Minding our language by @strifejournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Once we had ‘isms’, now we have ‘phobias’: Debbie Cameron considers what’s in a name

Remember Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’? Or Gloria Steinem’s observation that in the 1960s no one talked about sexual harassment–not because it didn’t happen, but because ‘it was just called life’?  For feminists, naming women’s oppression has always been both a necessary task and a powerful political act. Of course you do not solve a problem just by giving it a name, but naming it brings it more clearly into focus, making it easier to recognize, to analyse and to share.

What names we choose to call things by is also important. We argue about words—about the difference between victim and survivorpaedophile and child abuser, prostitute and sex worker—because we know that words are not just empty labels. They are tools for making sense of the world, and they affect our understanding of what we use them to represent.

Since the 1990s there has been a change in the words we use to name oppression. Whereas the radical social movements of the 1960s and 70s talked about ‘isms’ (racism, anti-semitism, sexism, heterosexism, ableismageismspeciesism), their 21st century counterparts talk about ‘phobias’ (homophobiatransphobia, whorephobiafemmephobia). The language of ‘phobias’ has gradually displaced the older language of ‘isms’; you can usually tell when some form of oppression began to be seriously discussed by whether it is labelled an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’.

Unlike some issues of terminology, this one has not provoked much heated debate. But that doesn’t mean it is inconsequential. It matters for the reason language always matters: because renaming reality is also reframing it.

From ‘isms’ to ‘phobias’

‘Ism’ words and ‘phobia’ words name essentially the same phenomenon: the unjust treatment of one social group by others. But they frame that phenomenon in very different waysas we can see if we consider what ism and phobia mean in the language more generally.

Words ending in –ism most commonly denote systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, communism, nationalismBuddhism, surrealism). Terms like sexism and racism were also intended by the radicals who coined them to refer to systems—organized social systems of dominance and subordination. Though they are often used now to mean just ‘prejudice or discrimination based on sex/race’, that is a liberal watering-down of their original meaning. In the radical framework, prejudice is not the cause of systemic oppression but a consequence or by-product of it. If you are going to oppress your fellow humans—exploit them, abuse them, disregard their needs and rights—then you have every reason to buy into the belief that they are Other, inferior and deserving of unequal treatment.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly denote clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it means a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a serious threat triggers a pathological response—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger–in certain phobic individuals. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but there is less emphasis on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more emphasis on the idea of aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia and transphobia thus carry a strong implication that the root cause of the oppression they name is the pathological fear and loathing felt by some individuals towards a certain minority group.

Hate versus power

I do not want to deny the existence of pathological hatred, nor dispute that some oppressive acts are most readily understood as expressions of it. That is how I would understand, for instance, not only many assaults targeting gay men and lesbians, trans people and members of ethnic and religious minorities, but also some crimes against women, such as the actions of self-identified misogynists like Marc Lépine (who shot 14 women dead in the ‘Montreal massacre’ of 1989) and Elliot Rodger (the perpetrator of the California shootings which inspired the hashtag #YesAllWomen in 2014). But I do not think it is helpful to make these extreme acts of violence committed by seriously disturbed individuals into prototypes for our understanding of oppression. Deranged misogynists like Rodger are the toxic, out-of-control products of a society that normalizes and condones sexism, a system in which all men benefit from their power over women. Treating the pathological cases as prototypical is mistaking the proverbial tip of the iceberg for the less visible but much larger structure that supports it.

Yet just as ‘ism’ words have yielded to ‘phobia’ words, this understanding of the structural and systemic nature of oppression seems increasingly to have yielded to an analysis which is more and more focused on hatred as the driving force behind it. In the criminal justice system, for instance, there is now a category of ‘hate crimes’—offences  motivated by hatred of the group the victim belongs to—which are treated as more serious and punished more severely than the same offences committed for other reasons. As Liz Kelly has pointed out, this approach does not help to deliver justice for women and children, because the ways in which they are most often victimized do not fit the definition of a ‘hate crime’. Domestic violence, child sex abuse and rape are not rooted in fear and loathing of women or children as a group, but have more to do with men’s feelings of superiority and entitlement, their assumption that women and children exist for their benefit and may be controlled, exploited and abused with impunity. These are not crimes of hate, they are crimes of power and domination; but that in no way diminishes their impact on the lives of those who are or may become their victims.

