‘What do we do?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked by readers of Me, Not You, and this question has become louder and more urgent in the past two weeks. Massive protests in the US and elsewhere against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countlessothers have brought the idea of abolition into the mainstream, and many white feminists are newly interested in fighting sexual violence without criminal punishment.
I am also at the beginning of a (life)long journey towards what Angela Davis calls ‘abolition feminism’, and the final chapter of my book shares what Davis and other Black feminists have taught me so far. For instance, there’s a thought experiment imagining a world without sexual violence (which would, of course, be a world without police and prisons), and some practical suggestions on how we could use that as our guide. This would be via what abolitionists call ‘non-reformist reforms’ – interventions that get us closer to, instead of further away from, our ultimate goal. I give examples of what these might look (and not look) like. The chapter also offers a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our political action away from some of the problems identified in my book.
Whiteness and (the) social order
But despite this, the ‘what do we do?’ question persists – which suggests that perhaps readers are looking for more. What is this ‘more’, and why do some people want it? I’m not sure I would give it, even if I could. My book was intended to help readers understand the dynamics of mainstream feminism, not to offer a panacea (because one does not exist). It is not a set of instructions – I am not in charge of feminism, and as a middle-aged white academic I am definitely not interested in taking up that mantle. Bourgeois white women like me dominate mainstream feminism, but I am also struck by the fact that ‘what do we do?’ is most often asked by fellow privileged white feminists. I have several thoughts about why.
As I explore in my book, political whiteness both seeks authority and defers to it. The white will to power I write about can be satisfied by proxy, demanding an authoritarian response. We see this in white feminist calls for more police and longer sentences; we have also seen it during Covid-19, as while some white people have protested lockdown measures, others have informed on their neighbours for failing to observe them. Whiteness creates deep desires for both individual liberty and social control, and the impulse to call the manager or police to enforce the rules we need to feel safe sits beside our own need to be told what to do. The material and symbolic benefits we derive from the existing order also make it difficult and threatening to imagine anything different. As a result, we can get defensive: and demanding solutions are given to us can be a way of shutting down discussion of things we cannot face. It is what the CEO does when his staff bring him problems he does not want to have to fix.
The demand for pre-made panaceas also shows how neoliberal capitalist mentalities have permeated white feminist consciousness. We want instant gratification, something off the shelf. This is dangerous on many levels: grabbing at immediate answers can stop us from wrestling with important questions, and quick and easy actions are often ineffective. As I write in Me Not You, performative outrage, and calls to get rid of ‘bad apples’ from institutions or communities, are usually just forms of pressure release that enable oppressive systems and dynamics to continue. So is white self-analysis, if this is where we get stuck: Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michelle Jackson are among those who examine how white anti-racism more often constitutes navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and attempts to ‘renounce privilege’ and assuage guilt rather than work towards structural change. This is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other.
As I say in my book, white feminists can – and should – take our lead from Black feminists and other marginalised people who are less attached to the way things are, whose imaginations are not so bounded and who model what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. Black feminists have long tried to tell us that the view from where they are is much clearer than we can comprehend. Patricia Hill Collins famously called Black women ‘outsiders within’; bell hooks has written about her own experience of ‘looking from the outside in and the inside out’. I love Gail Lewis’ description of how, from the margins, it is possible to see across an entire field of vision – whereas from the centre one has to keep turning around and about. This is why many groups located on the margins are already working to formulate the answers white feminists want handed to us on a plate.
Doing my small part
But we cannot expect more marginalised feminists to just hand us these solutions: political programmes have to be collective and developed through dialogue. We all need to do this work – and echoing Mariame Kaba, I think perhaps not enough of us are currently doing our small part. I join Kaba in her request that we all ‘work together to think through something different’, adding that white feminists should listen more than we talk, and acknowledging that thinking through something different is a long, hard slog. It is a lot easier to identify problems than to develop ways to tackle them (and I say this to myself as much as to anyone else). As I write in Me, Not You, ridding the world of sexual violence is not going to happen in my lifetime, or yours. But we can all do our own small part to move towards it, not further away.
For the past fifteen years my main activist focus has been tackling sexual violence in universities. This work has included collaborating with Susuana Amoah and others at the National Union of Students, engaging individual institutions across Europe in research and training, and forming the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) collective with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor. CHUCL aims to help universities reshape their structures and cultures so equality policies can be more meaningful, and so they can deal more effectively, and less punitively, with problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. We have not got very far yet, but we are in it for the long haul.
As we move forward with CHUCL, I am trying to keep an abolition mindset. This means refusing to become what Audre Lorde called the ‘master’s tools’ (in other words, being used to preserve oppressive systems even while we claim to dismantle them). This can happen in various ways. For instance, CHUCL research on structural and cultural problems in universities has been used as evidence they have already been solved (what Sara Ahmed terms ‘non-performativity’). Universities have reacted defensively and demanded we provide instant solutions, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. They have defaulted to individualised forms of diversity training which are presented as ‘taking action’ but do not address, and instead conceal, the deeper issues we have pointed out. Key questions for us are: how do we help universities take responsibility for and tackle their own troubles? How do we build institutional capacity to deal with unacceptable and violent behaviour? And the big one: how do we push for real structural and cultural change?
We are taking our lead from survivor-led community accountability and transformative justice approaches that have worked in other contexts, but many institutions are a long way from having the capacity to implement these. Complete success would require a collectivist, rather than a capitalist, university. Of course, we are not going to get one soon – but we are thinking hard about ways to work towards it (and whether we even should, especially given universities’ complicity in racial capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism and slavery and its afterlives). We have a lot of failure ahead of us before we can even imagine something that looks like success. But we are doing our small part.
Building feminist futures
We all have to do our part, if we want to change the world. So if something has struck you in my book – whether it has inspired you or made you feel uncomfortable – I am delighted, but you must consider if and how you want to act. If you do decide to act, make sure you start small. Reflect on, and work to undo, how your own actions perpetuate systems of oppression (and that includes saviour modes of ‘helping’). Use your privilege and/or your money to do one thing for the benefit of more marginalised people every day (and thanks to Mariame Kaba for this principle, which has been a touchstone in my more chaotic moments during Covid-19). When there is a crisis, step up. Through these actions, educate yourself on issues, think about the better world you want to build, and learn about – and from – those who may already be building it.
When your imagination is liberated from what is, when you are better able to visualise what could be, think backwards to something you could realistically work towards yourself sustainably and longer-term. You might be able to find a group of like-minded feminists organising towards the same thing, who you could support with your time and money. If you can’t find one, create one. Your action could be as simple as setting up a neighbourhood collection for your local food bank (it is difficult to eradicate violence while basic needs are not being met). Or you might decide to get involved in action against prison expansion or to free incarcerated survivors. You might even work towards implementing a transformative justice programme in your community, organisation or institution. As you take action, you could use my toolkit regularly to check in with yourself. And although there should not be gatekeepers, seek out visionaries to guide you.
I cite many of these visionaries in Me, Not You – you can look to Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and lots of others besides. Our feminist tomorrow is also being envisioned by the young Black feminists and others currently on the streets protesting police murders and demanding abolition. It is being envisioned by the young activists and authors producing resources for the fight. For instance, Lola Olufemi’s new book Feminism, Interrupted offers a manifesto for a different, and truly radical, feminism. Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, sets out practical strategies for tackling sexual violence without criminal punishment. Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes is a compelling argument for decriminalising sex work, one legislative advance that would eradicate a huge amount of violence and that we could all be campaigning for. These dynamic young feminists are not going to give you instructions either, but they do provide rich food for thought – and the future of feminism lies with them.
