New paper: Sex Wars Revisited

I have a new paper out in the International Journal of Women’s Studies, entitled ‘Sex Wars Revisited: A Rhetorical Economy of Sex Industry Opposition.’ This journal is completely open access so the paper is available free to anyone who is interested. The abstract is below and the paper can be downloaded here.

This paper attempts to sketch a ‘rhetorical economy’ of feminist opposition to the sex industry, via the case study of debates around Amnesty International’s 2016 policy supporting decriminalisation as the best way to ensure sex workers’ human rights and safety. Drawing on Ahmed’s concept of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, I explore an emotionally loaded discursive field which is also characterised by specific and calculated rhetorical manoeuvres for political gain. My analysis is situated in what Rentschler and Thrift call the ‘discursive publics’ of contemporary Western feminism, which encompass academic, activist, and public/media discussions. I argue that contemporary feminist opposition to the sex industry is shaped by a ‘sex war’ paradigm which relies on a binary opposition between radical feminist and ‘sex positive’ perspectives. In this framework, sex workers become either helpless victims or privileged promoters of the industry, which leaves little room for discussions of their diverse experiences and their labour rights. As Amnesty’s policy was debated, this allowed opponents of the sex industry to construct sex workers’ rights as ‘men’s rights’, either to purchase sex or to benefit from its sale as third parties or ‘pimps’. These opponents mobilised sex industry ‘survivors’ to dismiss sex worker activists supporting Amnesty’s policy as privileged and unrepresentative, which concealed activists’ experiences of violence and abuse and obscured the fact that decriminalisation is supported by sex workers across the world.

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‘Reckoning Up’ sexual harassment and violence

This is the transcript of a presentation given as part of a symposium at the 2017 Gender and Education conference (University of Middlesex, June 21-23), focused on the Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence project. The other papers in the symposium were given by Vanita Sundaram, Anne Chappell and Charlotte Jones.

I want to start with a reflection on how things have changed since we first developed the USVSV project. When we submitted our bid, disclosure training was not common in universities. Now, at least in the UK, there are a number of excellent models about. I think this is testament to the energy and commitment that’s been created around the issue of sexual violence in universities. Sara Ahmed talks about equality and diversity work using the metaphor of the brick wall – in institutions, this often doesn’t become apparent until it’s experienced (producing the figure of the ‘institutional killjoy’ who complains about walls other just cannot see). But WE know the walls are there. Some of us have been chipping away at the bricks for years. I think we are starting to do this:

cracked-brick-wall

But I also think we need to be careful: the cracks could easily be bricked up again. Universities face economic and political uncertainty, in the UK and overseas. This frames their responses to sexual harassment and violence, which tend to be ‘reckoned up’ in a neoliberal framework. In this very short paper I’m going to sketch that process, presenting an analysis based on 12 years of work in many different institutions: my ‘lad culture’ projects, my new initiative Changing University Cultures, and Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence. I am not going to ‘name and shame’ universities – in fact the data I present here might appear quite decontextualised – but I feel quite strongly that pointing the finger is not the way to go (also, I have found that the issues are remarkably similar in different institutions).

Neoliberalism is a slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. It operates as an economic framework, a managerial system, and a motif deployed politically in ways which transcend left/right ideological boundaries. Economically, Harvey defines neoliberalism as a process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’: our pursuits are configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state or of the self.

The university is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Everyone in this audience will be well-acquainted with the metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. These sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class.

Sexual violence in UK universities appeared on the agenda after the 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned me to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. The subsequent moral panic around alcohol, pornography and casual sex, set against equally reactionary rhetoric around ‘free speech’, was the backdrop to a wave of initiatives, most of which were student- and faculty-led. It would take another three years, and much lobbying, for a Universities UK taskforce to be set up to demand meaningful action at institutional level.

The difficulty of getting university administrations to take action on sexual violence reflects how it is ‘reckoned up.’ This brings us back to higher education markets, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity grants perpetrators extra layers of protection, as the institutional impact of disclosure is projected and totted up.

We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media or NSS scores to cause a drop in the league tables. The airbrushing of the institution renders the impact of disclosures on future value more concerning than the acts of violence they reveal. Survivors are but one variable among many. Partly, this just reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one other, with no inherent value of their own. However, there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. Ball uses the example of the REF, in which aggregate research rankings determine the value of our departments, while the people in them disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently.

This power (of being a ‘four-star’ academic, for example) can be used to perpetrate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Disclosures are threatening when they target those whose welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. Compared to them, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:

They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.

