Feminism 2020 Wellington Speeches

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On Friday 15th November we were hosted at Parliament by MP David Seymour after being deplatformed by Massey University. It was a fantastic night with speeches from spokeswoman of Speak Up For Women Ani O'Brien, Dr Melissa Derby (AUT), Dr Holly Lawford-Smith (University of Melbourne), and Feminist Current owner and editor Meghan Murphy.

We had the event filmed so we could share the content with those who couldn't attend. Below are links to the transcripts and video from each of our speakers.

For a long time, I insisted ‘feminism’ meant something. That one could not go around calling themselves ‘feminist’ while advocating decidedly ‘unfeminist’ ideas and practices: prostitution as empowering for women; violent sex as liberatory, also potentially empowering for women who ‘choose’ to be choked in bed or perform other pornographic fantasies for their partners, reinforcing and normalizing the notion that women enjoy and are turned on by abuse; self-objectification as a harmless thing, not at all tied to the fact women learn their sexual desirability and fuckability is their primary value in society, and what makes them relevant and worthy of attention; and, of course, the concept of ‘gender identity’ — that is, the idea that what makes a woman is her (or, apparently, ‘his’) identification with the stereotypes attached to ‘femininity’. Modern ‘feminism’ seems to be the very opposite of what women fought for all these decades… A complete reversal. We no longer need rights — those are for bougie ‘white feminists’ — we must embrace sexist gender stereotypes as innate and an expression of our ‘true selves’; and commodifying and objectifying our bodies is the way for women to gain status and respect in society. And because, according to modern identity politics, anything anyone experiences, feels, or claims must be accepted and taken at face value, none of this can be challenged, as critical thought now equates to ‘shaming’, ‘phobia’, or ‘literal violence’.

And it’s not just feminism that’s been affected. The left itself has lost sight of its goals and foundations as well, and instead of being focused on uplifting and empowering the working class and addressing corporate power and the vast and inhumane gap between rich and poor, it has, in the West, at least, turned it’s focus to virtue signalling and callout culture —to ensuring that one’s twitter followers and facebook friends are convinced of one’s virtue and political purity, and that we purge those who fail to toe the modern party line from our midst. These self identified leftists frame themselves as courageous and radical for defending their cult from independent thinkers, but they are anything but. Rather than stand up for truth; free speech; respectful, civil debate; and against violence, threats, abuse, and harassment; they aim only to protect their social circles, political positions, or jobs in various unions, political parties, institutions or NGOs above all else. They fear others just like them, perpetuating a cycle that ensures no one can escape — that no one can tell the truth or ask questions that might challenge accepted mantras.

And, indeed, the left and much of feminism has replaced critical thought and a quest for the truth with mantras.

One of the signs of a cult is that there is a process of indoctrination or education that manifests itself as coercive persuasion or thought reform — also known as "brainwashing".

The culmination of this process is that group members no longer act in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group or its leader. And while of course I do believe that, as members of a society, we should be acting in the interests of the whole, not only of ourselves, it seems clear that in particular contexts, this is harmful. Especially as women have begun to advocate against themselves, and against their own interests, as the result of this ‘brainwashing process’, wherein a few men’s feelings and desires are prioritized over all women’s safety and rights.

I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the whole thing really does creep me out, and I see the comparison to cultishness as apt, and also as disturbing. And I think we need to make sure that, while we criticize trans activism for this behaviour, we also be careful not to replicate it ourselves, in feminism, and in other political movements, as well as in our lives, generally. It’s easy to point the finger elsewhere, rather than to look critically at ourselves.

What seems clear to me is that we, as a society, hate those who tell the truth.

Unfortunately, I’m a fan of telling the truth, which is, apparently, why I am protested and smeared and threatened so much by supposed progressives and supposed feminists.

No matter how clear I am, the smears are endless: A couple of weeks ago, The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s most prominent mainstream papers, printed that I “target sex workers,” that I am known for 'diatribes against trans people,' and that I have 'referred to trans women’s genitalia with rude slang'. None of this is true. Not in the slightest, not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, when I contacted them to pitch an op-ed, speaking for myself, explaining my own perspective, noting I should, at very least, be allowed the right to reply when a publication prints overt libel about me, the opinion editor suggested I try to publish in the ‘letters’ section, as though it is reasonable to relegate me to 200 words or less to defend myself and women’s rights, in response to thousands of words insulting and lying about me.

That I wouldn’t be allowed the space to articulate what so many women are desperately trying to get across, with regard to gender identity legislation and its impact on women and girls, in a paper I have written for in the past, is insulting and unacceptable. It’s not as though I’m some unknown writer to them. (This has been the standard in Canadian media and it is shameful — they are more than willing to smear and vilify me, but won’t let me speak for myself.)

So, seeing as Canadian media continues to refuses to do their jobs, and cover this debate fairly, or represent me accurately, I will do it here.

Some things I like to make clear, when talking about the issue of gender identity:

When I say “sex,” I’m referring to biology — whether an individual is male or female. I define a “man” as an adult male human, and a “woman” as an adult female human.

When I say “gender,” what I mean is the stereotypes and social roles imposed on males and females, based on their sex. This is what I mean when I talk about ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ —the ideas we hold in our society about what women and men should be — what social norms we are expected to adhere to, how we should dress, how we should act, what we should like, what kinds of jobs we should have, what our personality traits should consist of, etc

When I say ‘trans activist’ I’m not specifically or necessarily talking about trans identified people, I’m talking about any person who promotes and supports gender identity ideology and legislation.

When I say ‘gender identity ideology’ (or ‘transgender ideology), I’m referring to the idea that it’s possible for a person to be ‘born in the wrong body’ or that it’s possible for a person to change sex.

When I talk about ‘gender identity legislation’ I’m referring to legislation and policies that allow people to self identify as any sex they like, and to access facilities, spaces, political positions, shelters, jobs, grants, universities, sports competitions, etc on that basis.

I am not ‘anti-trans people’— I am pro-reality. I am pro women’s safety. I am anti- an ideology that insists women don’t exist and don’t matter.

I am also not a biological essentialist. Biological essentialism is the idea that an individual’s personality is an innate or natural ‘essence’ – and that this is attached to their sex. I believe that females and males can have all kinds of personalities. I believe boys and girls should be allowed to play with whichever toys they like and wear whatever clothes they like, regardless of whether or not those clothes and toys are designated for ‘girls’ or for ‘boys’. I do not believe all females are inherently passive, irrational, emotional, and drawn to makeup and stilettos. I do not believe that all males are inherently unemotional, unempathetic, and aggressive, and drawn to sports and trucks. I want people to be themselves and be free to live their lives in ways that feel fulfilling and authentic to them. I don’t believe any person should be discriminated against or harassed because they step outside the gender stereotypes laid out for us and enforced on us in so many ways. As a feminist, I think we should encourage people to step out of those stereotypes.

