On May 25th 2020, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an act that precipitated a powerful wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the world. May 25th 2020 was also the day Amy Cooper (a white woman) called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper (a Black man, no relation) because he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Her use of the phrase ‘there’s an African-American man threatening my life’ was a threat to get Christian Cooper killed by a cop.
These incidents are linked by more than just a moment in time. White women are deeply, and often deliberately, complicit with white supremacist violence, and our complicity usually takes the form of victimhood that appeals to the punitive power of the state. And although her allegation against Christian Cooper was false, Amy Cooper has something in common with mainstream feminist movements that coalesce around genuine victimisation and trauma, such as the recent viral iteration of #MeToo. The focus of these movements tends to be naming and shaming perpetrators and calling for institutional discipline or criminal punishment to get these ‘bad men.’
My book Me, Not You describes the political dynamics of mainstream white feminism in the core Anglosphere and parts of Europe. It makes a difficult and uncomfortable argument: that this movement, exemplified by #MeToo, not only centres bourgeois white women but also treats other groups as disposable. This is not just about inclusion and representation, but about the ideologies and attachments that undergird our politics; it is not primarily about individuals, but about the systems and structures that shape our world.
In March 2021, marketing executive Sarah Everard was allegedly murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer after disappearing from London’s Clapham Common. The previous June, members of the same police force were suspended for taking selfies with the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in a different London park. A vigil for these three women, and almost 200 others who have died in police custody or prison in England and Wales, was subsequently led by feminist group Sisters Uncut and violently broken up by police. Yet mainstream demands following Everard’s murder promised more power to the carceral system – calls for the criminalisation of street harassment and for misogyny to become a hate crime.
The demands themselves were unsurprising, but that such carceral feminism persists even after a white woman has allegedly been murdered by a cop shows how deeply mainstream feminism is mired in white supremacy. We are happy to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, but we do not put our own interests on the line and act with an understanding of exactly what police and prisons are for. Abolitionist thinking tells us that carceral systems preserve state and elite interests, protect private property and resources, dispose of economically surplus populations, and ultimately ensure that racial capitalism functions unabated. While we say, ‘Black Lives Matter’, we legitimate the very systems that demand, and deliver, Black demise.
White women’s experiences of sexual violence enter a world in which ‘protecting white womanhood’ is really about protecting racial capitalism and white supremacy. Because of this, we claim protection that has always been predicated on Black death and the deaths of other marginalised people. Furthermore, although bourgeois white women are not usually subject to state violence, the same white men who purport to protect us from the Others do reserve the right to abuse and kill us themselves.
This is true of Sarah Everard’s alleged murderer, and countless other law enforcement officers worldwide who have harmed girls and women. It is also true of the far-right politicians who profess concern for ‘women’s safety’ in their campaigns against immigrants and trans people, while harassing and assaulting the women they know. This is the patriarchal protection racket writ large – the threat of stranger rape that makes women seek safety with our male partners and family members, who are actually more likely to abuse us. At systemic levels, this protection racket mainly targets class-privileged white women. And it is fundamental to the preservation of racial capitalism.
Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. Sexual violence keeps women in our place, and punishes anyone who does not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. Acts and threats of sexual violence also support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which commercial and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape is a practice of terror used to subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).
At the same time, the pretext of ‘protecting (white) women’ constructs communities, cultures and nations as violent to justify colonisation, border regimes and military-industrial projects, and to dispose of unwanted populations. Black feminist historians have exposed the widespread brutalisation and killing of Black, enslaved and other racialised and colonised men in response to allegations made by or on behalf of white women. The spectre of sexual danger is still deployed to vilify, abuse and kill Black men and other men of colour, and to construct queer and trans people as threats and make it impossible for us to survive. It facilitates the demonisation and deportation of migrants, the invasion of countries, and the ‘putting away’ of racialised and classed groups deemed surplus to capitalist requirements.
In all these ways, sexual violence is a pivot for the intersecting systems of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism. The acts and threats that keep us afraid, that make us docile subjects of capitalism, also drive us into the arms of the carceral-colonial state and enable many other kinds of violence in the service of capitalist accumulation. By pulling the levers of carceral systems, white feminism is a willing participant in this racial capitalist protection racket. In the process, it trades freedom for the illusion of safety and treats more marginalised groups as disposable. This is how #MeToo often ends up becoming Me, Not You.
This is the text of an online keynote I gave, hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and the Freie Universität Berlin, on February 5th 2021. It was the last in a series of sessions on sexual harassment and violence in universities; when I was invited to speak, I was honoured but also concerned about what I could offer as a UK-based academic whose work on sexual violence has been focused on universities in my home country. My work started in 2006 with a pilot study at my own institution, and since then I have been involved in a number of research and intervention projects, collectives and campaigns. I thought it would be useful if I tried to distil what I have learned over the past fifteen years for fellow scholars, activists and organisers in other contexts and countries. So here are seven lessons from the UK: I hope some of them will resonate and perhaps help others avoid the mistakes I have made. In fifteen years my work has been characterised more by failure than success: but along the way I have at least learned to fail better.
My first lesson is: name the problem.
Sara Ahmed has written: ‘When we put a name to a problem, we are doing something.’ This doing, in her words, is ‘gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing.’ This gathering up, this making tangible, can allow the thing to be addressed. As James Baldwin famously said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ It was the UK student movement that made us face the issue of sexual harassment and violence in our universities: in the early 2010s, some amazing young feminists persistently named and worked to address it. I want to acknowledge, amongst others, Kelley Temple, Susuana Amoah and Hareem Ghani, who were all Women’s Officers of the National Union of Students (NUS).
The first national study of sexual harassment and violence against students was published by NUS in 2010. Called Hidden Marks, this was a survey of over two thousand self-identified women students across all four UK nations. One in seven had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault; 68 per cent had been sexually harassed. I worked with NUS on the research, and shortly after the report’s release they commissioned me, with Isabel Young, to research ‘lad culture’ in universities and how that framed sexual harassment and violence.
Isabel and I recruited forty women studying in England and Scotland, for focus groups and interviews. Our participants were very clear on what ‘lad culture’ was: a group dynamic enacted by young men in team sports and on the social scene, characterised by misogynist and homophobic ‘banter’. This ‘banter’ often involved rape jokes and sexual harassment and had the potential to escalate into more extreme forms of sexual violence. Our report, entitled That’s What She Said, theorised ‘lad culture’ as a conducive context for sexual violence. It was launched on International Women’s Day 2013.
That’s What She Said entered a climate in which women were ready to snap. For Ahmed, ‘feminist snap’ occurs when our experiences of negotiating worlds that demean and exclude us become overwhelming. The report prompted an outpouring – in feminist groups, students’ unions, classrooms, faculty offices and on social media – from women who had had enough. And as Ahmed says, moments of ‘snap’ can be catalysts for change. In the movement that emerged around ‘lad culture’ we raised awareness, created training, and developed partnerships with local support services. We used the media to ‘name and shame’ perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. We lobbied university leaders for a better response. By 2015, this had prompted the formation of a task force by Universities UK (the body that represents UK university leaders) on violence against women, harassment and hate crime.
The taskforce report, released a year later, recommended that all institutions adopt centralised reporting procedures, develop effective disclosure responses, and run training programmes. Afterwards, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made £4.7 million available for projects addressing sexual harassment and hate crime on campus, which supported institutional initiatives across the country. There was also further data-gathering: in 2018, NUS and the 1752 group (the UK’s first lobby group on staff-student sexual misconduct) conducted a study with almost two thousand current and former students, and found that 40 per cent had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from university staff.
In 2019, three years after the taskforce report, Universities UK circulated the results of a progress review of 95 institutions across all four UK nations. It found that 87 per cent had a working group on sexual harassment, violence and/or hate crime and 76 per cent had secured senior leadership buy-in. 81 per cent had delivered training, and 78 per cent had developed or improved reporting mechanisms. Crucially, it found there had been an increase in reported incidents and ‘a profound change in the initiatives and ideas that are now available for sharing across the sector’. It concluded that ‘over time, this will help facilitate cultural change at both institutional and sector level’.
