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.

Whose Personal is More Political?

The text below is from a guest blog I wrote for the journal Feminist Theory, to launch my article ‘Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in Contemporary Feminist Politics’, forthcoming in volume 17(3). At present the full text of the article is available from the journal free and can be accessed here. If for any reason you are unable to download this version, the open access version can be downloaded here.

***

Whose personal is more political? This question has been bothering me for a while. Feminism has been a politics of the personal since its inception, from the testimonial activism of black women in the US civil rights movement to the ‘personal is political’ slogan which underpinned Women’s Liberation, to contemporary intersectional feminist blogs and social media actions such as #sayhername, which exposes police brutality against women of colour. But what happens to this testimonial politics in a neoliberal context which commodifies experience and emotion? This concern underpins my paper. I build on work by Scott and Alcott on the epistemology and politics of experience, and by Ahmed, Pedwell and others on how emotions and affect enter the political.

In my own feminist activism, I am uneasy about what I see as competitive deployments of experience in the service of political agendas. I have been particularly struck by how ‘survivorship’ often acts as the trump card in adversarial debates. The politicisation of women’s victimisation has a long history, and others have documented the role of rape allegations in racialised oppression from slavery to contemporary criminal justice, and the use of indigenous and Othered women as a rhetorical justification for colonial and neo-colonial projects. Feminisms have been caught up in, and sometimes actively complicit with, these dynamics: together with neoliberal trends towards the commodification of the personal, this may frame the ways in which experience has also become capital within the feminist movement.

The question ‘whose personal is more political?’ invites fresh engagement with perennial issues of epistemic and political privilege. I argue that privileged feminists, speaking for others and/or for themselves, use experience to generate emotion and defeat critics who are often from more marginalised social positions. The sex industry ‘survivor’ is used to silence those still working in the industry, who argue for labour rights in order to protect them from violence and abuse. Cisgender women’s experiences of rape and assault are used to conceal the victimisation of trans women and assign them with ‘male violence’ through transphobic rhetoric. Selective empathies operate in which experience is only respected if it has political use value. ‘Speaking for others’ becomes even more problematic when it is wielded against another Other with whom one disagrees, who also happens to be speaking for themselves.

I am not, however, arguing for a renunciation of the politics of experience: instead, I argue that we need to situate experiences structurally, and critically appraise the uses to which they are put. When personal stories become capital in political debates, they must be understood in relation to dynamics of privilege and marginality: in other words, we need to ask whose personal is more political, and why.

Feminism 101: Universalism and Intersectionality

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

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

Prezi

Prezi

Readings

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

Student political protest is under threat, not free speech

This is the original, longer version of a letter which appeared in The Observer on February 22nd (and can be read online here). It also contains more signatories, since people were still adding their names when we sent the letter off. If you wish to add your name, please leave a reply right at the bottom and we will add you.

We are deeply concerned about the inaccuracies of and politics behind the signed open letter published in the Observer on Sunday 15th February, which calls universities to account for ‘silencing’ individuals following the cancellation of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The letter presents several examples of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘bullying’ which are not fully evidenced by the facts. We believe that this is part of a worrying pattern of misrepresentation and distortion that serves to benefit some of the most privileged and powerful outside of and within feminism at the expense of the most marginalised and excluded.

The letter also works to obfuscate and distract from real and crucial struggles that are currently taking place on campuses around the issue of freedom of speech. Recent years have seen university management and police respond to student political protest with increasingly punitive disciplinary and legal action. University staff are under growing pressure to observe and report on student activity in the name of counter-terrorism. University workers who organise against outsourcing and casualisation face victimisation at work. Many academic staff are deeply complicit in these processes; the signatories of the original letter would do well to reflect on this.

It is also important to note that the letter uses ideas of ‘free speech’ and ‘democratic political exchange’ in defense of the rights of academics and commentators to speak without being held accountable or challenged for their complicity in systems which are damaging to those whose lives they speak about. No one is entitled to disseminate their views on university campuses without opposition. For people who have ample opportunities to speak elsewhere, being ‘no-platformed’ by student groups does not equate to being persecuted. Decisions taken to exclude or counter some voices from some discussions at some specific times and places are democratically made, politically legitimate and do not amount to censorship.

It is disappointing to see so many people with institutional power and prominent voices in academia, policy-making and the media take sides against grassroots feminist organizing – including trans feminisms and sex workers’ rights. There is a long history of women positioned on the margins of feminist discourse engaging critically with mainstream feminist ideas and politics and the damage they can do. There are some very harmful ideologies currently circulating under the banner of feminist ‘debate’ – ideologies which not only perpetuate hateful myths about trans people and sex workers but also have the potential to influence policy precisely due to the platform(s) of those who advocate them. Some of these myths – the ‘toilet panic’ around trans people, the claim that all opposition to sex work abolition is funded by a ‘pimp lobby’- are specifically aimed at removing the vulnerable from public space and discourse.

As feminists, we do not agree that freedom of speech is freedom to speak unaccountably. We do not agree that academics and commentators are victimised or censored by trans women, sex workers or survivors of sexual and domestic violence who object to “debates” which rehearse stale and hateful politics, myths and misrepresentations about their lives. We will continue to organise against those debates and the politics they promote, and we call on other feminists to support us.

