Red flag terms.

It is a well known fact that words are far more than ways to point to concepts, that words can be symbols which stand for a whole perspective or even worldview.

[T]he terminology we use is heavily ideologically laden, always. Pick your term: if it’s a term that has any significance whatsoever- like, not “and” or “or”- it typically has two meanings, a dictionary meaning and a meaning that’s used for ideological warfare.
Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power

This is true in any area of life. In general, the use of words typically gives us a good indication of a person’s allegiance. The framing and reframing of words and concepts are the main weapons used in ideological warfare, and so it should not be surprising that people on different sides deploy words in different ways.

The textbook example of this is the “pro-life” (instead of “anti-abortion”) and “pro-choice” (instead of “pro-abortion”) reframings. In general, people who use the reframing terms are proponents of what they stand for; opponents of the position have no reason to agree to the reframing. I would never call anyone “pro-life” because I believe that term is a lie (anti-abortion is a much better descriptor); “pro-choice” is at least more accurate, and in that case I’d rather attack the concept of “choice” itself than argue semantics (although perhaps “pro-imposition” would be better).

So here is my list of red flag terms, mostly on feminist issues, which immediately make me suspicious of anyone using them. Note that I am not arguing that people using these terms are always wrong; I sometimes use these terms to explain why they are imbecilic. “Red flag” means alert, warning, not exclusion.

Agency, choice

These are red flag terms, not just because they refer to things that don’t actually exist, but because they are routinely used to nay-say systemic analysis and support an individualistic view on feminist issues.

Basically, the argument underlying these words is that women have “agency” and “choose” to be oppressed, therefore “proving” (only to an idiot who believes that reality magically changes depending on what we call it) that they are not actually being oppressed. A related term is “consent”: while consent is a useful ethical term, it can also be used to argue that women “consent” to be oppressed.

Cis, cissexist, cis-privilege

Here is my entry on this subject. But furthermore: the concept of “cis” is an organized attack against feminism because it pushes forward the idea that people who identify as women are privileged by virtue of having been born women. One of the basic principles of feminism is that the gender hierarchy places men at the top and women at the bottom, and that therefore women cannot be privileged because of their gender. So any use of the term “cis” is fundamentally anti-feminist.

This term has gained widespread support amongst liberals, which makes it easier to weed out non-radfem sources.


This is a slur term against radical feminists, which means: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The term is meant to imply that there are good (non-trans-exclusionary) radical feminists and bad (trans-exclusionary) radical feminists; a thinly-veiled attempt at divide-and-conquer.

Radical feminists are not “trans-exclusionary” and do not seek to exclude transgender people from analysis or consideration. Trangender people are not the issue, but rather the genderism (and therefore anti-woman ideology) generated by trans activists to bolster their unscientific worldview.

The term “TERF” is most commonly used against people who support women-only spaces. Since historically we know that women-only spaces are essential for women’s liberation and safety, this means anyone who truly honestly support women’s liberation and safety will be called a “TERF,” ironically turning it into a badge of honor.


This term is used to nay-say systemic analysis of BDSM. The basic principle is that criticizing BDSM as a practice is really a personal critique of everyone who practices BDSM by “choice.” Any critique of BDSM must therefore be an attempt to shame individuals for their “kinks” (a term which sounds much more innocuous than “bondage” and “domination,” and therefore hides the reality).

In reality, a critique of BDSM for being hierarchical is no more a form of “shaming” than a critique of prostitution is meant to “shame” trafficked women. The goal of systemic analysis is to evaluate institutions and processes, not individuals. So the term “shaming” is simply propaganda.


No woman deserves to be called a “slut,” even in a sympathetic way. People who use the term “slut-shaming” to defend young girls and women who dress in “unapproved” ways are calling these young girls and women sluts for the way they dress. They are no better than the accusers! Do not support such people, and call them on their behavior. No one deserves to be called a “slut” based on what they wear, even if the name-calling is supposedly done to support them.