From a radical feminist perspective it is crucial to hold onto the understanding that oppression is only sometimes about hate, but it is always about power—about the structures and systems that serve collective political interests. The language of ‘phobia’ obscures this: it personalizes the political by concentrating on the feelings an action expresses rather than the interests it serves, and it pathologizes prejudice, representing it by implication as the irrational response of (some) individuals rather than the product of a system that benefits some groups at the expense of others. And once you stop asking who benefits from oppression or whose interests it serves, you can easily slip into a discourse reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’. There are no material structures of power and inequality, only personal feelings and individual identities.

Renaming/reframing sexism

Recently this kind of discourse was satirized by a contributor to the anonymous blog Feminists Unknown. Adopting the persona of someone who ‘identifies as’ poor, the writer draws attention to a form of oppression that she feels has too often been overlooked:

The queer poverty theorist J’amie Olivier came up with it in his brilliant work Whipping Chav. If you’ve not read it, please do. It explains so much about how poor people are not oppressed due to having no money but due to ‘poorphobia’: a widespread antipathy towards dog racing, Lambrini and the Waitrose Essentials range.

Though ‘poorphobia’ is (so far as I know) an entirely imaginary concept invented for the purposes of satire, this parody does have an identifiable target. The fictional work Whipping Chav is clearly an allusion to the real book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, whose author Julia Serano is generally credited with inventing the term femmephobia.What that term refers to is the cultural devaluation of anything considered feminine relative to anything considered masculine. Serano points out that feminine qualities, interests and occupations are disparaged as weak, foolish, undesirable and worthless, and that feminine labels are often derogatory: the term ‘sissy’ applied to a boy is a grave insult, for instance, whereas ‘tomboy’ applied to a girl is far less disapproving.

‘But hang on a minute’, I hear you say, ‘don’t we already have a word for that?’ Indeed we do: feminists in the early 1970s drew attention to exactly this phenomenon, and the word they used to describe it was ‘sexism’. The devaluing of feminine terms and qualities follows the general sexist logic in which women, as the subordinate sex, are inferior to men, the dominant sex. Serano’s logic, on the other hand, is not a million miles from the ‘poorphobia’ parody: ‘women are not oppressed due to sexism/male dominance, but due to “femmephobia”, a widespread antipathy towards shoe-shopping, frilly underwear and the colour pink’.

From a feminist perspective it is pure obfuscation to talk about ‘the scapegoating of femininity’, as if it had nothing to do with the larger social system in which women are subordinated to men. ‘Femininity’ is not the target of oppression: apart from the fact that it is an abstraction (whereas women are concretely existing human beings), feminists since Simone de Beauvoir have pointed out that as a cultural construct—a collection of beliefs and norms which define what is acceptable and desirable in women—femininity is part of the apparatus that keeps women in their subordinate place. That analysis is further strengthened by the observation that in women, feminine qualities and behaviours are not devalued, they are idealized and rewarded. Said of a woman, ‘feminine’ is a compliment; it’s the opposite, ‘unfeminine’, which is an insult. If there’s one thing your average sexist can’t be doing with, it’s an unfeminine woman. A feminist, for instance, with her hairy legs and clomping boots and her refusal to just shut up and smile.

Serano does recognize the existence of prejudice against women who are viewed as ‘unfeminine’, but she does not attribute it to the workings of a system in which women are subordinated to men; for her it reflects the workings of a system which oppresses everyone (for what purpose and in whose interests is unclear) by imposing a strict binary gender division and requiring every individual to stay on their allotted side of the line. (For more on these contrasting understandings of gender oppression see here). What goes unrecognized in this reframing of sexism is that women are most often judged ‘unfeminine’ when they fail, or refuse, to behave like sexual subordinates. That is why feminists can be represented by sexists as simultaneously ‘unfeminine’ (i.e., too much like men) and as ‘man-haters’, without this being seen as a contradiction.