My work has taken me into many different universities, but I have been struck by their similarities in how violence is ‘reckoned up’. The previous quote is from an elite UK institution, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a participant from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet and dealing with them internally, which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’ Her mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When survivors disclose within this framework they only expose themselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal. They become variables in institutional ‘reckonings’, and disappear as people.

This objectification is compounded by university bureaucracy, which can even repress empathy for survivors in systems designed to support them. One of my research participants spoke of a ‘Student Wellbeing Centre’, which

…told me I had a six week wait until I could discuss my anxiety with them, and required [a] doctor’s letter to be provided with assessment extensions due to mitigated circumstances, something I was not asking for. I just wanted someone to talk to and make everything seem better.

It is significant that ‘helping survivors’ is understood here as ensuring they meet their assessment requirements. Or ensuring you meet your own: another participant felt her counselling focused more on ‘ticking the clinic’s boxes for progression of clients than actually helping the victim.’ The bureaucratisation of student support also means that survivors are more likely to present as people with ‘deficit disorders’ than victims of institutionalised violence. This is a good example of what Foucault called the ‘dividing practices’ of pastoral power, and one of the ways in which neoliberal systems ration empathy and suppress political critique.

In a neoliberal society, success is measured through our capacity for self-care via the market. What one of my research participants referred to as a ‘sink or swim’ attitude in their institution is reflected in the world at large. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education frames a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. Of course, as Carolyn Pedwell points out, neoliberalism has also commodified empathy, and turned it into demands for ‘emotional intelligence’ which can increase our individual speculative value or business profitability. A member of staff in my research commented that ‘the reputation of being supportive’ at their institution was ‘more important than the reality’ – and the metrics which measure this are not designed to capture the difference between the two. In a ‘tick-box’ culture, we can instrumentalise empathy while continuing to support practices which suppress it.

Commodified versions of empathy, Pedwell argues, often involve a feel-good false equivalence or ‘understanding’. She sketches alternative forms characterized by conflict, negotiation and attunement within an appreciation of structural difference. For me this owes much to Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger, in which she highlights the need for white women to listen to black women’s anger without being defensive or taking up too much space. Lorde is talking about small consciousness-raising groups and we are dealing with large institutions, but I keep returning to the idea (or ideal) of empathy not devoid of politics.

For Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus: she argues that as business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, the space of the demos is swallowed. However, her search for homo politicus seems to end at traditional liberal arts education and party politics. For me, these establishments are empty compared to the resistance movements many of us are already part of, which do ask us to do the difficult work of connecting across intersectional lines. I am thinking of campaigns such as this:

sex workers

The sex workers’ rights slogan ‘rights not rescue’ problematises mainstream feminist empathy for ‘victims’ of prostitution, arguing that this produces criminal justice interventions which make sex workers’ lives more unsafe. In rejecting this empathy, however, sex workers invoke alternatives: the phrase ‘nothing about us, without us’ demands dialogue, not not an extension of ‘understanding’ from the privileged to those on the margins. This is a provocation and a challenge. Similarly, the US campaign Say Her Name, in the process of generating empathy for black women targeted by police violence, compels white women to face our complicity with it.

I want to end on a note of hope: these movements, and others like them, are enjoying a resurgence at present, in the UK and elsewhere. The general election in the UK has brought together a progressive movement of people who reject the neoliberal consensus and dare to imagine something better. Now is the time to build, both within and outside our institutions. Too often, resistance to the neoliberal ‘reckoning up’ of sexual violence is an outrage which becomes an end in itself. To create cultures in which survivors can disclose more safely, we need to think more positively about the kinds of spaces we want our universities to be.

 

On ‘Impact’

I really hate the word ‘impact’. It makes me think of things which are hard and aggressive: a meteorite colliding with the earth; a fist connecting with a face. It brings to mind the forcible contact of one object with another. In research terms, this is the way ‘impact’ is often done. We imagine it moving with velocity, in a linear direction. We conduct our research and only afterwards think about its impact – then we try to force our ideas out into the world, to leave our mark. We talk about ‘impact acceleration’. And once the impact has been felt, the crater has been made, we tend to leave it there and move on.