Vanilla sex

This term is used by BDSM proponents as a slur against people who do not practice BDSM, especially people who criticize BDSM. It is not only a slur but a concept which promotes hierarchical thinking about sex:

The s/m concept of “vanilla” sex is sex devoid of passion. They are saying that there can be no passion without unequal power.
Audre Lorde


I’ve already addressed this particular point: sex-positive, like other terms I’ve already listed, aims to break down any attempt at making a systemic critique of sex.

Innate gender, gender identity

This term is used to nay-say gender atheism. There is no scientific or logical proof of any such thing as “innate gender.” I accept that people feel that they have one, but that’s no more evidence for an innate gender than personal experience is evidence for race or religion.

There is nothing inherently wrong about the concept of gender identity, but it is most often equated with innate gender or to the effects of innate gender. Any analysis of gender identity, gender self-identification, identification of others, must start with socially constructed categories as its basis. Any biological argument for gender identity is essentialist.

Sex work

This term is used to try to normalize the trafficking, abuse, rape and murder of women in prostitution and to pretend that it’s just another form of work. It’s used by liberals who are trying to reframe the radfem position against prostitution as singling out prostitutes for punishment when they are just “workers” doing their job. It hides the fact that prostitution is not, and cannot, be just another form of work because it is predicated upon the exploitation of women’s bodies.


The use of the term “girls” to talk about adult women is infantilization and aims at trivializing women’s speech and women’s beliefs by portraying those women as children.

Men’s rights, Men’s rights advocates

This term seems trivial: after all, men are humans and all humans have rights. But the term is a code-word for men who believe that women are the true rulers of Western societies and benefit from privileges acquired at the expense of men. These men (and a few handmaidens) are no more connected to reality than Creationists or Scientologists.

I have debunked MRA “evidence” in two entries (1, 2). This has infuriated some MRA groups because their ideology is mind-bogglingly stupid. Fortunately, they don’t meet any radfem-allied men and thus have no idea what to do with me (a fact about which I am eternally grateful).

Alpha male

MRAs believe that the “alpha male” and “beta male” structure of dominance in wolves also exists in human beings. Unfortunately for them, the whole concept of “alpha male” was a scientific fabrication; so are the MRAs’ bizarre theories about how humans operate, but at least the former has been corrected.


This is not a bad term in itself. Intersectionality tells us that a person’s identity is composed of many different hierarchies, and that you may be superior in one and inferior in another. In order to understand the story at the individual’s level, you have to look at how all these statuses intersect. Being a white woman is different from being a black woman, being a handicapped fat person is different than being a non-handicapped fat person, and so on.

The problem comes when intersectionality becomes one’s most important, or only, tool of analysis. Because intersectionality inherently focuses on individual conditions, using it exclusively becomes nay-saying of any systemic analysis. For example, feminism assumes that there is such a thing as female socialization and female experience, but intersectionality may lead someone to claim that there is no such thing and that every single woman is a different case, thus making feminism impossible.

As Aphrodite Kocięda argues in this article for Feminist Current, intersectionality is not a good model of oppression because it fails to include the sources of oppression and portrays hierarchies as fixed and immutable. If you want any sort of accurate model of how oppression works, you have to understand fundamentally that oppression is constantly created and recreated by social institutions, and how this is done.

Essentialism (or “biological determinism”)

I’ve decided to add this word, not because it is inherently bad, but because it seems people don’t know what it means any more and are using it as a weapon against radical feminism without regard for meaning.

Essentialism actually conveys the idea that every thing has an essence, which has attributes on which the identity of the thing depends. In sociology, it conveys the belief that gender, race, ethnicity, and so on, are fixed constructs which reflect biological realities, and are part of the “essence” that makes a human being. It is therefore the opposite of constructionism (the general radicalist position) that these things are social constructs and are not part of the “essence” of any human being.