I have not, as the media has reported, said trans people should not have rights or that they are dangerous. I have not suggested “trans people” be excluded from spaces. I am actually really not very interested in whether or not people identify as trans, it has no bearing on my arguments. Transgenderism means nothing to me — it’s too vague a concept to base policy or rights on. As per gender identity ideology itself, trans only exists through self declaration and cannot be measured or determined by any outside party. I have no idea how we can even have a conversation about something that is undefinable, never mind create legislation surrounding that idea, but here we are.

I am not interested in ‘trans identity’, I am only interested in who is male and who is female. And I don’t believe males should have access spaces wherein women and girls are vulnerable, regardless of whether or not those males identify as trans. I’m also not interested in keeping females who identify as trans out of any spaces. That is to say, the ‘transphobia’ accusation is a complete and intentional misnomer. It is a way to pretend we’re not talking about what we are talking about.

I also have not, as so many have claimed, wished violence on anyone. I have never encouraged violence. I oppose all violence. I have never engaged in hate speech. I do hate, though, that I have to say this. That I continue to have to defend myself against completely insane lies.

I have never said that ‘transwomen are not real women’. I don’t use the term ‘real women’. There is no such thing as a ‘real woman’ and a ‘not real woman’. You either are a woman or you are not. It’s not complicated. What I have said is that males who identify as trans are male. This is not a judgement or an insult, it is simply a material reality — a biological reality. If you are born male, you remain male for life. Everyone knows this. This is not a belief or an opinion, it is a fact. Also, to be clear: This does not — or should not — preclude males from wearing clothing designated for women, wearing makeup, growing their hair long, or even getting cosmetic surgery though(I personally believe cosmetic surgeries are serious and should be considered very carefully and analyzed within the context of a culture that demands women be sexually desirable and pleasing to the male gaze above all else, but nonetheless, I’m not in the business of trying to ban people from spending tens of thousands of dollars going under the knife in a fruitless pursuit of the ‘perfect body’, if that’s what they desire).

Being male should also not preclude you from pushing back against the sexist stereotypes attached to masculinity — as a feminist, I fully support people pushing back against such stereotypes.

I have not said that “that trans women shouldn’t be allowed to compete in sporting events against non-trans women.”

What I have said is that female athletes should not be made to compete with or against male athletes. This is because female bodies are different than male bodies.

Males are generally bigger than females. They have more muscle mass, longer limbs, bigger bones, bigger organs, and are, on average, taller. Their pelvises, spines, and feet are different. They move their bodies differently. . This all has a notable impact on athletic ability, among many other things. This is why men and women compete separately in sport. Even if a male athlete reduces his testosterone, it doesn’t undo puberty, nor does it alter their body in significant enough a way to rid them of the advantage they have over women, physically.

The mere fact that mainstream Canadian media is now referring to women as “non-trans” should reveal exactly how regressive this ideology is. Historically, women have been positioned as lesser versions of men, and as existing in comparison to men — men being the norm. Even today, the world continues to be built to male standards, as they remain the assumed ‘norm’, and women the ‘other.’ This means that office temperatures are set for male bodies, which explains why you’ll see women wearing sweaters in the office in the middle of July. Women are more likely to be injured or to die in car crashes, because cars are built for male bodies. Women die from heart attacks more often than men, because heart attack symptoms show up in different ways for women, and we assume the universal symptoms of heart attacks are those experienced by males. This list goes on and on.

Yet today, in 2019, the trans movement has determined there are not women and men, but males and ‘non-males’, essentially defining women right out of the picture. I guess the future isn’t so feminist after all…

In fact, the entire language of the oh so progressive trans activist movement has taken up the erasure of women in order to accommodate a tiny minority of people who would like us all to pretend that material reality doesn’t exist. We are no longer women, but ‘cis women’, which means, supposedly, we are women who ‘identify with the gender assigned to us at birth’.

This is insulting. I am not a woman because I identify with femininity. I do not identify with the stereotypes imposed on me in a patriarchal society. I am not passive, irrational, or over emotional. I am not a woman because I wear makeup or high heels. My long hair doesn’t make me a woman. If I were dressed in a suit, with a shaved my head and makeupless, I’d STILL be a woman.

I did not emerge from the womb in a skirt. at no point in my life have I identified with every single stereotype associated with ‘my gender.’ I did not, as a child, prefer dresses to pants or dolls to trucks. In fact, I very much wanted to be ‘like the boys’ when I was little, refusing all things pink and choosing the boys black ballet uniform over the girls’, for the brief period I suffered through ballet. While surely there are plenty of ‘feminine’ stereotypes that do apply to me, I am not at all ‘binary’, when it comes to gender. I’m far more complex than that, as we all are. And YET, despite my multitude of personality traits and likes and dislikes that do and not fit within the ‘gender binary,’ I am still female. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

Labelling women ‘cis’ defines us based on only gender stereotypes — something feminists have been fighting since the getgo.

What is incredibly ironic about this debate — and the way feminists who challenge transgender ideology are positioned — is that feminists are the ones who have always argued against the ‘gender binary.’ We want people to be free to be themselves and not to feel pressured to adopt masculine or feminine stereotypes. Yet we are the ones, in this debate, accused of being ‘conservative’ or ‘regressive’ or not allowing people to be who they ‘really are’. This, coming from people who say that any boy who loves frilly pink dresses cannot possibly just be a boy who loves frilly pink dresses, but must really be a girl; and that a girl who does not want to wear dresses or be sexualized must actually be a boy.

I was protested by about 500 people last month when speaking about all this at the Toronto Public Library. I had to be escorted to the venue by bodyguards and there was a massive police presence to protect myself and attendees. Those protesters hurled insults at the attendees — who were primarily women — as they left the event: fuck you terf bitch, being a popular one. They chanted ‘shame’ at these people, who simply wanted to have a conversation about policies and legislation that have a massive impact on half of the population.

At our recent event in Vancouver looking at the issue of media bias in the gender identity debate, protesters showed up with a cardboard guillotine with the words ‘terfs, swerfs, step right up’ written on it. I and other women like me are being threatened with violence and death simply for speaking about entirely reasonable concerns like, for example, men being transferred to female prisons, and assaulting and harassing female inmates in those prisons. And leftists are not just doing nothing, but they are encouraging it. They are encouraging it by pretending we are the dangerous, violent, bigoted, fascist ones. When the reality is that the opposite is true.

Bigotry means “Intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.”

Bigotry is ‘an obstinate or intolerant devotion to one's own opinions and prejudices.’ It is someone who ‘ regards or treats members of a group with hatred and intolerance.’

Facism is characterized, generally, by dictatorial power and forcible suppression of opposition.

Hitler proliferated lies about and dehumanized Jewish people in order to justify abuse and genocide. The Nazis used propaganda to spread antisemitism, quell dissent, and turn people against one another. German newspapers printed cartoons and ads depicting antisemitic images and messages, similar to those you might see online about so called ‘terfs’.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” was Hilter’s guiding mantra. He trusted that people wouldn’t think for themselves and would simply act out of fear or intellectual laziness, jumping on bandwagons without questioning their purpose and foundation. The Holocaust was successful because the public went along with it — because individuals believed the myths and lies proliferated by the Nazis — because they didn’t stand up, think critically, or push back.

