Gender, Power and Violence – transcript

This is a transcript, for text readers, of my Feminism 101 lecture Gender, Power and Violence.

CONTENT NOTE: This presentation contains descriptions of violent and sexually violent experiences

Video of Carol Jenkins reading Ida B. Wells – this can be watched or listened to here.

1. Rape and racial oppression

Ida B. Wells was a leader of the early Civil Rights movement in the US – this is an excerpt from one of her speeches, read by news anchor Carol Jenkins. Wells’ activism focused on the practice of lynching – as part of this, she exposed how rape functioned as a means of social control.

‘Interracial rape was not only used to uphold white patriarchal power but was also deployed as a justification for lynching black men who challenged the Southern status quo’ (McGuire, ‘At the Dark End of the Street’, 2010, pxviii).

This case study encapsulates why we need to take an intersectional analysis to the topic of gender, power and violence.

Intersectionality is a concept developed by black feminists and codified by Crenshaw in her famous article ‘Mapping the Margins’ (see also Hill Collins, Carby and others).

‘Rather than examining gender, race, class and nation as distinctive social hierarchies, intersectionality examines how they mutually construct one another.’ (Hill Collins, ‘It’s All in the Family’, 1998)

First applied to black women’s intersecting experiences of gender, race, and class, this is now a foundational feminist principle which has been used to analyse the interlocking/co-production of a variety of categories, structures and oppressions.

Video of Kimberlé Crenshaw talking about intersectionality – this can be watched or listened to here.

2. An intersectional analysis

Turning an intersectional lens on issues of gender, power and violence means ‘asking the other question’ and expanding our appreciation of these terms:

  • We need to see violence as not only wielded by men over women, but also as central to other intersecting relations of domination and oppression
  • We need to broaden our focus on physical/sexual violence, to include state, community and symbolic forms
  • We need to understand how power resides in the act or threat of violence, and also in claims to state protection made by some individuals/groups which produce the (often violent) governance of others
  • We need to look at these dynamics globally, as well as nationally and locally.

Key questions

  1. How do acts, threats and allegations of violence reflect and reproduce existing power relations?
  2. What do our definitions of violence include and exclude, and how is this shaped by the meanings attached to gender and other interdependent social categories ?
  3. Who can claim state protection, and who is more often the focus of violent state governance or community retribution?
  4. How does this interact with definitions, understandings and experiences of victimhood for different types of people?
  5. How do these dynamics around power and violence enter and function within the political and geopolitical spheres?

3. One for the lads

The case of campus sexual harassment and rape can be used to illustrate key feminist points about how violence, or the threat of violence, is central to dominant forms of masculinity and gendered power relations

  • Susan Brownmiller (‘Against Our Will’, 1975) described rape as a ‘process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. For Brownmiller, violence (and more importantly the threat of violence) caused women to restrict their freedom of movement and look to men for protection (this analysis inspires initiatives such as Reclaim the Night)
  • Liz Kelly (‘Surviving Sexual Violence’, 1988) developed the concept of a continuum of violence ranging from sexual harassment to sexualised murder, through which men control women and preserve their power and space

Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.
Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University Student

‘Lad culture’ and sexual harassment/violence in higher education function to maintain male privilege by making women feel unsafe. However, this is only part of the story:

  • In ‘lad cultures’ (and ‘frat’ cultures), white socially privileged men enact or threaten forms of symbolic, physical and sexual violence to maintain their position over and protect territory from a number of Others: including women but also people of colour, working class people, LGBT people, disabled people
  • Sociologically, this can be seen as part of the backlash against increasing gender equality, but it may also reflect broader widening participation agendas in higher education and the increased visibility of LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people amongst student and youth cultures (Phipps, ‘(Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education’, 2016)

