The political whiteness of #MeToo

This is an edited extract of a chapter from my forthcoming book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. It appeared in Red Pepper on June 4th 2019.

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On January 24th 2018, gymnastics coach Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in a Michigan state prison for seven counts of sexual assault of minors. This was one of three sentences given to Nassar, accused of molesting at least 250 girls and young women and one young man, between 1992 and 2016. Sentencing Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told him that, if authorised, she would ‘allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. ‘I just signed your death warrant’, she said. Aquilina was subsequently described as a ‘a bona-fide feminist icon’, ‘#MeToo hero of the week’, and a paragon of ‘transformative justice.’

This story exemplifies what I call ‘political whiteness.’ I am going to state the obvious: the domination of mainstream feminism by bourgeois white women shapes what Clare Hemmings might call its political grammar. In other words, the form in which its stories are told, and the assumptions and meanings these draw on and create. For instance, that rape is perpetrated by ‘bad men’ who should be exposed. That police exist to catch these men, and courts to do justice on them. That they ought to be punished as severely as possible. Beneath these lie deeply held beliefs: people are either victims or perpetrators, but not both; the state is protective rather than oppressive; shaming and punishment work.

Political whiteness is similar to the term ‘white feminism’, which describes feminist perspectives (often willfully) ignorant of the struggles, cultural output and politics of women of colour. But political whiteness is broader and deeper than that. It is produced by the combination of supremacy and victimhood, which creates a focus on the injured self, an obsession with threat, and an accompanying will to power. It characterises both white feminism and the backlash (or whitelash) against it. It might seem insensitive to associate feminism with the misogynist backlash. But acknowledging the central role of race demands that we do.

 

‘I’m everything’ – the white self

On International Women’s Day 2019, #MeToo co-leader Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘My transgender sisters! I am celebrating YOU this #NationalWomensDay!’ Soon after, a male user asked: ‘Alyssa are you transgender?’ Her response is worth repeating in full.

‘I’m trans. I’m a person of color. I’m an immigrant. I’m a lesbian. I’m a gay man. I’m the disabled.

I’m everything. And so are you, Kirk.

Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or understand. No one wants to hurt you. We are all just looking for our happily ever after.’

Milano quickly followed this tweet with another quoting 13th Century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi: ‘This is a subtle truth. Whatever you love, you are.’

This event can tell us much about white feminism. It is nominally inclusive, but inclusion depends on white women being centred as those who grant it. We speak for other groups, rather than letting them speak for themselves. We see ourselves as experts and saviours. We speak of mutual love and happiness with no acknowledgement of our role in the violence of capitalism and white supremacy. We appropriate the ideas and politics of non-white people to justify these power games. I have certainly done all these things. If you are a white woman reading this, you have probably done them too.

Critical studies of whiteness have highlighted the central role of narcissism in white identity. White people see ourselves in everything around us: political and corporate leaders look like us; celebrities and other public figures do too. Most of us live and work in predominantly white neighbourhoods and communities – we hardly, if ever, enter a space in which we don’t belong. As Sara Ahmed says, whiteness is a mode of being ‘at home’ in the world. We don’t get stopped at the border. We don’t worry about being brutalised by the police. We are not seen and treated as Other, day in and day out. We don’t get called angry and unreasonable when we mention our race.

White people are ‘everything’. Our views are objective, and our experiences can represent those of everyone else. We expect to be centred, even in anti-racist movements. As Robin DiAngelo writes in her famous article ‘White Fragility’, we stand for humanity. This means that mainstream feminism can make claims about ‘women’s victimhood’ based on the experiences of bourgeois white women. And it always has done: in 1982, black feminist Hazel Carby highlighted how dominant feminist narratives (for instance, about the family and the police) excluded black women and other women of colour.

White feminist narcissism has its mirror in that of the backlash. What about the (white) men? The experience of whiteness as comfort lowers our capacity to tolerate its opposite, especially in the form of being held accountable. Accountability exposes the deep fragility of whiteness. This is demonstrated by the use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ about movements like #MeToo. Sometimes they are called ‘lynch mobs’, which is even worse. This rhetoric equates attempts to hold powerful people to account with the systematic and violent persecution of marginalised groups.

Counter-attack is then inevitable. In #MeToo, this took a number of forms: the hashtag #HimToo which identified accused men as victims and advised all men to be scared; men on Wall Street who decided to avoid women at all costs for protection; chest-beating about false allegations; victim-blaming; and the rest. White women were part of this backlash as well: celebrities, libertarian feminists and conservative female commentators all took part in the frenzy of concern trolling and disbelief. Catherine Deneuve bemoaned the ‘media lynching’ of men accused of sexual harassment. Melanie Phillips opined that it was ‘time vilified men had their #MeToo.’

 

White selves as wounded selves

The narcissistic centring of the self is bound to produce wounds. The backlash against #MeToo was obsessed with the ‘wounds’ of accused men and critics of the movement. Katie Roiphe, who had been a key figure in the 1990s backlash against sexual violence activism on US campuses, penned an article in Harper’s Magazine called ‘The Other Whisper Network’. In it, she claimed #MeToo’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they could not speak. ‘Can you see why some of us are whispering?’ she asked. ‘It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled.’

