Transphobia, whorephobia and (as) capitalist-colonial gender

This is the first of a series of blogs I will write following the webinar on my book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. This was broadcast on April 7th to over 100 attendees, who asked some fantastic questions! Because I didn’t get a chance to answer all these during the session, I thought I would answer some of them now. This first piece covers a couple of related questions, pertaining to reactionary trans- and sex-worker-exclusionary feminisms. I deconstruct these feminisms in detail in Chapter Four (‘The Outrage Economy’) and Chapter Six (‘Feminists and the Far Right’) of the book, arguing that they intensify the political whiteness of the mainstream. Reactionary feminism turns mainstream feminist narcissism into an ‘us and them’ mentality, and the mainstream will to power becomes necropolitics that actively targets more marginalised people. Two of the questions asked during the webinar have prompted me to elaborate: on how the exclusion of sex workers and trans people is specifically classed and raced, and how trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are connected (and these two matters are also closely linked). I am grateful for these questions, as they allow me to expand arguments I had limited space for in the book.

As I say in Me, Not You, the class and race politics around sex workers and trans people is both symbolic and material. First, there are the demographics: women of colour and trans people are over-represented in the sex industry, and trans women of colour in particular are disproportionately likely to sell sex. And although there is relative marginality and privilege within these categories, sex workers and trans people (and people who fit both these descriptions) often occupy marginalised economic and social positions. They are among the many workers who make up the gendered and raced global proletariat and precariat; they survive at the sharp end of neoliberal economies and austerity regimes and are often criminalised for doing so. In necropolitical systems, trans and sex-working people have high vulnerability to premature death through state neglect or violence. As Sophie Lewis argues, these groups are treated as ‘bare life’ by police and courts – they are not seen as deserving of justice or protection (unless this is the paternalistic ‘protection’ of moral panic, which does not protect them at all). This sits in sharp contrast to the privileged white women who dominate mainstream feminism, whose protection is the insignia of white supremacy (even if it does not always translate into formal justice). And the narcissism of mainstream feminism – the ‘me, not you’ of political whiteness – means that women not made in the image of bourgeois whiteness are rarely represented.

Symbolically, sex workers and trans women are disapproved-of women who challenge bourgeois gender norms in various ways. This makes mainstream feminism stingy with its solidarity, while more reactionary feminism actually treats these women as the enemy. Reactionary trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is concerned with policing the borders of feminism and womanhood: as I say in Me, Not You, neither the ‘unnatural’ or the ‘unrespectable’ woman can ever be a real woman. Instead, their bodies are sites of judgment and disgust. Sometimes they represent a hyper-femininity which is seen as sleazy and fake: the association between anti-trans and anti-sex-work feminism peaks in the description of trans women as ‘pornified’ representations of ‘real’ women. As Lewis says: ‘they think that trans women and sex workers are pornography. They look at us and they see men, contamination by men, rape.’ As Lewis’ quote also implies, these are women who are ‘too much’ woman and not enough. In reactionary feminism, trans women and sex workers are tainted by association with men: sex workers become one with their clients; trans women become men themselves.

These depictions of trans women and sex workers, with their ‘excessive’ bodies and sexualities and failure to be properly gendered, sit alongside, and draw from, similar ones which are more explicitly classed and raced. For instance, of the working class ‘chavs’, bodies spilling out of their clothes, who are afflicted with uncontrolled fecundity. Or the sexually aggressive Black man and his counterpart, the Black woman who is always ‘up for it’ and therefore cannot be raped. These constructions have long histories rooted in capitalist exploitation and colonial conquest. Hortense Spillers describes how the ‘thingification’ required by slavery separated sexuality from subjectivity, reducing Black people to flesh and making their bodies both threatening and pornographic (and designed to be mutilated and killed). Post-abolition, these processes continued, shaping Black people’s relationship to the criminal punishment system (as both complainants and defendants), and meaning that Black women who did not sell sex to survive were likely to be associated with prostitution nonetheless. In the 21st century, Black trans women are especially likely to be profiled as sex workers by law enforcement. As I write in Me, Not You, the phrase ‘walking while trans’ was popularised after activist Monica Jones was found guilty of ‘manifesting prostitution’ for accepting a car ride from two undercover police officers in Phoenix in 2014.

Monica Jones’ experience illustrates how transphobia and whorephobia intertwine with other processes of classed and raced disgust. Disgust is a way of defending territory: whether this is national boundaries or economic entitlements, claims to legitimate womanhood, or public and political space. Like other forms of bigotry, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is a border control project: the middle class white woman who calls the police on Black kids barbecuing in the park is adjacent to, or sometimes synonymous with, the reactionary feminists who want their streets swept clean of sex workers, and their public toilet doors slammed in the faces of women who are not ‘real’. To hide this bourgeois disgust, reactionary feminism goes on the defensive: trans people become self-involved millennials and sex workers ‘happy hookers’ not qualified to speak on their own lives or the economic and social relations that shape them. Against them, reactionary feminists wield the ‘survivors’, ex sex workers and de-transitioners whose genuine trauma fortifies a disingenuous politics of concern. But really, this feminism is preoccupied with its own actual or potential victimisation. Sex workers cause the rape of ‘respectable’ (white, bourgeois) women by pandering to male sexual entitlement. Trans women commit rape against ‘natural’ (white, bourgeois) women, or ‘rape’ their bodies symbolically by attempting to ‘change sex’.

