On May 25th 2020, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an act that precipitated a powerful wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the world. May 25th 2020 was also the day Amy Cooper (a white woman) called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper (a Black man, no relation) because he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Her use of the phrase ‘there’s an African-American man threatening my life’ was a threat to get Christian Cooper killed by a cop.
These incidents are linked by more than just a moment in time. White women are deeply, and often deliberately, complicit with white supremacist violence, and our complicity usually takes the form of victimhood that appeals to the punitive power of the state. And although her allegation against Christian Cooper was false, Amy Cooper has something in common with mainstream feminist movements that coalesce around genuine victimisation and trauma, such as the recent viral iteration of #MeToo. The focus of these movements tends to be naming and shaming perpetrators and calling for institutional discipline or criminal punishment to get these ‘bad men.’
My book Me, Not You describes the political dynamics of mainstream white feminism in the core Anglosphere and parts of Europe. It makes a difficult and uncomfortable argument: that this movement, exemplified by #MeToo, not only centres bourgeois white women but also treats other groups as disposable. This is not just about inclusion and representation, but about the ideologies and attachments that undergird our politics; it is not primarily about individuals, but about the systems and structures that shape our world.
In March 2021, marketing executive Sarah Everard was allegedly murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer after disappearing from London’s Clapham Common. The previous June, members of the same police force were suspended for taking selfies with the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in a different London park. A vigil for these three women, and almost 200 others who have died in police custody or prison in England and Wales, was subsequently led by feminist group Sisters Uncut and violently broken up by police. Yet mainstream demands following Everard’s murder promised more power to the carceral system – calls for the criminalisation of street harassment and for misogyny to become a hate crime.
The demands themselves were unsurprising, but that such carceral feminism persists even after a white woman has allegedly been murdered by a cop shows how deeply mainstream feminism is mired in white supremacy. We are happy to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, but we do not put our own interests on the line and act with an understanding of exactly what police and prisons are for. Abolitionist thinking tells us that carceral systems preserve state and elite interests, protect private property and resources, dispose of economically surplus populations, and ultimately ensure that racial capitalism functions unabated. While we say, ‘Black Lives Matter’, we legitimate the very systems that demand, and deliver, Black demise.
White women’s experiences of sexual violence enter a world in which ‘protecting white womanhood’ is really about protecting racial capitalism and white supremacy. Because of this, we claim protection that has always been predicated on Black death and the deaths of other marginalised people. Furthermore, although bourgeois white women are not usually subject to state violence, the same white men who purport to protect us from the Others do reserve the right to abuse and kill us themselves.
This is true of Sarah Everard’s alleged murderer, and countless other law enforcement officers worldwide who have harmed girls and women. It is also true of the far-right politicians who profess concern for ‘women’s safety’ in their campaigns against immigrants and trans people, while harassing and assaulting the women they know. This is the patriarchal protection racket writ large – the threat of stranger rape that makes women seek safety with our male partners and family members, who are actually more likely to abuse us. At systemic levels, this protection racket mainly targets class-privileged white women. And it is fundamental to the preservation of racial capitalism.
Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. Sexual violence keeps women in our place, and punishes anyone who does not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. Acts and threats of sexual violence also support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which commercial and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape is a practice of terror used to subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).
At the same time, the pretext of ‘protecting (white) women’ constructs communities, cultures and nations as violent to justify colonisation, border regimes and military-industrial projects, and to dispose of unwanted populations. Black feminist historians have exposed the widespread brutalisation and killing of Black, enslaved and other racialised and colonised men in response to allegations made by or on behalf of white women. The spectre of sexual danger is still deployed to vilify, abuse and kill Black men and other men of colour, and to construct queer and trans people as threats and make it impossible for us to survive. It facilitates the demonisation and deportation of migrants, the invasion of countries, and the ‘putting away’ of racialised and classed groups deemed surplus to capitalist requirements.
In all these ways, sexual violence is a pivot for the intersecting systems of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism. The acts and threats that keep us afraid, that make us docile subjects of capitalism, also drive us into the arms of the carceral-colonial state and enable many other kinds of violence in the service of capitalist accumulation. By pulling the levers of carceral systems, white feminism is a willing participant in this racial capitalist protection racket. In the process, it trades freedom for the illusion of safety and treats more marginalised groups as disposable. This is how #MeToo often ends up becoming Me, Not You.
Could you tell us a little about yourself - where you grew up, went to school, how you came to be a Professor of Gender Studies?
I was born in North Yorkshire, then lived in Teeside for a while before my family moved to Bristol. After doing my GCSEs at the local comprehensive, I left home at 16 – I wanted to be a dancer and went into full-time professional training. But I lacked the talent to pursue ballet (my real passion) and was too self-conscious for musical theatre. So I mixed cocktails in a nightclub, and wrapped soap baskets in a Body Shop, but wasn’t content. I’d managed to get two A-levels at dance college, which in the 1990s was enough for a place at Manchester University – I chose politics and modern history. I was the first woman in my family to get a degree, and remain the only person ever in my family to be an academic. To start with, the language and ideas I encountered at university baffled me. But feminism was different.
I come from a long line of strong working women, but had been encouraged to aspire to white bourgeois femininity – feminist theory helped me understand why. I came out as queer, which was a personal and political revelation – in butch/femme communities and relationships I decoupled gender from assigned sex and learned femininity was something to experiment with and enjoy. I also realised that the state forces amassed against queer people – that were still raiding gay bars at the time – were not my route to liberation. And that there were some feminists who saw me as an impediment to theirs – in the lesbian ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, butch/femme, BDSM and sex work were all seen as a capitulation to patriarchal dynamics rather than a way to subvert them.
I never planned to be an academic – but in between doing various office jobs I was offered a scholarship for my MA at Manchester, and won one to do my PhD at Cambridge. In 2005, just before I submitted my PhD thesis, I moved down to Brighton with my long-term girlfriend at the time. I was doing administration for the City Council and making sandwiches in a local café, when an hourly-paid teaching role came up at Brighton University. Then a temporary contract was advertised at Sussex – 9-months of cover for the Director of Gender Studies – and I got it. I’ve been at Sussex ever since. I ran Gender Studies till 2018, taking breaks to have two kids, and have worked part-time since 2011. I was promoted to Professor of Gender Studies in 2017.
How did Me, Not You come about, who do you hope reads it and what impact do you want it to have?
This book was in the making for a very long time. A year after I got my job at Sussex, something happened in my personal life – I was raped by a woman I was involved with. It happened in a small arts-based community, which largely closed ranks around her and ignored or dismissed me – this meant that apart from a few loyal friends, I only had books and writing to get me through the experience. I didn’t entertain going to the police – the perpetrator had a young daughter and was much more marginalised than I was, so I knew police involvement would harm her, perhaps even more than she had harmed me. While I was dealing with my own trauma, I also began to be approached by students who had been raped, because of my role as Director of Gender Studies. So I became a scholar-activist – and supporting survivors, pushing for institutional change, and building relationships with services and organisations were all intertwined with my research on sexualviolence.
Long before #MeToo went viral, activists in universities had been ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators in the media – this was often the only option. But I was always left with the question: where did these ‘bad men’ go? I knew some of them went to other institutions and continued the same behaviour – the ‘pass the harasser’ problem. And I worried that the suggested solution – to exclude perpetrators entirely from academia – might just outsource them to lower-status sectors, where women had fewer rights and protections. This fear of creating collateral damage was magnified in relation to criminal punishment – even when it is visited on privileged white men, this creates massive collateral damage amongst Black people and other marginalised groups. This was where ‘Me, Not You’ came from – it’s a play on and critique of #MeToo. It describes how mainstream white feminism is very self-regarding – my victimisation is the most important thing, and I will do whatever it takes to feel safe and/or vindicated, regardless of the consequences.
Me, Not You is written for fellow white women and white feminists. It’s about how mainstream feminism fails to tackle the structures that cause sexual violence – especially the deep structure of racial capitalism – and ends up fortifying them instead. The book is built on Black feminist theory, and Black women and other women of colour won’t need to read it – it won’t tell them anything they don’t already know. I hope the book will speak to white women who, like me, are uneasy about mainstream feminism and want to do things differently. In the conclusion, I discuss the concept of ‘abolition feminism’ as defined by Angela Davis – and as abolition moves into the mainstream lexicon following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others, I hope my book will explain why white feminism is not abolition feminism, and suggest how it could move in that direction.
You must have been totally unsurprised by the video of white woman Amy Cooper being asked by Christian Cooper (a Black man, no relation) to put her dog on a lead in Central Park, and calling the police to say he was threatening her. Is this a perfect representation of what you mean by political whiteness, and the ways in which white women's vulnerability - real or imagined - is weaponised?
Political whiteness is the term I use in my book for the way mainstream feminism and other white-dominated forms of politics operate. It centres on victimhood, whether that’s the genuine sexual trauma at the root of #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements, or the imagined white victimhood of the backlash against feminism, the vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness – from a position of power, one is naturally preoccupied with threat. In white feminism, sexual trauma becomes political capital via the media, which usually leads to demands for criminal punishment or institutional discipline. This happens with little regard for more marginalised people – and as we know, the criminal punishment system is not designed to deal with men such as Harvey Weinstein, but to protect the interests of white elites and ‘put away’ those deemed surplus to requirements in racial capitalist production.
