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).

Feminists fighting sexual violence in the age of Brexit and Trump

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. 
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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.

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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.

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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.

The fight against sexual violence

This piece appears in Soundings 71, pp62-74. 

‘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.

References

[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.

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.

Sexual harassment and violence in higher education: reckoning, co-option, backlash

This is the text of a keynote (and the inaugural Lincoln Lecture) delivered at the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies conference in Loughborough on June 12th 2018. 

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.

Untitled

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.

To tackle sexual harassment, we need cultural change

This is the longer version of a piece published in the Guardian on 13th December 2017.

We’re talking about sexual harassment in higher education again. We need to talk about sexual harassment – in agricultural and domestic labour, sex work, Hollywood, politics, academia, and every other industry. That we’re talking about it in universities at all is due to the work of the 1752 Group, NUS and the Guardian. Because of them, female academics, especially early-career researchers, are coming forward with their experiences. I’m a survivor, too – and with each story, my stomach knots with grief while my heart swells with pride.

Many of the latest Guardian findings are positive. Almost two-thirds of universities now provide sexual harassment training for staff. Three-quarters have trained student services advisors. But with the history of ‘naming and shaming’ on this issue, this may be compliance out of fear. Many institutions may be doing the minimum they need to, to not make the papers. This is a concern – running scared is not conducive to thoughtful engagement with an issue. And the negative tone of much of the media coverage is not fostering openness in the sector.

When sexual harassment revelations emerge, we often call for the removal of offenders. But ‘zero tolerance’ approaches collapse many behaviours together, which doesn’t help us understand or tackle them. And dysfunctional systems, as Whitley and Page argue, can’t be fixed by purging a few individuals. This is what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’ – the visible blemish is removed, and the underlying malaise left to fester. Once airbrushed out, the blemish tends to just reappear elsewhere – as shown in a number of reports from the US on how universities have ‘passed the harasser‘.

There have also been discussions recently about codes of conduct, with disciplinary implications. Clarifying what constitutes professional conduct in higher education is urgently necessary. But as Melissa Gira Grant points out, seeing sexual harassment as ‘sexual misconduct’ ignores the fact that these behaviours are about power, not ‘misplaced’ sexuality. In other words, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination – and in the midst of what could easily become a media ‘sex panic‘, Rebecca Traister has written eloquently about the systems of gender inequity which make women more vulnerable, as well as making it difficult to come forward and making it more likely they will be ignored if they do.

Behavioural frameworks do not tackle these structural inequalities, or others such as the rapidly expanding casualisation of the sector which puts early career researchers particularly at risk of abuses of power. Used in any context, disciplinary tools also tend to create compliance through fear, which is the opposite of systemic reform and which may even end up hiding or compounding systemic injustices under a docile veneer. Or people can respond to punishment with more anger and aggression – adults are not that different from children in this regard.

I’m concerned about how institutions might (mis)use conduct codes, especially given escalating cuts and recent attempts to cut out the ‘dead wood’. Brexit and its implications for international recruitment play a role here, as does the TEF. The new decisions for REF 2021 are also significant – staff who have left the institution, for whatever reason, can now be submitted. In light of all this, I’m not sure we should be advocating anything which makes it easier for universities to manage staff out of their jobs.

There is potential for conduct codes to be weaponised in the current political context. Several US academics have been disciplined after being targeted by far-right groups. Many are scholars of colour who have challenged institutional racism or supported movements like Black Lives Matter. Campaigns against them have used the notion of ‘reverse racism’, as if critiquing white privilege, even in the strongest terms, is equal to centuries of racialised oppression. On this side of the Atlantic, social justice discourse is also being painted as intolerant and oppressive. Conduct codes could support these types of attacks on academics, if not implemented wisely.

Intersectionality tells us punitive systems don’t treat us all equally – there are disparities around structures like class and race. Certain people are more likely to be seen as aggressors or bullies – see the ‘angry black woman’ trope and the fact that the ‘police blotter rapist’, as Angela Davis points out, tends to be a black man. Or the persistent construction, now enjoying a resurgence, of queers and trans people as sexually deviant and dangerous. Historical and prevailing notions of ‘respectability’ also shape the experiences of victims: they are more ‘believable’ the more privileged they are, by every demographic measure. Given all this, I wonder who might be more likely to be complained about, as well as which complaints might be more likely to be upheld. Seeking justice on sexual harassment without acknowledging the injustices built into the fabric of institutions may protect some at the expense of others.