These ‘wounds’ predominate despite the fact that the backlash criticises women – and feminists – for engaging in ‘victim politics’. This is a petulant howl about whose wounds are worse, who are the real victims, who is being victimised by all this talk of victimhood. This right-wing victim/anti-victim rhetoric often emerges in response to feminist campaigns against sexual violence. It is also fortified at a time when the ‘wounds’ of the right have come to dominate Anglo-American public discourse, exemplified by Brexit and the election of Trump.

Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness. From a position of power, one naturally becomes preoccupied with threat. The figures of the settler and the master are emblems of conquest and subjugation, but there is always a risk these figures will be displaced or violently overthrown. Whether from indigenous populations, enslaved people, immigrants, ‘political correctness’ or ‘social justice warriors’, the idea of whiteness under threat has significant cultural influence. And ‘victim politics’ is victimisation because it means consequences for dominant groups accustomed to acting with impunity.

On International Men’s Day 2019, Piers Morgan ushered in the celebrations with a monologue comparing bourgeois white men to endangered rhinos. ‘Yes, we do need a day’, he said. ‘We are now the most downtrodden group of men in the world.’ White feminists have generally (and rightly) given such statements short shrift. In 2014, following a series of online attacks from men’s rights activists, feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted a picture of herself in a T-shirt that read: I BATHE IN MALE TEARS.

But what about female tears? White woundedness and fragility also exist in feminist politics, often becoming most obvious in conversations about race. Mamta Motwani Accapadi is one of many feminists of colour who have described how white feminists use tears to deflect and avoid accountability in difficult discussions. These tears hide the harms we perpetrate through our involvement in white supremacy. And the power of white women’s tears still reflects white supremacy even when those tears are shed over genuine experiences of trauma.

Water was a powerful metaphor in #MeToo. The movement was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post. These metaphors for natural disaster evoked trauma on a massive scale. They constructed sexual violence as a ‘force of nature’, which (unfortunately) tapped long-established patriarchal myths. They also represented the movement as a collective weeping, a release of (white) tears.

Tears epitomise white femininity. They evoke the damsel in distress and the mourning, lamenting women of myth. Niobe wept unceasingly after her children were killed by Artemis and Apollo; even after being turned to stone, tears poured from her petrified face. Penelope waited for her husband Odysseus for two decades in her ‘bed of sorrows’, which she watered with tears until she fell asleep. In an article on #MeToo, Jamilah Lemieux commented: ‘white women know how to be victims. They know just how to bleed and weep in the public square, they fundamentally understand that they are entitled to sympathy.’

The cultural power of mainstream feminism is linked to the cultural power of white tears. The woundedness attached to whiteness can cross boundaries between reactionary and progressive politics. It encompasses the lost entitlements of the backlash and the resentment driving Brexit and Trump supporters, and the deeply felt trauma of sexual violence. These injuries (or perceived injuries, on the right) are not at all equivalent. But mainstream feminist activism against sexual violence is shaped by the woundedness of white bourgeois femininity.

This wounded white femininity was heightened and entrenched by colonialism. It reflects the dichotomies that legitimated conquest, violent dispossession and exploitation: dichotomies between the ‘respectable’ white bourgeois family and the ‘degeneracy’ of black and brown indigenous communities. Between the ‘pure’, ‘fragile’, ‘innocent’ white woman and the ‘uncontrolled’ sexuality of people of colour. Protecting white women was, and is, a key colonial preoccupation. Fear of revolution is also fear of rape.

This ‘risk’ posed to white women from the oversexualised Other has been the justification for community and state violence, both historically and now. It justified the genocidal subjugation of indigenous communities. It justified the lynching of enslaved and free black men and boys – perhaps most unforgettably, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. In a 2008 interview, Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant admitted he had not made sexual advances towards her. Bryant’s ‘white lie’ cost a black boy his life.

‘If the #MeToo revolution has proved anything,’ wrote Barbara Kingsolver in the Guardian in 2018, ‘it’s that women live under threat. Not sometimes, but all the time.’ This imperilled femininity is white. It depends on tropes of racist domination, even while it articulates the gendered harm of sexual violence. It is the white woman weeping in the public square. It is Niobe and Penelope. It is Carolyn Bryant. And white women’s tears can be deadly to people of colour.

 

‘Taking back control’

The structural power of whiteness creates a sense of victimhood when entitlements and powers are threatened, as seen in backlash and ethno-nationalist forms of white politics. This produces the desire to ‘take back control’ – a slogan which has been at the forefront of the far-right in many countries. Brexit campaigners used it repeatedly and relentlessly. (Some) Americans elected Trump to ‘Make America Great Again’ (a slogan echoed in Spain – and about Spain –by far-right party Vox).

The backlash against feminism often claims that it has ‘gone too far’, a clarion call for men to regain their rightful place in the gender order. In more mainstream circles this is expressed as a concern that men are now the downtrodden sex. At the extremes, Men’s Rights Activists and incels attempt to ‘take back control’ of women – and sex – via violent acts. MRAs online combine rape and death threats with instructions to ‘make [them] a sandwich.’ In the incel mindset, mass murder is an appropriate response to not being able to get a date.

