Feminists fighting sexual violence in the age of Brexit and Trump

This piece is based on a talk delivered as part of the University of Birmingham School of Social Policy seminar series in January 2019 and as the annual lecture of the University of Bristol Gender Research Centre in April 2019. It brings together much of my recent work on feminist activism against sexual violence both within and outside institutions, contextualising this within broader rightward shifts and the intersecting structures of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. 

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I want to start with John Mavroudis’ illustration of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, taken from the cover of Time magazine, October 15th 2018. It contains phrases from Ford’s testimony to the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, arranged into an image of her taking the oath. One of the phrases is ‘seared into my memory’, which is how she described her experience, as a teenager, of sexual assault by Justice Kavanaugh. The phrase also illustrates how I felt about the juxtaposition of her testimony and Kavanaugh’s, as the hearings played out in the media.

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This is an image which was circulated widely on social media during and after the hearings, of Kavanaugh during his testimony. It was a long and irate speech, in which he called the process a ‘national disgrace’ and a ‘grotesque and coordinated character assassination’ fuelled by ‘anger about President Trump’ and ‘revenge on behalf of the Clintons’. The faces of the women behind him inspired a significant amount of commentary: although they were his family, friends and supporters, their expressions seemed to materialise what many of us were feeling at the time.

Although Kavanaugh was confirmed, Dr. Ford’s actions inspired global support and prompted comparisons to Professor Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings put the issue of sexual harassment on the agenda. Hill and Blasey Ford’s testimonies also mark early and late stages of the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, with its production of huge inequalities and insecurities, including ones related to gender. This is the context for my talk, which especially focuses on the international swing to the right produced by economic and social crisis.

This swing to the right involves a number of reassertions: of whiteness, of class privilege, of masculinity, and of binary gender. Women are women and men are men; Brexit means Brexit. Silvia Federici identifies a new ‘war on women’ constituted by rising violence, femicide and attacks on reproductive rights, happening especially in countries being re-colonised through globalisation. In the West, although individual gender identities are increasingly fluid, binary gender and capitalist family values are being re-imposed in economic, social and cultural terms. Through cuts to social welfare systems, attacks on abortion rights, sexual and domestic violence, discourses of ‘natural’ and ‘intensive’ motherhood, and an intensified focus on women’s appearance.

Just as colonialism imposed bourgeois gender as a means of controlling land, production and behaviour, contemporary far right politics blends racism with attacks on feminists and LGBT (especially trans) people. Last year, ‘proud homophobe’ Jair Bolsonaro was elected the 38th President of Brazil. His platform positioned him as a key player in the war on ‘gender ideology’, a term that originated from the Vatican in the 1990s and can mean feminism, LGBT rights or trans people in particular, depending on the context. The same year, Hungary’s proto-fascist government banned gender studies on the grounds that it was an ‘ideology not a science’. A spokesman for Prime Minster Orban said: ‘the government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes.’ Also last year, Donald Trump declared his intention to ‘legislate transgender out of existence’ through changing the Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act to define gender as determined by biological sex, and biological sex as immutable and determined by genitalia at birth.

Trump was elected after numerous allegations (and admissions) of sexual misconduct, in a triumph of whiteness over feminist solidarity. Since the election of the ‘predator-in-chief’, there have been a number of major anti-black, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic mass shootings in both the US and overseas. There is evidence that men who perpetrate mass shootings are often domestic abusers as well, and recent mass killings in the US and Canada have also been perpetrated by ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), who blame women for their lack of access to sex. Incels are a key faction in the online ‘manosphere’, a technological primordial soup for the gestation of far-right activists.

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Contemporary right-wing masculinities are united by a blend of fragility and entitlement, which is central to whiteness and which could also be observed in the demeanour of Justice Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings. However, support for Dr. Ford was bolstered by a growing resistance: the resurgent right has been met by a younger, more diverse and more radical international left. The movement around Jeremy Corbyn, which produced a hung parliament in the 2017 UK General Election, is one example. The US midterms in 2018 also saw record wins for progressive candidates and especially for women of colour. These included Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Native American women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim congresswomen, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

With Trump’s sexual transgressions still prominent in the public imagination, the victories of these women were partly put down to the success of #MeToo. Originally the title of a movement created by black feminist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo hashtag went viral after a tweet by white actress Alyssa Milano, eleven years later. It trended in at least 85 countries, with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks. It was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN and CBC, an ‘avalanche’ in the Guardian and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC and in the US National Post.

Although it has been biggest on Anglo-American platforms, #MeToo has reverberated worldwide, through disclosures on online and social media, and actions which link with established feminist organisations and campaigns as well as marshalling the newly politicised. Srila Roy has documented how the movement reached India in 2018, a country which had not seen such a surge of mainstream concern with sexual violence since the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012. Although it remains largely mainstream, #MeToo has managed to connect with both liberal and more intersectional feminist forms.

Late last year, Google created #MeToo Rising, an interactive online repository of information on activity across the world. This includes the Time’s Up organisation in the US, which aims to create safety and equity in the workplace through providing legal assistance for sexual harassment claims. There are also various grassroots and formal initiatives, and direct-action movements, in other countries around the world. Older sexual violence projects have also been rejuvenated by #MeToo: in universities, in political institutions, and in radical communities.

As a movement and ongoing moment, #MeToo reshaped – and continues to reshape – narratives around sexual violence. The variety of disclosures made under the hashtag allowed for discussion of what Liz Kelly terms a continuum of acts which, although defined as more and less ‘serious’, all have similar functions: to reflect and produce male power. #MeToo correlated sexual violence with the ‘everyman’ rather than the ‘bad man’, through a volume of personal stories which showed how frequently it is perpetrated and normalised. At its best, this put all men on the spot, asking them to reflect on their own behaviour, and their role in that of others.

#MeToo also galvanised a high-profile (and ongoing) backlash. This brought together conservative commentators with libertarian feminists, many of whom argued that the movement was perpetuating ‘victim culture’. Such right-wing ‘antivictimism’ often emerges in response to public feminisms around sexual violence. It appropriates narratives of women’s empowerment, setting them within neoliberal frameworks which emphasise individual responsibility and choice. In some formulations, women feel victimised because feminism has brainwashed them into renaming their unsatisfactory sexual experiences as abuse. Or in others, they crave attention: in the Spectator, Joanna Williams interpreted #MeToo as ‘an unedifying clamour to be included in celebrity suffering.’

Despite its antivictimism, the ‘wounded attachments’ of this backlash are strong. They are 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. The backlash against #MeToo was focused on ‘harm’ to both the accused and to critics of the movement, seen as subject to its ‘vengeful’ currents. Katie Roiphe, who was also a key figure in the 1990s backlash against sexual violence activism on US campuses, penned an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled ‘The Other Whisper Network’. In it she claimed that the movement’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they were effectively silenced. ‘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, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends.’

This remark performs a classic manoeuvre, locating violence in the fight against, rather than the fact of, oppression. As Sara Ahmed says: ‘It is because we expose violence that we are heard as violent, as if the violence of which we speak originates in us.’ These manoeuvres are also positioned within what Anderson and Samudzi identify as a false equivalence between domination and resistance: one side’s dehumanisation of another becomes a difference articulated in a ‘free marketplace’ of ideas. ‘Identity politics’ is often the bogeyman in this reformulation of bigotry as ‘freedom of speech’. It acts as a cipher for the resentments of those who feel equality has gotten out of hand, often within rhetoric that bemoans a parochial obsession with difference that threatens Enlightenment ideals. The university is a key adversary, along with the ‘snowflake’ students it contains.