Black feminism tells us that there is a matrix of race, class and gender domination here in which one category cannot be understood in exclusion from the others. This articulates what Lugones calls the ‘coloniality of gender’, the system in which white bourgeois gender, violently exported and imposed by colonial capitalism, is the norm and ideal that justifies extractive and violent economic relations. For Lugones, the modern gender system has a ‘light’ and a ‘dark’ side, and on the latter, people of colour are de-gendered ready for conquest, abduction, exploitation and eventual disposal. Because of this, Christina Sharpe and other Black feminists have called Black people already transgendered and queered: racism overdetermines their bodies with meaning but divests them of normative markers. Binary bourgeois gender appears in sharp relief against what Spillers calls the Black captives ‘ungendered’ in the hold of the ship, where captivity de-domesticated and de-kinned, unmade cultures and quantified all bodies under the same property relations and rules of accounting. Bourgeois gender also appears in sharp relief against the criminals’, ‘prostitutes’, ‘thugs’ and ‘birthers of terror’ that supplant girls and boys, men and women, in what Sharpe calls the contemporary anagrammatics of Blackness (the process by which ‘grammatical gender’ falls away). There are related processes of ‘falling away’ at work in the cultural differentiation of class, as the experiences of working class women (many of whom are also women of colour) who report rape will attest.

Transphobia and whorephobia are fruits on this tree of capitalist-colonial gender. As I write in Me, Not You, Flavia Dzodan has called trans-exclusionary feminism a settler-colonial mentality, an attempt to solidify sex and gender categories that sees womanhood as immutable. Its essentialist mindset reflects how ‘the coloniser could name us, assign us a place and a role in the hierarchies.’ Trans and sex-working bodies join the ranks of other deviant ones, seen as inappropriately gendered and over-sexed in ways which ultimately express their relations to capital. Lewis argues that disdain for trans people and sex workers is disdain for bodies not easily assimilated to capitalist production and reproduction. For her, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are united by ‘the myth that says that we can and must protect our selves and bodies from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work.’ Sex workers and trans people tend to exist on the economic margins, overlapping with the working class people capitalism delights in exploiting and alienating via ‘healthful productive work’, overlapping with the people of colour (and especially Black people) that were never meant to survive. The reactionary feminist border against these people is defended with the artillery of gender. This is naturalised as ‘sex’: reactionary feminists are female rather than feminine (which they abhor); reactionary feminists are ‘real women’, unlike the Others. They claim the ‘authentic’ gender that is a key tool of capitalist-colonial domination: ‘unnatural’ and ‘unrespectable’ women can never be real women.

Interview and reading for Lighthouse books

The lovely Noor at Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Bookshop interviewed me about Me, Not You for the ‘Life Raft’ initiative, a ‘digital bookshop refuge’ operating during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. It’s a weekly newsletter which consists of author interviews, bookseller recommendations and readings, especially intended to champion working class, BAME, queer, disabled and local writers. You can visit the Life Raft website here – there are some brilliant authors on the list including Lola Olufemi, Golnoosh Nour and Pragya Agarwal and I am honoured to be in their company.

Read my interview with Noor here – it delves a bit deeper into some of the themes of the book as well as exploring why I wrote it and what it feels like to have it out in the world (especially now during the pandemic and lockdown). I also did a short reading of Chapter Six (‘Feminists and the Far Right’) which focuses on trans- and sex-worker-exclusionary feminism – this can be accessed at the end of the interview and I have also linked it below. Hope you enjoy!

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

intersectionality

Many Gender Studies students are well versed in the language and politics of intersectionality. But this often seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to designing their research projects. Intersectionality is easy to say, but difficult to do: this is work of designing and redesigning, questioning and (in Kimberlé 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 try to apply intersectionality, the representational level often feels easier and more natural. But without attention to the political and structural, this can get superficial quite quickly – a focus on representing additional groups rather than exploring how identities are co-constructed within multiple oppressive systems (what Patricia Hill Collins calls the ‘matrix of domination‘). I don’t pretend to have got everything right myself – intersectionality is a process rather than a destination – but I’ll summarise some of the protocols I give my students for more intersectional research.

Before I start, here are a couple of dictums:

  1. If you’re trying to do intersectional research without having read any Black feminists, this is both (a) not going to get you very far, and (b) disrespectful to the thinkers who have given us this framework. And this brief guide is certainly not intended to take the place of attentive and thoughtful reading. Start with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis and Jennifer Nash. Hill Collins’ book with Sirma Bilge is an excellent introductory text, and you could also read some of Bilge’s other work. Other feminists of colour to read: Chandra Mohanty, Sara Salem, and Jasbir Puar. It might seem obvious, but applying a framework effectively requires us to understand it. And white researchers especially have a tendency to use intersectionality as a buzzword which is abstracted from its theoretical roots.
  2. Once you have a good grasp of Black feminist theory and the work of other feminists of colour, you’ll understand that intersectionality is not an additive principle but an inherent one that requires us to interrogate the very foundations of our work. In other words, we need to apply it from our ontologies and epistemologies, 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. At its most basic level, it is how you think the world works. And if you’re not intersectional in your ideas about the world, it will come through in your research. This isn’t just about acknowledging the existence of different types of people: you also need to think about structures such as heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism, and institutions such as the family, religion and the state. Our ontologies 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 and experienced radically differently by Black and white people because of the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Privileged white women tend to look to the police for protection: for Black women police are more often perpetrators of state violence against them and their families (usually in the name of protecting whites). But 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 not be very intersectional.