The scapegoating of feminism

Once the ‘scapegoating of femininity’ has been detached from the larger system of male dominance and female subordination, the blame for it no longer has to be laid at the door of men, or male dominated institutions, or patriarchal social arrangements. Sometimes ‘femmephobia’ is discussed as if it simply existed like a force of nature. But in any context where some identifiable agent is being held responsible for it, there is a pretty good chance that the agent in question will be a feminist, or a group of feminists, or feminism as an institution.

Suspecting this was the case, but wanting to check my intuitions against some actual evidence, I used Google to compile a sample of recent texts in which the words femmephobia, femmephobic and femmephobe appear. I can’t claim this method produced a fully representative picture of current usage (the tools a researcher would use to do that are not available in this case, because the word is still too new), but it did suggest that my intuitions were basically accurate. Not one of the items in my sample attributed ‘femmephobia’ to sexist men or patriarchal institutions. A couple of them used the word in reference to prejudice in the gay, lesbian or trans communities. But the overwhelming majority used it specifically to criticize feminism and feminists. For instance, this:

Long nails. Lace. Pink. Make-up. Dresses. Long hair. High heels.
I’ve noticed a trend in feminism that seeks to place these things as ‘lower’. As ‘less than’.
What we need to remember is that feminism is about autonomy and choice. By policing the choices of women, by telling them what to wear, what not to wear, what makes us any different than the patriarchy?

Or this:

Many feminists still have a blind spot when it comes to femmephobia. A lot of feminists are not very feminine, and were drawn to feminism because of the discomfort they felt due to enforced femininity.

These examples are good illustrations of the point that renaming and reframing go together. Neither of these writers understands feminism as a movement of resistance to male dominance. The first writer’s assumptions are basically liberal: feminism is about ‘autonomy and choice’. The second writer’s assumptions are more difficult to find an adequate political label for: they seem, in fact, completely apolitical, identity politics without the politics. The most obvious reason for becoming involved in radical politics—a commitment to social justice—seems to be entirely outside her frame of reference. Nor can she apparently imagine anyone rejecting femininity on political principle, as opposed to being ‘drawn to feminism’ because they were ‘not very feminine’ to begin with. Feminism is presented as a sort of refuge for women whose lack of femininity causes them ‘discomfort’ in the wider world, and the resulting concentration of unfeminine women becomes the explanation for the movement’s ‘femmephobia’.

Meanwhile, the small matter of power, and specifically women’s oppression within a system of male dominance and female subordination, has entirely disappeared from view. As the ‘scapegoating of femininity’ shifts from being one manifestation of sexism to being a form of oppression in its own right, the identity of the oppressor also shifts: it’s no longer men as a class or patriarchy as a system we have to blame for it, it’s a bunch of feminists oppressing other women by disapproving of their hair or their shoes. No one seems to ask what feminists might have to gain from this oppressive behaviour. In the ‘phobia’ framework that question does not need to be asked, because oppression is not seen as structural, part of a political system where actual interests are at stake, it is simply the acting out of personal hostility to other people’s choices.

Similarly, any feminist who offers a structural analysis of the sex industry’s role in oppressing women can expect to be accused of ‘whorephobia’, irrational hatred of prostitutes. This particular accusation always makes me wonder if those who make it have any concept of structure at all. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that they interpret criticism of an oppressive institution as an attack on the very people the institution’s critics believe to be most oppressed by it. It is possible to disagree about whether and in what ways the sex industry is oppressive, but ‘if you criticize the sex industry that means you hate prostitutes’ is a leap of logic akin to saying that if you criticize a large supermarket chain for paying low wages, that means you hate shelf-stackers and checkout operators.