White feminists are well acquainted with the white man’s will to power. We bathe in male tears. However, the white will to power also exists as whiteness intersects with gender inequalities and individual experiences of victimisation. White women – even survivors of sexual violence – possess and express it too. It is possible that sexual violence might intensify it: since sexual assault and rape involve a loss of power and control, regaining this is crucial to successful recovery.

Survivors of sexual violence are advised to ‘take back control’ in a variety of ways, from making decisions about reporting and accessing support, to when and whether to engage in consensual sex afterwards, to going back to work or college. We are sometimes encouraged to make small changes for a sense of restored control, for instance cutting our hair. This is all sensible and necessary. But regaining control, for white women, can also be accomplished through ‘taking down’ powerful men via the ‘outrage economy’ of the media and the carceral state.

Harvey Weinstein. Larry Nassar. Kevin Spacey. Junot Diaz. Richard Dreyfuss. Gerard Depardieu. James Franco. David Copperfield. Sylvester Stallone. The ‘shitty media men.’ This is part of the ‘kill list’ of #MeToo, and its founder Tarana Burke has consistently critiqued its focus on ‘bad men’ like these. ‘No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege,’ she has said, ‘they keep bringing it back to individuals.’ Burke’s caution about ‘bringing down’ these men is not about shielding them from accountability. Instead, it is rooted in the knowledge that strengthening punitive systems will not generally affect men like these.

When American college student Brock Turner was convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, some feminists protested the lightness of his six-month sentence. One response was a bill in the California State Assembly, to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for sexual assault of an unconscious victim. But ‘here’s the thing with mandatory minimums’, wrote Meg Sri in Feministing, ‘they were designed to prop up the exact same system that cut Turner loose, and put a vast swath of people of color in droves behind bars.’

Then Vice-President Joe Biden was fêted by feminists after an open letter to Turner’s victim sharing his ‘furious anger’ at what she had been through. Biden’s necropolitical rage has made him a white feminist hero before. He was the lead Senate sponsor of the 1994 Crime Bill, which mandated more funding for police and prisons, more ‘three-strikes’ laws, an expansion of the death penalty, and less money to help incarcerated people access education. Feminists supported the bill, because it also contained the Violence Against Women Act.

In 2019, Alyssa Milano defended Biden against sexual misconduct allegations on the grounds of his ‘kind, empathetic leadership’. Biden is actually a hero of what Elizabeth Bernstein calls ‘carceral feminism’, which is undeniably white. And as Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba wrote about Aquilina’s sentencing of Nassar, carceral feminism is not transformative justice. Criminal punishment is state violence. Even when handed down to a privileged white person, it is ‘a structurally anti-Black apparatus, firmly rooted in the United States’ ongoing reliance on the financial exploitation and social control of Black people.’

For white feminists, criminal punishment represents protection, not oppression. It is the master’s intervention, the ‘empathy’ of Angry Dad. It is also the indirect demonstration of our own will to power. We ‘take back control’ via the punitive technologies of the state. And as the far-right encroaches upon governments across the world, as fascists weaponise ‘women’s safety’ against marginalised groups such as migrants, sex workers and trans people, mainstream feminism stays focused on state remedy for personal harm. The dominant conversation about sexual violence remains one between white women and white men, about who is more wounded and who is in control. We need a different conversation.

I am not saying that white women do not suffer sexual violence. I have experienced it myself. We are entitled to be angry; we are entitled to cry. But we are not entitled to politicise our pain with no concern for what it might do. We must be alive to white narcissism, white woundedness and the white will to power. We must acknowledge that these dynamics are not restricted to the backlash. It is urgent for white feminists, taking their lead from feminists of colour, to work against political whiteness in ourselves and in the mainstream of the movement.

Doing intersectionality in empirical research

Most of my Gender Studies students are well versed in the theory and politics of intersectionality. However, this often seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to designing their research projects. Intersectionality is easy to discuss, but takes work to apply; this is work of designing and redesigning, questioning and (in Crenshaw’s words) ‘asking the other question’. In her famous article ‘Mapping the Margins’, Crenshaw defines three levels of intersectionality:

  1. Structural: how the social locations of black women make their lived experiences qualitatively different from those of white women
  2. Political: how feminist and antiracist politics have both marginalised the concerns of women of colour
  3. Representational: how the cultural construction of women of colour is produced by ideas about gender and race

When students attempt to apply intersectionality, the representational level often feels easier and more natural. However, without attention to the political and structural, this tends to lend itself to a superficial approach focused on ‘adding’ particular groups rather than exploring how systems and identities are co-constructed (what Patricia Hill Collins calls the ‘matrix of domination‘). In what follows I will attempt to sketch out some suggested protocols for ‘doing’ intersectionality: central to these is the fact that intersectionality is not an additive principle but an inherent one which requires us to interrogate the very foundations of our work. In other words, we need to apply it right from our ontologies, through our research questions and sampling, to the knowledge claims we make.

Ontology

Research always proceeds from ontology, whether this is a well-developed theoretical perspective or a simpler set of ideas about life. It is how you think the world works. If you are not intersectional in your ideas about the world, it will come through in your research. This is not just about acknowledging the existence of different types of people: crucially, you also need to think about how you define and locate structures such as patriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism and institutions such as the family, religion and the state. Our structural interpretations are often constructed from the perspective of a particular group, usually the dominant one. For example, since the 19th century black feminists have pointed out that state institutions such as law enforcement can be understood/experienced radically differently according to race. Privileged white women tend to look to the police for protection: for black women law enforcement is more often an agency of state violence against them and their families (usually perpetrated in the name of protecting whites). Despite this, the ‘neutral’ account of law enforcement is that they are here for everyone’s security: if you conduct research on an issue such as the under-reporting of sexual violence based on this ontology, your project will be exclusionary.