I think it’s good to remember what facism actually is and who the bigots really are in this debate, as our detractors are engaged in a massive smear campaign, that endangers and dehumanizes women, and too many people are going along with it, without investigating for themselves. And that scares me.

Journalist and author Chris Hedges said, “I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.” And I implore you to take that same message to the fight against gender identity legislation and towards women’s rights. I, in fact, do think we can win. Easily.

If everyone who believed that what’s happening right now is wrong — that men should not be allowed access to women’s shelters, transition houses, and change rooms — that it is not possible to change sex EVER, never mind through announcement, that it is a lie to say that men can become pregnant and that a penis can be female — if all of those people spoke up, this fight would be over. Because the majority of us know and understand these basic facts, but are too afraid to say so.

I fight this fight because it is the right thing to do. Not because it is lucrative or personally beneficial to me. My life would be much easier if I said nothing. But I refuse to lie and I could not live with myself if I sat back and watched all that my foremothers fought for be destroyed within only a matter of years, because it was inconvenient for me to speak up.

I have lost friends. I do feel afraid. I feel stressed and hurt and angry at the way I have been treated by the media and by those I know around me, in my city, in my friend group. I worry about my ability to continue to make a living. I worry about violence. But I will not lie. And I will not remain silent in the face something I view as a threat to women and girls, but also in the face of nonsense. I will not say that 2 + 2 is five or that a man is a woman. This is a dangerous path to go down — the one where we do as we are told and repeat mantras dictated to us despite the fact they make no sense. We desperately need to think for ourselves and cling to our right to speak our minds and speak the truth. It matters in this fight, but it also matters outside this fight.

A society characterized by authoritarianism, the forcible suppression of opposition, propaganda, the demonization of dissidents, the practice of framing one's group as a victim in order to justify any behavior at all against the group's enemies, the idea that anything that impedes the project must be gotten rid of, often violently… These are all characteristics of a fascist society. And this is what I’m seeing being promoted by the trans activist movement (and by leftists, more broadly). It is wrong.

I want to conclude by quoting the great Magdalen Berns, who said, ‘you might be worried about your job or your friends, but your rights are more important than anything else.’ She was right. And the time to fight is now, before it’s too late.

What is a woman? Is there a difference between being a woman and being female? If there is a difference, which one is feminism for? Which one—if either—should the law protect? Which one do we need data about? Is language like ‘pregnant people’, or ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ inclusive, as we are often told, or exclusive, because it obscures the fact that more than half of all ‘people’ won’t experience these things?

In her 1988 book Inessential Woman, Elizabeth Spelman argues that there’s some sense in which Plato was a feminist (despite the often derogatory comments about femininity scattered throughout his works). For Plato, it’s all about what kind of soul a person has. In the hierarchy of souls, there are ‘philosopher-kings’, who are at the top, then ‘auxiliaries’ (a kind of assistant), then ‘artisans/producers’ (next in the hierarchy), then, finally, slaves (at the bottom of the hierarchy). But because Plato insists on a dualism between the body and the soul, where the soul is a real, immaterial thing that transcends and outlasts the body, he thinks there’s no necessary connection between a certain type of body and a certain type of soul. So while we hear a lot today about ‘philosopher-kings’ in Plato’s worldview, he actually admits the possibility of ‘philosopherqueens’. This is the sense in which he was a feminist, at least for his time. You can’t know just from the fact that someone is female that they’re not at the top of the hierarchy. There can be manly souls encased in female bodies. Notice that if I had said ‘trapped in female bodies’ instead, we’d be right up to present gender theory with this 2,367 year-old text (Laws was written in 348 BCE).

Spelman also asks about Aristotle’s conception of woman. In Aristotle, people have ‘natures’ that make them either highly rational and fit to rule; a bit rational but mainly driven by bodily appetites and emotion, and so not fit to rule; or fit to serve / be ruled. The Aristotelian hierarchy goes: free men, free women, slaves. What is interesting is that feminist theory before Spelman had focused on the relationship between free men and free women to understand Aristotle’s conception of woman (which, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was really quite sexist). Spelman argues that if we want to understand Aristotle’s conception of woman, we need to think about both free women and slave women. Working through this reveals something interesting: Aristotle makes an early version of the sex / gender distinction. Free women and slave women are both female, but only free women are “women” in his sense, and only free men are “men” in his sense. “Man” and “woman” (or their Greek equivalents) are being deployed as gender terms, that pick out a particular societal role only accessible to those marked as having superior (highly rational) natures. There are no gender roles between slaves; sex doesn’t matter. But there are between the ruling classes and their companions (the non-slaves). Unlike Plato, Aristotle didn’t think women were fit to rule; he thought women were across the board substantially less rational than men, but some of those women were fit to be companions to free men, to have their children and run their households (lucky them), while others of those women were fit to serve the ruling classes and their companions (alongside similarly positioned men).

I’m aware that I might have made it sound like Spelman wrote a really great book about what all the dead white men much revered in philosophy had to say about woman, but actually that isn’t what the book is about. The book is actually an argument against the idea that there’s a coherent category “woman” that all women are members of, and in favour of the idea that there are, rather, highly specific groups of women (e.g. women of particular race and class backgrounds). In focusing on slave women in Aristotle, and philosopher-queens in Plato, she’s deliberately paying attention to an overlooked category of women. But for our purposes here, what’s more interesting and revealing is the dualism between manly and womanly souls and female and male bodies in Plato, and the distinction between sex and gender roles in Aristotle. Today we’re used to the idea that gender is the social meaning of sex, but ‘social meaning’ is just vague enough to obscure what the category of gender actually is when decoupled from sex.

Let’s skip ahead from Spelman in 1988 to Doug Murray in the present. Murray complains in his new book The Madness of Crowds about the ‘new metaphysics’ of the identity politics era. In a sense he’s right: it’s ‘new’ compared to what we’d settled on prior, which was a materialism (or in the philosophy of mind, physicalism) grounded in the hard sciences. Few people believe in souls anymore; the sensible forms of dualism that persist today are about consciousness, and the ‘hard problem’ of why there is something that it’s like to be me (or you). Most progressives, at least, reject the idea of ‘natures’ today, at least in the sense that there are significant differences between people in terms of their rational capacities, and that these differences make them fit for different positions in the social hierarchy. But in another sense, Murray is wrong: this metaphysics of gendered souls (Plato) or gendered natures (Aristotle) or gender identities (the more common term today) is thousands of years old, and had been largely discredited. Most of us would reject the hierarchies of Plato or Aristotle today; in modern day New Zealand and Australia we are egalitarian. We acknowledge that women reproduce, without thinking that women are the ‘reproductive classes’ whose job it is to produce future privileged men and run the households of the men who they produce them with. Souls and natures stratify people into social roles. If gender identities don’t do this, then they’re inert, and we wouldn’t expect to see people defending them so vociferously. But if they do, why should we accept them?

