Disclosure and exposure in the neoliberal university

This Spring, as part of a collaborative partnership of colleagues from the UK and 5 other European countries, I helped to launch a European Commission-funded project entitled ‘Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence‘. Our main aim is to create university environments in which students can disclose experiences of sexual harassment and assault, through providing ‘first response’ training to key staff. We have committed to training 80 staff in each of our 13 Partner and Associate Partner universities.

As we begin our work, I want to think more deeply about disclosure. The word is loaded, and the act is too: laden with emotion and often perceived as a threat. It means to reveal, to expose, to name something which creates discomfort and shame. Our work is loaded. Sexual harassment and assault in universities is pushed under the carpet in every national context I have studied, both within Europe and further afield. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground portrayed US university campuses as sites where sexual predators roam with impunity. Although I was not a fan of the film’s restitution-retribution narrative, it relayed powerful testimonies by survivors who described a heartbreaking silence which resounds across national borders.

In both the US and the UK, disclosures are made within institutions shaped by neoliberal and new managerial rationalities. These both force and inhibit speech in a variety of ways. While not over-simplifying neoliberalism and/or over-stating its effects, a key question for our project must be: what does it mean to respond to disclosure in this context?

Silences within the neoliberal institution have been the subject of much discussion. Less often, we explore how HE sector frameworks, practices and cultures are dependent on particular types of disclosures. Evaluation requires information: as Stephen Ball argues, we must make ourselves ‘calculable’ within contemporary performative regimes. The REF demands descriptions of our departmental intellectual homes; the NSS asks students how they feel about our teaching; we represent our ideas and ambitions in particular (or on particular) forms for annual appraisal. Benchmarking exercises such as Athena SWAN and Stonewall Diversity Champions require us to document our successes, admit our failings and promise to fix them. Foucault’s modern confessional comes to mind here: just as we are asked to give up the secrets of our bodies and minds to doctors and psychiatrists, audit culture demands that we give up the secrets of our labour.

Neoliberal rationalities intersect with the gendered cultures of universities. I have written extensively about student ‘lad culture’, contending that within the contemporary university, this often articulates itself through modes of sexual audit. Like other forms of audit, these force particular types of disclosures: ‘conquests’ must be documented and assessed. The notching up of ‘lad points’, Heidi Mirza reminds us, is not restricted to students: retro-sexist masculinities are at play at all levels of the academy, from the bar to the boardroom.

Citing Felly Simmonds, Mirza also reiterates that for those marginalised within academic environments and discourses, legitimacy often depends on disclosing private information. Women of colour, LGBT+ people and others are excluded from the realms of abstract theorising and speech. We are pushed into the personal register, but this position is vulnerable to dismissal and derision. Partly in response, feminism and other resistant political forms have rightly reclaimed the personal as epistemology. However, I have argued that in a neoliberal context in which both knowledge and experience have become capital, personal disclosures can be weaponised within political movements to shore up power and privilege. Disclosure is complex, then, for our engagements with and our resistances against, the neoliberal institution.


Disclosure is exposure. But exposure for whom? We expose ourselves when we disclose what has happened to us. We also have the potential to expose those who have hurt us, at individual and institutional levels, but this is commonly not realised. We fear exposing ourselves but perhaps even more, we fear exposing them: there will be consequences. This thought is often enough to stop us from disclosing in the first place.

Disclosures are situated within reckonings: for survivors and for the institution. The terms of these are frequently dictated by marketised reputational games. The same systems of monitoring and evaluation which demand some disclosures deny others, insisting that everything is presented with a ‘good spin’. This gives rise to the figure Sara Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. Like disclosure, complaint is a loaded word. As Whitley and Page remind us, it places the focus on those who complain, rather than those who are complained about. Ahmed puts it like this: ‘those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage. And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation.’

Institutionally, disclosure is reckoned up as a market problem. As I have previously suggested, this operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Disclosures, rather than the acts of sexual violence they refer to, are what is disreputable because economic values have replaced civic ones. Institutional reckonings around disclosure reduce students and staff to fungible objects within cost-benefit frameworks. This means that disclosures are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten the welfare of the institution.

As a result, as Ahmed contends, complaints often become an injury to the offender: this is especially the case if he (and it is usually, but not always, ‘he’) is seen as an asset. Disclosures can take down star Professors or threaten fraternity endowments and sporting success. Citing Code’s work on testimony, Whitley and Page argue that disclosures can eventually become challenges to hegemonic accounts of what a university is. Spin does not survive long in the face of sustained truth-telling: this is the ultimate reputational risk.


One of the ways power operates is to cover some people up. Some of us are used to revealing ourselves: our bodies are marked as public property; experience is our most legitimate source of knowledge. Others are not to be exposed. Whitley and Page point out that confidentiality, while essential to facilitating disclosures, can also operate as a means to protect high-profile individuals and institutions from damage. The ‘laddish’ disclosures I have documented are made by men, but it is women’s bodies which 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 harassment and assault, they are minimised and denied. When we disclose within such power relations, we only expose ourselves.

In a neoliberal institution, layers of bureaucratic leverage are bundled around the powerful. Whitley and Page highlight how hierarchies between staff and students both enable and conceal abuse; student communities are also characterised by varying degrees of social and institutional privilege, as are relations between staff. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, conducts your annual appraisal, and assesses your requests for research leave. There are more impersonal bureaucratic controls as well, including stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet. As Ahmed points out, the word ‘harass’ derives from the French word for ‘tire’ or ‘vex’, and harassment and bullying succeeds by increasing the costs of fighting against it.

I have argued in the past that audit culture also makes it difficult to look up from our desks to support our students and colleagues who are suffering. This, in turn, normalises harassment and assault and 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?’ If boundaries are being crossed in the open, then there is nothing to expose.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of UK women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is not that simple and it will not be easy to fix. It is about whose speech counts and how, and what kinds of disclosures are elicited and ignored. For our project, there will be a challenge involved in moving beyond the act of disclosure to explore its context. Indeed, disclosure is not just an act: it is an idea and a process which goes to the heart of issues of power and violence in the neoliberal institution.

The university campus as ‘Hunting Ground’

The Hunting Ground is an incredibly powerful film. Its main strength is the testimony of the brave survivors who tell their stories on camera – tales of harrowing victimisation, and narratives of resilience and strength as they take on the machinery of their universities and help each other through trauma and recovery. I am full of admiration for these survivors – their voices break the silence around campus sexual assault, and in the process become part of a long feminist tradition of sharing experience to create political change. They are both male and female, although it is a shame the film does not refer to (and does not appear to include) people of other genders, since recent research suggests that genderqueer and non-conforming students, along with trans students, may be particularly at risk.

The personal stories of The Hunting Ground are raw and honest: however, they are positioned within a rather dubious argument and agenda, which begins with the film’s title. Together with the soundtrack provided by the Lady Gaga track ‘Till it Happens to You’, it transmits a clear message: that male students are predators and female ones prey, in campuses more like wildernesses or war zones in which sexual assault is inevitable. As educator and a feminist who both teaches and has been taught that discourse reflects and constructs reality, I am not sure whether I want to ensnare young people within this kind of narrative. I also question its function and intent in a film which seems to have been produced to generate profit, judging by the costs charged to university staff and student groups who wish to show the DVD.

The film represents its ‘hunters’ as a small band of men with stealth weapons, who deliberately and systematically pick women off. This is based on the often-made argument that campus rape is a calculated, premeditated crime (usually violent) committed by serial sex offenders. This claim comes from the research of David Lisak, who argues that campus offenders are violent sociopaths who ‘groom’ their targets and coerce and terrify them into submission. Lisak’s assertions punctuate the film: we are told that 90 percent of campus assaults are committed by serial rapists, and that these men average six rapes each. However, Lisak’s research, and its subsequent usage, has been challenged: his initial paper was based on four different student dissertations, none on campus sexual assault specifically. It also did not distinguish between assaults committed on different victims and multiple assaults on the same person.

