Sexual harassment and violence in higher education: reckoning, co-option, backlash

This is the text of a keynote (and the inaugural Lincoln Lecture) delivered at the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies conference in Loughborough on June 12th 2018. 

I am speaking today about sexual harassment and violence. It is difficult to speak about sexual harassment and violence; these are traumatic experiences, and survivors are subject to many forms of silencing. This is why ‘speaking out’ is crucial. We speak our truths publicly because problems need to be named, to be dealt with: and putting our trauma ‘out there’ is a way to avoid being consumed by it ‘in here’. But speech in this area is also vexed. Because of where and how we are able to speak our truths, because of how these truths constitute us as subjects and objects of discourse, and because of how our disclosures can be co-opted. We are also caught in a number of binaries and backlashes which position us or which we have to position against. There are binaries between men and women, between perpetrators and victims, which are often mapped directly on to each other. There is a misogynistic, racist backlash from the so-called ‘alt’-right, and on the left what Sara Ahmed calls ‘progressive sexism’, which gives cover to sexual harassment and violence through critiques of neoliberalism and concerns about ‘moral panic.’ This is the context in which I share my thoughts about how sexual harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’ in institutional and cultural economies.

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When I first started writing this, the Anglo-American world was caught up in a reckoning in the form of #MeToo. Tarana Burke, who founded the campaign in 2006, called its recent incarnation ‘a watershed moment’ in feminist protest. The image above was created by Tara O Brien and I love it because it has a black woman in the centre. This represents Burke for me, and also evokes the tremendous debt white feminists like me owe black feminists, who play such central roles but whose experiences are so rarely centred, who are so often the first to act and the last to get the credit. Women like Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas put the issue of sexual harassment firmly on the agenda. Or Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the trans women of colour who were on the front lines of the Stonewall Riots. Or Rosa Parks, who was an anti-rape activist long before she became the icon of the Montgomery bus boycott.

I build on the legacy of these women as I do my research and activism around sexual harassment and violence. This started the same year Burke founded #MeToo, and has included working closely with the National Union of Students on ‘lad culture’, conducting case study projects at Imperial College and Sussex University on institutional culture, and co-leading a major pan-European intervention training staff in 21 different institutions to respond to disclosures. The universities involved in my research are all unique: but one of their similarities is the way they ‘reckon up’ sexual harassment and violence. In other words, market concerns tend to dominate once a disclosure is made. It is a different type of reckoning.

Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual abuse perpetrators; this is not news, or new. Sexual harassment and violence are normalised, minimised and dismissed by patriarchy, colonialism and other systems of domination, as well as complex and uneven structures of loyalty and hierarchy. This happens in families, the military, the church, the media, international aid communities, and everywhere else you look. But the marketisation of the university creates additional buffers, as the potential economic cost of disclosure is projected and totted up. We can’t lose our star Professor and his grant income, or his four-star publications. We don’t want negative media or NSS scores to affect student recruitment. These concerns interact with institutional hierarchies, and gender, race, class and other relations, to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently.

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

‘In my opinion the university tries to hide sexual violence and in particular rape, because they are afraid for their good reputation. If a girl reports such a crime to a member of the university staff, they will always try to distract her from reporting to the police.’

These quotes from my research participants describe what I call ‘institutional airbrushing.’ On billboards and in magazines, marketable equals unblemished: all flaws must be airbrushed out. The contemporary brand naming of the university creates a similar imperative for perfection. So when a disclosure is made, the impact of this on the marketability of the institution can be more troubling than the act of harassment or violence it reveals. One of my participants described this as ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ Another highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet and dealing with them internally, which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ Institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: either issues are minimised, denied or concealed and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible (usually after media intervention), the perpetrator themselves is airbrushed from the institution, and it is made to appear as if they were never there.

Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements play a key part in these processes: and as Whitley and Page point out, they often function to protect the reputation of the institution rather than the one making the complaint. A Guardian Freedom of Information investigation in 2016 found that some universities had also paid compensation to students and staff, or given financial settlements to staff accused of sexual harassment to encourage them to resign. I will cover naming and shaming later – this strategy is ripe for co-option – but the process of airbrushing problems out rather than dealing with them means they are likely to re-appear elsewhere. A recent US study by named this the ‘pass the harasser’ phenomenon: faculty are allowed to move on quietly after sexual harassment allegations, only to be subject to similar complaints in their new posts. And when problems are not dealt with properly, they can escalate: a participant in my research reported an incident of stalking by a male fellow student which was not dealt with by her institution, after which he went on to attack three women.