Developing an intersectional ontology also means interrogating key concepts such as gender, power and violence. This demands that we understand power relations both between genders and within them, mediated by categories such as race, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and age. It also means accounting for geopolitical flows of power between groups, nations and states in different regions of the world. Understanding a concept such as violence intersectionally asks us to broaden it from physical and sexual forms to include state, political, cultural and symbolic ones, which affect some communities more intensely and implicate others as perpetrators. Colonialism is the paradigm example. Within this framework, a term such as ‘violence against women’ becomes one-dimensional and inadequate. We must constantly challenge and complexify our ideas as we map the ontological foundations of our research.

Research questions

The ontologies underpinning our work should define the questions we choose to focus on. However, sometimes even with an intersectional worldview it is easy to slip back into two dimensions when we think about practical questions for an empirical project. To make your research questions more intersectional, check that you are allowing for difference and ‘asking the other question’, where necessary, about your topic. For instance, in a project on the under-reporting of sexual violence, make sure your questions incorporate and acknowledge different understandings and experiences of law enforcement. If you are researching gender equality in parliamentary politics, understanding ‘women’ as a homogeneous group risks allowing the success of some white middle class women to conceal the continued struggles of those who do not fit this category. Make sure your questions are designed to avoid this pitfall: this might involve asking specifically about particular groups of women in the political system. It may also be necessary to interrogate your ontology of ‘progress’: if this is defined as any woman holding political office, you may not be ‘asking the other question’ about how politics and policies led by privileged women might affect others who are more marginalised. A more intersectional appreciation of ‘progress’ might be necessary, and you should frame your questions accordingly.

Sampling

We should usually aim for diverse samples in our empirical work. However, intersectional research can be done using a limited and very specific sample, as long as you are honest about it. In fact, specificity can be a strength. Your desired sample will sometimes be dictated by your topic and what you aim to explore: if your research brief is to understand gendered street harassment in broad terms, for example, you will need as diverse a sample as possible. Women are sexualised in varying ways depending on intersecting categories such as class, race, disability and age, and gender-nonconforming people are also subjected to street harassment which has different dynamics. Often in qualitative research, samples are convenience-led and we must work with what we are given. Imagine you are asked to study a local women’s yoga group and you find that it is exclusively white and middle class. If approached in an intersectional way, the specificity of this sample could add depth to your research, allowing you to investigate how whiteness and class privilege are articulated in, and police the boundaries of, the space.

Knowledge claims

Many research projects in Gender Studies are grounded in the epistemology of experience, as a challenge to more masculinised, positivistic approaches. This is often situated within a testimonial politics focused on allowing more marginalised people to speak for themselves. If you are familiar with intersectionality theory you will already have a critical appreciation of terms such as ‘women’s experience’, knowing that this is not unitary or static and that to ground your research in such a principle may implicitly privilege the narratives and concerns of the dominant. In an intersectional research project you need to engage critically with different epistemologies in deciding where to locate yourself, realising that all knowledge claims are partial.

With this in mind, when you derive conclusions from your data make sure they are not over-generalised and that they are appropriate to your sample. In the project on the women’s yoga group, for example, you should not be making claims about ‘women’s experience of yoga’ but much more precise points about this particular white, middle class community of practice. This does not preclude raising broader questions or linking your work to more general themes: for example, the relationships between whiteness, privilege and the appropriation of Eastern physical-spiritual traditions in the West, and the historical and geopolitical contexts in which these are formed. However, you must be clear on what your particular dataset confirms, what has the status of interpretation and what needs to be left unanswered for now.

You should also ensure that you are not just generalising about your sample when there is differentiation within it. Imagine you are researching with a small group of sex workers, many of whom have extremely negative experiences of outreach and support services. You could derive legitimate conclusions here about sex worker stigma and judgment in the statutory and third sectors. However, an intersectional approach would require you to think about additional factors which might be at play. It might become apparent that the sex workers reporting the worst experiences are women over 45, linking to themes around how age, gender and sexuality are co-produced. You might begin to develop an analysis around perceptions of sex work as ‘sex’ rather than ‘work’, and how this interacts with the desexualisation of older women.

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After doing all the above, you may end up feeling completely confused and as though you are unable to say anything at all. Congratulations! You have started to do intersectional research. The challenge for all of us is how to hold on to the complexities of social life with its multiple dynamics of privilege and marginality, while constructing narratives through our research which are engaging and intelligible. You will never, ever see the finished picture: but if you are lucky, you will get to be part of the process of finding a piece.

Article – (Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education

This is the Open Access (accepted) version of my article entitled ‘(Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education’, published in Gender and Education and available via OnlineFirst to those with institutional access at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2016.1171298. The abstract is reproduced below, and you can download the OA version of the article by clicking here.

