This is an edited transcript of a talk given by journalist, Julie Bindel, on June 6, 2015 at the Quaker Meeting House in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. The event was recorded by UK Indymedia and was organized by the RadFem Collective.
I'm hopeful that we will be able to reach some kind of consensus, if not about issues and theories and the way that we approach, politically, these different issues, but at least in the way that we treat each other and in the way that we speak about each other and move forward and knock on the head what appears to be a phobia about having differences of opinion.
What seems to have happened, certainly in the past decade, maybe a little bit longer, is that identity politics (which to me, is like the old 1980's identity politics, but without the politics) has taken over on issues that are of grave importance to deal with. Whatever your position on the sex industry and whether its harmful or whether its labour, on gender and whether its a social construction or whether its innate, on religious fundamentalism and whether it's the woman's right to wear a full-face veil or whether its oppressive to woman — all of these issues that seem to have created an absolute hellish cesspit of vitriol… It's almost irrelevant what your position is. What we need to get out of this discussion is that we move forward constructively, that those of us who identify as being on the progressive left recognize that [it is far more important to get this Conservative Government] out of office than it is to argue over who is "whorephobic."
I want to start with a little bit of the history of how this no platforming of radical feminism began by using a bit of my story and bringing in stories of other woman who have been similarly targeted.
But I just want to make two things clear before I do that.
1) This isn't about me at all. I've become a kind of whipping girl. I represent, as far as those on the other side of my debate are concerned, all that is wrong with anything to do with feminism that names men and men's violence as the problem. So this isn't about me, I just happen to have been the target of most of it.
2) This isn't about the transgender issue. It really isn't. It's about whether or not you take a neoliberal approach to certain feminist issues or whether you take a radical approach to certain feminist issues. That is my view, though this is something that is absolutely up for grabs in terms of this debate and discussion.
But from my point of view — how I see it with my eyes, having been involved in this movement for thirty five years — is that it is the perfect arena for a backlash against radical feminism. It means that white straight men can stand up in any political or social context or on social media and scream "whorephobe" and "transphobe" at those of us who prioritize ending violence against women and children but still be seen as progressives.
Those men have got free reign to do that and unfortunately (because this is the nature of women's oppression — we're the only oppressed group that's required or expected to love our oppressor) they are aided and abetted by a number of women. That's either because those women are also threatened by, or hate, radical feminism (radical feminists) or because they are maybe new to the movement or young or both and are bullied and battered down if they don't say, "Yes you're right, Bindel, etc. is whorephobic, transphobic, islamophobic, biphobic, etc."
That, to me, is what this is about.
Bearing in mind that we have a chronic situation all over the world with violence against women and children, the oppression and discrimination of women and children, by men — by the male ruling class — I wonder if we can come up with some answers as to why radical feminists are now the enemy and the oppressors and why pretty much anyone else who takes a neoliberal view or an individualistic view is now the oppressed? That oppression now doesn't have to be rooted in anything material or structural, it can literally just be the politics of the personal.
"I'm polyamorous, you're oppressing me," is something I've heard on several occasions… So those with much privilege, who are Oxbridge educated, who are white, have now located themselves as "the oppressed" because there is some weird, Judith Bulterized notion that everything is a floating signifier and nothing really matters except the personal experience.
When feminists said ,"the personal is political," we definitely didn't mean that.
In 2004 I wrote an article that was seen as offensive, and bits of it were offensive. I used language and humour which was inappropriate. And yes, I would write it differently now, for sure. I was angry. I was very new to journalism (in fact I wasn't actually a journalist at the time, which doesn't take away any responsibility), but it was stupid and it was also unlucky, in a way, because it was pretty much the first time that The Guardian started putting up things from The Guardian Weekend Magazine online and so those that said far worse things than me before (I mean, good for them) didn't really get any airing.
Because I am who I am — by then I was already quite well known as a feminist for having radical views — it was a great opportunity for the pile-on.
So the pile-on began and it has never ended — it never will end. So that's just something that I accept. But what happened after that was kind of a beginning of a response to feminist politics, with me as a conduit. So everywhere I went to speak about sexual violence there was a crowd outside screaming and shouting "she's a transphobe." And very, very quickly it started to be combined with the pro-sex work lobby.
Almost immediately transwomen (never transmen) would turn up screaming "transphobe," but also "whorephobe."
There were two issues there — one is that some transwomen said that because they had been involved in survival sex work, I was being doubly oppressive to them by saying prostitution is an abusive, oppressive industry. But there were also pro-sex workers' rights activists who saw an opportunity to give me a good kick in the gut and turned up in order to shout alongside them.