There are two moves we can make at this point. We can preserve the idea of ‘gender roles’ (that is to say, gendered social roles) but update them to fit our current values, meaning, work to make them liberal and egalitarian. Or, we can get rid of the idea of roles. I think this choice is exactly where the tension arises between contemporary transgender activism, and contemporary radical / gender critical feminism. Trans activists want to do the former, or something close to it, and feminists—you know, actual feminists—want to do the latter.

Julia Serano in Whipping Girl, for example, makes part of the first move, the move where we update the idea of gender roles to fit our current values. She says the problem is not that there are masculine and feminine roles in society, the problem is that the feminine role is devalued relative to the masculine role. We don’t need to get rid of gender roles, we just need to make sure that we see them as equal, as operating in harmony — there’s the masculine and the feminine and they’re both good and they work together, they’re complementary. But while this is egalitarian, it’s not liberal: most people are coerced into their roles, except for trans people who get to resist their coercion and swap roles. This presumes that most people are happy with their roles, and that if they weren’t, they’d be trans. But we know that many people are not happy with gender roles and expectations, in particular we know this from feminist theory, but also from what some progressive men say about (the constraints of) masculinity. So to patch this view we’d at least need to get rid of coercion, which means making all gender roles fully voluntary. I guess that would mean something like, not coercing anyone until they were old enough to choose, in which case they could make an informed decision.

And indeed, this looks something like the current ‘progressive’ gender ideology: raise kids gender neutral, be extremely receptive to any claims they make about whether they’re a boy or a girl, and what kinds of gendered behaviours they seem to be engaging in, and if they look like they’re doing their sex wrong ‘affirm’ them into the other category. We end up with a world in which male and female people get to choose: man, woman, nonbinary. There are male and female men, male and female women, and male and female nonbinary people. The mantra “some women have penises!” is true in this world. And all these three categories (or more, if we like) are equally valued and there are no serious differences in outcomes between them. This is a valuable way to go if we think there’s something desirable about a society stratified into ‘man-role people’, ‘woman-role people’, and ‘neither-role people’. Would sex matter in this society? At the end, no; there would be a difference between being a woman and being female but that difference would be like the difference between having blonde hair or brown hair. But along the way, possibly; it matters now and it’s likely to continue mattering for a while. We need to keep protecting sex until it stops mattering. So this suggests decoupling ‘woman’ and ‘female’ in the beginning, and seriously considering whether both involve discrimination or disadvantage. Are woman-role people disadvantaged, or are only female people? It seems doubtful to me that a person known to be male in the woman role would suffer e.g. pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination in the workplace, but perhaps there is a form of disadvantage that attaches purely to feminine appearance. That would be something to work out. Who would feminism be for, on this view? In the end, it would be for woman-role people, but we probably wouldn’t need it because all genders would be equal. Along the way, it might need to be for either female people or woman-role people or both; that would depend on the ways in which people from either category were socially disadvantaged and the extent to which they needed a social movement to advocate for their interests. (Many liberal feminists now are simply taking the ‘both’ line, although some seem to focus rather more on the woman-role people than the female people, at the expense of the latter). In the end, the law wouldn’t need to protect anyone on the basis of gender because all genders would be equal; we wouldn’t need to collect data on the basis of gender because all genders would be equal; and language like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ and ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ would be perfectly appropriate, because after all, people from all three gender roles could experience these things. But along the way — given that sex still matters, and words that enable disadvantaged groups to articulate their own situation are important to advocating for equality or liberation, and data enables us to track progress — we’ll still need these things.

I’ve been assuming for the sake of argument that it’s coherent to simply divorce female and woman-role person from each other. The feminists throughout history who have divorced these two have not said they come completely apart. Rather, they have said that there’s more to being a woman than merely being female. Other stuff gets added on top. But that’s not what we’re talking about with the current gender ideology, we’re talking about the possibility of the womanrole person being a man. The problem is, it’s a bit hard to fill out the content of these roles — are the women-role people the sparkly, pretty, decorative ones? Are they the ones who stay home with the kids? Are they the kind ones that listen to people’s problems and have deep friendships? Is there anything the man-role people can do that the woman-role people can’t do, and vice versa? If the content isn’t any of these things, what is it? And if there’s nothing woman-role people can do that man-role people can’t, why would someone feel the need to be in one role rather than the other? There’s certainly something appealing about this way of updating the Platonic and Aristotelian view of gender roles (via gendered souls or natures), given the improvements it offers to the status quo: more freedom in that we choose our gender role rather than being socialised into one, and more equality in that all gender roles are accorded equal social value. The question is whether it’s the best strategy we’ve got available.

I think it isn’t. The other option is to reject the new (old) metaphysics, to remain firmly materialist, and to work to dismantle gender roles entirely. That means we keep believing in sex (it’s good to believe in the things that science tells us there is), but we resist the idea that a person’s sex limits what she or he can do or be like in her life (except for the obvious, experiences tied immediately to which kind of body you have, like menstruation or pregnancy, but not things tied to the politics of which kind of body you have, like being more vulnerable to sexual assault or domestic violence). We teach kids that their sex doesn’t limit them in terms of their friends, their clothes, their hobbies, their sports, their academic subjects, their future partners or their future careers. But we also make sensible accommodations for differences, like having different sporting categories to make competition between different types of bodies fair. For as long as women are sexually objectified by men, or at risk of violence from men, we offer them protections, like single-sex changing rooms, and single-sex prisons. Maybe one day we won’t need these, but we won’t get to that world by just pretending we’re already in it (or if we might, the cost to women of bringing it about that way is too high).

This future has the same kind of starting point as the other one, something like raising kids gender neutral (not socialising them into specific roles on the basis of their sex), but it doesn’t require sex denialism and it doesn’t justify panicking every time your kid does something not 100% ‘gender conforming’ and it doesn’t mean packing them off to the gender clinic if they do something that doesn’t fit a stereotype. In this world, when all is said and done, there will be boys in dresses and glitter and there will be girls in pants with short hair (you see how much progress feminism has made in liberating women from their gender role just in reflecting on how ridiculous that comparison is: women are already doing all the things men do and being all the ways men are, it’s just men that aren’t doing that in the reverse, because they still have so much work to do to escape the constraints of masculinity). But abdicating manhood in order to escape is no way to achieve liberation, especially not when it means i) leaving the rest of the men to their lot, and ii) compromising women’s path to liberation by compromising e.g. women-only spaces, provisions, and services (by having men in them). Imagine what the history of feminism would look like if the initial resisters had just declared themselves to be men!

