My new academic monograph, under contract with Manchester University Press, is called Personal Business: the Fight Against Sexual Violence. This explores mainstream feminist movements against sexual violence, their underlying assumptions and their predominant modes of politics. I argue that campaigns such as #MeToo and various others that preceded it are based on what I call ‘political whiteness’: this is characterised by narcissism, a ‘will to power’ and a constant alertness to threat. Privileged white women are also well placed to deploy our personal experiences as capital within the ‘outrage economy’ of the media, where truth tends to come second to revenue generation. Mainstream sexual violence feminisms rely on state power and institutional governance for protection and safety, supporting racist and classist carceral technologies and the purging of ‘bad men’ from high-status institutions (but with little concern for where these perpetrators might end up next). This is less a form of collective action and more a form of social and institutional nimbyism which does not have revolutionary implications.
As women who have benefited from neoliberalism say ‘time’s up’ to men in corporate media outlets, and as these men appear in the same media outlets defending themselves against perceived attack, the politics of sexual violence can appear to be a conversation between white people about who is in control. This politics is not well placed to tackle the intersections of patriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism which produce sexual violence. Furthermore, the more reactionary arms of feminist movements are actively complicit with the far-right politics also produced by this intersectionality of systems, in their attacks on sex workers and trans people. As the ‘we’ of many Western nations is violently (re)constituted as white and privileged, reactionary feminists define their own ‘we’ in exclusionary terms. I conclude that in order to tackle an intersectionality of systems, we need what Angela Davis calls an ‘intersectionality of struggles’ in which #MeToo would be connected with prison abolition, campaigns against workplace sexual misconduct with sex workers’ rights, and struggles against reproductive coercion with transgender equality.
The analysis in the book is set within the framework of racial capitalism, in which sexual violence plays a central role. This system of domination rests on violent dispossession and domestication which is both gendered and raced (and especially targets women of colour), which works via physical and sexual violence. Racial capitalism also makes use of ideas about the protection of privileged white women from sexualised Others, to maintain social order and justify capitalist and colonial expansion. In neoliberal capitalist systems, experiences of sexual violence are also one of a number of traumas which can be used as capital within testimonial economies and the outrage economy of the media. This framework complicates and resituates mainstream activism against sexual violence, which tends to be dominated by privileged white women.
I write this book as an insider – I am a rape survivor, an activist, and a privileged white woman myself. I do not expect that my critical perspective will absolve me of any of these positionalities. Writing about sexual violence is difficult: especially when experiences function as capital, there is the risk that in critiquing the politics that surround them we can invalidate the experiences themselves. Also, in a moment in which a powerful backlash politics is being aimed at feminism, it can feel threatening to have reflexive conversations. I submit, however, that this is exactly why it is necessary. I take a position of critical empathy towards the mainstream feminist movement against sexual violence, focusing on ideas and not individuals. The movement is read as text, as affect, as capital, and as structure, within a queer framework in which dichotomies are interrogated and broken down.
Chapter outlines are as follows:
Chapter One: The raped subject(ivity)
This chapter explores the construction of the political subject and subjectivity of the mainstream feminist movement against sexual violence, which is central to the production, and imagining, of the raped subject in general. This is a traumatised and violated subject created (but not determined) by violent victimisation: rape and sexual assault are physical and instantaneous acts of subjection, while more ‘everyday’ forms of sexual harassment, and the ‘second rape’ that can occur in both the criminal justice system and the community, work discursively in more implicit (but just as powerful) ways.
There are various institutional and non-institutional processes which constitute the raped subject, as well as the act of violence itself. These broadly correspond to Foucault’s three modes of objectification: the human sciences (especially as articulated through the legal system and the ‘helping’ professions); the ‘dividing practices’ of power (creating binaries between victims and perpetrators, victims and survivors, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims); and modes of self-subjectification through the construction of identities and forms of politics in relation to these. In addition, the raped subject(ivity) in politics is constituted within the broader categories of womanhood and whiteness – especially the colonial construction of the fragile, penetrable white woman – and within the broader context of ontological insecurity, precarity and risk which characterises post-modernity.
Chapter Two: Whiteness and the ‘wound’
The second chapter explores the politico-affective dynamics associated with this raped subject(ivity) in the mainstream movement against sexual violence. Building on the work of HoSang, Bhambra and others, it develops the concept of political whiteness to describe the movement’s key modus operandi, using #MeToo as its central case study. I theorise political whiteness as an orientation to and mode of politics which employs both symbolic tropes of white woundability and interpersonal performances of white fragility, and tends to invoke state and institutional power to redress personal injury.
Furthermore, the political subject of rape speaks its truth in a testimonial, neoliberal context which both embraces and repudiates the wound of sexual violence in various ways, and in which the ‘wounds’ of the backlash are also dominating public discourse. Although there are important differences between them, the ‘wounded attachments’ of sexual violence feminisms and the backlashes against them both reflect the positionality of whiteness. Alternatives to political whiteness however, such as those articulated by black feminists, may be subject to different problematics, for instance intersecting with neoliberal notions of resilience. Challenging political whiteness is therefore not simply a case of including more diverse narratives: this must be done alongside a critical examination of how sexual violence is experienced and politicised in a nexus in which gender, race and class intersect with binaries between victims and survivors, woundedness and resilience.