In contrast to this picture of the violent serial rapist, evidence from the UK suggests that many acts of sexual violence at university stem from a variety of more spontaneous boundary-crossings shaped by particular cultures of masculinity. This is not to underplay the seriousness of these assaults: indeed, their ‘everydayness’ is perhaps greater grounds for concern than the idea that there are a handful of men perpetrating multiple attacks who can easily be removed from student communities to keep everyone safe. The 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks found that a whopping 68 per cent of women students in UK universities had been sexually harassed. Furthermore, the survivors who testify in the Hunting Ground to a huge number of students with similar experiences appear to confirm that the scale of the problem in the US may not be restricted to a handful of violent men either.

A key insight of feminist theorisations of rape is that it is not perpetrated by men who deviate from social norms, but by those who exemplify them. Initiated by the black feminists of the US Civil Rights movements and subsequently articulated by the radical feminists of the second wave, there has also been a powerful argument that sexual violence is not just an individual crime but a practice which reflects and reproduces structural inequality through racialised and/or gendered terror. Ida B. Wells situated rape as a means of upholding white patriarchal power, while allegations of rape were deployed to justify lynching black men as a form of social control. More than 50 years after Wells’ death, Kelly’s continuum of gendered/sexual violence defined a collection of behaviours, from sexual harassment to sexualised murder, with the same social and political function: preserving male power by making women feel unsafe. These structural analyses work at the roots of intersectional power relations: a far cry from the idea that you can just punish some ‘naughty boys’ and make the problem of sexual violence go away.

The retribution-restitution narrative of The Hunting Ground calls on universities to mobilise disciplinary apparatuses, with the ultimate aim being the expulsion of offenders. This works alongside the idea that the most appropriate channel for victims to achieve justice through is the criminal law. This narrative has serious implications, given the sheer scale and ‘normalcy’ of sexual harassment and violence at universities: it also detracts attention from the cultures of masculinity and myriad forms of bullying and abuse which are shaped by the rationalities and practices of the neoliberal institution. What if we punish those ‘naughty boys’, and others emerge to take their place? What if we deal with an issue ‘over here’, and find that it is also endemic ‘over there’? There are also important intersectional questions about appealing to carceral systems, either within or outside institutions, which may be riddled with racism, classism and other oppressive discourses. Who is more likely to be problematised and targeted by these systems, and why?

The most valuable element of the film is its clear message about believing and supporting sexual violence survivors. Indeed, its footage of survivors caring for each other is equally inspirational and heartbreaking, because of the exacting emotional labour involved in filling the chasms – these are not just cracks – in institutional provision. As a survivor myself I understand that the idea of punitive sanctions is gratifying amidst deep anger and pain: however, this may be an unsatisfactory or incomplete response in institutions which are supposed to have a pedagogical mission. Furthermore, carceral approaches detract from addressing institutionalised sexism and other hegemonies in higher education (including those of the neoliberal university itself) which shape and produce bullying and violence. The neoliberal framework is also what creates financial disincentives for universities to uncover and address sexual assault, positioning it as a PR issue rather than one of student wellbeing and social justice. The Hunting Ground might short-circuit this by shaming institutions into action, but punishing ‘naughty boys’ will not help us to create campus communities where people are actually concerned with being good.

Sexism and violence in the neoliberal university

This is the text of a keynote speech delivered at the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference at Goldsmiths on December 2nd 2015. Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences.

I want to talk about markets. Education markets, institutional markets, sexual markets: brought together by similar modes of assessment and audit. University league tables; module evaluation forms; ‘sex charts’ in student residences. Hierarchies of performance (which are often hierarchies of masculinity) at national, institutional and individual levels.

Rate your university. Rate your lecturer. Rate Your Shag.

2013 saw the emergence of a number of Facebook pages under the latter slogan, linked to universities across the country. They offered a space for students to give sexual liaisons marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users of the social network in the first 72 hours. The activity was supposed to be anonymous, but privacy quickly evaporated under the instruction to ‘name them, shame them and if you must, praise them.’

Name them and shame them. All the pages were rapidly deleted by Facebook, deemed to contravene its policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also very 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.’

Rate Your Shag forms part of a whole lexicon of activities which in the past few years have been grouped under the banner of ‘lad culture’. Sports initiations, ‘pimps and hos’ parties, the ‘fuck a fresher’ frenzy, for example. Such pursuits express traditional forms of sexism and male entitlement, but they are also inflected with something else. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their physical 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.’ These forms of sexual audit evoke our contemporary marketised environment. ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by one of my research participants as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This also describes cultures amongst higher education staff, alienated by institutional and sectoral frameworks that constantly measure them against each other and against the curve. 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 criteria for assessment exercises such as the REF 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 staff in universities was rife. This reflects both traditional hierarchies and abuses of power, and newer forms of competitive individualism which lack empathy and ethics. The university has become a dog-eat-dog environment; this is reflected in both staff and student communities. We know less about the prevalence of staff-on-student harassment, due to the institutionalised power relations which work against it even being named. However, we know it exists: and high profile examples, mostly from the US, give a sense of how these modes of violence work.

Consider the case of famous Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, a potential Nobel laureate who persistently violated the institution’s sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010. According to one student’s account, she was at a department dinner when Marcy slid his hand up her thigh and grabbed her crotch.

For many women, this entitlement to touch is familiar. Such ‘everyday’ boundary-crossings are also central to ‘lad culture’, although more often performed in public as part of group one-upmanship. Many of my research participants described such ‘casual groping’ as part and parcel of a normal night out. Indeed, such behaviours have become so commonplace that they are often invisible: instead, the aspect of ‘lad culture’ which has captured the media and public consciousness is its cruel and shocking ‘banter’. This laddish language taps both the violence of hypermasculinity and the callousness of the neoliberal climate.

‘Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise.”
Non-consensual sex is ‘fun for one.’
I’m going out to ‘get some gash.’

The marketised university is a culture based on ‘having’ or ‘getting’ (grades and/or jobs), in which education has become a transactional exchange. This is reflected in the rather estranged ‘lad cultures’ I have studied, with older ideas about ‘having’ women augmented by newer notions of accumulating sexual capital. The principle of maximum outcomes for minimal effort which now underpins educational consumption also animates the quest for an ‘easy lay’.

I’m going out to ‘get some gash’.

In laddish ‘banter’, ancient expressions of woman-hating co-exist with more modern sexualised consumerism, packaged up in postmodern claims to irony. Such ‘banter’ has also been observed amongst some faculty cultures – for instance, the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog, a repository for stories of sexism in the discipline, recounts a comic containing a rape joke being sent to a junior faculty member by a philosopher at another institution, copied to all the other members of her department. In another entry, a recent philosophy graduate recalls a conversation about a job application essay with her previous head of department, in which chose to illustrate a point about how two people’s wills could conflict with the example of him raping her. Finally, in a post entitled ‘a sampling of minor incidents’, another student describes a faculty member stopping his lecture to ask her, ‘did you just flash me?’ because she adjusted her cardigan, and a famous professor discussing with male students which female students were ‘hot’ and which were ‘dogs’.

In this context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that University of Miami philosophy professor Colin McGinn, said to have subjected a female doctoral student to months of unwanted innuendo and propositions, defined the relationship as ‘warm, consensual’ and ‘full of banter’.

Don’t worry – it’s just banter.

What is the line between ‘banter’ and sexual harassment? In my research on ‘lad cultures’ amongst students, and also in media debates, the second has often been reduced to the first. There has also been a refusal to engage with how speech itself can be harmful, and how the realm of the symbolic can frame structural and embodied violence – instead, we often find ourselves on the back foot in debates about men’s rights to ‘cause offence’. Women are always getting offended by something or other.

In 2012, the Imperial College newspaper Felix published a ‘joke’ article providing male students with a recipe for the date rape drug rohypnol, as a ‘foolproof way’ to have sex on Valentine’s Day. The previous year an Exeter University society printed a ‘shag mag’ including an article speculating about how many calories a man could burn by stripping a woman naked without her consent.

When the Facebook page ‘Holyland Lad Stories’ (currently ‘liked’ by almost 30,000 users) was criticised on Twitter, its curators responded ‘get a fucking grip – we’re having a bit of harmless banter.’ Amongst the content highlighted as problematic was a post describing an incident in which a man had knocked a woman ‘clean out with one smack’ and left her for dead on the side of the road.