What about those men who feel desperately strongly about gender roles, and swapping over into the feminine role? Philosopher Andrea Long Chu, author of the recent book Females (she’s not), writes (elsewhere) about the desire for the female role, and about having no real interest in abolishing gender or gender roles. While her honesty is unusual, and appreciated, it’s clear that the desires of a small number of men do not justify the non-liberation of half the population of the world. It’s good for women to not be socialised into narrow and constraining gender roles (and actually, it’s good for men, too). We should abolish gender roles, and be left with nothing but sex. The cost of liberation for a large number of people is the frustrated desire of a small number of people. So be it.

On this alternative, there is no difference between being a woman and being female. Feminism is for female people, also known as women. The law should protect female people until such a time as it doesn’t need to, because there are no significant differences in outcome between female people and male people. We need data about female people in order to track this difference, and know when the difference has disappeared. Language like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ and ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ is ridiculous, performing a kind of #alllivesmatter on feminism. It obscures the fact that more than half of all people, the male ones, won’t have these experiences.

In conclusion. I hope you agree that when we consider these two moves side by side, it’s clear which one is better. Woman is not a soul independent of a body, and it’s not a nature that makes you fit for one social role rather than another. We don’t need to merely tweak those social roles so that they’re a bit more equal and there’s a bit more freedom about which one you end up in. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to slip from woman as a gender term, and gender as the social meaning of sex, to a social meaning entirely divorced from sex. Feminists worked hard to articulate the social meaning of sex so that they could show that it had been imposed upon women, rather than being an essential part of women’s natures. We don’t make the world better by continuing to impose those meanings and just opening the imposition up to some men. We need to continue to mitigate women’s historical exclusion and marginalisation, which means keeping sex-based provisions and protections in place, while working toward a future in which we no longer need them.

And seeing as that is a cultural requirement, my 20 minutes start now, and I understand I’ll have no objections to that. I was actually told recently that you’re not allowed to criticise anything Maori, so on that basis, everyone is going to LOVE my talk this evening – or so I’ll be told! It’s quite useful actually, because as far as points in the Oppression Olympics are concerned, I’m always off to a good start, being female with Maori heritage – although now that people who are biologically men want to compete in our sports teams, my winning streak may be coming to an end. Still, at least we can all vote right?

As I mentioned in my mihi, my name is Melissa Derby and I’m a Lecturer at AUT University in Auckland – a university that is committed to the ideals of free speech, unlike others in this country.

In order to score myself some Points for Wokeness, as is the current social trend, and thus add to the points already accrued this evening due to my Maori ancestry, I should let you know that my pronouns are me, myself, and I. I’m not being facetious – THAT would be dangerous in the minefield that is the gender wars – but rather in light of the world of identity politics and intersectionality that we all find ourselves in, I have a good case for using those pronouns. Hear me out.

In this modern woke world we live in, somewhere along the way, someone thought it was a good idea to divide us quite arbitrarily into groups based generally on four main things – race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and to an arguably lesser extent, religion. These divisions are creating an increasingly polarised society – where each group is pitted against the other in the so-called culture wars. Invariably, the one who is the Most Hard Done By wins the battle – mostly out of pity disguised as benevolence, which has its own set of underlying messages about who really has the power.

Now, within these arbitrary groups, other groups can be formed – you might be a person of colour, who is a woman, who is also gay. But this goes further still. Did you grow up in urban or rural settings? What cultural traditions are in your family background? Do you have a disability or health issues? What are some socioeconomic or sociocultural factors that influence you as a person? What hobbies and interests do you have? The questions are endless. My point is that our identities are complex. There is a myriad of things that impact on our identity to the point that a good argument can be made, and is made my many, that the ultimate minority is the individual. Some argue those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities. So, with that in mind, certain activists cannot deny my pronouns, lest they be accused of denying minority rights! I’m not sure they would agree though, and I’ve probably now just landed myself a hate speech conviction. As I said, it’s a minefield out there!

When Speak Up For Women asked me to speak at this event alongside these three other incredible women, I felt extremely honoured, and I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to come along tonight to insist our voices are – and remain – heard! It is my strong belief that the issues of gender identity and women’s rights today are extremely important not only for women (although particularly for women) but for society as a whole. We cannot be expected to change the way we view issues of science, humanity, and – for us – what it means to be a woman without some sort of discussion around this. We must not tolerate a world in which we are demonised for daring to ask a question or express our opinion, and a world where – instead of getting answers to perfectly valid questions – we get vitriol and hatred. That is not ok!

So when I accepted the invitation to speak this evening, I thought I’d discuss issues of identity politics and censorship – and that’s all I knew. Massey, of course, knew what we were all going to say weeks ago – remarkably before I even knew the details of my talk! They even knew they disagreed with everything we HADN’T even said yet – which is most impressive! So that’s what I’ll be discussing this evening – the implications of identity politics and censorship, as well of some of my personal experiences of this as a woman with Maori heritage. And yes, I’m purposely not using the term “Maori woman” because I can’t stand the labels, and the implications they often come with.

I’m sure you all followed the saga in the media around Massey cancelling our event, and I’d like to thank Massey for that because look where we are this evening! A round of applause is due! I’d also like to thank the so-called activists for making such a fuss about a group of women getting together to discuss what it means to be a woman in nearly 2020, and in doing so, proving me right on every point I’m going to make this evening. They made this so easy, and have provided a perfect example of the dangers of identity politics and the implications these have on free speech, which is of course a cornerstone of our democracy and a free society. Thinking back to the time of the suffragette movement in this country, women relied heavily on free speech to get their points across and to affect change in this country, and indeed elsewhere. It astonishes me that there are those among us who are intent on throwing free speech away, especially when in so many countries around the world, people can suffer extraordinary fates merely from expressing a different opinion from the party line. NZ must not continue to go down that path.

For the so-called hateful crime of daring to speak this evening, we have all been targeted in numerous ways – on social media, of course, being the main one. Speaking for myself now, my workplace has been called and emailed numerous times, my boss has been inundated with complaints, and calls for my employment to be terminated were made. For what? For being a danger to others, causing harm and violence – we’ve all heard it before. In addition to this, my identity as a woman with Maori heritage was brought into question – and this isn’t the first time this has happened due to opinions I have expressed. Allow me to elaborate.

Some of you may have seen on social media the assertion from another Maori woman that to be here tonight, let alone to speak, was to support white supremacy. Others claimed that Speak Up For Women is ‘white feminism’. It’s hard to know where to start in addressing such ludicrous and insulting suggestions. Not insulting to me, but rather to those who suffer and have suffered at the hands of real white supremacists – or indeed extremists of any kind. The notion that being here or speaking tonight is a form of white supremacy is disgusting.

And what “evidence” is there to support this claim of white supremacy? In the words of one often-quoted academic on the issue of gender in relation to traditional Maori society, she “absolutely believes that, generally, diverse sexuality and fluidity in gender roles was accepted by our people… [ie Maori] and that all records show we didn’t have a problem with it”. Words like “believe” and “generally” come with a semblance of subjectivity of course. But even IF we could find records that mentioned things such as gender fluidity in colonial times – which is near-on impossible – so what? There are two points I want to make really clear here.