Developing a more intersectional ontology in Gender Studies means understanding 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 power relations. This radically (re)shapes our concepts: understanding a concept such as violence intersectionally broadens it from physical and sexual forms to include state, political, cultural and symbolic ones, involving factors such as community and nation as well as gender, class, race and other markers. Within this framework, a one-dimensional term such as ‘violence against women’ may be inadequate. We need to constantly challenge our ideas, and work towards more complexity, as we map the ontologies of our research.

Epistemology

At a very basic level, epistemology is the theory of how we know what we know. Intersectionality is closely related to standpoint theory, which says that people more marginalised by social structures can be better placed to understand them (although a standpoint has to be developed; it isn’t given). It’s easier to understand something from the bottom up than from the top down; it’s also easier to see how power operates when you have first-hand experience of what it does. Hill Collins calls Black women ‘outsiders within‘ who have a special standpoint on white supremacist society. bell hooks, describing her childhood in small-town Kentucky, writes:

‘living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside and in from the inside out . . . we understood both.’

This suggests that if we want to understand how intersecting structures work, we need to centre the experiences of those at the sharp ends of them. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you should go all out to recruit marginalised people as your research participants, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider within’. There are many other ways of doing interesting and useful research on an issue. A more intersectional epistemology does mean that you need to develop your own understandings from the understandings of those best placed to know. Read (and cite) Black feminists; read (and cite) thinkers who are members of other marginalised social groups, read (and cite) thinkers affected by the issues you are interested in. Do not rely on dead (or living!) white men to tell you how the world works; challenge the idea of the ‘canon’ as it has been presented.

More intersectional epistemologies also allow for multiple, and sometimes contradictory, experiences based on how people are positioned within intersecting structures of oppression. Beware unitary terms such as ‘women’s experience’ – this implicitly privileges the narratives and concerns of the most privileged and doesn’t allow for differences between women or, indeed, how some women can oppress others. Let’s go back to the term ‘violence against women’ – this implicitly centres white women as victims, and erases our role in the structural violence of colonialism and how our allegations of sexual violence have been used to justify the brutalisation of Black communities and other communities of colour.

Having more intersectional epistemologies also means we need to be reflexive about our own standpoints, whether we are ‘insiders’, ‘outsiders’, or something in between (although this does not mean making your research all about you, unless you are doing autoethnography!) We especially need to think about how our privileges might be impeding our understandings: for instance, as a relatively privileged white woman I work hard to move away from a one-dimensional understanding of gender. Exploring our own positionalities isn’t a weakness: there’s no such thing as ‘objective’ research, only thoughtful and honest work. Thinking about how we come to know what we know helps us become more open to other knowledges and perspectives.

Research questions

Our knowledge about the world, and how we have gained it, shapes the research questions we choose. This is why it’s so important to spend time reading about and trying to understand an issue before researching it (this sounds very basic but students often don’t do this!) However, sometimes even with an intersectional worldview it’s easy to slip back into one-dimensionality when we think about questions for an empirical project, because writing research questions is hard. To make your research questions more intersectional, check that you are ‘asking the other question’ as well.

For instance, in a project on under-reporting of sexual violence, questions should allow for different understandings and experiences of law enforcement. For some women (Black women and/or sex workers, for example), reporting to the police may not even be an option. If you’re researching gender equality in parliamentary politics, make sure you’re not seeing ‘women’ as a homogeneous group. Doing so might allow the relative success of some white middle class women to stand in for ‘women in politics’ in general, hiding persistent inequalities for women who are not white and middle class. Avoiding this pitfall might involve asking more specific questions about particular groups of women in the political system.

A more intersectional approach might also require you to go back to your ontology and in particular, your ideas about how you think the world should be. Do you think any woman holding political office is a sign of progress? What about the substance of their politics? ‘Asking the other question’ here might involve exploring how policies implemented by privileged women in political office affect others who are more marginalised. In a project on under-reporting of sexual violence, ‘asking the other question’ might require you to acknowledge that for some women (especially those from communities that have been blighted by criminal punishment), prosecution and imprisonment of sexual violence perpetrators might not constitute progress either.

Sampling

We should usually aim for diverse samples in empirical work, but when we are trying to apply intersectionality this becomes even more important. For instance, if your research aims to understand gendered street harassment, you’ll need to account for the very different ways this is experienced. 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 both similar and different dynamics. In qualitative research, samples are often convenience-led and we must work with what we are given. This is fine – but you need to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of your sample, explore any gaps, and temper your claims accordingly.

Research informed by intersectionality can also be done using a limited and very specific sample, as long as you are honest about it. In fact, specificity can be a strength. Imagine you want to study a local women’s yoga group, and find that it’s exclusively white and middle class. If approached in an intersectional way, this could add depth to your research: you could explore how gender intersects with whiteness and class privilege in the specific yoga group you are studying. You could set the experiences of your participants against those of more marginalised women using any available literature: in the absence of a more diverse sample, this can add depth to your research as well.

Findings

Following on from this, when you derive conclusions from your data make sure they aren’t over-generalised and they are appropriate to your sample. In the project on the women’s yoga group, for example, you shouldn’t be making claims about ‘women’s yoga’ in general, but much more precise points about this particular white, middle class community of practice. This doesn’t preclude raising broader questions or linking your work to more general themes: for instance, the relationships between whiteness, class privilege and the appropriation of Eastern practices in the West, and the historical and geopolitical contexts for this. But you must be clear on what your dataset confirms, what is interpretation and what needs to be left unanswered for now.

