Our Own Worst Enemies

The campaign against the Vancouver Women’s Library shows how the left continues to thwart feminist activism

Photo by viki2win
Photo via vivi2win

At a talk held in Vancouver last month, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges told a packed house that the Left needs to join forces in order to resist corporate power and the threat of fascism posed by the Trump administration. “If we are to succeed,” he said, “we will have to make alliances with people in groups whose professed political stances are different from ours, and at times unpalatable to us.” I applauded, buoyed by this rousing call for solidarity among the left.

A few days later, I thought back to what Hedges had said when an open letter was circulated online, claiming to oppose what was described as “transmisogyny and anti-sex work rhetoric.”

The letter referenced a protest that had taken place recently in Vancouver, said to have been organized “by sex workers, trans women, people of colour, queers, and people in solidarity with them that demanded changes to the structure and content of a local space opened by individuals with a history of transphobic and anti-sex worker practices.” In the wake of that protest, the authors of the letter claimed they had witnessed “widespread and targeted expressions of transmisogyny and anti-sex worker rhetoric.”

No specific examples of “transmisogyny and anti-sex worker rhetoric” are described in the letter. Nor was the “local space” in question explicitly named. But for the target audience, the reference was clear: The authors were referring to the February 3 opening of the Vancouver Women’s Library on the city’s eastside, along a strip just below East Hastings street—a place once known as Vancouver’s “kiddie stroll,” where men continue to troll for women today.

However, the group of people who showed up to protest the library that evening were not seeking to confront johns. No, they came out that Friday night to intimidate feminists. Based on numerous interviews I conducted with attendees and video taken at the event, it’s clear that the protesters were not interested in productive engagement—rather, their aim was malicious.

The Vancouver Women’s Library was launched in a nondescript building at 1670 Franklin Street, a shared space that hosts art exhibitions and rents studio space to local artists. The area allotted to the library was tiny. But given the small amount of money available to the founders, this was the only affordable option. The library is run by volunteers, and boasts a remarkable collection, all donated, including many rare books and magazines.

When supporters of the library showed up that evening to celebrate the launch and inspect the catalogue, they were met by a group of people standing outside holding signs that read “Trans Communist Cadre.” Many of these protesters seemed to be inebriated and were openly drinking alcohol. They verbally harassed women outside the building and tried to physically block some from the doorway. A few of the protestors entered the Library and stood in front of the shelves, preventing women from accessing the books. They chanted “No TERFs” (an acronym for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist,” a term used to impugn feminists who centre females in their political organizing), and “No SWERFs” (which means “Sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminist,” and is used in a similarly derogatory way to attack feminists, such as myself, who view the sex industry as violent and oppressive). Some protestors also poured wine on books, smoked inside, stole alcohol, and pulled the fire alarm. They came back the next day and spray-painted the entrance to the building.

The protesters distributed a pamphlet, printed on pink paper, accusing one of the co-founders of “violence” and demanding that she step down and “end her involvement with the library.” They also listed twenty books “to be removed from the catalogue.” Among them was a self-help book called Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach; First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott; Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks; and The Female Man, a science fiction novel by Joanna Russ. The list also contained a number of classic second-wave feminist texts, including Feminism Unmodified by Catharine Mackinnon, a distinguished American law professor; two books by the famed Andrea Dworkin; Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly; and Kathleen Barry’s Female Sexual Slavery (spelled “Sl*v*ry” in the pamphlet, to connote the horror the protesters felt at the use of such a word)—one of the first books ever to expose the brutal reality of sex trafficking. The premise behind the pamphlet, the protest and the open letter that followed was that the library, and those who support it, are somehow responsible for the harm that trans-identified people and prostituted women experience at the hands of men.

This trend of attacking feminists, rather than the systems that funnel women into the sex trade and the men who exploit prostituted women, is misguided. So is the claim that questioning the increasingly elastic conceptualization of “gender identity” is itself a form of “violence.” Nonetheless, this rhetoric is increasingly popular among those who consider themselves to be progressive leftists. These accusations are the product of a bizarrely narrow (and, to my mind, morally dishonest) world view. The Vancouver Women’s Library is open to all (though membership is for women only), and contains books written by both self-identified sex workers and trans people. For the protestors, the issue is not what is excluded from the library, but what is included.

These protesters and their allies root their politics in a libertarian ethos that centres on personal identity and choice. They argue that women should have the right to “choose” to sell their bodies without state interference; and believe that gender represents nothing more than one’s personal expression. By contrast, those of us who align ourselves with the radical feminist movement that launched itself in the sixties see gender itself as oppressive—a sexist idea imposed on people from birth, which we should fight against, not embrace as a liberating identity. Likewise, we understand the sex industry to exist as a result of systems like racism and patriarchy, and oppose the notion that men should be able to buy access to women’s bodies.

The protesters and open-letter signees demand that the library align itself dogmatically with their side of this ideological battle, which means purging any text or author that opposes the sexual exploitation of women. They also decry feminists who support what is commonly referred to as the “Nordic” model of prostitution legislation, which criminalizes men who buy sex and decriminalizes the women who sell it, as hidebound conservatives who seek to stigmatize all women in the sex trade—despite the fact that many of those who lead this movement have worked in the sex trade themselves, and actively work with prostituted women on the front lines.