And these two issues became completely indivisible. So if I was put up for an award (which I never asked to be) they would bully and email the sponsors, trying to get the venue to shut it down. This was as early as 2006.
I would turn up at conferences outside of the UK and this very small lobby of transpeople who, as far as I'm concerned, do not represent transpeople at all, would organize the picket and would organize the screaming and shouting and banging on the windows. And this was when my colleagues and I were trying to discuss how to reduce sexual violence towards women and children, not because I was speaking about this issue.
I have spoken about transgenderism when I have been invited, and there's always been transgender people with me on the panel and it's often been at the invitation of transpeople, but others will try and get that debate shut down and the transpeople who wish to have that discussion and debate with me are screamed at and called "transphobe" themselves.
The number of transwomen that I have as friends outnumber the lobby — the actual physical lobby — of those who are creating this shit-storm, which is quite interesting. Some of those friends are friends on social media and some are friends that I know in person. I'm not doing that "some transwomen are my friends" thing, it's just that I get lots of emails from transwomen saying "God, this is shit, this is shit, but if we say anything then there is a pile-on on us." And bearing in mind that the trans community is so small and so vilified, it's not surprising.
So that's how it panned out. And then I was in a bit of a lonely place. There was me, Janis Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, and maybe one other prominent radical feminist who were vilified and who had their employers written to and who had grant-givers written to, to say "withdraw that grant, because this person is contravening your equal opportunities policy." That happened to me all the time — every single grant or editor I've had… It still does happen.
But then some younger women — interestingly mainly heterosexual — just said, "F**k this with this gender nonsense — what's all this 'female brain' and 'male brain?' We're not having this. Of course we'll stand in front of any transperson who's been vilified and bullied and attacked, because that's oppression, cruelty, and bullying. But we don't have to buy into this 'brain sex' thing. We don't have to abandon socialist and radical feminist theory and principals — which is that gender is a social construction and is how patriarchy works."
It wasn't a matter of being personally vitriolic towards individual trans people, it was just saying, "Of course, be as you wish." We were talking earlier with Miranda [Yardley] and another transwoman friend about misgendering and I said, "I will refer to you as 'she' and 'woman' because I reject the term for me. It's all made up, it's all nonsense. I don't know what it feel like to be a woman, I really don't. I know what it feels like to be treated as a women… But I was born a baby, just like everyone else. So of course I'll use the pronoun, 'she' — it's basic manners. And it doesn't exist anyway."
So these young women started to say, "We've had enough of this being told that there's such as thing as 'brain sex' and that gender is the same as sex and that we have to abandon everything that we believe in and we have to abandon everything from Simone de Beauvoir and everything since where we have tried to suggest that an end to patriarchy can only come when you say everybody can live free from gender constraints and gender rules that benefit men and oppress women but that also harm men." (Men are quite unhappy under patriarchy often, as we've heard from pro-feminist men.)
So that started to really whip up the frenzy. Because there were now quite a few feminists who dared to say, "No, gender isn't innate," "No, the sex industry isn't great," there was a hell of a kerfuffle. And although left and liberal publications always published much more pro-trans, pro-sex work articles than they did the opposite, the second a feminist got her article in somewhere like New Statesman, there was a huge outcry, as though it's not allowed to be said. There is no debate allowed. There is no dissent allowed.
And then I started hearing from a number of students — female and a couple of men — who said, "You have just been no platformed from our University, you may not know this… But here's a copy of the minutes where it was decided. The majority of us didn't want you to be no platformed, but it was carried through by the gender officer or the trans officer or the queer officer or whatever, and therefore you are banned again and I'd like you to know on what lines." And it was that they couldn't have me speaking because, [according to] these people who are banning me, I'm whorephobic, transphobic, biphobic and islamophobic. And the articles they chose to highlight this was me saying, about transgender, "this doesn't stand up as a medical diagnosis from the fifties because gender is a social construction." Whorephobia was, "the sex trade really harms women and girls." Islamophobia was, along with many of my Muslim born sisters and colleagues, saying that the veil is a symbol of women's oppression, like the nuns habit, etc. And the biphobia accusation was about me saying, "I don't quite get why bisexual people are saying to lesbians that we are oppressing them." It was just, you know, debatable stuff, some might even say controversial stuff, but definitely not hate speech and definitely not violent speech.
So these women who emailed me would say, "We don't know what to do because we can't speak out. The last student who spoke out in favour of you, just to say, 'I'd like to hear her speak,' was sacked from her position as an officer in the feminist society."