In the ‘Free Speech University Rankings’ published yearly by Spiked, policies against sexual harassment, among other things, can get a university a negative rating. However, in general this commitment to ‘free speech’ extends only to figures on the hard- or far-right: movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are presented as elite-driven exercises in censorship. Spiked’s concern with ‘free speech’ on campuses is shared by members of the growing ‘intellectual dark web’ of self-styled mavericks and truth-tellers. This group is unified by its opposition to ‘identity politics’ and conviction that discussion of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas such as race and gender differences is now taboo. One of its leading members is ‘professor against political correctness’ Jordan Peterson, who describes himself as a ‘classical liberal’ but is celebrated by the alt-right for his tirades against feminism and ‘cultural Marxism’. The New York Times has called him the most influential public intellectual in the Western World. Other members of the intellectual dark web recently orchestrated a hoax against gender and critical race studies journals, aimed to expose these disciplines as ideologically-motivated ‘grievance studies’ and purge universities of such scholarship. Again, although these scholars self-identified as ‘left-leaning’, their critiques were mired in far-right tropes.

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All this adds up to a complex picture of global rightward shift, resistance, and backlash which is often encoded within calls for ‘common sense’ and ‘balanced debate’. Within this frame, narratives about gendered and intersecting inequalities, and movements designed to tackle them, are being recrafted and rejuvenated. Also, and even as neoliberalism and neo-imperialism produce rising rates of women’s victimisation worldwide, the idea of women’s safety is being weaponised by the right. As the Brexit referendum loomed, Nigel Farage claimed that women could be at risk of sex attacks from gangs of migrant men if Britain remained in the European Union. Trump made similar comments about Mexican men during his campaign for the US presidency. In 2018, UKIP appointed anti-Islam ideologue Tommy Robinson as its advisor on ‘grooming gangs.’ ‘Women’s safety’ has also been key to debates about bathroom bills in the US and the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, in which conservatives have situated trans people (and especially trans women) as potential rapists.

These politics are not new: the white and privileged rape victim has been a key motif in ‘law and order’ and anti-immigration agendas in the West, as well as the violent suppression of indigenous and enslaved populations in colonised and colonial countries. The figure of the victimised Other (usually a Muslim woman), juxtaposed with ‘Western values’, has underpinned a variety of neo-colonial incursions including the War on Terror. Liberal feminism and liberal imperialism have always been closely intertwined, and Elizabeth Bernstein has coined the term ‘carceral feminism’ to describe the relationship some feminist projects have with the punitive state.

But there is currently a convergence, of heightened resistance against sexual violence with an intensified deployment of the survivor in the oppressive imaginary. This raises questions which are persistent and urgent, if not new, about the role of contemporary activism against sexual violence. In other words, it is more important than ever to consider what Angela Davis calls the ‘intersectionality of struggles’. How might our activism against sexual violence help or hinder other social justice projects? How can we be more conscious and critical of who our friends (and our enemies) are? Do the ends always justify the means? These questions are also pressing because #MeToo and similar campaigns can provide – and have provided – clickbait for what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the corporate media.

The growth of ‘outrage media’ is linked to structural changes in the media landscape: the migration of content online and the reliance of mainstream media on social platforms for the currencies of clicks, likes and shares. And although ‘outrage media’ has traditionally been located on the right, its characteristics of hyperbole, sensationalisation and vilification can be seen in left-wing outlets as well. Media shifts rightward have accompanied political ones: in both the US and the UK, far-right narratives are beginning to dominate conservative outlets, and take up increasing amounts of space in liberal ones under the pretext of ‘balance’. This heightens concerns about how social justice ends can successfully be pursued via platforms on which truth comes second to revenue generation.

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I want to return now to #MeToo. The picture I am using is by Tara O’Brien and has a black woman in the centre, perhaps representing Tarana Burke’s pivotal role. But in general terms this is an aspiration for, rather than a representation of, the mainstream movement against sexual violence. The most powerful and visible activists in the movement are, and always have been, white and privileged women. Women like me, who have benefited from employment opportunities offered by neoliberalism, and who have ready access to corporate media platforms.

#MeToo is the latest in a series of high-profile sexual violence campaigns in which privileged white women have made use of, but failed to fully recognise, the groundbreaking work of black women and other women of colour. For instance, the foundational labour of anti-rape activists such as Ida B Wells and Rosa Parks in the US Civil Rights movement was built on, usually without acknowledgement, by second-wave white feminists. Activism by working-class women, many of them women of colour, has been crucial in naming and fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, but white academics and lawyers have tended to get the credit. And the activism and theory of feminists and womanists from the global South is rarely referenced at all.

As white and privileged women in the West now say ‘time’s up’ to men via corporate media platforms, and as these men appear on the same media platforms defending themselves, the politics of sexual violence can appear to be a conversation between white people about who is in control. This is what I call ‘political whiteness’: a framework shared by mainstream sexual violence feminisms and the backlashes against them. It might seem insensitive to associate #MeToo with the backlash. However, acknowledging the role of race means exploring the similarities between both progressive and reactionary politics dominated by white people. And whiteness is fractured, but not erased, by the existence of gender inequality.

Political whiteness has the following linked characteristics: narcissism; a will to power; and a constant alertness to threat. Critical theorists of whiteness, such as Robin DiAngelo and others, have long highlighted the role of narcissism in white identity. Politically, this is evident in the belief that white experience can stand for that of all others, and the desire to centre ourselves, even in anti-racist struggles. In relation to #MeToo, many black feminists and other feminists of colour pointed out the disproportionate focus on white victims, and the neglect of others such as the black girls abused by R Kelly or the Rohingya women raped in Myanmar. Narcissism links political whiteness with Gurminder Bhambra’s concept of ‘methodological whiteness’, developed in response to academic analysis of and commentary on Brexit and Trump. Bhambra highlights how even in ‘progressive’ scholarship, there is a persistent focus on (and universalisation of) the experiences and concerns of white people, and a lack of acknowledgement of structures and histories of race and racism in shaping the world.

The centring of the self in whiteness produces a political focus on individual injuries and threats rather than structural power, which is compatible with neoliberal values. In different ways, we can observe this in both #MeToo and the backlash, both of which are primarily framed around the experiences and injuries (or perceived injuries, in the case of backlash politics) of white individuals. For the backlash, this is to do with entitlements being threatened – whiteness is a position of structural power which is concerned with maintaining that power. However, this has implications for feminist movements as well – and if we understand the ‘raped’ subjectivity as shaped by a loss of power and control, regaining this becomes even more crucial.

Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo, has consistently critiqued its current iteration for being too focused on ‘bringing down’ powerful men. Top of this list is Harvey Weinstein, whose arrest was reported by Time as a ‘pivotal turning point’ for the movement. A possible close second is Larry Nassar, the coach convicted of sexually abusing ten young gymnasts and accused by almost 250 more. Nassar was told by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at sentencing that if authorised, she would have ‘allow[ed] some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. Aquilina was widely celebrated as a feminist hero and icon of #MeToo.

Burke’s caution about ‘bringing down’ men like Nassar and Weinstein is not about shielding them from accountability. Instead, it is rooted in the knowledge that strengthening punitive technologies will not generally affect men like these. As black feminists have long argued, sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: positioning the state as protective rather than oppressive is a function of whiteness and other forms of privilege. Furthermore, in colonial and neo-colonial contexts, the figure of the ‘imperilled white woman’ has been the justification for a variety of forms of state and community violence against people of colour. Nevertheless, mainstream feminist politics continues to be largely focused on state remedy, even as the far right encroaches on or takes hold of parliaments in the West and elsewhere.

Mainstream campaigns against sexual violence have also tended to use naming and shaming in the outrage media as a precursor to demanding criminal punishment or institutional discipline. #MeToo is a key example, but campaigns in universities and other institutions have also used this mode of ‘speaking out’, often when ‘speaking in’ has failed. Some of these interventions have had very positive effects. Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths, and Allison Smith’s public disclosure of her abuse at the hands of Sussex lecturer Lee Salter, both pushed universities to act. But things do not always go well: some of you may have witnessed how Sophia Cooke from Cambridge was monstered in the press, following a university inquiry which found her ex-boyfriend not guilty of assaulting her.

Naming and shaming can also support what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’. This is a process by which neoliberal institutions obsessed with how things look rather than how they are merely remove the ‘blemish’ which has been exposed, while the systemic malaise remains. Institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. In the first, issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly. In the second, when concealment is not possible, the perpetrator themselves is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution, and it is made to appear as though they were never there. Institutional airbrushing also produces what has been called the ‘pass the harasser’ problem, in which those who ‘move on’ after sexual misconduct allegations simply continue this behaviour in their next job.