As the institution is airbrushed, the survivor experiences the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal, which exacerbates trauma and perpetrates additional boundary violations. As one of my student participants said, ‘the survivor has to be the one to accommodate.’ And the experiences of many survivors go way beyond accommodation. Being threatened with removal from the institution is common, often linked to accusations or insinuations that a complainant is lying. Until recently, the 1994 Zellick guidelines have also been used to insulate institutions from having to take action if an allegation is not reported to the police. One of my participants described the senior managers at her university as ‘obstructionist, skeptical and incapable of empathy.’ This is the reality behind the perfect picture of an institution. This is the price paid by survivors within gendered economies of sexual harassment and violence in which they are assigned little value.

The airbrushing of sexual predators is especially interesting when compared to how universities have neglected scholars targeted for their political views. Last year, the American Association of University Professors issued two separate directives to universities to defend academics more proactively, after professors received threats for criticising President Trump. Around the same time, a lecturer at Bristol University was supported by Jewish colleagues after an investigation was launched against her, following a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. There have been other incidents like this, many directed at women and/or scholars of colour (and women of colour in particular), in the context of another backlash in which the ‘alt’-right are targeting universities as sites of critical speech and thought. It is possible that the differential treatment of political academics and those accused of sexual harassment may reflect gendered and raced power relations: unlike radical politics, sexual abuse in institutions tends to be the behaviour of men with privilege and power. But it might also reflect what it is possible (and impossible) to airbrush out of the picture. In contrast to sexual predators, political academics tend to operate in the open: our ‘misdemeanours’ cannot so easily be denied or covered up.

In institutions where airbrushing is the problem, exposing the blemish is often the antidote. Campaigns against sexual harassment and violence, exemplified by #MeToo, have centred on speaking out – sharing our experiences and naming our perpetrators – as a way to interrupt the processes by which they are protected and we are dismissed. Naming and shaming has been especially successful when the perpetrator is a powerful male academic: Colin McGinn, Thomas Pogge and Lee Salter are a few of the names which have circulated in media publics, and there are many more. This is part of a long history of feminist testimony, ranging from Sojurner Truth’s speech to the Akron Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, to the activism of black women in the US civil rights movement, to the phrase ‘the personal is political’, which underpinned second-wave women’s liberation struggles. But the contemporary movement against sexual harassment and violence tends to position the relationship between the personal and political as unidirectional, creating an equation between sharing experience and feminist politics.

I want to trouble that equation. The relationship between the personal and political is reciprocal because of the constitution of subjectivities, and identities, in the web of discourse. And as Angela Davis has said, ‘we often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives.’ Because of this, there are ongoing debates in feminist philosophy and theory about how our ‘wounds’ enter the political sphere, and what they do once they get there. I take various insights from these discussions: from Sara Ahmed the idea of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, and from Wendy Brown and Carrie Rentschler (in different ways) a concern with how discourses of victimhood are both articulated and ventriloquized within political contexts. From black feminists like Angela Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw I take a strong concern with how personal pain (and especially that of white women) can be weaponised by the punitive, carceral state.

I am interested in what sexual violence experiences do. I have theorised them as investment capital in affective economies, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. Sexual violence narratives can be invested in media publics to generate further capital in the form of emotion, and not always to progressive ends. As Ashwini Tambe writes about #MeToo:

It is worth keeping in mind that the primary instrument of redress in #MeToo is public shaming and criminalization of the perpetrator. This is already too familiar a problem for black men. We know the history of how black men have been lynched based on unfounded allegations that they sexually violated white women. We know how many black men are unjustly incarcerated. The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been reversed—with accusers’ words taken more seriously than those of the accused—is a familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this dynamic.