If this demand for ideological purity strikes you as an oddly fascistic posture for ultra-progressive members of society to strike, you would be right. But sadly, this kind of behaviour has become increasingly common. Some of the same people who advocate for the full legalization of prostitution and pornography—on the basis of “freedom of choice” and “free speech”—have no problem trying to shut down the choices and speech of other women. As described above, they often will couch their demands passive aggressively, claiming that what they seek is an end to the “violence” being done to their side of the debate. But since their definition of “violence” is so broad as to include the very existence of books, ideas, tweets, or Facebook posts they don’t like, the demand effectively becomes a cry for censorship.

In 2015, a petition was launched by Maggie’s Toronto—a sex work lobby group—demanding I be removed as an editor and a writer at rabble.ca, a left-wing Canadian news site. Rather than acknowledge a legitimate disagreement, though, the authors of the petition misrepresented my political positions and work, accusing me of “racism, transmisogyny, and whorephobia.” Rabble determined the accusations were baseless, concluding that my writing was neither transphobic nor racist and that “the petition did not incorporate the full extent of [my] analysis of the sex work industry.” This was not the end of it, of course. While the campaign was unsuccessful in that I was not fired, the petition has been used ever since to smear my work and politics. Those who supported the petition, many of whom identify with the Canadian left, continued to pressure Rabble to remove me, boycotting the site and harassing editors every time my writing appeared.

This was no coincidence, and was not due to any one article in particular. I had contributed to Rabble since 2011, and was the only writer who had ever advanced an argument in favour of the Nordic model, or who criticized the sex industry as both inherently misogynist and an impediment to women’s liberation. I was the only writer who put forth a radical feminist analysis of sex and sexualization, more broadly. I was also the only writer who challenged the erasure of women I saw happening through gender-identity discourse. In October 2016, after an editor censored a piece I wrote that criticized Planned Parenthood’s adoption of gender-neutral language to describe women and the female reproductive system, I quit. That a progressive site claiming to support grassroots movements and radical politics would opt to censor feminist voices that failed to adopt the rigid terminology embraced by young progressives today felt too dangerous for me to accept.

Last month, Nigerian feminist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was asked: “Does it matter how you’ve arrived at being a woman? . . . . For example, if you’re a transwoman who grew up identifying as a man—who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man—does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a ‘real’ woman?”

Adichie responded reservedly—but, to my mind, rationally—saying: “When people talk about ‘Are transwomen women,’ my feeling is transwomen are transwomen.” She went on to explain that there is a difference between growing up being treated as male and growing up being treated as female, and that it is not a “good thing to conflate everything into one.”

“I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that, then, we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning, in the world, as a woman who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

This rather self-evident statement—that the experiences of self-identified transwomen are not literally the same as the experiences of those of us born female—was immediately and widely denounced. Adichie was labelled a “TERF,” as well as “transphobic” and “transmisogynistic”—and was told to “stay quiet and listen.” Trans activist Raquel Willis compared Adichie speaking about what it means to be a woman to Lena Dunham speaking about black people, tweeting that “we can speak for ourselves” and “we don’t need public debates on transwomen.”

Anyone who claims to be progressive and an ally to feminism should reject this call for censorship. Our fight against patriarchy is rooted in the systemic, sex-based oppression that has pervaded our society for centuries and results in ongoing, daily violence against women and girls. This is not simply about words—it is about women’s real lives.

More generally, the notion that any woman should just “sit down and shut up” about the particular circumstances of her oppression is deeply regressive. Women’s voices, writing, and ideas have been erased, dismissed, and ignored throughout history (hence the need for a women’s library in my community—and yours). And it is a sad irony that many leftists who claim to be enemies of the patriarchy are unconsciously copying these tactics in 2017.

One hundred years ago, renowned Marxist Rosa Luxemberg declared that freedom, including freedom of speech, “is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Today, the left seems to have lost sight of this truth, choosing groupthink over critical thought. Instead of challenging the systems and institutions responsible for actual violence and oppression, they’ve taken to bashing feminists who deviate from the approved postmodern script.

The protest against the Vancouver Women’s Library had multiple effects. On one hand, the protestors encouraged the building’s leaseholders to view the Library as a problematic tenant, due to the potential for continued vandalism and disruptions. On the other hand, when word of the attacks spread on the web, financial donations came in from around the world, enabling the Library to move to a larger, safer, more accessible space.

Unfortunately, the smear campaign has attracted some curious allies. The open letter attacking the Library and its supporters was signed by a number of individuals and organizations that would likely consider themselves impeccably progressive, including The Capilano Review, The Mainlander, the Progressive Librarians Guild at UBC, Room Magazine, Spartacus Books, Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group, UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), and Vancouver Status of Women—all of which should be celebrating women’s efforts to create free community spaces, not trying to shut them down.

By silencing dissenting voices, we are doing the work of our historic oppressors; by positioning feminist ideas as a form of “violence,” we trivialize the real violence inflicted on marginalized groups. At a time when the US president is a proud misogynist who celebrated his inauguration by implementing a racist travel ban, seeking to roll back funding for organizations that oppose violence against women, and appointing what appears to be the most wealthy, white, male cabinet in recent history—one that includes climate-change deniers, misogynists and white nationalists—the last thing the left should be doing is cannibalizing itself.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver, BC. Her website is Feminist Current.