Naming and shaming is often a last resort: questioning it strategically is not a judgment of survivors who have no other option. Indeed, in such situations it can be seen as a form of direct action, as argued by Anna Bull and Tiffany Page. But it does not always produce the solutions we might hope for. It has been suggested that the answer is more such speech: for instance, repeatedly naming and shaming individuals in public, or using private ‘whisper networks’ to prevent perpetrators getting another post. But as we use this strategy to purge academia and other high-status professions of abusive men, we may impose them on women working with fewer protections in other employment sectors. In other words, this may be institutional nimbyism rather than the collective action we aim for.

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Political whiteness in progressive movements, then, can produce less-than-progressive outcomes. At the thicker end of this wedge, feminist activism against sexual violence can become aligned with reactionary agendas. This has especially been the case when it comes to sex work and transgender equality, two issues on which there have been fierce and painful feminist debates. Within these, sexual violence experiences are invested as capital in what Sara Ahmed calls the ‘affective economies’ of neoliberal culture, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media.

Feminists opposed to the sex industry often speak on behalf of women who have left it. Their traumatic experiences are shared within arguments for various forms of criminalisation: most commonly the criminalisation of clients which, because it does not directly target sex workers, is supported on feminist grounds. ‘Survivor stories’ of exited sex workers are harrowing accounts of victimisation and suffering: they include physical and sexual violence and abuse, problematic substance use, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They speak to the incredible difficulties sex workers face in a gendered and stigmatised industry.

However, sex workers’ rights activists, often women and people of other genders currently working in the industry, have pointed out that the Nordic Model of client criminalisation actually makes them more vulnerable to abuses like these. When clients are criminalised, sex workers are less able to screen them. Police surveillance increases, meaning sex workers are more likely to be arrested for crimes such as ‘brothel-keeping’ (which in the UK is defined as two or more sex workers working together for safety). For migrant sex workers, the threat of arrest carries the greater one of deportation. Furthermore, while the aim of client criminalisation is to ‘end demand’ for sexual services, as Juno Mac has pointed out, clients are also the supply. As the supply of clients decreases, this reduces sex workers’ power to work on their own terms, and even to work at all. At a time when many women are turning to sex work to make ends meet, reducing their ability to do this can be seen as class violence.

This argument against the Nordic Model is a deeply feminist one. However, sex workers who make it are often dismissed as ‘happy hookers’ who do not care about other women’s safety. A focus on patriarchy without an accompanying analysis of racial capitalism here means that the only class recognised is women: and women as a class are endangered by the sex worker because she sells sex to men and thereby legitimates male entitlement. The economic and racialised processes which push people into the sex industry disappear. The sex worker does not figure as a sister but as a handmaiden of the patriarchy. In situating sex workers’ interests and ‘women’s interests’ as fundamentally opposed, this manoeuvre does not just position sex workers as ‘bad’ women, it excludes them from womanhood.

There is a painful irony here. While both anti-prostitution feminists and sex workers’ rights activists are concerned with women’s safety, it seems that only some count as women who deserve to be kept safe. The use of ‘survivor stories’ in such debates can function as a claim to ownership of the rape experience, dismissing sex workers’ demands for full decriminalisation as coming from peculiarly positive experiences of the industry. This is the equation: survivor = anti-prostitution feminist. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue, the category of survivors who advocate for decriminalising the sex industry, which includes many people currently working in it, cannot – or should not – exist. Another painful irony: this iteration of feminist politics against sexual violence erases the sexual violence experiences of a particularly marginalised group of women.

In 2018, US women’s groups backed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). These acts ban online advertising of sexual services, but in the process prevent sex workers from using the Internet to organise, share safety information, and screen potential clients. Advocates of FOSTA and SESTA, including feminist hero Senator Kamala Harris, gave support over the objections of many trafficking survivors and their allies, who argued that by stopping sex workers working on their own terms, the Acts would increase vulnerability to exploitation. The Acts were also widely supported by the political and religious right.

White, Western feminists have certainly found allies on the right before: for instance, in anti-pornography campaigns in the 1980s. But the current rightward shift has provided opportunities for feminism to become more closely-knit with right-wing agendas, and this is perhaps even more the case when it comes to debates about transgender equality. ‘Gender-critical’ feminists, who argue that trans rights can and do conflict with ‘women’s rights’, are regularly featured in the ‘right-wing outrage machine’ of publications such as Spiked, The Spectator and Quilette. The UK groups Fair Play for Women and A Woman’s Place have been supported by Monmouth MP David Davies, who has consistently voted for stronger restrictions on abortion, for repealing the Human Rights Act, and against gay marriage, and was recently photographed with members of the English Defence League in the March to Leave the European Union. In 2017, the Women’s Liberation Front in the US formed a coalition with evangelical and anti-abortion group Focus on the Family, to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom bills and attempts to interpret Title IX of the Education Act to protect trans rights. Earlier this year, the Women’s Liberation Front also hosted a group of UK-based ‘gender critical’ feminists, for a joint meeting with the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

This meeting was a step too far for some: a number of prominent ‘gender-critical’ feminists quickly distanced themselves from alliances with the right. However, ideological continuities remain. There is a strong mutual attachment to the binary of ‘biological sex’. Within this binary, the male body is inherently violent (although for conservatives this causes concern only when that body is attributed to a trans woman), and the female one inherently threatened. Sexual violence experiences are central: usually those of cisgender women who have been raped by cisgender men, or sometimes those of lesbians who report feeling pressured into sex with trans women. Sometimes all trans women become predators or threats; sometimes the stated worry is that cisgender men will pose as trans women in order to perpetrate abuse. Sometimes there is speculation about what point in the process of transition a trans woman becomes ‘safe’ (usually post-genital surgery). There is a preoccupation with the penis, an organ which is always already coded as violence. The trans woman is automatically assigned with this organ (and thereby with violence) through the obsession with whether she has one or not.

The goals of these two groups are not the same. While conservatives seek to re-impose binary gender, ‘gender critical’ feminism seeks to abolish it and distinguishes it from sex. However, sex-essentialist discussions tend to arrive at gender-essentialism in the end, since in the absence of any mechanism to check chromosomes, or jurisdiction to search people’s underwear, gender becomes a proxy for sex. A number of cisgender women have recently reported being challenged in women’s toilets over whether they had a right to be there, because they did not look feminine enough.

‘Gender critical’ feminists and conservatives also share an antipathy towards postmodernism, positioning it as denying material existence because of its deconstruction of the body and critical engagement with biological sex. In 2017, the Brazilian religious right burned Judith Butler in effigy outside a conference she had helped to organise. Postmodernism is a target shared by the alt-right, who skewer it as irrational and relativist even as they articulate their own ‘post-truth’ politics. It is also reviled by members of the ‘intellectual dark web’, including Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame after his passionate opposition to a bill in Canada which proposed outlawing discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The bill curtailed free speech, Peterson argued, by requiring the use of gender-affirming pronouns. Appeals to ‘free speech’ have also been echoed by ‘gender critical’ feminists, some of whom reserve the right to misgender trans people in protest. If ‘transgenderism’ is seen as ideology or a delusion, it becomes courageous to refuse to enable it.

Like anti-prostitution politics, anti-trans politics can produce a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subjects: ‘good’ trans women who have undergone genital surgery and/or are cis-passing, and ‘bad’ ones who are not. And while sex workers are implicitly ‘not women’, trans women are explicitly, resoundingly not so. Sometimes, there is a distinction between trans people and ‘transactivists’: the latter are positioned by ‘gender critical’ feminists as part of the resurgent right, despite its shared antipathy towards trans people. The terms ‘trans rights activists’ and TRAs are sometimes used, evoking what Sara Ahmed might call the ‘sticky associations’ with the men’s rights movement.