In the context of renewed debates and interest in this area, this paper reframes the theoretical agenda around laddish masculinities in UK higher education, and similar masculinities overseas. These can be contextualised within consumerist neoliberal rationalities, the neoconservative backlash against feminism and other social justice movements, and the postfeminist belief that women are winning the ‘battle of the sexes’. Contemporary discussions of ‘lad culture’ have rightly centred sexism and men’s violence against women: however, we need a more intersectional analysis. In the UK a key intersecting category is social class, and there is evidence that while working-class articulations of laddism proceed from being dominated within alienating education systems, middle-class and elite versions are a reaction to feeling dominated due to a loss of gender, class and race privilege. These are important differences, and we need to know more about the conditions which shape and produce particular performances of laddism, in interaction with masculinities articulated by other social groups. It is perhaps unhelpful, therefore, to collapse these social positions and identities under the banner of ‘lad culture’, as has been done in the past.

Feminism 101: Gender, Power and Violence

Following my previous lecture on Universalism and Intersectionality, I have developed a second ‘Feminism 101’ presentation on Gender, Power and Violence. This can be freely downloaded, adapted and shared by colleagues as they see fit. The lecture attempts to construct an intersectional analysis, asking questions about how acts, threats and allegations of violence both reflect and reproduce gendered and intersecting power relations, who is more likely to be able to claim state protection and who is more frequently a focus of (violent) state governance, how our definitions of violence and victimhood are shaped by intersectional identities and oppressions, and how these dynamics enter the political and geopolitical spheres. Of course, this is a huge topic and in a short introductory lecture I have not been able to cover all the themes and examples which would be necessary to do it justice. However, I hope it is useful to colleagues as a starting point, even if it merely operates as a focus for constructive critique.

A suggested reading list is presented below – again, this is indicative rather than exhaustive. The presentation also includes hyperlinks to referenced sources (where available), including those which are non-academic.

Prezi

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Readings

Ahmed, L (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press
Bernstein, E (2010) ‘Militarized humanism meets carceral feminism: the politics of sex, rights, and freedom in contemporary antitrafficking campaigns’, in Signs 36(1), 45-71
Bhattacharyya, G (2008) Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting sex, violence and feminism in the ‘War on Terror’. London: Zed Books
Brownmiller, S (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. London: Penguin
Bumiller, K (2008) In An Abusive State: now neoliberalism appropriated the feminist movement against sexual violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Cahill, A (2001) Rethinking Rape. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Carby, H (1982) ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood,’ in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Empire Strikes Back: race and racism in 70s Britain. London: Hutchinson
Crenshaw, K (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour’, in Stanford Law Review 43(6)
Day, S (1994) ‘What counts as rape? Physical assault and broken contracts: contrasting views of rape among London sex workers’, in P. Harvey and P. Gow (eds) Sex and Violence: Issues of Representation and Experience
Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (this text is available in many editions)
Greenberg, K (2012) ‘Still hidden in the closet: trans women and domestic violence’, in Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice 27, 198-251
Hill Collins, P (1998) ‘It’s all in the family: intersections of gender, race and nation’, in Hypatia 13(3), 62-82
Kelly, L (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence. Cambridge: Polity Press
LeMoncheck, L (1997) Loose Women, Lecherous Men: a feminist philosophy of sex. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Levy, J and Jakobsson, P (2014) ‘Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5), 593-607
McGuire, D (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: black women, rape and resistance. New York: Random House
Mohanty, C. T (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, in Boundary 2 12(3)/13(1)
Moreau, J (2015) ‘Intersectional citizenship, violence and lesbian resistance in South Africa’, in New Political Science 37(4), 494-508
Namaste, V (2009) ‘Undoing Theory: the “transgender question” and the epistemic violence of Anglo-American feminist theory’, in Hypatia 24(3), 11-32
Pauw, I and Brener, L (2003) “You are just whores – you can’t be raped’: barriers to safer sex practices among women street sex workers in Cape Town’, in Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 5(6), 465-481
Phipps, A (2009) ‘Rape and respectability: ideas about sexual violence and social class’, in Sociology 43(4), 667-683
Serano, J (2013) Excluded: making feminist and queer movements more inclusive. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press
Smith, A (2003) ‘Not an Indian tradition: the sexual colonization of native peoples’, in Hypatia 18(2), 70-85
Spivak, G (1988) ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ in C. Nelson et al (eds.), Marxism and the Intepretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan
Turchik, J and Edwards, K M (2012) ‘Myths about male rape: an overview’, in Psychology of Men and Masculinity 13(2), 211-226
Wells-Barnett, I (1892) Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its phases. Pamphlet available from the Project Gutenberg archive
Yuval Davis, N (1997) Gender and Nation. London: Sage

Research with marginalised groups: some difficult questions

Every year, students on the MA in Gender Studies ask questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged environment, but many of our students are politically committed and care passionately about issues of inequality. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these through research with human subjects is appropriate – too often students end up asking for time and attention from people who already live difficult lives, and producing projects which (due to time constraints and a lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I therefore advise students to ask themselves a number of questions when selecting their research topics:

  1. Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need?