This model limits us in many ways. Les Back, in his article ‘On the Side of the Powerful’, describes how big research stars have been turned into ‘impact super heroes’ in Sociology, advising cabinet ministers and giving evidence to select committees. He argues that this tends to produce an arrogant, self-crediting, boastful and narrow public version of the discipline. Furthermore, Back contends, this orientation is more likely to produce reformist ‘empirical intelligence’ than radical ambition (probably because you can get policymakers to listen to you if you tell them what they want to hear). In his analysis of the 96 Sociology Impact Case Studies submitted to REF 2014, Back found that only 20 per cent involved speaking truth to power. Our meteorites don’t strike the earth as hard as we think.

I never set out to have an impact. When I joined Sussex as a junior lecturer in 2005, I almost immediately began receiving disclosures from women students who had experienced sexual violence. The institution (like many others) was fearful, and took refuge in denying the existence of a problem. Indeed, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s analysis, I became the problem: the ‘institutional killjoy’ who wouldn’t shut up. I reached out to NUS, and worked with them on Hidden Marks, the first national prevalence study of violence against women students. This established that there was, indeed, a problem. After this, NUS commissioned me to study the ‘lad culture’ which frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which had enough scope for sensationalism to pique the interest of the media. In the midst of a rather unhelpful moral panic, we started to build a community. Various student – and faculty-led initiatives developed. We collaborated with organisations from the women’s sector. After years of lobbying, last year we finally managed to get a Universities UK task force to demand institutional action.

During this time, I went back and forth between research and engagement, engagement and research, and each shaped the other. I became concerned with the weaknesses of ‘lad culture’ as a concept – its one-dimensionality, its lack of context, its capacity to create ill will. I was troubled by the punitive interventions being envisaged by institutions and some activists, and how these might exacerbate oppressions linked to intersecting issues such as race and class. I started to think about the cultures of the neoliberal university, how they frame violence and inhibit disclosure, and how individualistic, disciplinary responses seem to be the only ones available. My intellectual journey around ‘lad culture’ meant that when I was asked by Imperial College to come and deal with their ‘naughty boys’, I instead proposed a project on how their institutional culture interacted with gender issues. Another research and engagement journey began.

This is not the linear model of ‘impact’: I am not the meteorite making a crater. I would like to return to another word I have used consciously already – ‘engagement’. In contrast to impact, engagement is a two-way process. It implies dialogue. You engage people in conversation; you treat them as equals; you are part of a community of practice. You do not shoot your expertise down, like a meteor, from above. Engagement also means a promise – and as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I made a commitment many years ago to make our universities safer places to be. It is often said that impact and engagement are not the same thing. This is true, in REF terms – to demonstrate an impact, you need to show that something has changed as a result of your conversations. But to think you can achieve the change without an ongoing conversation carries certain assumptions about the scholar’s relationship to the world.

To enter the conversation of engagement also means being open to feedback, and I have noticed that once people start focusing on ‘impact’ they can lose the capacity to grow. When your big idea becomes a ‘brand’ this generates a whole set of concerns about its promotion, and you may become territorial and protective. This could very easily have happened to me. Seven years after Hidden Marks, there is a lot of activity around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities. There are some fantastic feminists out there. However, while we try to make change we are also trying to make our own craters; Impact Case Studies are forming in the background of every discussion. I try to remember that when we are all about the impact, we lose sight of the ideas. We see competitors where we should see colleagues; we think less about the work and more about who gets the credit.

The way impact is framed by key higher education organisations is vague but not altogether unhelpful. HEFCE defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. In the Stern Review, it was pointed out that the academy (both institutions and REF panels) had interpreted this definition in very narrow and strategic terms. This ‘will to impact’, and the meteors it has created, perhaps says more about the cultures of the sector than it does about the impact agenda itself.

My advice: concentrate on doing the very best research you can, on issues you care passionately about. My work on sexual violence in higher education has been a labour of love. I still have hope that research can be ‘impactful’ and have radical ambition – but I think that probably happens when you are focused less on the demonstrable impact of your work and more on what you want to change. So forget about your crater and think about your community, however you define it.

Speaking up for what’s right: politics, markets and violence in higher education

Content note: this post contains reference to sexual harassment and violence.

Universities in the US, and increasingly in the UK, are finding themselves under siege. The far right is targeting academics and their social justice work, bolstered by a mainstream suspicion of ‘experts’ and ‘elites’, and a general rightward shift in politics and public opinion. With a white supremacist, alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in the White House, a hardline English government, and a ‘new normal’ that involves overt and unrepentant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we’re in for a tough few years. I have previously written about the feminist classroom as a ‘safe space’, and the need to protect our most vulnerable students. I have also thought a lot about how the neoliberal university suppresses the very capacities required to do this. I have theorised an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual violence, exploring how institutional responses (or non-responses) to violence and abuse are shaped by neoliberal rationalities. In this post, I will attempt to sketch how the market framings of sexual violence in the university interact with our contemporary political field and growing hostility to progressive work.

Neoliberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has so often become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. Harvey defines neoliberalism as an economic process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself, usually to the detriment of labour. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We are all expected to maximise our speculative value within numerous systems of rating and ranking: we become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’. Everything, including education, is configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state, the corporation, or the self.

The university, then, is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Academics reading this will be well acquainted with the various metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. Of course, these sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class. To paraphrase McKenzie Wark, this contradiction suggests that neoliberalism is not so much rationality as ideology, functioning to maintain the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth through individualization, responsibilisation, and withdrawal of care.

Sexual violence in UK universities made its way on to the agenda after the 2010 NUS report ‘Hidden Marks’, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned Isabel Young and I to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. Activities such as initiation ceremonies, nude calendars, sexist themed parties and wet T-shirt contests all came into focus in a ‘moral panic’ around alcohol, pornography, casual sex, and as the Daily Mail put it (without irony), the ‘sickening rise of the male university students who treat women like meat.’ More recently there has been an emphasis on sexual harassment by university staff, which has also seen dramatic media stories about ‘epidemic’ levels of this phenomenon. Opposing all this is a rather bogus politics around ‘free speech’, in which campaigns against lad culture and sexual harassment are positioned as an infringement of men’s rights. This chatter provides a backdrop to a wave of initiatives including policy work, consent campaigns, awareness-raising, disclosure training and bystander intervention, mostly student- and faculty-led.

This is also the political and cultural setting for university responses to sexual harassment and violence. I have argued before that these are preceded by ‘reckonings’ around potential risk and effects on future value: this brings us back to the higher education market, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity means that the impact of disclosure on institutional value must be projected and totted up. Markets in higher education operate via hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels. They are also subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media coverage to damage our standing with potential students or key international donors. In some situations, we may reckon these priorities up against each other.

In the case of sexual harassment and violence, we have often seen perpetrators being protected because their welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. The power of being a ‘four-star’ academic (or footballer, perhaps) can facilitate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Compared to this, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:
They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.
My eleven years of work on this topic has taken me into very different institutions, but what has struck me is their similarities in terms of how harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’. In most cases, concerns with institutional value take precedence over care for survivors. The previous quote is from an elite English university, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a student from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet…which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

The lack of care for survivors reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one another, with no inherent value of their own. Or almost all of them, perhaps: there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. In his discussion, Ball mentions the REF: and although he does not elaborate, it is certainly true that this is an exercise in which scholarly work is given a numerical rating and aggregate numbers determine the rank of a department or institution, while the people in it disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently. Or at least, until the risks of protecting them outweigh the benefits, in institutional terms.

The impulse to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence contrasts with situations where academics have been singled out for their political views or scholarship. Last September, the Middle East Studies Association wrote that the State University of New York had failed to protect a faculty member, raised and taught in Israel, who had been targeted for supporting the academic boycott of that state. This February, the American Association of University Professors said administrations needed to be more proactive in defending academics, after a professor at Sacramento State received a barrage of attacks for criticising President Trump. In England, a lecturer at Bristol was recently supported by Jewish colleagues after university management launched an investigation against her on grounds of anti-Semitism, following media coverage of a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. These incidents reflect a broader context in which the far right in both the US and England has pinpointed universities as hotbeds of left-wing indoctrination. This narrative is increasingly being adopted by the mainstream press and accepted by some of liberal persuasion, under the rubrics of ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Earlier this month, the Times published an article entitled ‘Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech.’ In February, in a piece entitled ‘The Threat from Within’, former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy argued that the university was ‘not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view’.

Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ on the part of the far right perform a rhetorical sleight of hand. They locate legitimate political speech on the right of the spectrum: conversely, left-wing and progressive speech is not speech but anti-speech, a threat to freedom of speech in itself. This convoluted rhetoric (and its growing influence) only makes sense in the context of broader shifts in what is tolerated and found acceptable. As social justice gains recede, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and other prejudices are increasingly seen as mere differences of opinion, while work to tackle them is situated as intolerant and oppressive. A recent report by the Adam Smith Institute on ‘left wing bias’ in UK academia cited the (discredited) science in The Bell Curve around raced differences in intelligence, and Lawrence Summers’ remarks about women’s intelligence in relation to their under-representation in STEM, as examples of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas which had been subject to unfair condemnation. This discussion in the UK has reached its apex with the SpikedFree Speech University Rankings’, in which anti sexual harassment policies (among other initiatives) can get an institution a ‘red’ rating. The 2017 rankings were reported largely uncritically in English liberal media outlets, as well as in conservative ones.