The liberal politics of moral disgust

But the whole political discourse of ‘phobia’ often resembles the clinical condition in being more about visceral responses than logical arguments. The feminist blogger Marina S. recounts a striking example. At a conference session about woman-only space, a woman who had found some panellists’ contributions trans-exclusionary articulated her objection by describing the physical effects that listening to those contributions had produced: she reported experiencing panic symptoms like shaking and palpitations. Marina S. relates this reaction to the theoretical concept of ‘moral disgust’, a strong, instinctive feeling of revulsion which cannot be fully explained in rational terms. She explains:

Liberals pride themselves on their low levels of moral disgust, in particular in relation to the sexual practices of others. This is why we tend to conceptualise the objections of the right to certain things like homosexuality as ‘phobias’ – irrational fears stemming from an underlying moral disgust. It’s also why the ‘phobia’ frame has so successfully…migrated to be applied inside the social justice left, in terms like transphobia, whorephobia, fatphobia, femmephobia and so on.

And she goes on to point out that the woman’s reaction repeated the same gesture liberals label ‘phobic’ when it comes from a conservative position:

…here was a person literally, in every physical sense of the word, exhibiting a phobic reaction. … And much like conservative activists seeking to criminalise or marginalise homosexual relationships, she was using the very viscerality of her own reaction as a strong progressive/liberal moral argument: you have upset me, therefore I am right.

The progressive/liberal position is like a mirror image of the conservative one: whereas the conservative is revolted by queer/trans people, the progressive/liberal is revolted by the conservative’s homophobia/ transphobia: she is morally disgusted by the moral disgust she attributes to others, and the strength of her disgust becomes a claim to the moral high ground. (‘You have upset me, therefore I am right’.) As Marina S. says, it is impossible to argue with this: moral disgust is instinctive and visceral, beyond any challenge based on rational argument.

Although it is has taken root on the ‘social justice left’, the ‘phobia frame’ is actually more liberal than radical. Though radical feminists agree with liberals on some issues—for instance, both groups support lesbian and gay rights against the objections of conservatives—that is not because we share the liberal view that all sexual practices are morally indistinguishable and equally deserving of respect. If your aim is to end the oppression of women as a class then it makes sense to defend the rights of non-heterosexuals, but equally it makes sense to oppose some of the other practices liberals defend, such as the buying of sexual services. The difference between the radical feminist and the liberal is not that one judges other people’s choices and the other does not. They both make judgments, but on the basis of different values. Suggesting that any judgment you disagree with must stem from ‘phobia’—that it is not a question of your opponent having different principles or values, but is simply an expression of their irrational fear and loathing—is a way of making their position appear illegitimate without actually having the political argument. It is using language to silence views that you do not want to hear or engage with.

False analogies and misleading memes

What makes the ‘poorphobia’ parody funny is the absurdity of the idea that ‘poor people are not oppressed due to having no money’. While a full analysis of the problems facing poor people would doubtless include more than just material deprivation, it is obvious that economic inequality is the fundamental issue. Among other things, the parody reminds us that there are different systems of oppression which do not all work in exactly the same way and cannot all sensibly be talked about in exactly the same terms.

The language in which we talk about oppression has always had a tendency to depend on analogies between one group’s situation and another’s. In both the first (suffragist) and the second (liberationist) waves of feminism in the US, many women who became active in feminist politics drew inspiration from their prior experiences in movements for racial justice (the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th) and from the parallels they saw between their own situation as women and the situation of Black people under slavery and then segregation. Reflecting this history, the term sexism was created as a sex/gender analogue of racism. Although many commentators have criticized the feminists of the second wave for over-emphasizing the parallel between racism and sexism and being insufficiently attentive to the differences, the linguistic tendency to make analogies remains strong: if anything, in fact, it has become stronger than ever in the age of the internet ‘meme’.