These feminist positions on trans issues and sex work reflect the intersection of supremacy and victimhood that characterises political whiteness, which produces demands for power and control. This includes control of resources, especially in response to the right-wing fable that there is not enough to go around. Furthermore, the use of the sexual violence experience as capital means that the ‘good’ rape victim is deployed to withhold support from trans women and sex workers. These ‘bad’ victims are at disproportionate risk of sexual violence, but are pitted against cisgender, non sex-working women in a politics which does not challenge the neoliberal capitalist order that has created massive inequalities of distribution. The result can appear like a hoarding of resources and shutting of doors, echoing Brexit and the border walls of the right. It also potentially creates risks of violence: for instance, for sex workers dealing with the effects of criminalisation and trans women made to use men’s bathrooms. Melissa Gira Grant has called this feminism’s own ‘war on women’, where some women are subjected to poverty, violence and prison in the name of defending other women’s rights.

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The feminist ‘war on women’ intersects with the bigger gender war being waged by the right. This might start with the most marginalised but is unlikely to stop there: and ‘gender critical’ feminists may find that some of their friends become enemies in the end. There have been counter-incursions, even in the mainstream: for instance, a recent Guardian US editorial critiqued ‘gender critical’ journalists in the UK. But political whiteness provides continuity between a variety of feminist narratives, and as with other issues such as immigration, the ‘legitimate concerns’ of liberal feminists can provide a stalking horse for reactionary views. What may start as critiques of gender or the sex industry meld with or justify growing (or increasingly explicit) anti-trans and anti-sex worker sentiment in the media and society.

Politically white feminisms, whether liberal or more reactionary, also tend to share a failure to interrogate the system of racial capitalism that is central to violent and sexually violent abuses of power. The idea of gender violence as an outcome of socio-economic processes disappears in favour of perspectives which root violence either in aberrant or in all male bodies. The violence of globalising capital – exemplified in the rape rampant in Export Processing Zones, femicide in Latin America, the contemporary witch-hunts of women who have been dispossessed of land in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the abuse occurring at the end of global care chains – cannot be understood here. #MeToo and the mainstream feminist movement, which makes use of the capitalist media, state and institution to redress individual injuries, is not well placed to tackle the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and other frameworks of domination which produce sexual violence. The anti-prostitution and ‘gender-critical’ arms of this movement can become complicit with the far-right politics also produced by this intersectionality of systems.

To resist an intersectionality of systems, we need an intersectionality of struggles. This might mean connecting #MeToo with prison abolition, activism against workplace sexual misconduct with sex workers’ rights, struggles against reproductive coercion with transgender equality, campaigns against trafficking with campaigns against borders. Such connections would be set within an analysis of the violence of racial capital, its individualisation of social reproduction, and what Tithi Bhattacharya calls the ‘braided chains of discipline’ which manage both labour and sexuality. We would need to ask tough questions about who our political friends are, and whether they might in fact not be our friends at all. We would need to refuse settlements offered by right-wing governments, if these ‘wins’ are losses for others. I am imagining increased funding for women’s refuges in return for trans-exclusionary admissions policies. Or equality legislation which relies on essentialist definitions of sex and gender. Or attempts to eradicate the sex industry which make sex workers more unsafe. The first of these is still a remote possibility; the second is becoming increasingly likely; the third is already in place.

The current political moment combines huge growth of the globally networked movement of survivors, with an expansion of carceral states that is part of a rightward shift and which also incorporates more open oppression of marginalised groups. This gives urgency to demands for a transformation in how we address harm. Demands made by activists such as Mariame Kaba, a key figure among the black feminists who are working, and have long worked, in the spaces between prison abolition and eradicating sexual violence. For these feminists, abolishing the prison-industrial complex means creating alternative forms of accountability and governance which are not based on domination, hierarchy, and control.

This is a profound challenge to sexual violence politics rooted in whiteness, which may be why most sexual violence activists in the mainstream have chosen to not even hear it. And as Kaba acknowledges, following Angela Davis, this is a big job: abolishing prisons requires a complete restructuring of society. Getting rid of sexual violence may be even bigger. It certainly will not happen in our lifetimes, but that does not mean our politics cannot look towards the society we want – more horizontal, more inclusive, and more connected – outside the power/control model of political whiteness. This is what Kaba calls a ‘jailbreak of the imagination’, and it is urgently needed. We cannot continue to support the status quo or, even worse, to dwell on our own border anxieties, while the Western ‘we’ is violently reconstituted in a futile drive to resurrect Empire.

As Audre Lorde once said: there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives’. I want to end with a question posed in her 1981 keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association conference: ‘What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?’ Almost forty years later and as we continue to struggle over what liberation means, this question is still crucial to the feminist fight against sexual violence.

The fight against sexual violence

This piece appears in Soundings 71, pp62-74. 

‘Seared into my memory’. This was one of the phrases animating the cover of Time magazine on 15 October 2018. It was taken from Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, quotes from which were arranged into a striking image of her taking the oath. It also reflects how I and many other survivors felt about Dr Ford’s testimony of sexual assault by Justice Kavanaugh, especially when juxtaposed with his statements. In an image circulated widely on social media, Kavanaugh was shown shouting into a microphone during a speech in which he called the process a ‘national disgrace’ and a ‘grotesque and coordinated character assassination’, fuelled by ‘anger about President Trump’ and ‘revenge on behalf of the Clintons’.

Although Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed, Dr Ford’s actions inspired a wave of support across the globe, and prompted comparisons to Professor Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings put the issue of sexual harassment firmly on the agenda. In her autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power, Hill wrote: ‘To my supporters I represent the courage to come forward and disclose a painful truth – a courage which thousands of others have found since the hearing’ [i].

Gender, violence, and neoliberalism

Hill and Blasey Ford’s testimonies mark early and late stages of the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, with its production of massive inequalities and insecurities, including ones related to gender. Recently, many countries have been subject to what Sylvia Walby calls a ‘cascading crisis’ [ii]. Recession, following financial crisis, has justified austerity policies that have widened gaps between rich and poor, with women and children bearing the brunt of cuts and women being pushed out of shrinking labour markets. And when inequalities increase, so too do domestic and sexual violence.

Silvia Federici has identified a new ‘war on women’, constituted by rising violence, femicide and attacks on reproductive rights – particularly in countries which are being re-colonised through globalisation [iii]. In the West, although recent history has seen increasing fluidity in individual gender identities, there has also been a reassertion of binary gender in economic, social and cultural terms, as seen in the trends Federici identifies as well as cuts to social welfare systems, discourses of ‘natural’ and ‘intensive’ motherhood, and an intensified focus on women’s appearance.

Economic crisis has also been the context for a global swing to the right, in which marginalised groups have been blamed for scarcity and other problems not of their making. The 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK captured growing (or perhaps increasingly explicit) anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as a backlash against ‘experts’, ‘elites’ and social justice movements (which were often positioned as one and the same). Similar currents underpinned the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, achieved even after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, in a triumph of whiteness over feminist solidarity.

Both events were followed by increases in racist and other hate crimes, and the US has recently been the site of a number of racist and homophobic mass shootings by men radicalised by the far right. This violence is deeply gendered: mass shootings are committed almost exclusively by men, and there is evidence that perpetrators are often domestic abusers as well [iv]. Mass killings in the US and Canada have also been perpetrated by ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), a key faction in the online ‘manosphere’, who blame women for their lack of access to sex.

Contemporary bigotries are not new: they are a specific cultural expression of the capitalist-colonial nexus, and exist in diluted forms in liberal discourse. However, as the populist and far right has made electoral gains, the extreme has become mainstream. Just as colonialism imposed binary gender as a means of controlling land, production and behaviour, contemporary far right politics blends racism with attacks on feminists and LGBT (especially trans) people.

In 2018, ‘proud homophobe’ Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil: shortly afterwards his allies proposed a bill to end ‘communist indoctrination’ and ‘gender ideology’ in education. Earlier that year, Hungary’s proto-fascist government banned gender studies as part of a broader crackdown on progressive thought. Events such as this are the culmination of a process through which ‘gender ideology’ has been positioned as the enemy within conservative and evangelical circles across the world.