Intersectionality is also about ‘asking the other question’. This usually means considering multiple forms of discrimination. But it also pushes us to understand our lives, on the ‘everyday’ level at least, as complex mixtures of victimhood and perpetration. Like other privileged women, I’ve been sexually harassed at work. However, I can’t claim to have never perpetrated discrimination myself – racism, ableism, or transphobia for example. This doesn’t invalidate my experiences of sexual harassment, but it does make me loath to cast the first stone. ‘Zero tolerance’ only works if perpetrators and victims are easy to tell apart.

We desperately need accountability in the sector – there absolutely need to be repercussions. It may be necessary for some academics to stop working with young people. I’m also aware that, as Ahmed points out, critiques of carceral/punitive justice can be mis-used by perpetrators to try to avoid this accountability, a tactic which is particularly effective in academic and ‘progressive’ communities. This also, I argue in my book The Politics of the Body, resonates strongly in the present neoconservative moment where feminism is being mis-cast as the oppressor.

Nevertheless, one size does not fit all when we are dealing with an issue as complex and multidimensional as sexual harassment, and ‘zero tolerance’ approaches sometimes threaten to impede our understanding of how gendered and intersecting structures frame and exacerbate a range of problematic behaviours. Furthermore, naming, shaming and punishing is an inversion of, not a departure from, the power relations which produce sexual harassment in the first place. I understand the urge to do it – I have felt that urge myself. As Sarah Schulman writes, survivors often need to feel in control, to feel safe. But this isn’t the best basis for policy.

Changing behaviour instead of policing it means addressing dysfunctional cultures and gendered (and many other) forms of entitlement. We need to focus less on ‘bad’ individuals and more on the institutional and the systemic. Working from this place, where the institution is not neutral but deeply discriminatory, means being reluctant to wield its disciplinary powers and daring to imagine something different. One of the things this requires is strong values – and in many of our universities, economic values have replaced civic ones. Instead of the insipid notion of ‘excellence’ that currently dominates university mission statements, we need terms we can identify with, that enable us to dismantle oppressive structures and have the potential to positively shape our actions institutionally, interpersonally, and individually. Then, when we tackle sexual harassment, we might begin to create cultural change.

‘Reckoning Up’ sexual harassment and violence

This is the transcript of a presentation given as part of a symposium at the 2017 Gender and Education conference (University of Middlesex, June 21-23), focused on the Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence project. The other papers in the symposium were given by Vanita Sundaram, Anne Chappell and Charlotte Jones.

I want to start with a reflection on how things have changed since we first developed the USVSV project. When we submitted our bid, disclosure training was not common in universities. Now, at least in the UK, there are a number of excellent models about. I think this is testament to the energy and commitment that’s been created around the issue of sexual violence in universities. Sara Ahmed talks about equality and diversity work using the metaphor of the brick wall – in institutions, this often doesn’t become apparent until it’s experienced (producing the figure of the ‘institutional killjoy’ who complains about walls other just cannot see). But WE know the walls are there. Some of us have been chipping away at the bricks for years. I think we are starting to do this:

cracked-brick-wall

But I also think we need to be careful: the cracks could easily be bricked up again. Universities face economic and political uncertainty, in the UK and overseas. This frames their responses to sexual harassment and violence, which tend to be ‘reckoned up’ in a neoliberal framework. In this very short paper I’m going to sketch that process, presenting an analysis based on 12 years of work in many different institutions: my ‘lad culture’ projects, my new initiative Changing University Cultures, and Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence. I am not going to ‘name and shame’ universities – in fact the data I present here might appear quite decontextualised – but I feel quite strongly that pointing the finger is not the way to go (also, I have found that the issues are remarkably similar in different institutions).

Neoliberalism is a 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 become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. It operates as an economic framework, a managerial system, and a motif deployed politically in ways which transcend left/right ideological boundaries. Economically, Harvey defines neoliberalism as a process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself. 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 become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’: our pursuits are configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state or of the self.

The university 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. Everyone in this audience will be well-acquainted with the 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. 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.

Sexual violence in UK universities appeared on 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, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned me to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. The subsequent moral panic around alcohol, pornography and casual sex, set against equally reactionary rhetoric around ‘free speech’, was the backdrop to a wave of initiatives, most of which were student- and faculty-led. It would take another three years, and much lobbying, for a Universities UK taskforce to be set up to demand meaningful action at institutional level.