The best way to approach this question is to design research in collaboration with community groups – some charities and organisations have data collection needs and are happy to receive offers from competent and committed postgraduate students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). The Centre for Gender Studies has four Associate Members – Galop, RISE, the Sex Worker Open University and Survivors’ Network – who are asked each year if they would like any students to help them out with small research projects. Sometimes students have their own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be beneficial (the onus must be on their data collection needs and not your interests, but if these are complementary, that’s great).

If there is no identifiable need in the community, there may be other ways to research the chosen topic which do not put people out or ask them to engage in intellectual, practical or emotional labour on your behalf. The best way to do this is to use pre-existing sources of data (see point 4 below).

  1. What are my motivations?

This question is related to the social need for the study, but pertains to you personally. Is this: (a) an issue and group you’ve been involved and familiar with for a while; (b) something you feel passionate about and want to educate yourself on; (c) an exploratory study which might lead to socially useful projects; (d) just curiosity? If (d), why are you curious about this group of people and is there a form of Orientalism at work? (Examples of some groups which are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: trans people, sex workers, Muslim women). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing sources of data. If (a), you most likely already know of a community organisation or group to work with on a project there’s a need for.

Examine your motivations honestly – if you feel they are anything but honourable (or you are not sure what they are), do not conduct the study. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect on these throughout the research, to ensure the safety of your research participants and the rigour of your data. This does not mean spending hours navel-gazing and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it requires you to make time to really look at yourself and become mindful of your relationships with participants and how they are structured by power and privilege. It may be possible to discuss these issues with some participants and to ask how they feel about the process – but this is a form of emotional labour which may be arduous as well (and therefore best avoided).

  1. Am I qualified?

Especially if you wish to research a more marginalised group of people, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing so. There are differing opinions in the field about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways in which the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised).Being an ‘insider’ is also by no means a guarantee that you will be able to do good research. However, if you are not at all familiar with the group in question and do not consider yourself an ally in their struggles, you should ask yourself whether you are in fact qualified to carry your project out.

Academia is full of relatively privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base about key social issues (bigger than there are already). However, research on more marginalised groups should proceed from a commitment to and association with the group in question, and if you wish to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying the profession. Ideally, research on marginalised groups would always be able to be carried out by members of those groups – since they are the experts on their own lives. This does not mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never carry out research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that fields of research on marginalised groups could always be insider-led.

  1. Do I need to ask people for their time/attention?

If you are able to go ahead with a project which involves human subjects, this does not necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material which can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own data archives – by far the most common research request made by our Associate Member organisations is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they have not yet had time to work with. If you are not working with an organisation there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive which is housed at Sussex University. There are also web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these are not research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects which can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media sources, which can give greater breadth of perspective than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for an MA study.

Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you are doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore with them ways in which your participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). We have a small budget in Gender Studies to support you with this, as long as there is a good case for the research.

  1. How will I look after my participants?

Research ethics are important to any project, but particularly one which involves a researcher with more privilege working with participants with less. Ensure that you develop a rigorous framework around anonymity and confidentiality, and (most importantly) that this is communicated to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms. Be aware that if you are not an ‘insider’ you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with the community organisation or charity you are working with. The university has comprehensive ethics guidance and pro-forma documentation available online, and you should work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you have designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. You should also be aware that this is the bare minimum in terms of actually conducting research in an ethical way – ethics is a process which requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen. If you have not read any feminist literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about recruiting participants.

If you are working with a service organisation or community group, explore ways in which they can help you to introduce yourself and put potential participants more at ease. When you recruit participants, emphasise that participating in the research is their choice and they can withdraw any time with no hard feelings. This is particularly important if you are recruiting through an organisation which provides help and resources, as there may be concerns that these are conditional on participating in your research. Be open to any misgivings or worries participants may have, and be aware of the fact that they may (rightly) suspect your motives. Also be aware that even if there is an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of oppression may not necessarily have the capacity to consider or care about it. It is patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want to be appreciated, even if you have the best intentions. Of course, it’s possible to develop wonderful, mutually fulfilling relationships with research participants – but to expect this is a form of entitlement. Building trust takes time, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or established ally (and often even if you are the latter).

  1. What will I do with the findings?

If you have been asked to conduct a research project by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Do not just forward them a copy of your dissertation! Depending on the target audience, possible outputs might be a short briefing paper, an informational video or a training workshop for staff. Writing a dissertation is a stressful process, and it might be tempting to just submit it and then forget about the whole thing. However, this would constitute a betrayal of the organisations and people who have given you their time and emotional labour. It would also expose self-serving motivations behind your research, and might cause community groups and individuals to approach future requests for research participation with justified trepidation.

Consider what you might do if you are asked to take part in academic or policy events or are contacted by journalists about your research, once it is complete. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there is specific interest in your dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should also ask for a community representative to share your platform in order to explore the issues first-hand and in more depth. If the request is simply for a generic ‘expert’ (which it very often is), always pass this on to representatives of the group in question. NEVER give out names or contact details of your participants without permission – if individuals have shown an interest in dissemination you might pass requests on, but in general it’s best to channel these through organisations or community groups.

To summarise: if your research is not needed, don’t do it. If you’re unsure of your motivations (or if they’re self-serving), don’t do it. If you’re a complete outsider, don’t do it. If you can use existing sources of data, use them. If you do end up working with marginalised people, look after them. Afterwards, give up your platform whenever you can.