Another one, I was told, who innocently sent around an article I'd written about rape and the low conviction rate was screamed at by the male "safe space officer" that she was a transphobe and a whorephobe — simply because she sent something around that was written by me.
So I have become toxic. It's not that my "transphobia" or "whorephobia," in their view, is toxic — I am toxic.
Then when I would go to universities (invited by staff rather than the NUS because, of course, the NUS no platform me and make sure that other student bodies lose their funding from them if they invite me), I would go onto campus… For example, last time I was at Essex University I was invited to debate a pornographer and the usual petition (I must say that Change.org has really benefited from this row — this online petition thing, I mean they are so busy with it all) went around: "Ban Julie Bindel from campus, her presence on campus for Muslim students, queer students, bi students, polyamorous students, sex working students and trans students will be an act of violence." (This is all online, all for you to see. I don't even need to exaggerate, which is breaking my heart because that is what I love doing more than anything.)
So they were saying that I was a physical danger and I realized, at that point, that what's going on with student politics is that this neoliberalism that we are living under has given them the opportunity to think that they are doing great activist work and are achieving a huge amount by stopping actual violence on campus without stopping violence on campus — because it's too big a job, because then you would have to stop all the men from raping the women — but just by banning me. Because I am violence.
So I went onto Essex University campus and I meet the pornographer on the train and we politely say hello. This is a man who has produced porn for years, has given awards to porn sites such as ExploitedAfricans.com, which completely pornifies women coming from the Congo on boats, that have to be f****d by anyone because they've got no choice, because they've got no papers. There is another one which is a parody of the John Worboys taxi rapist… And this man's given awards to these porn sites and I'm there getting ready to debate him and we are walking through campus and I see this rag-bag group of students who'd obviously got up a bit late to meet me at the actual campus gates, shouting and screaming "transphobe," "violent," "phobic" this, "phobic" that, at me. And I thought, well, we are living in Orwellian times as wall as McCarthyite times. Because in what way is this pornographer, walking through this campus, with no dissent and no concern at all from these so-called feminists and pro-feminist students, and I'm being screamed at.
And there you have it. That is the climate in which we are living.
So whatever your view is on the sex industry, on gender, on anything — there's only one side being screamed down, and that's the feminist side. I don't mean the fun feminists — the pole-dancing-is-the-new-way-to-liberation feminists — I mean the feminists like me: miserable, hard-faced, going on about men being abusers all the time…
Now we have an absolute phobia about debate. There seems to be a view that there is a right not to be offended. The fact that we can be offended (which I am at least a hundred times a day) is now being seen as violence, so that we experience it as internalized violence and we are triggered and we are traumatized. In fact, I am my own trigger warning — I found an article with the trigger warning, "Julie Bindel."
So what do we do?
I think that the tide is starting to turn because younger or newer feminists are realizing that they now have no opportunity to learn from the rest of us and we, in turn, are not able to learn from newer and younger feminists. Because we are not allowed to be in each others spaces, each others campuses, even each others living rooms and say, "What do you think about that? Why do you think that sex work can be liberating?"
And they are not able to say to me, "What evidence do you have that the legalization of the sex industry has failed?" And we're not able to talk about gender any more, which was the basis of socialism and feminism when we looked at how capitalism wielded families and wielded patriarchy. So it's really harmful to the left as well as feminism, in general.
And the left now has this weird Orwellian view where everything is topsy turvy: The sex trade is empowering to women (in what way does capitalism not come into this?). That obviously there's a male brain and a female brain… (In what way are you pro-equality if you think that we are different but equal? When people said that about black people and white people there was an outcry, and rightly so.) That the full-face veil is not in any way a symbol of oppression to women, when there are women in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, elsewhere who are saying, "Stop marching with these crazy fundamentalists who are fascists and support us."
So the left has become, in a way, the new right and that's why I talk about neoliberalism. We have no consistency within the left anymore because we have been battered down to take the view that anyone who says, "Me, me, me — I'm a Muslim woman and I have the right to do this. Me, me me — I'm a sex worker. Me, me, me — I'm a trans woman who knows I was born in the wrong body."
We have no right, now, to challenge that orthodoxy. And this is what the left is built on. So unless we actually start to chip away at that — to challenge it and to be brave enough to stand up and disagree with it, then this will effect a damn sight more than me and a few others that are the targets, radical feminism in general, and the left in total. Because the right wing — I see this all online — they are laughing at us. (I mean they are writing some actually quite good and funny stuff about this whole nonsense, you know, "The Stepford Students," etc.) They are absolutely laughing all the way to the election because we have been disabled by fear and by bullying and by this monolithic, crazy, view that what is actually oppressive is the new liberation.