Resistance and backlash

This massive reassertion of masculinity, whiteness and class privilege was exemplified by the aggressive and entitled demeanour of Justice Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings. However, support for Dr Ford was bolstered by a growing resistance: the resurgent right has been met by a younger, more diverse and more radical international left, which is beginning to achieve electoral success. In relation to sexual violence, resistance has taken its most high-profile form in the shape of #MeToo. Originally the title of a movement created by black feminist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo hashtag went viral after a tweet by white actress Alyssa Milano, eleven years later. It trended in at least 85 countries, with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks, many of which contained disclosures of sexual violence [v].

#MeToo has reverberated worldwide, through disclosures on online and social media, and actions which link with established campaigns as well as marshalling the newly politicised. It represents a point of connection between liberal feminisms and more intersectional and critical forms, although the movement itself is largely mainstream. Srila Roy has documented how the movement reached India in 2018, a country which had not seen such a surge of mainstream concern with sexual violence since the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012 [vi]. #MeToo has also inspired the Time’s Up organisation in the US, which aims to create safety and equity in the workplace, and a variety of initiatives in other countries. Other projects have been rejuvenated by the movement: in universities, in political institutions, and within radical communities.

As a mainstream and media movement, #MeToo has reshaped contemporary narratives around sexual violence. The variety of disclosures made under the hashtag has allowed for discussion of what Liz Kelly terms a continuum of acts which, although defined as more and less ‘serious’, all have similar functions: to reflect and produce male power [vii]. Sexual violence has been correlated with the ‘everyman’ rather than the ‘bad man’, through a volume of personal stories which show how frequently it is perpetrated and normalised. The movement also galvanised a high-profile (and ongoing) backlash, in which men were seen as victims of a vengeful mob, and it was bemoaned that their everyday entitlements to touch or ‘flirt’ were being threatened.

This tapped broader currents on the right, where bigotry has been framed (or reframed) as freedom of speech, and progressive movements and institutions positioned as its enemy. Such narratives also have more liberal formulations, in which the power relations structuring the ‘marketplace of ideas’ are ignored or erased. ‘Identity politics’ is often the bogeyman here: as a cipher for the resentments of those who feel equality has gotten out of hand, or as the sign of a parochial obsession with difference that threatens Enlightenment ideals. On the right the university is a principal adversary, along with the ‘snowflake’ students it contains; these are targets shared by some academics, many of whom are members of the growing ‘intellectual dark web’ of self-styled mavericks and truth-tellers.

In the yearly ‘Free Speech University Rankings’ published by Spiked, equality and sexual harassment policies can get a university a negative rating. This antipathy to social justice projects is shared by ‘professor against political correctness’ Jordan Peterson, a bestselling author with almost a million Twitter followers. Peterson is vehemently opposed to feminism and ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’, and although he describes himself as a ‘classical liberal’, he is celebrated by the alt-right. He was a prominent supporter of a recent hoax against gender and critical race studies journals, orchestrated by three scholars aiming to expose these disciplines as ideologically-motivated ‘grievance studies’, and to purge universities of such scholarship. Converging with far-right attacks on ‘gender ideology’, interventions such as this cast a long shadow in the neoliberal university, where public opinion is often allowed to dictate value.

Sexual violence in the oppressive imaginary

Within all these trends, narratives about gendered and intersecting inequalities, and movements designed to tackle them, are being recrafted and rejuvenated. Furthermore, even as neoliberalism and neo-imperialism produce increases in women’s victimisation worldwide, the idea of women’s safety is being weaponised by the right. As the Brexit referendum loomed, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage claimed that women could be at risk of sex attacks from gangs of migrant men if Britain remained in the European Union [viii]. Donald Trump made similar comments about Mexican men during his campaign for the US presidency [ix]. In 2018, UKIP appointed far-right anti-Islam ideologue Tommy Robinson as its advisor on ‘grooming gangs’. In debates on ‘bathroom bills’ in the US, and the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, trans women have been situated as potential rapists (see below).

These politics are not novel either: the (white, privileged) rape victim has long been a key motif in ‘law and order’ and anti-immigration agendas in the West, and in the violent suppression of indigenous populations in colonised countries. The figure of the victimised Other (usually a Muslim woman), in need of rescue by ‘Western values’, has underpinned a variety of neo-colonial incursions, including the War on Terror itself. Liberal feminism and liberal imperialism have always been closely intertwined, and liberal feminists have been complicit in both colonial and neo-colonial projects, as well as the legitimation of the carceral state.

However, the current collision of heightened mainstream resistance against sexual violence with an intensified use of the survivor within the oppressive imaginary raises questions which are persistent and urgent, if not new. These concern what Angela Davis calls the ‘intersectionality of struggles’ [x]. As a growing variety of conservatives profess concern for women’s protection, what is the role of contemporary activism against sexual violence? This question is especially pressing because #MeToo and similar campaigns can provide – and have provided – clickbait for the ‘outrage economy’ of the corporate media [xi]. In many countries, far-right narratives are beginning to dominate conservative media outlets; and they also take up increasing amounts of space in liberal ones under the pretext of ‘balanced debate’.

Political whiteness in sexual violence politics

It is not news to report that the most powerful and visible activists in the movement against sexual violence are white and privileged women – women like me, who have benefited from employment opportunities offered by neoliberalism, and who have ready access to corporate media platforms. #MeToo is the latest in a series of sexual violence campaigns in which privileged white women have utilised, but failed to fully recognise, the ground-breaking work of black women and other women of colour.

For example, second-wave white Western feminists built upon, usually without acknowledgement, the foundational labour of anti-rape activists in the US Civil Rights movement. And activism by working-class women, many of them also women of colour, has been crucial in naming and fighting sexual harassment in the workplace. But white academics and lawyers have tended to get the credit. The activism and scholarship of feminists from the global South is rarely credited at all.

As white and privileged women in the West now say ‘time’s up’ to men via corporate media platforms, and as accused men appear in the same media platforms defending themselves, the politics of sexual violence can appear to be a conversation between white people about who is in control. This is what I call ‘political whiteness’, a modus operandi shared by mainstream sexual violence feminisms and the backlashes against them [xii]. I have theorised this partly through building on Gurminder Bhambra’s identification of ‘methodological whiteness’ in academia, which highlights a universalisation of white experience and inattention to structures and histories of race and racism in shaping the world [xiii]. Political whiteness incorporates these elements in its grammar, while its practice tends to emphasise individual injuries and their redress, rather than global revolution.

As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke has consistently pointed out, the movement in the mainstream has focused on bringing down powerful men. Men like Harvey Weinstein, whose arrest was described in Time as a ‘pivotal turning point’ and elicited an outpouring on social media. Or Larry Nassar, who was told by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at sentencing that, if authorised, she would have ‘allow[ed] some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. Aquilina was widely celebrated as a feminist hero and icon of #MeToo [xiv]. However, strengthening punitive technologies will not generally affect men like Weinstein and Nassar. The positioning of the state and institution as protective rather than oppressive is a function of whiteness and other forms of privilege, and remains central to mainstream feminist politics even as the far right takes hold of parliaments in the West and elsewhere.

Mainstream campaigns against sexual violence have also tended to use naming and shaming in the outrage media as a precursor to demanding criminal justice remedies or institutional discipline. This tactic – which frequently prompts defences of perpetrators – often means that the person who is believed is the one who happens to have the ‘better’ (more compelling, more commodifiable) story. As media outlets monetise claims and counterclaims, naming and shaming can also bolster what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’. This is a process by which neoliberal institutions obsessed with how things look rather than how they are merely remove the individual ‘blemish’, while the systemic malaise remains [xv]. Institutional airbrushing produces the ‘pass the harasser’ problem, in which those who ‘move on’ after sexual misconduct allegations simply continue this behaviour in their next job[xvi].

Naming and shaming is often a last resort: to criticise it as a strategy is not a judgment of survivors who feel they have no other option. However, it is not always conducive to collective or systemic solutions. Some activists have suggested that these problems can be solved by more such speech: for instance, by repeatedly naming and shaming individuals in public, or using private ‘whisper networks’ to prevent perpetrators getting another post. However, this is a collective solution for the privileged few. As we purge academia and similar high-status professions of abusive men, we are likely to impose them on our sisters working with fewer protections in other employment sectors.