The figure of the survivor is affectively powerful, but not politically neutral: black feminists know this well. My work has also examined how ‘survivor stories’ have been used in campaigns to criminalise sex workers, or to exclude trans women from women-only space. These politics connect with national and geopolitical dynamics, especially the weaponisation of ‘empathy’ by states and institutions for projects of social and political control (Carolyn Pedwell’s work is important here). Bush’s ‘empathy’ for the women of Afghanistan was a key justification for his War on Terror. ‘Empathy’ for survivors of sex trafficking can legitimise crackdowns on immigration and/or commercial sex. The performance of emotion can also function to detract from harms states and institutions are perpetrating: this evokes Theresa May’s platitudes in support of #MeToo, while her government cut funding for domestic and sexual violence services and presided over the state-sanctioned abuse of vulnerable migrant women at Yarl’s Wood.

When narratives of sexual harassment and violence function as capital, they accrue value in this political context. And in the testimonial cultures of neoliberalism, pain and trauma are key currencies for the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. ‘Disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ are both phrases coined to describe our contemporary fascination with the troubles of others. There is a desire in the corporate media for this:

SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT ‘EPIDEMIC’ LEVELS IN UK UNIVERSITIES

STANFORD SEX OFFENDER BROCK TURNER IS APPEALING HIS CONVICTION AND WANTS A NEW TRIAL

CAMBRIDGE DON ACCUSED OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT UNDER INVESTIGATION AGAIN

SICKENING RISE OF THE MALE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WHO TREAT WOMEN LIKE MEAT 

In institutions where airbrushing is the norm and where some are protected at the expense of others, we often have few options other than speaking out in these media outlets. But as investment capital in the outrage economy, our disclosures are subject to other forms of reckoning up: an experience that circulates here will generate more value if names are named, if institutions are shamed, if personal details are shared. Survivors and their experiences become clickbait in markets where truth is often second to revenue generation. This has a number of effects, one of which is distortion: alleged perpetrators can be lionised if they happen to have a good story, and this feeds and is fed by the backlash. Our arguments can be distorted too: and I want to return to the Guardian’s Freedom of Information investigation, which uncovered almost 300 allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty made in six years across a sample of 120 universities. Although this constituted an average of less than half an allegation per institution per year, the headline read: ‘Sexual harassment at epidemic levels in UK universities.’

Overstatements like these may seem harmless in the service of putting an important issue on the agenda. They are certainly an antidote to the dismissal and silencing survivors have been subject to. But the strong relation between the affective and the political in this area does not mean emotional needs and political strategies are, or should be, one and the same. While considering the needs of survivors, we must also consider what Davis calls the intersectionality of struggles, and it is likely that such sensationalism will produce a punitive response. One of the recommendations of the Guardian investigation was for a strict ‘no-contact’ rule between staff and students, the penalty for violating which would be a ‘swift termination with a public statement and a mandated report to a central UK registry.’ These types of proposals present problems of co-option.

We often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. The ‘ideal victim’ of sexual violence is female, white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, young and without disabilities: the Central Park jogger. What Davis calls the ‘police blotter rapist’ is usually a man of colour. This partly explains why #MeToo and other mainstream movements against sexual violence tend to be dominated by white and privileged women. And when we share our experiences of sexual violence, the affective intensity of the act does not insulate it from the political effects of our privilege. Our ‘affect worlds’ are structured, not least by our relationship to the institution and the state.

Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, has consistently spoken out against its focus on ‘bringing down’ powerful men. As she said in an interview, ‘no matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they [meaning white women] keep bringing it back to individuals.’ These individuals, like the academics who should be held accountable for sexual harassment, are not generally marginalised men of colour. But like Burke, I am not sure that insulates our politics from intersectional questions. Creating a more retaliatory system may disproportionately affect those with less institutional and social power. Especially in the current political context, it is worth considering whose might be the first names on the proposed academic sex offenders’ list. Here, I want to quote Jane Ward:

These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.

These ‘dyke stories’, and others like them, have caused some queer commentators to look on #MeToo and similar movements with apprehension. And queer women perhaps escape lightly compared to our trans sisters, who are often seen as sexual predators even by those who identify as feminists. There is a real possibility that, like earlier feminist movements against sexual violence, pornography and prostitution, campaigns against sexual misconduct in academia will find their strongest allies on the political right. This both poses and reflects what I call the ‘angry Dad’ problem: we may be glad when Dad gets angry on our behalf, but we cannot necessarily stop him turning on us or those we care about. The ‘angry Dad’ of the white feminist movement is the patriarchal, racist state or institution. White feminism has always been implicated in authorising these structures.