The contortions involved in using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect bigotry and harassment echo earlier appeals to the notion of ‘banter’ as a shield against criticism of laddish behaviour. Similar rhetorical strategies can also be found amongst more progressive communities: Sara Ahmed uses the terms ‘critical sexism’ and ‘critical racism’ to refer to academics who identify as left-wing or radical, who have articulated noncompliance with equality and harassment policies as a rebellion against neoliberal audit culture and Victorian ‘moral panics.’ However, contemporary far right rhetoric around ‘freedom of speech’ is part of a broader struggle over social norms in response to recent political and cultural shifts, in which universities are targeted as sites of potential resistance. Ironically, this operates alongside the genuine threat of censorship which resides in the government’s Prevent programme: this includes in its list of ‘potentially extremist’ views criticism of wars in the Middle East, and criticism of Prevent. The resounding silence of ‘free speech’ campaigners around Prevent (it is not mentioned in the Spiked rankings, for example) is confirmation, should this be needed, that their politics is not about freedom of speech at all.

If these debates are not worrying to those of us who work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, they should be. Our gains are not secure, because universities tend to function according to market principles alone. Both the protection of sexual predators and the lack of it for political academics reflect a preoccupation with public opinion in the context of what it is possible (and not possible) to airbrush out, rather than a consideration of the principles at stake. This highlights the apolitical nature of the neoliberal university, in which equality and diversity are not ends in themselves but subordinate to market concerns. Indeed, they are often performed for market benefit, for instance in schemes such as Athena SWAN, in which institutional airbrushing can require that bad practice is not addressed but covered up. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education shapes a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. This is evident in a growing exasperation, not confined to the far right, with ‘snowflake students’ and their demands for safer spaces: indeed, the care these students deserve increasingly goes instead to those who claim that principles of anti-discrimination stifle their ability to speak.

For Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus and never homo politicus. Business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, and the world is governed by market forces, not elected representatives. Our democratic duty is to conduct ourselves properly in the market, and social and political issues have market-based solutions. When politics recedes, resistance can be repackaged as ‘complaint’. Sara Ahmed has highlighted how those who bring problems to institutional attention become the problem, rather than the issues they raise. Feminist, anti-racist and other social justice academics are routinely cast as ‘complainers’, and their concerns summarily dismissed. However, in far right campaigns against these (and other) political academics, another form of complaint is beginning to be deployed: student, or consumer, complaint. In a 2016 article in the US National Review, entitled ‘Yes, universities discriminate against conservatives’, David French argued that ‘parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to glorified propaganda mills’. Calls for US academia to reflect the ideological balance of the population, now spreading to England and overseas, use the language of democracy but may ultimately send the message that the customer is always right.

In response to recent activism and policy work across the UK, most universities are taking a stand – rhetorically at least – against sexual harassment and violence. However, it is worth considering whether a showdown with the far right around the spectre of ‘left wing intolerance’ is somewhere in our future. Negative media coverage of consent workshops has already situated them as a threat to free speech. Is it possible that students might eventually demand protection while they parrot rape myths or talk about grabbing their classmates by the pussy? As has already happened in the US, could we see threats to withdraw government funding if we refuse to platform those whose hate speech has been redefined as merely ‘provocative’? If the ideological targeting of universities continues to influence the mainstream, this will shape institutional reckonings. Starting now, we need to challenge university administrations to recognise, and speak out against, these manoeuvrings for what they are. We must also ask our institutions to consider their values, and to recentre and reaffirm principles of equality and progressive social change. To support survivors – and other vulnerable people – we must all figure out where our lines are drawn, and then resolve to hold them.

This post was originally developed as a public lecture for ‘Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Universities‘, a one-day conference held at Newcastle University on March 14th 2017.

New paper out: Rape Culture, Lad Culture and Everyday Sexism

Here is the Open Access version of my new co-authored paper entitled ‘Rape culture, lad culture and everyday sexism Researching, conceptualizing and politicizing new mediations of gender and sexual violence.’ You can view the published version here. This paper was co-authored with Jessica Ringrose, Emma Renold and Carolyn Jackson as the introduction to a Special Issue of Journal of Gender Studies we have co-edited on the same topic. The Special Issue is not yet out but contains papers by Lida Ahmad and Priscyll Anctil Avoine, Lesley McMillan, Shweta Majumdar and Shreyasi Jha, Ruth Lewis, Susan Marine and Kathryn Kenney, Alyssa Nicollini, Kaitlynn Mendes, Jessalyn Keller and Jessica Ringrose, and Emma Renold.

