Guest post: Let them call me whorephobic

Guest post by Magdalen Berns

I was first accused of being a “TERF” by a self-identifying gay M2T student at the University of Edinburgh (UoE) after I disagreed with Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) LGBT Liberation group’s statement of support for infamous drag ‘ban’ of Glasgow LGBT Pride 2015. He was offended by the suggestion that T ought to have sought a mandate from the rest of LGB before publishing under the LGBT banner. He also felt that “cis” women were irrelevant to a conversation about misogyny in drag. After being branded a TERF” due to my non-compliance, I was compelled to look up the Anti-Feminist Trans Activist (AFTA) war on feminist gender theory and the growing trend for no-platforming feminists.

A few weeks on, I learned of Amnesty’s decision to legitimise sexual exploitation of underprivileged women and girls by privileged first-world men, when they backed the full decriminalisation of “sex workers” and “third parties” including pimps, traffickers and men who pay for unwanted sex. Horrified at such a blatant assault on women’s human rights, I shared the relevant open letter from SPACE International in the EUSA Women’s Liberation Facebook group (and some related articles and video content), expecting other feminist students may share my position. At that time, I was unaware that EUSA had collaborated with full decriminalisation lobby group Scot-PEP, in proposing a motion banning “whorephobia” which silences criticism of the sex industry in EUSA “safe space”. So I was stunned by the level of hostility which my advocacy of the Nordic Model received when I was branded a SWERF with “whorephobic” views. Some members identified themselves as affiliates of Scot-PEP, others claimed to be “sex workers”; some of the mob went so far as to assert that sex trade survivor Rachel Moran is fabricating the child abuse and rape which she endured over 7 years as a prostituted victim of the sex trade in Dublin. According to the Women’s Liberation convenor at that time, I had to be banned to keep harmony in the group.

When I heard that the Women’s Liberation convenor who had excluded me was standing down, I took the opportunity to raise awareness of the issues by standing for the role in the October by-elections. After being publicly denounced as an “unsafe” candidate by several of my student peers from LGBT Society and Women’s Liberation I responded to an interview by the Feminist Society (FemSoc) to clarify students concerns about the content of my manifesto. FemSoc saw fit to apply trigger warnings for “cissexism” and “whorephobia” to my interview response and ultimately the compliant candidate won for her “strong stance against whorephobia” by majority of 75 votes to my total, 73. EUSA’s commitment to self-definition, which allows men to vote for their favourite candidate, combined with the low voter turnout (there are approximately 15,000 female students at UoE) were likely to have contributed to the result. Very few students are engaged by student politics and perhaps it is easy to see why that is.

Image credit: Edinburgh University Feminist Society “I’m a feminist because…” Campaign

Having avoided a no-confidence campaign (which would have inevitably ensued if I had actually won), the infamy I gained from the campaign gave me the opportunity to interact with students from across the UK who shared their own stories of being vilified for speaking out about feminism. I also received solidarity from sisters all around the world, many reporting similar experiences of being disinvited, silenced, harassed and defamed for vocal feminism too. Emboldened, I established a Fourth Wave Edinburgh Feminist Activists (EFA) group with other feminists so that we could campaign on local issues which are now taboo – like woman-centred feminism! EFA formed a Sexual Exploitation working group and submitted a response to the Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill which proposes repealing protections against coercion and implementing the failed New Zealand model in Scotland.

Although my experience of standing up to the patriarchy at EUSA was immensely stressful and threatening at times, it was an incredibly worthwhile exercise. I gained far more friends than enemies and above all, I learned to fully appreciate the true potential in female solidarity. If only a few splintered female voices are powerful enough to shake the foundations of male supremacist order, such that it aggressively seeks to silence us, think what more women can achieve, united.

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