Chapter Three: Spending our pain in the outrage economy
Chapter Three asks what happens when experiences of sexual violence are invested as capital in the affective economies of neoliberalism, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. Testimonial politics has a long history within feminism, but its contours have been shaped by the commodification of ‘voice’ and experience within a neoliberal context. Staying with the framework of political whiteness, I highlight how privileged white feminists, speaking for others and sometimes for themselves, are able to mobilise the wound of sexual violence to support particular political and policy agendas, silencing women and people of other genders in more marginalised positions while articulating politics which have a direct impact on their lives. Furthermore, the use of experience as capital within contemporary affective economies can hide these power dynamics, due to the role of emotional trauma in putting political narratives beyond dispute.
My analysis is developed using two case studies: the linked debates over sex work and transgender inclusion. In both these debates, ‘survivor stories’ are deployed as capital: to support regulation of the sex industry and especially the criminalisation of clients, and to oppose the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces. The use of the rape experience as capital here situates sex workers and trans women, in different ways, as threats to women’s safety; furthermore, it withholds the designation of ‘survivor’ from these marginalised women who are at high risk of sexual violence and abuse. The experiential, affective field in which these debates tend to occur both fortifies and conceals structural inequalities by situating all experiences as equal. It also creates a lack of nuance and ‘selective empathies’ by which we tend to discredit others’ realities instead of engaging with their politics. I do not argue for a renunciation of the politics of experience however: instead, I ask that we resist its commodification and respect varied narratives while situating them in a structural frame.
Chapter Four: The (mis)uses of anger
This chapter offers two different readings of the mainstream feminist movement against sexual violence: a movement of righteous anger as women finally say ‘time’s up’ to men; and an attempt to gain power and control which is propelled by political whiteness and consistent with the age of anger and reactionary politics. The power of ‘women’s anger’ has been a key motif in contemporary progressive narratives: I question the usefulness of that category and attempt to unpack it. Using the work of Audre Lorde and other black feminists, I explore angers between women as well as how the anger of different women is perceived and responded to differently. Furthermore, I argue, just as ‘woman’ is not a foundational category, our emotional repertoires are also socially and culturally constructed: the anger of white women reflects our whiteness as well as our gender. Centrally, the chapter is concerned with what is made possible when permission to be angry at gender injustice – what Ahmed identifies as the power of wilfulness – is taken up by white feminists with no attention to how whiteness is a position of racialised structural power.
As well as tending to dominate feminist politics, such emotional expressions are powerfully resonant in a broader context in which white people ‘taking back control’ has very much come to the fore. This has fortified exclusionary and oppressive politics within feminism, particularly in relation to the sex workers and trans women who have been defined as enemies rather than allies by some in the feminist movement. I explore the contemporary alignment of reactionary feminism with the political right: as the ‘we’ of many Western nations is violently reconstituted as white and privileged, reactionary feminists dwell on their own border anxieties, centring bourgeois and colonial values in their attachment to binary sex and gender and their fear of the sexualised Other. This, I argue, is a misuse of anger which is fundamentally shaped by race and class privilege.
Chapter Five: From punishment to governance
The final chapter asks: what exercises of power does contemporary ‘survivorship’ legitimate? When experience is deployed as capital and wilfulness is co-opted by whiteness, what are the political and institutional consequences? Traditionally, As Bumiller and others have argued, the figure of the rape survivor has demanded paternalism and punitive revenge via the neoconservative state, and/or self-help responses of personal reconstruction through the ‘helping professions’ and the market. Now however, I identify an attendant demand for governance through institutional and corporate codes of conduct, equality and diversity programmes and training on topics such as disclosure response and bystander intervention.
Ideas of ‘safety’ are key here: this can be seen as a mode of reclaiming power by the powerless, but read through the lens of political whiteness this demand can also constitute a rejection of vulnerability (accompanied, paradoxically, by infantilisation) and a form of entitlement and political splitting. The idea that safety can be created by excluding ‘bad’ people from communities and institutions creates a false binary between perpetrator and victim and supports practices of institutional airbrushing, by which individuals are purged from institutions with little impact on the structures and cultures that facilitate abuse. Furthermore, this is not a collective solution – as white and privileged women purge high-status institutions and professions of predators, we may impose them on their sisters working with fewer employment protections in lower-status jobs. I end by asking some difficult questions on what would really be required to eradicate violence from our institutions.
The book draws on 13 years of intensive empirical research on sexual violence, as well as extensive literature and key case studies, including but not restricted to:
- The international #MeToo movement and Women’s March;
- Campaigns against sexual misconduct in universities and international non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children;
- Debates about sex industry regulation, particularly the criminalisation of clients under the Nordic Model;
- Debates about transgender inclusion, particularly around reforms to the Gender Recognition Act in Britain and ‘bathroom bills’ in the US;
- The cases of individuals accused or convicted of sexual violence such as Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, R Kelly, Asia Argento and Avita Ronell, and victims such as Jyoti Singh Pandey and Cyntoia Brown.
It builds on a number of papers which have already been published:
- ‘Every Woman Knows a Weinstein: political whiteness and white woundedness in #MeToo and public feminisms around sexual violence’ is forthcoming in Feminist Formations. The open-access version is here.
- ‘The Fight Against Sexual Violence’ appears in Soundings and the open-access version is here.
- ‘Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in Contemporary Feminist Politics’ appears in Feminist Theory here and the open-access version is here.
- ‘Sex Wars Revisited: a rhetorical economy of sex industry opposition’ is published in the open-access Journal of International Women’s Studies, available here.
- ‘Speaking Up for What’s Right’ is published in Feminist Theory here and the open-access version is here.
- ‘Reckoning Up: sexual harassment and violence in the neoliberal university’ is published in Gender and Education here and the open-access version is here.