Anyone who uses the word “essentialism” to support any form of genderism or attack radical feminism is therefore either lying or an idiot, and in either case cannot be trusted. Radical feminists are against gender and do not believe that gender reflects any biological reality; it is genderists, both traditional and trans, who are essentialists.

It seems that they try to associate “essentialism” with “believing that sexual organs matter in identifying someone.” But that’s not essentialism, that’s biology 101; radfems do not believe that the nature of a person’s sexual organs prove anything other than someone’s sex. What makes women have interests in common is not sexual organs but socialization, exploitation, objectification and an inferior status, all of which are a result of social institutions and ideological traditions, not biology.


I don’t think I have to explain this one!

9 thoughts on “Red flag terms.

  1. Independent Radical June 11, 2014 at 05:26

    Red Flag is actually the name of a socialist newspaper on my campus. LOL. Maybe “warning signs” would have been a better title.

    Actually it seems that “essentialism” now means the believe that masculinity enables male domination and femininity encourages female submission. Allow me to turn to my collection of pro-BDSM quotes to demonstrate this.

    “If [a BDSM sex act is] not tied into gender essentialism, it’s in no need of a feminist criticism. If you see dominance as inherently masculine and submission inherently feminine, perhaps you are the one in need of a little feminist reflection.”

    Dominance is inherently masculine, because masculinity is an invention of society and society says domination is masculine. Every society that has had such a thing as masculinity has said that, because masculinity was invented (thousands of years ago) to keep men on top, but I guess nowadays pointing that fact out and arguing that nobody is inherently masculine or feminine makes you an “essentialist” because “masculinity /femininity” somehow means the same thing as “manhood /womanhood”.

    Speaking of words that act as warning signs. I suggest you add autonomous/autonomy to the list, because they serve a similar function to the words “agency” and “choice” and they’re used often enough to bug me. I saw the word “autonomous” twice on a short pamphlet produced by my university’s women’s department. The first time they used it was in the phrase “we also run the Women’s Room on the First Floor of the Campus Centre as an autonomous safe space” which was part of a longer sentence that ended in an exclamation mark (whoever wrote that pamphlet needs to learn basic grammar.) I may not be an expert in architecture, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is this. Rooms can’t be autonomous! And yes liberals, that is how exclamation marks are used.

    So yeah, the term “autonomous” is over-used and annoying. Like “choice” and “agency”, it’s not an inherently bad term, but using it too often in a ridiculous way that implies that you were desperate to throw it in there (e.g. calling rooms “autonomous”) is a sign that somebody’s a fake feminist and not somebody who actually cares about “liberty” and “freedom” which, in my view, are far nicer sounding terms than “choice”, “empowerment”, “agency” and “autonomy”. The latter set of terms sound shallow and selfish to me, like things an immature person would say when they wanted something trivial. “Liberty” and “freedom” sound like things people fight revolutionary wars for, so liberals know better than to appropriate them when talking about how much they love pornography, BDSM, etc., at least I hope they know better.

    I also think the phrase “gender identity” is pretty suspect. In fact overuse of the term “identity” on its own is suspect. It implies that one doesn’t care about objective reality only about how people feel about themselves. In other words, it implies an idealist rather than a materialist approach to the word. People don’t just have identities, they have actual roles within actual oppressive systems (e.g. capitalist, worker, etc.) and these roles do not necessary reflect who they are and who they think they are. Real political radicals want to understand actual systems of oppression. They don’t just want to know how people feel about themselves. They do, on the other hand, want people to have an accurate understanding of oppressive systems and their place within it, but this is better captured through the use of the term “consciousness” rather than the term “identity”. In fact “consciousness” was the original term used by revolutionary leftists (e.g. “class consciousness”) and radical feminists (e.g. “consciousness-raising”) before the sex-crazed liberals came along and wrecked those movements with their notions of “class identity” and “gender identity”. I have a people-who-talk-about-identities-too-much-get-on-my-nerves identity, please respect it.

    • Francois Tremblay June 11, 2014 at 14:39

      You’re totally right about gender identity! I really need to add that one.