People have…been physically threatening towards me. Groups of guys have said I’m not a man, and crowded around and pushed me. I’ve been punched for being transgender. It can make me not want to go into uni. I avoid certain guys in my class and, for some classes, I just sneak in at the back. Sometimes I might not bother going out at all. Homophobia and transphobia at university are often seen as a separate thing to lad culture, but lad culture is basically privileged people not considering anyone else. It’s sexist, and enrolled in the sexism is also homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, which are all intrinsic to lad culture.
Mat Wilkie, British Student

Meanwhile, at the Oxford Union: (picture of a poster for a ‘reparations debate cocktail’ which reads: ‘the colonial comeback!’ and has a photograph of a Black person’s hands in chains at the top of it)

4. Rape in colonisation and conflict

The Oxford ‘colonial cocktail’ trivialised (or even celebrated) the brutality of this period in our history: a brutality which was often embodied in acts and allegations of gendered and sexual violence (and which is ongoing in a variety of contemporary dynamics and oppressions).

  • Violence against women has been reported in every episode of colonisation and every international and domestic conflict zone, and functions as an act of humiliation and domination, usually perpetrated by occupying/conquering groups and forces (and often by agents of the state)
  • For Yuval Davis (‘Gender and Nation’, 1997), women are targeted because they are seen as the biological/ideological/cultural reproducers of the nation: however, men and boys are also often victimised (and because these assaults tend to remain hidden, they are underestimated), and can be forced to become perpetrators
  • Cultural/ethnic/racial power relations are enacted and produced through these deeds of gendered and sexual violence

As indigenous women, we realize facing that scene was facing a mirror held up to ourselves. It was seeing the reality of our own trauma, the ways we have endured it. The ways we have survived it. It’s suddenly much bigger than myself. It’s bigger than my friend. It isn’t simply the connection to assault, to sexual violence that we share, but rather the portrayal of violence against indigenous women captured in just a few short seconds on the screen. That is what makes us hold our breath, tap our fingers in anxiousness, excuse ourselves to the restroom to avoid it, to wait until the scene is over. Her face reminds us that there is a highway in Canada known as the Highway of Tears, named after the many disappearances of women (mostly indigenous) reported along its vast expanse. It reminds us of the large numbers, the cases of assault against Native women. It is facing generations of surviving, of historical trauma, of memory distilled into a short scene and watching it release from within our bodies and float out into the world. All rape scenes are hard for me, but this one, this one is the raw and brutal truth that still exists today. There are no bells or whistles. There is no falseness to this scene. No dramatization. This one cuts to the bone and exposes us, because we are still being attacked, still being murdered, still going missing. We are still disappearing.
Sasha LaPointe, “Bring me the girl’: why ‘The Revenant’ was hard for my friends and me’ (2016)

Colonisation as sexual violence

  • Sexual violence does not just occur within the process of colonisation, but colonialism itself is structured by the logic of sexual violence
  • Subjugation of women of native nations, often through brutal acts of sexual violence, is key to settler colonial projects
  • This is also used to humiliate (and thus subdue) men, and to prevent the reproduction of the indigenous population or ‘dilute’ it through the creation of mixed-race offspring
  • In the context of settler colonialism (and chattel slavery and after), accusations of sexual violence have also been used to keep dominated men in line through state and community retribution (often fatal)
  • These political/cultural/racist violences have been justified by the rhetoric of protection, a dynamic which continues to inform race relations in the UK, US, Australia and other countries – white men saving white women from brown and black men

Dangerous brown men

  • In her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Spivak (1988) uses the phrase ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (emphasis mine)
  • This dynamic has also been key to processes of colonisation, and characterises neocolonial projects such as the War on Terror
  • Bhattacharyya (2008) argues that rhetorical framings of the War on Terror were based on a conception of the West as uniquely progressive, set against the idea of Muslim-majority communities (and particularly the men in them) as inherently misogynistic and homophobic
  • This gave additional fuel to the ‘civilising mission’ of the War on Terror and its strategic use of the figure of the ‘victimised Muslim woman’ in Afghanistan and elsewhere (simultaneously concealing the prevalence of violence and abuse in the West)
  • It also framed the abuse of prisoners in facilities such as Abu Ghraib, which made deliberate/strategic use of sexualised forms of torture