As we move towards this feminist future, there will be no easy answers. The problems with mainstream feminism have been well and truly exposed (and by many others both now and before me), but we are still figuring out how to solve them. And although white bourgeois feminists may need to get our own houses in order first, when we are ready, we will need ongoing conversations between feminists of all positionalities: younger and older, differently classed and raced, trans and cis, differently abled, sex-working and not, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, and more. These discussions would be led from the margins but everyone would have a voice; there would be space to question, learn and grow; and most importantly, talk would lead to action rather than being an end in itself. I am deeply invested in doing my part to facilitate this this journey, and will probably be asking some tough questions of fellow white feminists (and myself) along the way. And I will pose one back to you now: what do you want to do?
This blog was originally posted on the Manchester University Press website - if you buy the book from MUP and enter the code OTH583 at checkout, it is currently 50% off (which is £6.50 plus P&P).
This is the first of a series of blogs I will write following the webinar on my book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. This was broadcast on April 7th to over 100 attendees, who asked some fantastic questions! Because I didn’t get a chance to answer all these during the session, I thought I would answer some of them now. This first piece covers a couple of related questions, pertaining to reactionary trans- and sex-worker-exclusionary feminisms. I deconstruct these feminisms in detail in Chapter Four (‘The Outrage Economy’) and Chapter Six (‘Feminists and the Far Right’) of the book, arguing that they intensify the political whiteness of the mainstream. Reactionary feminism turns mainstream feminist narcissism into an ‘us and them’ mentality, and the mainstream will to power becomes necropolitics that actively targets more marginalised people. Two of the questions asked during the webinar have prompted me to elaborate: on how the exclusion of sex workers and trans people is specifically classed and raced, and how trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are connected (and these two matters are also closely linked). I am grateful for these questions, as they allow me to expand arguments I had limited space for in the book.
As I say in Me, Not You, the class and race politics around sex workers and trans people is both symbolic and material. First, there are the demographics: women of colour and trans people are over-represented in the sex industry, and trans women of colour in particular are disproportionately likely to sell sex. And although there is relative marginality and privilege within these categories, sex workers and trans people (and people who fit both these descriptions) often occupy marginalised economic and social positions. They are among the many workers who make up the gendered and raced global proletariat and precariat; they survive at the sharp end of neoliberal economies and austerity regimes and are often criminalised for doing so. In necropolitical systems, trans and sex-working people have high vulnerability to premature death through state neglect or violence. As Sophie Lewis argues, these groups are treated as ‘bare life’ by police and courts – they are not seen as deserving of justice or protection (unless this is the paternalistic ‘protection’ of moral panic, which does not protect them at all). This sits in sharp contrast to the privileged white women who dominate mainstream feminism, whose protection is the insignia of white supremacy (even if it does not always translate into formal justice). And the narcissism of mainstream feminism – the ‘me, not you’ of political whiteness – means that women not made in the image of bourgeois whiteness are rarely represented.
Symbolically, sex workers and trans women are disapproved-of women who challenge bourgeois gender norms in various ways. This makes mainstream feminism stingy with its solidarity, while more reactionary feminism actually treats these women as the enemy. Reactionary trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is concerned with policing the borders of feminism and womanhood: as I say in Me, Not You, neither the ‘unnatural’ or the ‘unrespectable’ woman can ever be a real woman. Instead, their bodies are sites of judgment and disgust. Sometimes they represent a hyper-femininity which is seen as sleazy and fake: the association between anti-trans and anti-sex-work feminism peaks in the description of trans women as ‘pornified’ representations of ‘real’ women. As Lewis says: ‘they think that trans women and sex workers are pornography. They look at us and they see men, contamination by men, rape.’ As Lewis’ quote also implies, these are women who are ‘too much’ woman and not enough. In reactionary feminism, trans women and sex workers are tainted by association with men: sex workers become one with their clients; trans women become men themselves.
These depictions of trans women and sex workers, with their ‘excessive’ bodies and sexualities and failure to be properly gendered, sit alongside, and draw from, similar ones which are more explicitly classed and raced. For instance, of the working class ‘chavs’, bodies spilling out of their clothes, who are afflicted with uncontrolled fecundity. Or the sexually aggressive Black man and his counterpart, the Black woman who is always ‘up for it’ and therefore cannot be raped. These constructions have long histories rooted in capitalist exploitation and colonial conquest. Hortense Spillers describes how the ‘thingification’ required by slavery separated sexuality from subjectivity, reducing Black people to flesh and making their bodies both threatening and pornographic (and designed to be mutilated and killed). Post-abolition, these processes continued, shaping Black people’s relationship to the criminal punishment system (as both complainants and defendants), and meaning that Black women who did not sell sex to survive were likely to be associated with prostitution nonetheless. In the 21st century, Black trans women are especially likely to be profiled as sex workers by law enforcement. As I write in Me, Not You, the phrase ‘walking while trans’ was popularised after activist Monica Jones was found guilty of ‘manifesting prostitution’ for accepting a car ride from two undercover police officers in Phoenix in 2014.
Monica Jones’ experience illustrates how transphobia and whorephobia intertwine with other processes of classed and raced disgust. Disgust is a way of defending territory: whether this is national boundaries or economic entitlements, claims to legitimate womanhood, or public and political space. Like other forms of bigotry, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminism is a border control project: the middle class white woman who calls the police on Black kids barbecuing in the park is adjacent to, or sometimes synonymous with, the reactionary feminists who want their streets swept clean of sex workers, and their public toilet doors slammed in the faces of women who are not ‘real’. To hide this bourgeois disgust, reactionary feminism goes on the defensive: trans people become self-involved millennials and sex workers ‘happy hookers’ not qualified to speak on their own lives or the economic and social relations that shape them. Against them, reactionary feminists wield the ‘survivors’, ex sex workers and de-transitioners whose genuine trauma fortifies a disingenuous politics of concern. But really, this feminism is preoccupied with its own actual or potential victimisation. Sex workers cause the rape of ‘respectable’ (white, bourgeois) women by pandering to male sexual entitlement. Trans women commit rape against ‘natural’ (white, bourgeois) women, or ‘rape’ their bodies symbolically by attempting to ‘change sex’.
Black feminism tells us that there is a matrix of race, class and gender domination here in which one category cannot be understood in exclusion from the others. This articulates what Lugones calls the ‘coloniality of gender’, the system in which white bourgeois gender, violently exported and imposed by colonial capitalism, is the norm and ideal that justifies extractive and violent economic relations. For Lugones, the modern gender system has a ‘light’ and a ‘dark’ side, and on the latter, people of colour are de-gendered ready for conquest, abduction, exploitation and eventual disposal. Because of this, Christina Sharpe and other Black feminists have called Black people already transgendered and queered: racism overdetermines their bodies with meaning but divests them of normative markers. Binary bourgeois gender appears in sharp relief against what Spillers calls the Black captives ‘ungendered’ in the hold of the ship, where captivity de-domesticated and de-kinned, unmade cultures and quantified all bodies under the same property relations and rules of accounting. Bourgeois gender also appears in sharp relief against the criminals’, ‘prostitutes’, ‘thugs’ and ‘birthers of terror’ that supplant girls and boys, men and women, in what Sharpe calls the contemporary anagrammatics of Blackness (the process by which ‘grammatical gender’ falls away). There are related processes of ‘falling away’ at work in the cultural differentiation of class, as the experiences of working class women (many of whom are also women of colour) who report rape will attest.