The activist movement against ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in UK universities had succeeded in naming the problem and getting institutions to face it. Yet despite this huge achievement, I was circumspect. Institutional actions had mainly consisted of policy compliance and getting rid of ‘bad apples’ using disciplinary procedures. The movement, despite the input of a number of women of colour, was dominated by fellow white women who seemed happy to accept or even encourage this approach. But sexual harassment and violence are not a disease infecting particular ‘bad apples’ – they sit deep within the tangle of roots that nourishes the whole rotten tree.
This leads me to my second lesson: don’t individualise the issue.
Sexual violence is about systems. To understand it we have to think big: I theorise it as a pivot for heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and its colonial extensions. It works at the level of the nation, the state, the community and the household; it allows for the extraction of socially reproductive and hyper-exploited productive labour; it facilitates the expropriation of land and resources. It enters the world via four vectors – threats, acts, imputations, and punishment – and these must be considered together if we are to understand why sexual violence occurs and how to stop it.
Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. They keep women in our place and enable men’s domestic power over us. They punish people who do not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. They support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which economic and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape has been used to terrorise and subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).
Imputations and punishment of sexual violence have achieved the same ends. Black and other racialised and colonised men have been brutalised and killed following accusations made by white women. Sexual violence is used as a political device to construct populations, cultures and nations as dangerous, to justify border regimes and military-industrial projects. The spectre of sexual danger can be deployed to demonise and deport migrants, and to funnel racialised and classed populations into the criminal punishment system. It can also be brandished to construct queer and trans people as a threat.
Sexual violence in the university performs all these functions, at a smaller scale. Sexual harassment and assault are used to demean and dominate, to make students and staff (usually women) unwelcome, to keep us under control, and to express and maintain supremacy. In UK student communities, there is evidence that ‘lad culture’ and its attendant sexual violence is the preserve of middle- and upper-class white men who see successful young women as a threat. Sexual harassment of students by staff usually involves senior male academics (the majority of whom are white) expressing their entitlement and abusing their power. As well as women, gender-nonconforming students are at high risk of violence, and being marginalised by race, class and/or disability creates additional vulnerabilities.
Acts and threats of sexual violence reserve and shape the space of the university for privileged white men (and some white women, too). They articulate and preserve the power relations of the institution and the wider world. And in universities, as in the wider world, certain groups are constructed as more sexually violent than others. There is anecdotal evidence that queer academics, especially those who are also Black, are more likely to be accused of sexual misconduct. A recent report described how anti-radicalisation agendas in UK higher education construct Muslim men as particularly misogynistic. The institution is not neutral when it comes to addressing sexual violence.
My third lesson is: know the institution.
As with sexual violence, when considering the institution, it is necessary to think big. I draw on abolitionist university studies, which understands education as key to the capitalist, colonial, modern world-making project. Eli Meyerhoff theorises education as a mode of primitive accumulation, which creates the preconditions for racial capitalism through hoarding the means of study and using them to credentialise us for stratified economic roles. It inculcates us into ways of knowing and learning that reflect capitalist norms and practices: separate public and private spheres, the rational and consuming individual, and colonial dichotomies between culture and nature, modernity and tradition, value and waste. We become ‘competent’ in the knowledges of the state and status quo, and other forms of world-making are cast as deprived and less evolved.
Higher education has shaped nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, democracy and ‘civilisation’. Anthropology, economics, demography, sociology, psychology and criminology have rationalised exclusion and exploitation. UK universities are deeply embedded in state capitalist violence, including post-9/11 counter-terrorism regimes through which academics become border guards. They are also places where student protest is violently repressed. As economic actors themselves, universities are central to flows of dispossession and accumulation. They have been built upon indigenous and/or enclosed common lands and enriched by transatlantic slavery. They are now entrenched in the neoliberal rationalities and practices of privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing and precarity, and are subject to, and have, complex financial interests (including in the military-industrial complex).
During COVID-19 in England, the moral bankruptcy of our higher education system was starkly exposed. Our increasingly privatised universities lured students to campuses with promises of ‘Covid-safe’ teaching, to collect fees and rents. Students were blamed and punished as the virus inevitably spread, then told they could not return home and trapped in infection hotspots by fences and cops. There was horror and condemnation of university leaders as this situation progressed. People who perhaps did not know before, realised exactly what the institution is. But this institution is what white feminists have looked to, to protect us from sexual violence. How can the institution protect us from violence, when the institution is violence? The university cannot not save us – it is what Audre Lorde would call the master’s house.
So, my fourth lesson is: put down the master’s tools.
Activists against sexual violence in UK universities have mostly made gains in policy. In response to our lobbying, institutions have made written commitments, amended discipline processes, revised reporting procedures and commissioned training. We have worked hard for these successes and have done well to achieve them. But policy machinery constructs the institution as benign and able to be worked on, concealing the violence built into its very existence. Contemporary UK policy work also tends to be undertaken within neoliberal systems of measurement, monitoring and audit that generate surplus value for the university. This creates an emphasis on maintaining the appearance of a functional institution, not worrying about the reality.
This is what Ahmed terms ‘institutional polishing’ – initiatives ostensibly about equality, that are actually about little more than generating a marketable image. These initiatives are what she calls ‘non-performative’ – they do not produce the effects they name but substitute for them instead. A non-performative is seen as doing something, when in fact it allows institutions not to do anything else. A report produced in response to an issue, which is then used to declare that the issue has been addressed. A policy which is created and publicised, but ultimately not followed because just having the policy is what counts. In the UK, it has become important for institutions to look like they are doing something about sexual harassment and violence. But looking like and doing are not necessarily the same thing – in fact, sometimes the first allows us to escape the second. Policy is very often one of the master’s tools.
Institutional polishing can also turn into institutional airbrushing when problems emerge. ‘Naming and shaming’ perpetrators has been another key strategy of the mainstream movement against sexual violence, and it is powerful because it threatens to mar the institution’s polished image. But the key word here is ‘image’ – the impact of the disclosure on the surplus value of the institution is more troubling than the disclosure itself. Communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators. But in universities (which present themselves as communities but are actually corporations), the financial impact of disclosure must also be projected and totted up. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished, so the problem is airbrushed out.
What I call institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. Either issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible, the perpetrator is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution and it is made to appear as if they were never there. Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements are often used, or financial settlements given to perpetrators to convince them to resign. Institutional airbrushing stabilises the system; it communicates and embeds the idea that all the institution needs to do is to remove the ‘bad’ individual. After the blemish is airbrushed out, the malaise that produced it remains. And after the blemish is airbrushed out, it has a tendency to reappear elsewhere. ‘Bad apples’ can always re-attach themselves to a different rotten tree. This is called ‘pass the harasser’ and it is a significant problem in UK higher education.
I am not saying that people who perpetrate sexual violence have a right to keep their jobs. I also know that not excluding a perpetrator from an institution can be a de facto exclusion of survivors. But I am concerned that, like capitalism itself, institutional airbrushing moves problems around rather than addressing them. I am also concerned that ultimately, we may outsource our perpetrators to women in lower-status, lower-paid economic sectors. Although ‘naming and shaming’ can be a form of direct action when other avenues are closed, it more often triggers institutional airbrushing than genuine institutional change. Institutional airbrushing is one of the master’s tools: it does not prioritise the personal interests of survivors but the financial interests of the institution. And when done in the corporate media, ‘naming and shaming’ can also be co-opted in the service of the bottom line.
This brings me to my fifth lesson: don’t mistake outrage for justice.
In the corporate media, trauma is big business. The phrases ‘disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ have been coined to describe our fascination with the troubles of others, which creates a market for the consumption of pain: photographs of drowned migrants on European beaches, stories of sexual assault in Hollywood, and videos of Black people being brutalised and killed by police. This material, usually fed to us online via ‘clickbait’, gives a quick fix of sympathy and outrage but does not often lead to systemic analysis or radical political action. Instead, it objectifies its subjects to make media outlets money. In the corporate media, holding governments, institutions and individuals to account comes a poor second behind manipulating outrage to generate revenue. This is what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the contemporary Western media.