The difficulty of getting university administrations to take action on sexual violence reflects how it is ‘reckoned up.’ This brings us back to higher education markets, 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 grants perpetrators extra layers of protection, as the institutional impact of disclosure is projected and totted up.

We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media or NSS scores to cause a drop in the league tables. The airbrushing of the institution renders the impact of disclosures on future value more concerning than the acts of violence they reveal. Survivors are but one variable among many. Partly, this just 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 other, with no inherent value of their own. However, there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. Ball uses the example of the REF, in which aggregate research rankings determine the value of our departments, while the people in them 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.

This power (of being a ‘four-star’ academic, for example) can be used to perpetrate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Disclosures are threatening when they target those whose welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. Compared to them, 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 work has taken me into many different universities, but I have been struck by their similarities in how violence is ‘reckoned up’. The previous quote is from an elite UK institution, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a participant from a radical 60s university similarly 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.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’ Her mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When survivors disclose within this framework they only expose themselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal. They become variables in institutional ‘reckonings’, and disappear as people.

This objectification is compounded by university bureaucracy, which can even repress empathy for survivors in systems designed to support them. One of my research participants spoke of a ‘Student Wellbeing Centre’, which

…told me I had a six week wait until I could discuss my anxiety with them, and required [a] doctor’s letter to be provided with assessment extensions due to mitigated circumstances, something I was not asking for. I just wanted someone to talk to and make everything seem better.

It is significant that ‘helping survivors’ is understood here as ensuring they meet their assessment requirements. Or ensuring you meet your own: another participant felt her counselling focused more on ‘ticking the clinic’s boxes for progression of clients than actually helping the victim.’ The bureaucratisation of student support also means that survivors are more likely to present as people with ‘deficit disorders’ than victims of institutionalised violence. This is a good example of what Foucault called the ‘dividing practices’ of pastoral power, and one of the ways in which neoliberal systems ration empathy and suppress political critique.

In a neoliberal society, success is measured through our capacity for self-care via the market. What one of my research participants referred to as a ‘sink or swim’ attitude in their institution is reflected in the world at large. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education frames a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. Of course, as Carolyn Pedwell points out, neoliberalism has also commodified empathy, and turned it into demands for ‘emotional intelligence’ which can increase our individual speculative value or business profitability. A member of staff in my research commented that ‘the reputation of being supportive’ at their institution was ‘more important than the reality’ – and the metrics which measure this are not designed to capture the difference between the two. In a ‘tick-box’ culture, we can instrumentalise empathy while continuing to support practices which suppress it.

Commodified versions of empathy, Pedwell argues, often involve a feel-good false equivalence or ‘understanding’. She sketches alternative forms characterized by conflict, negotiation and attunement within an appreciation of structural difference. For me this owes much to Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger, in which she highlights the need for white women to listen to black women’s anger without being defensive or taking up too much space. Lorde is talking about small consciousness-raising groups and we are dealing with large institutions, but I keep returning to the idea (or ideal) of empathy not devoid of politics.

For Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus: she argues that as business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, the space of the demos is swallowed. However, her search for homo politicus seems to end at traditional liberal arts education and party politics. For me, these establishments are empty compared to the resistance movements many of us are already part of, which do ask us to do the difficult work of connecting across intersectional lines. I am thinking of campaigns such as this:

sex workers

The sex workers’ rights slogan ‘rights not rescue’ problematises mainstream feminist empathy for ‘victims’ of prostitution, arguing that this produces criminal justice interventions which make sex workers’ lives more unsafe. In rejecting this empathy, however, sex workers invoke alternatives: the phrase ‘nothing about us, without us’ demands dialogue, not not an extension of ‘understanding’ from the privileged to those on the margins. This is a provocation and a challenge. Similarly, the US campaign Say Her Name, in the process of generating empathy for black women targeted by police violence, compels white women to face our complicity with it.

I want to end on a note of hope: these movements, and others like them, are enjoying a resurgence at present, in the UK and elsewhere. The general election in the UK has brought together a progressive movement of people who reject the neoliberal consensus and dare to imagine something better. Now is the time to build, both within and outside our institutions. Too often, resistance to the neoliberal ‘reckoning up’ of sexual violence is an outrage which becomes an end in itself. To create cultures in which survivors can disclose more safely, we need to think more positively about the kinds of spaces we want our universities to be.