The wounded white woman is the icon of mainstream feminism – she’s also a trophy of the authoritarian right. Her power is rooted in colonial history – the ‘protection’ of bourgeois white women from indigenous, colonised and enslaved men (and subsequently, from free Black men) justified genocide and murder, and colonialism itself. And white women were deeply complicit – there is a longhistory of false allegations prompting racist state and community violence. Police in the US, UK and elsewhere continue to murder Black people, and (white) ‘women’s safety’ continues to justify state violence and the politics of the far right. As Zeba Blay has written, Amy Cooper was well aware of this when she told the police ‘there’s an African-American man threatening my life’. This was a reminder that she could get Christian Cooper killed by a cop. This act was more deliberate than the political whiteness I identify in #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements. But white feminism can easily become intentionally cruel – trans- and sex worker-exclusionary feminists, for example, are similar to the Amy Coopers of the world in their wilful use of stories of sexual trauma to ostracise and vilify their enemies.
The same day as the Amy Cooper incident, a police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. This has prompted enormous protests in the US and other countries including the UK. What is your reaction to these events? Who are the most astute thinkers on this that we should all be following and reading?
To be honest, I’m not sure my reaction to these events deserves much space. I am in solidarity with Black people, and part of doing (as well as saying) that is to pass the mic. Black Lives Matter, and Black voices matter too – and the second is a precondition for the first. In other words, we can’t claim to oppose anti-Black racism while objectifying and speaking over Black people. There is a wealth of commentary and analysis being produced by Black people on current events – such as these articles by Zoe Samudzi, Mariame Kaba and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, these discussions hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Dream Defenders, and so much more besides. Many of these people are on Twitter, and if you follow them you’ll find many others. I can also share some general recommendations for Black feminist thinkers who are important to me.
Angela Davis, of course, is a legend – you can download Women, Race and Class and Are Prisons Obsolete? online, and you can also watch talks and interviews like this one on abolition feminism. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is incredible too, and while I recommend her book Golden Gulag (and she has another one, Change Everything, forthcoming), there are also various pieces by and interviews with her available free. Mariame Kaba is an inspiration to me and pretty much everyone else I share politics with – I’ll forever be proud and amazed that she endorsed my book, and I turn to her words almost every day. She is also hugely generous with her intellect and insight and can be found on many websites, podcasts and other platforms – the best thing to do is to visit her personal website and follow some links.
And in case any of your readers are under the impression that anti-Black racism is just a US problem, I’ll make some UK-specific recommendations. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book has become a contemporary classic, and is a very accessible read for white people wanting to educate themselves on race. Lola Olufemi has a new book out, which is also very accessible and highlights issues with white bourgeois feminism as well as setting out her own feminist manifesto. I love the Surviving Society podcast – it’s co-hosted by Black scholars Chantelle Lewis and Tissot Regis, and covers a wide range of issues but with a particular lens on race.
I also want to draw your attention to this article by Lauren Michele Jackson – ‘What is an anti-racist reading list for?’ In it, she rightly states that while book recommendations are easy to give and feel good to receive, at some point we have to do the work of reading, and the gap between recommendations and reading is often a gulf. Furthermore, she argues, merely reading work by Black scholars is not anti-racism in and of itself, and in fact this can lead to the kind of ‘self-enlightenment’ which replaces political action. This does not mean we shouldn’t read – far from it – but reading the right things has to be part of a broader strategy.
Near the end of the book you have a brief section on things individuals can do, something you expand on in a recent blog post. How big a danger is it that a ‘white fragility’ focus will allow white people to try to ‘purge themselves’ of racism without fronting up to racist structures? How can we work against this and ‘do’ allyship (or comradeship as you put it) for the long haul, after the hashtags fade?
The drawbacks of ‘white fragility’ discourse are both a huge danger and an awful reality. Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michele Jackson are among many writers of colour who argue that the psychological focus of ‘white fragility’, and the individualistic focus of ‘white privilege’, reduce anti-racism to navel-gazing and hand-wringing rather than work towards structural change. As I say in my recent blog, this is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other. And in the midst of the current Black Lives Matter protests, white people have centred ourselves on an industrial scale. From kneeling in the street attempting to ‘renounce our privilege’, to making airbrushed celebrity videos confessing guilt and ‘taking responsibility’, to institutional proclamations with no evidence of anti-racist actions (and plenty of evidence of racist ones).
As feminism has long told us, the personal is political – and white people are heavily invested in racial capitalist structures. Divesting from these will require work on the self, but self-analysis is not politics. Perhaps we need to shift the focus away from ‘how am I feeling?’ to ‘what am I doing?’ This doesn’t mean ignoring emotions, it means dealing with them in appropriate ways and not mistaking them for action. It means decentring ourselves and focusing on the Other; it means a politics of care. This isn’t easy in our narcissistic, stingy neoliberal culture – and for white feminists, being asked to care may evoke the compelled care we have historically opposed. Contemporary white feminists tend to eschew care – ‘nasty women’ are fuelled by rage. But this highlights the individualism of our politics, and its foundations in the nuclear family and binary gender. Rage on behalf of the self, which often seeks revenge, is perhaps seen as feminist because in the bourgeois nuclear family, the female self is diminished and denied.
By ‘care’, I mean an orientation to the social and natural world, not picking up your husband’s socks. For marginalised groups, care is a necessity – for instance, the disabled people and working class people (many of them Black and people of colour) abandoned by austerity regimes, and the queer and trans people creating new support systems when their families of origin reject them. Care is central to Black feminism and other revolutionary politics because it rejects and undoes racial capitalist violence and creates different ways of life. I want white feminists to learn from this. I want responsibilities for care held in common, beyond the gender binary, care for other human beings globally (especially the most marginalised), and care for our planet. In racial capitalism, care can be violence because it is compelled, forced, outsourced and unevenly distributed, and withheld from those who need it most. But care is also at the heart of the alternatives we need. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition means making the conditions for a better world. So if we are going to ‘do’ comradeship after the hashtags fade, we might begin by caring for each other.
‘What do we do?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked by readers of Me, Not You, and this question has become louder and more urgent in the past two weeks. Massive protests in the US and elsewhere against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countlessothers have brought the idea of abolition into the mainstream, and many white feminists are newly interested in fighting sexual violence without criminal punishment.
I am also at the beginning of a (life)long journey towards what Angela Davis calls ‘abolition feminism’, and the final chapter of my book shares what Davis and other Black feminists have taught me so far. For instance, there’s a thought experiment imagining a world without sexual violence (which would, of course, be a world without police and prisons), and some practical suggestions on how we could use that as our guide. This would be via what abolitionists call ‘non-reformist reforms’ – interventions that get us closer to, instead of further away from, our ultimate goal. I give examples of what these might look (and not look) like. The chapter also offers a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our political action away from some of the problems identified in my book.
Whiteness and (the) social order
But despite this, the ‘what do we do?’ question persists – which suggests that perhaps readers are looking for more. What is this ‘more’, and why do some people want it? I’m not sure I would give it, even if I could. My book was intended to help readers understand the dynamics of mainstream feminism, not to offer a panacea (because one does not exist). It is not a set of instructions – I am not in charge of feminism, and as a middle-aged white academic I am definitely not interested in taking up that mantle. Bourgeois white women like me dominate mainstream feminism, but I am also struck by the fact that ‘what do we do?’ is most often asked by fellow privileged white feminists. I have several thoughts about why.
As I explore in my book, political whiteness both seeks authority and defers to it. The white will to power I write about can be satisfied by proxy, demanding an authoritarian response. We see this in white feminist calls for more police and longer sentences; we have also seen it during Covid-19, as while some white people have protested lockdown measures, others have informed on their neighbours for failing to observe them. Whiteness creates deep desires for both individual liberty and social control, and the impulse to call the manager or police to enforce the rules we need to feel safe sits beside our own need to be told what to do. The material and symbolic benefits we derive from the existing order also make it difficult and threatening to imagine anything different. As a result, we can get defensive: and demanding solutions are given to us can be a way of shutting down discussion of things we cannot face. It is what the CEO does when his staff bring him problems he does not want to have to fix.
The demand for pre-made panaceas also shows how neoliberal capitalist mentalities have permeated white feminist consciousness. We want instant gratification, something off the shelf. This is dangerous on many levels: grabbing at immediate answers can stop us from wrestling with important questions, and quick and easy actions are often ineffective. As I write in Me Not You, performative outrage, and calls to get rid of ‘bad apples’ from institutions or communities, are usually just forms of pressure release that enable oppressive systems and dynamics to continue. So is white self-analysis, if this is where we get stuck: Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michelle Jackson are among those who examine how white anti-racism more often constitutes navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and attempts to ‘renounce privilege’ and assuage guilt rather than work towards structural change. This is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other.
As I say in my book, white feminists can – and should – take our lead from Black feminists and other marginalised people who are less attached to the way things are, whose imaginations are not so bounded and who model what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. Black feminists have long tried to tell us that the view from where they are is much clearer than we can comprehend. Patricia Hill Collins famously called Black women ‘outsiders within’; bell hooks has written about her own experience of ‘looking from the outside in and the inside out’. I love Gail Lewis’ description of how, from the margins, it is possible to see across an entire field of vision – whereas from the centre one has to keep turning around and about. This is why many groups located on the margins are already working to formulate the answers white feminists want handed to us on a plate.