Coming back to institutional airbrushing: naming, shaming and punishing can reinforce the message that all the institution needs to do to ‘clean’ itself is airbrush out the problematic individual. A faculty member in my research described how naming and shaming had been used in her department to make it appear that an abusive staff member was anomalous, rather than emblematic of the culture. ‘Like, you know,’ she said, ‘we can’t allow misogyny to take over the department, we can’t allow this to destroy the reputation of the department.’ As survivors, we might be gratified when our experiences accrue value in the outrage economy, when they are not worth much elsewhere. Naming and shaming can also go well: Ally Smith’s exposure of her abusive relationship with her lecturer Lee Salter at Sussex, and Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment, have been two major institutional interventions. But media events can also create the conditions for airbrushing individual perpetrators out of institutions, with little effect on the structures and cultures that enable and dismiss harassment and violence. Institutional accountability becomes individualised.

Speaking out about sexual violence is vexed by these possibilities of co-option; speaking about these possibilities is not unproblematic either. I want to return now to the idea (and reality) of backlash. Across the political spectrum, from the ‘alt’-right to what Ray Filar calls the ‘manarchists’, #MeToo and similar campaigns are being accused of McCarthyism and characterised as ‘witch hunts’ and sometimes even ‘lynchings’, by those who want to defend the status quo. The enemy may be ‘special interests’, ‘political correctness’, ‘moral panic’, ‘censorship’ or even ‘carceral feminists’, but what draws these arguments together is that structural critiques of how punitive systems impact on the marginalised are repurposed to protect individual privileged men. And as Ahmed says, the rod of the state is not defined as the problem: our resistance is.

These arguments are not made in good faith, and we should take care to separate them from our own reflexive conversations. But defensiveness threatens criticality, and the proximity of the backlash has shrunk the space for us – especially white feminists – to have the conversations we need to have. One of them is about how our disclosures can be co-opted to do the work of Angry Dad. In this conversation the deeply flawed nature of our institutions is key: we have to refuse another equation, between institutional discipline and social justice. There is also a different discussion, in which we have to allow ourselves to hope and gather any faith we have left in the university as a site of progressive speech and thought. This is because there is a danger that our work will be co-opted by the contemporary backlash against academia, especially by the ‘alt’-right who, even as they decry our ‘puritanical’ politics, will use any tool at their disposal to target scholars and institutions on their watch lists. We need to refuse that, too.

This is not an argument for the reputational protection of institutions. There is much work to be done on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, and it needs to happen in the open or universities will not be able to build trust. We name the problem in order to tackle the problem: there is no other way. The university is not neutral, but neither is it productive to see it as wholly bad or good. We need to understand universities as complex institutional systems, political and academic cultures, workplaces and communities, and perhaps we need to consider how we can both hold them to account and defend them.

#MeToo has been described as a reckoning: the same could be said of the recent exposure of sexual misconduct in higher education. There is a different kind of reckoning at work in how sexual harassment and violence enter institutional economies in which the financial value of the university takes precedence. Sexual violence experiences are also ‘reckoned up’ in the outrage economy of the media: how many clicks, how many shares, how much advertising revenue. In the institution our experiences have little value; in the media they appear to have a lot. This value may be all that matters on a personal level, and survivors should disclose in whatever way feels right: it is not our responsibility to improve the limited options available. But at the level of the political, we must understand the different economies in which sexual violence experiences circulate and accrue value, as well as the various contemporary threats of co-option and backlash. This context shapes how, where, when and why we share: and, most crucially, what happens after that.