      I’m not sure about “autonomous.” I mean, there’s no way a group operating in a college with students is “autonomous” from the college, right? So… why do they even use the term? It doesn’t make much sense to me.

      • Independent Radical June 11, 2014 at 21:52

        You’re right, the women’s department that runs the room can’t be autonomous because it is part of the student union, which is run partly by men. The union is also presumably subject to the control of the university in some form or another, though I should admit that I’m not an expert on university hierarchies, so I can’t be sure.

        What I am sure about though, is that the student union receives money from various companies (those companies have advertisements in the student newspaper), including companies that sell BDSM sex toys. I’m beginning to wonder if whoever wrote the women’s department’s pamphlet even knows what “autonomous” means.

        Maybe what they meant to say was that no men were allowed in the room, but they wanted to say it without seeming “mean” and “man-hating” or perhaps they just wanted to throw a nice sounding word in there that meant something similar to “freedom”. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter, liberals seem to have little regard for clear communication.

        I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on the trans-movement in particular, so I should point out that it’s the word “identity” in general that bugs me. I’m getting sick of being asked what I “identify” as, if I have to talk about myself I’d rather talk about who I am and my actual circumstances. Liberals may have started off talking about “gender identity”, but now everything’s a goddamn identity, “racial identity”, “class identity”, “sexual identity” (I’m not even sure if that last one refers to biological sex or the act of sex.) Doesn’t anyone care about the real world any more? Doesn’t anyone want to acknowledge the real power of social institutions?

        • Francois Tremblay June 12, 2014 at 00:09

          As you may have seen from previous entries, I am no fan of self-identification either. I don’t see how anyone could have the right to self-identify as anything they want without regard to reality and in particular how they interact with other people. So it’s pretty dang offensive, to begin with… but that’s only the least of the problems here.

    • Francois Tremblay June 11, 2014 at 14:51

      As for the quote:
      “If [a BDSM sex act is] not tied into gender essentialism, it’s in no need of a feminist criticism. ”

      And here I keep saying sex-positivity evacuates feminist criticism from discussions about sex. Now someone admitted it! Geesh! But how can anyone escape gender in the first place?

  2. Eva Kadlec June 11, 2014 at 11:43

    Great analysis, very useful summary, thank you!

  3. redhester June 11, 2014 at 13:01

    thank you. i posted this to my tumblr blog: thank you so much.

  4. Daenerys October 28, 2015 at 19:52

    Nobody’s “born” a woman. Gender doesn’t develop till age 3-4. And cis women definitely have privilege over CAMAB trans people. We’re not privileged cause of our gender, but because of our birth assignment. Rejecting the term “cis” is fundamentally transmisogynistic and therefore anti-woman and anti-human.

    No such thing as innate gender? Tell that to David Reimer. Take a look at the long, long history of gender variance (including culturally-specific genders such as ergi and baeddel). And before you harp on about “genderist ideology”, are you seriously going to suggest that newly-Christianized Anglo-Saxon England was a HOTBED of ~GENDERIST IDEOLOGY~?

    • Francois Tremblay October 28, 2015 at 20:05

      “Nobody’s “born” a woman. Gender doesn’t develop till age 3-4.”

      Your figures are wrong, but you’re right that nobody is born a woman. And I never said otherwise. I’m the one arguing against “innate gender.”

      “Rejecting the term “cis” is fundamentally transmisogynistic and therefore anti-woman and anti-human.”

      How can rejecting a misogynistic term be misogynistic? Do you not know basic logic?

      “Take a look at the long, long history of gender variance (including culturally-specific genders such as ergi and baeddel).”

      Why are you even bringing this up? The existence of culturally-specific gender disproves trans activists and their eagerness to assimilate all other cultures under their Western labels.

      “And before you harp on about “genderist ideology”, are you seriously going to suggest that newly-Christianized Anglo-Saxon England was a HOTBED of ~GENDERIST IDEOLOGY~?”

      What are you, delusional?

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