The deployment of this supposed cultural knowledge in the process of torture reveals an image of an essentialised Muslim man, a man who truly can be broken only through the cultural pressure point of sexual humiliation. This racist myth enables the dual suggestions that all other violence, however extreme, has no impact and that the barbarism of these people is demonstrated by their backward beliefs about sex.
Bhattacharyya, Dangerous Brown Men, 2008

5. Carceral feminism and state violence

  • The War on Terror actively used feminist rhetoric as part of its justificatory strategy, sometimes co-opting it and sometimes with the active co-operation of feminist groups – an example of what Ahmed (‘Women and Gender in Islam’, 1992) terms ‘Colonial Feminism’
  • There are other examples of women’s victimisation (either real or rhetorical) being used as a pretext for state and political violence:
  • Bumiller (‘In an Abusive State’, 2008) argues that feminist anti-rape campaigning has been appropriated by (or sometimes complicit with) neoliberal agendas concerned with criminalising particular groups of men (in the case of the US this is largely African-American men, but this could be other groups in other countries)
  • Bernstein (‘Militarized Humanism meets Carceral Feminism’, 2010) uses the phrase ‘carceral feminism’ to describe this relationship: this also operates in relation to the sex industry, in which agendas around ‘law and order’ and immigration control are pursued through a feminist framework which foregrounds exploitation and abuse (and trafficking in particular)

That punishment in general and the prison in particular belong to a political technology of the body is a lesson that I have learnt not so much from history as from the present. In recent years, prison revolts have occurred throughout the world. There was certainly something paradoxical about their aims, their slogans and the way they took place. They were revolts against an entire state of physical misery that is over a century old: against cold, suffocation and overcrowding, against decrepit walls, hunger, physical maltreatment. But they were also revolts against model prisons, tranquillizers, isolation, the medical or educational services…. In fact, they were revolts, at the level of the body, against the very body of the prison. What was at issue was not whether the prison environment was too harsh or too aseptic, too primitive or too efficient, but its very materiality as an instrument and vector of power it is this whole technology of power over the body that the technology of the ‘soul’ – that of the educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists – fails either to conceal or to compensate, for the simple reason that it is one of its tools. 
Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1975

The prison is one of a variety of forms of state violence these carceral projects invoke and reproduce; they also generate risk for some groups in the process of protecting others. For example, Crenshaw (1991) highlights how black women in the US are less likely to report domestic violence because they do not want to invite oppressive police interventions into their communities or feed racist stereotypes.

  • Levy and Jakobsson’s (2014) study of the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients in Sweden shows how this project to eradicate the industry through ‘ending demand’ actually puts sex workers at risk
  • They can become more dependent on potentially exploitative third parties in order to protect clients from arrest
  • They are more likely to take risks such as meeting in secluded locations or allowing clients to conceal their identities, and (in the absence of alternative sources of income) may provide services they would not previously have agreed to, in order to survive
  • They are also unable to rely on the police for protection from violence, because the focus shifts to protecting clients (income) from police intervention

Video made by Friends Frangipani (sex workers’ organisation in Papua New Guinea) on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – this can be watched or listened to here.

Policing victimisation

Both carceral and colonial feminisms make use of women’s victimisation to justify particular social and political agendas, which often result in oppression and state violence towards marginalised people (both women and people of other genders). These people are often sacrificed for the sake of an ‘ideal victim’:

  • In relation to the sex industry, the safety of sex workers is secondary to eradicating the industry in order to protect ‘good’ women from being objectified
  • In the contexts of settler colonialism and chattel slavery, protecting the ‘honour’ of the white female victim was a pretext for the violent subjugation of indigenous or enslaved men, while indigenous or enslaved women who were victimised were usually blamed for their assaults (this dynamic is preserved in attitudes towards women of colour who experience sexual and domestic violence)

Dynamics around ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims are intersectionally structured, and feed forms of state and community violence against victims and both real and imagined perpetrators.