Transphobia and whorephobia are fruits on this tree of capitalist-colonial gender. As I write in Me, Not You, Flavia Dzodan has called trans-exclusionary feminism a settler-colonial mentality, an attempt to solidify sex and gender categories that sees womanhood as immutable. Its essentialist mindset reflects how ‘the coloniser could name us, assign us a place and a role in the hierarchies.’ Trans and sex-working people join the ranks of other ‘deviants’, seen as inappropriately gendered and over-sexed in ways which ultimately express their relations to capital. Lewis argues that disdain for trans people and sex workers is disdain for bodies not easily assimilated to capitalist production and reproduction. For her, trans- and sex-worker-hostile feminisms are united by ‘the myth that says that we can and must protect our selves and bodies from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work.’ Sex workers and trans people tend to exist on the economic margins, overlapping with the working class people capitalism delights in exploiting and alienating via ‘healthful productive work’, overlapping with the people of colour (and especially Black people) that were never meant to survive. The reactionary feminist border against these people is defended with the artillery of gender. This is naturalised as ‘sex’: reactionary feminists are female rather than feminine (which they abhor); reactionary feminists are ‘real women’, unlike the Others. They claim the ‘authentic’ gender that is a key tool of capitalist-colonial domination: ‘unnatural’ and ‘unrespectable’ women can never be real women.
This is an edited extract of a chapter from my forthcoming book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. It appeared in Red Pepper on June 4th 2019.
On January 24th 2018, gymnastics coach Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in a Michigan state prison for seven counts of sexual assault of minors. This was one of three sentences given to Nassar, accused of molesting at least 250 girls and young women and one young man, between 1992 and 2016. Sentencing Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told him that, if authorised, she would ‘allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. ‘I just signed your death warrant’, she said. Aquilina was subsequently described as a ‘a bona-fide feminist icon’, ‘#MeToo hero of the week’, and a paragon of ‘transformative justice.’
This story exemplifies what I call ‘political whiteness.’ I am going to state the obvious: the domination of mainstream feminism by bourgeois white women shapes what Clare Hemmings might call its political grammar. In other words, the form in which its stories are told, and the assumptions and meanings these draw on and create. For instance, that rape is perpetrated by ‘bad men’ who should be exposed. That police exist to catch these men, and courts to do justice on them. That they ought to be punished as severely as possible. Beneath these lie deeply held beliefs: people are either victims or perpetrators, but not both; the state is protective rather than oppressive; shaming and punishment work.
Political whiteness is similar to the term ‘white feminism’, which describes feminist perspectives (often willfully) ignorant of the struggles, cultural output and politics of women of colour. But political whiteness is broader and deeper than that. It is produced by the combination of supremacy and victimhood, which creates a focus on the injured self, an obsession with threat, and an accompanying will to power. It characterises both white feminism and the backlash (or whitelash) against it. It might seem insensitive to associate feminism with the misogynist backlash. But acknowledging the central role of race demands that we do.
‘I’m everything’ – the white self
On International Women’s Day 2019, #MeToo co-leader Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘My transgender sisters! I am celebrating YOU this #NationalWomensDay!’ Soon after, a male user asked: ‘Alyssa are you transgender?’ Her response is worth repeating in full.
‘I’m trans. I’m a person of color. I’m an immigrant. I’m a lesbian. I’m a gay man. I’m the disabled.
I’m everything. And so are you, Kirk.
Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or understand. No one wants to hurt you. We are all just looking for our happily ever after.’
Milano quickly followed this tweet with another quoting 13th Century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi: ‘This is a subtle truth. Whatever you love, you are.’
This event can tell us much about white feminism. It is nominally inclusive, but inclusion depends on white women being centred as those who grant it. We speak for other groups, rather than letting them speak for themselves. We see ourselves as experts and saviours. We speak of mutual love and happiness with no acknowledgement of our role in the violence of capitalism and white supremacy. We appropriate the ideas and politics of non-white people to justify these power games. I have certainly done all these things. If you are a white woman reading this, you have probably done them too.
Critical studies of whiteness have highlighted the central role of narcissism in white identity. White people see ourselves in everything around us: political and corporate leaders look like us; celebrities and other public figures do too. Most of us live and work in predominantly white neighbourhoods and communities – we hardly, if ever, enter a space in which we don’t belong. As Sara Ahmed says, whiteness is a mode of being ‘at home’ in the world. We don’t get stopped at the border. We don’t worry about being brutalised by the police. We are not seen and treated as Other, day in and day out. We don’t get called angry and unreasonable when we mention our race.
White people are ‘everything’. Our views are objective, and our experiences can represent those of everyone else. We expect to be centred, even in anti-racist movements. As Robin DiAngelo writes in her famous article ‘White Fragility’, we stand for humanity. This means that mainstream feminism can make claims about ‘women’s victimhood’ based on the experiences of bourgeois white women. And it always has done: in 1982, black feminist Hazel Carby highlighted how dominant feminist narratives (for instance, about the family and the police) excluded black women and other women of colour.
White feminist narcissism has its mirror in that of the backlash. What about the (white) men? The experience of whiteness as comfort lowers our capacity to tolerate its opposite, especially in the form of being held accountable. Accountability exposes the deep fragility of whiteness. This is demonstrated by the use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ about movements like #MeToo. Sometimes they are called ‘lynch mobs’, which is even worse. This rhetoric equates attempts to hold powerful people to account with the systematic and violent persecution of marginalised groups.
Counter-attack is then inevitable. In #MeToo, this took a number of forms: the hashtag #HimToo which identified accused men as victims and advised all men to be scared; men on Wall Street who decided to avoid women at all costs for protection; chest-beating about false allegations; victim-blaming; and the rest. White women were part of this backlash as well: celebrities, libertarian feminists and conservative female commentators all took part in the frenzy of concern trolling and disbelief. Catherine Deneuve bemoaned the ‘media lynching’ of men accused of sexual harassment. Melanie Phillips opined that it was ‘time vilified men had their #MeToo.’
White selves as wounded selves
The narcissistic centring of the self is bound to produce wounds. The backlash against #MeToo was obsessed with the ‘wounds’ of accused men and critics of the movement. Katie Roiphe, who had been a key figure in the 1990s backlash against sexual violence activism on US campuses, penned an article in Harper’s Magazine called ‘The Other Whisper Network’. In it, she claimed #MeToo’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they could not speak. ‘Can you see why some of us are whispering?’ she asked. ‘It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled.’
These ‘wounds’ predominate despite the fact that the backlash criticises women – and feminists – for engaging in ‘victim politics’. This is a petulant howl about whose wounds are worse, who are the real victims, who is being victimised by all this talk of victimhood. This right-wing victim/anti-victim rhetoric often emerges in response to feminist campaigns against sexual violence. It is also fortified at a time when the ‘wounds’ of the right have come to dominate Anglo-American public discourse, exemplified by Brexit and the election of Trump.
Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness. From a position of power, one naturally becomes preoccupied with threat. The figures of the settler and the master are emblems of conquest and subjugation, but there is always a risk these figures will be displaced or violently overthrown. Whether from indigenous populations, enslaved people, immigrants, ‘political correctness’ or ‘social justice warriors’, the idea of whiteness under threat has significant cultural influence. And ‘victim politics’ is victimisation because it means consequences for dominant groups accustomed to acting with impunity.