  1. “Not having a problem” with gender fluidity in precolonial tribal society is NOT the same as expecting women – and men for that matter – not to raise issues in the 21st century, when the implications of gender identity issues on society are vastly different. Did we have men playing in women’s sports teams in the 17th century, or men entering women’s prisons or safe houses in the 16th century? Of course not. The issues are not comparable.
  2. The idea that I – or anyone – has to think like my ancestors APPARENTLY thought is ridiculous! Do we ask Pakeha to do the same thing? NO! And why not? There is an element of racism in the idea that I have to think like my ancestors APPARENTLY thought, which necessarily limits Maori to the sum total of the thoughts and ideas our ancestors had. If we applied that suggestion to the entire existence of the human race, we’d all still be mucking about in caves.

My point here is that every Maori, every woman – and of course every individual person – has every right to form our own opinion about anything we like. It does not need to align with someone else’s vision of what we should be or how we should think. We didn’t fight for equality only to be told by someone else what our opinion is meant to be – no matter who that someone else is!

Douglas Murray, in his recent book The Madness of Crowds talks about this exact phenomenon, where certain identity groups are presumed to all think the same – and heaven help anyone in that group who holds a different view. This idea has reached such insane heights that it was declared that Peter Thiel, who is a gay man, when he came out in support of Trump, (and I quote) “might sleep with other men but in no other way is he gay”. Clearly I missed the memo on the new definition of what being a gay man means. Likewise with Kanye West after he donned a MAGA hat – he was no longer black. Now I don’t know if anyone has seen an image of Kanye West lately, but the notion that he is no longer black is absurd! And finally Germaine Greer, banned from the Feminist Club by some for asserting that men who identify as women are pretend women. If Germaine Greer isn’t a feminist, who is?

And so identity politics unfolds – fracturing us into groups based on arbitrary characteristics of our identity, and then assuming we all must think the same as each other. If you don’t, you’re banished from that group by a small but vocal few who will not have their ideology challenged, least of all by one of their own. Of course this aversion to any dissent in their ranks raises questions about the validity of their argument. If you believe in your argument, you should be able to defend it. Those who forcibly shut down debate do so because they know their reasoning cannot stand up to scrutiny. This kind of behaviour also makes a mockery of the notion of diversity that so many organisations, including our universities, subscribe to. How shallow is diversity if it only extends to the superficial aspects of who we are, and not to the thoughts we may have?

I had a particularly nasty experience recently which illustrates the vitriol that can come from those who buy into identity politics – all in the name of tolerance and inclusion, of course. I co-authored a research paper, which I shared to an online research forum in order to gain feedback from other academics. The paper was questioning the assertion that all Maori suffer from trauma due to colonisation, and examined this notion from psychological, historical, and cultural standpoints. It followed academic conventions, was informed by research, and was peer-reviewed by academics from NZ and overseas before it was published.

After I shared it to the group, the admin person – a Maori woman – removed the paper, twice. Why? Not because it was flawed research, not because the arguments in the paper were defeated, and not because it didn’t follow academic conventions. It was removed because I wrote it with a Pakeha man. I was told research by Pakeha men was not welcome there (never mind the fact I was a co-author), and the act of removing the article was cheered on by others as an act of resistance – to what I don’t know. Could you imagine, though, the uproar – and rightly so – if an article was deleted simply because it was written by a Maori woman – or man for that matter? If that is racist, so is removing it because it was written by a Pakeha man.

Following its removal came the usual social media pile-on. I was told by other academics that I was a danger to Maori, that I had a colonised mind, that I was a supporter of racism and white supremacy, and that I was now on some sort of blacklist of dangerous people. Complaints were made to my employer, as well as the organisation funding my research, and there were numerous threats to end my career. All of this, because I dared to write an article with a straight, white male. The modern-day root of all evil. To this day, the argument put forward in the article remains unaddressed, and undefeated.

Members of Speak Up For Women have been subjected to the same sort of abuse. Some of you may have seen an open letter written some months back about the LGBTQI community, and the response from Ani both in her blog and on social media. Rather than address the very valid concerns raised by Ani, Ani was told that she had no right to comment because of “whose land she was on”. The suggestion was that because Ani is Pakeha, she didn’t have a right to an opinion on this issue. Now, anyone who knows anything about world history and human movement would know that the idea that someone cannot speak on an issue in 2019 because they haven’t remained on the same land as their ancestors for all eternity is a joke. I’d go so far to say it is evidence of intellectual impotence – clearly they had no better argument.

But the usual pile-on followed, where Ani was told her feminism, and that of Speak Up For Women, was ‘white feminism’. I don’t even know what that means – and I doubt they do either – but what I do know is that plenty of Maori women support Speak Up For Women, although of course not all do, such is their prerogative. Plenty of Maori women also do not buy into this mystical, fairy-dust gender identity we’re all supposed to have, which is apparently more important than our biology. Plenty of Maori women disagree with the suggestion that if you don’t conform to a particular gender stereotype, then by virtue of that, you are literally the opposite sex. By claiming that a group like Speak Up For Women is ‘white feminism’, they erase Maori women – and many others might I add. As I said, all in the name of tolerance and inclusion and peace and harmony.

There are countless examples to illustrate the polarising nature of identity politics, and the role this plays in censoring people. And the fuss created by this event proves my point that arbitrary aspects of our identity are used more and more often to shut down debate, with the Most Hard Done By winning – although not this time! In all seriousness though, this is something that should concern us all. If a group of women are banned from a university campus, apparently because discussing huge changes to the way we view science and – and in my view, reality – hurts the feelings of a few vocal bullies, who’s next on the censorship block?

To wrap up this evening, I’d like to share a story that illustrates how silly and superficial identity politics really is. I recently spent a year in the USA on a Fulbright scholarship, returning to NZ in the middle of this year. Shortly after arriving in the USA, I spent five days with 51 other recipients from 35 different countries – from Lesotho to Lebanon, Indonesia to Iraq, Brazil to Belgium, and everywhere in between. We met one another over a Basque meal in the Nevada desert, and formed fast and firm bonds. We were inquisitive about each other’s country of origin, and curious about our cultural differences. At breakfast one morning, I was sat at a table with seven newfound friends from Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Bolivia, Iraq, Belgium, and Jordan. We were discussing the different breakfast cuisine in our respective countries, trying to decide who had the ‘worst’ food.

Our conversation was cut short by a call to start a session on goal-setting and planning for our time in the USA. It was during this session that our similarities became abundantly clear. Essentially, we all hoped for the same things, we were all fearful of the same things, we all identified the same challenges, and we all wanted to make the same contributions to our countries – and most importantly, to the global community to which we all saw ourselves as belonging. What was overwhelmingly evident was how much we all had in common. And even our differences were superficial – we may have eaten different things for breakfast, but we all still ate breakfast.