Sexual violence stories are capital in this economy, exemplified by the viral iteration of #MeToo. Although it was started by Black feminist Tarana Burke as a survivor-led movement of mutual support, #MeToo went viral following a tweet by white actor Alyssa Milano, as a moment of mass media disclosure. It was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post.
A key limitation of this mainstream iteration of #MeToo is that media markets, like all markets, are profoundly nihilistic. Clicks, likes and shares are a multi-denominational currency. As long as they accumulate, as long as media companies can make advertising revenue and harvest our data, it does not matter why. In other words, the media using sexual violence as clickbait does not imply support for feminist goals. The media using sexual violence as clickbait does not mean survivors will not themselves be vilified if this happens to be the juicer story.
In my fifteen years in the field, I have become deeply uncomfortable with the key strategies of mainstream sexual violence activism. When institutions let us down, we often ‘invest’ our trauma in networked media markets, to generate outrage and the visibility we need to further our cause. But cynical media corporations exploit this outrage, building visibility for their brands by encouraging audiences to consume our pain. Meanwhile the threat of damage to the brands of exposed institutions and organisations leads to an airbrushing of ‘bad men’ from high-profile sectors. These individuals usually move on to start all over again, while oppressive systems are left intact.
When individual men are ‘named and shamed’ in the media, when institutional policies and initiatives focus on punishing or excluding these ‘bad apples’, there is almost no effect on the whole rotten tree. Indeed, we often end up nourishing its roots – when mainstream feminist activism relies on the patriarchal, racist, capitalist institution for punishment, we use the master’s tools to try to dismantle the master’s house. Like the carceral feminism that calls on the punitive state to put perpetrators away, activism against sexual violence in universities fails to dismantle the intersecting systems that produce sexual violence and strengthens them instead.
Because of this, my sixth lesson is: stop calling the manager.
The punitive tendencies of the mainstream movement against sexual violence are a key part of what I call its political whiteness. Political whiteness involves, among other things, a clear conceptual distinction between victims and perpetrators, an understanding of the state as benign, and a belief that punishment works. White and middle-class feminists have called for more police, more convictions and longer sentences – and when something goes wrong in our workplaces, we ask the manager to sort it out. And when we turn to authority, we legitimate and bolster that authority. In our efforts to address personal abuses of power, we turn to the institutional power that facilitates them. In thinking we can be safe in our institutions by punishing the ‘bad’ men, we conceal the fact that the institution itself is unsafe.
Our demands for discipline can also increase the institution’s power and ability to perpetrate violence. Policies that make it easier to dismiss harassers might chip away at everyone’s employment rights, especially in a post-pandemic context where universities are looking to make substantial cuts. Technologies such as codes of conduct or ‘morality clauses’ in employment contracts, or a ‘sex offenders’ register’ for higher education (which has been suggested by some activists), could be misused to target groups seen as ‘deviant’ or a sexual threat. Such forms of institutional governance are also ultimately designed to protect the university from liability, not to protect us. Law firm Pinsent Masons, which represents UK university administrations as they defend themselves against discrimination claims and has given them advice on breaking strikes, has written the guidance for universities on how to handle alleged claims of sexual misconduct.
There is also a difference between punishment and accountability. Punishment is a passive and impersonal process – the person who has been harmed hands over their power and is kept in the dark (although nevertheless it requires a huge amount of courage and work). Accountability, in contrast, is both personal and active. For Mia Mingus, accountability requires four steps from someone who has caused harm: self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behaviour. It centres the person who has been harmed, their understanding of why the behaviour was harmful and their definition of what constitutes repair. It makes space for that repair, acknowledging that none of us is above causing harm and we may all need that space someday. It is the job of the perpetrator and not the survivor, and requires significant community input and support.
Accountability, as described by Mingus, would be difficult to achieve in higher education institutions which are corporations rather than communities, in which we are hierarchically organised, individualised, distrustful and overworked. None of this is conducive to honest communication and collective action. True accountability would require a collectivist, not a capitalist, institution – and this is probably an oxymoron. That does not mean, though, that while supporting survivors as best we can within the options currently available, we cannot also try to move in a better direction. In the longer term, we cannot keep calling the manager and relying on the system to do the work of accountability for us, when it is what needs to be dismantled.
This sets up my seventh and final lesson: be in it for the long haul.
After fifteen years in the field, I heed Lorde’s advice that refusing to use the master’s tools may only be difficult for those who ‘still define the master’s house as their only source of support’. This is an invitation to stop relying on the master to deal with our collective problems, and to join the work of building a different house. A house where we tackle things together means a house founded on care – not the privatised care of the market and heteronormative family, not the bare minimum provided by the institution and state, but more capacious and collective ways of surviving and thriving. Instead of strengthening the status quo, mainstream feminist organising against sexual violence needs to become part of the broader project of making anew. We must think big and act small. What world do we ultimately want to live in? What are some baby steps towards it that we could realistically take?
I am referring here to the abolitionist distinction between reformist and non-reformist reforms. Non-reformist reforms move us towards the world we want, not further away. They shrink, rather than grow, the state and institution’s capacity for violence. To start with, in universities, this could mean creating small, self-organised groups of staff and students who imagine new ways of relating and solving problems together. It could mean using these prototypes to develop policy suggestions and initiatives which create structures of accountability rather than shoring up the institution’s power. It would mean making demands for institutional resources: money most importantly, and the time and space to do this important work. This would be a radical challenge to the current model of the university and to current mainstream feminist activism.
It would also be hard work, and might be bound to fail given what the university is. But all we need to do is move in the right direction. I take hope from recent mass strikes in UK higher education, which showed that neoliberalism has not stolen all our solidarity and community away. I also take hope from the many forms of grassroots care that have proliferated during the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that we will not know what we can create until we free ourselves from how the institution stifles our imaginations and start doing what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. People marginalised by race, class and disability, queer and trans people, have long been supporting survivors and working towards transformative justice outside the institution and outside the state. There are many amazing examples to emulate. This is work that will not be completed in any of our lifetimes, and it is not always easy to know whether we are dismantling power or helping to preserve it. This means we must be in it for the very long haul.
I hope at least some of these lessons are helpful – if so, I have created an infographic that you might want to download as a reminder (it can be used as a wallpaper or screensaver, or printed out if you prefer - click the image below to open full size, in order to save).
Could you tell us a little about yourself – where you grew up, went to school, how you came to be a Professor of Gender Studies?
I was born in North Yorkshire, then lived in Teeside for a while before my family moved to Bristol. After doing my GCSEs at the local comprehensive, I left home at 16 – I wanted to be a dancer and went into full-time professional training. But I lacked the talent to pursue ballet (my real passion) and was too self-conscious for musical theatre. So I mixed cocktails in a nightclub, and wrapped soap baskets in a Body Shop, but wasn’t content. I’d managed to get two A-levels at dance college, which in the 1990s was enough for a place at Manchester University – I chose politics and modern history. I was the first woman in my family to get a degree, and remain the only person ever in my family to be an academic. To start with, the language and ideas I encountered at university baffled me. But feminism was different.
I come from a long line of strong working women, but had been encouraged to aspire to white bourgeois femininity – feminist theory helped me understand why. I came out as queer, which was a personal and political revelation – in butch/femme communities and relationships I decoupled gender from assigned sex and learned femininity was something to experiment with and enjoy. I also realised that the state forces amassed against queer people – that were still raiding gay bars at the time – were not my route to liberation. And that there were some feminists who saw me as an impediment to theirs – in the lesbian ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, butch/femme, BDSM and sex work were all seen as a capitulation to patriarchal dynamics rather than a way to subvert them.