On International Men’s Day 2019, Piers Morgan ushered in the celebrations with a monologue comparing bourgeois white men to endangered rhinos. ‘Yes, we do need a day’, he said. ‘We are now the most downtrodden group of men in the world.’ White feminists have generally (and rightly) given such statements short shrift. In 2014, following a series of online attacks from men’s rights activists, feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted a picture of herself in a T-shirt that read: I BATHE IN MALE TEARS.
But what about female tears? White woundedness and fragility also exist in feminist politics, often becoming most obvious in conversations about race. Mamta Motwani Accapadi is one of many feminists of colour who have described how white feminists use tears to deflect and avoid accountability in difficult discussions. These tears hide the harms we perpetrate through our involvement in white supremacy. And the power of white women’s tears still reflects white supremacy even when those tears are shed over genuine experiences of trauma.
Water was a powerful metaphor in #MeToo. The movement was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post. These metaphors for natural disaster evoked trauma on a massive scale. They constructed sexual violence as a ‘force of nature’, which (unfortunately) tapped long-established patriarchal myths. They also represented the movement as a collective weeping, a release of (white) tears.
Tears epitomise white femininity. They evoke the damsel in distress and the mourning, lamenting women of myth. Niobe wept unceasingly after her children were killed by Artemis and Apollo; even after being turned to stone, tears poured from her petrified face. Penelope waited for her husband Odysseus for two decades in her ‘bed of sorrows’, which she watered with tears until she fell asleep. In an article on #MeToo, Jamilah Lemieux commented: ‘white women know how to be victims. They know just how to bleed and weep in the public square, they fundamentally understand that they are entitled to sympathy.’
The cultural power of mainstream feminism is linked to the cultural power of white tears. The woundedness attached to whiteness can cross boundaries between reactionary and progressive politics. It encompasses the lost entitlements of the backlash and the resentment driving Brexit and Trump supporters, and the deeply felt trauma of sexual violence. These injuries (or perceived injuries, on the right) are not at all equivalent. But mainstream feminist activism against sexual violence is shaped by the woundedness of white bourgeois femininity.
This wounded white femininity was heightened and entrenched by colonialism. It reflects the dichotomies that legitimated conquest, violent dispossession and exploitation: dichotomies between the ‘respectable’ white bourgeois family and the ‘degeneracy’ of black and brown indigenous communities. Between the ‘pure’, ‘fragile’, ‘innocent’ white woman and the ‘uncontrolled’ sexuality of people of colour. Protecting white women was, and is, a key colonial preoccupation. Fear of revolution is also fear of rape.
This ‘risk’ posed to white women from the oversexualised Other has been the justification for community and state violence, both historically and now. It justified the genocidal subjugation of indigenous communities. It justified the lynching of enslaved and free black men and boys – perhaps most unforgettably, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. In a 2008 interview, Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant admitted he had not made sexual advances towards her. Bryant’s ‘white lie’ cost a black boy his life.
‘If the #MeToo revolution has proved anything,’ wrote Barbara Kingsolver in the Guardian in 2018, ‘it’s that women live under threat. Not sometimes, but all the time.’ This imperilled femininity is white. It depends on tropes of racist domination, even while it articulates the gendered harm of sexual violence. It is the white woman weeping in the public square. It is Niobe and Penelope. It is Carolyn Bryant. And white women’s tears can be deadly to people of colour.
Taking back control
The structural power of whiteness creates a sense of victimhood when entitlements and powers are threatened, as seen in backlash and ethno-nationalist forms of white politics. This produces the desire to ‘take back control’ – a slogan which has been at the forefront of the far-right in many countries. Brexit campaigners used it repeatedly and relentlessly. (Some) Americans elected Trump to ‘Make America Great Again’ (a slogan echoed in Spain – and about Spain –by far-right party Vox).
The backlash against feminism often claims that it has ‘gone too far’, a clarion call for men to regain their rightful place in the gender order. In more mainstream circles this is expressed as a concern that men are now the downtrodden sex. At the extremes, Men’s Rights Activists and incels attempt to ‘take back control’ of women – and sex – via violent acts. MRAs online combine rape and death threats with instructions to ‘make [them] a sandwich.’ In the incel mindset, mass murder is an appropriate response to not being able to get a date.
White feminists are well acquainted with the white man’s will to power. We bathe in male tears. However, the white will to power also exists as whiteness intersects with gender inequalities and individual experiences of victimisation. White women – even survivors of sexual violence – possess and express it too. It is possible that sexual violence might intensify it: since sexual assault and rape involve a loss of power and control, regaining this is crucial to successful recovery.
Survivors of sexual violence are advised to ‘take back control’ in a variety of ways, from making decisions about reporting and accessing support, to when and whether to engage in consensual sex afterwards, to going back to work or college. We are sometimes encouraged to make small changes for a sense of restored control, for instance cutting our hair. This is all sensible and necessary. But regaining control, for white women, can also be accomplished through ‘taking down’ powerful men via the ‘outrage economy’ of the media and the carceral state.
Harvey Weinstein. Larry Nassar. Kevin Spacey. Junot Diaz. Richard Dreyfuss. Gerard Depardieu. James Franco. David Copperfield. Sylvester Stallone. The ‘shitty media men.’ This is part of the ‘kill list’ of #MeToo, and its founder Tarana Burke has consistently critiqued its focus on ‘bad men’ like these. ‘No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege,’ she has said, ‘they keep bringing it back to individuals.’ Burke’s caution about ‘bringing down’ these men is not about shielding them from accountability. Instead, it is rooted in the knowledge that strengthening punitive systems will not generally affect men like these.
When American college student Brock Turner was convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, some feminists protested the lightness of his six-month sentence. One response was a bill in the California State Assembly, to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for sexual assault of an unconscious victim. But ‘here’s the thing with mandatory minimums’, wrote Meg Sri in Feministing, ‘they were designed to prop up the exact same system that cut Turner loose, and put a vast swath of people of color in droves behind bars.’
Then Vice-President Joe Biden was fêted by feminists after an open letter to Turner’s victim sharing his ‘furious anger’ at what she had been through. Biden’s necropolitical rage has made him a white feminist hero before. He was the lead Senate sponsor of the 1994 Crime Bill, which mandated more funding for police and prisons, more ‘three-strikes’ laws, an expansion of the death penalty, and less money to help incarcerated people access education. Feminists supported the bill, because it also contained the Violence Against Women Act.
In 2019, Alyssa Milano defended Biden against sexual misconduct allegations on the grounds of his ‘kind, empathetic leadership’. Biden is actually a hero of what Elizabeth Bernstein calls ‘carceral feminism’, which is undeniably white. And as Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba wrote about Aquilina’s sentencing of Nassar, carceral feminism is not transformative justice. Criminal punishment is state violence. Even when handed down to a privileged white person, it is ‘a structurally anti-Black apparatus, firmly rooted in the United States’ ongoing reliance on the financial exploitation and social control of Black people.’