Get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

To ‘offend’ with impunity is a function and exercise of privilege. This applies to the invisibilising and excusing of sexual violence perpetrated by middle class white men, and the insistence of all privileged groups that their ignorant, hurtful and harmful comments about marginalised people are ‘just my opinion’ or ‘just a joke.’ It is a cruel irony that only those with the social, cultural and political power to hurt other groups get to evade responsibility for it. This irony was recently painfully apparent when Goldsmith’s Welfare and Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa was arrested and charged for allegedly tweeting on the #killallwhitemen hashtag. The discrepancy between the punitive treatment of Bahar and the amused indulgence of laddish ‘banter’ is a stark reminder of the ways in which ‘free speech’ is the property of some and not others.

Kill all white men.

It’s not rape if you shout ‘surprise’.

Structural relations of gender and race inequality render one of these a much more credible threat than the other. Indeed, they make the first statement an understandable expression of frustration about a racist and misogynist society, while the second is evidence of it. Nevertheless, the political hyperbole of ‘killallwhitemen’ became a crime, while laddish banter is defended as an exercise of freedom.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

The privilege to offend is often wielded in response to privilege being threatened: in this, contemporary ‘laddish’ masculinities are marked out from working class laddism, which has been seen as more to do with alienation. The main players in the recent theatre of student laddism in the UK are middle class and white, progeny of the 1990s ‘new lad’ and the Bullingdon Club toffs. These rugby players, drinking and debating society ‘bros’ are also siblings of the frat boys in the US who are central to debates there about campus violence.

The aggressive sexism these privileged men perpetrate in student social spaces can be defined as a ‘strategic misogyny’. Sexual harassment very often functions to preserve masculine power and space. Our ‘uni lads’ enact the backlash against feminism, embodying populist and policy concerns about the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the ‘feminisation’ of HE. Feminism has gone too far.

Contemporary laddism is a defensive strategy by those accustomed to topping the ranks, threatened by both the reality and the hyperbole of women’s achievement, the idea and practice of ‘widening participation’ and the increasingly blurred lines (no pun intended) of gender and sexuality amongst student and youth cultures. Laddism is an equal-opportunity offender, rooted in sexism but often incorporating racism, classism, transphobia and homophobia as well.

Feminism has gone too far.

Boys need to be protected.

There is evidence that in reaction to these ideas (and also in fear of their ‘disruptive’ working class and black contemporaries), white middle class boys are being hothoused by parents who see them as frail and imperilled. Boys need to be protected.

This propensity to feel threatened is palpable in both ‘lad culture’s unmistakable ‘woman rage’ and the way critics of laddish behaviours have been vilified as censorious, creepy and a menace to freedom. We must catch the grain of truth here – feminist initiatives, especially in the area of anti-violence, have sometimes been co-opted by prevailing moral panics and carceral projects. However, first and foremost laddish defensiveness is part of the anti-feminist backlash, and a dialectic between student communities perceived as excessively ‘politically correct’ because of their advocacy for the marginalised, and the privileged who experience this liberatory politics as oppression. They are not to be evaluated.

They just can’t say anything any more.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

A similar reformulation of critique and resistance as oppression has been identified by Sara Ahmed in the way that some male academics have responded to equality initiatives in higher education. Anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and other diversity policies can be resisted alongside more problematic new managerialist reforms which threaten scholarly autonomy. Elite male professors become the victims within narratives of restricted freedom and nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’ when their rights to do as they wished were not curtailed. Feminism has gone too far. Political correctness is out of control.

As Ahmed argues, these critiques often settle on ‘complaining’ students who are seen as entitled and demanding, even in their appeals for equality. This location of neoliberalism in the consumerist student serves to hide the fact that, as Whitley and Page contend, academics also benefit from new bureaucratic regimes which cement their power over students and make it difficult for students to speak out.

The costs of speaking out are illustrated in a heartbreaking post by a PhD student on the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog:

I just want to caution those of you out there who are thinking about coming forward to report sexual predators. Expect your department to turn on you; expect your department to retaliate against you. Expect to be bad mouthed at every PhD program to which you apply. Expect to lose your committee. Expect to lose your letter writers. Expect your department to withdraw all support from you. Expect to become persona non grata. Expect to be de facto barred from all opportunities in your department. Expect to be gas-lighted. Expect people to be thrilled to watch your fall from grace. And, then, when you succeed, against all odds, and despite the prodigious efforts of your department to the contrary, through sheer force of will and talent, expect your department to exploit your success at every opportunity. Expect to watch as your success is used to further the career of the predator. Expect them to ignore your pleas to stop. Expect this.

In an article about being sexually harassed by her PhD supervisor, Susan Gardner writes that once she changed supervisors she was disappointed to find that her new one was not keen to support her or even discuss what she had been through, ostensibly for fear that it might impact on her ability to get tenure. In this country, similar structures of probation and performance management can make colleagues reluctant to step out of line. Furthermore, the developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior colleagues and fears about casualisation for junior ones have created an individualism which may mean that academics turn a blind eye to difficult issues while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst).

I began my research and activism on sexual violence against students around ten years ago, and was immediately struck by how difficult it was to get colleagues (of any gender) to show interest in, let alone take action on, issues which did not directly affect them. I have vivid memories of giving a talk to a meeting of mostly senior women, in which the customary noises of outrage failed to materialise as action. In contrast, shortly afterwards I was inundated with input and offers of help as I drafted a consultation document around maternity leave and the REF.

I am not taking the moral high ground or pointing the finger; there are plenty of issues I have overlooked. Individuals are not to blame for this, especially not women and academics from other marginalised groups for whom university life is still a struggle. The constant evaluation of the neoliberal regime makes it difficult for us look up from our desks, let alone take on the institution in what is usually a losing battle. Constant evaluation creates silence.

Higher education markets, epitomised by league tables, ensure that bullying, harassment and violence are minimised and rendered invisible. They become a PR issue, hushed up for the sake of recruitment and reputation. In a context of widespread denial, nobody wants to risk their campus being defined as ‘unsafe’. In the US, despite a legislative framework mandating the publication of campus crime statistics which is more than 20 years old, institutions continue to be criticised for covering these up, or encouraging students to drop complaints, in order to preserve their market position.

The result of this is what Ahmed has pointed out: bringing a problem to institutional attention frequently means becoming the problem. This operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the rather grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Feminist killjoys and whinging women are bringing the university into disrepute – as if the prevalence of violence in the higher education sector has not brought us all into disrepute already.

We are all in disrepute already!

Amidst this denial and silencing, it is not surprising that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their institutions. Whitley and Page add that the stress and opacity of complaints processes is also a deterrent to reporting, and the demands of student support systems can make it difficult for victims not to just drop out.

Furthermore, trends towards the outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student support threaten student safety and the quality of pastoral care. Commercial service providers tend to offer one-size-fits-all solutions, set within cost-cutting business models. This is a particularly bleak picture in relation to student counselling, already outsourced in Northern Ireland, where burned out practitioners on depressed wages are offering a reduced range of services in a context of growing psychological demand.

In the neoliberal university though, it’s all about the bottom line. Supporting students costs money. Complaining students cost reputation (and threaten income streams). There is a cost/benefit equation here.

But whose cost counts?

Sexual harassment and violence in higher education are situated within cost/benefit frameworks which prioritise the welfare of the institution. Incidents must be hushed up lest they jeopardise our recruitment. Incidents must be hushed up lest they damage our reputation. ‘A Star Philosopher Falls’ was the way Colin McGinn, who resigned after allegations of ongoing sexual harassment, was described.

Allegations of sexual harassment and violence pose a cost to the institution. But who pays the price?

Victims and survivors do: most of them women. This price is high. It could be the loss of departmental support for research, the breakdown of a supervisory team, or the inability to go on to campus for fear of running into the perpetrator. Often, the price is so high that it is less costly to leave. There is a term for this – institutional betrayal – and it has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. That’s the bottom line – we are betraying our students.