You should also make sure you’re not just generalising about your sample when there’s differentiation within it. Imagine you’re researching with a small group of sex workers, many of whom have negative experiences of mainstream support services. You could derive legitimate conclusions here about sex worker stigma and judgment in the statutory and third sectors. But an intersectional approach would require you to dig a little deeper. It might become apparent that the sex workers reporting the worst experiences are sex workers who use drugs, for instance. Or trans sex workers (or people who fit both these categories). This would require you to ask additional questions about transphobia and stigma around drug use, and how these dynamics might also be at play.

***

After doing all the above, you may end up feeling completely confused and as though you’re unable to say anything at all. Congratulations! You have started to do more intersectional research. The challenge for us all is how to hold on to the complexities of social life with its multiple dynamics of privilege and marginality, while constructing research narratives that 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

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 15.30.03

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

marginalised groups

Every year, my students ask me questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged space, but some of our students are not – and many of the others are politically committed and care passionately about inequality and abuses of power. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these topics 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 lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I advise my 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 students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). Your department may already have links with organisations, or you may have your own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be useful. The onus must be on their 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 your chosen topic which don’t 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 that are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: Muslim women, trans people, sex workers). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing data. If (a), you might 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’re anything but honourable (or you aren’t sure what they are), research something else. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect throughout the research, to make sure you are looking after participants and collecting data in the most rigorous way. This doesn’t mean spending hours in self-analysis and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it means taking time to really look at yourself and your relationships with participants (and how they are structured by power and privilege). You might be able to discuss these issues with some participants and ask how they feel about the research – but this is a form of emotional labour which can be arduous as well.

  1. Am I qualified?

If you want to research people more marginalised than you, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing that. There are different opinions about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised). Being an ‘insider’ is by no means a guarantee that you’ll be able to do good research. However, if you aren’t at all familiar with the group you want to research, you should ask yourself whether you’re in fact qualified to carry your project out.

Academia is full of privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base (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 want to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying academia. 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 doesn’t mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never do research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that research could always be insider-led.

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

If you’re able to go ahead with a project that involves human subjects, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material that can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own archives – by far the most common research request made by organisations I’ve worked with is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they haven’t had time to engage with themselves.

If you’re not working with an organisation, there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive, the UK Data Archive, the UK Data Service, and many more. There are also individual web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these aren’t research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects that can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media, which can give greater breadth than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for many student studies.

Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you’re doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore ways participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). There may also be small pots of funding at your university that you can access for this purpose.

  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. If you haven’t read any literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about anything else. Then ensure that you develop protocols for informed consent, anonymity and confidentiality, and looking after the emotional wellbeing of both your participants and yourself, and (most importantly) communicate these to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms.

Be aware that if you aren’t an ‘insider’, you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so ideally you should design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with a community organisation or charity you’re working with. You should also work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you’ve designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. Finally, be aware that this is the bare minimum for research ethics – it’s a process that requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen.

If you’re working with an organisation or community group, explore how 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’re 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 understand that even if there’s an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of social problems may not necessarily have the space or time to want to talk to you about them. It’s patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want them to appreciate you, 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 ally (and often, quite rightly, even if you are the latter).

  1. What will I do with the findings?

If you’ve been asked to conduct research by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Don’t 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 let down the organisations and people who’ve given you their time and emotional labour. It would also show your motivations to be self-serving, and might cause community groups and individuals to be wary of researchers in future.

You should also consider what you might do if you’re asked to take part in academic or policy events, or are contacted by journalists about your research. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there’s specific interest in your methodology, dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should ideally also ask for a community representative to share your platform as they can speak to the issues first-hand. 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 participants without permission though – channel requests through organisations or community groups.

To summarise: if your research isn’t 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. (And do download the infographic at the top of this page, to remind you of these key principles).

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 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, it might be worth doing.

‘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

Identity, experience, choice and responsibility

This is the transcript of my keynote speech at a conference at Queen Mary University on June 27th 2015, entitled ‘Feminist Futures: critical engagements with the fourth wave‘. The full title of my talk was ‘Identity, experience, choice and responsibility: feminism in a neoliberal and neoconservative age.’ Versions of this speech have also been given at the Universities of Brighton, Leeds and Birmingham. There are various sources linked throughout – if you are not within a university and therefore unable to access the academic journal articles, send me an Email and I can download them for you.

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Hello. I’m Alison Phipps and I’m Director of Gender Studies at Sussex. It’s great to be here and I’d like to thank Amaleena, Alice and Anna for inviting me to speak today. We can – and I’m sure we will – debate whether we’re currently witnessing a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism and what this is, but for now I’d like to say it’s fantastic to be part of such a dynamic and thoughtful group. Looking at the other abstracts, I’m especially flattered to have been invited to give the keynote and hope I don’t disappoint!

I think one of the reasons I was asked to open the conference was that my work attempts to develop a meta analysis of feminist theory and activism. Some of this was brought together in my book which came out last Spring, called The Politics of the Body: gender in a neoliberal and neoconservative age. In this I developed a political sociology of various different debates, with a focus on interactions between different types of feminism (or ‘waves’ if you want to use that term). If any of you have read it, the talk today will move on from the book – as always when you attempt to develop a ‘history of the present’, I’m standing on uneven and shifting ground.