Feminists and the far right

In a climate of growing fear and insecurity, it is especially incumbent upon us to follow Audre Lorde’s advice and work against the oppressive values we have taken into ourselves [xvii]. Liberal feminisms can be co-opted by, or complicit with, imperialist and carceral state agendas; and there are also more reactionary formulations which can dovetail with the politics of the far right, particularly when it comes to sex work and transgender equality. Viewed empathically, reactionary feminisms can be seen as representing misdirected grief and anger, rooted in sexual trauma. However, an intersectional analysis demands that we examine the forms of supremacy which can lurk within the politics of the oppressed.

In debates about sex workers’ rights, feminist activists often speak on behalf of those who have exited prostitution. The traumatic experiences of these women are situated within arguments for various forms of criminalisation: usually the criminalisation of clients which, because it does not directly target sex workers, is supported on feminist grounds. When sex workers point out that this Nordic Model creates considerable risk – for instance, by reducing their ability to screen clients and by increasing police surveillance – they are often dismissed as ‘happy hookers’ who do not care about other women’s safety [xviii]. The sex worker does not figure as a sister here, but as a handmaiden of the patriarchy, who endangers women as a class because she sells sexual services to men and thereby legitimates male entitlement.

Feminist campaigns against trafficking bolster conservative border policing through the creation of criminal ‘foreigners’ and evocation of ‘white slavery’ fears. They also, as Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue, erase the fact that the criminalisation of undocumented migration has created the market for people-smuggling as well as pushing some migrants into prostitution [xix]. In 2018, US women’s groups joined the religious right in backing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Through banning online advertising, these Acts prevent sex workers from using the Internet to organise, share safety information, and screen potential clients. Advocates of FOSTA and SESTA, including feminist hero Kamala Harris, gave support over the objections of many trafficking survivors and their allies, who argued that by stopping sex workers working on their own terms, the Acts would increase vulnerability to exploitation [xx].

Reactionary feminists (who often identify as radical) have also recently been outspoken in their opposition to proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, and in their support for trans-exclusionary ‘bathroom bills’ in the US. There are powerful continuities between this feminist politics and that of the far right: an attachment to biology as destiny and a construction of trans people as a threat. Cisgender women’s experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by cisgender men are shared within narratives in which the trans woman is not a sister but a potential sexual predator. In some formulations, ‘transactivists’ become part of the contemporary war on women, with the rights of trans women to be recognised as women, and to live free of violence and abuse, redefined as men’s rights to enter women’s spaces [xxi].

In 2017, the US Women’s Liberation Front formed a coalition with evangelical and anti-abortion group Focus on the Family, to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom bills and attempts to interpret Title IX of the Education Act (which prohibits sex discrimination in education) to protect trans rights [xxii]. In 2019, the group were hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes the ratification of CEDAW, efforts to close the gender pay gap, and initiatives to tackle rape on campuses, for a panel against the Equality Act, which seeks to add gender identity and sexual orientation protections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [xxiii]. In the UK, the group Fair Play for Women, which opposes reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, has worked closely with Monmouth MP David Davies, who has consistently voted for stronger restrictions on abortion, for repealing the Human Rights Act, and against gay marriage. Trans-exclusionary feminists have also actively supported attacks on ‘identity politics’, ‘gender ideology’ and in some cases even gender studies, in this instance as a proxy for trans people and their allies [xxiv].

Feminist attacks on gender studies often focus on its supposed domination by postmodernism, which is falsely positioned as denying materiality because of its deconstruction of the body and critical engagement with the binary model of biological sex. This is a target shared by the alt-right, who skewer postmodernism as irrational and relativist even as they articulate their own post-truth politics. Postmodernism is also reviled by members of the ‘intellectual dark web’, including Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame after his opposition to a Canadian bill outlawing gender identity discrimination. The bill curtailed free speech, Peterson argued, by requiring the use of gender-affirming pronouns; and this argument has been echoed by trans-exclusionary feminists [xxv].

White, Western feminists have long been complicit with oppression within the liberal-colonial nexus. They have also found allies on the religious right on previous occasions, for instance in campaigns against pornography in the 1980s. However, the current rightward shift, with its violent reassertion of binary gender, has allowed reactionary feminists to gain power and platforms, and to circulate narratives that tend to be both simplistic and hyperbolic – suiting both the outrage media and the more general contemporary tabloidisation of debate. As their influence grows, there are increasing claims that trans-exclusionary feminists are being silenced: this is also straight from the right-wing playbook, where claims of being silenced flourish in the context of a growing entitlement to speak.

The intersectionality of struggles

The feminist movement against sexual violence is not a monolith, and even in its mainstream forms it contains discontinuities and shifts. For example, some trans-exclusionary feminists have explicitly distanced themselves from connections with the far-right, and some liberal feminists have disavowed reactionary narratives about trans people. There are also differences between the US and the UK in this regard, with trans-exclusionary feminists much more prominent and powerful in the latter country. However, political whiteness provides continuity between both liberal and reactionary feminisms, producing a lack of intersectionality and a centring of concerns with power and control. Furthermore, as with other issues, such as immigration, the ‘legitimate concerns’ of liberal feminists often provide a stalking horse for reactionary views.

Both liberal and reactionary feminisms by and large fail to interrogate the system of racial capitalism that relies upon women’s economic subordination to men in both the family and the workplace, which is a key driver of violent and sexually violent abuses of power. In the West, women have also suffered disproportionately from the rise of the precarious economy, and many women work within male-dominated industries that provide little to no employment protection. And whether securely employed or not, we Westerners are all complicit with the forms of globalised capitalist accumulation that are entwined with violence against women in other parts of the world.

Although some reactionary feminists identify as ‘radical’, both trans- and sex worker-exclusionary politics rest on what Sophie Lewis identifies as the myth that ‘we can and must protect our bodies and selves from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work’. This underlying bourgeois morality, Lewis argues, is often hidden by a vilification of the ‘trans/hooker tyranny’, which is accused of supporting neoliberal and consumerist notions of empowerment (a critique also often directed at young Muslim women who choose to cover). The neoliberal nature of this ‘tyranny’ is evidenced by pointing to pockets of gentrified sex work and the identity politics of privileged white spokespeople such as Caitlyn Jenner – erasing the fact that most sex workers and trans people live impoverished, precarious and difficult lives [xxvi].

Echoing the right-wing fable that there is not enough to go around, these ‘bad’ rape victims are denied empathy and support in favour of the ‘good’ victims (cisgender, non-sex working women). Trans women and sex workers (categories which often overlap) are at disproportionate risk of violence, but are pitted against other women in a politics which does not challenge the neoliberal capitalist order that has created massive inequalities of distribution. Instead of advancing the fight for more secure workplaces and better-funded anti-violence services, this politics reinforces the stigmatisation and alienation of marginalised people.

The success of trans- and sex worker exclusionary politics creates additional risks of violence: for instance, for trans women forced into men’s toilets (or the masculine cis women who are now beginning to be viewed with suspicion in women’s ones), and for sex workers dealing with the effects of criminalisation. To borrow Melissa Gira Grant’s analysis, this is feminism’s own ‘war on women’, where some women are subjected to poverty, violence and prison in the name of defending other women’s rights [xxvii]. The positioning of sex workers and trans people as culprits rather than comrades in relation to the broader right-wing war on women is an insult which facilitates a variety of forms of injury.

#MeToo and the liberal feminist movement against sexual violence, which makes use of the capitalist media, state and institutions to redress individual harms, is not well- placed to tackle the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and other frameworks of domination which produce sexual violence. The reactionary arms of this movement not only fail to address this intersectionality of systems, but are also often complicit with the far-right politics it also produces. As the ‘we’ of many Western nations is violently reconstituted as white and privileged, reactionary feminists dwell on their own border anxieties, centring bourgeois and colonial values in their attachment to binary sex and gender and their fear of the sexualised Other.

