- Kelly Lawrence (reproduced with kind permission) - Content warning: Discusses rape, abuse, coercion
I’ve spent the last few months processing my time in the ‘radfem’ movement, or as intersectional and actually radical feminists call them, SWERFs and TERFs. My experience was mostly with the prostitution abolitionist side of the movement, but reading Amy Dyess’ story in Pink News today about her experience with the TERF cult, it hit home to me how similar my own experience was, and how insidious the tactics of these people really are. The gaslighting, the suppression of dissent, the skewed, separatist view of the world and the insistence that it is the One Right View are all hallmarks of an ideological cult. The most damaging aspect, for me, was the weaponising of trauma.
There are three generally accepted hallmarks of a cult, defined by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton; charismatic leaders, indoctrination into a particular way of thinking, and exploitation of cult members. I would argue that these are all present to some degree in this particular brand of feminism.
While as a — on paper at least — collective movement, there are no designated ‘leaders,’ sex-work abolitionist feminists have their figureheads and mouthpieces, who are rarely if ever questioned. Their work is distributed and raved over, and their books treated as ideological guides. Andrea Dworkin and Gail Dines come immediately to mind, as well as Julie Bindel.
The survivor-led abolitionist movement is spearheaded by prominent figures, whose harrowing tales are used to silence anyone who disagrees with their policies. There is a lack of accountability on the part of these women. Both Gail Dines and Julie Bindel have been alleged to have links to religious movements (Exodus Cry and the Catholic Church in Ireland) with a history of abuse against women, who could not be more anti-feminist. Bindel regularly writes for the right-wing press, who
typically are not the friends of feminists. Yet their supporters do not seem to ever hold them to account for this. In fact it is widely accepted that the support of the religious right — often made up of cult-like movements itself — is necessary to achieve the ultimate aim of abolishing the sex industry.
I have written previously here about my experience of being exploited as a survivor, and this is common across the abolitionist movement, as radical feminist herself, Dr Jessica Taylor, recently discussed in a webinar. We are exploited both financially and emotionally, encouraged to speak at events for usually no compensation, repeating over and over our trauma stories with no aftercare or safeguarding in place. Our stories are manipulated and used to push an agenda that aims to abolish sex work via the Nordic Model, which has everything to do with punishing men and nothing to do with sex workers safety, dignity or basic human rights. The fact that it has been proven to actively harm sex workers is seen as collateral damage. By weaponising our trauma, and using it to emotionally manipulate the audience, these supposed ‘feminists’ only retraumatise the very women that they trot out as living examples of their theories.
Survivor’s trauma is not just weaponised against would-be funders, members or antagonists (to discredit them) but also against survivors themselves. When someone is in a state of fear and anxiety, isolated and vulnerable, they are more easily brainwashed. The prostitution abolitionists convince sex trafficking survivors, and survivors of abuse within the sex industry, of their theories by stoking that fear. As I learned all too well, there are few ways more able to terrify a survivor into acquiescence than to convince them that anyone who disagrees with radfem ideology is a pimp, abuser or rapist. That any (perfectly sensible) move to decriminalise sex work is secretly a move to legitimise trafficking. Logic goes out of the window when one is in a state of trauma or emotional distress. We know that the alt-right, for example, radicalise young men by stoking their fears and resentments, whether real or imagined. SWERFs do exactly the same. I would like to believe that the majority do this unconsciously — many of them being sexual violence survivors themselves — but some of the most prominent, I believe, know exactly what they are doing. I have seen them knowingly manipulate statistics, knowingly use survivors stories for the ‘shock value’ and sensationalism, and use threat and coercion to suppress questioning and dissent — another hallmark of a cult.
When I once argued against the claim that ‘all prostitution is rape’ by discussing a favourite punter who was never anything but respectful, I was told that because of my trauma I was brainwashed. Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Now, I was not talking about a boyfriend-pimp or abusive transaction here, but a gentle widower who more often than not paid for my company alone. In the abolitionist view this scenario was no different to the punters who raped me, or the guy who initially trafficked me. While logically I knew this was ridiculous, I found myself questioning my own memories and experiences. I was afraid to continue pressing my point in case they were right and I was so damaged that I could not trust my own mind. This is gas-lighting at its finest.
In the abolitionist view this scenario was no different to the punters who raped me, or the guy who initially trafficked me
And so the thought control is achieved. Indoctrination into a worldview that positions all men as punter-rapists, and all women as victims. Sex trade survivors are uber-victims…until we disagree and advocate for sex worker’s rights, at which point we become ‘traitors to our sex’ as Rachel Moran claimed in her foreword to ‘Prostitution Narratives.’ We either accept our position as permanently damaged and traumatised women who can only be saved by abolitionist ideology, or we are cast out and called ‘Other’…or even pimps. We become the very thing that needs to be fought against.
I attended an event by campaign group Nordic Model Now last year entitled ‘Prostitution; What’s the Harm?’ and it made me feel physically sick (I actually was physically sick when I got home.) A group that claim to only have ‘prostituted womens’ best interests at heart, the event was more like a hate rally. Had I walked in there when I was a survival sex worker and wanted to get out I would have felt victimised, not supported. There was a talk which presented what I by then knew to be false statistics, full of lurid references to anal tears, prolapses and damaged orifices. Then there was the expected ‘survivor story’ delivered by a girl in huge black glasses to hide her face (certainly an understandable act, but it also added to the sensationalism) who also peddled misinformation such as; decriminilisation of sex work would legalise sex trafficking. I have no doubt that she actually believed that. This was followed by another talk, given by a middle-class white girl who shared a video of black singer Cardi B for everyone to mock (as an example of all that is wrong with sex workers). She then spoke about ‘young girls on the internet with green hair and nose-rings, thinking that they are empowered.’ I doubt many walked away from that event instilled with any genuine empathy for sex workers.
Which is not surprising, because ‘radfems’ have no empathy for sex workers, unless they reject that term and agree with the abolitionist view that all sex work is always and forever rape. This is simply a watered-down version of the more ideologically pure ‘all heterosexual sex is rape’ a view held by the most extreme women in the movement, who not surprisingly are often separatist lesbians (separatism is another hallmark of a cult.) Dworkin perceived all penetrative sex to be a form of violence and colonialism. Of course, this is a hard sell, but replace ‘penetrative sex’ with ‘prostitution’ by way of conflating sex work with sex trafficking, and to the ill-informed listener it makes more sense. Thus sex workers and survivors bodies become the ideological testing ground for ‘radfem’ theories.
‘radfems’ have no empathy for sex workers, unless they reject that term and agree with the abolitionist view that all sex work is always and forever rape.
A week after the event, I had declared my stance against the Nordic model. A few weeks later I was out of the ‘radfem’ movement for good, driven finally away by the incessant mocking of trans women and by a friend telling me that ‘all men are the enemy’ and that my three year old son ‘will grow up to abuse women.’ When I protested I was again accused of…surprise surprise…’false consciousness.’ When I complained about the bullying of trans women, I was told I had to ‘unpack my conditioning to be nice and pander to the patriarchy.’ These are brainwashing tactics, pure and simple, and I had finally realised this.
There is another indication of cult-like status, and that is the vilification of members who leave, especially if they do so publicly. Over the past few weeks I have been relentlessly trolled and found defamatory discussions about myself on ‘gender-critical’ threads on Reddit and Mumsnet. Yesterday I was sent rape porn by a ‘radfem’ who told me ‘this is what you are promoting’ and that I had ‘betrayed the movement and all women.’ I am openly a sexual violence survivor, and the clip triggered a PTSD attack. It was almost enough to make me shut up.
Almost, but not quite.