Arguing from qualitative data

One of the main persistent queries I get from research students is about how to develop an argument using qualitative data. When you are sitting with a trove of diverse narratives, how do you shape these into something interesting and important without losing complexity and while letting people speak for themselves as much as you can? This is difficult, painstaking work. In the current political context, it is crucial that we take pains to develop our data into arguments which are relevant and substantive: for some of us, this will be our most useful form of activism. While I have many doubts about our ability to deploy knowledge progressively in what has been called a ‘post-truth’ era, I am not yet ready to give up on the political potential of thoughtful social research.

This post does not contain advice about data analysis but about what happens afterwards: the interpretations which can be created from data once they have been synthesised into categories or themes, once an understanding of key trends has been reached and any particularly interesting or significant cases identified. You will probably have engaged in some form of coding to get here, whether software-based or by hand. Of course, the distinction between analysis and interpretation is permeable and often arbitrary: interpretation frequently starts at the data collection stage (or in bad research, before it), when arguments begin to form in your mind. But in many projects there will come a point when it is necessary to shift up a gear intellectually. What do you really want to say about these data, and crucially, why? At this point, you could try the following:

1. Examine your motivations. Are you preoccupied with being clever and making your mark, or are you committed to saying something relevant and useful which you can evidence? Academia tends to showcase the former at the expense of the latter – indeed, research has shown that the pressure to innovate in natural sciences often leads to ‘bad science’ being published which prioritises surprising findings that are often wrong. Decide to show integrity in your work.

2. Go back to your rationale and research questions (this sounds obvious, but many students fail to do it). Why did you deem this study important, and what did you originally want to know? Of course, you are not bound by your original aims: often the process of research shifts our paradigm of inquiry because our data tell us unexpected things. We should be alert to this possibility (and remember that deriving unforeseen conclusions from rigorous analysis is different from focusing on an anomalous finding because it will help you to make a splash). Revisiting your original aims will help you focus on what your data say, whether you set out to discover it or not.

3. Go back to the literature. Whether this is your theoretical framework (if you have one) or the empirical literature review (or both), check back in with the existing field to figure out how your data speak to it. Do they merely confirm what has already been written or are there new stories, unanswered questions or anomalies which need to be explored? If you are using a particular theory, are your data consistent with it or do they expose any gaps or weaknesses? If you analyse data in enough depth you will usually find challenges to existing theoretical frameworks: when developing an argument, it is better to start here than plucking something out of thin air based on a cursory glance through your dataset. Resist the temptation to name, to speak, to conclude before you are ready. Build on the intellectual work of others – this is how understanding becomes full and deep. If you need different theories or literatures to make sense of your data, go and find them: and make a point of seeking out diverse perspectives. If your intellectual canon consists mostly of white men your analysis will be much weaker for it.

4. Analysis is often a process of shuttling between theory and data. As you make these journeys, check that you are clear about the concepts you carry, and how you are using them. Do you have a sense of what ‘power’ might look like? Have you thought about how to actually ‘do’ intersectionality in empirical research? Do not carry ‘black boxes’ – empty versions of concepts which can be inserted into an argument as conclusive, but with nothing going on inside. Agency is a good example. If you think you can identify agency in your data, shuttle back to the theoretical definition, then forward into your data to consider if you can really see it in practice. What differentiates agency from action? If you think you can identify moments of agency, what are the broader implications? (the ‘so what?’ question – see below)

5. Be honest about what your data actually support. In the context of marking criteria (and scholarly norms) which prioritise ‘originality’, students often create arguments which sound lovely but bear little relation to their dataset. Beware ‘armchair theorising’ which is not grounded in your research: this might be your pet idea, but are you sure you can evidence it? Beware buzzwords which explain nothing, merely describe the familiar in different terms, and/or are just thrown in when we don’t know what else to say. Steer clear of inventing your own terms or concepts unless you have the data to back them up – and this often takes years.