Speaking up for what’s right: politics, markets and violence in higher education

This post was originally developed as a public lecture for 'Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Universities', a one-day conference held at Newcastle University on March 14th 2017.
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 SpikedFree 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.

Whose Personal is More Political?

The text below is from a guest blog I wrote for the journal Feminist Theory, to launch my article 'Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in Contemporary Feminist Politics', forthcoming in volume 17(3). At present the full text of the article is available from the journal free and can be accessed here. If for any reason you are unable to download this version, the open access version can be downloaded here.

Whose personal is more political? This question has been bothering me for a while. Feminism has been a politics of the personal since its inception, from the testimonial activism of black women in the US civil rights movement to the ‘personal is political’ slogan which underpinned Women’s Liberation, to contemporary intersectional feminist blogs and social media actions such as #sayhername, which exposes police brutality against women of colour. But what happens to this testimonial politics in a neoliberal context which commodifies experience and emotion? This concern underpins my paper. I build on work by Scott and Alcott on the epistemology and politics of experience, and by Ahmed, Pedwell and others on how emotions and affect enter the political.

In my own feminist activism, I am uneasy about what I see as competitive deployments of experience in the service of political agendas. I have been particularly struck by how ‘survivorship’ often acts as the trump card in adversarial debates. The politicisation of women’s victimisation has a long history, and others have documented the role of rape allegations in racialised oppression from slavery to contemporary criminal justice, and the use of indigenous and Othered women as a rhetorical justification for colonial and neo-colonial projects. Feminisms have been caught up in, and sometimes actively complicit with, these dynamics: together with neoliberal trends towards the commodification of the personal, this may frame the ways in which experience has also become capital within the feminist movement.

The question ‘whose personal is more political?’ invites fresh engagement with perennial issues of epistemic and political privilege. I argue that privileged feminists, speaking for others and/or for themselves, use experience to generate emotion and defeat critics who are often from more marginalised social positions. The sex industry ‘survivor’ is used to silence those still working in the industry, who argue for labour rights in order to protect them from violence and abuse. Cisgender women’s experiences of rape and assault are used to conceal the victimisation of trans women and assign them with ‘male violence’ through transphobic rhetoric. Selective empathies operate in which experience is only respected if it has political use value. ‘Speaking for others’ becomes even more problematic when it is wielded against another Other with whom one disagrees, who also happens to be speaking for themselves.

I am not, however, arguing for a renunciation of the politics of experience: instead, I argue that we need to situate experiences structurally, and critically appraise the uses to which they are put. When personal stories become capital in political debates, they must be understood in relation to dynamics of privilege and marginality: in other words, we need to ask whose personal is more political, and why.

Reckoning Up: an institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence

(Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences)

I want to construct an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual harassment and violence. What does this mean? These phenomena are often positioned within narratives about boys – or men – ‘behaving badly’. While it is crucial to hold individuals accountable for their actions, as sociologists we must go further. Sexual harassment and violence are of the social: produced and shaped by gender and other intersecting structures of inequality, and framed by the neoliberal rationalities which, as Wendy Brown argues, have seeped into almost all aspects of our lives. An institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence in higher education starts here.

Like schools, universities exist within a marketplace. As government funding dwindles, we increasingly compete for students and research grants in order to survive. We also operate internal markets which bring departments and staff into rivalry, and make us competitors rather than colleagues. I want students to register on my MA programme, not yours. How does our research stack up next to the department’s next door? Students now imagine they are paying us for a service, and while we give them their grades, they evaluate us in ways which have a demonstrable impact on our market standing. There are hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels, and the effects of this are seen in cultures amongst students and staff.

In my work on student ‘lad culture’, I have argued that this combines rather tired forms of sexism with newer modes of sexual audit. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their ‘sex appeal’. Men are scoring points for sexual ‘achievements’ – such as ‘slipping a finger in on the dance floor’, and ‘bedding a virgin, with blood to prove it.’ ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

In 2013, a number of Facebook pages emerged entitled ‘Rate Your Shag’, linked to universities across the country. These offered spaces for students to give their sexual partners marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users in the first 72 hours. They were deleted just as quickly, deemed to contravene Facebook’s policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also often gendered – women are appraised, men do the appraising. Although students of all genders had been encouraged to post, much of the Rate Your Shag content consisted of men rating women on criteria drawn from heteronormative and objectified constructions of femininity.

