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What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur

The formerly obscure acronym Terf – short for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” – has begun to appear in newspaper headlines. Why?

Even if you didn’t know what a “terf” was when the word prickled into national news reports a couple of weeks ago, you would probably have grasped from the context that being one was a Bad Thing. After a confrontation at Speakers’ Corner on 13 September between a group of feminists and a group of trans activists, the Sun headlined its report: “Fight breaks out during TERF ('Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists') protest in Hyde Park”. In the Mail, it was: “Members of the Action for Trans Health (ATH) clashed with their bitter enemies the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (or so-called TERFs)”.

As the brackets suggest, “terf” isn’t yet familiar enough to be used in the mainstream press without glossing, but it’s getting there. Those who use it claim it’s a neutral, descriptive acronym for a group that holds a defined position – that is, radical feminists who exclude trans people. That doesn’t wash with others, who argue that in practice it functions as a term of abuse, and point out that no one actually self-identifies as a “terf”.

In a detailed and even-handed blog post, the linguist Deborah Cameron has concluded that, “Terf does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially”. But significantly, she added this: “Terf is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution)…”

If you’d been at Speakers’ Corner on 13 September, you’d have seen that discourse in action. As a group of women gathered in Hyde Park for an event called “What is Gender: The Gender Recognition Act and Beyond”, they were met by protestors who chanted “When Terfs attack, we fight back!” (At this point, it’s worth noting that the “attack” consisted of trying to hold a meeting.)

One of the women there for the “What is Gender” event was 60-year-old Maria MacLachlan. Janice Turner of the Times was also there. Here is her account of what happened next:

“So at Speakers’ Corner trans activists and feminists were chanting and taunting each other. Maria was taking photographs when an opponent grappled with her, snatched her camera and smashed it on the ground. Then a tall, male-bodied, hooded figure wearing make-up rushed over, hit her several times and as police arrived, ran away. I asked a young activist if she was OK with men smacking women: ‘It’s not a guy, you’re a piece of s*** and I’m happy they hit her’, came the reply.”

The violence is shocking, but the immediate justification of it is somehow even more so. While Action for Trans Health London said it condemned violence against women, the Edinburgh branch issued a series of uncompromising tweets stating that “punching terfs is the same as punching Nazis. Fascism must be smashed with the greatest violence to ensure our collective liberation from it”, and “violence against terfs is always self defence” (it also accused the London branch of "undermining" its stance).

In other words, there is a fringe of people who think it is OK – more than OK, laudable – to hit a 60-year-old woman if she thinks the wrong thing, because thinking the wrong thing is understood to be an act of aggression in itself.

And it is women specifically who elicit these vicious reactions. In November last year, the fundamentalist campaign group Christian Concern held a conference in London on trans issues called “The New Normal: Tackling Sexuality and Gender Confusion Amongst Children and Young People”. Among its speakers were a former Ukip candidate who had been expelled from the party for homophobia, and a therapist who claimed to be able to counsel people out of same-sex attraction. “The New Normal” was openly publicised and easy to access. It went off without disruption and unprotested.

In other words, it’s possible to espouse the most virulent prejudices about trans people without attracting backlash, so long as you’re not a feminist. On the other hand, if you are a feminist, the bar to being called a “terf” is remarkably low. Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray achieved it by writing an article in which she pointed out that someone born and raised male will not have the same experiences of sexism as a woman; novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie likewise made the grade by answering “transwomen are transwomen” when asked whether she believed that “transwomen are women”.

Even those who criticise the use of the word “terf” now often accept that it had a good-faith intent at one time, and has been a victim of mission creep. But from its very first appearance, it has functioned to blame feminism for male violence against trans people. In 2008, a blogger called Tigtog introduced it to mark the distinction between her trans-inclusive feminism and feminism that was specifically focused on the rights of people who are assigned female at birth. Of some comments by radical feminists, Tigtog wrote:

“The contempt just drips from every pixel (eta: of those comments), and why exactly? Isn’t that sort of contempt and disgust exactly what led to Allen Andrade beating Angie Zapata to death when he found out (through an act of sexual assault) that she wasn’t a born-woman?”

Allen Andrade, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a man. An extremely homophobic man, as his trial for the murder of Angie Zapata heard. There was no suggestion that he was influenced by, or even aware of, radical feminism in any form. Yet Tigtog, at the moment she coins the word "terf", seems to imply that the women who criticise male violence (radical feminists) are ultimately responsible for the violence that men commit.

In 2003, the UK government began a reform of sentencing for what were crassly called “crimes of passion” – cases in which a man had killed a woman, but claimed in mitigation that his victim had provoked him through her unreasonable behaviour. The feminists who had campaigned to change the law referred to this defence with grim humour as the “nagging and shagging” defence.

In the word “terf”, the “nagging” defence has been informally reprised, with female truculence defined as a kind of metaphorical violence that can be answered in literal kind. And as the word is accepted, so too is its internal logic that if a certain kind of woman is hit, it must be because she deserves it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.