I never planned to be an academic – but in between doing various office jobs I was offered a scholarship for my MA at Manchester, and won one to do my PhD at Cambridge. In 2005, just before I submitted my PhD thesis, I moved down to Brighton with my long-term girlfriend at the time. I was doing administration for the City Council and making sandwiches in a local café, when an hourly-paid teaching role came up at Brighton University. Then a temporary contract was advertised at Sussex – 9-months of cover for the Director of Gender Studies – and I got it. I’ve been at Sussex ever since. I ran Gender Studies till 2018, taking breaks to have two kids, and have worked part-time since 2011. I was promoted to Professor of Gender Studies in 2017.
How did Me, Not You come about, who do you hope reads it and what impact do you want it to have?
This book was in the making for a very long time. A year after I got my job at Sussex, something happened in my personal life – I was raped by a woman I was involved with. It happened in a small arts-based community, which largely closed ranks around her and ignored or dismissed me – this meant that apart from a few loyal friends, I only had books and writing to get me through the experience. I didn’t entertain going to the police – the perpetrator had a young daughter and was much more marginalised than I was, so I knew police involvement would harm her, perhaps even more than she had harmed me. While I was dealing with my own trauma, I also began to be approached by students who had been raped, because of my role as Director of Gender Studies. So I became a scholar-activist – and supporting survivors, pushing for institutional change, and building relationships with services and organisations were all intertwined with my research on sexualviolence.
Long before #MeToo went viral, activists in universities had been ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators in the media – this was often the only option. But I was always left with the question: where did these ‘bad men’ go? I knew some of them went to other institutions and continued the same behaviour – the ‘pass the harasser’ problem. And I worried that the suggested solution – to exclude perpetrators entirely from academia – might just outsource them to lower-status sectors, where women had fewer rights and protections. This fear of creating collateral damage was magnified in relation to criminal punishment – even when it is visited on privileged white men, this creates massive collateral damage amongst Black people and other marginalised groups. This was where ‘Me, Not You’ came from – it’s a play on and critique of #MeToo. It describes how mainstream white feminism is very self-regarding – my victimisation is the most important thing, and I will do whatever it takes to feel safe and/or vindicated, regardless of the consequences.
Me, Not You is written for fellow white women and white feminists. It’s about how mainstream feminism fails to tackle the structures that cause sexual violence – especially the deep structure of racial capitalism – and ends up fortifying them instead. The book is built on Black feminist theory, and Black women and other women of colour won’t need to read it – it won’t tell them anything they don’t already know. I hope the book will speak to white women who, like me, are uneasy about mainstream feminism and want to do things differently. In the conclusion, I discuss the concept of ‘abolition feminism’ as defined by Angela Davis – and as abolition moves into the mainstream lexicon following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others, I hope my book will explain why white feminism is not abolition feminism, and suggest how it could move in that direction.
You must have been totally unsurprised by the video of white woman Amy Cooper being asked by Christian Cooper (a Black man, no relation) to put her dog on a lead in Central Park, and calling the police to say he was threatening her. Is this a perfect representation of what you mean by political whiteness, and the ways in which white women’s vulnerability – real or imagined – is weaponised?
Political whiteness is the term I use in my book for the way mainstream feminism and other white-dominated forms of politics operate. It centres on victimhood, whether that’s the genuine sexual trauma at the root of #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements, or the imagined white victimhood of the backlash against feminism, the vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness – from a position of power, one is naturally preoccupied with threat. In white feminism, sexual trauma becomes political capital via the media, which usually leads to demands for criminal punishment or institutional discipline. This happens with little regard for more marginalised people – and as we know, the criminal punishment system is not designed to deal with men such as Harvey Weinstein, but to protect the interests of white elites and ‘put away’ those deemed surplus to requirements in racial capitalist production.
The wounded white woman is the icon of mainstream feminism – she’s also a trophy of the authoritarian right. Her power is rooted in colonial history – the ‘protection’ of bourgeois white women from indigenous, colonised and enslaved men (and subsequently, from free Black men) justified genocide and murder, and colonialism itself. And white women were deeply complicit – there is a longhistory of false allegations prompting racist state and community violence. Police in the US, UK and elsewhere continue to murder Black people, and (white) ‘women’s safety’ continues to justify state violence and the politics of the far right. As Zeba Blay has written, Amy Cooper was well aware of this when she told the police ‘there’s an African-American man threatening my life’. This was a reminder that she could get Christian Cooper killed by a cop. This act was more deliberate than the political whiteness I identify in #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements. But white feminism can easily become intentionally cruel – trans- and sex worker-exclusionary feminists, for example, are similar to the Amy Coopers of the world in their wilful use of stories of sexual trauma to ostracise and vilify their enemies.
The same day as the Amy Cooper incident, a police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. This has prompted enormous protests in the US and other countries including the UK. What is your reaction to these events? Who are the most astute thinkers on this that we should all be following and reading?
To be honest, I’m not sure my reaction to these events deserves much space. I am in solidarity with Black people, and part of doing (as well as saying) that is to pass the mic. Black Lives Matter, and Black voices matter too – and the second is a precondition for the first. In other words, we can’t claim to oppose anti-Black racism while objectifying and speaking over Black people. There is a wealth of commentary and analysis being produced by Black people on current events – such as these articles by Zoe Samudzi, Mariame Kaba and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, these discussions hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Dream Defenders, and so much more besides. Many of these people are on Twitter, and if you follow them you’ll find many others. I can also share some general recommendations for Black feminist thinkers who are important to me.
Angela Davis, of course, is a legend – you can download Women, Race and Class and Are Prisons Obsolete? online, and you can also watch talks and interviews like this one on abolition feminism. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is incredible too, and while I recommend her book Golden Gulag (and she has another one, Change Everything, forthcoming), there are also various pieces by and interviews with her available free. Mariame Kaba is an inspiration to me and pretty much everyone else I share politics with – I’ll forever be proud and amazed that she endorsed my book, and I turn to her words almost every day. She is also hugely generous with her intellect and insight and can be found on many websites, podcasts and other platforms – the best thing to do is to visit her personal website and follow some links.
And in case any of your readers are under the impression that anti-Black racism is just a US problem, I’ll make some UK-specific recommendations. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book has become a contemporary classic, and is a very accessible read for white people wanting to educate themselves on race. Lola Olufemi has a new book out, which is also very accessible and highlights issues with white bourgeois feminism as well as setting out her own feminist manifesto. I love the Surviving Society podcast – it’s co-hosted by Black scholars Chantelle Lewis and Tissot Regis, and covers a wide range of issues but with a particular lens on race.
I also want to draw your attention to this article by Lauren Michele Jackson – ‘What is an anti-racist reading list for?’ In it, she rightly states that while book recommendations are easy to give and feel good to receive, at some point we have to do the work of reading, and the gap between recommendations and reading is often a gulf. Furthermore, she argues, merely reading work by Black scholars is not anti-racism in and of itself, and in fact this can lead to the kind of ‘self-enlightenment’ which replaces political action. This does not mean we shouldn’t read – far from it – but reading the right things has to be part of a broader strategy.
Near the end of the book you have a brief section on things individuals can do, something you expand on in a recent blog post. How big a danger is it that a ‘white fragility’ focus will allow white people to try to ‘purge themselves’ of racism without fronting up to racist structures? How can we work against this and ‘do’ allyship (or comradeship as you put it) for the long haul, after the hashtags fade?
The drawbacks of ‘white fragility’ discourse are both a huge danger and an awful reality. Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michele Jackson are among many writers of colour who argue that the psychological focus of ‘white fragility’, and the individualistic focus of ‘white privilege’, reduce anti-racism to navel-gazing and hand-wringing rather than work towards structural change. As I say in my recent blog, this is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other. And in the midst of the current Black Lives Matter protests, white people have centred ourselves on an industrial scale. From kneeling in the street attempting to ‘renounce our privilege’, to making airbrushed celebrity videos confessing guilt and ‘taking responsibility’, to institutional proclamations with no evidence of anti-racist actions (and plenty of evidence of racist ones).
