheld a claim by an insurance company that its decision to fire a woman because she wanted to express milk at work, was not a form of sex discrimination because, in some circumstances, men (either transmen or men with certain hormonal qualities) can lactate too (although it is important to note that the ability to lactate a little is different from the ability to breastfeed an infant or express bottles of milk). This case demonstrates how emptying the category ‘woman’ of (1), of its biological characteristics, means that in some contexts it becomes virtually impossible to challenge instances of sex-based discrimination and abuse. In societies in which oppression occurs because of a certain demographic’s shared physical attributes (eg. racial characteristics, sex characteristics, or other characteristics such as disability), social reformers need specific terminology to refer to demographic groups facing such discrimination, in order to point to it, name it, witness it, document it, and challenge it.

I don’t believe that a single, monolithic category of ‘discrimination’ or ‘oppression’ is as useful to understand, document or challenge differentiated forms of discrimination or oppression (including the way in which they intersect), as a more nuanced form of analysis. Sometimes the forms of discrimination experienced by different demographic groups share characteristics; in some ways they don’t. There is no question that transgender people face appalling discrimination and violence: of the 43,748 hate crimes reported in England and Wales in 2011-12, 1% (315) were transgender hate crimes. That represents a large proportion of transgender people in the UK, and a 2014 study showed that 44% of transgender people in the EU reported facing repeated violence. (It is important to remember that the majority of transphobic attacks are perpetrated by men who are not acting on the instigation of radical feminist writings.) In some contexts, there are significant similarities between the types of oppression levelled at women and trans-women. For example, almost all physical attacks against transgender people and women are perpetrated by men. But often the discrimination perpetuated against transwomen and women is different, and originates in different sources, for different reasons (as in the example of the US insurance company’s discrimination against a breastfeeding woman). In such cases, it is essential to be able to use such terms as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘transwoman’ and ‘transman’ in order to label and challenge the abuse.

I believe in an individual’s right to express or perform their chosen identity, as long as that expression does not encroach on the rights of another oppressed demographic. As the two examples above demonstrate, the language of ‘gender identity’ does, in some contexts, encroach upon and damage the ability to challenge women’s oppression. As a feminist and mother of three girls, I also worry about the effect of essentialist ideology on women, who are encouraged to believe unsubstantiated claims about the predisposition of women to engage in activities and roles that are often accorded inferior value and constrict their full potential. I believe that the type of systemic oppression faced by certain demographic groups (eg. women, transgender people) can only be adequately interpreted and challenged with a structural, class-based analysis. Individual identity seems powerful, but it is no match for the weight of social oppression that threatens to beat and bind the individual into submission. No-one can identify their way out of being oppressed.