It was also during my stint in the USA that I spent a good deal of time researching the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr, someone whom I have long admired. There are many quotes from King, and a good many have been condensed down to Hallmark-type feel-good quotes. However, one of his key messages, which blows apart the absurdity of identity politics is – and I quote:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” My point here is that we are all far more alike than we are different, so creating random groups based on but one or two factors of our very complex identities, then using those groups as weapons against others really makes very little sense. Instead, let’s connect on our shared humanity, and let’s kick the toxic game of identity politics to the curb. And, as history tells us, shutting down debate and advocating for censorship never ends well. Of course, Massey disagrees with everything I have just said!

In closing, I’d like to share another story I came across in the USA, which involves Abraham Lincoln. He was faced with a thorny issue, and in order to illustrate his point, he asked how many legs a calf has? Some recollections have him asking how many legs a dog has. Obviously, the answer he was given was four. Lincoln continued, and asked how many legs a calf would have if we called the tail a leg. “Five,” came the answer from the respondent, confident in their ability to do simple addition. “No,” Lincoln replied. “Calling the tail a leg, doesn’t make it a leg.” Thank you very much.

Before I begin, I do want to flag that I will be discussing some pretty upsetting realities around sexual violence in particular. I will be using language I didn’t expect to ever be using in Parliament, but it is necessary and we at Speak Up For Women have become accustomed to being the ones unafraid to have the conversations that need to be had.

I will start by reading a thread posted on Twitter recently by a young feminist called Erin:

Boys started bringing porn magazines to school when I was in the 4th grade. My friends & I started watching it at sleepovers when I was 11 because we’d heard so much about it. Seeing adult women being chocked and spit on & violently fucked is traumatizing 

for young women who already lack positive role models. Young minds can’t process porn, what’s real & what’s not, what’s expected & what’s nonconsensual. All we see is bodies, being handled like meat, and supposedly they like it? Do I like it? Do I have to do this? Is this sex? 

It doesn’t help that our teen years are when we begin to be told things like “Don’t go out alone at night” “Don’t dress like that or you’re asking for it” “Be careful dancing like that” “You should cover up.” We go from children to targets all because we develop breasts & curves. 

We all have the friend who starts cutting, the friend who starts giving blow jobs to boys who don’t text her afterwards, the friend who hikes her skirts up after she leaves the house, the friend who never eats. We watch our female peers crumble under girlhood. We become numb. 

On TV we watch crime shows about raped & murdered women, or caricatures of femininity in designer clothes on Riverdale. We’re bombarded with music videos of naked skinny women. We soak in this media in our most formative years: Women are pretty. Women are sexy. Women are victims. 

Teenage boys aren’t told to carry pepper spray or rape whistles. They take karate for fun, not for fear of getting attacked. They watch movies about brotherhood on sports teams, not cheerleaders hating each other. They don’t read magazines full of men with cosmetic surgeries. 

The profound pain & loss that occurs when transitioning from a young girl, constantly told life is full of promise & she can be anything she wants, to a teenager who is a sexual object, a target of her peers, & a victim is life changing. So many of us don’t recover. 

We all come out of teenage girlhood scathed in one way or another. Being a teenage girl is not sexy. It’s not cute. And it’s not something that men will ever, ever understand.

“Why do we even need feminism anymore?” It is a question often levelled at me. “Why do we need feminism?”

I began with Erin’s tweets because they neatly encapsulate the hostile world young women are expected to navigate all while remaining functional with a smile on their faces; being told this is the best women have ever had it. How can anyone live in this world and not see what women are enduring – particularly young women.

However, when we view feminism through the eyes of those not so engaged with the intricacies of feminist politics, we can understand where their skepticism comes from. They aren’t seeing my feminism or Speak Up For Women’s feminism. They’re seeing “choice” feminism; a feminism which is whatever any given woman at any given time says is feminism.

Today I will be answering the question – I hope – of why we need feminism now as much as ever. Not today’s "choice" feminism, but the feminism of our foremothers; the collective class struggle for women’s liberation.

I am not a “sex positive” feminist. It is hard to admit that, not because I am embarrassed about my stance, but because the language that has been used to legitimize the “sex positive” movement makes it deliberately difficult for us to assert ourselves against it. No one wants to be “sex negative” – this evokes images of Victorian repression, prudishness, and the boring kind of woman who will “never find a man”.

Sex positivity began as an anti-shaming movement. It asserted that women should not be shamed for being sexual beings. So far, so good. However, as tends to happen, post-modernists, liberal elites, and the usual naval-gazers took it a step further…and then another…and another… until we are now being told that critiquing violence in sex or furries or grown men in diapers is “kink-shaming” and inherently anti-feminist. After all, how can we be feminists if we are “policing women’s sexuality”? According to choice feminism, if a woman wants to be choked and beaten during sex, then choking and beating during sex is feminist. What this neglects to acknowledge is that it is overwhelmingly men dressing up as animals or in diapers. It is men who commit vile acts of violence against women and call it "rough sex"; it is their sexuality we are really being told not to “shame”.

Campaign group ‘We Can’t Consent To This’ has examined 58 instances where the defence of “sex gone wrong” has been used for murder in the UK alone. This defence has seen some success with 16 cases resulting in the downgraded conviction of manslaughter, 3 cases where charges were not pursued, and 2 cases where the accused was found not guilty. In 100% of these cases the accused was a man.

We are, of course, acutely aware of this defence in New Zealand currently as it plays out in a case heavily covered by the media. To respect the processes of the court I will not go into it this further at this time.

"Choice" feminists will defend violence against women so long as it is in the name of male pleasure. They provide a shield for all number of depraved “kinks” by endorsing the acts as feminist. Where our feminist foremothers fought for our sexual liberation and against male violence, those inhabiting their once incredible organisations have enabled a culture where anything but total sexual disinhibition – including acts that aren’t pleasurable for women and are in fact incredibly painful – is anti ‘sex-positivity’ and anti-feminist.

Teen Vogue is on hand to help though! The popular magazine targeted at teenagers is there to recommend which numbing lubricant our daughters should use to make it easier to endure the sex we are all supposed to be so positive about. The kind of sex that they and their male peers have learned to see as normal, having been exposed to endless amounts of increasingly violent pornography. Whereas once access to porn was a stack of monthly magazines and maybe a VHS tape, now even the most violent, depraved acts can be found online with a simple Google search.

Our young people are being taught by pornographers about sex, intimacy, and relationships and begin to explore their sexuality not by fumbling around with each other but by enacting what they have seen. There is no counter-education to offset this. Our education system seems to be becoming more and more enamored with the “sex positive” approaches curriculum writers see being endorsed by “feminists”. They should not be supporting the notion that it is “normal” for women to be enthusiastic about being pummeled in every orifice. Boys should not be taught to expect this and girls should not be taught to think of sex as what they must endure to please men. Girls, women, you are not abnormal for wanting sex to be pleasurable and pain-free.