6. Know the difference between novelty and significance. The latter implies an ability to challenge received wisdom in a substantive way, and sometimes the most obvious story about your data is not the most significant one. You might interview 40 women architects: the majority might highlight pay inequity and persistent everyday sexism, but reflect favourably on initiatives designed to encourage women to apply for promotion. This is important, although nothing we don’t already know. What might be more significant is that the two black women in your sample had experienced specific forms of gendered racism which meant that initiatives around ‘promoting women’ were not particularly helpful. These cases, alongside other studies, might help to evidence the argument that equality initiatives situate white women’s successes as a proxy for women as a whole, creating the illusion of collective progress and masking the specific difficulties black women face. When arguing from your data, you might prioritise this story over the more pedestrian majority narrative we have heard many times before. This choice is a political one, and this is the value of qualitative research: it allows us to dig deeper than the majority story and explore the nuances of social issues.

7. Exploring those nuances means engaging with the ‘why’ questions about the trends, anomalies and interesting cases in your data. This also requires an understanding of issues around ‘voice’ in qualitative research and the potential pitfalls of that term. The common practice of using social research to give people a ‘voice’ is a laudable (if perhaps doomed) attempt to elevate marginalised narratives and avoid imposing ‘false consciousness’ on participants. We could talk for days about the ethics and politics of this: for now however, I want to highlight the difference between honouring people’s experiences and perspectives and taking them at face value. There is no pure ‘voice’ prior to politics. Consider the inappropriateness of taking racist ‘immigration concerns’ expressed by white working class people as given, without deconstructing the white supremacist culture in which they resent and blame people of colour for their economic woes. Consider the use of cis women’s rape trauma in advocating for trans women’s exclusion from women-only space. Engaging rigorously with qualitative data requires us to set experience in context and explore how it is produced and framed.

8. Once your argument starts coming together, ask yourself ‘so what?’ How does it shed light on broader economic, social and/or political issues or concerns? This isn’t about micro- versus macro design: often in-depth research with very small samples can illuminate wider debates with more insight than much larger studies. The ‘so what?’ test refers to your mindset when you argue from your data. Are you content to tell a nice story, or do you want to try to influence something to change? Again, your ambitions can be quite small, and it is often more practical to set your sights on something specific or local than to make claims which are too grandiose (which will take you right back to what your data can actually support).

9. As your argument takes shape, try writing an abstract of your thesis or dissertation – this will help you to construct a narrative which is focused and makes logical sense. You can also outline chapters and sub-headings using Pat Thomson’s technique for avoiding ‘blocky’ writing: this is a really useful way to get that coveted narrative flow. Keep your abstract and outline handy as you write up, so you can amend them and stay focused as your argument develops. Start to enjoy it – watching a research narrative emerge is exciting, and research does have political potential. Knowledge may not change the world, but it can be used by progressive movements in a variety of different ways. What if you were able to construct a catalogue of police brutality against sex workers in your local area? Or a detailed narrative showing how a school has negotiated racist government policies and protected refugee children in their midst? We will need all the tools we can get in the years to come: if you can furnish us with any, I personally thank you for that. 💜

The feminist classroom as ‘safe space’ after Brexit and Trump

So it’s happened. Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States. He ran on a white supremacist ticket, and multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault failed to stop him taking the White House. There were reports of racist, homophobic and misogynistic hate crimes within hours of the result being declared. David Duke called the night one of the ‘most exciting’ of his life, and the Vice-President of France’s Front National declared: ‘their world is collapsing – ours is being built’. The Israeli Right took the opportunity to announce that the era of a Palestinian state is over. This only months after the British public voted to leave the European Union, ushering in a hard right agenda which ensures that the US and UK will (in Sarah Palin’s words) be ‘hooking up’ during the Trump administration.

These events are not surprising, even as they are shocking. Both Brexit and the election of Trump are national outpourings of long-held resentments, and a validation of the racist violences on which both the UK and US are built. Voters want to ‘take their countries back’ from people of colour, migrants, and Muslims. Entwined with this is suspicion and hatred of other Others: trans people, queers, disabled people and feminists. This ‘whitelash’ against globalisation and the very meagre gains which have been made in race equality targets all other social justice movements along with it. Under the pretext of ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment and suspicion of liberal political elites, white supremacists are trying to wrest back full control. There is no greater sense of victimhood than when entitlements and privileges are perceived to have been lost.