For white feminists, criminal punishment represents protection, not oppression. It is the master’s intervention, the ‘empathy’ of Angry Dad. It is also the indirect demonstration of our own will to power. We ‘take back control’ via the punitive technologies of the state. And as the far-right encroaches upon governments across the world, as fascists weaponise ‘women’s safety’ against marginalised groups such as migrants, sex workers and trans people, mainstream feminism stays focused on state remedy for personal harm. The dominant conversation about sexual violence remains one between white women and white men, about who is more wounded and who is in control. We need a different conversation.
I am not saying that white women do not suffer sexual violence. I have experienced it myself. We are entitled to be angry; we are entitled to cry. But we are not entitled to politicise our pain with no concern for what it might do. We must be alive to white narcissism, white woundedness and the white will to power. We must acknowledge that these dynamics are not restricted to the backlash. It is urgent for white feminists, taking their lead from feminists of colour, to work against political whiteness in ourselves and in the mainstream of the movement.
This piece is based on a talk delivered as part of the University of Birmingham School of Social Policy seminar series in January 2019 and as the annual lecture of the University of Bristol Gender Research Centre in April 2019. It brings together much of my recent work on feminist activism against sexual violence both within and outside institutions, contextualising this within broader rightward shifts and the intersecting structures of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism.
I want to start with John Mavroudis’ illustration of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, taken from the cover of Time magazine, October 15th 2018. It contains phrases from Ford’s testimony to the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, arranged into an image of her taking the oath. One of the phrases is ‘seared into my memory’, which is how she described her experience, as a teenager, of sexual assault by Justice Kavanaugh. The phrase also illustrates how I felt about the juxtaposition of her testimony and Kavanaugh’s, as the hearings played out in the media.
This is an image which was circulated widely on social media during and after the hearings, of Kavanaugh during his testimony. It was a long and irate speech, in which he called the process a ‘national disgrace’ and a ‘grotesque and coordinated character assassination’ fuelled by ‘anger about President Trump’ and ‘revenge on behalf of the Clintons’. The faces of the women behind him inspired a significant amount of commentary: although they were his family, friends and supporters, their expressions seemed to materialise what many of us were feeling at the time.
Although Kavanaugh was confirmed, Dr. Ford’s actions inspired global support and prompted comparisons to Professor Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings put the issue of sexual harassment on the agenda. Hill and Blasey Ford’s testimonies also mark early and late stages of the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, with its production of huge inequalities and insecurities, including ones related to gender. This is the context for my talk, which especially focuses on the international swing to the right produced by economic and social crisis.
This swing to the right involves a number of reassertions: of whiteness, of class privilege, of masculinity, and of binary gender. Women are women and men are men; Brexit means Brexit. Silvia Federici identifies a new ‘war on women’ constituted by rising violence, femicide and attacks on reproductive rights, happening especially in countries being re-colonised through globalisation. In the West, although individual gender identities are increasingly fluid, binary gender and capitalist family values are being re-imposed in economic, social and cultural terms. Through cuts to social welfare systems, attacks on abortion rights, sexual and domestic violence, discourses of ‘natural’ and ‘intensive’ motherhood, and an intensified focus on women’s appearance.
Just as colonialism imposed bourgeois gender as a means of controlling land, production and behaviour, contemporary far right politics blends racism with attacks on feminists and LGBT (especially trans) people. Last year, ‘proud homophobe’ Jair Bolsonaro was elected the 38th President of Brazil. His platform positioned him as a key player in the war on ‘gender ideology’, a term that originated from the Vatican in the 1990s and can mean feminism, LGBT rights or trans people in particular, depending on the context. The same year, Hungary’s proto-fascist government banned gender studies on the grounds that it was an ‘ideology not a science’. A spokesman for Prime Minster Orban said: ‘the government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes.’ Also last year, Donald Trump declared his intention to ‘legislate transgender out of existence’ through changing the Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act to define gender as determined by biological sex, and biological sex as immutable and determined by genitalia at birth.
Trump was elected after numerous allegations (and admissions) of sexual misconduct, in a triumph of whiteness over feminist solidarity. Since the election of the ‘predator-in-chief’, there have been a number of major anti-black, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic mass shootings in both the US and overseas. There is evidence that men who perpetrate mass shootings are often domestic abusers as well, and recent mass killings in the US and Canada have also been perpetrated by ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), who blame women for their lack of access to sex. Incels are a key faction in the online ‘manosphere’, a technological primordial soup for the gestation of far-right activists.
Contemporary right-wing masculinities are united by a blend of fragility and entitlement, which is central to whiteness and which could also be observed in the demeanour of Justice Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings. However, support for Dr. Ford was bolstered by a growing resistance: the resurgent right has been met by a younger, more diverse and more radical international left. The movement around Jeremy Corbyn, which produced a hung parliament in the 2017 UK General Election, is one example. The US midterms in 2018 also saw record wins for progressive candidates and especially for women of colour. These included Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Native American women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim congresswomen, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
With Trump’s sexual transgressions still prominent in the public imagination, the victories of these women were partly put down to the success of #MeToo. Originally the title of a movement created by black feminist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo hashtag went viral after a tweet by white actress Alyssa Milano, eleven years later. It trended in at least 85 countries, with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks. It was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN and CBC, an ‘avalanche’ in the Guardian and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC and in the US National Post.
Although it has been biggest on Anglo-American platforms, #MeToo has reverberated worldwide, through disclosures on online and social media, and actions which link with established feminist organisations and campaigns as well as marshalling the newly politicised. Srila Roy has documented how the movement reached India in 2018, a country which had not seen such a surge of mainstream concern with sexual violence since the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012. Although it remains largely mainstream, #MeToo has managed to connect with both liberal and more intersectional feminist forms.
Late last year, Google created #MeToo Rising, an interactive online repository of information on activity across the world. This includes the Time’s Up organisation in the US, which aims to create safety and equity in the workplace through providing legal assistance for sexual harassment claims. There are also various grassroots and formal initiatives, and direct-action movements, in other countries around the world. Older sexual violence projects have also been rejuvenated by #MeToo: in universities, in political institutions, and in radical communities.
As a movement and ongoing moment, #MeToo reshaped – and continues to reshape – narratives around sexual violence. The variety of disclosures made under the hashtag allowed for discussion of what Liz Kelly terms a continuum of acts which, although defined as more and less ‘serious’, all have similar functions: to reflect and produce male power. #MeToo correlated sexual violence with the ‘everyman’ rather than the ‘bad man’, through a volume of personal stories which showed how frequently it is perpetrated and normalised. At its best, this put all men on the spot, asking them to reflect on their own behaviour, and their role in that of others.
#MeToo also galvanised a high-profile (and ongoing) backlash. This brought together conservative commentators with libertarian feminists, many of whom argued that the movement was perpetuating ‘victim culture’. Such right-wing ‘antivictimism’ often emerges in response to public feminisms around sexual violence. It appropriates narratives of women’s empowerment, setting them within neoliberal frameworks which emphasise individual responsibility and choice. In some formulations, women feel victimised because feminism has brainwashed them into renaming their unsatisfactory sexual experiences as abuse. Or in others, they crave attention: in the Spectator, Joanna Williams interpreted #MeToo as ‘an unedifying clamour to be included in celebrity suffering.’
Despite its antivictimism, the ‘wounded attachments’ of this backlash are strong. They are also fortified at a time when the ‘wounds’ of the right have come to dominate Anglo-American public discourse, exemplified by Brexit and the election of Trump. The backlash against #MeToo was focused on ‘harm’ to both the accused and to critics of the movement, seen as subject to its ‘vengeful’ currents. Katie Roiphe, who was also a key figure in the 1990s backlash against sexual violence activism on US campuses, penned an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled ‘The Other Whisper Network’. In it she claimed that the movement’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they were effectively silenced. ‘Can you see why some of us are whispering?’ she asked. ‘It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends.’
