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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.