As feminism has long told us, the personal is political – and white people are heavily invested in racial capitalist structures. Divesting from these will require work on the self, but self-analysis is not politics. Perhaps we need to shift the focus away from ‘how am I feeling?’ to ‘what am I doing?’ This doesn’t mean ignoring emotions, it means dealing with them in appropriate ways and not mistaking them for action. It means decentring ourselves and focusing on the Other; it means a politics of care. This isn’t easy in our narcissistic, stingy neoliberal culture – and for white feminists, being asked to care may evoke the compelled care we have historically opposed. Contemporary white feminists tend to eschew care – ‘nasty women’ are fuelled by rage. But this highlights the individualism of our politics, and its foundations in the nuclear family and binary gender. Rage on behalf of the self, which often seeks revenge, is perhaps seen as feminist because in the bourgeois nuclear family, the female self is diminished and denied.
By ‘care’, I mean an orientation to the social and natural world, not picking up your husband’s socks. For marginalised groups, care is a necessity – for instance, the disabled people and working class people (many of them Black and people of colour) abandoned by austerity regimes, and the queer and trans people creating new support systems when their families of origin reject them. Care is central to Black feminism and other revolutionary politics because it rejects and undoes racial capitalist violence and creates different ways of life. I want white feminists to learn from this. I want responsibilities for care held in common, beyond the gender binary, care for other human beings globally (especially the most marginalised), and care for our planet. In racial capitalism, care can be violence because it is compelled, forced, outsourced and unevenly distributed, and withheld from those who need it most. But care is also at the heart of the alternatives we need. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition means making the conditions for a better world. So if we are going to ‘do’ comradeship after the hashtags fade, we might begin by caring for each other.
‘What do we do?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked by readers of Me, Not You, and this question has become louder and more urgent in the past two weeks. Massive protests in the US and elsewhere against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countlessothers have brought the idea of abolition into the mainstream, and many white feminists are newly interested in fighting sexual violence without criminal punishment.
I am also at the beginning of a (life)long journey towards what Angela Davis calls ‘abolition feminism’, and the final chapter of my book shares what Davis and other Black feminists have taught me so far. For instance, there’s a thought experiment imagining a world without sexual violence (which would, of course, be a world without police and prisons), and some practical suggestions on how we could use that as our guide. This would be via what abolitionists call ‘non-reformist reforms’ – interventions that get us closer to, instead of further away from, our ultimate goal. I give examples of what these might look (and not look) like. The chapter also offers a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our political action away from some of the problems identified in my book.
Whiteness and (the) social order
But despite this, the ‘what do we do?’ question persists – which suggests that perhaps readers are looking for more. What is this ‘more’, and why do some people want it? I’m not sure I would give it, even if I could. My book was intended to help readers understand the dynamics of mainstream feminism, not to offer a panacea (because one does not exist). It is not a set of instructions – I am not in charge of feminism, and as a middle-aged white academic I am definitely not interested in taking up that mantle. Bourgeois white women like me dominate mainstream feminism, but I am also struck by the fact that ‘what do we do?’ is most often asked by fellow privileged white feminists. I have several thoughts about why.
As I explore in my book, political whiteness both seeks authority and defers to it. The white will to power I write about can be satisfied by proxy, demanding an authoritarian response. We see this in white feminist calls for more police and longer sentences; we have also seen it during Covid-19, as while some white people have protested lockdown measures, others have informed on their neighbours for failing to observe them. Whiteness creates deep desires for both individual liberty and social control, and the impulse to call the manager or police to enforce the rules we need to feel safe sits beside our own need to be told what to do. The material and symbolic benefits we derive from the existing order also make it difficult and threatening to imagine anything different. As a result, we can get defensive: and demanding solutions are given to us can be a way of shutting down discussion of things we cannot face. It is what the CEO does when his staff bring him problems he does not want to have to fix.
The demand for pre-made panaceas also shows how neoliberal capitalist mentalities have permeated white feminist consciousness. We want instant gratification, something off the shelf. This is dangerous on many levels: grabbing at immediate answers can stop us from wrestling with important questions, and quick and easy actions are often ineffective. As I write in Me Not You, performative outrage, and calls to get rid of ‘bad apples’ from institutions or communities, are usually just forms of pressure release that enable oppressive systems and dynamics to continue. So is white self-analysis, if this is where we get stuck: Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michelle Jackson are among those who examine how white anti-racism more often constitutes navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and attempts to ‘renounce privilege’ and assuage guilt rather than work towards structural change. This is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other.
As I say in my book, white feminists can – and should – take our lead from Black feminists and other marginalised people who are less attached to the way things are, whose imaginations are not so bounded and who model what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. Black feminists have long tried to tell us that the view from where they are is much clearer than we can comprehend. Patricia Hill Collins famously called Black women ‘outsiders within’; bell hooks has written about her own experience of ‘looking from the outside in and the inside out’. I love Gail Lewis’ description of how, from the margins, it is possible to see across an entire field of vision – whereas from the centre one has to keep turning around and about. This is why many groups located on the margins are already working to formulate the answers white feminists want handed to us on a plate.
Doing my small part
But we cannot expect more marginalised feminists to just hand us these solutions: political programmes have to be collective and developed through dialogue. We all need to do this work – and echoing Mariame Kaba, I think perhaps not enough of us are currently doing our small part. I join Kaba in her request that we all ‘work together to think through something different’, adding that white feminists should listen more than we talk, and acknowledging that thinking through something different is a long, hard slog. It is a lot easier to identify problems than to develop ways to tackle them (and I say this to myself as much as to anyone else). As I write in Me, Not You, ridding the world of sexual violence is not going to happen in my lifetime, or yours. But we can all do our own small part to move towards it, not further away.
For the past fifteen years my main activist focus has been tackling sexual violence in universities. This work has included collaborating with Susuana Amoah and others at the National Union of Students, engaging individual institutions across Europe in research and training, and forming the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) collective with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor. CHUCL aims to help universities reshape their structures and cultures so equality policies can be more meaningful, and so they can deal more effectively, and less punitively, with problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. We have not got very far yet, but we are in it for the long haul.
As we move forward with CHUCL, I am trying to keep an abolition mindset. This means refusing to become what Audre Lorde called the ‘master’s tools’ (in other words, being used to preserve oppressive systems even while we claim to dismantle them). This can happen in various ways. For instance, CHUCL research on structural and cultural problems in universities has been used as evidence they have already been solved (what Sara Ahmed terms ‘non-performativity’). Universities have reacted defensively and demanded we provide instant solutions, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. They have defaulted to individualised forms of diversity training which are presented as ‘taking action’ but do not address, and instead conceal, the deeper issues we have pointed out. Key questions for us are: how do we help universities take responsibility for and tackle their own troubles? How do we build institutional capacity to deal with unacceptable and violent behaviour? And the big one: how do we push for real structural and cultural change?
We are taking our lead from survivor-led community accountability and transformative justice approaches that have worked in other contexts, but many institutions are a long way from having the capacity to implement these. Complete success would require a collectivist, rather than a capitalist, university. Of course, we are not going to get one soon – but we are thinking hard about ways to work towards it (and whether we even should, especially given universities’ complicity in racial capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism and slavery and its afterlives). We have a lot of failure ahead of us before we can even imagine something that looks like success. But we are doing our small part.
Building feminist futures
We all have to do our part, if we want to change the world. So if something has struck you in my book – whether it has inspired you or made you feel uncomfortable – I am delighted, but you must consider if and how you want to act. If you do decide to act, make sure you start small. Reflect on, and work to undo, how your own actions perpetuate systems of oppression (and that includes saviour modes of ‘helping’). Use your privilege and/or your money to do one thing for the benefit of more marginalised people every day (and thanks to Mariame Kaba for this principle, which has been a touchstone in my more chaotic moments during Covid-19). When there is a crisis, step up. Through these actions, educate yourself on issues, think about the better world you want to build, and learn about – and from – those who may already be building it.