In an article in Time Magazine, Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who carried her mattress around campus for 8 months to protest against the handling of her rape complaint, described her experience as follows:

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

We are betraying these students.

Institutional betrayal does not just refer to responses to sexual assault, but the fact that universities actively create conditions which are conducive to it. This can be experienced as a betrayal more acute than the lack of institutional response. As Sulkowicz said of Columbia: ‘they’re more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.’

We are definitely betraying these students.

We are also shirking our legal responsibilities – according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the Public Sector Equality Duty and Human Rights Act both mandate universities to deal with gender-based and sexual violence.

How do we move forward? The student movement in this country is consistently showing us the way – under the leadership of and inspired by the NUS Women’s Campaign, we now have consent education initiatives, bystander intervention training, awareness-raising projects, ‘zero tolerance’ pledges, and an effort to develop better policies and procedures. However, most of this activity is student-run: many institutions have yet to take any action at all.

In September this year, the Business Secretary asked Universities UK to convene a task force to tackle ‘lad culture’ and violence against women on university campuses. This task force has been tasked with developing a code of practice for institutions to support cultural change.

Support cultural change. This is a big idea. We need to think big on this.

Sexual harassment and violence in the higher education sector is primarily about gender. We need to think big about gender, confronting misogyny and male entitlement in our university communities, and connecting them with gendered norms and inequalities in society at large. We need to think big about how gender intersects with other power structures and oppressions: the racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia of ‘lad culture’ are evidence of this. Thinking big about gender also requires us to acknowledge that although women are very often its victims, sexual and gender-based violence affects students of all genders. There is evidence from the US suggesting that transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming and gender questioning students who do not identify as women face high levels of risk: this is a gender issue.

We also need to engage with neoliberalism, as it shapes the higher education sector in general and institutions in particular. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education is situated within the culture of constant evaluation. Gender relations are practised via the marketised and managerialist structures of the university, which aggravate inter-group resentments, exacerbate the abuse of hierarchies, and intensify the silencing of victims.

We cannot tackle sexism and violence in the higher education sector properly without looking honestly at neoliberal values and how these shape dysfunctional and harmful communities. Constant evaluation facilitates bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment.

Finally, we need to be aware of the risk that anti-violence initiatives will get caught up in, and depoliticised by, that culture of monitoring and evaluation. Let’s set a target. Let’s tick that box. Let’s run a workshop and put it in the Annual Report. We need to resist the temptation to get our house in order, to perform what should shake the institution to its core. Although effective advocacy often involves compromise, women have been put in enough compromising positions already. It will take more than this.

Let’s not just get our house in order. Let’s tear the whole damn building down. Who’s with me?

Identity, experience, choice and responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks very much for listening.

Universities, don’t conflate ‘lad culture’ with ‘drink culture’

Originally published in The Guardian

Last week, Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, commented on the need for universities to do more to tackle “lad culture” among students. Discussing the problem, he associated it with a “drink culture in universities that leads to a loss of discipline and thought”. His comments were echoed across the national papers, which discussed “excessive drinking” and “lewd behaviour”.

That the OIA is taking sexual harassment in universities seriously is welcome and an important win for the NUS. But, as attempts to deal with sexual violence in higher education become institutionalised, we should avoid feeding moral panics. Behrens isn’t the only person to map “lad culture” and “rape culture” on to other perceived social ills. I have been asked in media interviews whether the problem is due to us accepting more working class students – in fact it seems to be the most privileged men in universities who behave the worst.

In workshops with university staff and managers I have heard invectives against casual sex and attempts to blame pornography in particular or the sex industry in general. I have also witnessed domestic violence being defined as an issue specific to Muslim families, an ethnicisation of violence against women which was echoed in a different form in the recent viral video about catcalling which edited out the white guys.

There is a long history of activism around violence against women being co-opted by, or becoming complicit with, problematic agendas. This is especially the case when attempts to deal with such issues result in punitive action by the state, for instance the carceral politics around sexual and domestic violence which disproportionately targets black and working class men. The campaigns against the sex industry which often end up criminalising the sex workers they purport to save are a further example. Taking a wider geopolitical lens, the definition of Muslim men as inherently more misogynistic and violent has underpinned neo-imperialist projects such as the war on terror.

In 2013 Isabel Young and I co-authored That’s What She Said, the NUS-commissioned study of lad culture in higher education which found that sexist banter and laddish activities could sometimes spill over into sexual harassment and assault. Other NUS studies have found a high prevalence of sexual violence at universities, much of it perpetrated by men against women and mostly unreported.

Since then, and largely spearheaded by the NUS, there has been an explosion of initiatives to address the problem, including consent training, bystander education, and workshops on “positive masculinity”. This work is valuable in its pedagogical approach and willingness to both name the issues at hand and engage with students of all genders as part of the solution.

But, as institutions themselves begin to tackle sexual harassment and assault, we should be careful that the issue isn’t hijacked by a political agenda. Our interpretations of the causes of sexual violence must move past moral panics about “excessive drinking and lewd behaviour”, and must not settle on the usual scapegoats.

While keeping the focus on gender, we must not ignore or worsen other oppressions related to issues such as race, class or the sex industry. Furthermore, we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating – we must push them to take responsibility for the existence of higher education communities where bullying and harassment of both students and staff is rife. We need a renewed conversation about civic values in the university sector, and to work towards communities where students and staff of all genders can thrive.

Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience

The personal is political, that revolutionary phrase which illuminated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and after, was originally coined in response to claims that consciousness-raising was navel-gazing with no coherent programme for social change. It posed a direct challenge to the idea that ‘personal problems’ and especially so-called ‘body issues’ should not be brought into the public arena, an assumption which feminism has done an excellent job of destabilising. Politicising the personal through the production of research on gendered bodies has fed the development of epistemologies based on the validity of experiential knowledge, and this, in turn, has brought to light the impossibility of objective analysis.

However, more than 30 years on, it is time to ask questions about what has befallen the personal in a neoliberal political context. Neoliberalism individualises, interiorises and neutralises – within this framework the political uses of the personal have shrunk as difference has transformed into ‘diversity’, and experience and emotion have become part of a broader ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ in which popular culture and politics have been saturated with feeling. As Ahmed (citing hooks) reminds us, this narcissistic and therapeutic moment and movement can easily co-opt and depoliticise our personal pain (although she cautions that this does not mean it should be ignored). In the current political climate, affect and emotion often serve to detract from structural critique: as Pedwell argues, inequality is frequently seen as a failure of understanding rather than a product of neoliberal and neo-colonial governmentality. Furthermore, the pain which has always been (justifiably) central to feminist politics can accumulate and stagnate in what Wendy Brown calls ‘wounded identities’ which both legitimate and depend upon state power.

We are currently doing feminism in amongst a commodification of distress. Moreover, this transforms experience into currency with which to buy into broader ideologies or ‘gazump’ potential political opponents. This is revealed by the frequency with experience is ventriloquised by politicians and privileged ‘experts’, who use empathy as a technology of access to marginalised lives, often upstaging grassroots communities who may be able to claim ownership of their stories but lack a political platform. Neo-imperialist agendas strategically centre ‘native informants’, often women, whose narratives of oppression are used to constitute Other cultures, usually those of Muslim-majority societies or communities, as uniquely and inherently misogynist and homophobic. Domestic and international politicking around the sex industry is characterised by a fight for experiential authenticity, which in the mainstream media is often transmuted into a ‘debate’ between the extremes of the ‘victimised survivor’ central to abolitionist agendas and the ’happy hooker’ who often materialises as a rebuttal to that type of feminist politics. As part of its resurgence, anti-choice politics has recently undergone a shift away from its sanctification of the foetus, towards advocating the idea of abortion as a deep personal trauma which is contrary to women’s best interests.