Finally, read this: Fuck You and Fuck Your Fucking Thesis (why I will not participate in trans studies). Most of you will (quite rightly) be put off. If you can read it with no misgivings at all, you are probably kidding yourself (and definitely lacking the requisite sensitivity and social conscience for this kind of work). If you read it with a heavy heart but still want to carry out your research, come to see me and let’s discuss.

‘You’re not representative’: Identity politics in sex industry debates

Alongside ‘listen to survivors’, ‘you’re not representative’ is a key refrain from abolitionist quarters in feminist debates about the sex industry. Most recently, this mantra was chanted in the furore around Amnesty International’s draft policy on decriminalisation, where in addition to claims that the organisation was acting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, it was argued that the sex workers supporting Amnesty’s proposal were an unrepresentative minority with unusually positive experiences of the industry.

This assertion is problematic on a number of levels. First, as Wendy Lyon reminds us, due to criminalisation and stigma the demographics of the sex industry largely remain a mystery. What we do know is that the majority of sex workers now work indoors – this does not necessarily mean they are not vulnerable, but it does challenge persistent myths about exploited and trafficked street workers constituting the bulk of the profession, which give fuel to the abolitionist lobby.

Within the political movement for sex workers’ rights, sex workers themselves acknowledge that most (though not all) high-profile activists hail from more privileged backgrounds. However, this refers mainly to Western activism, which is abolitionists’ main focus (erasing vibrant sex workers’ rights movements in other parts of the world). Furthermore, in this type of ‘unrepresentativeness’, sex industry politics (including the abolitionist strand) is no different from any other form – it is those who have the time and means to organise, and the cultural capitals which facilitate public engagement, who are usually able to be heard. So why do abolitionist feminists seem to be incessantly pointing this out? There is a strategy at work here.

Accusations of unrepresentativeness in sex industry debates are most often deployed to silence – acting as full stops in the conversation. They enable sex industry abolitionists to restrict the discussion to the topic of identity, miring it in issues of ‘representativeness’ instead of exploring the substance of the representations being made. This preoccupation may be partly why abolitionists seem to have such a poor grasp of the subtleties of sex industry politics, with a common conflation of ‘sex positive’ and labour rights arguments which is misguided and problematic (but politically very convenient).

Abolitionists tend to position all sex industry activism within the ‘sex positive’ framework which reformulates sexual labour as self-expression, yoking this to the body of the privileged (or ‘empowered’) sex worker as though this is her only possible form of discourse. While challenging this type of straw-man criticism of ‘happy hookers’ and ‘choice feminists’, there are certainly valid questions about whether the ‘sex positive’ framework is the best one in which to advocate for rights. Indeed, the interpretation of sex work as personal empowerment has been critiqued by sex workers, who argue that it is often a politics of privilege which erases the labour involved in their jobs and does not further their struggle.

However, these important critical voices are ignored by the abolitionist lobby, who grossly oversimply the nuances of sex industry activism and deploy accusations of unrepresentativeness against sex positive and labour rights activists alike. In the debates about Amnesty’s draft policy, it was claimed that sex workers advocating for decriminalisation were mainly BDSM practitioners and escorts who allied themselves with ‘pimps’ and managers and were throwing less privileged sex workers under the bus. These statements flew in the face of the preponderance of evidence that the majority of sex workers worldwide do not wish to exist under models which criminalise them and remove their sources of income without addressing the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in the first place. Sex workers supporting decriminalisation come from the most vulnerable groups in the industry, such as migrants, drug users and street workers, and those in the Global South. (Decriminalisation does not include the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker).

Dismissing this sex workers’ labour rights activism as ‘unrepresentative’ is a purely rhetorical move, which substitutes medium for message. Furthermore, abolitionists’ obsession with identity is remarkably facile compared to other discussions around representation and universality which have a long history within feminism, giving rise to the concept of intersectionality when black feminists challenged their white sisters for ignoring their concerns. The family and the police were two of the institutions black feminists highlighted as experienced radically differently, due to currents of structural and political racism which put black communities at odds with state agents protecting white ones, and against which the black family has often been a haven, instead of (or as well as) a site of oppression.

To represent can quite literally mean to ‘be present’ for someone else. It is clear that white feminists have not been present for women of colour, and the agendas of the mainstream feminist movement continue to centre white concerns. However, critiques of White Feminism do not target every feminist with white skin – instead, they focus on the substance of mainstream feminist politics which prioritises the issues and needs of white women. In contrast, abolitionists concentrate on the identities of sex worker activists and in the process discredit a broad and unified movement for sex industry decriminalisation. (Ironically, this fixation on identity, as well as a persistent refusal to acknowledge their own privilege, may be why these same feminists are often resistant to, and offended by, intersectional critiques of White Feminism because they mistake these for a politics of skin colour).

