Trigger Warning: My Lesbian Feminist Life

Sheila Jeffreys

Published by Spinifex Press September 2020

240pp, paperback, £13.99

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns

Click here to buy this book


As a child in the 1950s, Sheila Jeffreys used to collect conkers in Bushy Park, Teddington. So did I, though I don’t remember seeing her at the time. Our paths didn’t cross officially until 1992, when we both found ourselves teaching at a Women’s Studies summer school at Deakin University in Australia.

Her reputation – as a political lesbian who thought that feminist women ought not to have sexual relationships with men – had preceded her. Mine – as an unrepentant heterosexual who hadn’t joined Women’s Liberation in order to take instruction from other women on how to run my sex life – had quite possibly preceded me. I wondered how Sheila and I would get on when we shared a platform.

I found her delightful: uncompromising in most of her views (as I probably was in most of mine), but clear, well-informed, witty and courteous in her expression of them. Working with her was both educational and fun. The same could be said for reading some of her books, which I sought out when the summer school ended and we went our separate ways.

Trigger Warning is her latest. The book’s title refers to the practice of some writers, speakers and broadcasters of alerting their audience that what follows may give offence – ‘look away now’, that sort of thing.

Sheila doesn’t want you to look away. Back in the early 1970s, she made herself unpopular in some leftist circles by noting that what was referred to as sexual freedom just meant ‘turning women into more enthusiastic sexual partners for men’. In 1978, she and other attendees at a national Women’s Liberation conference organized a pornography exhibition to draw attention to porn as a form of violence against women. Headings included ‘child porn’, ‘sadomasochism’ and ‘split beaver’ (that’s pornspeak for your vulva, in case you didn’t know). Sheila’s memoir recounts how the display drew protests from other feminists who ‘complained that they should not have to look at such things.’

Other groups with whom Sheila’s book takes issue include Rape Crisis workers who encourage rape survivors to seek comfort in psychotherapy, rather than converting their anger into activism; and some gay men.

Gay men and feminists have often made common cause, and with reason: both groups know what it is to be oppressed and marginalized by heterosexism. But Sheila Jeffreys warns of the dangers of conflating gay men’s rights with transgenderism: the claimed rights of transsexuals and cross-dressers to ‘impersonate women’ and invade women-only spaces such as toilets, prisons, swimming pools, hospital wards and feminist events.

In her autobiographical journey through 50-odd years of gender politics, Sheila notes how another apparently-good cause became compromised in the 2000s when ‘exponents of multiculturalism argued that religion and culture should be respected…(and) promoted tolerance of practices that were clearly representative of women’s oppression, such as the covering of women and arranged marriages, all in the name of tolerance of difference.’

People who are likely to be throw-the-book-across-the-room offended by this sort of thing will have stopped reading Trigger Warning long ago (if they ever started), but they will have missed out on this individualistic, idiosyncratic, bracing autobiography. The photographs are nice too, ranging from Sheila as a mid-twentieth century Brownie to Sheila a few decades later, whizzing round Korea on a book tour.

Disappointingly, Trigger Warning has no index or footnotes. This makes it difficult sometimes to follow a theme, as the author’s ideological positions and political activism intertwine with her travels round the world, her love life and friendships, and the development of her literary and academic career.

The defensive irony of the book’s title should not discourage feminists of all tendencies from observing Sheila Jeffreys’ journey, probably not sharing all of it, but enjoying her wit, acuteness of vision, political logic and emotional honesty.

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