For those who haven’t read it, the book was six years in the making and drew case studies from contemporary events and discussions in political and media spheres. But as with most academic projects, the inspiration was personal – in 2008, I was sitting in class with some of my Gender MA students listening to an Iranian student talk about her decision not to adopt the chador and her own view of veiling as oppressive (I realise that this view is not shared by all Muslim women). While she was still talking, she was interrupted by a white European student who explained to her that the veil was empowering instead.

I found this incident fascinating, not because of the substance of the discussion but because of how it was constituted – it simultaneously reversed and reiterated the dialectic between women from Muslim-majority societies and Western feminists. Regardless of the positions being adopted, the encounter still involved a white woman telling a woman of colour how she should think and behave. This started me thinking about how contemporary feminisms are located within broader political frameworks and trends, and how the dynamic between ideas and positionalities might play out.

So I started reading and researching – and while doing this I also conceived my first child. In the summer of 2010, heavily pregnant, I went with my partner to a neighbour’s barbecue, where we met the directors of an alternative theatre company who had had their third child, at home, the previous year. They were a straight couple and the man was anxious to reassure me that my body was perfectly designed to give birth without any medical intervention, and that this would put me in touch with my powerful, primal womanhood. My partner (also a man) asked what he should do during while I was undergoing this epiphany. ‘You protect the door of the cave’ was the answer.

This conversation illustrated to me in a very immediate way how ‘women’s empowerment’ can be co-opted by conservative narratives. It also reminded me of other problematic agendas, in particular around sex workers and Muslim women, which use the idea of women’s liberation to reinforce particular value systems, dominate social, political and cultural Others, or save women from themselves.

Soon after I gave birth (not in a cave), Julian Assange was arrested in the UK in response to allegations of sexual assault made by two women in Sweden. You all know the story – after a long legal battle he lost his appeal against extradition and fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum on humanitarian grounds (and as far as I know he’s still there). The fact that a powerful man on the anti-establishment left had been accused of sexual violence was not shocking. What did strike me was the support he got from progressive journalists, politicians, activists and celebrities, even some high-profile feminists, almost all thinking that the case was nothing more than a neocon plot.

One of the things this case exposed was how the relationship between ‘helping women’ and neoconservative rhetorics and projects, and the complicity with this by some strands of feminism, has led to anti-feminist feeling in some progressive circles. But what I also came to understand, and what I argue in the book, is that the rejection of neoconservatism within feminist politics can often slip into emphasising neoliberal ideas around identity, responsibility and choice. I should say at the outset however that I’m not putting forward one of those critiques of ‘choice feminism’ which have been doing the rounds in the media recently – I hope I’m saying something much more nuanced.

I’m not the first person to have explored how feminisms are framed by broader political rationalities – I’m indebted to Eisenstein’s ideas about the co-optation of liberal feminism by corporate capitalism, Fraser’s work on feminism’s relationship with neoliberalism, and Mohanty’s interpretation of the intersection between neoliberalism and postmodernism in radical social movements. What I’ve attempted to do is combine the theoretical and the empirical in a detailed account of these relationships in a few key topic areas – sex work, sexual violence, childbirth and breastfeeding, and gender and Islam. My work also emphasises the inherent conservatism of radical feminism which contributes to this dynamic, although there isn’t as much on this in the book as there should be. I’m sketching with a fairly broad brush, so I do miss things and my ideas are constantly changing.

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I want to start with Assange, as this case helps in thinking through how the relationships between radical feminism and neoconservatism can produce reactionary politics in progressive circles. When he was arrested, I was struck by the fact that his defenders not only engaged in victim-blaming but offered critiques of the notion and subjectivity of victimisation itself.

On top of the misogynist tropes and conspiracy theories, one of the lines of defence offered was that ‘victim politics’ betrays deficiency and fragility and fuels neoconservative paternalism. This came mainly from high-profile feminists. The author Naomi Wolf claimed that rape shield laws (which protect the complainant’s identity) were a Victorian relic which didn’t treat women as moral adults. Sex industry scholar and activist Laura Agustín argued that Swedish law positioned women as helpless victims and labelled anything unpleasant rape or abuse.

Both these commentators expressed a postmodern sensibility around how the term ‘victim’ constructs experience and interpellates people in particular ways. Women Against Rape offered an explicit critique of how radical feminist theory and activism around pornography, rape and trafficking has been co-opted by and sometimes complicit with neoconservative agendas. This is absolutely true – Kristin Bumiller and Elizabeth Bernstein have shown how anti-violence and anti-sex industry feminists have collaborated with punitive and often racist and classist state machinery around crime and immigration. Leila Ahmed writes about how a ‘colonial feminism’ has justified incursions into particular countries, and Gargi Bhattacharyya has explored how the War on Terror in particular has been conceptually dependent on Othering Muslim cultures as peculiarly misogynistic and homophobic.

However, in the Assange case it was fascinating that these political critiques of the deployment of victimhood as a discourse were individualised to both defend a powerful white man and discredit his accusers, who, in Naomi Wolf’s opinion, were ‘using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appear to be personal injured feelings.’ In statements like this, postmodern deconstruction intersected with the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility.