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‘Reckoning Up’ sexual harassment and violence

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

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

cracked-brick-wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sex workers

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

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

 

‘Normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ – the neoliberalisation of reproduction

In July this year Sir Marcus Setchell, recently retired surgeon gynaecologist to the Royal Family, made his first public statements about the birth of Prince George. Jenni Murray, interviewing him on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour almost a year after the event, asked him whether he had been entirely necessary. His answer, that although what happens in labour is ‘an entirely private matter’ there are certain situations which might require a specialist to be in the room, prompted much speculation in the papers. The implication was clear – was The Duchess of Cambridge’s delivery really as ‘natural’ as we have been led to believe? That this arose, and indeed, that the interview was conducted at all, clearly has much to do with our contemporary obsession with celebrities’ personal business. However, it also reflects the extent to which the reproductive experiences of all women come under scrutiny in a neoliberal culture.

In the late 1980s, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a definition of ‘normal birth’ that suggested that unnecessary interventions should be avoided in low-risk labour and delivery. By the 2000s the term had become common among Western activists and health professionals. The UK National Health Service also adopted the slogan ‘breast is best’, which built upon WHO recommendations that suckling should be encouraged immediately postpartum. Today, there is an institutionalized arena of policy, practice and activism around breastfeeding and ‘natural’ childbirth, produced by a broad coalition of national and international organisations, non-profit and profit-making companies, health professionals’ associations, community and religious groups, and a multitude of interested individuals.

As Sir Marcus Setchell acknowledged in his interview, the development of the ‘natural birth’ movement in the West owed much to feminist activism against the medicalization of reproduction. This began in the 1970s and was led by experts such as British anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, American midwife Ina May Gaskin, French obstetrician Michel Odent and British gynaecologist Wendy Savage. They rightly argued that women had been alienated from their bodies by a male-dominated and masculinised establishment, which treated pregnancy and childbirth as medical conditions rather than normal life events, was overly focused on risk and had been co-opted by market forces, particularly the infant formula industry. However, today’s ‘natural birth’ and breastfeeding movement has also been influenced by neoliberal values, which turns it from a feminist victory into something altogether more complicated.

For example, the privatisation of health services intensifies the pressure for us to become personally responsible for managing risk and preventing disease. Parents (mothers especially) have been tasked with ensuring their children’s wellbeing, and breastfeeding in particular has acquired magical status as the means of avoiding a plethora of childhood ailments, promoting emotional development, even purportedly increasing IQ. Within the contemporary logic of self-improvement, ‘natural birth’ and exclusive breastfeeding have been suffused with the language of achievement, seen as defining characteristics of successful motherhood and routes to women’s self-actualisation. Activists report their reproductive and parenting triumphs on social media, often with no attention to the economic, social and cultural privilege that has made them possible.

At the same time, neoliberalised healthcare systems have appropriated ‘normal birth’ and successful breastfeeding as performance measures. In 2007, the UK Maternity Care Working Party recommended that maternity services increase their ‘normal birth’ rates to 60 per cent within three years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produces a ‘breastfeeding report card’, monitoring rates at state and national levels. This outcome-focused model coincides with cost-cutting agendas, as minimising caesareans and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding are seen as ways to reduce healthcare spending.

Although originally rooted in attempts to empower women, today’s approach to ‘natural’ birth and breastfeeding puts intense pressure on mothers who cannot achieve these goals, often for structural reasons such as poverty and social disadvantage, family or other burdens or medical issues affecting mother or infant. Furthermore, in a neoliberal milieu that depends on economic and social competition and individual responsibility, these women do not receive empathy but are berated for making the wrong choices, and defined as both ignorant and lazy. The reproductive experiences of the Duchess of Cambridge and other celebrities then become ammunition in these ‘Mummy/Mommy wars’, which are very much a product of the age.

In recent years, veteran activist Sheila Kitzinger has expressed dismay at the mutation of reproduction into a goal-oriented agenda. Many women share this opinion and some are fighting back – for example, the ‘I Support You’ movement in North America brings together breast- and formula-feeding parents in mutual validation of each others’ choices. We should use initiatives like this to re-politicise reproduction, this time within a critique of the neoliberal culture which pits us against one another in cycles of assessment, judgment and shame. Setchell is wrong – what happens in labour is not an ‘entirely private matter’ for any woman, celebrity or not – but hopefully one day it will stop being a stick to beat her with.

About the author: Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on issues to do with women’s bodies: childbirth, breastfeeding, abortion, sexual violence and sex work. Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press. 

Originally published in Cost of Living