‘Was like shagging her mouth, best blowjob in [the city]. Eight out of ten.’
‘Nought out of ten. Shit body and one heavy dose of Chlamydia. Get checked love.’

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is also bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by a participant in my research as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This could also describe cultures amongst higher education staff, many of whom feel alienated by processes that incessantly measure them against each other and against the curve. Again, this evaluation is gendered: men continue to hold most of the positions of power in the sector, definitions of ‘success’ prioritise research (coded as masculine) over teaching and admin (coded as feminine), and assessment exercises favour modes of scholarship and impact which reward the confidence, time and freedom to take risks and consistently self-promote.

A UCU survey in 2012 found that bullying and harassment between university staff was common, usually perpetrated by managers and disproportionately affecting women, BAME and LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Recent media and academic discussions have also focused on staff relations with students, with high-profile exposés of powerful US Professors who are serial sexual harassers feeding growing unease in the UK.

Sara Ahmed recently resigned her Professorial post at Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Last December, I spoke at a conference at Goldsmiths where difficulty of even naming sexual harassment was brought to the fore. For a problem to be disclosed, it must be named. For it to be addressed, it must be disclosed – but our failure to address sexual harassment and violence prevents it being disclosed in the first place. We are caught in a vicious circle.

In any institution, disclosures of harassment and violence are situated within reckonings. What is the cost of naming and addressing this problem? ‘Cost’, however, is not neutral – and we need to think critically about how it is defined and calculated. In a neoliberal institution, ideas of ‘cost’ are shaped by marketised reputational games. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. This gives rise to the figure Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. I have been one of these killjoys for as long as I can remember. In fact, you might even call me the ‘sectoral killjoy’ – my work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities has led to many uncomfortable discussions, some of which I have been party to, some of which I have not.

The cost of sexual violence is totted up at multiple levels, from departmental finances to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ We do not want to lose our star Professor, or their grant income. We do not want a media frenzy around campus rape which would damage the university’s standing with potential students or key international donors. The airbrushing of the institution makes disclosures disreputable, rather than the acts of harassment and violence they reveal.

Disclosures are disreputable in neoliberal institutions where economic values have replaced civic ones. We have experienced, as Stephen Ball puts it, ‘a thoroughgoing commodification of university life.’ One of the characteristics of this, he argues, is the fungibility of staff and students: we are all capable of substitution for each other, with no distinct value of our own. Or almost all of us. Those who are reckoned up differently are often the ones who use that power to perpetrate harassment and violence in the first place. Disclosures, then, are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten their welfare, because this is intimately bound up with the welfare of the institution.

I have argued before that power works to cover some people up. As Heidi Mirza points out, some of us are used to revealing ourselves. The bodies of women of colour and LGBT people, for example, are often seen as public property; we are also often forced to commodify our experience in a world in which abstract thought is not for us. Others, however, are not to be exposed. ‘Laddish’ disclosures are made by men, but women’s bodies are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual violence, they are minimised and denied.

When it comes to staff, some people are bundled up in layers of bureaucratic power. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, assesses your requests for research leave, and conducts your annual appraisal. The Principal Investigator on your research project can either help you get your next fixed-term contract, or leave you to flounder. Your PhD supervisor has a key role in whether you get that first job at all. These bureaucratic power relations raise the stakes on disclosure, and also make it difficult to look up from our desks to support colleagues and students who are suffering. There are other bureaucratic layers, such as stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet.

Some of these forms of leverage are not new: academic and institutional hierarchies have always facilitated abuse. In fact, the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, after Carmita Wood resigned her post as a Professor’s administrative assistant because of his unwanted advances. But in a neoliberal institution some people are really snug: even swaddled by the equality policy frameworks which are less about tackling problems than giving the impression they are already solved. The developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior academics and the casualisation of junior ones have also created an individualism which may mean we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). This normalises sexual harassment and violence because it inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ When boundaries are being crossed in the open, there is nothing to expose.

While heavy bureaucratic layers envelop some people, others carry the weight of sexual harassment and violence. ‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated in her dorm room by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’

Sulcowicz’s mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual harassment and violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When we disclose within this framework we only expose and harm ourselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ or institutional betrayal which has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. While we lug our mattresses around, perhaps our disclosures do become the ‘peas’ under theirs, but it is hard not to be cynical about what ultimately stops them from sleeping.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities, and that sexual harassment by staff is so difficult to even name. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is about how sexual harassment and violence are reckoned up; who calculates the cost, and who pays the price.