As resistance against sexual violence shows no signs of abating, right-wing governments might offer settlements to feminist groups. ‘Winning’ on these terms is likely to mean a loss for someone else, within liberal as well as reactionary frameworks. To resist an intersectionality of systems, we need an intersectionality of struggles: for instance, connecting #MeToo with prison abolition; campaigns against workplace sexual misconduct with sex workers’ rights; struggles against reproductive coercion with transgender equality. This is work that many activists, most of them black women and other women of colour, have long been doing at the grassroots;[xxviii] there is also a growing feminist anti-fascist bloc opposing the far-right’s weaponisation of sexual violence.

These activists understand that single-issue politics is not resistance, that feminism which does not centre the most marginalised is not fit for purpose. I end with Audre Lorde’s question, posed in her 1981 keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association conference: ‘What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?’[xxix]. Almost forty years later, this question continues to be key to the fight against sexual violence.

References

[i] Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, Anchor Books 1997.
[ii] Sylvia Walby, Crisis, Polity Press 2015.
[iii] Silvia Federici, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, PM Press 2018.
[iv] Charlotte Alter, ‘The troubling link between domestic violence and mass shooters’, Time magazine November 9 2017.
[v] Alison Phipps, “Every woman knows a Weinstein’: political whiteness in #MeToo and public feminisms around sexual violence,’ under review by Feminist Formations 2018.
[vi] Srila Roy, ‘#MeToo is a crucial moment to revisit the history of Indian feminism’, Economic & Political Weekly 53(42), 2018.
[vii] Liz Kelly, Surviving Sexual Violence, Polity Press 1988.
[viii] Tim Ross, ‘Nigel Farage: Migrants could pose sex attack threat to Britain’, The Telegraph June 4 2016.
[ix] BBC News, “Drug dealers, criminals, rapists’: what Trump really thinks of Mexicans’, August 31 2016.
[x] Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Haymarket Books 2016.
[xi] Alison Phipps, ‘Reckoning Up: sexual harassment and violence in the neoliberal university. Gender and Education DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2018.1482413, 2018.
[xii] Alison Phipps, ‘Every woman knows a Weinstein.’ I did not originally intend to become a white woman writing about whiteness, and I realise this does not absolve me of my own positionality. However, I also believe that the labour of challenging whiteness should not be left to people of colour.
[xiii] Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘Brexit, Trump, and “methodological whiteness”: on the misrecognition of race and class,’ British Journal of Sociology 68(S1): S214-S232, 2017.
[xiv] Lauren Holter, ‘Tweets about Judge Aquilina will make you fangirl so hard,’ Bustle January 24 2018.
[xv] Alison Phipps, ‘Reckoning Up.’
[xvi] Nancy Chi Cantalupo and William C. Kidder, ‘A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,’ Utah Law Review 2018: 671-786
[xvii] Audre Lorde, ‘Learning from the 60s’, address delivered February 1982 at Harvard University.
[xviii] Alison Phipps, ‘Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in contemporary feminist politics’, Feminist Theory 17(3): 303-321, 2016.
[xix] Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: the fight for sex workers’ rights, Verso 2018.
[xx] Melissa Gira Grant, ‘Anti-online trafficking bills advance in Congress, despite opposition from survivors themselves’, The Appeal March 14 2018. In the US, trafficking is defined as ‘recruiting, harbouring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labour or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion’, and does not require movement.
[xxi] Alison Phipps, ‘Whose Personal is More Political?’
[xxii] Nick Duffy, ‘Radical feminists team up with right-wing evangelicals to oppose trans rights protections’, Pink News, February 8 2017.
[xxiii] Tim Fitzsimons, ‘Conservative group hosts anti-transgender panel of feminists “from the left”, NBC News, January 29 2019.
[xxiv] Jules Joanna Gleeson, ‘Trans Ethics, Not Gender Ideology: Against the Church and the Gender Critics,’ Verso Books blog, June 27 2018.
[xxv] Sally Hines, ‘The feminist frontier: on trans and feminism,’ Journal of Gender Studies DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2017.1411791, 2017.
[xxvi] Sophie Lewis, ‘SERF ‘n’ TERF: notes on some bad materialisms’, Salvage February 6 2017.
[xxvii] Melissa Gira Grant, ‘The war on sex workers’, Reason January 21 2013.
[xxviii] Mariame Kaba is a key figure working in the spaces between prison abolition and the eradication of sexual violence: see http://mariamekaba.com/ for more information.
[xxix] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, pp133-4, Crossing Press, 2007.

Tanya Serisier’s ‘Speaking Out’

These are some remarks written for the launch of Tanya Serisier’s brilliant new book ‘Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape, and Narrative Politics’ (Palgrave 2018). You can buy the book, or order it for your library, here.  

Tanya Serisier’s book Speaking Out is the first critical study of white feminist politics around rape which explicitly situates this politics as a narrative form. It analyses narratives from the second wave and after as part of a testimonial genre which has specific plots, characters and themes. The book resists equating ’speaking out’ with justice, freedom or feminism, noting that although there has been a flowering of this type of activism this has not necessarily led to social change. Instead, Serisier constructs a more nuanced interpretation in which women’s narratives are both powerful and necessary, and located within competing discourses and agendas. One of those discourses is feminism, and the book is excellent in its understanding of different forms of feminism as devices for the production, dissemination and regulation of women’s narratives. White feminist narrative politics is also positioned within the broader discourses and structures of liberalism, racial capitalism and criminal justice, and the neoliberal morality of personal transformation.

Speaking Out makes a key intervention into the current political and cultural context. This context incorporates an increased volume of sexual violence narratives, circulating through the networked web of survivors created by #MeToo and allied movements, and given authority within the ‘intimate publics’ of social media and ‘testimonial cultures’ of neoliberalism. It also involves a strengthening of the backlash, bolstered by political shifts to the right and the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility, which often attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of sexual violence narratives or dismiss women’s experiences of trauma. In a context in which we can either attack victims or defend them, repudiate the wound or embrace it, it can be tempting to sanctify our stories. This is both understandable and dangerous.

Sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: fear of rape is simultaneously fear of male power and the uprising of colonised or enslaved peoples, or the ‘invasion’ of immigrant communities. White women’s rape narratives (as well as their rescue fantasies about ‘victimised Others’ such as Muslim women) have been used in the service of colonial oppressions, neo-imperialist interventions, and carceral state violence. Currently, the right are renewing the use of ‘women’s safety’ to justify the violence of borders and the police, and to strip rights and safety from social Others such as trans women and sex workers. As politics moves further to the right it is imperative that feminists engage critically with their narratives and activism around sexual violence, especially since some strands of white feminism (which have their own will to power) are actively and increasingly allied with reactionary agendas.

Critiquing sexual violence feminisms is difficult: I constantly struggle to blend my instinct – and commitment – to believe all survivors with my knowledge that sexual violence narratives are not politically neutral. The affective intensity of survivor stories can also act to insulate the surrounding politics from critique, playing experience as the trump card. However, emotion is not the ‘pure’ counterpart of politics: our emotional repertoires are both discursively and structurally shaped and interpreted. Serisier’s book helps us to explore how racialised tropes around victimisation and predation, criminal justice grammars, fables of community and nation and geopolitical archetypes are among the influences on our interior lives as well as on how our sexual violence stories are heard.

The notion of genre in Serisier’s book is incredibly useful, helping readers to understand how sexual violence narratives are both produced and received according to particular conventions and rules, and how they can be caught up in other stories such as those around nation, security, austerity and risk. This creates opportunities for political weaponisation, which survivors can resist or be passively or actively complicit in. Serisier opens up a constructive space for us to explore these dynamics, adopting a critical approach to ideas of authenticity and truth and engaging seriously with claims and counter-claims, without undermining how deeply experiences are felt or withholding belief. This is one of the most incisive, but also one of the kindest, books on sexual violence I have read, and Tanya Serisier is one of the most important young feminists writing about sexual violence today. Speaking Out deserves to be read widely, by all who are interested in this topic.

