knowledge is stored in the vulva: TERFs, bodies, and uncertainty
Content note: this is about TERFs, so obviously includes quite a bit of quoted and paraphrased transphobia and particularly transmisogyny.
On May 5th, there was a local election in the UK - for city and town councils. Our world-renowned TERFs, obsessed as they are with the electoral and the institutional, leapt upon the opportunity it presented, mounting the peculiar #RespectMySex campaign. A highly-publicised attempt to establish TERFs as a grassroots voting bloc, #RespectMySex encouraged TERFs to ambush their (often baffled) local council candidates with the blunt question, “What is a woman?”, and publish their answers - usually on Twitter.
This was, of course, not a question but a test. There was one right answer, which we all know. Adult human female, XX chromosomes, vulva, can get pregnant, can have a baby, except of course not defined by that, except of course entirely defined by that. Any other answer - anything which strays outside the purely biological, whatever that even means, but we’ll get to that - results in the ultimate condemnation, that you don’t know what a woman is. There can’t be competing definitions, there can’t be any ambiguity, you can’t pause for a moment before throwing any given body in the “woman” bucket. You have to just know. And we all know, don’t we?
I’m not going to dignify the bioessentialism with a detailed rebuttal - that has already done expertly by the likes of Julia Serano. And, as Grace Lavery says, tying the definition of ‘woman’ to a set of biological criteria is not, and has never been, a feminist act.1 Instead, I want to think for a while about the way that TERFs want us to rush the act of categorisation, to deny it any nuance, or a single moment’s pause. I want to argue that resisting TERF logics does not mean formulating a perfect answer to “what is a woman?”, but rather recognising taxonomy and categorisation as active and loaded processes. I want to talk about what’s at stake in needing things to be real.
On election day, I was keeping an eye on the local twitter TERFs to see how the #RespectMySex endeavour was going. It didn’t seem like it was doing much - local council candidates in my area were overwhelmingly signing onto a competing trans rights pledge instead, and only a few (failed) candidates declared TERF positions. But if it wasn’t having a tangible political impact, it was certainly an opportunity for in-group reinforcement. And so it was that I found the alarming and fascinating proclamation from a TERF that “my vulva knows who she’s voting for!”
I’ll give you a moment to enjoy the silliness of that - I certainly had to take one. It raises many questions. Like can a vulva hold a pencil, and draw a cross in the intended box? Somebody’s doing a LOT of pelvic floor work, I guess. And if we’re supposing that one’s vulva has an independent consciousness with which to cast a vote, is smuggling ‘her’ into the voting booth under one’s clothes an act of voter fraud? And isn’t that violating your vulva’s right to a secret ballot? One vulva, one vote, but what about the pair of legs she sits between?
Of course, it would be facetious to take the author of this statement too literally (despite it being very funny to do so). She’s clearly speaking metaphorically, saying that her vulva determines her (wholly human) vote. A reclaiming, I suppose, of the way people accuse men of thinking with their dicks: voting with ‘our’ vulvas. Her vulva is the most important determining aspect of her political consciousness. We could spend some time on how retrograde this is as political message, but I don’t think we need to.
What I find interesting about this statement is how it reveals that TERFs do sometimes understand that our bodies can be political metaphors. Not long after I found the voting vulva, I found someone with the display name “Citizen of Vulva” (I know, I know, RIP my algorithm). Here, the vulva has not only grabbed hold of the pencil in the polling booth, but expanded across space to form a state, and is now issuing passports. If you combine the voting vulva and the vulva-as-state you get a one-party vulva autocracy (vulvocracy?), but I suppose I am being uncharitably literal again. Or perhaps I’m not.
What is a woman? A woman has a vulva. But what is a vulva? A voter, a nation state, what else? If a vulva votes and spoils the ballot, does anyone hear? Where does the State of Vulva deport its undocumented vulva migrants? What’s the vulva citizenship exam? What does my vulva know that I don’t?
TERFs do understand, then, that bodies are more than just clumps of matter. They know that bodies have political functions which can be shaped and reshaped; they carry meaning, which can be channeled and diverted. Yet the answers they demand to “What is a woman?” admit none of this. Keir Starmer, with his impressive talent for pleasing absolutely nobody, said the following when confronted with the Woman Question:
“A woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women, and that is not just my view, that is actually the law. It has been the law through the combined effects of the 2004 [Gender Recognition] Act and the 2010 [Equality] Act.”
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of trans rights (and let’s not even start on the “in addition”). But of course, it didn’t satisfy the TERFs. It leans on the law, a law which TERFs are chomping at the bit to repeal, a law they think denies ‘reality’. In response to this and other similar proclamations, TERFs have dubbed Starmer “Keir Theory”. It’s a joke, you see, about queer theory, because Keir is leaning on these abstract, fuzzy concepts like the GRA2004 and the EA2010 but those are just laws, and laws aren’t real, not real like bodies are.