Abbie Sadler, Abbie Salter, Abby Rutherford, Abigail Brady, Agata Pacho, Aimee Challenor, Aisling Gallagher, AJ McKenna, Alan Hooker, Alexander Andrews, Alex Baker, Alex Brett, Alex Dymock, Alisdair Calder McGregor, Alison Phipps, Alon Lischinsky, Andrea Brady, Anelda Grové, Anneke Newman, Annette Behrens, Annie Teriba, Anwen Muston, Ariel Silvera, Ashlee Christoffersen, Ashraf Khan, Aura Lehtonen, Azeezat Johnson, Bahar Mustafa, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Beulah Maud Devaney, Blake Gutt, Brendan O’Malley, Caitlin Doherty, Caitlin Light, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Cariad Martin, Caroline Leneghan, Carolynne Henshaw, Catherine Baker, Catherine Tomas, Cathy Wagner, CeCe Egan, Cel West, Charlie KIss, Charlotte Hamilton, Charlotte Jones, Charlotte Morris, Charlotte Richardson Andrews, Charlotte Skeet, Cheryl Morgan, Clare Moriarty, CN Lester, Constantine Sandis, Cornelia Prior, Creatrix Tiara, Daniel Blanchard, Dani Anderson, Daniel Baker, Daria Ramone, David Bell, David Hobbs, David Miller, Dawn Foster, Dean Peters, Deborah Grayson, Edward Siddons, Eleanor Brayne-Whyatt, Eleanor Roberts, Ellen Yianni, Elizabeth Vasileva, Ellie Slee, Elliot Evans, Elliot Folan, Ellis Suzanna Slack, Emily Nunn, Emily Reynolds, Emily Thew, Emma Bailey, Emma Bennett, Emma Felber, Erin Sanders-McDonagh, Esme Cleall, Eve Livingston, Felix Genting, Felix Lane, Fran Cowling, Frey Kwa Hawking, Gabriel Balfe, George Walkden, Georgia Mulligan, Gianfranco Bettocchi, Gillian Love, Ginger Drage, Grace Hagger, Gregory White, Hannah Boast, Heather Berg, Heidi Hoefinger, Howard Littler, Ian Sinclair, Ilana Eloit, Jackson Jesse Nash, Jacq Kelly, James Butler, James Carter, James Mackenzie, Jamie Bernthal, Jane Bradley, Jane Pitcher, Jay Levy, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, Jaye Ward, Jasmine Cope, Jennie Rigg, Jennifer Kirk, Jenny Chamarette, Jenny Slater, Jenny Walker, Jessica Gagnon, Jessica Stacey, Jim Higginson, Joel Wallenberg, Jonnie Marbles, Josephine Shaw, Judith Wanga, Julia Downes, Juliet Jacques, Juno Roche, Justin Baidoo, Kaitlyn Nelson, Kae Smith, Kat Gupta, Kate Hardy, Kate Hutchinson, Kate Parrott, Kate Renwick, Katy Price, Kiona H Niehaus, Kirsty Murdoch, Kirsty Shaw, Kirsten Innes, Kitty Stryker, Laila Kadiwal, Laura Chapman, Laura Lee, Lauren Hall-Lew, Lauren Tapp, Leila Whitley, Lexi Kamen Turner, Linda Stupart, Lisa Jeschke, Lizzie Reed, London Black Revolutionaries, Luc Raesmith, Luca Stevenson, Lucy Delaney, Lucy Neville, Lucy O’Riordan, Luke Brunning, Lyndsey Moon, Magdalena Mikulak, Manishta Sunnia, Marie Thompson, Margo Milne, Martha Robinson, Marika Rose, Martha Dunkley, Mary Macfarlane, Matt Lodder, Matthijs Krul, Meg John Barker, Megan Chapman, Melanie Kampen, Melissa Gira Grant, Miranda Iossifidis, Molly Smith, Murray Robertson, Naomi Bain, Naomi Beecroft, Natacha Kennedy, Natalia Cecire, Natalie Garrett, Nicki Kindersley, Nick McGlynn, Nicola Mai, Nina Power, No HeterOx, Ntokozo Yingwana, Olivia Ouwehand, Onni Gust, Otamere Guobadia, Petra Davis, Phoenix Thomas, Rachel Mann, Ray Filar, Rebecca Winson, Reubs Walsh, Rey Conquer, Rhianna Humphrey, Robert Stearn, Rosanna Singler, Rowan Davis, Rumana Begum, Ruth Kinna, Ruth Pearce, Sally Hines, Sam Ambreen, Sami Wannell, Sam McBean, Samuel Solomon, Sanj Choudhury, Sara Ahmed, Sarah El-Alfy, Sarah Brown, Sarah Dorman, Sarah Hayden, Sarah Noble, Sarah Savage, ScotPep, Scott Long, Seán McCorry, Sex Worker Open University, Shakti Shah, Shamira Meghani, Shane Boyle, Shruti Iyer, Simon Hitchcock, Sofia Helgadottir, Sophie Jones, Sophie Lewis, Sophie Mayer, South London Anti-Fascists, Stacey White, Stella Gardiner, Surya Monro, Susuana Antubam, Taha Hassan, Tamsin Worrad, Tanya Palmer, Tasha Tristan Skerman-Gray, Thea Bradbury, Thea Don-Siemion, Thomas Clark Wilson, Thomas Sissons, Tim Squirrell, Toni Mac, Tristan Burke, Vonnie Sandlan, Wail Qasim, Wendy Lyon, Zara Bain, Zoë Kirk-Robinson, Zoe O’Connell, Zoe Stavri, Zowie Davy

Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014