Within a lexicon in which experience is frequently and increasingly used (often second-hand) in the service of particular political agendas, personal stories begin to lose their humanity. Complex and varied narratives are simplified and homogenised for ideological ends and can then be dismissed by those in opposition as apocryphal or even corrupt. As debates become more heated, we tend to fixate on the first-person and discredit the experience when we ought to be questioning the surrounding politics. The relationships between particular experiences and powerful and often repressive political agendas have begun to define the narratives themselves and to rob them of legitimacy. Muslim women who speak out against gender inequality become unreliable because they must be stooges of the imperial West. Sex workers who acknowledge pain have been procured and perhaps coached by moralistic, prudish abolitionists who wish to strengthen the police state. In response, those with privilege and political power tend to defend themselves with attributions of false consciousness: Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies, hair and/or faces, and sex workers who declare choice and discuss self-expression, can both emerge as patriarchy’s dupes. In this politics of positionality, experiences are always already marked by ideology and the first question we ask (consciously or not) when someone shares their experience is, ‘whose side are you on?’

The ideologisation of experience has produced a flattening out of lived realities for fear they will be converted into foreign currency. In much the same way as the complexities of ending a pregnancy may be underplayed by pro-choice individuals and groups for fear of reinforcing pro-life agendas, sex workers may de-emphasise, hide or even deny difficult experiences within a politics of respectability which operates in opposition to the radical feminist rescue industry and in a dynamic in which ‘excited’ and ‘exited’ are the only positions available. As neoliberalism turns debates into bidding wars, experience is valuable only in the right currency, which polarises and renders invisible the possibilities in between. Those with differing experiences of the same phenomenon are unable to co-exist, as one person’s experience may outbid and ultimately annihilate another’s. This also creates little space within the individual for mixed or ambivalent feelings to endure: multiplex subjectivities must become less so in order to be intelligible within the dominant phraseology of concepts such as ‘objectification’, ‘victimisation’ and ‘empowerment’.

Such compelling but essentially meaningless universalisms hide the operation of structural and historical dynamics. These include the impact of successive waves of colonisation on religious institutions and their relationships with both state and mass forms of political action in many Muslim-majority countries and communities, the links between migration flows and identities, the ways in which repressive immigration policies and criminal justice systems encourage individuals to narrate themselves in particular ways, and the situating of commercial sexualities within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare. Furthermore, attempts at structural analysis often themselves inevitably collapse into appeals to experience: for instance, the radical feminist idea of patriarchy is frequently reduced to a homogenous experience of ‘male violence’, with little attention paid to the ways in which intersecting structures of oppression might produce varied encounters with this phenomenon and/or give rise to disparate analyses and forms of activism.

The contemporary politics of the personal prevents us from co-situating and productively analysing different experiences within such intersecting analytical frameworks, instead creating an anecdotal flow which is transmuted into a competitive deployment of one-dimensional stories and serves to create and widen gulfs between us. The fetishisation of experience also serves to restrict or conceal discussions based on other evidence, such as the compelling case against the criminalisation of sex workers and/or their clients, in which the figure of the victimised prostitute who must be rescued has made way for data pertaining to police and community harassment and repression, susceptibility to infectious diseases, risk of violence and access to health and social services.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not theorise from experience – indeed, the ‘view from nowhere’ with its attendant ‘voice of reason’ can also be that of the oppressor and reeks of entitlement and privilege (I say this with an awareness that in writing this piece, I may reasonably be read that way myself). Neither does it mean that all experiences, while valid, can be regarded as in themselves equally reliable sources of knowledge – what Haraway would term knowledge as an ‘act of faith’. Rather, we need to be able to translate experiences between situated, heterogeneous and power-differentiated communities, and use these as data to create knowledge informed by many types of evidence and frameworks of intersecting structures. We must also walk the fine line between respecting varied experiences, while critically appraising the uses to which particular experiences or technologies of empathy are put. Adding to our existing questions about ‘whose personal’ is political, we must be mindful of what it means to use the personal in the contemporary political context, ask whose experience counts within both dominant and marginalised thought and activism, and understand how neoliberalism depoliticises the personal and suppresses resistance by alienating us from each other.

Sexual violence and the politics of victimhood

Pages 20-21, 39-45 of The Politics of the Body: gender in a neoliberal and neoconservative age. Permission to reproduce granted by Polity Press.

The DSK case and the Assange case have brought to the fore the true ugliness of sex negative feminism and man hatred, and the extent to which they made inroads into our culture and society just as insidious as the right-wing propaganda of the Murdochs. They have also shown how those right wing forces can so easily hijack stupid blinkered man haters to the right-wing agenda. (Craig Murray 2011)

The fact that powerful men sometimes exploit and abuse women and girls is not particularly shocking. As I write this book, the media brims with such stories, ranging from the continual speculation over the on–off and physically violent relationship between American pop stars Rihanna and Chris Brown, to the recent revelations about extensive and systematic abuse of teenage girls in 1970s Britain by DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile and others associated with the BBC. There is a narrative of outrage in contemporary western tabloid media and popular culture around such cases, particularly those which involve the sexualization and abuse of girls. The three cases I cover in this chapter, however, are antithetical to this, characterized by contention and debate, censure and defence. I discuss WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, both accused of sexual assault, and film-maker Roman Polanski, convicted of unlawful sex with a minor. I do not wish to rehearse the rights and wrongs of these matters: instead, my focus is encapsulated by the chapter’s opening quote, taken from the blog of left-wing dissident and human rights campaigner Craig Murray. For Murray, Assange was the victim of feminist misandry, allied with a right-wing witchhunt; Strauss-Kahn and Polanski were similarly positioned by their supporters within broader conspiratorial narratives which often eclipsed discussion of the cases themselves. I examine the support given to all three men, drawing out common themes and contextualizing these within the dominant neoliberal/neoconservative framework and prevailing political positionings and sensitivities, such as the backlash against feminism and the leftist critique of US neo-imperialist projects. I argue that these conditions of possibility framed the politicking around these cases, producing rape apologism and victim-blaming from a variety of quarters. Throughout the chapter, these case studies are used to raise questions about the constraints on sexual violence activism created by the contemporary lexicon.

(section 4 of chapter appears below)

4. Feminism, neoconservatism and sexual violence

It is often illuminating to examine the silences in political debates: in the three case studies covered in this chapter, there was very little gender commentary and a certain amount of gender essentialism mobilized on the Left as well as the Right. Supporters of all three men attempted to excuse their actions via the construction of male sexuality as somehow inevitable, reflecting neoconservative gender traditionalism as well as tapping into the neoliberal sexualization of consumer culture and possibly even the resurgence of evolutionary theory. The message was clear: powerful men have powerful urges (McRobie 2011), and, once set in train, their sexual desires are difficult if not impossible to check. Assange, it was claimed, was a man of ‘strong sexual appetites’ (Pendlebury 2010), and the status of both Strauss-Kahn and Polanski as infamous womanizers was thought to make their actions understandable, if not unavoidable (Evans 2005; McRobie 2011). Strauss-Kahn’s wife described him as a ‘seducer’, informing the press that the weekend of the alleged assault in Manhattan he had already had sexual relations with three other women in preparation for his presidential bid (NewsCore 2011, cited in Fine 2012), as though promiscuity self-evidently went hand-in-hand with power. Similarly, Tracy Quan (2010) speculated that the allegations against Assange might actually contribute to his popularity and status as a ‘sex symbol’. These representations framed the idea of sexual assault as merely seduction gone awry, an assiduous myth which has been refuted repeatedly by years of feminist research and theorizing of rape as a product of gendered power relations (Cahill 2001). George Galloway, ex-leader of the UK socialist party Respect, argued that Assange’s actions amounted to ‘bad sexual etiquette’ rather than a crime, stating, ‘not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion’ (BBC News 2012b). His comments were widely criticized and led to the departure of his successive Respect leader Salma Yaqoob (Quinn 2012), but Galloway also received a great deal of support, including from far-left network Socialist Unity (Socialist Unity 2012). In influential left-wing political newsletter Counterpunch, American economist and prominent ‘war on terror’ opponent Paul Craig Roberts (2010) also asked: ‘Think about this for a minute. Other than male porn stars who are bored with it all, how many men can stop at the point of orgasm or when approaching orgasm? How does anyone know where Assange was in the process of the sex act?’ This is an example of what Adrienne Rich in 1980 (645) termed the ‘penis with a life of its own’ argument; taking as given the patriarchal rights of men over women’s bodies and mobilizing an adolescent model of a male sex drive which ‘once triggered cannot take responsibility for itself or take no for an answer’ (Rich 1980: 646).