In this context, talking about ‘safe spaces’ and feminism in university classrooms might seem irrelevant, even indulgent. Don’t we have bigger problems to solve? Yes we do, as long as you think the micro and macro are separate, that the prejudice and unkindness we let pass in private has nothing to do with the bigotry, aggression and violence which has now been let loose on a national public scale. I believe that what we do on an individual level counts. Especially when social and political problems seem insurmountable, we can break through our numbness and inertia by starting with ourselves. The more privileged of us who care about equality have a duty to do this: we can give our more marginalised comrades space to grieve and breathe, while we think about taking action.

The university has potential as a critical and political space. We must not take a romantic view: the jury is certainly out on whether it is a site of radical deconstruction or just a wing of the master’s house (and the answer is probably both). Universities have also been neoliberalised, marketised and financialised (depending on who you listen to) until civic values have been crowded out by other concerns. But in an age of mass higher education, academics are in a unique position to engage with and influence members of the younger generation. We are also pushing on an open door: most of the under 30s in the US voted for Clinton (although this is thanks to the huge majorities amongst young African-American and Latinx voters), and more than 70% of the under-25s in the UK voted to Remain in the EU.

In between spells of despondency (magnified when I look at my young children), one of the things I will be doing in the coming weeks is reflecting with renewed commitment and energy on my role as a teacher. Am I just here to prepare reading lists, mark assignments and validate credentials, or do I aspire to something more? What do I do with the increasing proportion of my students who want me to ‘teach to the essay’ rather than explore issues in the round? How do I create space for political thought and action amongst young people who are often just trying to survive? These are huge, intimidating questions. Answering them constructively requires me to nurture my own self-awareness and capacity for self-development, and to make sure that my classroom is the right kind of space. A space where the most vulnerable of my students can express what they feel, think and need, and where their voices will be heard.

As Akwugo Emejulu has said, creating safer spaces in university classrooms requires emotional labour which academics are not always willing to provide. Now more than ever, we must be prepared to give emotionally to our students. With bigots empowered and intellectual pursuits reviled under a wave of right-wing populism, we will probably also face incessant questions about whose safety matters more. Those of us who have already dealt with student complaints about feeling uncomfortable in our political classrooms will no doubt see more of them, and there may be little support from our institutions in a context in which higher education and progressive values are under attack. Will we keep our mouths shut, worried about our module rankings, or will we defend our teaching and our politics? Will we put our emotional labour into making some students feel comfortable, potentially at the expense of others?

There is a big difference between safety and comfort. Marginalised people are made physically and mentally unsafe by policies grounded in bigotry, and its violent manifestation on our streets. Many of our dearly held liberal convictions encourage us to appease, not challenge, these politics. They are turned into ‘legitimate concerns’, to make people feel comfortable. Marginalised students may be emotionally unable to stay in a classroom while their peers parrot ‘concerns’ which seem benign but are anything but. It is uncomfortable to address this, especially when students think they already ‘get it’. An antiracist classroom should and will feel uncomfortable to a racist, but may also feel profoundly uncomfortable to someone who is not actively engaging with their white privilege. A feminist classroom may feel especially uncomfortable to a cishet man who feels he has been ‘reconstructed’ and has forgotten the advantages he enjoys.

For too long, we have pandered to people’s comfort under the guise of ‘debate’ or ‘freedom of speech’. Media outlets give shocking bigots airtime and column inches and describe it as balance, and we fail to call people out (or in) when they express diluted versions of these views. It’s easier not to rock the boat, especially when you are dealing with family and friends. But the entitlement to hold and share prejudice has now grown into a mainstream, electorally legitimated movement which tells some people their very existence is unacceptable. Go back to where you came from. Your sexual desires are perverse. Your gender identity is made up. This has happened on our watch. Especially in critical and progressive spaces, if we do not name and challenge this and the more ‘reasonable’ politics which appeases it, we will be letting everybody down. We cannot just hang our heads and wait for the wave to break so things will return to ‘normal’. This is the new ‘normal’, and the old ‘normal’ was not much better.

One of the characteristics of the ‘new normal’ is a loosening of what few restraints we had on expressing bigotry and committing violence in the open. Populist-right leaders have encouraged us to be proud of our hatred, and it has come bubbling up to the surface and exploded on to the streets. I am going to be saying this a lot from now on: this will not be tolerated in my classroom, nor will I appease it as ‘legitimate concerns’. I will challenge more and challenge deeper, and give my students the tools to do so too. This does not mean shutting down difficult conversations: it means having difficult conversations in a way that means those most affected are able to speak and be heard. If that makes others uncomfortable, so be it: instead of sacrificing some people’s safety for others’ comfort as before, we must forgo some people’s comfort to ensure that others might one day be able to be safe.