This remark performs a classic manoeuvre, locating violence in the fight against, rather than the fact of, oppression. As Sara Ahmed says: ‘It is because we expose violence that we are heard as violent, as if the violence of which we speak originates in us.’ These manoeuvres are also positioned within what Anderson and Samudzi identify as a false equivalence between domination and resistance: one side’s dehumanisation of another becomes a difference articulated in a ‘free marketplace’ of ideas. ‘Identity politics’ is often the bogeyman in this reformulation of bigotry as ‘freedom of speech’. It acts as a cipher for the resentments of those who feel equality has gotten out of hand, often within rhetoric that bemoans a parochial obsession with difference that threatens Enlightenment ideals. The university is a key adversary, along with the ‘snowflake’ students it contains.
In the ‘Free Speech University Rankings’ published yearly by Spiked, policies against sexual harassment, among other things, can get a university a negative rating. However, in general this commitment to ‘free speech’ extends only to figures on the hard- or far-right: movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are presented as elite-driven exercises in censorship. Spiked’s concern with ‘free speech’ on campuses is shared by members of the growing ‘intellectual dark web’ of self-styled mavericks and truth-tellers. This group is unified by its opposition to ‘identity politics’ and conviction that discussion of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas such as race and gender differences is now taboo. One of its leading members is ‘professor against political correctness’ Jordan Peterson, who describes himself as a ‘classical liberal’ but is celebrated by the alt-right for his tirades against feminism and ‘cultural Marxism’. The New York Times has called him the most influential public intellectual in the Western World. Other members of the intellectual dark web recently orchestrated a hoax against gender and critical race studies journals, aimed to expose these disciplines as ideologically-motivated ‘grievance studies’ and purge universities of such scholarship. Again, although these scholars self-identified as ‘left-leaning’, their critiques were mired in far-right tropes.
All this adds up to a complex picture of global rightward shift, resistance, and backlash which is often encoded within calls for ‘common sense’ and ‘balanced debate’. Within this frame, narratives about gendered and intersecting inequalities, and movements designed to tackle them, are being recrafted and rejuvenated. Also, and even as neoliberalism and neo-imperialism produce rising rates of women’s victimisation worldwide, the idea of women’s safety is being weaponised by the right. As the Brexit referendum loomed, Nigel Farage claimed that women could be at risk of sex attacks from gangs of migrant men if Britain remained in the European Union. Trump made similar comments about Mexican men during his campaign for the US presidency. In 2018, UKIP appointed anti-Islam ideologue Tommy Robinson as its advisor on ‘grooming gangs.’ ‘Women’s safety’ has also been key to debates about bathroom bills in the US and the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, in which conservatives have situated trans people (and especially trans women) as potential rapists.
These politics are not new: the white and privileged rape victim has been a key motif in ‘law and order’ and anti-immigration agendas in the West, as well as the violent suppression of indigenous and enslaved populations in colonised and colonial countries. The figure of the victimised Other (usually a Muslim woman), juxtaposed with ‘Western values’, has underpinned a variety of neo-colonial incursions including the War on Terror. Liberal feminism and liberal imperialism have always been closely intertwined, and Elizabeth Bernstein has coined the term ‘carceral feminism’ to describe the relationship some feminist projects have with the punitive state.
But there is currently a convergence, of heightened resistance against sexual violence with an intensified deployment of the survivor in the oppressive imaginary. This raises questions which are persistent and urgent, if not new, about the role of contemporary activism against sexual violence. In other words, it is more important than ever to consider what Angela Davis calls the ‘intersectionality of struggles’. How might our activism against sexual violence help or hinder other social justice projects? How can we be more conscious and critical of who our friends (and our enemies) are? Do the ends always justify the means? These questions are also pressing because #MeToo and similar campaigns can provide – and have provided – clickbait for what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the corporate media.
The growth of ‘outrage media’ is linked to structural changes in the media landscape: the migration of content online and the reliance of mainstream media on social platforms for the currencies of clicks, likes and shares. And although ‘outrage media’ has traditionally been located on the right, its characteristics of hyperbole, sensationalisation and vilification can be seen in left-wing outlets as well. Media shifts rightward have accompanied political ones: in both the US and the UK, far-right narratives are beginning to dominate conservative outlets, and take up increasing amounts of space in liberal ones under the pretext of ‘balance’. This heightens concerns about how social justice ends can successfully be pursued via platforms on which truth comes second to revenue generation.
I want to return now to #MeToo. The picture I am using is by Tara O’Brien and has a black woman in the centre, perhaps representing Tarana Burke’s pivotal role. But in general terms this is an aspiration for, rather than a representation of, the mainstream movement against sexual violence. The most powerful and visible activists in the movement are, and always have been, white and privileged women. Women like me, who have benefited from employment opportunities offered by neoliberalism, and who have ready access to corporate media platforms.
#MeToo is the latest in a series of high-profile sexual violence campaigns in which privileged white women have made use of, but failed to fully recognise, the groundbreaking work of black women and other women of colour. For instance, the foundational labour of anti-rape activists such as Ida B Wells and Rosa Parks in the US Civil Rights movement was built on, usually without acknowledgement, by second-wave white feminists. Activism by working-class women, many of them women of colour, has been crucial in naming and fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, but white academics and lawyers have tended to get the credit. And the activism and theory of feminists and womanists from the global South is rarely referenced at all.
As white and privileged women in the West now say ‘time’s up’ to men via corporate media platforms, and as these men appear on the same media platforms defending themselves, the politics of sexual violence can appear to be a conversation between white people about who is in control. This is what I call ‘political whiteness’: a framework shared by mainstream sexual violence feminisms and the backlashes against them. It might seem insensitive to associate #MeToo with the backlash. However, acknowledging the role of race means exploring the similarities between both progressive and reactionary politics dominated by white people. And whiteness is fractured, but not erased, by the existence of gender inequality.
Political whiteness has the following linked characteristics: narcissism; a will to power; and a constant alertness to threat. Critical theorists of whiteness, such as Robin DiAngelo and others, have long highlighted the role of narcissism in white identity. Politically, this is evident in the belief that white experience can stand for that of all others, and the desire to centre ourselves, even in anti-racist struggles. In relation to #MeToo, many black feminists and other feminists of colour pointed out the disproportionate focus on white victims, and the neglect of others such as the black girls abused by R Kelly or the Rohingya women raped in Myanmar. Narcissism links political whiteness with Gurminder Bhambra’s concept of ‘methodological whiteness’, developed in response to academic analysis of and commentary on Brexit and Trump. Bhambra highlights how even in ‘progressive’ scholarship, there is a persistent focus on (and universalisation of) the experiences and concerns of white people, and a lack of acknowledgement of structures and histories of race and racism in shaping the world.
The centring of the self in whiteness produces a political focus on individual injuries and threats rather than structural power, which is compatible with neoliberal values. In different ways, we can observe this in both #MeToo and the backlash, both of which are primarily framed around the experiences and injuries (or perceived injuries, in the case of backlash politics) of white individuals. For the backlash, this is to do with entitlements being threatened – whiteness is a position of structural power which is concerned with maintaining that power. However, this has implications for feminist movements as well – and if we understand the ‘raped’ subjectivity as shaped by a loss of power and control, regaining this becomes even more crucial.
Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo, has consistently critiqued its current iteration for being too focused on ‘bringing down’ powerful men. Top of this list is Harvey Weinstein, whose arrest was reported by Time as a ‘pivotal turning point’ for the movement. A possible close second is Larry Nassar, the coach convicted of sexually abusing ten young gymnasts and accused by almost 250 more. Nassar was told by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at sentencing that if authorised, she would have ‘allow[ed] some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. Aquilina was widely celebrated as a feminist hero and icon of #MeToo.
Burke’s caution about ‘bringing down’ men like Nassar and Weinstein is not about shielding them from accountability. Instead, it is rooted in the knowledge that strengthening punitive technologies will not generally affect men like these. As black feminists have long argued, sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: positioning the state as protective rather than oppressive is a function of whiteness and other forms of privilege. Furthermore, in colonial and neo-colonial contexts, the figure of the ‘imperilled white woman’ has been the justification for a variety of forms of state and community violence against people of colour. Nevertheless, mainstream feminist politics continues to be largely focused on state remedy, even as the far right encroaches on or takes hold of parliaments in the West and elsewhere.
Mainstream campaigns against sexual violence have also tended to use naming and shaming in the outrage media as a precursor to demanding criminal punishment or institutional discipline. #MeToo is a key example, but campaigns in universities and other institutions have also used this mode of ‘speaking out’, often when ‘speaking in’ has failed. Some of these interventions have had very positive effects. Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths, and Allison Smith’s public disclosure of her abuse at the hands of Sussex lecturer Lee Salter, both pushed universities to act. But things do not always go well: some of you may have witnessed how Sophia Cooke from Cambridge was monstered in the press, following a university inquiry which found her ex-boyfriend not guilty of assaulting her.
Naming and shaming can also support what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’. This is a process by which neoliberal institutions obsessed with how things look rather than how they are merely remove the ‘blemish’ which has been exposed, while the systemic malaise remains. Institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. In the first, issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly. In the second, when concealment is not possible, the perpetrator themselves is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution, and it is made to appear as though they were never there. Institutional airbrushing also produces what has been called the ‘pass the harasser’ problem, in which those who ‘move on’ after sexual misconduct allegations simply continue this behaviour in their next job.
Naming and shaming is often a last resort: questioning it strategically is not a judgment of survivors who have no other option. Indeed, in such situations it can be seen as a form of direct action, as argued by Anna Bull and Tiffany Page. But it does not always produce the solutions we might hope for. It has been suggested that the answer is more such speech: for instance, repeatedly naming and shaming individuals in public, or using private ‘whisper networks’ to prevent perpetrators getting another post. But as we use this strategy to purge academia and other high-status professions of abusive men, we may impose them on women working with fewer protections in other employment sectors. In other words, this may be institutional nimbyism rather than the collective action we aim for.
Political whiteness in progressive movements, then, can produce less-than-progressive outcomes. At the thicker end of this wedge, feminist activism against sexual violence can become aligned with reactionary agendas. This has especially been the case when it comes to sex work and transgender equality, two issues on which there have been fierce and painful feminist debates. Within these, sexual violence experiences are invested as capital in what Sara Ahmed calls the ‘affective economies’ of neoliberal culture, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media.
Feminists opposed to the sex industry often speak on behalf of women who have left it. Their traumatic experiences are shared within arguments for various forms of criminalisation: most commonly the criminalisation of clients which, because it does not directly target sex workers, is supported on feminist grounds. ‘Survivor stories’ of exited sex workers are harrowing accounts of victimisation and suffering: they include physical and sexual violence and abuse, problematic substance use, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They speak to the incredible difficulties sex workers face in a gendered and stigmatised industry.
However, sex workers’ rights activists, often women and people of other genders currently working in the industry, have pointed out that the Nordic Model of client criminalisation actually makes them more vulnerable to abuses like these. When clients are criminalised, sex workers are less able to screen them. Police surveillance increases, meaning sex workers are more likely to be arrested for crimes such as ‘brothel-keeping’ (which in the UK is defined as two or more sex workers working together for safety). For migrant sex workers, the threat of arrest carries the greater one of deportation. Furthermore, while the aim of client criminalisation is to ‘end demand’ for sexual services, as Juno Mac has pointed out, clients are also the supply. As the supply of clients decreases, this reduces sex workers’ power to work on their own terms, and even to work at all. At a time when many women are turning to sex work to make ends meet, reducing their ability to do this can be seen as class violence.
This argument against the Nordic Model is a deeply feminist one. However, sex workers who make it are often dismissed as ‘happy hookers’ who do not care about other women’s safety. A focus on patriarchy without an accompanying analysis of racial capitalism here means that the only class recognised is women: and women as a class are endangered by the sex worker because she sells sex to men and thereby legitimates male entitlement. The economic and racialised processes which push people into the sex industry disappear. The sex worker does not figure as a sister but as a handmaiden of the patriarchy. In situating sex workers’ interests and ‘women’s interests’ as fundamentally opposed, this manoeuvre does not just position sex workers as ‘bad’ women, it excludes them from womanhood.
There is a painful irony here. While both anti-prostitution feminists and sex workers’ rights activists are concerned with women’s safety, it seems that only some count as women who deserve to be kept safe. The use of ‘survivor stories’ in such debates can function as a claim to ownership of the rape experience, dismissing sex workers’ demands for full decriminalisation as coming from peculiarly positive experiences of the industry. This is the equation: survivor = anti-prostitution feminist. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue, the category of survivors who advocate for decriminalising the sex industry, which includes many people currently working in it, cannot – or should not – exist. Another painful irony: this iteration of feminist politics against sexual violence erases the sexual violence experiences of a particularly marginalised group of women.
In 2018, US women’s groups backed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). These acts ban online advertising of sexual services, but in the process prevent sex workers from using the Internet to organise, share safety information, and screen potential clients. Advocates of FOSTA and SESTA, including feminist hero Senator Kamala Harris, gave support over the objections of many trafficking survivors and their allies, who argued that by stopping sex workers working on their own terms, the Acts would increase vulnerability to exploitation. The Acts were also widely supported by the political and religious right.
White, Western feminists have certainly found allies on the right before: for instance, in anti-pornography campaigns in the 1980s. But the current rightward shift has provided opportunities for feminism to become more closely-knit with right-wing agendas, and this is perhaps even more the case when it comes to debates about transgender equality. ‘Gender-critical’ feminists, who argue that trans rights can and do conflict with ‘women’s rights’, are regularly featured in the ‘right-wing outrage machine’ of publications such as Spiked, The Spectator and Quilette. The UK groups Fair Play for Women and A Woman’s Place have been supported by Monmouth MP David Davies, who has consistently voted for stronger restrictions on abortion, for repealing the Human Rights Act, and against gay marriage, and was recently photographed with members of the English Defence League in the March to Leave the European Union. In 2017, the Women’s Liberation Front in the US formed a coalition with evangelical and anti-abortion group Focus on the Family, to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom bills and attempts to interpret Title IX of the Education Act to protect trans rights. Earlier this year, the Women’s Liberation Front also hosted a group of UK-based ‘gender critical’ feminists, for a joint meeting with the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
This meeting was a step too far for some: a number of prominent ‘gender-critical’ feminists quickly distanced themselves from alliances with the right. However, ideological continuities remain. There is a strong mutual attachment to the binary of ‘biological sex’. Within this binary, the male body is inherently violent (although for conservatives this causes concern only when that body is attributed to a trans woman), and the female one inherently threatened. Sexual violence experiences are central: usually those of cisgender women who have been raped by cisgender men, or sometimes those of lesbians who report feeling pressured into sex with trans women. Sometimes all trans women become predators or threats; sometimes the stated worry is that cisgender men will pose as trans women in order to perpetrate abuse. Sometimes there is speculation about what point in the process of transition a trans woman becomes ‘safe’ (usually post-genital surgery). There is a preoccupation with the penis, an organ which is always already coded as violence. The trans woman is automatically assigned with this organ (and thereby with violence) through the obsession with whether she has one or not.
