The dark side of the impact agenda

There has been a great deal of discussion, much of it critical, of the impact agenda in higher education and in the research excellence framework.

We have been cautioned that this agenda might prioritise lower over higher quality research if it has demonstrable social reach, that the role of ethics is unclear (so researchers might be facilitating questionable policy agendas or corporate practices) and that the impact of much valuable exploratory and theoretical work (often in the arts and humanities) is almost impossible to assess.

But thus far nobody has really explored the potential effect on individual researchers who “have impact”.

As the REF 2014 loomed on the horizon, I was asked to submit an impact case study about my research on “lad cultures” and sexual violence in higher education.

My work in this area began with my contribution to the 2010 National Union of Students report Hidden Marks: A Study of Women Students’ Experiences of Harassment, Stalking, Violence and Sexual Assault. This led to my being asked to co-author (with Isabel Young) a second report,That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of ‘Lad Culture’ in Higher Education, which was published last year. This recommended that institutions and the student movement should take action to combat the emergence of “lad culture” in higher education and its negative impact. It was widely covered in the media, and the research contributed to the decision by many students’ unions to adopt zero tolerance initiatives or launch consent campaigns, and to some institutions starting to develop more adequate sexual violence policies. I was among the academics featured at my university’s “celebrating impact” event earlier this year.

In general, I think the impact agenda is great. If they can, academics should be looking for ways their work can contribute to society. Of course this is more possible for some of us than others, and we should support those whose work is primarily exploratory or theoretical, not least because we cannot tell what future impact it might have. Nevertheless, we are incredibly privileged to work in a profession in which the public purse at least partially supports our pursuit of knowledge, and where we still have relative autonomy and a podium from which to speak. It is not unreasonable to ask us to give back.

But as it develops the impact programme, the Higher Education Funding Council for England should acknowledge that impact is not neutral. I imagine that an analysis of the REF 2014 impact case studies would find that the majority of them came from white men – not because their research is better, but because they are likely to have the social and cultural capital required to make a splash and to be taken seriously. Furthermore, in a social media age there is a price to be paid by anyone who gains a public profile – and this is especially true for women who talk about gender.

Like lots of academics, one of the ways I track my impact is through Google Alerts – the search engine emails you whenever your name appears online. However, the net has to be cast wide in order to encompass blogs, forums and other places where your research might be discussed – so this becomes a great way to stay informed about who hates your guts. Academics’ email addresses are public, too, and we are also encouraged to be on Twitter – so if someone wants to go a step further than posting a snarky comment on a forum or blog, they can send it to me direct.

I’ve been called a prude, an idiot and a man-hater, described as joyless, vapid, toxic and entitled. Comments have been made about my appearance and, as seems to be becoming inevitable for women with opinions, specifically about my genitals. These are the statements that show up in my alerts or are sent to me directly – I try to avoid looking at the free-for-all comment sections below news articles (and in doing this I am often ignoring editors’ requests that writers engage with those who comment on their work).

What’s more, I don’t get nearly as much abuse as other, higher-profile women. I’m also white, middle class and cisgendered, and married with kids – women who do not enjoy these privileges will have even more vitriol to face for daring to think for themselves in public.

As my research becomes higher impact, this state of affairs will only get worse – and I’m sure it may take an emotional toll. I’m certainly not going to be silenced by bullies. But Hefce and the higher education sector in general need to understand and acknowledge what they are asking academics to do, offer us better support, and pay particular attention to the problems faced by women in the public eye. It is harder for us to have impact in the first place – and when we do, it comes at a price.

Originally published in Times Higher Education

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Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers

There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.

What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.

What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.

Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.

Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.

Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?

I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps

* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.

** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014