In the neoliberal milieu, we are all free to create our destinies through consumer choice. The playing field is level, which means that if we fail we’ve only got ourselves to blame. This rationality positions social justice movements as ‘victim philosophies’ peddled by people who don’t want to take responsibility for themselves – this charge has been particularly levelled at feminism and was implicit in many of the comments made about Assange. Sweden was depicted as a country full of cantankerous shrews whose grievances were being exploited by neocons to suppress a powerful dissident.

Neoliberalism has shifted the discussion away from structural dynamics and on to personal failure and success. The pressures this creates, especially for young women, have been highlighted empirically: Baker’s study of young women in Australia and McCaffrey’s study of sexual violence survivors in the US are two of those which suggest that being a victim is now associated with a lack of responsibility and seen as a sign of psychological under-development. This is especially ironic in light of the contemporary proliferation of forms of violent harassment on social media, many of which disproportionately affect young women, and the renewed debate about violence against women students.

Of course, we’ve also witnessed neoconservative moral panics over these issues and others – but at the level of lived experience neoliberalism creates an imperative to triumph over bad experiences like these and perform happiness and success. This doesn’t just apply to women – Pharrell Williams was recently widely criticised after he stated on Oprah that: ‘The ‘new Black’ doesn’t blame other races for our issues.’ Statements like this need to be properly contextualised – and although we need to reject a feminist politics focused solely on women’s victimhood, we also need to ask critical questions about what it means to talk about agency in a neoliberal context.

The academic ‘turn to agency’ has generated some fascinating and nuanced analyses of how people negotiate social structures and process power relations – for instance Sirma Bilge’s work on veiled Muslim women and Elizabeth Bernstein’s ethnographies of sex workers. However, within neoliberal rationalities and often within media environments, ideas about agency can be flattened out into the much more facile notion of ‘choice’. This produces more simplistic narratives – for instance, Orientalist portrayals of the ‘empowered, dignified’ Muslim woman, or ‘happy hooker’ formulations of the sex industry. In the book I spend some time analysing the Belle de Jour novels and TV series and Tracy Quan’s serialisation of her life as Manhattan call girl. While fictional, both these pieces were incredibly influential in the zeitgeist while I was writing, and material such as this informs a popular contemporary construction of the sex industry as glamorous, edgy and progressive.

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More recently, another figure has become prominent in this discourse – Miriam Weeks, the Duke University student who was outed as pornography actress Belle Knox last year and is now a mainstream celebrity. When she was outed, Weeks responded with an article in which she stated: “Shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. . . . I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.”

One can certainly see this statement as an understandable reaction to the stigma and judgment involved in Weeks’ exposure. Nevertheless, this ‘happy hooker’ formulation fits well with neoliberal themes and has achieved broad cultural reach – and it’s been criticised by sex working feminists and activists who argue that it smoothes over their realities, doesn’t allow them to express ambivalence about their jobs and erases the experiences of less privileged sex workers, often those who sell services from the street. Cathryn Berarovich, in an article entitled ‘Don’t Rebrand Sex Work as Empowering’, argued directly in response to Knox: “Most prostitutes don’t work because we want to fit in; we work because we need to pay our bills and live our lives. Equating sex work with empowerment completely ignores the fact that all sex work is, on one level or another, survival sex work. It does all sex workers a disservice when this frequently difficult, often illegal, industry is reduced to nothing more than a trophy for owning your sexuality. It ignores our labor and reduces our struggle.”

The rebranding of sex work as empowering that Berarovich identifies calls forth a neoliberal concept of choice which juxtaposes it against victimhood and empties it of context and socioeconomic framing. Structures are situated outside the act of choosing, which then becomes a selection between a predefined set of alternatives and the role of factors such as market capitalism, community ties and gender relations in creating the available options becomes invisible. Formulations like this are most evident in the media, but can be observed in academic debates as well. Contemporary ‘sex positive’ sex work research sometimes fails to address ‘push’ factors like economic hardship (and/or the lack of other available employment opportunities), which have been highlighted by sex work labour rights activists. In her work on veiling, Bilge cites the disappearance of complex factors related to family and tradition, in some of the feminist scholarship celebrating women’s choices to cover their hair and faces. What we are left with here is the idea of choice as self-expression, which lacks analytical depth and suspends critique.

However, an analogous and similarly over-simplified focus on choice also exists on the other side of these debates in which feminists (often of the radical persuasion) attribute false consciousness to the chooser. Within this perspective the only structure that matters is gender, and women are defined as complicit in or duped by that system without proper analysis of how intersecting factors such as class, culture and race shape their opportunities and decisions.

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The ‘end demand’ campaign around the sex industry is an example of how this type of politics can lack structural framing – it focuses on criminalising the client’s choice to buy but ignores how the sex worker’s choice to sell is often structured by economic or other social realities – for instance economic coercion or restrictive immigration policies – which will not just melt away if demand is quashed. So again, a preoccupation with ‘choice’ fails to grasp the material framings of the industry and derails discussions about safety and rights.

One of the critiques often made by contemporary radical feminists is that their younger and third- or fourth-wave counterparts are ‘choice feminists’. However, this devolves critique of the neoliberal commodification of ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ and targets it instead at individual women who are making choices to survive – for example, by selling sex – in a patriarchal culture. In an article called ‘The Trouble with Choosing Your Choice’, Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy writes, ‘within our wide array of ‘choices’, I suppose we are now to applaud our ‘freedom’ to ‘choose’ pornography or prostitution? I choose my choice. But will choose it consciously. And with my pants on’. It’s not difficult to see the judgment in this statement, or the attribution of ‘false consciousness’. Ironically also, the rationale is itself neoliberal – despite the fact that Murphy critiques ‘choice feminism’ for failing to appreciate the structures that shape women’s decisions, her politics is complicit with an individualising of responsibility in the assumption that it’s possible to simply ‘choose differently’. As sex worker and activist Molly Smith has pointed out, this perspective betrays unexamined privilege: ‘I’m struck’, she says, ‘by how ‘choice discourse’ [meaning critiques of ‘choice feminism’] often seems to be used by women with more power writing about women with less’.