  • Although women in the sex industry experience high rates of violence, it is extremely difficult to convict anyone of raping a sex worker (Phipps, ‘Rape and Respectability’, 2009)
  • In the US, black men arrested for raping white women are more likely to be charged with a felony than black men arrested for raping black women or white men arrested for raping white women
  • Before Dylann Roof opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina – killing nine people – he reportedly told churchgoers, ‘You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.’

Although feminism has been critical of the notion of the ‘ideal victim’, contemporary anti-violence activism often continues to look to the state for protection for some women to the detriment of others

  • This is particularly pronounced in relation to sex workers, who can be positioned explicitly as the enemy who are collaborating with patriarchy and putting other women at risk (LeMoncheck, ‘Loose Women, Lecherous Men’, 1997)
  • ‘When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.’ – Julie Burchill
  • Conversely, when sex workers are not being defined as ‘fallen women’ who endanger others they are seen as always already victimised: this invalidates their consent and means that it is very difficult to talk about specific abuses against them

There is a stark difference between the times I’ve agreed to (undesired) sex with clients, and the times I haven’t agreed to certain types of sex with clients. Labeling all of those experiences “rape” erases the truth, my reality, and my agency. It also means, as many sex workers have pointed out when dealing with prohibitionist propaganda, that my “yes” and my “no” while I’m working are equally meaningless, so there would be no difference between my experience with a client who respects my boundaries and one who doesn’t.
Charlotte Shane, “Getting away’ with hating it: consent in the context of sex work’ (2013)

The concept of the ‘ideal victim’ is also at play in debates around trans women’s access to women-only spaces and support services.

  • In this context, trans women are not only positioned as ‘imperfect’ victims, but also often conceptualised as aggressors or potential aggressors who might trigger the trauma responses of cisgender women who are survivors and need to be protected
  • This is based in a refusal to acknowledge and respect the trans woman’s identity as a woman: an act of symbolic violence which also conceals the fact that trans women are particularly at risk of victimisation by men
  • ‘The claim to ‘ownership’ of rape victimisation by cisgender women, through the projection of violence on to trans women…commodifies it and invisibilises the experiences of trans women who have been subjected to violence and abuse’ (Phipps, ‘Whose personal is more political?’, 2016)

Yes, I do know what those women have been through. I have had men force themselves upon me. Like you, we trans women are physically violated and abused for being women too. And there are no words in your second-wave feminist lexicon to adequately describe the way that we, young trans girls forced against our will into boyhood, have been raped by male culture. Every trans woman is a survivor and we have triggers too.
Julia Serano, Excluded, 2013

Serano’s comments about the inadequacy of second-wave feminisms to conceptualise particular types of violence apply to many of the other examples which have been presented here. With all these (and more) in mind, we can now make more sense of our key intersectional questions:

Key questions

  1. How do acts, threats and allegations of violence reflect and reproduce existing power relations?
  2. What do our definitions of violence include and exclude, and how is this shaped by the meanings attached to gender and other interdependent social categories ?
  3. Who can claim state protection, and who is more often the focus of violent state governance or community retribution?
  4. How does this interact with definitions, understandings and experiences of victimhood for different types of people?
  5. How do these dynamics around power and violence enter and function within the political and geopolitical spheres?

There are numerous other examples which could be explored in response to these questions:

  • For example, the ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians in South Africa is produced by the policing of norms around gender, sexuality, nation and race (women of colour being disproportionately at risk)
  • The backlash against refugees in reaction to the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/16 highlights how women’s victimisation often becomes a conduit for the enactment of concerns and oppressions to do with race, ethnicity and nation
  • Similarly, Western reactions to recent high-profile rape cases in India reflect how sexual violence becomes part of racist narratives which both construct notions of ‘culture’ and conceal sexual violence and abuse in the West

We must try to keep an intersectional focus by ‘asking the other question’, if we are to fully explore and understand issues around gender, power and violence.