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.

New paper: Reckoning Up

I have a new paper out in Gender and Education, entitled ‘Reckoning Up: sexual harassment and violence in the neoliberal university.’ The abstract is below. You can access the published version here and the Open Access version here.

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This paper situates sexual harassment and violence in the neoliberal university. Using data from a ‘composite ethnography’ representing twelve years of research, I argue that institutional inaction on these issues reflects how they are ‘reckoned up’ in the context of gender and other structures. The impact of disclosure is projected in market terms: this produces institutional airbrushing which protects both the institution and those (usually privileged men) whose welfare is bound up with its success. Staff and students are differentiated by power/value relations, which interact with gender and intersecting categories. Survivors are often left with few alternatives to speaking out in the ‘outrage economy’ of the corporate media: however, this can support institutional airbrushing and bolster punitive technologies. I propose the method of Grounded Action Inquiry, implemented with attention to Lorde’s work on anger, as a parrhesiastic practice of ‘speaking in’ to the neoliberal institution.

To tackle sexual harassment, we need cultural change

This is the longer version of a piece published in the Guardian on 13th December 2017.

We’re talking about sexual harassment in higher education again. We need to talk about sexual harassment – in agricultural and domestic labour, sex work, Hollywood, politics, academia, and every other industry. That we’re talking about it in universities at all is due to the work of the 1752 Group, NUS and the Guardian. Because of them, female academics, especially early-career researchers, are coming forward with their experiences. I’m a survivor, too – and with each story, my stomach knots with grief while my heart swells with pride.

Many of the latest Guardian findings are positive. Almost two-thirds of universities now provide sexual harassment training for staff. Three-quarters have trained student services advisors. But with the history of ‘naming and shaming’ on this issue, this may be compliance out of fear. Many institutions may be doing the minimum they need to, to not make the papers. This is a concern – running scared is not conducive to thoughtful engagement with an issue. And the negative tone of much of the media coverage is not fostering openness in the sector.

When sexual harassment revelations emerge, we often call for the removal of offenders. But ‘zero tolerance’ approaches collapse many behaviours together, which doesn’t help us understand or tackle them. And dysfunctional systems, as Whitley and Page argue, can’t be fixed by purging a few individuals. This is what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’ – the visible blemish is removed, and the underlying malaise left to fester. Once airbrushed out, the blemish tends to just reappear elsewhere – as shown in a number of reports from the US on how universities have ‘passed the harasser‘.

There have also been discussions recently about codes of conduct, with disciplinary implications. Clarifying what constitutes professional conduct in higher education is urgently necessary. But as Melissa Gira Grant points out, seeing sexual harassment as ‘sexual misconduct’ ignores the fact that these behaviours are about power, not ‘misplaced’ sexuality. In other words, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination – and in the midst of what could easily become a media ‘sex panic‘, Rebecca Traister has written eloquently about the systems of gender inequity which make women more vulnerable, as well as making it difficult to come forward and making it more likely they will be ignored if they do.

Behavioural frameworks do not tackle these structural inequalities, or others such as the rapidly expanding casualisation of the sector which puts early career researchers particularly at risk of abuses of power. Used in any context, disciplinary tools also tend to create compliance through fear, which is the opposite of systemic reform and which may even end up hiding or compounding systemic injustices under a docile veneer. Or people can respond to punishment with more anger and aggression – adults are not that different from children in this regard.

I’m concerned about how institutions might (mis)use conduct codes, especially given escalating cuts and recent attempts to cut out the ‘dead wood’. Brexit and its implications for international recruitment play a role here, as does the TEF. The new decisions for REF 2021 are also significant – staff who have left the institution, for whatever reason, can now be submitted. In light of all this, I’m not sure we should be advocating anything which makes it easier for universities to manage staff out of their jobs.

There is potential for conduct codes to be weaponised in the current political context. Several US academics have been disciplined after being targeted by far-right groups. Many are scholars of colour who have challenged institutional racism or supported movements like Black Lives Matter. Campaigns against them have used the notion of ‘reverse racism’, as if critiquing white privilege, even in the strongest terms, is equal to centuries of racialised oppression. On this side of the Atlantic, social justice discourse is also being painted as intolerant and oppressive. Conduct codes could support these types of attacks on academics, if not implemented wisely.

Intersectionality tells us punitive systems don’t treat us all equally – there are disparities around structures like class and race. Certain people are more likely to be seen as aggressors or bullies – see the ‘angry black woman’ trope and the fact that the ‘police blotter rapist’, as Angela Davis points out, tends to be a black man. Or the persistent construction, now enjoying a resurgence, of queers and trans people as sexually deviant and dangerous. Historical and prevailing notions of ‘respectability’ also shape the experiences of victims: they are more ‘believable’ the more privileged they are, by every demographic measure. Given all this, I wonder who might be more likely to be complained about, as well as which complaints might be more likely to be upheld. Seeking justice on sexual harassment without acknowledging the injustices built into the fabric of institutions may protect some at the expense of others.

Intersectionality is also about ‘asking the other question’. This usually means considering multiple forms of discrimination. But it also pushes us to understand our lives, on the ‘everyday’ level at least, as complex mixtures of victimhood and perpetration. Like other privileged women, I’ve been sexually harassed at work. However, I can’t claim to have never perpetrated discrimination myself – racism, ableism, or transphobia for example. This doesn’t invalidate my experiences of sexual harassment, but it does make me loath to cast the first stone. ‘Zero tolerance’ only works if perpetrators and victims are easy to tell apart.

We desperately need accountability in the sector – there absolutely need to be repercussions. It may be necessary for some academics to stop working with young people. I’m also aware that, as Ahmed points out, critiques of carceral/punitive justice can be mis-used by perpetrators to try to avoid this accountability, a tactic which is particularly effective in academic and ‘progressive’ communities. This also, I argue in my book The Politics of the Body, resonates strongly in the present neoconservative moment where feminism is being mis-cast as the oppressor.

Nevertheless, one size does not fit all when we are dealing with an issue as complex and multidimensional as sexual harassment, and ‘zero tolerance’ approaches sometimes threaten to impede our understanding of how gendered and intersecting structures frame and exacerbate a range of problematic behaviours. Furthermore, naming, shaming and punishing is an inversion of, not a departure from, the power relations which produce sexual harassment in the first place. I understand the urge to do it – I have felt that urge myself. As Sarah Schulman writes, survivors often need to feel in control, to feel safe. But this isn’t the best basis for policy.

Changing behaviour instead of policing it means addressing dysfunctional cultures and gendered (and many other) forms of entitlement. We need to focus less on ‘bad’ individuals and more on the institutional and the systemic. Working from this place, where the institution is not neutral but deeply discriminatory, means being reluctant to wield its disciplinary powers and daring to imagine something different. One of the things this requires is strong values – and in many of our universities, economic values have replaced civic ones. Instead of the insipid notion of ‘excellence’ that currently dominates university mission statements, we need terms we can identify with, that enable us to dismantle oppressive structures and have the potential to positively shape our actions institutionally, interpersonally, and individually. Then, when we tackle sexual harassment, we might begin to create cultural change.

New book chapter on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence

I have a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Gender and Violence, edited by Nancy Lombard and including colleagues such as Marianne Hester, Lesley McMillan, Pam Alldred and Emma Renold. The abstract of my chapter below, and a pre-print version can be downloaded here.

‘Lad culture’ and sexual violence against students
This chapter addresses the issue of sexual violence against students and the concept of ‘lad culture’, which has been used to frame this phenomenon in the UK and has connections to similar debates around masculinities in other countries. This issue is much-researched and debated but under-theorised, and due to a lack of intersectionality, radical feminist frameworks around violence against women are useful but incomplete. The chapter sketches a more nuanced approach to the understanding of campus sexual violence and the masculine cultures which frame it, which also engages with the intersecting structures of patriarchy and neoliberalism. It argues that framing these issues structurally and institutionally is necessary, in order to avoid individualistic and punitive approaches to tackling them which may seem feminist but are embedded in neoliberal rationalities.