This is what’s really embedded in the “what is a woman?” question. They claim that there is only one domain from which we can draw knowledge: the physical ‘reality’ of the body. And yet, of course, that doesn’t hold for any longer than a moment under scrutiny. They won’t accept a trans woman as a woman even if she’s had every possible surgery, because of her chromosomes. But how can you know what someone’s chromosomes are? Are you going to scan them? You can chase them around and around with these questions, trying to pin them down on exactly which combination of so-called material realities will reliably produce the result ‘woman’ every time, and watch them come up with increasingly absurd places to put their tape measures and callipers. But ultimately it will always come back to the same thing: stop messing around with your ridiculous edge-cases. We know what a woman is. We always know.
We have to always know, because what if we didn’t? This is the terror that the TERFs are attempting to hold back, to keep in its box. Because the truth is, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what a woman is. I used to think I was one, and now I don’t. I know my working definition: I choose my working definition. But I don’t know, in the same way I don’t know what a human being is. As Sofie Hagen tweeted recently about coming out as non-binary: “I also don’t understand it. I was also socialised to believe in vagina = woman, penis = man. I am also confused.” Things can be real even if we don’t understand them If we’re defining knowing, as the TERFs do, as “being able to sum up in a sentence with no ambiguity”, I definitely don’t know very much. I don’t know what being alive is, what consciousness is. Is it worth preserving our existence as human beings? Yes. Do I know what it is to exist as a human being? Absolutely not. We can fight for things we don’t know every facet of.
‘So you’re saying anyone can just declare themselves a woman?’. Yes. Anyone can declare themselves anything. Terrifying, right? We have to actually decide whether we trust them, whether our ethics demand we accept their claim. We have to take responsibility for the categories we all co-create, not let their borders do the work for us.
Everything I fight for, apart from the most naked self-interest, is based on trust. I’ve never been a prisoner, but I trust incarcerated people when they say it’s bad in there. I’ve never done sex work, but I trust sex workers when they say they need decriminalisation. Maybe the people I help deliver food to don’t really need it, but I trust that they do. I piece together my knowledge about the world from people around me who I trust and respect. My definitions are working definitions, up for discussion. Categories are just ways we make sense of the chaos of everything, but they don’t make it any less deeply chaotic. It’s chaos all the way down.
If you are ever asked “What is a woman?”, you are already in the trap. It’s too late, at that point, to say anything with liberatory potential. You can say “a woman is anyone who says she is”, or “a woman is a complex category which has, at various points in time and space, been determined by a range of factors including but not limited to anatomy, genetics, appearance, aesthetics, the law, culture, and religion” but you have already given into their rules, already signed up to their cursed game of Articulate. However good your definition is, it doesn’t matter. They don’t want a definition - they want to test your definition, which will always be found wanting unless it excludes trans women. They want a kind of knowing which is really more like a feeling, a feeling that we all know THAT’s not a woman. If you have to explain how you know, the knowledge is already tainted. The only solid definition you have left is “a woman is someone we know is a woman… and we know, because we are women.” My vulva knows.
So. What do we do with all this? I don’t suggest we all go around getting ourselves asked “what is a woman?” in order to answer with “radical chaotic uncertainty, baby.” As I’ve said, once you’re pinned down by the question, you’ve already lost. What I would say is that we need to resist the urge towards taxonomy, classification and certainty in our own queer liberation movements. The TERFs claim that if you can’t define what a woman is, you can’t protect women. We need to prove, every day, that that’s not true. That we can protect people without making them prove themselves. This is not the State of Vulva: there are no passports here. We can trust each other; we must trust each other.
My friend josie sparrow, in dialogue with Donna Haraway and Sophie Lewis, writes about the terror and necessity of recognising our interconnectedness as beings:
It is precisely because we are all intertwined—always already involved with the making and remaking of one another—that we are capable of causing harm. To truly meet one another, across divides both taxonomic and otherwise, requires that we hold an awareness of and respect for the world-making (and destroying) capacities of every body.
Different bodies, bodies we hadn’t planned for, bodies we haven’t already seen and labelled and tamed, move into our spaces (our categories, our toilets, our own bodies) all the time. Taxonomy, definition, bordering, policing doesn’t keep us safe from that: it is already happening, whether we like it or not, and it will keep happening forever until the heat death of the universe. A woman is something different today than she was yesterday, and she’ll be something different tomorrow. We don’t win by building the wall around “woman” in a different, bigger configuration: we win by knocking it down.