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Childbirth and breastfeeding both sit within the institutionalised discourse of ‘informed choice’ adopted by the NHS and other Western health services. This framework also exists rather uncomfortably alongside the principle of women’s empowerment, especially within childbirth and breastfeeding activism. The narrative here focuses on empowering women to make the best choices for their children, and advocating that these choices be enabled and respected by the medical establishment.

Here again however, the ‘right’ choices have been predefined. Women are empowered to choose to birth naturally and to breastfeed their infants, but if their choices are different this discourse also begins to collapse in on itself with attributions of false consciousness. Those who want or have a more medicalised birth or use infant formula are in need of behavioural interventions to help them ‘choose better’.

The normalising judgment implicit within the neoliberal emphasis on ‘choice’ has already been identified, for instance by Bev Skeggs, Angela McRobbie and others who write about the contemporary cultural class war. This is often fought through the medium of popular culture, for instance in reality and makeover TV in which working class participants are shamed, patronised and educated to ‘choose better’ in line with middle class norms. We can observe a similar dynamic in the discourse around mothering, and the behavioural rhetoric of ‘normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ also invisibilises structural factors.

Neoliberal ideas about choice are very much mind over matter – and in relation to childbirth and breastfeeding this has reached a peak where the will to succeed even takes precedence over human biology. I recently read an article by Emily Wax-Thibodeux in the Washington Post entitled ‘Why I don’t breastfeed, if you must know’. Wax-Thibodeux writes about how, following the birth of her first child, she felt compelled to disclose her history of breast cancer and bilateral mastectomy to lactation consultants because of the pressure to breastfeed. They told her to try nevertheless and one of them suggested, ‘the milk may come out anyway, through your armpits’.

Choice, in the neoliberal context, has acquired a magicalism which speaks to the retreat of the structural and even allows it to triumph over medical and biological realities. This also needs to be seen in relation to ideas about the risk society – and parents (mothers in particular) are primarily expected to ensure their children’s future health and prosperity through doing everything right. Natural birth and exclusive breastfeeding are pivotal components of this agenda, despite the fact that studies are contradictory and there’s rarely any attempt to control for variables such as socio-economic status and parenting styles. ‘Informed choice’ is only as good as those doing the informing.

In a context where health and social supports are dwindling, there’s been a behaviouralisation of health which is particularly evident in relation to birth and breastfeeding. This does not acknowledge structural constraints on choice, and the main mitigating factor which enters birth and breastfeeding politics is social stigma. For example, there’s an individualistic framing of attitudes to breastfeeding as the problem in the controversial ‘breastfeeding for shopping vouchers’ scheme targeted at working class women. Mary Renfrew, one of the academic advisors on the project, was quoted in the Guardian in 2013 as saying: “A woman from a young, white low-income area will often tell you it is embarrassing to breastfeed in public or even in her own home. We know that is the community norm.”

Breastfeeding activism often foregrounds these ideas, within a critique of the sexualisation of breasts which creates a taboo around exposing them in public, and drawing on the moral panic around sex and popular culture. Proceeding from this analytical framework, large-scale public breastfeeding is the preferred mode of action, usually taking the form of the breastfeeding ‘flashmob’, where activists descend on a public place to feed. However, actions like this often supplant the work of lobbying governments for structural changes – better healthcare and social welfare, workplace rights, maternity benefits, a living wage, and more and better-paid midwives.

The main players in the contemporary ‘lactivist’ movement are white, middle class women who are not, by and large, structurally disadvantaged – which perhaps explains the decentring of the socio-economic in breastfeeding politics. It’s also a good example of what Nancy Fraser calls the politics of recognition, in which a focus on acknowledging stigma has superseded concerns with social justice.

The politics of recognition, a politics of difference and relative status, is the dominant mode in the contemporary political field. This is not, however, to echo the very glib and reactionary critiques of ‘identity politics’ which have circulated in the media recently and which tend to focus on trans people. There are important differences between the identity attached to breastfeeding and those experienced and lived by trans people, which are a source of oppression because of a lack of social recognition (and this has far-reaching impacts in relation to issues such as access to education, employment, and vulnerability to violence). Breastfeeding, by contrast, is an example of how contemporary politics can become focused on recognition when this is not the key issue at hand. Interpreting low breastfeeding rates as an issue of social stigma gives rise to behavioural interventions which render invisible the many other valid reasons why a parent might not breastfeed – and these are often socio-economic. It also allows advocates to position themselves as a marginalised culture or identity despite their relative privilege.

Contemporary recognition politics of any type accord well with dominant neoliberal rationalities. Many important gains have been made because of this – for example, Fraser cites campaigns for gay marriage, and the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 could also be included here. However, the dovetailing of recognition politics with the neoliberal framework can also be problematic.