Doing my small part
But we cannot expect more marginalised feminists to just hand us these solutions: political programmes have to be collective and developed through dialogue. We all need to do this work – and echoing Mariame Kaba, I think perhaps not enough of us are currently doing our small part. I join Kaba in her request that we all ‘work together to think through something different’, adding that white feminists should listen more than we talk, and acknowledging that thinking through something different is a long, hard slog. It is a lot easier to identify problems than to develop ways to tackle them (and I say this to myself as much as to anyone else). As I write in Me, Not You, ridding the world of sexual violence is not going to happen in my lifetime, or yours. But we can all do our own small part to move towards it, not further away.
For the past fifteen years my main activist focus has been tackling sexual violence in universities. This work has included collaborating with Susuana Amoah and others at the National Union of Students, engaging individual institutions across Europe in research and training, and forming the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) collective with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor. CHUCL aims to help universities reshape their structures and cultures so equality policies can be more meaningful, and so they can deal more effectively, and less punitively, with problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. We have not got very far yet, but we are in it for the long haul.
As we move forward with CHUCL, I am trying to keep an abolition mindset. This means refusing to become what Audre Lorde called the ‘master’s tools’ (in other words, being used to preserve oppressive systems even while we claim to dismantle them). This can happen in various ways. For instance, CHUCL research on structural and cultural problems in universities has been used as evidence they have already been solved (what Sara Ahmed terms ‘non-performativity’). Universities have reacted defensively and demanded we provide instant solutions, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. They have defaulted to individualised forms of diversity training which are presented as ‘taking action’ but do not address, and instead conceal, the deeper issues we have pointed out. Key questions for us are: how do we help universities take responsibility for and tackle their own troubles? How do we build institutional capacity to deal with unacceptable and violent behaviour? And the big one: how do we push for real structural and cultural change?
We are taking our lead from survivor-led community accountability and transformative justice approaches that have worked in other contexts, but many institutions are a long way from having the capacity to implement these. Complete success would require a collectivist, rather than a capitalist, university. Of course, we are not going to get one soon – but we are thinking hard about ways to work towards it (and whether we even should, especially given universities’ complicity in racial capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism and slavery and its afterlives). We have a lot of failure ahead of us before we can even imagine something that looks like success. But we are doing our small part.
Building feminist futures
We all have to do our part, if we want to change the world. So if something has struck you in my book – whether it has inspired you or made you feel uncomfortable – I am delighted, but you must consider if and how you want to act. If you do decide to act, make sure you start small. Reflect on, and work to undo, how your own actions perpetuate systems of oppression (and that includes saviour modes of ‘helping’). Use your privilege and/or your money to do one thing for the benefit of more marginalised people every day (and thanks to Mariame Kaba for this principle, which has been a touchstone in my more chaotic moments during Covid-19). When there is a crisis, step up. Through these actions, educate yourself on issues, think about the better world you want to build, and learn about – and from – those who may already be building it.
When your imagination is liberated from what is, when you are better able to visualise what could be, think backwards to something you could realistically work towards yourself sustainably and longer-term. You might be able to find a group of like-minded feminists organising towards the same thing, who you could support with your time and money. If you can’t find one, create one. Your action could be as simple as setting up a neighbourhood collection for your local food bank (it is difficult to eradicate violence while basic needs are not being met). Or you might decide to get involved in action against prison expansion or to free incarcerated survivors. You might even work towards implementing a transformative justice programme in your community, organisation or institution. As you take action, you could use my toolkit regularly to check in with yourself. And although there should not be gatekeepers, seek out visionaries to guide you.
I cite many of these visionaries in Me, Not You – you can look to Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and lots of others besides. Our feminist tomorrow is also being envisioned by the young Black feminists and others currently on the streets protesting police murders and demanding abolition. It is being envisioned by the young activists and authors producing resources for the fight. For instance, Lola Olufemi’s new book Feminism, Interrupted offers a manifesto for a different, and truly radical, feminism. Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, sets out practical strategies for tackling sexual violence without criminal punishment. Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes is a compelling argument for decriminalising sex work, one legislative advance that would eradicate a huge amount of violence and that we could all be campaigning for. These dynamic young feminists are not going to give you instructions either, but they do provide rich food for thought – and the future of feminism lies with them.
As we move towards this feminist future, there will be no easy answers. The problems with mainstream feminism have been well and truly exposed (and by many others both now and before me), but we are still figuring out how to solve them. And although white bourgeois feminists may need to get our own houses in order first, when we are ready, we will need ongoing conversations between feminists of all positionalities: younger and older, differently classed and raced, trans and cis, differently abled, sex-working and not, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, and more. These discussions would be led from the margins but everyone would have a voice; there would be space to question, learn and grow; and most importantly, talk would lead to action rather than being an end in itself. I am deeply invested in doing my part to facilitate this this journey, and will probably be asking some tough questions of fellow white feminists (and myself) along the way. And I will pose one back to you now: what do you want to do?
This blog was originally posted on the Manchester University Press website – if you buy the book from MUP and enter the code OTH583 at checkout, it is currently 50% off (which is £6.50 plus P&P).
This is the first of a series of blogs I will write following the webinar on my book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. This was broadcast on April 7th to over 100 attendees, who asked some fantastic questions! Because I didn’t get a chance to answer all these during the session, I thought I would answer some of them now. This first piece covers a couple of related questions, pertaining to reactionary trans- and sex-worker-exclusionary feminisms. I deconstruct these feminisms in detail in Chapter Four (‘The Outrage Economy’) and Chapter Six (‘Feminists and the Far Right’) of the book, arguing that they intensify the political whiteness of the mainstream. Reactionary feminism turns mainstream feminist narcissism into an ‘us and them’ mentality, and the mainstream will to power becomes necropolitics that actively targets more marginalised people. Two of the questions asked during the webinar have prompted me to elaborate: on how the exclusion of sex workers and trans people is specifically classed and raced, and how trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are connected (and these two matters are also closely linked). I am grateful for these questions, as they allow me to expand arguments I had limited space for in the book.
As I say in Me, Not You, the class and race politics around sex workers and trans people is both symbolic and material. First, there are the demographics: women of colour and trans people are over-represented in the sex industry, and trans women of colour in particular are disproportionately likely to sell sex. And although there is relative marginality and privilege within these categories, sex workers and trans people (and people who fit both these descriptions) often occupy marginalised economic and social positions. They are among the many workers who make up the gendered and raced global proletariat and precariat; they survive at the sharp end of neoliberal economies and austerity regimes and are often criminalised for doing so. In necropolitical systems, trans and sex-working people have high vulnerability to premature death through state neglect or violence. As Sophie Lewis argues, these groups are treated as ‘bare life’ by police and courts – they are not seen as deserving of justice or protection (unless this is the paternalistic ‘protection’ of moral panic, which does not protect them at all). This sits in sharp contrast to the privileged white women who dominate mainstream feminism, whose protection is the insignia of white supremacy (even if it does not always translate into formal justice). And the narcissism of mainstream feminism – the ‘me, not you’ of political whiteness – means that women not made in the image of bourgeois whiteness are rarely represented.
Symbolically, sex workers and trans women are disapproved-of women who challenge bourgeois gender norms in various ways. This makes mainstream feminism stingy with its solidarity, while more reactionary feminism actually treats these women as the enemy. Reactionary trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is concerned with policing the borders of feminism and womanhood: as I say in Me, Not You, neither the ‘unnatural’ or the ‘unrespectable’ woman can ever be a real woman. Instead, their bodies are sites of judgment and disgust. Sometimes they represent a hyper-femininity which is seen as sleazy and fake: the association between anti-trans and anti-sex-work feminism peaks in the description of trans women as ‘pornified’ representations of ‘real’ women. As Lewis says: ‘they think that trans women and sex workers are pornography. They look at us and they see men, contamination by men, rape.’ As Lewis’ quote also implies, these are women who are ‘too much’ woman and not enough. In reactionary feminism, trans women and sex workers are tainted by association with men: sex workers become one with their clients; trans women become men themselves.
These depictions of trans women and sex workers, with their ‘excessive’ bodies and sexualities and failure to be properly gendered, sit alongside, and draw from, similar ones which are more explicitly classed and raced. For instance, of the working class ‘chavs’, bodies spilling out of their clothes, who are afflicted with uncontrolled fecundity. Or the sexually aggressive Black man and his counterpart, the Black woman who is always ‘up for it’ and therefore cannot be raped. These constructions have long histories rooted in capitalist exploitation and colonial conquest. Hortense Spillers describes how the ‘thingification’ required by slavery separated sexuality from subjectivity, reducing Black people to flesh and making their bodies both threatening and pornographic (and designed to be mutilated and killed). Post-abolition, these processes continued, shaping Black people’s relationship to the criminal punishment system (as both complainants and defendants), and meaning that Black women who did not sell sex to survive were likely to be associated with prostitution nonetheless. In the 21st century, Black trans women are especially likely to be profiled as sex workers by law enforcement. As I write in Me, Not You, the phrase ‘walking while trans’ was popularised after activist Monica Jones was found guilty of ‘manifesting prostitution’ for accepting a car ride from two undercover police officers in Phoenix in 2014.
Monica Jones’ experience illustrates how transphobia and whorephobia intertwine with other processes of classed and raced disgust. Disgust is a way of defending territory: whether this is national boundaries or economic entitlements, claims to legitimate womanhood, or public and political space. Like other forms of bigotry, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is a border control project: the middle class white woman who calls the police on Black kids barbecuing in the park is adjacent to, or sometimes synonymous with, the reactionary feminists who want their streets swept clean of sex workers, and their public toilet doors slammed in the faces of women who are not ‘real’. To hide this bourgeois disgust, reactionary feminism goes on the defensive: trans people become self-involved millennials and sex workers ‘happy hookers’ not qualified to speak on their own lives or the economic and social relations that shape them. Against them, reactionary feminists wield the ‘survivors’, ex sex workers and de-transitioners whose genuine trauma fortifies a disingenuous politics of concern. But really, this feminism is preoccupied with its own actual or potential victimisation. Sex workers cause the rape of ‘respectable’ (white, bourgeois) women by pandering to male sexual entitlement. Trans women commit rape against ‘natural’ (white, bourgeois) women, or ‘rape’ their bodies symbolically by attempting to ‘change sex’.
Black feminism tells us that there is a matrix of race, class and gender domination here in which one category cannot be understood in exclusion from the others. This articulates what Lugones calls the ‘coloniality of gender’, the system in which white bourgeois gender, violently exported and imposed by colonial capitalism, is the norm and ideal that justifies extractive and violent economic relations. For Lugones, the modern gender system has a ‘light’ and a ‘dark’ side, and on the latter, people of colour are de-gendered ready for conquest, abduction, exploitation and eventual disposal. Because of this, Christina Sharpe and other Black feminists have called Black people already transgendered and queered: racism overdetermines their bodies with meaning but divests them of normative markers. Binary bourgeois gender appears in sharp relief against what Spillers calls the Black captives ‘ungendered’ in the hold of the ship, where captivity de-domesticated and de-kinned, unmade cultures and quantified all bodies under the same property relations and rules of accounting. Bourgeois gender also appears in sharp relief against the criminals’, ‘prostitutes’, ‘thugs’ and ‘birthers of terror’ that supplant girls and boys, men and women, in what Sharpe calls the contemporary anagrammatics of Blackness (the process by which ‘grammatical gender’ falls away). There are related processes of ‘falling away’ at work in the cultural differentiation of class, as the experiences of working class women (many of whom are also women of colour) who report rape will attest.
Transphobia and whorephobia are fruits on this tree of capitalist-colonial gender. As I write in Me, Not You, Flavia Dzodan has called trans-exclusionary feminism a settler-colonial mentality, an attempt to solidify sex and gender categories that sees womanhood as immutable. Its essentialist mindset reflects how ‘the coloniser could name us, assign us a place and a role in the hierarchies.’ Trans and sex-working people join the ranks of other ‘deviants’, seen as inappropriately gendered and over-sexed in ways which ultimately express their relations to capital. Lewis argues that disdain for trans people and sex workers is disdain for bodies not easily assimilated to capitalist production and reproduction. For her, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are united by ‘the myth that says that we can and must protect our selves and bodies from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work.’ Sex workers and trans people tend to exist on the economic margins, overlapping with the working class people capitalism delights in exploiting and alienating via ‘healthful productive work’, overlapping with the people of colour (and especially Black people) that were never meant to survive. The reactionary feminist border against these people is defended with the artillery of gender. This is naturalised as ‘sex’: reactionary feminists are female rather than feminine (which they abhor); reactionary feminists are ‘real women’, unlike the Others. They claim the ‘authentic’ gender that is a key tool of capitalist-colonial domination: ‘unnatural’ and ‘unrespectable’ women can never be real women.
This is an edited extract of a chapter from my forthcoming book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. It appeared in Red Pepper on June 4th 2019.
On January 24th 2018, gymnastics coach Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in a Michigan state prison for seven counts of sexual assault of minors. This was one of three sentences given to Nassar, accused of molesting at least 250 girls and young women and one young man, between 1992 and 2016. Sentencing Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told him that, if authorised, she would ‘allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. ‘I just signed your death warrant’, she said. Aquilina was subsequently described as a ‘a bona-fide feminist icon’, ‘#MeToo hero of the week’, and a paragon of ‘transformative justice.’
This story exemplifies what I call ‘political whiteness.’ I am going to state the obvious: the domination of mainstream feminism by bourgeois white women shapes what Clare Hemmings might call its political grammar. In other words, the form in which its stories are told, and the assumptions and meanings these draw on and create. For instance, that rape is perpetrated by ‘bad men’ who should be exposed. That police exist to catch these men, and courts to do justice on them. That they ought to be punished as severely as possible. Beneath these lie deeply held beliefs: people are either victims or perpetrators, but not both; the state is protective rather than oppressive; shaming and punishment work.
Political whiteness is similar to the term ‘white feminism’, which describes feminist perspectives (often willfully) ignorant of the struggles, cultural output and politics of women of colour. But political whiteness is broader and deeper than that. It is produced by the combination of supremacy and victimhood, which creates a focus on the injured self, an obsession with threat, and an accompanying will to power. It characterises both white feminism and the backlash (or whitelash) against it. It might seem insensitive to associate feminism with the misogynist backlash. But acknowledging the central role of race demands that we do.
‘I’m everything’ – the white self
On International Women’s Day 2019, #MeToo co-leader Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘My transgender sisters! I am celebrating YOU this #NationalWomensDay!’ Soon after, a male user asked: ‘Alyssa are you transgender?’ Her response is worth repeating in full.
‘I’m trans. I’m a person of color. I’m an immigrant. I’m a lesbian. I’m a gay man. I’m the disabled.
I’m everything. And so are you, Kirk.
Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or understand. No one wants to hurt you. We are all just looking for our happily ever after.’
Milano quickly followed this tweet with another quoting 13th Century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi: ‘This is a subtle truth. Whatever you love, you are.’
This event can tell us much about white feminism. It is nominally inclusive, but inclusion depends on white women being centred as those who grant it. We speak for other groups, rather than letting them speak for themselves. We see ourselves as experts and saviours. We speak of mutual love and happiness with no acknowledgement of our role in the violence of capitalism and white supremacy. We appropriate the ideas and politics of non-white people to justify these power games. I have certainly done all these things. If you are a white woman reading this, you have probably done them too.
Critical studies of whiteness have highlighted the central role of narcissism in white identity. White people see ourselves in everything around us: political and corporate leaders look like us; celebrities and other public figures do too. Most of us live and work in predominantly white neighbourhoods and communities – we hardly, if ever, enter a space in which we don’t belong. As Sara Ahmed says, whiteness is a mode of being ‘at home’ in the world. We don’t get stopped at the border. We don’t worry about being brutalised by the police. We are not seen and treated as Other, day in and day out. We don’t get called angry and unreasonable when we mention our race.
White people are ‘everything’. Our views are objective, and our experiences can represent those of everyone else. We expect to be centred, even in anti-racist movements. As Robin DiAngelo writes in her famous article ‘White Fragility’, we stand for humanity. This means that mainstream feminism can make claims about ‘women’s victimhood’ based on the experiences of bourgeois white women. And it always has done: in 1982, black feminist Hazel Carby highlighted how dominant feminist narratives (for instance, about the family and the police) excluded black women and other women of colour.
White feminist narcissism has its mirror in that of the backlash. What about the (white) men? The experience of whiteness as comfort lowers our capacity to tolerate its opposite, especially in the form of being held accountable. Accountability exposes the deep fragility of whiteness. This is demonstrated by the use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ about movements like #MeToo. Sometimes they are called ‘lynch mobs’, which is even worse. This rhetoric equates attempts to hold powerful people to account with the systematic and violent persecution of marginalised groups.
Counter-attack is then inevitable. In #MeToo, this took a number of forms: the hashtag #HimToo which identified accused men as victims and advised all men to be scared; men on Wall Street who decided to avoid women at all costs for protection; chest-beating about false allegations; victim-blaming; and the rest. White women were part of this backlash as well: celebrities, libertarian feminists and conservative female commentators all took part in the frenzy of concern trolling and disbelief. Catherine Deneuve bemoaned the ‘media lynching’ of men accused of sexual harassment. Melanie Phillips opined that it was ‘time vilified men had their #MeToo.’
White selves as wounded selves
The narcissistic centring of the self is bound to produce wounds. The backlash against #MeToo was obsessed with the ‘wounds’ of accused men and critics of the movement. Katie Roiphe, who had been a key figure in the 1990s backlash against sexual violence activism on US campuses, penned an article in Harper’s Magazine called ‘The Other Whisper Network’. In it, she claimed #MeToo’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they could not speak. ‘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.’
These ‘wounds’ predominate despite the fact that the backlash criticises women – and feminists – for engaging in ‘victim politics’. This is a petulant howl about whose wounds are worse, who are the real victims, who is being victimised by all this talk of victimhood. This right-wing victim/anti-victim rhetoric often emerges in response to feminist campaigns against sexual violence. It is 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.
Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness. From a position of power, one naturally becomes preoccupied with threat. The figures of the settler and the master are emblems of conquest and subjugation, but there is always a risk these figures will be displaced or violently overthrown. Whether from indigenous populations, enslaved people, immigrants, ‘political correctness’ or ‘social justice warriors’, the idea of whiteness under threat has significant cultural influence. And ‘victim politics’ is victimisation because it means consequences for dominant groups accustomed to acting with impunity.
On International Men’s Day 2019, Piers Morgan ushered in the celebrations with a monologue comparing bourgeois white men to endangered rhinos. ‘Yes, we do need a day’, he said. ‘We are now the most downtrodden group of men in the world.’ White feminists have generally (and rightly) given such statements short shrift. In 2014, following a series of online attacks from men’s rights activists, feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted a picture of herself in a T-shirt that read: I BATHE IN MALE TEARS.
But what about female tears? White woundedness and fragility also exist in feminist politics, often becoming most obvious in conversations about race. Mamta Motwani Accapadi is one of many feminists of colour who have described how white feminists use tears to deflect and avoid accountability in difficult discussions. These tears hide the harms we perpetrate through our involvement in white supremacy. And the power of white women’s tears still reflects white supremacy even when those tears are shed over genuine experiences of trauma.
Water was a powerful metaphor in #MeToo. The movement was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post. These metaphors for natural disaster evoked trauma on a massive scale. They constructed sexual violence as a ‘force of nature’, which (unfortunately) tapped long-established patriarchal myths. They also represented the movement as a collective weeping, a release of (white) tears.
Tears epitomise white femininity. They evoke the damsel in distress and the mourning, lamenting women of myth. Niobe wept unceasingly after her children were killed by Artemis and Apollo; even after being turned to stone, tears poured from her petrified face. Penelope waited for her husband Odysseus for two decades in her ‘bed of sorrows’, which she watered with tears until she fell asleep. In an article on #MeToo, Jamilah Lemieux commented: ‘white women know how to be victims. They know just how to bleed and weep in the public square, they fundamentally understand that they are entitled to sympathy.’
The cultural power of mainstream feminism is linked to the cultural power of white tears. The woundedness attached to whiteness can cross boundaries between reactionary and progressive politics. It encompasses the lost entitlements of the backlash and the resentment driving Brexit and Trump supporters, and the deeply felt trauma of sexual violence. These injuries (or perceived injuries, on the right) are not at all equivalent. But mainstream feminist activism against sexual violence is shaped by the woundedness of white bourgeois femininity.
This wounded white femininity was heightened and entrenched by colonialism. It reflects the dichotomies that legitimated conquest, violent dispossession and exploitation: dichotomies between the ‘respectable’ white bourgeois family and the ‘degeneracy’ of black and brown indigenous communities. Between the ‘pure’, ‘fragile’, ‘innocent’ white woman and the ‘uncontrolled’ sexuality of people of colour. Protecting white women was, and is, a key colonial preoccupation. Fear of revolution is also fear of rape.
This ‘risk’ posed to white women from the oversexualised Other has been the justification for community and state violence, both historically and now. It justified the genocidal subjugation of indigenous communities. It justified the lynching of enslaved and free black men and boys – perhaps most unforgettably, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. In a 2008 interview, Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant admitted he had not made sexual advances towards her. Bryant’s ‘white lie’ cost a black boy his life.
‘If the #MeToo revolution has proved anything,’ wrote Barbara Kingsolver in the Guardian in 2018, ‘it’s that women live under threat. Not sometimes, but all the time.’ This imperilled femininity is white. It depends on tropes of racist domination, even while it articulates the gendered harm of sexual violence. It is the white woman weeping in the public square. It is Niobe and Penelope. It is Carolyn Bryant. And white women’s tears can be deadly to people of colour.
Taking back control
The structural power of whiteness creates a sense of victimhood when entitlements and powers are threatened, as seen in backlash and ethno-nationalist forms of white politics. This produces the desire to ‘take back control’ – a slogan which has been at the forefront of the far-right in many countries. Brexit campaigners used it repeatedly and relentlessly. (Some) Americans elected Trump to ‘Make America Great Again’ (a slogan echoed in Spain – and about Spain –by far-right party Vox).
The backlash against feminism often claims that it has ‘gone too far’, a clarion call for men to regain their rightful place in the gender order. In more mainstream circles this is expressed as a concern that men are now the downtrodden sex. At the extremes, Men’s Rights Activists and incels attempt to ‘take back control’ of women – and sex – via violent acts. MRAs online combine rape and death threats with instructions to ‘make [them] a sandwich.’ In the incel mindset, mass murder is an appropriate response to not being able to get a date.
White feminists are well acquainted with the white man’s will to power. We bathe in male tears. However, the white will to power also exists as whiteness intersects with gender inequalities and individual experiences of victimisation. White women – even survivors of sexual violence – possess and express it too. It is possible that sexual violence might intensify it: since sexual assault and rape involve a loss of power and control, regaining this is crucial to successful recovery.
Survivors of sexual violence are advised to ‘take back control’ in a variety of ways, from making decisions about reporting and accessing support, to when and whether to engage in consensual sex afterwards, to going back to work or college. We are sometimes encouraged to make small changes for a sense of restored control, for instance cutting our hair. This is all sensible and necessary. But regaining control, for white women, can also be accomplished through ‘taking down’ powerful men via the ‘outrage economy’ of the media and the carceral state.
Harvey Weinstein. Larry Nassar. Kevin Spacey. Junot Diaz. Richard Dreyfuss. Gerard Depardieu. James Franco. David Copperfield. Sylvester Stallone. The ‘shitty media men.’ This is part of the ‘kill list’ of #MeToo, and its founder Tarana Burke has consistently critiqued its focus on ‘bad men’ like these. ‘No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege,’ she has said, ‘they keep bringing it back to individuals.’ Burke’s caution about ‘bringing down’ these men is not about shielding them from accountability. Instead, it is rooted in the knowledge that strengthening punitive systems will not generally affect men like these.
When American college student Brock Turner was convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, some feminists protested the lightness of his six-month sentence. One response was a bill in the California State Assembly, to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for sexual assault of an unconscious victim. But ‘here’s the thing with mandatory minimums’, wrote Meg Sri in Feministing, ‘they were designed to prop up the exact same system that cut Turner loose, and put a vast swath of people of color in droves behind bars.’
Then Vice-President Joe Biden was fêted by feminists after an open letter to Turner’s victim sharing his ‘furious anger’ at what she had been through. Biden’s necropolitical rage has made him a white feminist hero before. He was the lead Senate sponsor of the 1994 Crime Bill, which mandated more funding for police and prisons, more ‘three-strikes’ laws, an expansion of the death penalty, and less money to help incarcerated people access education. Feminists supported the bill, because it also contained the Violence Against Women Act.
In 2019, Alyssa Milano defended Biden against sexual misconduct allegations on the grounds of his ‘kind, empathetic leadership’. Biden is actually a hero of what Elizabeth Bernstein calls ‘carceral feminism’, which is undeniably white. And as Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba wrote about Aquilina’s sentencing of Nassar, carceral feminism is not transformative justice. Criminal punishment is state violence. Even when handed down to a privileged white person, it is ‘a structurally anti-Black apparatus, firmly rooted in the United States’ ongoing reliance on the financial exploitation and social control of Black people.’
For white feminists, criminal punishment represents protection, not oppression. It is the master’s intervention, the ‘empathy’ of Angry Dad. It is also the indirect demonstration of our own will to power. We ‘take back control’ via the punitive technologies of the state. And as the far-right encroaches upon governments across the world, as fascists weaponise ‘women’s safety’ against marginalised groups such as migrants, sex workers and trans people, mainstream feminism stays focused on state remedy for personal harm. The dominant conversation about sexual violence remains one between white women and white men, about who is more wounded and who is in control. We need a different conversation.
I am not saying that white women do not suffer sexual violence. I have experienced it myself. We are entitled to be angry; we are entitled to cry. But we are not entitled to politicise our pain with no concern for what it might do. We must be alive to white narcissism, white woundedness and the white will to power. We must acknowledge that these dynamics are not restricted to the backlash. It is urgent for white feminists, taking their lead from feminists of colour, to work against political whiteness in ourselves and in the mainstream of the movement.
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.
‘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.
[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.
An article entitled ‘Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship’ has recently been published in Areo Magazine. It describes what Helen Pluckrose (editor of Areo), James A. Lindsay (who has a PhD in mathematics) and Peter Boghossian (an assistant professor of philosophy) term a ‘reflexive ethnography’ of particular academic fields, in which they wrote twenty Sokal-style hoax papers and submitted them under pseudonyms to peer-reviewed journals. The papers cover a variety of topics including sexual violence in urban dog parks, fat bodybuilding, and men anally penetrating themselves with sex toys. The authors report that seven were accepted and four of these published online, while seven were ‘still in play’ when the hoax was revealed, and six ‘retired as fatally flawed or beyond repair.’
Pluckrose et al claim to be ‘left-leaning’ scholars who position themselves against what they pejoratively call ‘grievance studies’ (a term which, whether they intend it to or not, evokes a canon of right-wing ‘anti-victimism’). ‘Grievance studies’ encompasses a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies. Their key target is described as ‘social constructivism’, which seems to consist of any attempt to demystify categories usually defined as ‘natural’ (so they actually mean social constructionism). Some of the tenets they take issue with are: the idea that gender inequalities are not to do with biology; the idea that obesity is a ‘healthy and beautiful body choice’; specific theories such as standpoint epistemology; and specific methodologies such as autoethnography.
There’s nothing wrong with academics holding each other up to scrutiny – it’s healthy and necessary. But despite their claim to be engaging in ‘good-faith’ critique, it’s clear that Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian actually aim to undermine fields they have political – not scholarly – objections to. First, there is plenty of scholarship within ‘grievance studies’ which does not take a social constructionist perspective, and plenty outside it which does. Secondly, as they have targeted only journals in ‘grievance studies’ fields and not others, there is no way to know whether the problems they identify are specific or more general across the sector (a glance at Retraction Watch suggests the latter). Indeed, despite their professed mission to restore methodological rigour where they feel it’s lacking, their own study incorporates no control group (not to mention the complete lack of research ethics). Most of the hoaxed journals are gender studies ones, and Boghossian and Lindsay have targeted gender studies before. This was with a hoax piece entitled ‘The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct’, submitted to a journal which turned out to be pay-to-publish. It seems, then, that these three may be harbouring some grievances themselves.
The current hoax features papers which are certainly outlandish. But Pluckrose et al admit they were not able to achieve a ‘conceptual penis’ style hoax with the journals they targeted this time, and had to produce much ‘less obvious’ papers which, in many cases, involved inventing datasets and citing relevant literature. Furthermore, some of the papers are simply based in premises (e.g. social constructionism) or political principles (e.g trans inclusion) that the hoax authors find hard to accept. For instance, a paper entitled ‘An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity’ argues that establishments such as Hooters help to construct problematic forms of masculinity (whereas Pluckrose et al seem to think that men are just biologically programmed to like looking at breasts). In their description of the aims of this particular hoax, they say, ‘to see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women’. Well, yes – problematising heterosexual attraction is a key premise on which gender studies scholarship is based.
Like the hoax itself, their reporting of it is also riddled with misrepresentation. Editors of one of the targeted journals tell me that the paper submitted to them was recorded as a desk reject and did not go out to reviewers and was not, as the authors claim, given a revise and resubmit. Michael Keenan notes that another paper was rejected by the journal Hypatia three times, with very critical reviewer commentary, but Pluckrose et al describe the journal’s response as ‘warm’ and place this alongside details of a paper which was accepted, which is very misleading. They also report they received four invitations to peer review other papers ‘as a result of their exemplary scholarship’, but neglect to mention whether these were merely auto-generated from a list of previous submitters to the journals in question.
The exposure of the hoax ends with a demand that all major universities review various areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory and other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology) ‘in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.’ This is a chilling statement which will certainly feed right-wing attacks on gender studies such as those which have recently happened in Hungary, as well as the targeting of feminist and critical race scholars by the ‘alt’-right. Pluckrose et al claim this is not their intention, but given their various misrepresentations, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe them.
As a scholar in ‘grievance studies’ myself, I think the hoax says more about conditions in the sector than anything else. Pressure to publish has created an increasing volume of submissions (and arguably also a drop in standards). Unpaid peer review often has to be squeezed in between swelling workload demands. If we’re truly worried about academic rigour, we might want to start there. Alternatively, we could think less about the flaws of ‘grievance studies’ and more about how academic work has contributed to legitimate grievances by bolstering neoliberal economic reforms or neo-imperialist foreign policy. To me, that’s corruption of scholarship.
I am speaking today about sexual harassment and violence. It is difficult to speak about sexual harassment and violence; these are traumatic experiences, and survivors are subject to many forms of silencing. This is why ‘speaking out’ is crucial. We speak our truths publicly because problems need to be named, to be dealt with: and putting our trauma ‘out there’ is a way to avoid being consumed by it ‘in here’. But speech in this area is also vexed. Because of where and how we are able to speak our truths, because of how these truths constitute us as subjects and objects of discourse, and because of how our disclosures can be co-opted. We are also caught in a number of binaries and backlashes which position us or which we have to position against. There are binaries between men and women, between perpetrators and victims, which are often mapped directly on to each other. There is a misogynistic, racist backlash from the so-called ‘alt’-right, and on the left what Sara Ahmed calls ‘progressive sexism’, which gives cover to sexual harassment and violence through critiques of neoliberalism and concerns about ‘moral panic.’ This is the context in which I share my thoughts about how sexual harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’ in institutional and cultural economies.
When I first started writing this, the Anglo-American world was caught up in a reckoning in the form of #MeToo. Tarana Burke, who founded the campaign in 2006, called its recent incarnation ‘a watershed moment’ in feminist protest. The image above was created by Tara O Brien and I love it because it has a black woman in the centre. This represents Burke for me, and also evokes the tremendous debt white feminists like me owe black feminists, who play such central roles but whose experiences are so rarely centred, who are so often the first to act and the last to get the credit. Women like Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas put the issue of sexual harassment firmly on the agenda. Or Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the trans women of colour who were on the front lines of the Stonewall Riots. Or Rosa Parks, who was an anti-rape activist long before she became the icon of the Montgomery bus boycott.
I build on the legacy of these women as I do my research and activism around sexual harassment and violence. This started the same year Burke founded #MeToo, and has included working closely with the National Union of Students on ‘lad culture’, conducting case study projects at Imperial College and Sussex University on institutional culture, and co-leading a major pan-European intervention training staff in 21 different institutions to respond to disclosures. The universities involved in my research are all unique: but one of their similarities is the way they ‘reckon up’ sexual harassment and violence. In other words, market concerns tend to dominate once a disclosure is made. It is a different type of reckoning.
Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual abuse perpetrators; this is not news, or new. Sexual harassment and violence are normalised, minimised and dismissed by patriarchy, colonialism and other systems of domination, as well as complex and uneven structures of loyalty and hierarchy. This happens in families, the military, the church, the media, international aid communities, and everywhere else you look. But the marketisation of the university creates additional buffers, as the potential economic cost of disclosure is projected and totted up. We can’t lose our star Professor and his grant income, or his four-star publications. We don’t want negative media or NSS scores to affect student recruitment. These concerns interact with institutional hierarchies, and gender, race, class and other relations, to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently.
‘They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.’
‘In my opinion the university tries to hide sexual violence and in particular rape, because they are afraid for their good reputation. If a girl reports such a crime to a member of the university staff, they will always try to distract her from reporting to the police.’
These quotes from my research participants describe what I call ‘institutional airbrushing.’ On billboards and in magazines, marketable equals unblemished: all flaws must be airbrushed out. The contemporary brand naming of the university creates a similar imperative for perfection. So when a disclosure is made, the impact of this on the marketability of the institution can be more troubling than the act of harassment or violence it reveals. One of my participants described this as ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ Another highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet and dealing with them internally, which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ Institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: either issues are minimised, denied or concealed and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible (usually after media intervention), the perpetrator themselves is airbrushed from the institution, and it is made to appear as if they were never there.
Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements play a key part in these processes: and as Whitley and Page point out, they often function to protect the reputation of the institution rather than the one making the complaint. A Guardian Freedom of Information investigation in 2016 found that some universities had also paid compensation to students and staff, or given financial settlements to staff accused of sexual harassment to encourage them to resign. I will cover naming and shaming later – this strategy is ripe for co-option – but the process of airbrushing problems out rather than dealing with them means they are likely to re-appear elsewhere. A recent US study by named this the ‘pass the harasser’ phenomenon: faculty are allowed to move on quietly after sexual harassment allegations, only to be subject to similar complaints in their new posts. And when problems are not dealt with properly, they can escalate: a participant in my research reported an incident of stalking by a male fellow student which was not dealt with by her institution, after which he went on to attack three women.
As the institution is airbrushed, the survivor experiences the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal, which exacerbates trauma and perpetrates additional boundary violations. As one of my student participants said, ‘the survivor has to be the one to accommodate.’ And the experiences of many survivors go way beyond accommodation. Being threatened with removal from the institution is common, often linked to accusations or insinuations that a complainant is lying. Until recently, the 1994 Zellick guidelines have also been used to insulate institutions from having to take action if an allegation is not reported to the police. One of my participants described the senior managers at her university as ‘obstructionist, skeptical and incapable of empathy.’ This is the reality behind the perfect picture of an institution. This is the price paid by survivors within gendered economies of sexual harassment and violence in which they are assigned little value.
The airbrushing of sexual predators is especially interesting when compared to how universities have neglected scholars targeted for their political views. Last year, the American Association of University Professors issued two separate directives to universities to defend academics more proactively, after professors received threats for criticising President Trump. Around the same time, a lecturer at Bristol University was supported by Jewish colleagues after an investigation was launched against her, following a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. There have been other incidents like this, many directed at women and/or scholars of colour (and women of colour in particular), in the context of another backlash in which the ‘alt’-right are targeting universities as sites of critical speech and thought. It is possible that the differential treatment of political academics and those accused of sexual harassment may reflect gendered and raced power relations: unlike radical politics, sexual abuse in institutions tends to be the behaviour of men with privilege and power. But it might also reflect what it is possible (and impossible) to airbrush out of the picture. In contrast to sexual predators, political academics tend to operate in the open: our ‘misdemeanours’ cannot so easily be denied or covered up.
In institutions where airbrushing is the problem, exposing the blemish is often the antidote. Campaigns against sexual harassment and violence, exemplified by #MeToo, have centred on speaking out – sharing our experiences and naming our perpetrators – as a way to interrupt the processes by which they are protected and we are dismissed. Naming and shaming has been especially successful when the perpetrator is a powerful male academic: Colin McGinn, Thomas Pogge and Lee Salter are a few of the names which have circulated in media publics, and there are many more. This is part of a long history of feminist testimony, ranging from Sojurner Truth’s speech to the Akron Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, to the activism of black women in the US civil rights movement, to the phrase ‘the personal is political’, which underpinned second-wave women’s liberation struggles. But the contemporary movement against sexual harassment and violence tends to position the relationship between the personal and political as unidirectional, creating an equation between sharing experience and feminist politics.
I want to trouble that equation. The relationship between the personal and political is reciprocal because of the constitution of subjectivities, and identities, in the web of discourse. And as Angela Davis has said, ‘we often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives.’ Because of this, there are ongoing debates in feminist philosophy and theory about how our ‘wounds’ enter the political sphere, and what they do once they get there. I take various insights from these discussions: from Sara Ahmed the idea of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, and from Wendy Brown and Carrie Rentschler (in different ways) a concern with how discourses of victimhood are both articulated and ventriloquized within political contexts. From black feminists like Angela Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw I take a strong concern with how personal pain (and especially that of white women) can be weaponised by the punitive, carceral state.
I am interested in what sexual violence experiences do. I have theorised them as investment capital in affective economies, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. Sexual violence narratives can be invested in media publics to generate further capital in the form of emotion, and not always to progressive ends. As Ashwini Tambe writes about #MeToo:
It is worth keeping in mind that the primary instrument of redress in #MeToo is public shaming and criminalization of the perpetrator. This is already too familiar a problem for black men. We know the history of how black men have been lynched based on unfounded allegations that they sexually violated white women. We know how many black men are unjustly incarcerated. The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been reversed—with accusers’ words taken more seriously than those of the accused—is a familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this dynamic.
The figure of the survivor is affectively powerful, but not politically neutral: black feminists know this well. My work has also examined how ‘survivor stories’ have been used in campaigns to criminalise sex workers, or to exclude trans women from women-only space. These politics connect with national and geopolitical dynamics, especially the weaponisation of ‘empathy’ by states and institutions for projects of social and political control (Carolyn Pedwell’s work is important here). Bush’s ‘empathy’ for the women of Afghanistan was a key justification for his War on Terror. ‘Empathy’ for survivors of sex trafficking can legitimise crackdowns on immigration and/or commercial sex. The performance of emotion can also function to detract from harms states and institutions are perpetrating: this evokes Theresa May’s platitudes in support of #MeToo, while her government cut funding for domestic and sexual violence services and presided over the state-sanctioned abuse of vulnerable migrant women at Yarl’s Wood.
When narratives of sexual harassment and violence function as capital, they accrue value in this political context. And in the testimonial cultures of neoliberalism, pain and trauma are key currencies for the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. ‘Disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ are both phrases coined to describe our contemporary fascination with the troubles of others. There is a desire in the corporate media for this:
SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT ‘EPIDEMIC’ LEVELS IN UK UNIVERSITIES
STANFORD SEX OFFENDER BROCK TURNER IS APPEALING HIS CONVICTION AND WANTS A NEW TRIAL
CAMBRIDGE DON ACCUSED OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT UNDER INVESTIGATION AGAIN
SICKENING RISE OF THE MALE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WHO TREAT WOMEN LIKE MEAT
In institutions where airbrushing is the norm and where some are protected at the expense of others, we often have few options other than speaking out in these media outlets. But as investment capital in the outrage economy, our disclosures are subject to other forms of reckoning up: an experience that circulates here will generate more value if names are named, if institutions are shamed, if personal details are shared. Survivors and their experiences become clickbait in markets where truth is often second to revenue generation. This has a number of effects, one of which is distortion: alleged perpetrators can be lionised if they happen to have a good story, and this feeds and is fed by the backlash. Our arguments can be distorted too: and I want to return to the Guardian’s Freedom of Information investigation, which uncovered almost 300 allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty made in six years across a sample of 120 universities. Although this constituted an average of less than half an allegation per institution per year, the headline read: ‘Sexual harassment at epidemic levels in UK universities.’
Overstatements like these may seem harmless in the service of putting an important issue on the agenda. They are certainly an antidote to the dismissal and silencing survivors have been subject to. But the strong relation between the affective and the political in this area does not mean emotional needs and political strategies are, or should be, one and the same. While considering the needs of survivors, we must also consider what Davis calls the intersectionality of struggles, and it is likely that such sensationalism will produce a punitive response. One of the recommendations of the Guardian investigation was for a strict ‘no-contact’ rule between staff and students, the penalty for violating which would be a ‘swift termination with a public statement and a mandated report to a central UK registry.’ These types of proposals present problems of co-option.
We often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. The ‘ideal victim’ of sexual violence is female, white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, young and without disabilities: the Central Park jogger. What Davis calls the ‘police blotter rapist’ is usually a man of colour. This partly explains why #MeToo and other mainstream movements against sexual violence tend to be dominated by white and privileged women. And when we share our experiences of sexual violence, the affective intensity of the act does not insulate it from the political effects of our privilege. Our ‘affect worlds’ are structured, not least by our relationship to the institution and the state.
Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, has consistently spoken out against its focus on ‘bringing down’ powerful men. As she said in an interview, ‘no matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they [meaning white women] keep bringing it back to individuals.’ These individuals, like the academics who should be held accountable for sexual harassment, are not generally marginalised men of colour. But like Burke, I am not sure that insulates our politics from intersectional questions. Creating a more retaliatory system may disproportionately affect those with less institutional and social power. Especially in the current political context, it is worth considering whose might be the first names on the proposed academic sex offenders’ list. Here, I want to quote Jane Ward:
These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.
These ‘dyke stories’, and others like them, have caused some queer commentators to look on #MeToo and similar movements with apprehension. And queer women perhaps escape lightly compared to our trans sisters, who are often seen as sexual predators even by those who identify as feminists. There is a real possibility that, like earlier feminist movements against sexual violence, pornography and prostitution, campaigns against sexual misconduct in academia will find their strongest allies on the political right. This both poses and reflects what I call the ‘angry Dad’ problem: we may be glad when Dad gets angry on our behalf, but we cannot necessarily stop him turning on us or those we care about. The ‘angry Dad’ of the white feminist movement is the patriarchal, racist state or institution. White feminism has always been implicated in authorising these structures.
Coming back to institutional airbrushing: naming, shaming and punishing can reinforce the message that all the institution needs to do to ‘clean’ itself is airbrush out the problematic individual. A faculty member in my research described how naming and shaming had been used in her department to make it appear that an abusive staff member was anomalous, rather than emblematic of the culture. ‘Like, you know,’ she said, ‘we can’t allow misogyny to take over the department, we can’t allow this to destroy the reputation of the department.’ As survivors, we might be gratified when our experiences accrue value in the outrage economy, when they are not worth much elsewhere. Naming and shaming can also go well: Ally Smith’s exposure of her abusive relationship with her lecturer Lee Salter at Sussex, and Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment, have been two major institutional interventions. But media events can also create the conditions for airbrushing individual perpetrators out of institutions, with little effect on the structures and cultures that enable and dismiss harassment and violence. Institutional accountability becomes individualised.
Speaking out about sexual violence is vexed by these possibilities of co-option; speaking about these possibilities is not unproblematic either. I want to return now to the idea (and reality) of backlash. Across the political spectrum, from the ‘alt’-right to what Ray Filar calls the ‘manarchists’, #MeToo and similar campaigns are being accused of McCarthyism and characterised as ‘witch hunts’ and sometimes even ‘lynchings’, by those who want to defend the status quo. The enemy may be ‘special interests’, ‘political correctness’, ‘moral panic’, ‘censorship’ or even ‘carceral feminists’, but what draws these arguments together is that structural critiques of how punitive systems impact on the marginalised are repurposed to protect individual privileged men. And as Ahmed says, the rod of the state is not defined as the problem: our resistance is.
These arguments are not made in good faith, and we should take care to separate them from our own reflexive conversations. But defensiveness threatens criticality, and the proximity of the backlash has shrunk the space for us – especially white feminists – to have the conversations we need to have. One of them is about how our disclosures can be co-opted to do the work of Angry Dad. In this conversation the deeply flawed nature of our institutions is key: we have to refuse another equation, between institutional discipline and social justice. There is also a different discussion, in which we have to allow ourselves to hope and gather any faith we have left in the university as a site of progressive speech and thought. This is because there is a danger that our work will be co-opted by the contemporary backlash against academia, especially by the ‘alt’-right who, even as they decry our ‘puritanical’ politics, will use any tool at their disposal to target scholars and institutions on their watch lists. We need to refuse that, too.
This is not an argument for the reputational protection of institutions. There is much work to be done on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, and it needs to happen in the open or universities will not be able to build trust. We name the problem in order to tackle the problem: there is no other way. The university is not neutral, but neither is it productive to see it as wholly bad or good. We need to understand universities as complex institutional systems, political and academic cultures, workplaces and communities, and perhaps we need to consider how we can both hold them to account and defend them.
#MeToo has been described as a reckoning: the same could be said of the recent exposure of sexual misconduct in higher education. There is a different kind of reckoning at work in how sexual harassment and violence enter institutional economies in which the financial value of the university takes precedence. Sexual violence experiences are also ‘reckoned up’ in the outrage economy of the media: how many clicks, how many shares, how much advertising revenue. In the institution our experiences have little value; in the media they appear to have a lot. This value may be all that matters on a personal level, and survivors should disclose in whatever way feels right: it is not our responsibility to improve the limited options available. But at the level of the political, we must understand the different economies in which sexual violence experiences circulate and accrue value, as well as the various contemporary threats of co-option and backlash. This context shapes how, where, when and why we share: and, most crucially, what happens after that.
Content note: this post contains reference to sexual harassment and violence.
Universities in the US, and increasingly in the UK, are finding themselves under siege. The far right is targeting academics and their social justice work, bolstered by a mainstream suspicion of ‘experts’ and ‘elites’, and a general rightward shift in politics and public opinion. With a white supremacist, alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in the White House, a hardline English government, and a ‘new normal’ that involves overt and unrepentant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we’re in for a tough few years. I have previously written about the feminist classroom as a ‘safe space’, and the need to protect our most vulnerable students. I have also thought a lot about how the neoliberal university suppresses the very capacities required to do this. I have theorised an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual violence, exploring how institutional responses (or non-responses) to violence and abuse are shaped by neoliberal rationalities. In this post, I will attempt to sketch how the market framings of sexual violence in the university interact with our contemporary political field and growing hostility to progressive work.
Neoliberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has so often become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. Harvey defines neoliberalism as an economic process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself, usually to the detriment of labour. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We are all expected to maximise our speculative value within numerous systems of rating and ranking: we become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’. Everything, including education, is configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state, the corporation, or the self.
The university, then, is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Academics reading this will be well acquainted with the various metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. Of course, these sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class. To paraphrase McKenzie Wark, this contradiction suggests that neoliberalism is not so much rationality as ideology, functioning to maintain the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth through individualization, responsibilisation, and withdrawal of care.
Sexual violence in UK universities made its way on to the agenda after the 2010 NUS report ‘Hidden Marks’, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned Isabel Young and I to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. Activities such as initiation ceremonies, nude calendars, sexist themed parties and wet T-shirt contests all came into focus in a ‘moral panic’ around alcohol, pornography, casual sex, and as the Daily Mail put it (without irony), the ‘sickening rise of the male university students who treat women like meat.’ More recently there has been an emphasis on sexual harassment by university staff, which has also seen dramatic media stories about ‘epidemic’ levels of this phenomenon. Opposing all this is a rather bogus politics around ‘free speech’, in which campaigns against lad culture and sexual harassment are positioned as an infringement of men’s rights. This chatter provides a backdrop to a wave of initiatives including policy work, consent campaigns, awareness-raising, disclosure training and bystander intervention, mostly student- and faculty-led.
This is also the political and cultural setting for university responses to sexual harassment and violence. I have argued before that these are preceded by ‘reckonings’ around potential risk and effects on future value: this brings us back to the higher education market, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity means that the impact of disclosure on institutional value must be projected and totted up. Markets in higher education operate via hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels. They are also subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media coverage to damage our standing with potential students or key international donors. In some situations, we may reckon these priorities up against each other.
In the case of sexual harassment and violence, we have often seen perpetrators being protected because their welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. The power of being a ‘four-star’ academic (or footballer, perhaps) can facilitate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Compared to this, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:
They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.
My eleven years of work on this topic has taken me into very different institutions, but what has struck me is their similarities in terms of how harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’. In most cases, concerns with institutional value take precedence over care for survivors. The previous quote is from an elite English university, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a student from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet…which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.
The lack of care for survivors reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one another, with no inherent value of their own. Or almost all of them, perhaps: there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. In his discussion, Ball mentions the REF: and although he does not elaborate, it is certainly true that this is an exercise in which scholarly work is given a numerical rating and aggregate numbers determine the rank of a department or institution, while the people in it disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently. Or at least, until the risks of protecting them outweigh the benefits, in institutional terms.
The impulse to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence contrasts with situations where academics have been singled out for their political views or scholarship. Last September, the Middle East Studies Association wrote that the State University of New York had failed to protect a faculty member, raised and taught in Israel, who had been targeted for supporting the academic boycott of that state. This February, the American Association of University Professors said administrations needed to be more proactive in defending academics, after a professor at Sacramento State received a barrage of attacks for criticising President Trump. In England, a lecturer at Bristol was recently supported by Jewish colleagues after university management launched an investigation against her on grounds of anti-Semitism, following media coverage of a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. These incidents reflect a broader context in which the far right in both the US and England has pinpointed universities as hotbeds of left-wing indoctrination. This narrative is increasingly being adopted by the mainstream press and accepted by some of liberal persuasion, under the rubrics of ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Earlier this month, the Times published an article entitled ‘Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech.’ In February, in a piece entitled ‘The Threat from Within’, former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy argued that the university was ‘not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view’.
Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ on the part of the far right perform a rhetorical sleight of hand. They locate legitimate political speech on the right of the spectrum: conversely, left-wing and progressive speech is not speech but anti-speech, a threat to freedom of speech in itself. This convoluted rhetoric (and its growing influence) only makes sense in the context of broader shifts in what is tolerated and found acceptable. As social justice gains recede, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and other prejudices are increasingly seen as mere differences of opinion, while work to tackle them is situated as intolerant and oppressive. A recent report by the Adam Smith Institute on ‘left wing bias’ in UK academia cited the (discredited) science in The Bell Curve around raced differences in intelligence, and Lawrence Summers’ remarks about women’s intelligence in relation to their under-representation in STEM, as examples of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas which had been subject to unfair condemnation. This discussion in the UK has reached its apex with the Spiked ‘Free Speech University Rankings’, in which anti sexual harassment policies (among other initiatives) can get an institution a ‘red’ rating. The 2017 rankings were reported largely uncritically in English liberal media outlets, as well as in conservative ones.
The contortions involved in using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect bigotry and harassment echo earlier appeals to the notion of ‘banter’ as a shield against criticism of laddish behaviour. Similar rhetorical strategies can also be found amongst more progressive communities: Sara Ahmed uses the terms ‘critical sexism’ and ‘critical racism’ to refer to academics who identify as left-wing or radical, who have articulated noncompliance with equality and harassment policies as a rebellion against neoliberal audit culture and Victorian ‘moral panics.’ However, contemporary far right rhetoric around ‘freedom of speech’ is part of a broader struggle over social norms in response to recent political and cultural shifts, in which universities are targeted as sites of potential resistance. Ironically, this operates alongside the genuine threat of censorship which resides in the government’s Prevent programme: this includes in its list of ‘potentially extremist’ views criticism of wars in the Middle East, and criticism of Prevent. The resounding silence of ‘free speech’ campaigners around Prevent (it is not mentioned in the Spiked rankings, for example) is confirmation, should this be needed, that their politics is not about freedom of speech at all.
If these debates are not worrying to those of us who work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, they should be. Our gains are not secure, because universities tend to function according to market principles alone. Both the protection of sexual predators and the lack of it for political academics reflect a preoccupation with public opinion in the context of what it is possible (and not possible) to airbrush out, rather than a consideration of the principles at stake. This highlights the apolitical nature of the neoliberal university, in which equality and diversity are not ends in themselves but subordinate to market concerns. Indeed, they are often performed for market benefit, for instance in schemes such as Athena SWAN, in which institutional airbrushing can require that bad practice is not addressed but covered up. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education shapes a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. This is evident in a growing exasperation, not confined to the far right, with ‘snowflake students’ and their demands for safer spaces: indeed, the care these students deserve increasingly goes instead to those who claim that principles of anti-discrimination stifle their ability to speak.
For Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus and never homo politicus. Business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, and the world is governed by market forces, not elected representatives. Our democratic duty is to conduct ourselves properly in the market, and social and political issues have market-based solutions. When politics recedes, resistance can be repackaged as ‘complaint’. Sara Ahmed has highlighted how those who bring problems to institutional attention become the problem, rather than the issues they raise. Feminist, anti-racist and other social justice academics are routinely cast as ‘complainers’, and their concerns summarily dismissed. However, in far right campaigns against these (and other) political academics, another form of complaint is beginning to be deployed: student, or consumer, complaint. In a 2016 article in the US National Review, entitled ‘Yes, universities discriminate against conservatives’, David French argued that ‘parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to glorified propaganda mills’. Calls for US academia to reflect the ideological balance of the population, now spreading to England and overseas, use the language of democracy but may ultimately send the message that the customer is always right.
In response to recent activism and policy work across the UK, most universities are taking a stand – rhetorically at least – against sexual harassment and violence. However, it is worth considering whether a showdown with the far right around the spectre of ‘left wing intolerance’ is somewhere in our future. Negative media coverage of consent workshops has already situated them as a threat to free speech. Is it possible that students might eventually demand protection while they parrot rape myths or talk about grabbing their classmates by the pussy? As has already happened in the US, could we see threats to withdraw government funding if we refuse to platform those whose hate speech has been redefined as merely ‘provocative’? If the ideological targeting of universities continues to influence the mainstream, this will shape institutional reckonings. Starting now, we need to challenge university administrations to recognise, and speak out against, these manoeuvrings for what they are. We must also ask our institutions to consider their values, and to recentre and reaffirm principles of equality and progressive social change. To support survivors – and other vulnerable people – we must all figure out where our lines are drawn, and then resolve to hold them.