Given such regressive arguments from his advocates, it is perhaps fitting that liberal hero Assange styled himself as the victim of vengeful radical feminists. Calling the prosecutor a ‘man-hating lesbian’ and Sweden a ‘man-hating matriarchy’ (Norman 2012a), he claimed that he had fallen into a ‘hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminists’, and that Sweden was like Saudi Arabia for men (Miriam 2010). His supporters followed suit, with Pendlebury (2010) terming one of the complainants a ‘well-known radical feminist’ and stating that she had been ‘the protégée of a militant feminist academic’, as if this somehow damaged her credibility. The prosecution lawyer was termed a ‘gender lawyer’, and ‘malicious radical feminist’ who was ‘biased against men’, by retired senior Swedish judge Brita Sundberg-Weitman (Addley 2011). In Counterpunch, the other complainant was described as a ‘vengeful radical feminist’ and Sweden as a ‘female kingdom’ (Shamir and Bennett 2010) while, on the website Justice for Assange, it was incorrectly claimed that in Sweden women had more rights than men. Tracy Quan (2010) wondered whether living in egalitarian Sweden had made Assange’s accusers hungry for the ‘insensitivity’ he could provide. This characterization of feminism as biased, vindictive and anti-men is emblematic of the neoconservative backlash (Faludi 1992), but in this case was used by an anti-establishment figure and his supporters, perhaps indicating the relatively precarious position of feminism at both ends of the political spectrum.

Similarly, in relation to Strauss-Kahn, Dershowitz (2011) argued that sex crimes prosecutors were agenda-driven zealots. Human rights campaigner and former diplomat Craig Murray went further to contend:

The DSK case and the Assange case have brought to the fore the true ugliness of sex negative feminism and man hatred, and the extent to which they made inroads into our culture and society just as insidious as the right-wing propaganda of the Murdochs. They have also shown how those right-wing forces can so easily hijack stupid blinkered man haters to the right-wing agenda. (Murray 2011)

While pejorative, this quote cites a legitimate set of concerns which has materialized around the links between radical feminism and right-wing agendas. Alongside the neoconservative backlash against feminism, there has been a rather contradictory enmeshment of some forms of feminist activism, particularly in the sexual violence arena, with crime control and the incarceration of certain groups of underprivileged men (Daly 2006). Radical feminists have advocated a host of reforms to punish gender-based crimes which have often had the unintended effect of strengthening the state’s coercive power (Gruber 2009). Sexual violence is now couched almost exclusively in the language of crime, with very little attempt at more sophisticated analyses. This also informs international activism on violence against women, which is often co-opted by neoconservative rhetorics constructing other cultures as inherently violent and dysfunctional and using women’s victimization as a rhetorical device to justify culturally, politically and economically imperialist projects. This has a long history, cited by Women Against Rape in their defence of Assange:

There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused. (Axelsson 2010)

This marriage of radical feminist and neoconservative agendas has largely been one of convenience, and voluntary sector groups and services, in the battle to survive, frequently lack the luxury of reflecting upon their bedfellows (Bumiller 2008). However many feminists who have instinctually seen their role as fighting against the patriarchal state have lamented the fact that feminism is now publicly and politically associated with crime control (Bumiller 2008; Gruber 2009). There are also differences between and among white and racialized women in the degree to which the state and the criminal justice system are viewed as trustworthy and effective sites for responding to violence against women (Daly 2006). The strongest critiques have come from those of the postmodern persuasion, although it could be argued that postmodern and ‘third wave’ preoccupations with sexual identities and empowerment, often defined in neoliberal terms, have left contemporary radical feminists with few allies (this can also be seen in anti-trafficking politics). The convergence of feminist concerns with women’s victimization with neoconservative projects of social control partially explains left-wing ambivalence in relation to feminist sexual violence politics. However, this can also be seen to have produced the various forms of rape apologism seen in the three cases discussed here.

The uneasy relationship between feminism and the Left, then, is inextricably linked to the fight against neoconservatism. In the three case studies in this chapter, this was particularly apparent, with all the men positioned as victims of an overzealous US criminal justice system and their supporters styling themselves as the forces of progressiveness and freedom. This was particularly manifest in the case of Assange: his status as an anti-American hero situated him, for some of his supporters, as incapable of perpetrating sexual violence. Instead, it was claimed that he had been the victim of a CIA sting and a project to eventually extradite him to the United States to answer charges related to WikiLeaks. Supporters such as Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Naomi Wolf, Guantanamo survivor David Hicks and the European group Women Against Rape all made statements questioning the nature and purpose of the prosecution. Moore called the case ‘a bunch of hooey’, while American left-wing political commentator Mark Crispin Miller claimed that one of Assange’s accusers had CIA and anti-Castro ties, a rumour repeated by a number of others (Harding 2010; Miriam 2010; Pollitt 2010). In Counterpunch, Roberts wrote:

If reports are correct, two women, who possibly could be CIA or Mossad assets, have brought sex charges against Assange. Would a real government that had any integrity and commitment to truth try to blacken the name of the prime truth teller of our time on the basis of such flimsy charges? Obviously, Sweden has become another two-bit punk puppet government of the United States. (Roberts 2010)

This framing of the case as a matter of anti-imperial struggle eventually led to Assange being granted asylum by Ecuador on the grounds of human rights (Hughes 2012): the irony of this when set against the charges against him, as well as Ecuador’s own record on human rights and free speech, was not lost on some commentators (Braiker 2012). Following this, Assange was also offered (and accepted by proxy) an Aboriginal Nations passport in a ceremony in Sydney, with Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson stating that the Australian government had not given the WikiLeaks founder sufficient aid (World News Australia 2012).

Polanski was also positioned as the victim of an overzealous US legal system intent on sentencing him for an ancient crime. Many of his champions stressed the arbitrariness of the attempted extradition, after 31 years of official indifference (Bennett 2010). Others went further, placing Polanski as a hero and freedom fighter against a vengeful US state (Poirier 2010). Similarly, the US legal system was interpreted as malicious and fanatical in relation to Strauss-Kahn (Ellison 2011). French commentators were particularly aggrieved at how he was treated in New York, and French media were threatened with legal action for publishing photos of him in handcuffs, with the handcuffing itself characterized by some as ‘hyper-violent’ (Willsher 2011). Former French justice minister Elisabeth Guigou said she found the photos of Strauss-Kahn on the front page of newspapers and magazines a sign of ‘brutality and incredible cruelty’, and expressed relief that the French justice system was not as ‘accusatory’ as that of the United States (Boot 2012: 96). Christine Boutin, head of France’s Christian Democratic Party, was quoted as saying Strauss-Kahn had been trapped (Hallett 2011). A poll of the French public found that 57 per cent thought he had been framed (White 2011) by the Germans, President Sarkozy or the United States (Zoe Williams 2011a).

What is particularly interesting here is not the point that allegations against the three men had been made at politically convenient times for the United States or that, because of extraneous factors, they had been treated in a more heavy-handed way than others accused of similar crimes; it is the attendant demand that, because of this, they should be allowed to evade justice, or the assumption that, due to the surrounding politics, the accusations could not be true. As a result of this dualistic framework, three men accused of sex crimes were able to emerge as heroes for some on the western Left (Haines 2011: 28). Following the allegations against Assange, he was invited to speak at the major anti-capitalist gathering Occupy LSX (London Stock Exchange), despite the fact that many women (and more than a few men) in the Occupy movement expressed discomfort (Willitts 2011), and during his time in the Ecuadorean Embassy was invited to give video addresses to both the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, although the latter was cancelled due to technical difficulties (Chan 2013). In 2012, Strauss-Kahn was also invited to address the Cambridge Union (Eden 2012), and, though more than 750 students subsequently signed a petition asking for this decision to be reconsidered (Levy 2012), the talk went ahead (BBC News 2012a).

The assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny is contradicted by a mass of evidence, relating to the ‘old’ socialist labour movement and also to more contemporary punk and anarchist communities (Clarke 2004). Furthermore, there have recently been stories concerning sexual harassment and assault being perpetrated and swept under the carpet in various Occupy camps on both sides of the Atlantic (Forty Shades of Grey 2011; Miles 2011; The Scotsman 2011). There is some evidence that, in addition to positioning gender issues as secondary to movement unity, left-wingers may tolerate sexual transgressions under the banner of ‘progressiveness’ (Sere 2004; Wu 2004), a trend which could be observed especially in the positioning of Polanski as the victim of neoconservative prudes, or, as French writer Agnès Poirier (2010) put it, a ‘rampant moral McCarthyism’. In this case, as Bennett (2010) commented, a question of individual justice was transformed into a more general stand-off between Europeans and rednecks, sophisticates and puritans. Similarly, Naomi Wolf (2011) compared Assange to Oscar Wilde and the ‘case of morals’ around him, and Strauss-Kahn complained that the ‘prudish’ press objected to his ‘libertine lifestyle’, with some of his supporters suggesting that the progressive French would tolerate sexual transgressions which other women did not (Alcoff 2011; Fassin 2011). The position of morality in the contemporary political lexicon is a fascinating one, appearing to have become a right-wing preserve while left-wingers attempt to distance themselves. Unfortunately feminism, particularly the radical strand, has also become caught up in this politics as a form of sexual morality, and at times the fight against neoconservative moralism and imperialism appears to justify misogyny.

Excerpts from The Politics of the Body: gender in a neoliberal and neoconservative age, published by Polity press

Lad culture thrives in our neoliberal universities

Originally published in The Guardian

“Now she’s dead but not forgotten, dig her up and fuck her rotten,” so chanted this year’s freshers at Nottingham University, in an incident hot on the heels of the revelation that the LSE men’s rugby team had distributed a freshers’ leaflet full of racist, classist, homophobic and sexist slurs.

As the academic year began, these episodes were reported as emblematic of student “lad culture”, defined in a National Union of Students (NUS) report as a competitive male chauvinism disguising itself as “harmless banter”.

Isabel Young and I co-authored this report, which showed how such sexist “tomfoolery” can easily spill over into harassment and violence.

This September, an NUS survey revealed that 37% of women at UK universities have been subject to unwanted sexual advances, and the 2010 Hidden Marks report found that 1 in 7 had experienced serious sexual or physical violence and 68% had been sexually harassed.

“Lad culture” is a problematic term – it can attach a veneer of respectability to what’s really “sexism with an alibi”, and produce fatalistic “boys-will-be-boys” dismissals.

The extremes of laddism may well be the preserve of a minority, but unfortunately this is often the powerful and privileged: rugby players, members of elite drinking societies and debate teams. Laddish discourses have also been co-opted by companies marketing to students (nightclubs, events organisers) and social media sites like Uni Lad and Shag at Uni, which gives them broad cultural reach.

There’s a feeling that lad culture at UK universities is on the increase, and if that’s the case, it’s the product of several intersecting trends.

Our students are coming of age in a demanding economic climate, with intense competition for jobs and a housing bubble that means financial security is pie in the sky.

Furthermore, postfeminist mythology teaches young men that women have the upper hand, that they “want it all” even in austerity.

Laddism is an equal-opportunity oppressor – racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia are all part of its portfolio – but the viciousness of its sexism (exemplified by this article’s opening quote) reflects a conviction that women need to be put in their place.

The rape jokes which are its apotheosis don’t represent uncontrolled lust – they’re the aggression bred by lost entitlement and the need for someone to blame.

Neoliberalism creates this dog-eat-dog mindset, which is rampant in the higher education sector where lad cultures thrive. The marketised university is a place where only economic values matter, a callousness mirrored in student social life.

Popular social media portals Rate Your Shag and Spotted, replete with laddish banter, showcase modes of sexualised audit which reflect this market absorption. Laddism has waxed and waned over the decades in response to particular contexts (and often linked to shifting gender roles), and is currently being nurtured on the consumerist campus. Its future is foretold in the US, where higher education markets are entrenched and sexual violence is rife.

The neoliberal university is also a difficult place from which to speak out. NUS President Toni Pearce recently accused UK institutions of ignoring lad culture, and in the highly marketised US, universities are often criticised for covering up violent crime in order to maintain enrolments.

The pressure-cooker culture among academics is creating an individualism which means that we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). The outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student counselling may mean there are fewer qualified people to listen to students who are victimised.

With this in mind, the recent press interest in the issue of lad culture, and the campaigns, research and initiatives inspired by the NUS reports or led by its national strategy team, present an opportunity to hold universities accountable. As more tales of student sexism materialise, institutions should be pressured to:

  • Create and publicise clear reporting and referral pathways for students of all genders who experience harassment and violence.
  • Develop targeted prevention work (there are a number of potential models, such as Oxford’s Good Lad workshops, the consent education being delivered at Cambridge and the bystander intervention initiative at the University of the West of England).
  • Reflect upon institutional values and how these are expressed in campus communities. Even if marketisation is now an unstoppable juggernaut (and I question this assumption), we can resist its assault on our collective consciousness.
Alison Phipps is director of gender studies at Sussex University – you can follow her on Twitter @alisonphipps

‘Normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ – the neoliberalisation of reproduction

Originally published in Cost of Living

In July this year Sir Marcus Setchell, recently retired surgeon gynaecologist to the Royal Family, made his first public statements about the birth of Prince George. Jenni Murray, interviewing him on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour almost a year after the event, asked him whether he had been entirely necessary. His answer, that although what happens in labour is ‘an entirely private matter’ there are certain situations which might require a specialist to be in the room, prompted much speculation in the papers. The implication was clear – was The Duchess of Cambridge’s delivery really as ‘natural’ as we have been led to believe? That this arose, and indeed, that the interview was conducted at all, clearly has much to do with our contemporary obsession with celebrities’ personal business. However, it also reflects the extent to which the reproductive experiences of all women come under scrutiny in a neoliberal culture.

In the late 1980s, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a definition of ‘normal birth’ that suggested that unnecessary interventions should be avoided in low-risk labour and delivery. By the 2000s the term had become common among Western activists and health professionals. The UK National Health Service also adopted the slogan ‘breast is best’, which built upon WHO recommendations that suckling should be encouraged immediately postpartum. Today, there is an institutionalized arena of policy, practice and activism around breastfeeding and ‘natural’ childbirth, produced by a broad coalition of national and international organisations, non-profit and profit-making companies, health professionals’ associations, community and religious groups, and a multitude of interested individuals.

As Sir Marcus Setchell acknowledged in his interview, the development of the ‘natural birth’ movement in the West owed much to feminist activism against the medicalization of reproduction. This began in the 1970s and was led by experts such as British anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, American midwife Ina May Gaskin, French obstetrician Michel Odent and British gynaecologist Wendy Savage. They rightly argued that women had been alienated from their bodies by a male-dominated and masculinised establishment, which treated pregnancy and childbirth as medical conditions rather than normal life events, was overly focused on risk and had been co-opted by market forces, particularly the infant formula industry. However, today’s ‘natural birth’ and breastfeeding movement has also been influenced by neoliberal values, which turns it from a feminist victory into something altogether more complicated.

For example, the privatisation of health services intensifies the pressure for us to become personally responsible for managing risk and preventing disease. Parents (mothers especially) have been tasked with ensuring their children’s wellbeing, and breastfeeding in particular has acquired magical status as the means of avoiding a plethora of childhood ailments, promoting emotional development, even purportedly increasing IQ. Within the contemporary logic of self-improvement, ‘natural birth’ and exclusive breastfeeding have been suffused with the language of achievement, seen as defining characteristics of successful motherhood and routes to women’s self-actualisation. Activists report their reproductive and parenting triumphs on social media, often with no attention to the economic, social and cultural privilege that has made them possible.

At the same time, neoliberalised healthcare systems have appropriated ‘normal birth’ and successful breastfeeding as performance measures. In 2007, the UK Maternity Care Working Party recommended that maternity services increase their ‘normal birth’ rates to 60 per cent within three years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produces a ‘breastfeeding report card’, monitoring rates at state and national levels. This outcome-focused model coincides with cost-cutting agendas, as minimising caesareans and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding are seen as ways to reduce healthcare spending.

