My book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism is published by Manchester University Press. This book presents a challenging critique of mainstream feminism dominated by white and privileged women. It argues that ‘me, too’ becomes ‘me, not you’: an exclusive focus on white women, and a desire for punishment that legitimates oppressive systems. ‘Me, not you’ can also become more reactionary, in campaigns against the sex industry and transgender inclusion that hoard resources and police borders in synergy with the resurgent right.
This chapter introduces the book’s focus on ‘mainstream feminism’ and in particular its race dynamics. It situates sexual violence as produced by the intersecting systems of patriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism and argues that both acts and allegations of sexual violence can be tools of oppression. It argues that a world in which white supremacy is being violently reasserted and in which ‘protecting white women’ is at the forefront of right-wing agendas, poses critical questions for mainstream white feminism.
Chapter One: gender in a right-moving world
This chapter explores more deeply the setting for contemporary mainstream feminist campaigns against sexual violence. It examines the global ‘war on women’ characterised by violence and attacks on reproductive and other rights. It introduces #MeToo and other campaigns which have resulted from an increased awareness of this ‘war on women’, and especially gendered and sexual violence. It also covers the global swing to the right: this combines attempts to restore traditional gender norms with the use of ‘women’s safety’ as a political football, in attacks on marginalised groups such as Muslims and trans people. This context poses important questions for the feminist movement against sexual violence: what is our role and how do we know who our friends are?
Chapter Two: me, not you
This chapter examines the history and literature of mainstream Western feminist activism against sexual violence. Both first and second ‘waves’ of feminism, as well as the contemporary mainstream movement, have been dominated by class-privileged white women who also tend to be cisgender and non-disabled. The privileged whiteness of the mainstream movement has produced a one-dimensional focus on gender and patriarchy: the systems of racial capitalism and colonialism, which also shape violence against women, have been ignored. White feminism has also had two major outgrowths: carceral feminism and colonial feminism, which are inextricably linked. However, Black feminists and other feminists of colour have developed alternative literatures and politics based on resisting intersecting systems, which provide rich frameworks for analysis and action.
Chapter Three: political whiteness
This chapter explores further how the domination of contemporary mainstream feminism by privileged white women shapes the movement’s politics. It introduces the central concept of the book – ‘political whiteness’. This is an orientation and mode of action that involves a number of characteristics: narcissism and an emphasis on personal pain, a preoccupation with sexualised threat which expresses colonial histories and values, and a ‘will to power’ which tends to produce demands for punitive state remedy. The chapter argues that this political whiteness provides a point of connection between mainstream anti-sexual violence feminism and the backlash: centring race puts us in the uncomfortable position of noticing similarities between progressive and reactionary politics dominated by white people.
Chapter Four: the outrage economy
This chapter introduces a key site at which mainstream feminist activism tends to take place: the ‘outrage economy’ of the media and social media. This outrage economy is the result of changing media markets, which have produced a number of trends: sensationalisation, hyperbole and vilification of opponents. While ‘outrage media’ has traditionally been identified on the right it is now crossing political boundaries. Privileged white feminists, who have ready access to media platforms, have ‘invested’ their sexual violence stories in the outrage economy to generate political support. Media outrage in the form of ‘naming and shaming’ often leads to ‘bad men’ being airbrushed out of institutions without any change to structures and power relations. Politics that manipulates outrage can also lead to privileged feminists ‘pricing’ more marginalised women out of the outrage economy, especially when it comes to sex work and transgender equality.
Chapter Five: white feminism as war machine
This chapter explores the feminist movement’s ‘will to power’ in more depth. It focuses on the anger expressed in campaigns such as #MeToo and interventions such as the Women’s March, heightened in an ‘age of anger’ produced by economic uncertainties and political shifts. This chapter asks what happens when feminist anger is channelled through whiteness, which is a position of structural power. It argues that although women’s anger is powerful, when channelled through whiteness it can also be damaging, especially in a context in which white people ‘taking back control’ has come to the fore. It produces a focus on retribution and punishment that legitimates oppressive state systems. Furthermore, this white feminist ‘war machine’ treats more marginalised people as collateral, especially people of colour.
Chapter Six: feminists and the far right
The final chapter explores how the ‘Me, Not You’ message of mainstream feminism can move from sacrificing more marginalised people to treating them as enemies when they get in the way. This is particularly the case when it comes to debates about sex work and transgender equality. Reactionary feminists in anti-sexual violence movements have situated sex workers as ‘handmaidens of the patriarchy’ who put all women in danger. They have situated trans women as sexual threats. These politics dovetail with far right use of faux concerns about ‘women’s safety’ to push oppressive agendas, and there have been political and practical alliances between reactionary feminists and the far right. At its extremes, politically white feminism can become a ‘Brexit’ brand which is about policing borders, shutting doors, and hoarding resources.
The conclusion argues that to work against political whiteness and resist the intersecting systems that produce sexual violence, white feminists need what Angela Davis calls an ‘intersectionality of struggles’. For instance, connecting campaigns such as #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. It also argues that we need to imagine a world without sexual violence – which would also be a world without patriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism. This would help us to work towards what Mariame Kaba calls ‘non-reformist reforms’ which move us closer to, not further away from, this goal. It ends with a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our politics.