Kids are absorbing messages from morally bankrupt media that are ending in real life harm. Just ask medical professionals about the increase in anal injuries to young women. Pornography has normalized the image of rough anal sex as if it is a staple part of everyone’s sex life. Of course, Teen Vogue has an article that is *quote* “anal 101, for teens, beginners, and all inquisitive folk” *end quote*. It tells young women not to tense up because it’ll ruin the fun…or at least it tells “non-prostate havers” that. The magazine is determined to groom teen girls into believing they are deficient if they aren’t desperate to reenact what they have seen in porn.

Young women are being exposed to violent sexual imagery and experiencing extreme sexual degradation before they have left high school. And “feminists” are celebrating this as “sex positivity”. It is NOT positive. It is coercion, violence, and disempowerment. We are here to speak up for girls and against violence in sex.

The concept of empowerment is used liberally by these so-called feminists. Choice is empowering – apparently. But is choice empowering if women are choosing between a rock and a hard place? How can a woman in a desperate financial situation turn her nose up at “sex work” when it is celebrated as a career choice – an empowering way to earn money? The National Council of Women are too busy chanting “sex work is real work” to address the issues that contribute to women being in the situation where they have to consider it in the first place.

Strip clubs and pimps are now putting flyers up at universities appealing to stressed, strapped for cash young women with mounting student loans. Whereas once the university feminist societies would have swooped in to put a stop to this grooming, now they’re cheerleading from the sides – “sex work is real work”.

The feminist position to take in regards to prostitution is to condemn the exploiters and support the prostituted women. Decriminalisation has further disempowered already vulnerable women and made the government and advocacy groups complacent. But don’t take my word for it… I’m going share with you the account of a member of Speak Up For Women who knows exactly what decriminalisation has done to prostituted women: 

The cops knew what was going on was illegal but they turned a blind eye as long as no other laws were being broken eg. Drug dealing or gang association.

I felt that the ‘illegality’ of it always kept men a little on edge; the slight shame, the walk in the shadows, the offer of using the exit at the back to leave. While it was illegal they were being told by society that it was their shame too even if they passed on that shame.

After decrim nothing changed. But it did. I felt less safe. Looking back it was a shift in structure. More responsibility was on us. We were responsible for money related transactions now, which messed with the illusion. It also meant a power struggle in the room.

They expected more. These men saw us as objects. It was so much like a ‘transaction’. Now we were commodities that they legally bought. We both knew it. We worked harder to keep the men happy. We were less protected. The madams were less ‘one of us’.

After decrim there were fees for everything and no mercy. The sense of solidarity was gone between the girls because we worked ‘to appointment ‘.

Legal was hell.

Keeping the shame of illegality hanging over them was my biggest weapon.

That myth was taken away along with the tiny bit of protection it offered.

They are disempowered. They are products and johns are the empowered ones with no consequences for purchasing a woman’s body. Websites have sprung up where johns swap notes and write reviews on women. Trip Advisor for prostitutes. They are quick to complain to the front desk if the woman they have “hired” is not compliant enough or enthusiastic enough. A bad review from a john can severely impact a prostituted woman’s income potential. They are disempowered.

We are called SWERFs for saying this kind of thing – a close relative of the word TERF, it stands for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It is inaccurate – another linguistic trick to make it difficult for people to oppose a pro-prostitution position. We are not “Sex Worker Exclusionary”, we are anti-prostitution, anti-exploitation of women, anti-pimps. We favour a Nordic model of managing prostitution where the johns and pimps are criminalised, but the prostituted are not. Where are New Zealand’s established women’s groups in this? The ones that receive funding and have access to resources? How can they think that telling suffering women that their exploitation is “real work” is any kind of comfort? The image of the “happy hooker” is an anomaly, an outlier. These “feminists” are just cogs in the wheel of the sexual exploitation of women.

Justice Susan Glazebrook wrote about the unwillingness of the New Zealand Government and relevant organisations to admit any problem with prostitution and trafficking following decriminalization. She said:

While the New Zealand Government has stated that there is no evidence of trafficking in New Zealand, it is nevertheless apparent that New Zealand children are engaged in prostitution and one estimate is that up to 200 under 18-year-olds are working in the sex industry.

The United States Department of State report seems to operate on the assumption that the legalisation of the sex industry has masked the trafficking that occurs in the industry. For example, it was stated in the report that an assumption that all women engaging in prostitution do so willingly appears to underpin official policy and programmes in New Zealand and has inhibited public discussion and examination of indications that trafficking exists within both the decriminalised and illegal sex industries.

It is time for public discussion. The decriminalisation of prostitution in New Zealand is long overdue its intended review. Pimps and madams have controlled the narrative for far too long, so we are here to speak up for women who have been prostituted and trafficked.

Recently, we have made progress towards removing abortion law from the crimes act and into healthcare legislation. This should be something we can all come together on – even the “choice” feminists. Unfortunately, however, we find ourselves in another stoush. Instead of protecting the long overdue legislation change from attacks from ‘pro-lifers,’ far too many of the select committee submissions were preoccupied with appealing for the word ‘woman’ to be stripped from the legislation. There is far too much work still to be done for women’s rights for the organisations and groups claiming to represent us to start dismantling our progress by erasing us from laws pertaining to our own bodies.

In the words of our own Jan Rivers:

Legislation should encode material reality where it exists rather than a contested belief system.

For now we wait to see what comes out of select committee. We can only hope that our elected representatives remember that in all of history every abortion was performed on a woman. We are here to speak up for women being able to name ourselves.

Even greater challenges lie ahead for those of us seeking to protect and advance women’s rights. In recent years, new technology and new markets have emerged and with them new ways for women’s bodies to be exploited. Painted as always altruistic and an arrangement of mutual benefit, surrogacy is now an industry worth billions of dollars worldwide. Exploitation quickly arose in countries with large populations of impoverished and vulnerable women, and legislation has also had to be rapidly developed. Countries like India and Thailand have legislated against commercial surrogacy, banning the practice and stemming the flow of wealthy westerners seeking a “host” for their child. The market demand is now being funneled into places like the Ukraine where women are not being protected by legislation.

There are plenty of arguments for surrogacy and some of them are intrinsically well-intentioned, but that doesn’t negate the exploitation of women happening on mass and individual levels. As hard as it is to say, having children with your own genetics is not a human right. If it were, there would be working class couples or individuals also engaged in “renting wombs”, but this is a highly class-dependent issue.

This is a topic that warrants a much longer discussion than what is possible tonight and it is one I suspect we will find ourselves discussing a great deal more in the near future. One party already has work underway to amend and create legislation around surrogacy in New Zealand and even in preliminary stages the conversation appears to be focused on the rights of the buyer, not the woman. They can expect that we’ll be there every step of the way to speak up for women.

When under siege, sometimes the best thing to do is simply hold the ground already won. Speak Up For Women has held a lot of ground for women since our inception, but as we grow and more incredible women from all walks of life join us, we can see a future where we aren’t always on defence. Women’s rights don’t just need to be protected. They need to be advanced.

As I hope I have shown you tonight, there is still a devastating amount of work to be done in feminism. That’s why we are here. That’s why you’re all here. We are here to speak up for women.