Although originally rooted in attempts to empower women, today’s approach to ‘natural’ birth and breastfeeding puts intense pressure on mothers who cannot achieve these goals, often for structural reasons such as poverty and social disadvantage, family or other burdens or medical issues affecting mother or infant. Furthermore, in a neoliberal milieu that depends on economic and social competition and individual responsibility, these women do not receive empathy but are berated for making the wrong choices, and defined as both ignorant and lazy. The reproductive experiences of the Duchess of Cambridge and other celebrities then become ammunition in these ‘Mummy/Mommy wars’, which are very much a product of the age.

In recent years, veteran activist Sheila Kitzinger has expressed dismay at the mutation of reproduction into a goal-oriented agenda. Many women share this opinion and some are fighting back – for example, the ‘I Support You’ movement in North America brings together breast- and formula-feeding parents in mutual validation of each others’ choices. We should use initiatives like this to re-politicise reproduction, this time within a critique of the neoliberal culture which pits us against one another in cycles of assessment, judgment and shame. Setchell is wrong – what happens in labour is not an ‘entirely private matter’ for any woman, celebrity or not – but hopefully one day it will stop being a stick to beat her with.

About the author: Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on issues to do with women’s bodies: childbirth, breastfeeding, abortion, sexual violence and sex work. Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press. 

‘I am a victim of nothing but my own bad choices’: Women Against Feminism and neoliberal individualism

Originally published in The F Word

A group called ‘Women Against Feminism’ has recently been making the news. Now up to almost 20,000 likes on Facebook, the initial buzz was around its Tumblr where (mostly very young) women post photos of themselves holding messages about why they don’t want to be feminists. There are a variety of reasons, all of which seem to rest on bottom-line misunderstandings of what feminism is – predictably, not wanting to be seen as a man-hater is perhaps the most ubiquitous. But, almost as frequently, these young women cite “not being a victim” as the cause of their rejection of feminist politics. As one message reads: “I don’t need feminism because…I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for myself and my actions.”

Personal responsibility, of course, is the fundamental neoliberal mantra. No longer just yawped by right-wingers at those considered indigent and shiftless, it is now chanted with enthusiasm by the privileged, progressive and upwardly mobile. In 2013, during a graduation speech at Morehouse, a private, historically black liberal arts college in Atlanta, Barack Obama advised graduates and their families against using the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation as an excuse for not achieving their ambitions. That same year, fellow neoliberal icon Sheryl Sandberg notoriously told women to ‘lean in’ to their careers instead of holding themselves back with self-doubt. Taking responsibility for your life, the neoliberal myth goes, will help you realise your dreams – but what Women Against Feminism don’t realise is that for women especially this can become a curse.

First of all, as neoliberal states retreat, women’s responsibilities in particular have grown. Their ‘double burden’ has tripled as economies have expanded and social supports shrunk. It’s also become obvious that a world run on market principles cannot generate the transformation in gender roles which would be needed to lessen this load. Poorer mothers are increasingly staying at home, while their more affluent sisters employ other women to fulfil their domestic duties. Women perform the majority of unpaid caring, especially for sick or elderly relatives, with the greatest burden nationally falling on those aged 50-64. In the neoliberal context, women are taking up the slack as states cut loose. And they are doing it mostly on their own – their legal and social safety nets are being whisked away, to be replaced by a quest for individual personal growth in which those who fall by the wayside are left there, scorned and censured.

As members of privatising societies, women make their own luck through consumption. Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown argues, turns social problems into individual ones with market fixes: voucher systems as a response to the decline of public education; boutique and alternative medicine to compensate for crumbling health services; parental control software to mitigate the explosion of violence and sex onscreen. Women are often responsible for sourcing and implementing these consumption solutions on behalf of their families, since they shoulder a disproportionate amount of the household burden and control the vast majority of its spending. Mothers in particular are expected to protect their children from all imaginable physical and psychological risks through financial investments and prescribed bodily practices such as breastfeeding and intensive attachment parenting. This individualising of responsibility holds them personally to account when things go wrong, with issues such as obesity, behavioural problems or academic ‘underachievement’ put down to bad parenting (or most often, mothering) rather than poverty or structural disadvantage.

In a neoliberal society, working on oneself is the panacea for most ills: as a Women Against Feminism member writes, “I don’t need feminism because… I don’t need a helping hand to succeed.” The massive self-improvement industry around mothering meets others such as fashion, beauty, nutrition, alternative health and interior design, all of which mainly set their sights on women. The reality TV which fortifies them frequently juxtaposes the middle-class, white, ‘respectable’ femininity of its hosts against working class and/or minority ethnic participants who are defined as lacking and who are ’empowered’ through style, décor or other types of coaching. This is actually a form of symbolic violence. Women’s self-improvement spending also fuels gender essentialism – they are defined as innately frivolous and wasteful, epitomised in the phrase ‘born to shop’.

Much like its Fordist predecessor and despite its rhetoric of equality and diversity, neoliberal capitalism is highly gendered. Small states and big markets hustle women back to the domestic and confine them to socially undervalued ‘feminine’ pursuits. Personal responsibility, however, is neoliberalism’s masterstroke. If women are dissatisfied with their lot, they need to ‘lean in’ and look to themselves to change. This is manifest in self-help and ‘positive thinking’ culture, which bothdeprives women of political outlets for their dissatisfaction and reifies traditional gender roles, with book titles such as ‘Women Who Love Too Much’ and ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ evoking heteronormative femininities while speaking the language of liberation. Self-help also teaches women that they are not victims; that they can transform themselves through adversity. “Smile, love, it might never happen” – and if it already has, you should stop blaming other people and use your bad fortune as an opportunity to grow.

This conviction unites therapeutic professionals with pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps right-wingers and Women Against Feminism. Women’s experiences of violence seem especially subject to its facile and individualistic logic. Many of the messages posted on Women Against Feminism draw on right-wing dismissals of feminism as a ‘victim’ philosophy through which feeble women wail on about male violence. Of course this is a caricature and, ironically enough, the neoliberal mentality of personal responsibility and renewal has even spread to some third-wave feminist initiatives such as Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, which invites women the world over to ‘rise above’ sexual violence through dance. The problem with this mindset is the way it refuses to acknowledge the structures and histories of gender (and in Ensler’s case, colonialism) that make it necessary for women’s personal experiences of violence to be politicised.

In an apolitical neoliberal culture, chanting the mantra of personal responsibility is exhausting for women. While their domestic duties mushroom, they are expected to incessantly improve themselves and think positive about their difficulties. And in a free-market society, they must have chosen their fate. As one member of Women Against Feminism writes, “I don’t need feminism because… the pay gap is women’s choice, not sexism”.

In the absence of analysis of the factors shaping women’s choices, gender essentialism sidles in to fill the space. Contemporary neuroscience incessantly puts forth new claims that women’s and men’s brains are fundamentally different, which seem to endure no matter how skilfully they are rebuffed. Evolutionary psychology, which takes us back to the cave with gender narratives less sophisticated than The Flintstones, is enjoying a renaissance. Traditional family scripts are being re-spoken and enacted as part of a ‘new Victorianism’, amongst the privileged which erases broader social and political engagement with its white weddings, gourmet food and heteronormative, domestic bliss. Another Women Against Feminism member states, “I don’t need feminism because… I’m enjoying being a supportive wife and I love that my man is the head of my household.”

Women Against Feminism makes effective use of the new neoliberal common sense: women are naturally more suited to domestic tasks, why else would they want to stay at home? Women must be inherently more vain and superficial, or they wouldn’t spend so much money on frivolous things. This oppressive thinking holds that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus – otherwise, in a free world, why would there still be inequality? And if women want someone to blame, they should apparently look at themselves – in the words of a Women Against Feminism member, “I don’t need feminism because… I am a victim of nothing but my own bad choices”. I beg to differ – the neoliberal logic of personal responsibility is why we need feminism now more than ever.