The goals of these two groups are not the same. While conservatives seek to re-impose binary gender, ‘gender critical’ feminism seeks to abolish it and distinguishes it from sex. However, sex-essentialist discussions tend to arrive at gender-essentialism in the end, since in the absence of any mechanism to check chromosomes, or jurisdiction to search people’s underwear, gender becomes a proxy for sex. A number of cisgender women have recently reported being challenged in women’s toilets over whether they had a right to be there, because they did not look feminine enough.
‘Gender critical’ feminists and conservatives also share an antipathy towards postmodernism, positioning it as denying material existence because of its deconstruction of the body and critical engagement with biological sex. In 2017, the Brazilian religious right burned Judith Butler in effigy outside a conference she had helped to organise. Postmodernism is a target shared by the alt-right, who skewer it as irrational and relativist even as they articulate their own ‘post-truth’ politics. It is also reviled by members of the ‘intellectual dark web’, including Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame after his passionate opposition to a bill in Canada which proposed outlawing discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The bill curtailed free speech, Peterson argued, by requiring the use of gender-affirming pronouns. Appeals to ‘free speech’ have also been echoed by ‘gender critical’ feminists, some of whom reserve the right to misgender trans people in protest. If ‘transgenderism’ is seen as ideology or a delusion, it becomes courageous to refuse to enable it.
Like anti-prostitution politics, anti-trans politics can produce a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subjects: ‘good’ trans women who have undergone genital surgery and/or are cis-passing, and ‘bad’ ones who are not. And while sex workers are implicitly ‘not women’, trans women are explicitly, resoundingly not so. Sometimes, there is a distinction between trans people and ‘transactivists’: the latter are positioned by ‘gender critical’ feminists as part of the resurgent right, despite its shared antipathy towards trans people. The terms ‘trans rights activists’ and TRAs are sometimes used, evoking what Sara Ahmed might call the ‘sticky associations’ with the men’s rights movement.
These feminist positions on trans issues and sex work reflect the intersection of supremacy and victimhood that characterises political whiteness, which produces demands for power and control. This includes control of resources, especially in response to the right-wing fable that there is not enough to go around. Furthermore, the use of the sexual violence experience as capital means that the ‘good’ rape victim is deployed to withhold support from trans women and sex workers. These ‘bad’ victims are at disproportionate risk of sexual violence, but are pitted against cisgender, non sex-working women in a politics which does not challenge the neoliberal capitalist order that has created massive inequalities of distribution. The result can appear like a hoarding of resources and shutting of doors, echoing Brexit and the border walls of the right. It also potentially creates risks of violence: for instance, for sex workers dealing with the effects of criminalisation and trans women made to use men’s bathrooms. Melissa Gira Grant has called this feminism’s own ‘war on women’, where some women are subjected to poverty, violence and prison in the name of defending other women’s rights.
The feminist ‘war on women’ intersects with the bigger gender war being waged by the right. This might start with the most marginalised but is unlikely to stop there: and ‘gender critical’ feminists may find that some of their friends become enemies in the end. There have been counter-incursions, even in the mainstream: for instance, a recent Guardian US editorial critiqued ‘gender critical’ journalists in the UK. But political whiteness provides continuity between a variety of feminist narratives, and as with other issues such as immigration, the ‘legitimate concerns’ of liberal feminists can provide a stalking horse for reactionary views. What may start as critiques of gender or the sex industry meld with or justify growing (or increasingly explicit) anti-trans and anti-sex worker sentiment in the media and society.
Politically white feminisms, whether liberal or more reactionary, also tend to share a failure to interrogate the system of racial capitalism that is central to violent and sexually violent abuses of power. The idea of gender violence as an outcome of socio-economic processes disappears in favour of perspectives which root violence either in aberrant or in all male bodies. The violence of globalising capital – exemplified in the rape rampant in Export Processing Zones, femicide in Latin America, the contemporary witch-hunts of women who have been dispossessed of land in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the abuse occurring at the end of global care chains – cannot be understood here. #MeToo and the mainstream feminist movement, which makes use of the capitalist media, state and institution to redress individual injuries, is not well placed to tackle the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and other frameworks of domination which produce sexual violence. The anti-prostitution and ‘gender-critical’ arms of this movement can become complicit with the far-right politics also produced by this intersectionality of systems.
To resist an intersectionality of systems, we need an intersectionality of struggles. This might mean connecting #MeToo with prison abolition, activism against workplace sexual misconduct with sex workers’ rights, struggles against reproductive coercion with transgender equality, campaigns against trafficking with campaigns against borders. Such connections would be set within an analysis of the violence of racial capital, its individualisation of social reproduction, and what Tithi Bhattacharya calls the ‘braided chains of discipline’ which manage both labour and sexuality. We would need to ask tough questions about who our political friends are, and whether they might in fact not be our friends at all. We would need to refuse settlements offered by right-wing governments, if these ‘wins’ are losses for others. I am imagining increased funding for women’s refuges in return for trans-exclusionary admissions policies. Or equality legislation which relies on essentialist definitions of sex and gender. Or attempts to eradicate the sex industry which make sex workers more unsafe. The first of these is still a remote possibility; the second is becoming increasingly likely; the third is already in place.
The current political moment combines huge growth of the globally networked movement of survivors, with an expansion of carceral states that is part of a rightward shift and which also incorporates more open oppression of marginalised groups. This gives urgency to demands for a transformation in how we address harm. Demands made by activists such as Mariame Kaba, a key figure among the black feminists who are working, and have long worked, in the spaces between prison abolition and eradicating sexual violence. For these feminists, abolishing the prison-industrial complex means creating alternative forms of accountability and governance which are not based on domination, hierarchy, and control.
This is a profound challenge to sexual violence politics rooted in whiteness, which may be why most sexual violence activists in the mainstream have chosen to not even hear it. And as Kaba acknowledges, following Angela Davis, this is a big job: abolishing prisons requires a complete restructuring of society. Getting rid of sexual violence may be even bigger. It certainly will not happen in our lifetimes, but that does not mean our politics cannot look towards the society we want – more horizontal, more inclusive, and more connected – outside the power/control model of political whiteness. This is what Kaba calls a ‘jailbreak of the imagination’, and it is urgently needed. We cannot continue to support the status quo or, even worse, to dwell on our own border anxieties, while the Western ‘we’ is violently reconstituted in a futile drive to resurrect Empire.
As Audre Lorde once said: there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives’. I want to end with a question posed in her 1981 keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association conference: ‘What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?’ Almost forty years later and as we continue to struggle over what liberation means, this question is still crucial to the feminist fight against sexual violence.