Today’s guest columnist probably needs no introduction for most of you; under her stage name Belle de Jour she wrote a well-known blog which turned into books and eventually a TV show, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Dr. Magnanti is a forensic scientist (she did sex work while in graduate school), and now brings her scientific training and analytical mind to bear as a writer on sex work, sex in general and other related issues. So without further ado, I’ll surrender the floor to her.
For those living outside of the UK, it can be tough to comprehend the seeming stranglehold a certain type of second-wave feminism has on the mainstream media there. Issues like, say, feminists objecting to Hooters might raise some local interest in the media if they happened in the States; whereas here they’re as apt to gain national attention. Similarly, campaigns like the “Lose the Lads Mags” and “No More Page 3” efforts gain remarkable amounts of column inches compared to the number of lives these issues actually affect. As a Southern girl who grew up in the very town that was home to the first Hooters, the only truly offensive thing about Hooters in Britain is the absence of the deep fried pickles that the menu promises. But hey, mainstream feminism and I have long since parted ways; I accept that.
The benefit and drawback of working in such a small media bubble is that everyone knows everyone. It’s fair to say that with most British journalists working for all of the national papers at some point or another, and with everyone reading the same papers and websites anyway, you are never really only “preaching to the choir”. But not only are other journalists watching, so is the world. In times past the public could hardly ever enter the conversation in any meaningful way. Social media has of course changed all that. And it’s this fact that seems to have taken the second-wavers by surprise: they have been slow to realise that thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and so on, their previously one-way conversations are no longer one-way.
One of the perennial targets of second-wave feminists has been trans women who, along with sex workers, are frequently accused of not being “real” women, being tools of the patriarchy, and so on. The great strides made in public recognition and social acceptance run up against a brick wall when talking to the average second waver. If it was a matter of a small minority of British feminists, that would be a problem, but not an insurmountable one. When these feminists have a considerable presence in the media, however, the issue of transphobia takes on very different and worrying overtones indeed.
This ongoing issue came to a head last year, when Suzanne Moore (who then wrote for the Mail and the Guardian, a dual role on far ends of the mainstream political spectrum all but inconceivable outside the tiny world of British media) found herself on the receiving end of some pointed criticism about an offhand remark about “Brazilian transsexuals“. Trans people and allies of course spoke up. Called out for her insensitive – not to mention, inaccurate in the context – use of language, Moore doubled down on her stance, controversially tweeting that trans women “cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me,” a remark that many who were on the fence about whether her initial remarks had been purposely transphobic found far, far beyond the pale.
If it had only been Suzanne, or if the story had ended there, perhaps it would be long forgotten by now. But her friend and fellow second-wave feminist Julie Burchill poured oil on the flames of controversy with a column that raised every last hackle on anyone who supported the rights of trans men and women. As I wrote in the Telegraph at the time, it’s a way of thinking that we should be leaving behind in the name of solidarity for all women. This is after all the 21st century.
The backlash against Burchill’s comments was so great, and the condemnation so universal, that many second-wavers have since taken pains to distance themselves from the old ideology that characterised trans women as not “real” women. A recent Soho Skeptics debate about trans, for example, attracted widespread criticism. Participant and entrenched second-waver Julie Bindel, who was on the panel, took to Twitter repeating that she had long since apologised for any offensive remarks made about trans women (see for example her interview with Paris Lees for Meta Magazine) and anyway, can’t they all just move on now?
The question of how far Bindel and others like her have moved on, though, is still up in the air. Recently, I noticed some discussion on the timeline of Sarah Brown, a Liberal Democrat councillor and trans activist living in Cambridge. In 2008, Sarah jokingly suggested taking a leaf from Dan Savage’s playbook. Savage, who is famously outspoken on gay rights issues, once managed handily to nick the name of one of US politics’ biggest homophobes – Rick Santorum – and repurpose the name to mean the mixture of lube, semen and faecal matter that can follow anal sex. Savage’s effort was so successful that Googling the word “Santorum” now gives you his definition rather than the politician’s site. As far as cheeky, media-aware activism goes, Savage hit it out of the park. Sarah therefore suggested appropriating the name of Bindel (who up to that point had no problem associating herself with transphobic remarks in public) to mean the smegma-like discharge that sometimes accompanies a trans woman dilating her vagina post-surgery. Some five years later, Bindel took exception to this, and tweeted about it. Bindel claims to have been victimised by the blog, and also, to have apologised for any past transphobia.
But has she turned over a new leaf, really? An anonymous source contacted me. This source happened to follow what was going on in Bindel and Brown’s public timelines, but also followed Julie Bindel on Facebook, and pointed out that a different conversation was happening there. So while on the one hand Bindel was objecting loudly on Twitter, claiming her transphobic phase was long in the past, Facebook was telling a very different story indeed. First Bindel suggested her Facebook fans make complaints to Cambridge council, in an attempt to have Sarah removed from her job. Considering that the blog in question was written well before Sarah entered politics, it’s unclear how this would be relevant to her current position, but anyway. Still more shocking were the quotes and comments Bindel’s Facebook lamentations attracted.
Karen Ingala Smith, the Chief Executive of nia, a group dedicated to ending violence against women, posted that Sarah Brown was a “vile creature“. Keeping in mind the extremely high rates of violence suffered by trans women, this would seem to be a particularly callous remark. But this pales in comparison to the comments of Julie Burchill – she of the Suzanne Moore controversy, and a very high-profile journalist indeed in Britain: “What a bunch of fucking rotters. I’d like to shove their bad wigs down their stupid throats!”
I don’t mind telling you I choked on my tea when I read that.
What the Facebook exchange goes to show is that if anything has changed in second-wave feminism, Bindel, Burchill, et al have yet to get the memo. (It must have been lost in the post alongside the one reminding people that things you say on Facebook aren’t really all that private.) But then for sex work activists like me, the discovery that the public and private faces of such people are adjusted precisely for their audience comes as no surprise. And still less surprising is the incredibly violent imagery they employ in convincing themselves (and their sadly many followers) that some women deserve the violence that the second wave feminists do absolutely nothing to prevent.