To represent is to be chosen to carry a particular message, and in this case it is clear – sex workers across the world do not want to be criminalised. Abolitionist rhetoric, which comprehends the representative only as sign or symbol, silences sex worker activists with something incredibly important to convey. Against these advocates, the abolitionist wields the ‘survivor’ – ex-sex workers (mainly women) who have been exploited and abused. Their voices give abolitionist politics a veneer of authenticity, and are ventriloquized to shout down other survivors both outside and within the industry who advocate for decriminalisation. A sex worker, then, is only representative if she is making the right representations.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a current sex worker is unrepresentative if she is making any representations at all. As sex workers’ rights activist Molly Smith has pointed out, abolitionist rhetoric uses survivors as a proxy for current marginalised sex workers, implying that if they had a voice, they too would support abolitionist laws. This fetishisation of the ‘voiceless’ silences abolitionists’ opponents, as it enables them to be rejected as ‘unrepresentative’ on spec. There is a cruel sleight of hand in operation here – for current sex workers, the condition for dismissal is being able to speak at all. Sex workers active in sex industry debates, Smith says, are dismissed as ‘not representative’ because they are not voiceless enough.

Manoeuvres such as this (as well as the obvious futility of attempting to find the quintessential subject of any category, in identitarian terms) mean that the ‘representative’ sex worker is an apparition who can only manifest through abolitionist discourse. Furthermore, she (and she is always a woman) cannot manifest herself; she can only be manifested as an absence within abolitionist constructions of sex workers’ struggle for rights. She must be spoken for, whether by the abolitionist or the ‘survivor’ – she is not permitted to speak for herself. Too often within sex industry debates, this full stop is drawn on the body of any current sex worker who raises their voice – they are cut short mid-sentence, and we are not permitted to hear what they have to say. ‘She’s not representative!’ and ‘Listen to survivors!’ we are told.

As with other political movements, there are certainly valid conversations to be had around whether sex workers’ rights activists are fully representing the needs and concerns of those they are in a position to speak for. These are particularly pertinent in relation to ‘sex positive’ discourse, which has been critically appraised by many. However, the cursory identity politics deployed by sex industry abolitionists to discredit sex workers’ labour rights advocacy is a glib and callous strategy which obscures the fact that this advocacy represents the issues and concerns of sex workers all over the world.

This does not mean we should not work to amplify more marginalised voices. However, it is significant that the sex workers’ rights movement appears to be the only one dismissed in this way. While always hoping and aiming for better representation (in all senses of that word), we should expose the ideologies and agendas underpinning the statement ‘you’re not representative’. This tool of silencing aims to drive a wedge between different sex workers as if they have competing demands in relation to legal regulation of the industry. It also enables sex industry abolitionists, via the figure of the survivor, to insinuate themselves into the debate as though they in fact represent the broad mass of sex workers’ voices. They do not.

Feminism 101: Universalism and Intersectionality

I recently developed a lecture for undergraduates, introducing them to the concept of intersectionality and debates around universalism in feminist social/political theory and activism. It presents gender as a key locus of oppression, explores the development of intersectionality by black feminists and how this both challenged and refined white feminists’ critiques of male universalism in mainstream academia and society. It also engages with notions of solidarity and ‘shared sisterhood’, particularly in relation to arguments from postcolonial feminists and trans feminists, and asks questions about what a truly inclusive, intersectional, transnational feminism would look like.

I have designed this lecture as a Prezi (linked below) which is free for academic colleagues and others to download, adapt and use as they see fit. Please let me know if you find it useful, and do share widely if you do. The reading list which accompanies the session is also reproduced below in case people find it helpful (of course, both the lecture and the reading list are introductory rather than exhaustive or comprehensive). The lecture also contains a list of hyperlinks to the sources it references (where available), including those which are non-academic.

Prezi

Prezi

Readings

Ahmed, L (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press
Beasley, C (2005) Gender & Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. London: Sage
Brah, A and Phoenix, A (2013) ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality’, in Journal of International Women’s Studies 5(3)
Bryson, V (2003) Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Carby, H (1982) ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood,’ in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Empire Strikes Back: race and racism in 70s Britain. London: Hutchinson
Crenshaw, K (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour’, in Stanford Law Review 43(6)
De Beauvoir, S (1949) The Second Sex. Any edition will do!
Faludi, S (1992) Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women. London: Vintage
Hartman, S. V (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hill Collins, P (1990) Black Feminist Thought. London: Routledge
hooks, b (2000) Feminist theory: From margin to center. London: Pluto Press
Johnson, J. R (2013) ‘Cisgender Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Criminalization of CeCe McDonald: Why Intercultural Communication Needs Transgender Studies’, in Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 6(2)
Mac an Ghaill, M., and Haywood, C (2007) Gender, Culture and Society: Contemporary Masculinities and Femininities. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Millett, K (1969) Sexual Politics. Any edition will do!
Mohanty, C. T (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, in Boundary 2 12(3)/13(1)
Mohanty, C. T (2003) “Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles’, in Signs 28(2)
Moraga, C. and G. Anzaldúa (eds.) (1981) This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. Watertown: Persephone Press
Serano, J (2005) On the Outside Looking In. Oakland, CA: Hot Tranny Action Press
Smith, D (1974) ‘Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology’, in Sociological Inquiry 44(1)
Spender, D (1981) Men’s studies modified: the impact of feminism on the academic disciplines. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Stanley, L. & Wise, S (1981) Breaking Out: Feminist Research and Feminist Consciousness. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Stryker, S and Aizura A. Z (2006, 2013) The Transgender Studies Reader 1 and 2. London: Routledge (see especially Koyama article in edition 1)
Wilchins, R. A (2004) Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an instant primer. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications