Tackling sexual harassment and violence in universities: seven lessons from the UK

This is the text of an online keynote I gave, hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and the Freie Universität Berlin, on February 5th 2021. It was the last in a series of sessions on sexual harassment and violence in universities; when I was invited to speak, I was honoured but also concerned about what I could offer as a UK-based academic whose work on sexual violence has been focused on universities in my home country. My work started in 2006 with a pilot study at my own institution, and since then I have been involved in a number of research and intervention projects, collectives and campaigns. I thought it would be useful if I tried to distil what I have learned over the past fifteen years for fellow scholars, activists and organisers in other contexts and countries. So here are seven lessons from the UK: I hope some of them will resonate and perhaps help others avoid the mistakes I have made. In fifteen years my work has been characterised more by failure than success: but along the way I have at least learned to fail better.

My first lesson is: name the problem.

Sara Ahmed has written: ‘When we put a name to a problem, we are doing something.’ This doing, in her words, is ‘gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing.’ This gathering up, this making tangible, can allow the thing to be addressed. As James Baldwin famously said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ It was the UK student movement that made us face the issue of sexual harassment and violence in our universities: in the early 2010s, some amazing young feminists persistently named and worked to address it. I want to acknowledge, amongst others, Kelley Temple, Susuana Amoah and Hareem Ghani, who were all Women’s Officers of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The first national study of sexual harassment and violence against students was published by NUS in 2010. Called Hidden Marks, this was a survey of over two thousand self-identified women students across all four UK nations. One in seven had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault; 68 per cent had been sexually harassed. I worked with NUS on the research, and shortly after the report’s release they commissioned me, with Isabel Young, to research ‘lad culture’ in universities and how that framed sexual harassment and violence.

Isabel and I recruited forty women studying in England and Scotland, for focus groups and interviews. Our participants were very clear on what ‘lad culture’ was: a group dynamic enacted by young men in team sports and on the social scene, characterised by misogynist and homophobic ‘banter’. This ‘banter’ often involved rape jokes and sexual harassment and had the potential to escalate into more extreme forms of sexual violence. Our report, entitled That’s What She Said, theorised ‘lad culture’ as a conducive context for sexual violence. It was launched on International Women’s Day 2013.

That’s What She Said entered a climate in which women were ready to snap. For Ahmed, ‘feminist snap’ occurs when our experiences of negotiating worlds that demean and exclude us become overwhelming. The report prompted an outpouring – in feminist groups, students’ unions, classrooms, faculty offices and on social media – from women who had had enough. And as Ahmed says, moments of ‘snap’ can be catalysts for change. In the movement that emerged around ‘lad culture’ we raised awareness, created training, and developed partnerships with local support services. We used the media to ‘name and shame’ perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. We lobbied university leaders for a better response. By 2015, this had prompted the formation of a task force by Universities UK (the body that represents UK university leaders) on violence against women, harassment and hate crime.

The taskforce report, released a year later, recommended that all institutions adopt centralised reporting procedures, develop effective disclosure responses, and run training programmes. Afterwards, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made £4.7 million available for projects addressing sexual harassment and hate crime on campus, which supported institutional initiatives across the country. There was also further data-gathering: in 2018, NUS and the 1752 group (the UK’s first lobby group on staff-student sexual misconduct) conducted a study with almost two thousand current and former students, and found that 40 per cent had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from university staff.

In 2019, three years after the taskforce report, Universities UK circulated the results of a progress review of 95 institutions across all four UK nations. It found that 87 per cent had a working group on sexual harassment, violence and/or hate crime and 76 per cent had secured senior leadership buy-in. 81 per cent had delivered training, and 78 per cent had developed or improved reporting mechanisms. Crucially, it found there had been an increase in reported incidents and ‘a profound change in the initiatives and ideas that are now available for sharing across the sector’. It concluded that ‘over time, this will help facilitate cultural change at both institutional and sector level’.

The activist movement against ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in UK universities had succeeded in naming the problem and getting institutions to face it. Yet despite this huge achievement, I was circumspect. Institutional actions had mainly consisted of policy compliance and getting rid of ‘bad apples’ using disciplinary procedures. The movement, despite the input of a number of women of colour, was dominated by fellow white women who seemed happy to accept or even encourage this approach. But sexual harassment and violence are not a disease infecting particular ‘bad apples’ – they sit deep within the tangle of roots that nourishes the whole rotten tree.

This leads me to my second lesson: don’t individualise the issue.

Sexual violence is about systems. To understand it we have to think big: I theorise it as a pivot for heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and its colonial extensions. It works at the level of the nation, the state, the community and the household; it allows for the extraction of socially reproductive and hyper-exploited productive labour; it facilitates the expropriation of land and resources. It enters the world via four vectors – threats, acts, imputations, and punishment – and these must be considered together if we are to understand why sexual violence occurs and how to stop it.

Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. They keep women in our place and enable men’s domestic power over us. They punish people who do not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. They support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which economic and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape has been used to terrorise and subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).

Imputations and punishment of sexual violence have achieved the same ends. Black and other racialised and colonised men have been brutalised and killed following accusations made by white women. Sexual violence is used as a political device to construct populations, cultures and nations as dangerous, to justify border regimes and military-industrial projects. The spectre of sexual danger can be deployed to demonise and deport migrants, and to funnel racialised and classed populations into the criminal punishment system. It can also be brandished to construct queer and trans people as a threat.

Sexual violence in the university performs all these functions, at a smaller scale. Sexual harassment and assault are used to demean and dominate, to make students and staff (usually women) unwelcome, to keep us under control, and to express and maintain supremacy. In UK student communities, there is evidence that ‘lad culture’ and its attendant sexual violence is the preserve of middle- and upper-class white men who see successful young women as a threat. Sexual harassment of students by staff usually involves senior male academics (the majority of whom are white) expressing their entitlement and abusing their power. As well as women, gender-nonconforming students are at high risk of violence, and being marginalised by race, class and/or disability creates additional vulnerabilities.

Acts and threats of sexual violence reserve and shape the space of the university for privileged white men (and some white women, too). They articulate and preserve the power relations of the institution and the wider world. And in universities, as in the wider world, certain groups are constructed as more sexually violent than others. There is anecdotal evidence that queer academics, especially those who are also Black, are more likely to be accused of sexual misconduct. A recent report described how anti-radicalisation agendas in UK higher education construct Muslim men as particularly misogynistic. The institution is not neutral when it comes to addressing sexual violence.

My third lesson is: know the institution.

As with sexual violence, when considering the institution, it is necessary to think big. I draw on abolitionist university studies, which understands education as key to the capitalist, colonial, modern world-making project. Eli Meyerhoff theorises education as a mode of primitive accumulation, which creates the preconditions for racial capitalism through hoarding the means of study and using them to credentialise us for stratified economic roles. It inculcates us into ways of knowing and learning that reflect capitalist norms and practices: separate public and private spheres, the rational and consuming individual, and colonial dichotomies between culture and nature, modernity and tradition, value and waste. We become ‘competent’ in the knowledges of the state and status quo, and other forms of world-making are cast as deprived and less evolved.

Higher education has shaped nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, democracy and ‘civilisation’. Anthropology, economics, demography, sociology, psychology and criminology have rationalised exclusion and exploitation. UK universities are deeply embedded in state capitalist violence, including post-9/11 counter-terrorism regimes through which academics become border guards. They are also places where student protest is violently repressed. As economic actors themselves, universities are central to flows of dispossession and accumulation. They have been built upon indigenous and/or enclosed common lands and enriched by transatlantic slavery. They are now entrenched in the neoliberal rationalities and practices of privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing and precarity, and are subject to, and have, complex financial interests (including in the military-industrial complex).

During COVID-19 in England, the moral bankruptcy of our higher education system was starkly exposed. Our increasingly privatised universities lured students to campuses with promises of ‘Covid-safe’ teaching, to collect fees and rents. Students were blamed and punished as the virus inevitably spread, then told they could not return home and trapped in infection hotspots by fences and cops. There was horror and condemnation of university leaders as this situation progressed. People who perhaps did not know before, realised exactly what the institution is. But this institution is what white feminists have looked to, to protect us from sexual violence. How can the institution protect us from violence, when the institution is violence? The university cannot not save us – it is what Audre Lorde would call the master’s house.

So, my fourth lesson is: put down the master’s tools.

Activists against sexual violence in UK universities have mostly made gains in policy. In response to our lobbying, institutions have made written commitments, amended discipline processes, revised reporting procedures and commissioned training. We have worked hard for these successes and have done well to achieve them. But policy machinery constructs the institution as benign and able to be worked on, concealing the violence built into its very existence. Contemporary UK policy work also tends to be undertaken within neoliberal systems of measurement, monitoring and audit that generate surplus value for the university. This creates an emphasis on maintaining the appearance of a functional institution, not worrying about the reality.

This is what Ahmed terms ‘institutional polishing’ – initiatives ostensibly about equality, that are actually about little more than generating a marketable image. These initiatives are what she calls ‘non-performative’ – they do not produce the effects they name but substitute for them instead. A non-performative is seen as doing something, when in fact it allows institutions not to do anything else. A report produced in response to an issue, which is then used to declare that the issue has been addressed. A policy which is created and publicised, but ultimately not followed because just having the policy is what counts. In the UK, it has become important for institutions to look like they are doing something about sexual harassment and violence. But looking like and doing are not necessarily the same thing – in fact, sometimes the first allows us to escape the second. Policy is very often one of the master’s tools.

Institutional polishing can also turn into institutional airbrushing when problems emerge. ‘Naming and shaming’ perpetrators has been another key strategy of the mainstream movement against sexual violence, and it is powerful because it threatens to mar the institution’s polished image. But the key word here is ‘image’ – the impact of the disclosure on the surplus value of the institution is more troubling than the disclosure itself. Communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators. But in universities (which present themselves as communities but are actually corporations), the financial impact of disclosure must also be projected and totted up. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished, so the problem is airbrushed out.

What I call institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. Either issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible, the perpetrator is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution and it is made to appear as if they were never there. Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements are often used, or financial settlements given to perpetrators to convince them to resign. Institutional airbrushing stabilises the system; it communicates and embeds the idea that all the institution needs to do is to remove the ‘bad’ individual. After the blemish is airbrushed out, the malaise that produced it remains. And after the blemish is airbrushed out, it has a tendency to reappear elsewhere. ‘Bad apples’ can always re-attach themselves to a different rotten tree. This is called ‘pass the harasser’ and it is a significant problem in UK higher education.

I am not saying that people who perpetrate sexual violence have a right to keep their jobs. I also know that not excluding a perpetrator from an institution can be a de facto exclusion of survivors. But I am concerned that, like capitalism itself, institutional airbrushing moves problems around rather than addressing them. I am also concerned that ultimately, we may outsource our perpetrators to women in lower-status, lower-paid economic sectors. Although ‘naming and shaming’ can be a form of direct action when other avenues are closed, it more often triggers institutional airbrushing than genuine institutional change. Institutional airbrushing is one of the master’s tools: it does not prioritise the personal interests of survivors but the financial interests of the institution. And when done in the corporate media, ‘naming and shaming’ can also be co-opted in the service of the bottom line.

This brings me to my fifth lesson: don’t mistake outrage for justice.

In the corporate media, trauma is big business. The phrases ‘disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ have been coined to describe our fascination with the troubles of others, which creates a market for the consumption of pain: photographs of drowned migrants on European beaches, stories of sexual assault in Hollywood, and videos of Black people being brutalised and killed by police. This material, usually fed to us online via ‘clickbait’, gives a quick fix of sympathy and outrage but does not often lead to systemic analysis or radical political action. Instead, it objectifies its subjects to make media outlets money. In the corporate media, holding governments, institutions and individuals to account comes a poor second behind manipulating outrage to generate revenue. This is what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the contemporary Western media.

Sexual violence stories are capital in this economy, exemplified by the viral iteration of #MeToo. Although it was started by Black feminist Tarana Burke as a survivor-led movement of mutual support, #MeToo went viral following a tweet by white actor Alyssa Milano, as a moment of mass media disclosure. It 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.

A key limitation of this mainstream iteration of #MeToo is that media markets, like all markets, are profoundly nihilistic. Clicks, likes and shares are a multi-denominational currency. As long as they accumulate, as long as media companies can make advertising revenue and harvest our data, it does not matter why. In other words, the media using sexual violence as clickbait does not imply support for feminist goals. The media using sexual violence as clickbait does not mean survivors will not themselves be vilified if this happens to be the juicer story.

In my fifteen years in the field, I have become deeply uncomfortable with the key strategies of mainstream sexual violence activism. When institutions let us down, we often ‘invest’ our trauma in networked media markets, to generate outrage and the visibility we need to further our cause. But cynical media corporations exploit this outrage, building visibility for their brands by encouraging audiences to consume our pain. Meanwhile the threat of damage to the brands of exposed institutions and organisations leads to an airbrushing of ‘bad men’ from high-profile sectors. These individuals usually move on to start all over again, while oppressive systems are left intact.

When individual men are ‘named and shamed’ in the media, when institutional policies and initiatives focus on punishing or excluding these ‘bad apples’, there is almost no effect on the whole rotten tree. Indeed, we often end up nourishing its roots – when mainstream feminist activism relies on the patriarchal, racist, capitalist institution for punishment, we use the master’s tools to try to dismantle the master’s house. Like the carceral feminism that calls on the punitive state to put perpetrators away, activism against sexual violence in universities fails to dismantle the intersecting systems that produce sexual violence and strengthens them instead.

Because of this, my sixth lesson is: stop calling the manager.

The punitive tendencies of the mainstream movement against sexual violence are a key part of what I call its political whiteness. Political whiteness involves, among other things, a clear conceptual distinction between victims and perpetrators, an understanding of the state as benign, and a belief that punishment works. White and middle-class feminists have called for more police, more convictions and longer sentences – and when something goes wrong in our workplaces, we ask the manager to sort it out. And when we turn to authority, we legitimate and bolster that authority. In our efforts to address personal abuses of power, we turn to the institutional power that facilitates them. In thinking we can be safe in our institutions by punishing the ‘bad’ men, we conceal the fact that the institution itself is unsafe.

Our demands for discipline can also increase the institution’s power and ability to perpetrate violence. Policies that make it easier to dismiss harassers might chip away at everyone’s employment rights, especially in a post-pandemic context where universities are looking to make substantial cuts. Technologies such as codes of conduct or ‘morality clauses’ in employment contracts, or a ‘sex offenders’ register’ for higher education (which has been suggested by some activists), could be misused to target groups seen as ‘deviant’ or a sexual threat. Such forms of institutional governance are also ultimately designed to protect the university from liability, not to protect us. Law firm Pinsent Masons, which represents UK university administrations as they defend themselves against discrimination claims and has given them advice on breaking strikes, has written the guidance for universities on how to handle alleged claims of sexual misconduct.

There is also a difference between punishment and accountability. Punishment is a passive and impersonal process – the person who has been harmed hands over their power and is kept in the dark (although nevertheless it requires a huge amount of courage and work). Accountability, in contrast, is both personal and active. For Mia Mingus, accountability requires four steps from someone who has caused harm: self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behaviour. It centres the person who has been harmed, their understanding of why the behaviour was harmful and their definition of what constitutes repair. It makes space for that repair, acknowledging that none of us is above causing harm and we may all need that space someday. It is the job of the perpetrator and not the survivor, and requires significant community input and support.

Accountability, as described by Mingus, would be difficult to achieve in higher education institutions which are corporations rather than communities, in which we are hierarchically organised, individualised, distrustful and overworked. None of this is conducive to honest communication and collective action. True accountability would require a collectivist, not a capitalist, institution – and this is probably an oxymoron. That does not mean, though, that while supporting survivors as best we can within the options currently available, we cannot also try to move in a better direction. In the longer term, we cannot keep calling the manager and relying on the system to do the work of accountability for us, when it is what needs to be dismantled.

This sets up my seventh and final lesson: be in it for the long haul. 

After fifteen years in the field, I heed Lorde’s advice that refusing to use the master’s tools may only be difficult for those who ‘still define the master’s house as their only source of support’. This is an invitation to stop relying on the master to deal with our collective problems, and to join the work of building a different house. A house where we tackle things together means a house founded on care – not the privatised care of the market and heteronormative family, not the bare minimum provided by the institution and state, but more capacious and collective ways of surviving and thriving. Instead of strengthening the status quo, mainstream feminist organising against sexual violence needs to become part of the broader project of making anew. We must think big and act small. What world do we ultimately want to live in? What are some baby steps towards it that we could realistically take?

I am referring here to the abolitionist distinction between reformist and non-reformist reforms. Non-reformist reforms move us towards the world we want, not further away. They shrink, rather than grow, the state and institution’s capacity for violence. To start with, in universities, this could mean creating small, self-organised groups of staff and students who imagine new ways of relating and solving problems together. It could mean using these prototypes to develop policy suggestions and initiatives which create structures of accountability rather than shoring up the institution’s power. It would mean making demands for institutional resources: money most importantly, and the time and space to do this important work. This would be a radical challenge to the current model of the university and to current mainstream feminist activism.

It would also be hard work, and might be bound to fail given what the university is. But all we need to do is move in the right direction. I take hope from recent mass strikes in UK higher education, which showed that neoliberalism has not stolen all our solidarity and community away. I also take hope from the many forms of grassroots care that have proliferated during the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that we will not know what we can create until we free ourselves from how the institution stifles our imaginations and start doing what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. People marginalised by race, class and disability, queer and trans people, have long been supporting survivors and working towards transformative justice outside the institution and outside the state. There are many amazing examples to emulate. This is work that will not be completed in any of our lifetimes, and it is not always easy to know whether we are dismantling power or helping to preserve it. This means we must be in it for the very long haul.

I hope at least some of these lessons are helpful  – if so, I have created an infographic that you might want to download as a reminder (it can be used as a wallpaper or screensaver, or printed out if you prefer  - click the image below to open full size, in order to save).

Tanya Serisier’s ‘Speaking Out’

These are some remarks written for the launch of Tanya Serisier's brilliant new book 'Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape, and Narrative Politics' (Palgrave 2018). You can buy the book, or order it for your library, here.  

Tanya Serisier’s book Speaking Out is the first critical study of white feminist politics around rape which explicitly situates this politics as a narrative form. It analyses narratives from the second wave and after as part of a testimonial genre which has specific plots, characters and themes. The book resists equating ’speaking out’ with justice, freedom or feminism, noting that although there has been a flowering of this type of activism this has not necessarily led to social change. Instead, Serisier constructs a more nuanced interpretation in which women’s narratives are both powerful and necessary, and located within competing discourses and agendas. One of those discourses is feminism, and the book is excellent in its understanding of different forms of feminism as devices for the production, dissemination and regulation of women’s narratives. White feminist narrative politics is also positioned within the broader discourses and structures of liberalism, racial capitalism and criminal justice, and the neoliberal morality of personal transformation.

Speaking Out makes a key intervention into the current political and cultural context. This context incorporates an increased volume of sexual violence narratives, circulating through the networked web of survivors created by #MeToo and allied movements, and given authority within the ‘intimate publics’ of social media and ‘testimonial cultures’ of neoliberalism. It also involves a strengthening of the backlash, bolstered by political shifts to the right and the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility, which often attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of sexual violence narratives or dismiss women’s experiences of trauma. In a context in which we can either attack victims or defend them, repudiate the wound or embrace it, it can be tempting to sanctify our stories. This is both understandable and dangerous.

Sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: fear of rape is simultaneously fear of male power and the uprising of colonised or enslaved peoples, or the ‘invasion’ of immigrant communities. White women’s rape narratives (as well as their rescue fantasies about ‘victimised Others’ such as Muslim women) have been used in the service of colonial oppressions, neo-imperialist interventions, and carceral state violence. Currently, the right are renewing the use of ‘women’s safety’ to justify the violence of borders and the police, and to strip rights and safety from social Others such as trans women and sex workers. As politics moves further to the right it is imperative that feminists engage critically with their narratives and activism around sexual violence, especially since some strands of white feminism (which have their own will to power) are actively and increasingly allied with reactionary agendas.

Critiquing sexual violence feminisms is difficult: I constantly struggle to blend my instinct – and commitment – to believe all survivors with my knowledge that sexual violence narratives are not politically neutral. The affective intensity of survivor stories can also act to insulate the surrounding politics from critique, playing experience as the trump card. However, emotion is not the ‘pure’ counterpart of politics: our emotional repertoires are both discursively and structurally shaped and interpreted. Serisier’s book helps us to explore how racialised tropes around victimisation and predation, criminal justice grammars, fables of community and nation and geopolitical archetypes are among the influences on our interior lives as well as on how our sexual violence stories are heard.

The notion of genre in Serisier’s book is incredibly useful, helping readers to understand how sexual violence narratives are both produced and received according to particular conventions and rules, and how they can be caught up in other stories such as those around nation, security, austerity and risk. This creates opportunities for political weaponisation, which survivors can resist or be passively or actively complicit in. Serisier opens up a constructive space for us to explore these dynamics, adopting a critical approach to ideas of authenticity and truth and engaging seriously with claims and counter-claims, without undermining how deeply experiences are felt or withholding belief. This is one of the most incisive, but also one of the kindest, books on sexual violence I have read, and Tanya Serisier is one of the most important young feminists writing about sexual violence today. Speaking Out deserves to be read widely, by all who are interested in this topic.

‘You’re not representative’: Identity politics in sex industry debates

Alongside ‘listen to survivors’, ‘you’re not representative’ is a key refrain from abolitionist quarters in feminist debates about the sex industry. Most recently, this mantra was chanted in the furore around Amnesty International’s draft policy on decriminalisation, where in addition to claims that the organisation was acting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, it was argued that the sex workers supporting Amnesty’s proposal were an unrepresentative minority with unusually positive experiences of the industry.

This assertion is problematic on a number of levels. First, as Wendy Lyon reminds us, due to criminalisation and stigma the demographics of the sex industry largely remain a mystery. What we do know is that the majority of sex workers now work indoors – this does not necessarily mean they are not vulnerable, but it does challenge persistent myths about exploited and trafficked street workers constituting the bulk of the profession, which give fuel to the abolitionist lobby.

Within the political movement for sex workers’ rights, sex workers themselves acknowledge that most (though not all) high-profile activists hail from more privileged backgrounds. However, this refers mainly to Western activism, which is abolitionists’ main focus (erasing vibrant sex workers’ rights movements in other parts of the world). Furthermore, in this type of ‘unrepresentativeness’, sex industry politics (including the abolitionist strand) is no different from any other form – it is those who have the time and means to organise, and the cultural capitals which facilitate public engagement, who are usually able to be heard. So why do abolitionist feminists seem to be incessantly pointing this out? There is a strategy at work here.

Accusations of unrepresentativeness in sex industry debates are most often deployed to silence – acting as full stops in the conversation. They enable sex industry abolitionists to restrict the discussion to the topic of identity, miring it in issues of ‘representativeness’ instead of exploring the substance of the representations being made. This preoccupation may be partly why abolitionists seem to have such a poor grasp of the subtleties of sex industry politics, with a common conflation of ‘sex positive’ and labour rights arguments which is misguided and problematic (but politically very convenient).

Abolitionists tend to position all sex industry activism within the ‘sex positive’ framework which reformulates sexual labour as self-expression, yoking this to the body of the privileged (or ‘empowered’) sex worker as though this is her only possible form of discourse. While challenging this type of straw-man criticism of ‘happy hookers’ and ‘choice feminists’, there are certainly valid questions about whether the ‘sex positive’ framework is the best one in which to advocate for rights. Indeed, the interpretation of sex work as personal empowerment has been critiqued by sex workers, who argue that it is often a politics of privilege which erases the labour involved in their jobs and does not further their struggle.

However, these important critical voices are ignored by the abolitionist lobby, who grossly oversimply the nuances of sex industry activism and deploy accusations of unrepresentativeness against sex positive and labour rights activists alike. In the debates about Amnesty’s draft policy, it was claimed that sex workers advocating for decriminalisation were mainly BDSM practitioners and escorts who allied themselves with ‘pimps’ and managers and were throwing less privileged sex workers under the bus. These statements flew in the face of the preponderance of evidence that the majority of sex workers worldwide do not wish to exist under models which criminalise them and remove their sources of income without addressing the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in the first place. Sex workers supporting decriminalisation come from the most vulnerable groups in the industry, such as migrants, drug users and street workers, and those in the Global South. (Decriminalisation does not include the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker).

Dismissing this sex workers’ labour rights activism as ‘unrepresentative’ is a purely rhetorical move, which substitutes medium for message. Furthermore, abolitionists’ obsession with identity is remarkably facile compared to other discussions around representation and universality which have a long history within feminism, giving rise to the concept of intersectionality when black feminists challenged their white sisters for ignoring their concerns. The family and the police were two of the institutions black feminists highlighted as experienced radically differently, due to currents of structural and political racism which put black communities at odds with state agents protecting white ones, and against which the black family has often been a haven, instead of (or as well as) a site of oppression.

To represent can quite literally mean to ‘be present’ for someone else. It is clear that white feminists have not been present for women of colour, and the agendas of the mainstream feminist movement continue to centre white concerns. However, critiques of White Feminism do not target every feminist with white skin – instead, they focus on the substance of mainstream feminist politics which prioritises the issues and needs of white women. In contrast, abolitionists concentrate on the identities of sex worker activists and in the process discredit a broad and unified movement for sex industry decriminalisation. (Ironically, this fixation on identity, as well as a persistent refusal to acknowledge their own privilege, may be why these same feminists are often resistant to, and offended by, intersectional critiques of White Feminism because they mistake these for a politics of skin colour).

To represent is to be chosen to carry a particular message, and in this case it is clear – sex workers across the world do not want to be criminalised. Abolitionist rhetoric, which comprehends the representative only as sign or symbol, silences sex worker activists with something incredibly important to convey. Against these advocates, the abolitionist wields the ‘survivor’ – ex-sex workers (mainly women) who have been exploited and abused. Their voices give abolitionist politics a veneer of authenticity, and are ventriloquized to shout down other survivors both outside and within the industry who advocate for decriminalisation. A sex worker, then, is only representative if she is making the right representations.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a current sex worker is unrepresentative if she is making any representations at all. As sex workers’ rights activist Molly Smith has pointed out, abolitionist rhetoric uses survivors as a proxy for current marginalised sex workers, implying that if they had a voice, they too would support abolitionist laws. This fetishisation of the ‘voiceless’ silences abolitionists’ opponents, as it enables them to be rejected as ‘unrepresentative’ on spec. There is a cruel sleight of hand in operation here – for current sex workers, the condition for dismissal is being able to speak at all. Sex workers active in sex industry debates, Smith says, are dismissed as ‘not representative’ because they are not voiceless enough.

Manoeuvres such as this (as well as the obvious futility of attempting to find the quintessential subject of any category, in identitarian terms) mean that the ‘representative’ sex worker is an apparition who can only manifest through abolitionist discourse. Furthermore, she (and she is always a woman) cannot manifest herself; she can only be manifested as an absence within abolitionist constructions of sex workers’ struggle for rights. She must be spoken for, whether by the abolitionist or the ‘survivor’ – she is not permitted to speak for herself. Too often within sex industry debates, this full stop is drawn on the body of any current sex worker who raises their voice – they are cut short mid-sentence, and we are not permitted to hear what they have to say. ‘She’s not representative!’ and ‘Listen to survivors!’ we are told.

As with other political movements, there are certainly valid conversations to be had around whether sex workers’ rights activists are fully representing the needs and concerns of those they are in a position to speak for. These are particularly pertinent in relation to ‘sex positive’ discourse, which has been critically appraised by many. However, the cursory identity politics deployed by sex industry abolitionists to discredit sex workers’ labour rights advocacy is a glib and callous strategy which obscures the fact that this advocacy represents the issues and concerns of sex workers all over the world.

This does not mean we should not work to amplify more marginalised voices. However, it is significant that the sex workers’ rights movement appears to be the only one dismissed in this way. While always hoping and aiming for better representation (in all senses of that word), we should expose the ideologies and agendas underpinning the statement ‘you’re not representative’. This tool of silencing aims to drive a wedge between different sex workers as if they have competing demands in relation to legal regulation of the industry. It also enables sex industry abolitionists, via the figure of the survivor, to insinuate themselves into the debate as though they in fact represent the broad mass of sex workers’ voices. They do not.

‘Listen to survivors’ and the fetishisation of experience

The debate over Amnesty International’s draft policy supporting the decriminalisation of sex work has been heated. Although the organisation developed the policy following extensive research with sex workers and consultation with key stakeholders, it has been accused of wanting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’ to buy or profit from the sale of sex. The position of those supporting Amnesty’s draft policy is clear – the vast majority of sex workers globally oppose criminalisation (including the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients), because it jeopardises their incomes, creates health vulnerabilities and puts them at risk of violence. As the community most directly affected by sex work law and policy, it is argued, their voices should matter most.

Although this may seem uncontroversial, it has been claimed that this injunction to listen to sex workers is an identity politics which fetishises personal experience and is an insufficient basis on which to base policy decisions. It has also been suggested that in prioritising those currently working in the sex industry, we erase the experiences of ‘survivors’, ex-sex workers who have experienced trauma and exploitation and whose voices are often used in order to make the case for abolition. Indeed, it is contended that these survivors are ‘strategically sidelined’ by a movement for decriminalisation which is said to be headed by clients and ‘pimps’.

It is both fascinating and tragic that the movement for sex industry decriminalisation has been reduced to an ‘infatuation with identity’ which is based on a few personal anecdotes. In actual fact, the evidence base for Amnesty’s draft policy includes a wealth of sex worker narratives, either told from the grassroots or as part of extensive research with sex workers conducted by Amnesty, UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and other bodies, and a developing canon of academic literature focusing on sex workers’ experiences of different legal frameworks. There is also information gathered via different methodologies, around risk factors for health problems and violence, and whether criminalisation actually reduces demand or has an impact on trafficking.

To dismiss this preponderance of evidence is both disingenuous and disrespectful, and conceals the ways in which sex industry abolitionists are themselves guilty of a fetishisation of experience through their frequent admonitions to ‘listen to survivors’. The survivor is an abiding and central fixture in feminist politics seeking to eradicate the sex industry. Famous second-wave abolitionists Andrea Dworkin (herself an ex-sex worker) and Catharine MacKinnon made the voices of women exploited within pornography central to their legislative lobbying. In the contemporary context, ‘survivor stories’ have acquired both corporate gloss and wider exposure, as a key political tool for what has been termed the ‘feminist rescue industry’ focused on using the criminal law to ‘save’ women from commercial sex.

The current debate around the Amnesty draft policy recalls similar discussions in 2013, following two UN reports which advised that in order to support efforts to reduce HIV and AIDS and promote the human rights of people in the sex industry, commercial sex should be decriminalised. In response, international organisation Equality Now mounted a campaign entitled ‘Listen to Survivors’. This used women’s experiences of trafficking and exploitation/abuse in the sex industry to urge the UN to instead promote measures criminalising the demand for commercial sex. These survivor narratives, similar to those used in sex industry abolitionist initiatives in countries such as the UK, Ireland, the US and elsewhere, deployed harrowing accounts of victimisation and suffering to justify a particular legislative agenda.

Although such a politics purports to be about women’s liberation and empowerment, it can be seen as profoundly objectifying. The experiences of survivors, while valid and undeniably distressing, are often mobilised by a third party as the ‘trump card’ in this policy debate. Such manoeuvres also rarely incorporate analyses which tie specific oppressions to distinct parts of law or working practices: instead, the fact of suffering is used to bolster a sweeping moral case against the sex industry as a whole. Survivor narratives are not respected when they become rhetorical objects within broader agendas in this way. On the contrary, they become part of a long tradition of white feminist empathy in which the elite cannibalise the pain of the marginalised for their own objectives and ends.

In terms of issues around using experience as evidence, strategically employed ‘survivor stories’ are much more problematic than the huge global movement of sex workers speaking for themselves. However, they are often lined up against this movement, as though the two are on an equivalent footing. Furthermore, claims of superior authenticity are often made on survivors’ behalf, with sex workers who support decriminalisation described as a privileged minority of ‘happy hookers’ who are not representative and whose experiences have been benign.

The ‘victimised survivor’ and ‘happy hooker’ are two poles of experience which frequently become symbolic in adversarial debates about the industry. As sex worker activists have argued, this dialectic can flatten out lived realities and have a silencing effect on those whose experiences are more ambivalent and complex. Positioning those supporting the Amnesty draft policy as ‘happy hookers’ within this dynamic is nothing more than a tactical move designed to mask the fact that they in fact represent a diversity and majority of sex workers’ voices. To characterise this consensus as the politics of a privileged few is both dishonest and cruel.

Survivor stories are essential, and have been key to the powerful feminist movement around violence against women and girls. However, that this movement often positions sex work as in itself a form of violence against women is a mistake. There are many survivors of violence against women working in the sex industry, and many exited survivors who advocate for decriminalisation. The current debate sees sex industry abolitionists using the bodies of their preferred survivors as tools to silence others.

‘Listen to survivors.’ But which ones?

‘Disappearing’ sex workers in the Amnesty debate

Originally published in Open Democracy

The international council meeting of Amnesty International which starts today in Dublin will consider a resolution urging that sex work be decriminalized. This is accompanied by a draft policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers. The document is clear – the rights of sex workers are at stake, the organization has not changed its stance in opposition to forced labour and human trafficking, and it considers children who are involved in commercial sex to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.

One of the first things that struck me when reading Amnesty’s draft policy was that the voices and concerns of sex workers are central. The criminalization of brothel-keeping and solicitation is opposed because they ‘often force sex workers to work in ways which compromise their safety’ (for instance alone, or with shorter negotiations with clients). Criminalising clients, Amnesty notes, ‘can lead to sex workers having to take risks to protect their clients from detection by law enforcement’ (for example, visiting locations that the client, rather than the sex worker, has chosen). The last four pages of the document summarise research Amnesty undertook with sex workers across four geographical regions, featuring harrowing stories of repression and violence, frequently at the hands of the police.

However, the outpouring of opposition to Amnesty’s draft policy has ‘disappeared’ the bodies and rights of these sex workers. Instead we have been subjected to a moral panic focused on ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’, and mega-brothels’, and accusations that the organization is enshrining men’s rights to buy sex. Celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham have given the voices of outrage a huge signal boost, signing a petition developed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International urging Amnesty not to ‘legalise pimping’, and ignoring the fact that the draft policy is in fact focused on human rights abuses against sex workers.

Amnesty’s policy, based on listening to sex workers, consultation with key stakeholders and research by organisations such as UNAIDS and the WHO, has been turned on its head. Headlines such as ‘There can be no amnesty for those who buy sex – not even if women ‘consent” and ‘Amnesty International says prostitution is a human right – but it’s wrong’ have shifted the focus away from the rights of sex workers and on to a massive bout of shadowboxing against the fictional rights of ‘punters’ and ‘pimps’. The furore has reached such a fever pitch that Amnesty’s Senior Director for Campaigns was forced to clarify, in a letter to the New York Times, that the organisation’s motives were to protect sex workers and nobody else.

The ‘disappearing’ of sex workers here is not a new or isolated phenomenon – as Amnesty itself acknowledged in its draft policy, sex workers’ voices are often obscured or ignored in discussions about their lives. The Sex Worker Open University notes that sometimes whole events are held about the sex industry in which sex workers are explicitly excluded. Sex workers who advocate for labour rights are frequently shouted over by abolitionists deploying stories of exited and traumatised ‘prostitution survivors’. These narratives, of course, are valid – but they are invariably presented as though they represent the truth of the industry, played as the trump card so sex workers with different realities end up silenced, having lost the game.

Sometimes interventions made in support of sex workers’ rights also render them invisible in disastrous ways. Just yesterday, right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs released a paper authored by sociologist Catherine Hakim arguing that the sex industry should be legalized because 21st century men have a ‘sex deficit’ which needs to be addressed. It also suggested that the sex industry plays an important social function in lowering the rate of sex crime, in the process reducing sex workers to a pressure valve for men’s violence, on behalf of more privileged women.

Although people of all genders work in the sex industry, the symbolic ‘sex worker’ is often a woman, which is an erasure of many others. Furthermore, this symbolic ‘sex worker’ is frequently not a person but a metaphor for patriarchy and ‘male violence’, or a willing dupe of these systems who deserves to be blamed. Indeed, as sex worker Molly Smith argues, the violence criminalization inflicts on sex workers is often seen as necessary, in order to protect ‘good women’ from harm. The idea of ‘false consciousness’ is used to erase sex workers’ humanity and invalidate their consent. All these themes have been evident in the opposition to the Amnesty draft policy, as well as the notion of all sex work as abuse which implies that it is not possible to sexually assault a sex worker. Because of beliefs like this, sex workers who are raped can disappear as victims and find it difficult to access support.

The Amnesty draft policy recognizes that the disappearance and stigmatization of sex workers is at the core of human rights abuses against them. Violent men target sex workers, mainly women, because they know they barely count as people at all: often working alone and in conditions not of their own choosing, and disbelieved or re-victimised by the police if they dare to report assault. Amnesty’s opponents, focused on the implications of its draft policy for ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, are unable to hear these sex workers’ voices and prefer policy frameworks which put them at risk. Their concern for human rights, unlike Amnesty’s, seems to apply to some women and not others.

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

Identity, experience, choice and responsibility

This is the transcript of my keynote speech at a conference at Queen Mary University on June 27th 2015, entitled 'Feminist Futures: critical engagements with the fourth wave'. The full title of my talk was 'Identity, experience, choice and responsibility: feminism in a neoliberal and neoconservative age.' Versions of this speech have also been given at the Universities of Brighton, Leeds and Birmingham. There are various sources linked throughout - if you are not within a university and therefore unable to access the academic journal articles, send me an Email and I can download them for you.
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Hello. I’m Alison Phipps and I’m Director of Gender Studies at Sussex. It’s great to be here and I’d like to thank Amaleena, Alice and Anna for inviting me to speak today. We can – and I’m sure we will – debate whether we’re currently witnessing a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism and what this is, but for now I’d like to say it’s fantastic to be part of such a dynamic and thoughtful group. Looking at the other abstracts, I’m especially flattered to have been invited to give the keynote and hope I don’t disappoint!

I think one of the reasons I was asked to open the conference was that my work attempts to develop a meta analysis of feminist theory and activism. Some of this was brought together in my book which came out last Spring, called The Politics of the Body: gender in a neoliberal and neoconservative age. In this I developed a political sociology of various different debates, with a focus on interactions between different types of feminism (or ‘waves’ if you want to use that term). If any of you have read it, the talk today will move on from the book – as always when you attempt to develop a ‘history of the present’, I’m standing on uneven and shifting ground.

For those who haven’t read it, the book was six years in the making and drew case studies from contemporary events and discussions in political and media spheres. But as with most academic projects, the inspiration was personal – in 2008, I was sitting in class with some of my Gender MA students listening to an Iranian student talk about her decision not to adopt the chador and her own view of veiling as oppressive (I realise that this view is not shared by all Muslim women). While she was still talking, she was interrupted by a white European student who explained to her that the veil was empowering instead.

I found this incident fascinating, not because of the substance of the discussion but because of how it was constituted – it simultaneously reversed and reiterated the dialectic between women from Muslim-majority societies and Western feminists. Regardless of the positions being adopted, the encounter still involved a white woman telling a woman of colour how she should think and behave. This started me thinking about how contemporary feminisms are located within broader political frameworks and trends, and how the dynamic between ideas and positionalities might play out.

So I started reading and researching – and while doing this I also conceived my first child. In the summer of 2010, heavily pregnant, I went with my partner to a neighbour’s barbecue, where we met the directors of an alternative theatre company who had had their third child, at home, the previous year. They were a straight couple and the man was anxious to reassure me that my body was perfectly designed to give birth without any medical intervention, and that this would put me in touch with my powerful, primal womanhood. My partner (also a man) asked what he should do during while I was undergoing this epiphany. ‘You protect the door of the cave’ was the answer.

This conversation illustrated to me in a very immediate way how ‘women’s empowerment’ can be co-opted by conservative narratives. It also reminded me of other problematic agendas, in particular around sex workers and Muslim women, which use the idea of women’s liberation to reinforce particular value systems, dominate social, political and cultural Others, or save women from themselves.

Soon after I gave birth (not in a cave), Julian Assange was arrested in the UK in response to allegations of sexual assault made by two women in Sweden. You all know the story – after a long legal battle he lost his appeal against extradition and fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum on humanitarian grounds (and as far as I know he’s still there). The fact that a powerful man on the anti-establishment left had been accused of sexual violence was not shocking. What did strike me was the support he got from progressive journalists, politicians, activists and celebrities, even some high-profile feminists, almost all thinking that the case was nothing more than a neocon plot.

One of the things this case exposed was how the relationship between ‘helping women’ and neoconservative rhetorics and projects, and the complicity with this by some strands of feminism, has led to anti-feminist feeling in some progressive circles. But what I also came to understand, and what I argue in the book, is that the rejection of neoconservatism within feminist politics can often slip into emphasising neoliberal ideas around identity, responsibility and choice. I should say at the outset however that I’m not putting forward one of those critiques of ‘choice feminism’ which have been doing the rounds in the media recently – I hope I’m saying something much more nuanced.

I’m not the first person to have explored how feminisms are framed by broader political rationalities – I’m indebted to Eisenstein’s ideas about the co-optation of liberal feminism by corporate capitalism, Fraser’s work on feminism’s relationship with neoliberalism, and Mohanty’s interpretation of the intersection between neoliberalism and postmodernism in radical social movements. What I’ve attempted to do is combine the theoretical and the empirical in a detailed account of these relationships in a few key topic areas – sex work, sexual violence, childbirth and breastfeeding, and gender and Islam. My work also emphasises the inherent conservatism of radical feminism which contributes to this dynamic, although there isn’t as much on this in the book as there should be. I’m sketching with a fairly broad brush, so I do miss things and my ideas are constantly changing.

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I want to start with Assange, as this case helps in thinking through how the relationships between radical feminism and neoconservatism can produce reactionary politics in progressive circles. When he was arrested, I was struck by the fact that his defenders not only engaged in victim-blaming but offered critiques of the notion and subjectivity of victimisation itself.

On top of the misogynist tropes and conspiracy theories, one of the lines of defence offered was that ‘victim politics’ betrays deficiency and fragility and fuels neoconservative paternalism. This came mainly from high-profile feminists. The author Naomi Wolf claimed that rape shield laws (which protect the complainant’s identity) were a Victorian relic which didn’t treat women as moral adults. Sex industry scholar and activist Laura Agustín argued that Swedish law positioned women as helpless victims and labelled anything unpleasant rape or abuse.

Both these commentators expressed a postmodern sensibility around how the term ‘victim’ constructs experience and interpellates people in particular ways. Women Against Rape offered an explicit critique of how radical feminist theory and activism around pornography, rape and trafficking has been co-opted by and sometimes complicit with neoconservative agendas. This is absolutely true – Kristin Bumiller and Elizabeth Bernstein have shown how anti-violence and anti-sex industry feminists have collaborated with punitive and often racist and classist state machinery around crime and immigration. Leila Ahmed writes about how a ‘colonial feminism’ has justified incursions into particular countries, and Gargi Bhattacharyya has explored how the War on Terror in particular has been conceptually dependent on Othering Muslim cultures as peculiarly misogynistic and homophobic.

However, in the Assange case it was fascinating that these political critiques of the deployment of victimhood as a discourse were individualised to both defend a powerful white man and discredit his accusers, who, in Naomi Wolf’s opinion, were ‘using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appear to be personal injured feelings.’ In statements like this, postmodern deconstruction intersected with the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility.

In the neoliberal milieu, we are all free to create our destinies through consumer choice. The playing field is level, which means that if we fail we’ve only got ourselves to blame. This rationality positions social justice movements as ‘victim philosophies’ peddled by people who don’t want to take responsibility for themselves – this charge has been particularly levelled at feminism and was implicit in many of the comments made about Assange. Sweden was depicted as a country full of cantankerous shrews whose grievances were being exploited by neocons to suppress a powerful dissident.

Neoliberalism has shifted the discussion away from structural dynamics and on to personal failure and success. The pressures this creates, especially for young women, have been highlighted empirically: Baker’s study of young women in Australia and McCaffrey’s study of sexual violence survivors in the US are two of those which suggest that being a victim is now associated with a lack of responsibility and seen as a sign of psychological under-development. This is especially ironic in light of the contemporary proliferation of forms of violent harassment on social media, many of which disproportionately affect young women, and the renewed debate about violence against women students.

Of course, we’ve also witnessed neoconservative moral panics over these issues and others – but at the level of lived experience neoliberalism creates an imperative to triumph over bad experiences like these and perform happiness and success. This doesn’t just apply to women – Pharrell Williams was recently widely criticised after he stated on Oprah that: ‘The ‘new Black’ doesn’t blame other races for our issues.’ Statements like this need to be properly contextualised – and although we need to reject a feminist politics focused solely on women’s victimhood, we also need to ask critical questions about what it means to talk about agency in a neoliberal context.

The academic ‘turn to agency’ has generated some fascinating and nuanced analyses of how people negotiate social structures and process power relations – for instance Sirma Bilge’s work on veiled Muslim women and Elizabeth Bernstein’s ethnographies of sex workers. However, within neoliberal rationalities and often within media environments, ideas about agency can be flattened out into the much more facile notion of ‘choice’. This produces more simplistic narratives – for instance, Orientalist portrayals of the ‘empowered, dignified’ Muslim woman, or ‘happy hooker’ formulations of the sex industry. In the book I spend some time analysing the Belle de Jour novels and TV series and Tracy Quan’s serialisation of her life as Manhattan call girl. While fictional, both these pieces were incredibly influential in the zeitgeist while I was writing, and material such as this informs a popular contemporary construction of the sex industry as glamorous, edgy and progressive.

Slide3

More recently, another figure has become prominent in this discourse – Miriam Weeks, the Duke University student who was outed as pornography actress Belle Knox last year and is now a mainstream celebrity. When she was outed, Weeks responded with an article in which she stated: “Shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. . . . I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.”

One can certainly see this statement as an understandable reaction to the stigma and judgment involved in Weeks’ exposure. Nevertheless, this ‘happy hooker’ formulation fits well with neoliberal themes and has achieved broad cultural reach – and it’s been criticised by sex working feminists and activists who argue that it smoothes over their realities, doesn’t allow them to express ambivalence about their jobs and erases the experiences of less privileged sex workers, often those who sell services from the street. Cathryn Berarovich, in an article entitled ‘Don’t Rebrand Sex Work as Empowering’, argued directly in response to Knox: “Most prostitutes don’t work because we want to fit in; we work because we need to pay our bills and live our lives. Equating sex work with empowerment completely ignores the fact that all sex work is, on one level or another, survival sex work. It does all sex workers a disservice when this frequently difficult, often illegal, industry is reduced to nothing more than a trophy for owning your sexuality. It ignores our labor and reduces our struggle.”

The rebranding of sex work as empowering that Berarovich identifies calls forth a neoliberal concept of choice which juxtaposes it against victimhood and empties it of context and socioeconomic framing. Structures are situated outside the act of choosing, which then becomes a selection between a predefined set of alternatives and the role of factors such as market capitalism, community ties and gender relations in creating the available options becomes invisible. Formulations like this are most evident in the media, but can be observed in academic debates as well. Contemporary ‘sex positive’ sex work research sometimes fails to address ‘push’ factors like economic hardship (and/or the lack of other available employment opportunities), which have been highlighted by sex work labour rights activists. In her work on veiling, Bilge cites the disappearance of complex factors related to family and tradition, in some of the feminist scholarship celebrating women’s choices to cover their hair and faces. What we are left with here is the idea of choice as self-expression, which lacks analytical depth and suspends critique.

However, an analogous and similarly over-simplified focus on choice also exists on the other side of these debates in which feminists (often of the radical persuasion) attribute false consciousness to the chooser. Within this perspective the only structure that matters is gender, and women are defined as complicit in or duped by that system without proper analysis of how intersecting factors such as class, culture and race shape their opportunities and decisions.

Slide4

The ‘end demand’ campaign around the sex industry is an example of how this type of politics can lack structural framing – it focuses on criminalising the client’s choice to buy but ignores how the sex worker’s choice to sell is often structured by economic or other social realities – for instance economic coercion or restrictive immigration policies – which will not just melt away if demand is quashed. So again, a preoccupation with ‘choice’ fails to grasp the material framings of the industry and derails discussions about safety and rights.

One of the critiques often made by contemporary radical feminists is that their younger and third- or fourth-wave counterparts are ‘choice feminists’. However, this devolves critique of the neoliberal commodification of ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ and targets it instead at individual women who are making choices to survive – for example, by selling sex – in a patriarchal culture. In an article called ‘The Trouble with Choosing Your Choice’, Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy writes, ‘within our wide array of ‘choices’, I suppose we are now to applaud our ‘freedom’ to ‘choose’ pornography or prostitution? I choose my choice. But will choose it consciously. And with my pants on’. It’s not difficult to see the judgment in this statement, or the attribution of ‘false consciousness’. Ironically also, the rationale is itself neoliberal – despite the fact that Murphy critiques ‘choice feminism’ for failing to appreciate the structures that shape women’s decisions, her politics is complicit with an individualising of responsibility in the assumption that it’s possible to simply ‘choose differently’. As sex worker and activist Molly Smith has pointed out, this perspective betrays unexamined privilege: ‘I’m struck’, she says, ‘by how ‘choice discourse’ [meaning critiques of ‘choice feminism’] often seems to be used by women with more power writing about women with less’.

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Childbirth and breastfeeding both sit within the institutionalised discourse of ‘informed choice’ adopted by the NHS and other Western health services. This framework also exists rather uncomfortably alongside the principle of women’s empowerment, especially within childbirth and breastfeeding activism. The narrative here focuses on empowering women to make the best choices for their children, and advocating that these choices be enabled and respected by the medical establishment.

Here again however, the ‘right’ choices have been predefined. Women are empowered to choose to birth naturally and to breastfeed their infants, but if their choices are different this discourse also begins to collapse in on itself with attributions of false consciousness. Those who want or have a more medicalised birth or use infant formula are in need of behavioural interventions to help them ‘choose better’.

The normalising judgment implicit within the neoliberal emphasis on ‘choice’ has already been identified, for instance by Bev Skeggs, Angela McRobbie and others who write about the contemporary cultural class war. This is often fought through the medium of popular culture, for instance in reality and makeover TV in which working class participants are shamed, patronised and educated to ‘choose better’ in line with middle class norms. We can observe a similar dynamic in the discourse around mothering, and the behavioural rhetoric of ‘normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ also invisibilises structural factors.

Neoliberal ideas about choice are very much mind over matter – and in relation to childbirth and breastfeeding this has reached a peak where the will to succeed even takes precedence over human biology. I recently read an article by Emily Wax-Thibodeux in the Washington Post entitled ‘Why I don’t breastfeed, if you must know’. Wax-Thibodeux writes about how, following the birth of her first child, she felt compelled to disclose her history of breast cancer and bilateral mastectomy to lactation consultants because of the pressure to breastfeed. They told her to try nevertheless and one of them suggested, ‘the milk may come out anyway, through your armpits’.

Choice, in the neoliberal context, has acquired a magicalism which speaks to the retreat of the structural and even allows it to triumph over medical and biological realities. This also needs to be seen in relation to ideas about the risk society – and parents (mothers in particular) are primarily expected to ensure their children’s future health and prosperity through doing everything right. Natural birth and exclusive breastfeeding are pivotal components of this agenda, despite the fact that studies are contradictory and there’s rarely any attempt to control for variables such as socio-economic status and parenting styles. ‘Informed choice’ is only as good as those doing the informing.

In a context where health and social supports are dwindling, there’s been a behaviouralisation of health which is particularly evident in relation to birth and breastfeeding. This does not acknowledge structural constraints on choice, and the main mitigating factor which enters birth and breastfeeding politics is social stigma. For example, there’s an individualistic framing of attitudes to breastfeeding as the problem in the controversial ‘breastfeeding for shopping vouchers’ scheme targeted at working class women. Mary Renfrew, one of the academic advisors on the project, was quoted in the Guardian in 2013 as saying: “A woman from a young, white low-income area will often tell you it is embarrassing to breastfeed in public or even in her own home. We know that is the community norm.”

Breastfeeding activism often foregrounds these ideas, within a critique of the sexualisation of breasts which creates a taboo around exposing them in public, and drawing on the moral panic around sex and popular culture. Proceeding from this analytical framework, large-scale public breastfeeding is the preferred mode of action, usually taking the form of the breastfeeding ‘flashmob’, where activists descend on a public place to feed. However, actions like this often supplant the work of lobbying governments for structural changes – better healthcare and social welfare, workplace rights, maternity benefits, a living wage, and more and better-paid midwives.

The main players in the contemporary ‘lactivist’ movement are white, middle class women who are not, by and large, structurally disadvantaged – which perhaps explains the decentring of the socio-economic in breastfeeding politics. It’s also a good example of what Nancy Fraser calls the politics of recognition, in which a focus on acknowledging stigma has superseded concerns with social justice.

The politics of recognition, a politics of difference and relative status, is the dominant mode in the contemporary political field. This is not, however, to echo the very glib and reactionary critiques of ‘identity politics’ which have circulated in the media recently and which tend to focus on trans people. There are important differences between the identity attached to breastfeeding and those experienced and lived by trans people, which are a source of oppression because of a lack of social recognition (and this has far-reaching impacts in relation to issues such as access to education, employment, and vulnerability to violence). Breastfeeding, by contrast, is an example of how contemporary politics can become focused on recognition when this is not the key issue at hand. Interpreting low breastfeeding rates as an issue of social stigma gives rise to behavioural interventions which render invisible the many other valid reasons why a parent might not breastfeed – and these are often socio-economic. It also allows advocates to position themselves as a marginalised culture or identity despite their relative privilege.

Contemporary recognition politics of any type accord well with dominant neoliberal rationalities. Many important gains have been made because of this – for example, Fraser cites campaigns for gay marriage, and the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 could also be included here. However, the dovetailing of recognition politics with the neoliberal framework can also be problematic.

The privileging of cultural difference (broadly defined) shapes an attachment to ‘authenticity’, in which experiential narratives take precedence. Validating experiential knowledge is a crucial feminist principle and one we should protect, but it’s also the case that within the ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ of neoliberal culture, experiences have been commodified and are often now used as the trump card. This informs several contemporary ‘experience wars’ in which particular personal stories prop up certain ideological perspectives and are then dismissed by others as inauthentic versions of reality.

Contemporary neo-imperialist agendas make strategic use of the principles of gender and LGBT equality, mainly in order to define Muslim cultures as Other and inherently and uniquely misogynist and homophobic. Women’s experiences have been caught up in this, and high profile activists such as Mona Eltahawy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have often been used as ‘native informants’. However, critiques of this neoconservative politics also sometimes fetishise ideas around agency and authenticity as they put forward alternative narratives, positioning all Muslim women who speak out against gender equality as Western dupes. Within this dynamic the uses to which experiences are put begin to define the narratives themselves. This is a politics of positionality first and foremost in which experiences are caught up in broader battles and then validated and dismissed accordingly. So the first question we ask when someone shares their experience is ‘whose side are you on?’

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In sex industry debates personal stories also abound, particularly on the Internet and in the press. There’s a certain homogeneity of experience depending on the surrounding political agenda – those in favour of decriminalisation tend to talk in terms of choice, and abolitionists rely on ‘survivor stories’ from traumatised exited women (and it’s usually, if not always, women). Each side claims ownership of the ‘authentic’ experience and attributes false consciousness to the other – sex workers who talk about choice are seen as puppets of the patriarchy, while radical feminists who favour abolition are drab and prudish. Again, positionality is key to which experiences are considered valid, and may also produce a certain objectification and flattening out of lived realities. A number of sex workers have written about how the radical feminist definition of their work as itself victimisation has led groups and individuals within the industry to deemphasise or hide difficult experiences, in order to avoid fuelling criminalisation agendas. “Sex workers with negative experiences are indeed more openly welcomed by Antis”, Lori Adorable says, “even though they’re only valued in a tokenizing way.”

The use of experience as currency polarises and renders invisible positions in between – so the sex industry – or Islam – becomes either all empowering or all oppressive. Women with differing experiences can’t co-exist and individuals can’t hold mixed or ambivalent feelings. There’s also a space where structural and historical dynamics should appear, in particular the impact of colonisation and colonialism on Muslim-majority countries and communities and the situating of commercial sex within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare.

The dominant register of experience also creates a personalisation of critique, with judgments settling on individuals making choices to survive, attributions of false consciousness and an increasing propensity to diagnose ‘-isms’ and ‘-phobias’ within political debate. Behind this last is understandable reaction to the long and continuing history of attempts to cloak prejudice in political analysis, especially in relation to Islam, the sex industry and trans issues. There has also been a great deal of selective critique and wilful misinterpretation – for instance, the examination of sex and sexuality only tends to happen in relation to the sex industry, gender issues are often pointed out within Muslim societies and not others, and critiques of identity politics have been misguidedly – and hurtfully – used to deny transgender experience.

We should – and we must – continue to name and oppose such bigotries when we see them. However, I’m also interested in thinking about how, as the fourth wave develops, we can facilitate debates between those feminists who may have different views but common goals, which don’t spiral into cycles of suspicion, accusation and denial that ultimately feed the backlash (although this is not a ‘call for unity’ which enjoins us all to fall in line with the most privileged, either).

Slide7

Coming full circle now, the furore around Julian Assange showed how effective the backlash has been. There was a monstering of feminism apparent even on the left, with Assange claiming that he had fallen into a ‘hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminists’, and that Sweden was like ‘Saudi Arabia for men’. He called the prosecutor a ‘man-hating lesbian’ and Sweden a ‘man-hating matriarchy’, and his supporters termed his accusers ‘radical and militant feminists’ and their lawyers ‘gender lawyers’ who were biased against men.

The fourth wave of feminism is developing in a context where feminists can be monsters on both the left and right. This is a product of the interaction between radical feminism’s relationship to neoconservative ideologies and the individualistic neoliberal cultural and political field. However, in this dialectic between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, rejecting one often pushes you into the arms of the other. So in outrage at the dubious ways in which neoconservative discourses appropriate women’s victimisation, too often we end up mobilising neoliberal versions of empowerment and choice. And in doing this we lose a focus on how choices are socially situated, subjectivities are complex, and states and globalising markets in particular restrict our autonomy.

I want to finish on a positive note – there are excellent examples of contemporary feminisms which are structural, intersectional and truly radical. Often this type of knowledge is what’s been described in one of today’s abstracts as ‘unauthorised’ – it’s dialogic, it’s electronic, it can be fleeting, and it’s difficult within the conventions and sluggishness of academia to represent it effectively. For instance, sex work labour rights activists are increasingly framing personal testimony within a critique of austerity politics and specific effects of criminalisation. The intersectional politics articulated by and around trans women of colour explores how state and individual violences, socio-economics and identities inform and produce each other. Coalitions between these groups and others are being built. I’m going to finish with a quote from Laverne Cox – talking about intersectionality, she brings to mind Crenshaw’s original conception, which was about connecting different experiences and situating them within structural frameworks.

‘We have to have space to evolve, but we have to be willing to have the conversations and know how to. Look at the “Stop and Frisk” march that happened last year that really integrated LGBT and black folks. Look at how the NAACP can begin to back that and how they’re evolving. So opinions can shift. We have to come together across political differences too and build coalitions even though we may not always agree on exactly everything.’

Slide8

Thanks very much for listening.