The word meme was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, who intended it to denote the cultural analogue of a gene. Memes, like genes, are units which replicate, but whereas gene replication is a biological process, the replication of memes is a social process—they spread by imitation, and get adapted to new situations as they go. I won’t pursue the meme/gene analogy, to which there are many objections, but meme has passed into common usage as a term for cultural innovations that spread rapidly (nowadays often via digital media) and inspire many variations on the same basic theme. The ever-expanding lexicon of ‘phobia’ terms is a case in point: a word that originally described one experience became the template for a whole series of words describing experiences which were felt to resemble the original in some way.

One problem with this process, however, is that the analogies have a tendency to become progressively weaker and less illuminating. Homophobia is a reasonable term for some forms of prejudice against lesbians and gay men—it is easy enough to point to examples of the extreme, irrational loathing the word conjures up—but it is much more difficult to see femmephobia as a similarly apt description of the cultural devaluing of ‘feminine’ things. Who really feels fear, loathing or panic when confronted with an item from the list I quoted earlier (long nails, lace, make-up, pink, dresses, long hair, high heels)?

Another example which illustrates the point is the recent proliferation of words constructed on the model of mansplaining. That word was coined to describe a particular form of sexist condescension, where men who assume themselves to be knowledgeable, and women to be ignorant or stupid, explain something to a woman that the woman already knows, and possibly knows more about than the mansplainer himself. The term caught on because the experience it names is one that many women recognize; but it was swiftly followed by analogous terms like whitesplaining and cissplaining,and while writing this piece I’ve also spotted straightsplaining and abilitysplaining. ‘Splaining’ has clearly become a political meme; but the further it travels from the original example, the less it seems to serve any useful political purpose.

For a start, it is not clear that all the new ‘splaining’ terms describe a real and recognizable experience. ‘Straightsplaining’, for example, rings no bells with me: since being stupid/incompetent is not something gay men are stereotyped for (nor lesbians except insofar as they are also women) I would be surprised if this behaviour were particularly common. Stupidity and incompetence do figure in negative stereotypes of other subordinated groups: not only women but also people of colour, working class people, the elderly and people with disabilities are likely to have had the experience of being patronized and treated as stupid. But we might still question whether this is exactly the same experience in every case—whether it has the same motives, takes the same form or produces the same consequences. There is, for instance, a very particular way in which able-bodied people patronize people with disabilities, and this has been analysed for decades as one manifestation of ‘ableism’. Does the term ‘abilitysplaining’ add anything to the analysis? It could be argued that on the contrary, it confuses the issue by emphasizing the parallel with women’s experience rather than the connection to other oppressive practices which are part of everyday life for people with disabilities.

I suspect that’s what’s behind the endless extension of formulas like ‘x-phobia’ and ‘x-splaining’ is  a rather muddled interpretation of intersectionality. People reason that if all oppressions matter equally then (a) they all have to be covered in any discussion of anything—there has to be such a thing as ‘straightsplaining’, because to deny that it exists would be to treat queer oppression as less important than other kinds; and (b) they all have to be discussed in the same terms, as if treating oppressions equally required us to use the same analytic framework for all of them. As I understand it, what intersectionality really means is more or less the opposite of this: it means being attentive to the particularities of different systems of power in order to understand the differing experiences of oppression which are produced by their intersections (e.g. why sexism is not experienced in exactly the same way by women of different ethnicities or social classes). And if there is a need to be specific about the workings of oppression, there is also a need for language that can capture that specificity. Using variations on the same terms for everything/everyone flattens out the differences and stops us seeing how things really work.

We need a political language that can make distinctions between things that are related but not the same, and that does not reduce every form of oppression to a single cause or mechanism. We need a political language that does not mystify the workings of power and inequality, or pathologize prejudice, or obscure whose interests a given form of oppression serves. A language which does not meet these criteria is not really political at all. And—to adapt another recently popular meme—‘my feminism will be political or it will be bullshit’.


Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

One thought on “Minding our language by @strifejournal”

  1. An extraordinarily clear and well-argued essay. You’ve helped clarify my sadly muddled thinking on the ism/phobia conundrum. Thank you.

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