April 25, 2013
Radfem 2013 cancelled: should we care?
Radfem 2013 – a women-only conference that aims to “rebuild a radical feminist movement” – appears to have been barred from the organisers’ preferred venue. Those who planned to attend the event are quite understandably unimpressed.
However, others are celebrating this turn of events, arguing that Radfem 2013 is effectively a platform for hate speech. Amongst them are a group known as “Men’s Rights Activists”, who argue that men and boys are systematically marginalised and disadvantaged in modern society.
As claims and counter-claims are furiously exchanged across social media, what is really at stake?
Who are the ‘radfems’?
Radical feminism is a term typically associated with certain ideas and approaches that emerged during the “second wave” of feminism. Radical feminists tend to share the view that gender inequality occurs primarily because of patriarchy, a system of power that prioritises both men and masculinity.
There are many approaches to radical feminism. However, the term “radical feminism” has often come to be associated with a particularly dogmatic, moralistic approach. This is perhaps unfair, but certainly seems to be appropriate in the case of Radfem 2013.
One of the key speakers on both days of the conference is lesbian feminist academic and activist Sheila Jeffreys, a woman known for her scathing critiques of women’s fashion, kinky sex and trans people.
Jeffreys is right to highlight the damage caused by sexist expectations of what women should wear and how we should behave. However, her response – as exemplified in books such as The Lesbian Heresy – is to set out her own strict rules about how we dress and who we fuck. In the 1980s her philosophy inspired a violent turn amongst followers. Roz Kaveney writes:
“I was not present, by a margin of about twenty minutes, when a group of women, disguised with ski masks, smashed up Chain Reaction, the lesbian SM London night club with crowbars and injured the women who got in their way – in the name of opposing violence against women; I was present a few weeks later at the Hackney Empire for an International Women’s Day cabaret when a group of lesbian feminists were jeered by the queue, among whom were almost no SM women, with a cry of ‘Where’s your crowbars?’ I saw women from Sheila Jeffreys’ circle at the picket outside Chain Reaction a few weeks earlier and, if she did not know the women who attacked the club with physical violence, one may assume that she knows a woman who does.”
But that’s in the past, right? And there’s no proof that Jeffreys was directly involved.
No such excuses for Cathy Brennan (a.k.a. “bugbrennan”), who has been booked by Radfem 2013 to run a session on “identity politics, queer theory and the appropriation of radical feminism“. Brennan is known for outing minors and writing to the United Nations opposing civil rights legislation for trans people. She is also the “public face” of Pretendbians, a hate site based largely around screenshots of trans people from dating websites.
Interestingly, a number of other individuals known for transphobic views – including Julie Bindel – were prominently included in the Radfem 2013 programme, but have since been removed.
A number of speakers are also known for their support for the “abolition” or “prohibition” of prostitution – a position that wrongly presumes to speak for the interests of all sex workers.
It’s no surprise then that Radfem 2013 has its fair share of critics, including a wide range of feminists. The conference has been positioned as anti-sex, anti-sexworker, anti-kink and anti-trans.
Some of these criticisms are more fair than others. For instance, many critics assume that Radfem 2013 has followed last year’s event in explicitly excluding trans women. No announcement has been made to this affect. However, many trans people are deeply unimpressed that a platform is being given to known transphobes.
The conference has also been criticised by anti-feminist groups, including a number of Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) organisations. Amongst them are international network A Voice For Men, and local branch MRA London.
The so-called MRAs appear to be living on a different planet: a planet in which women have so successfully seized control that men and boys are now a downtrodden, marginalised group. It isn’t really within the scope of this article to criticise their position, but a beautiful piece that does so can be found here.
The particular kind of radical feminism represented by Radfem 2013 gives MRAs a perfect excuse to feel victimised. Speakers such as Sheila Jeffreys tend to blur the distinction between regarding the patriarchial structures that advantage men as the problem, and treating men (all men, all the time, regardless of context) as the problem. In advocating “political lesbianism” she implies that any form of sexual contact with a man is tantamount to heresy; a lesbian heresy, you could say.
Of course, Radfem 2013 doesn’t represent all radical feminists, let alone all feminists or all women. It’s not the job of women to disavow Radfem 2013 in order to appease the MRAs either. However, the situation allows for an almighty conflict to emerge between these two extremist groups, and woe betide those caught between them.
Radfem 2013 was due to take place in the London Irish Centre. This was cast into doubt a few days ago when MRA London posted a slightly bizarre piece in which they claimed to have ousted the conference after making complaints and holding a protest outside the venue.
A response from Radfem 2013 denounced MRA groups for “terror tactics”, and stated that the event would be going ahead in the Irish Centre. Meanwhile, a number of Radfem supporters began to conflate MRA actions with trans opposition to the conference.
Since then, the situation has only become less clear. An article in The Times implied that the event was cancelled after the venue learned more about it:
“While our commercial bookings subcontractor [an events firm called Off to Work] has a certain amount of freedom to use the centre when we are not using it for cultural events, if it comes to the charity’s attention that an event goes against our policy, then we will point it out to them.
We did some research into RadFem and discovered certain language was used and some statements were made about transgender people that would go against our equalities and diversity policy.
We have discussed with our subcontractor Off to Work how to avoid such confusion in future and have strengthened our internal communications as a result.”
The article also states that the Irish Centre received 29 complaints about Radfem 2013: hardly the work of a well-organised campaign on the part of some trans cabal.
However, a Facebook post by booking agent Off To Work suggests that the decision to cancel Radfem 2013 wasn’t necessarily taken because of concerns regarding equality.
“Our cancellation of the booking was a very difficult decision, but one that we have made to protect the safety of our venue staff [...] We have made this difficult decision based entirely on our available infrastructure and the wellbeing of our staff, without pressure from any group concerned with the subject matter of the conference.”
Why is it that Off To Work feel that the safety of their staff might be in question? It’s unlikely that the conference attendees will find themselves facing off against a baying mob of trans activists; whilst a war of words is being waged on the Internet, there seems little appetite for a full-blown demonstration. Meanwhile, the last major demonstration against transphobia from radical feminists was a relatively relaxed affair. The culprit would therefore seem to be either the paranoia of Radfem organisers, or a genuine threat of intimidation from MRA London.
The real danger
We should care that Radfem 2013 is likely to take place. Its organisers espouse a regressive philosophy that is likely to cause harm to many. If we fail to actively oppose this approach to feminism, it is likely that a new generation of women will also subscribe to their hateful views.
We should also care that MRAs are claiming “victory” in its apparent cancellation. This is partly because a number of radical feminists make a habit of conflating trans activism with “men’s rights” activism. But perhaps more concerning is the idea that MRAs might feel empowered to close down feminist events.
Did MRA London use intimidation tactics against Radfem 2013? There is certainly no excuse for theft and threats under such circumstances. With the evidence available though, it’s difficult to say whether or not this actually happened. The organisers of Radfem 2013 aren’t exactly the most trustworthy source of information.
In a sense, this doesn’t matter. Members of MRA London and other MRA groups think that it is right to shut down feminist events, and now they have reason to believe that they can shut down feminist events. At a time when women are still likely to be paid less than men, are disproportionately affected by the cuts, and are still likely to face gendered abuse and violence, this is a worrying development.
The L Project – ‘It Does Get Better’ music video
April 15, 2012