The privileging of cultural difference (broadly defined) shapes an attachment to ‘authenticity’, in which experiential narratives take precedence. Validating experiential knowledge is a crucial feminist principle and one we should protect, but it’s also the case that within the ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ of neoliberal culture, experiences have been commodified and are often now used as the trump card. This informs several contemporary ‘experience wars’ in which particular personal stories prop up certain ideological perspectives and are then dismissed by others as inauthentic versions of reality.

Contemporary neo-imperialist agendas make strategic use of the principles of gender and LGBT equality, mainly in order to define Muslim cultures as Other and inherently and uniquely misogynist and homophobic. Women’s experiences have been caught up in this, and high profile activists such as Mona Eltahawy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have often been used as ‘native informants’. However, critiques of this neoconservative politics also sometimes fetishise ideas around agency and authenticity as they put forward alternative narratives, positioning all Muslim women who speak out against gender equality as Western dupes. Within this dynamic the uses to which experiences are put begin to define the narratives themselves. This is a politics of positionality first and foremost in which experiences are caught up in broader battles and then validated and dismissed accordingly. So the first question we ask when someone shares their experience is ‘whose side are you on?’

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In sex industry debates personal stories also abound, particularly on the Internet and in the press. There’s a certain homogeneity of experience depending on the surrounding political agenda – those in favour of decriminalisation tend to talk in terms of choice, and abolitionists rely on ‘survivor stories’ from traumatised exited women (and it’s usually, if not always, women). Each side claims ownership of the ‘authentic’ experience and attributes false consciousness to the other – sex workers who talk about choice are seen as puppets of the patriarchy, while radical feminists who favour abolition are drab and prudish. Again, positionality is key to which experiences are considered valid, and may also produce a certain objectification and flattening out of lived realities. A number of sex workers have written about how the radical feminist definition of their work as itself victimisation has led groups and individuals within the industry to deemphasise or hide difficult experiences, in order to avoid fuelling criminalisation agendas. “Sex workers with negative experiences are indeed more openly welcomed by Antis”, Lori Adorable says, “even though they’re only valued in a tokenizing way.”

The use of experience as currency polarises and renders invisible positions in between – so the sex industry – or Islam – becomes either all empowering or all oppressive. Women with differing experiences can’t co-exist and individuals can’t hold mixed or ambivalent feelings. There’s also a space where structural and historical dynamics should appear, in particular the impact of colonisation and colonialism on Muslim-majority countries and communities and the situating of commercial sex within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare.

The dominant register of experience also creates a personalisation of critique, with judgments settling on individuals making choices to survive, attributions of false consciousness and an increasing propensity to diagnose ‘-isms’ and ‘-phobias’ within political debate. Behind this last is understandable reaction to the long and continuing history of attempts to cloak prejudice in political analysis, especially in relation to Islam, the sex industry and trans issues. There has also been a great deal of selective critique and wilful misinterpretation – for instance, the examination of sex and sexuality only tends to happen in relation to the sex industry, gender issues are often pointed out within Muslim societies and not others, and critiques of identity politics have been misguidedly – and hurtfully – used to deny transgender experience.

We should – and we must – continue to name and oppose such bigotries when we see them. However, I’m also interested in thinking about how, as the fourth wave develops, we can facilitate debates between those feminists who may have different views but common goals, which don’t spiral into cycles of suspicion, accusation and denial that ultimately feed the backlash (although this is not a ‘call for unity’ which enjoins us all to fall in line with the most privileged, either).

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Coming full circle now, the furore around Julian Assange showed how effective the backlash has been. There was a monstering of feminism apparent even on the left, with Assange claiming that he had fallen into a ‘hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminists’, and that Sweden was like ‘Saudi Arabia for men’. He called the prosecutor a ‘man-hating lesbian’ and Sweden a ‘man-hating matriarchy’, and his supporters termed his accusers ‘radical and militant feminists’ and their lawyers ‘gender lawyers’ who were biased against men.

The fourth wave of feminism is developing in a context where feminists can be monsters on both the left and right. This is a product of the interaction between radical feminism’s relationship to neoconservative ideologies and the individualistic neoliberal cultural and political field. However, in this dialectic between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, rejecting one often pushes you into the arms of the other. So in outrage at the dubious ways in which neoconservative discourses appropriate women’s victimisation, too often we end up mobilising neoliberal versions of empowerment and choice. And in doing this we lose a focus on how choices are socially situated, subjectivities are complex, and states and globalising markets in particular restrict our autonomy.

I want to finish on a positive note – there are excellent examples of contemporary feminisms which are structural, intersectional and truly radical. Often this type of knowledge is what’s been described in one of today’s abstracts as ‘unauthorised’ – it’s dialogic, it’s electronic, it can be fleeting, and it’s difficult within the conventions and sluggishness of academia to represent it effectively. For instance, sex work labour rights activists are increasingly framing personal testimony within a critique of austerity politics and specific effects of criminalisation. The intersectional politics articulated by and around trans women of colour explores how state and individual violences, socio-economics and identities inform and produce each other. Coalitions between these groups and others are being built. I’m going to finish with a quote from Laverne Cox – talking about intersectionality, she brings to mind Crenshaw’s original conception, which was about connecting different experiences and situating them within structural frameworks.

‘We have to have space to evolve, but we have to be willing to have the conversations and know how to. Look at the “Stop and Frisk” march that happened last year that really integrated LGBT and black folks. Look at how the NAACP can begin to back that and how they’re evolving. So opinions can shift. We have to come together across political differences too and build coalitions even though we may not always agree on exactly everything.’

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Thanks very much for listening.