When your imagination is liberated from what is, when you are better able to visualise what could be, think backwards to something you could realistically work towards yourself sustainably and longer-term. You might be able to find a group of like-minded feminists organising towards the same thing, who you could support with your time and money. If you can’t find one, create one. Your action could be as simple as setting up a neighbourhood collection for your local food bank (it is difficult to eradicate violence while basic needs are not being met). Or you might decide to get involved in action against prison expansion or to free incarcerated survivors. You might even work towards implementing a transformative justice programme in your community, organisation or institution. As you take action, you could use my toolkit regularly to check in with yourself. And although there should not be gatekeepers, seek out visionaries to guide you.
I cite many of these visionaries in Me, Not You – you can look to Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and lots of others besides. Our feminist tomorrow is also being envisioned by the young Black feminists and others currently on the streets protesting police murders and demanding abolition. It is being envisioned by the young activists and authors producing resources for the fight. For instance, Lola Olufemi’s new book Feminism, Interrupted offers a manifesto for a different, and truly radical, feminism. Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, sets out practical strategies for tackling sexual violence without criminal punishment. Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes is a compelling argument for decriminalising sex work, one legislative advance that would eradicate a huge amount of violence and that we could all be campaigning for. These dynamic young feminists are not going to give you instructions either, but they do provide rich food for thought – and the future of feminism lies with them.
As we move towards this feminist future, there will be no easy answers. The problems with mainstream feminism have been well and truly exposed (and by many others both now and before me), but we are still figuring out how to solve them. And although white bourgeois feminists may need to get our own houses in order first, when we are ready, we will need ongoing conversations between feminists of all positionalities: younger and older, differently classed and raced, trans and cis, differently abled, sex-working and not, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, and more. These discussions would be led from the margins but everyone would have a voice; there would be space to question, learn and grow; and most importantly, talk would lead to action rather than being an end in itself. I am deeply invested in doing my part to facilitate this this journey, and will probably be asking some tough questions of fellow white feminists (and myself) along the way. And I will pose one back to you now: what do you want to do?
This blog was originally posted on the Manchester University Press website – if you buy the book from MUP and enter the code OTH583 at checkout, it is currently 50% off (which is £6.50 plus P&P).
This is 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.
These are some remarks written for the launch of Tanya Serisier’s brilliant new book ‘Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape, and Narrative Politics’ (Palgrave 2018). You can buy the book, or order it for your library, here.
Tanya Serisier’s book Speaking Out is the first critical study of white feminist politics around rape which explicitly situates this politics as a narrative form. It analyses narratives from the second wave and after as part of a testimonial genre which has specific plots, characters and themes. The book resists equating ’speaking out’ with justice, freedom or feminism, noting that although there has been a flowering of this type of activism this has not necessarily led to social change. Instead, Serisier constructs a more nuanced interpretation in which women’s narratives are both powerful and necessary, and located within competing discourses and agendas. One of those discourses is feminism, and the book is excellent in its understanding of different forms of feminism as devices for the production, dissemination and regulation of women’s narratives. White feminist narrative politics is also positioned within the broader discourses and structures of liberalism, racial capitalism and criminal justice, and the neoliberal morality of personal transformation.
Speaking Out makes a key intervention into the current political and cultural context. This context incorporates an increased volume of sexual violence narratives, circulating through the networked web of survivors created by #MeToo and allied movements, and given authority within the ‘intimate publics’ of social media and ‘testimonial cultures’ of neoliberalism. It also involves a strengthening of the backlash, bolstered by political shifts to the right and the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility, which often attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of sexual violence narratives or dismiss women’s experiences of trauma. In a context in which we can either attack victims or defend them, repudiate the wound or embrace it, it can be tempting to sanctify our stories. This is both understandable and dangerous.
Sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: fear of rape is simultaneously fear of male power and the uprising of colonised or enslaved peoples, or the ‘invasion’ of immigrant communities. White women’s rape narratives (as well as their rescue fantasies about ‘victimised Others’ such as Muslim women) have been used in the service of colonial oppressions, neo-imperialist interventions, and carceral state violence. Currently, the right are renewing the use of ‘women’s safety’ to justify the violence of borders and the police, and to strip rights and safety from social Others such as trans women and sex workers. As politics moves further to the right it is imperative that feminists engage critically with their narratives and activism around sexual violence, especially since some strands of white feminism (which have their own will to power) are actively and increasingly allied with reactionary agendas.
Critiquing sexual violence feminisms is difficult: I constantly struggle to blend my instinct – and commitment – to believe all survivors with my knowledge that sexual violence narratives are not politically neutral. The affective intensity of survivor stories can also act to insulate the surrounding politics from critique, playing experience as the trump card. However, emotion is not the ‘pure’ counterpart of politics: our emotional repertoires are both discursively and structurally shaped and interpreted. Serisier’s book helps us to explore how racialised tropes around victimisation and predation, criminal justice grammars, fables of community and nation and geopolitical archetypes are among the influences on our interior lives as well as on how our sexual violence stories are heard.
The notion of genre in Serisier’s book is incredibly useful, helping readers to understand how sexual violence narratives are both produced and received according to particular conventions and rules, and how they can be caught up in other stories such as those around nation, security, austerity and risk. This creates opportunities for political weaponisation, which survivors can resist or be passively or actively complicit in. Serisier opens up a constructive space for us to explore these dynamics, adopting a critical approach to ideas of authenticity and truth and engaging seriously with claims and counter-claims, without undermining how deeply experiences are felt or withholding belief. This is one of the most incisive, but also one of the kindest, books on sexual violence I have read, and Tanya Serisier is one of the most important young feminists writing about sexual violence today. Speaking Out deserves to be read widely, by all who are interested in this topic.
I am speaking today about sexual harassment and violence. It is difficult to speak about sexual harassment and violence; these are traumatic experiences, and survivors are subject to many forms of silencing. This is why ‘speaking out’ is crucial. We speak our truths publicly because problems need to be named, to be dealt with: and putting our trauma ‘out there’ is a way to avoid being consumed by it ‘in here’. But speech in this area is also vexed. Because of where and how we are able to speak our truths, because of how these truths constitute us as subjects and objects of discourse, and because of how our disclosures can be co-opted. We are also caught in a number of binaries and backlashes which position us or which we have to position against. There are binaries between men and women, between perpetrators and victims, which are often mapped directly on to each other. There is a misogynistic, racist backlash from the so-called ‘alt’-right, and on the left what Sara Ahmed calls ‘progressive sexism’, which gives cover to sexual harassment and violence through critiques of neoliberalism and concerns about ‘moral panic.’ This is the context in which I share my thoughts about how sexual harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’ in institutional and cultural economies.
When I first started writing this, the Anglo-American world was caught up in a reckoning in the form of #MeToo. Tarana Burke, who founded the campaign in 2006, called its recent incarnation ‘a watershed moment’ in feminist protest. The image above was created by Tara O Brien and I love it because it has a black woman in the centre. This represents Burke for me, and also evokes the tremendous debt white feminists like me owe black feminists, who play such central roles but whose experiences are so rarely centred, who are so often the first to act and the last to get the credit. Women like Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas put the issue of sexual harassment firmly on the agenda. Or Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the trans women of colour who were on the front lines of the Stonewall Riots. Or Rosa Parks, who was an anti-rape activist long before she became the icon of the Montgomery bus boycott.
I build on the legacy of these women as I do my research and activism around sexual harassment and violence. This started the same year Burke founded #MeToo, and has included working closely with the National Union of Students on ‘lad culture’, conducting case study projects at Imperial College and Sussex University on institutional culture, and co-leading a major pan-European intervention training staff in 21 different institutions to respond to disclosures. The universities involved in my research are all unique: but one of their similarities is the way they ‘reckon up’ sexual harassment and violence. In other words, market concerns tend to dominate once a disclosure is made. It is a different type of reckoning.
Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual abuse perpetrators; this is not news, or new. Sexual harassment and violence are normalised, minimised and dismissed by patriarchy, colonialism and other systems of domination, as well as complex and uneven structures of loyalty and hierarchy. This happens in families, the military, the church, the media, international aid communities, and everywhere else you look. But the marketisation of the university creates additional buffers, as the potential economic cost of disclosure is projected and totted up. We can’t lose our star Professor and his grant income, or his four-star publications. We don’t want negative media or NSS scores to affect student recruitment. These concerns interact with institutional hierarchies, and gender, race, class and other relations, to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently.
'They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.'
'In my opinion the university tries to hide sexual violence and in particular rape, because they are afraid for their good reputation. If a girl reports such a crime to a member of the university staff, they will always try to distract her from reporting to the police.'
These quotes from my research participants describe what I call ‘institutional airbrushing.’ On billboards and in magazines, marketable equals unblemished: all flaws must be airbrushed out. The contemporary brand naming of the university creates a similar imperative for perfection. So when a disclosure is made, the impact of this on the marketability of the institution can be more troubling than the act of harassment or violence it reveals. One of my participants described this as ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ Another highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet and dealing with them internally, which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ Institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: either issues are minimised, denied or concealed and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible (usually after media intervention), the perpetrator themselves is airbrushed from the institution, and it is made to appear as if they were never there.
Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements play a key part in these processes: and as Whitley and Page point out, they often function to protect the reputation of the institution rather than the one making the complaint. A Guardian Freedom of Information investigation in 2016 found that some universities had also paid compensation to students and staff, or given financial settlements to staff accused of sexual harassment to encourage them to resign. I will cover naming and shaming later – this strategy is ripe for co-option – but the process of airbrushing problems out rather than dealing with them means they are likely to re-appear elsewhere. A recent US study by named this the ‘pass the harasser’ phenomenon: faculty are allowed to move on quietly after sexual harassment allegations, only to be subject to similar complaints in their new posts. And when problems are not dealt with properly, they can escalate: a participant in my research reported an incident of stalking by a male fellow student which was not dealt with by her institution, after which he went on to attack three women.
As the institution is airbrushed, the survivor experiences the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal, which exacerbates trauma and perpetrates additional boundary violations. As one of my student participants said, ‘the survivor has to be the one to accommodate.’ And the experiences of many survivors go way beyond accommodation. Being threatened with removal from the institution is common, often linked to accusations or insinuations that a complainant is lying. Until recently, the 1994 Zellick guidelines have also been used to insulate institutions from having to take action if an allegation is not reported to the police. One of my participants described the senior managers at her university as ‘obstructionist, skeptical and incapable of empathy.’ This is the reality behind the perfect picture of an institution. This is the price paid by survivors within gendered economies of sexual harassment and violence in which they are assigned little value.
The airbrushing of sexual predators is especially interesting when compared to how universities have neglected scholars targeted for their political views. Last year, the American Association of University Professors issued two separate directives to universities to defend academics more proactively, after professors received threats for criticising President Trump. Around the same time, a lecturer at Bristol University was supported by Jewish colleagues after an investigation was launched against her, following a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. There have been other incidents like this, many directed at women and/or scholars of colour (and women of colour in particular), in the context of another backlash in which the ‘alt’-right are targeting universities as sites of critical speech and thought. It is possible that the differential treatment of political academics and those accused of sexual harassment may reflect gendered and raced power relations: unlike radical politics, sexual abuse in institutions tends to be the behaviour of men with privilege and power. But it might also reflect what it is possible (and impossible) to airbrush out of the picture. In contrast to sexual predators, political academics tend to operate in the open: our ‘misdemeanours’ cannot so easily be denied or covered up.
In institutions where airbrushing is the problem, exposing the blemish is often the antidote. Campaigns against sexual harassment and violence, exemplified by #MeToo, have centred on speaking out – sharing our experiences and naming our perpetrators – as a way to interrupt the processes by which they are protected and we are dismissed. Naming and shaming has been especially successful when the perpetrator is a powerful male academic: Colin McGinn, Thomas Pogge and Lee Salter are a few of the names which have circulated in media publics, and there are many more. This is part of a long history of feminist testimony, ranging from Sojurner Truth’s speech to the Akron Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, to the activism of black women in the US civil rights movement, to the phrase ‘the personal is political’, which underpinned second-wave women’s liberation struggles. But the contemporary movement against sexual harassment and violence tends to position the relationship between the personal and political as unidirectional, creating an equation between sharing experience and feminist politics.
I want to trouble that equation. The relationship between the personal and political is reciprocal because of the constitution of subjectivities, and identities, in the web of discourse. And as Angela Davis has said, ‘we often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives.’ Because of this, there are ongoing debates in feminist philosophy and theory about how our ‘wounds’ enter the political sphere, and what they do once they get there. I take various insights from these discussions: from Sara Ahmed the idea of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, and from Wendy Brown and Carrie Rentschler (in different ways) a concern with how discourses of victimhood are both articulated and ventriloquized within political contexts. From black feminists like Angela Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw I take a strong concern with how personal pain (and especially that of white women) can be weaponised by the punitive, carceral state.
I am interested in what sexual violence experiences do. I have theorised them as investment capital in affective economies, and especially the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. Sexual violence narratives can be invested in media publics to generate further capital in the form of emotion, and not always to progressive ends. As Ashwini Tambe writes about #MeToo:
It is worth keeping in mind that the primary instrument of redress in #MeToo is public shaming and criminalization of the perpetrator. This is already too familiar a problem for black men. We know the history of how black men have been lynched based on unfounded allegations that they sexually violated white women. We know how many black men are unjustly incarcerated. The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been reversed—with accusers’ words taken more seriously than those of the accused—is a familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this dynamic.
The figure of the survivor is affectively powerful, but not politically neutral: black feminists know this well. My work has also examined how ‘survivor stories’ have been used in campaigns to criminalise sex workers, or to exclude trans women from women-only space. These politics connect with national and geopolitical dynamics, especially the weaponisation of ‘empathy’ by states and institutions for projects of social and political control (Carolyn Pedwell’s work is important here). Bush’s ‘empathy’ for the women of Afghanistan was a key justification for his War on Terror. ‘Empathy’ for survivors of sex trafficking can legitimise crackdowns on immigration and/or commercial sex. The performance of emotion can also function to detract from harms states and institutions are perpetrating: this evokes Theresa May’s platitudes in support of #MeToo, while her government cut funding for domestic and sexual violence services and presided over the state-sanctioned abuse of vulnerable migrant women at Yarl’s Wood.
When narratives of sexual harassment and violence function as capital, they accrue value in this political context. And in the testimonial cultures of neoliberalism, pain and trauma are key currencies for the ‘outrage economy’ of the media. ‘Disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ are both phrases coined to describe our contemporary fascination with the troubles of others. There is a desire in the corporate media for this:
SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT ‘EPIDEMIC’ LEVELS IN UK UNIVERSITIES
STANFORD SEX OFFENDER BROCK TURNER IS APPEALING HIS CONVICTION AND WANTS A NEW TRIAL
CAMBRIDGE DON ACCUSED OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT UNDER INVESTIGATION AGAIN
SICKENING RISE OF THE MALE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WHO TREAT WOMEN LIKE MEAT
In institutions where airbrushing is the norm and where some are protected at the expense of others, we often have few options other than speaking out in these media outlets. But as investment capital in the outrage economy, our disclosures are subject to other forms of reckoning up: an experience that circulates here will generate more value if names are named, if institutions are shamed, if personal details are shared. Survivors and their experiences become clickbait in markets where truth is often second to revenue generation. This has a number of effects, one of which is distortion: alleged perpetrators can be lionised if they happen to have a good story, and this feeds and is fed by the backlash. Our arguments can be distorted too: and I want to return to the Guardian’s Freedom of Information investigation, which uncovered almost 300 allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty made in six years across a sample of 120 universities. Although this constituted an average of less than half an allegation per institution per year, the headline read: ‘Sexual harassment at epidemic levels in UK universities.’
Overstatements like these may seem harmless in the service of putting an important issue on the agenda. They are certainly an antidote to the dismissal and silencing survivors have been subject to. But the strong relation between the affective and the political in this area does not mean emotional needs and political strategies are, or should be, one and the same. While considering the needs of survivors, we must also consider what Davis calls the intersectionality of struggles, and it is likely that such sensationalism will produce a punitive response. One of the recommendations of the Guardian investigation was for a strict ‘no-contact’ rule between staff and students, the penalty for violating which would be a ‘swift termination with a public statement and a mandated report to a central UK registry.’ These types of proposals present problems of co-option.
We often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. The ‘ideal victim’ of sexual violence is female, white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, young and without disabilities: the Central Park jogger. What Davis calls the ‘police blotter rapist’ is usually a man of colour. This partly explains why #MeToo and other mainstream movements against sexual violence tend to be dominated by white and privileged women. And when we share our experiences of sexual violence, the affective intensity of the act does not insulate it from the political effects of our privilege. Our ‘affect worlds’ are structured, not least by our relationship to the institution and the state.
Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, has consistently spoken out against its focus on ‘bringing down’ powerful men. As she said in an interview, ‘no matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they [meaning white women] keep bringing it back to individuals.’ These individuals, like the academics who should be held accountable for sexual harassment, are not generally marginalised men of colour. But like Burke, I am not sure that insulates our politics from intersectional questions. Creating a more retaliatory system may disproportionately affect those with less institutional and social power. Especially in the current political context, it is worth considering whose might be the first names on the proposed academic sex offenders’ list. Here, I want to quote Jane Ward:
These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.
These ‘dyke stories’, and others like them, have caused some queer commentators to look on #MeToo and similar movements with apprehension. And queer women perhaps escape lightly compared to our trans sisters, who are often seen as sexual predators even by those who identify as feminists. There is a real possibility that, like earlier feminist movements against sexual violence, pornography and prostitution, campaigns against sexual misconduct in academia will find their strongest allies on the political right. This both poses and reflects what I call the ‘angry Dad’ problem: we may be glad when Dad gets angry on our behalf, but we cannot necessarily stop him turning on us or those we care about. The ‘angry Dad’ of the white feminist movement is the patriarchal, racist state or institution. White feminism has always been implicated in authorising these structures.
Coming back to institutional airbrushing: naming, shaming and punishing can reinforce the message that all the institution needs to do to ‘clean’ itself is airbrush out the problematic individual. A faculty member in my research described how naming and shaming had been used in her department to make it appear that an abusive staff member was anomalous, rather than emblematic of the culture. ‘Like, you know,’ she said, ‘we can’t allow misogyny to take over the department, we can’t allow this to destroy the reputation of the department.’ As survivors, we might be gratified when our experiences accrue value in the outrage economy, when they are not worth much elsewhere. Naming and shaming can also go well: Ally Smith’s exposure of her abusive relationship with her lecturer Lee Salter at Sussex, and Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment, have been two major institutional interventions. But media events can also create the conditions for airbrushing individual perpetrators out of institutions, with little effect on the structures and cultures that enable and dismiss harassment and violence. Institutional accountability becomes individualised.
Speaking out about sexual violence is vexed by these possibilities of co-option; speaking about these possibilities is not unproblematic either. I want to return now to the idea (and reality) of backlash. Across the political spectrum, from the ‘alt’-right to what Ray Filar calls the ‘manarchists’, #MeToo and similar campaigns are being accused of McCarthyism and characterised as ‘witch hunts’ and sometimes even ‘lynchings’, by those who want to defend the status quo. The enemy may be ‘special interests’, ‘political correctness’, ‘moral panic’, ‘censorship’ or even ‘carceral feminists’, but what draws these arguments together is that structural critiques of how punitive systems impact on the marginalised are repurposed to protect individual privileged men. And as Ahmed says, the rod of the state is not defined as the problem: our resistance is.
These arguments are not made in good faith, and we should take care to separate them from our own reflexive conversations. But defensiveness threatens criticality, and the proximity of the backlash has shrunk the space for us – especially white feminists – to have the conversations we need to have. One of them is about how our disclosures can be co-opted to do the work of Angry Dad. In this conversation the deeply flawed nature of our institutions is key: we have to refuse another equation, between institutional discipline and social justice. There is also a different discussion, in which we have to allow ourselves to hope and gather any faith we have left in the university as a site of progressive speech and thought. This is because there is a danger that our work will be co-opted by the contemporary backlash against academia, especially by the ‘alt’-right who, even as they decry our ‘puritanical’ politics, will use any tool at their disposal to target scholars and institutions on their watch lists. We need to refuse that, too.
This is not an argument for the reputational protection of institutions. There is much work to be done on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, and it needs to happen in the open or universities will not be able to build trust. We name the problem in order to tackle the problem: there is no other way. The university is not neutral, but neither is it productive to see it as wholly bad or good. We need to understand universities as complex institutional systems, political and academic cultures, workplaces and communities, and perhaps we need to consider how we can both hold them to account and defend them.
#MeToo has been described as a reckoning: the same could be said of the recent exposure of sexual misconduct in higher education. There is a different kind of reckoning at work in how sexual harassment and violence enter institutional economies in which the financial value of the university takes precedence. Sexual violence experiences are also ‘reckoned up’ in the outrage economy of the media: how many clicks, how many shares, how much advertising revenue. In the institution our experiences have little value; in the media they appear to have a lot. This value may be all that matters on a personal level, and survivors should disclose in whatever way feels right: it is not our responsibility to improve the limited options available. But at the level of the political, we must understand the different economies in which sexual violence experiences circulate and accrue value, as well as the various contemporary threats of co-option and backlash. This context shapes how, where, when and why we share: and, most crucially, what happens after that.
We’re talking about sexual harassment in higher education again. We need to talk about sexual harassment – in agricultural and domestic labour, sex work, Hollywood, politics, academia, and every other industry. That we’re talking about it in universities at all is due to the work of the 1752 Group, NUS and the Guardian. Because of them, female academics, especially early-career researchers, are coming forward with their experiences. I’m a survivor, too – and with each story, my stomach knots with grief while my heart swells with pride.
Many of the latest Guardian findings are positive. Almost two-thirds of universities now provide sexual harassment training for staff. Three-quarters have trained student services advisors. But with the history of ‘naming and shaming’ on this issue, this may be compliance out of fear. Many institutions may be doing the minimum they need to, to not make the papers. This is a concern – running scared is not conducive to thoughtful engagement with an issue. And the negative tone of much of the media coverage is not fostering openness in the sector.
When sexual harassment revelations emerge, we often call for the removal of offenders. But ‘zero tolerance’ approaches collapse many behaviours together, which doesn’t help us understand or tackle them. And dysfunctional systems, as Whitley and Page argue, can’t be fixed by purging a few individuals. This is what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’ – the visible blemish is removed, and the underlying malaise left to fester. Once airbrushed out, the blemish tends to just reappear elsewhere – as shown in a number of reports from the US on how universities have ‘passed the harasser‘.
There have also been discussions recently about codes of conduct, with disciplinary implications. Clarifying what constitutes professional conduct in higher education is urgently necessary. But as Melissa Gira Grant points out, seeing sexual harassment as ‘sexual misconduct’ ignores the fact that these behaviours are about power, not ‘misplaced’ sexuality. In other words, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination – and in the midst of what could easily become a media ‘sex panic‘, Rebecca Traister has written eloquently about the systems of gender inequity which make women more vulnerable, as well as making it difficult to come forward and making it more likely they will be ignored if they do.
Behavioural frameworks do not tackle these structural inequalities, or others such as the rapidly expanding casualisation of the sector which puts early career researchers particularly at risk of abuses of power. Used in any context, disciplinary tools also tend to create compliance through fear, which is the opposite of systemic reform and which may even end up hiding or compounding systemic injustices under a docile veneer. Or people can respond to punishment with more anger and aggression – adults are not that different from children in this regard.
I’m concerned about how institutions might (mis)use conduct codes, especially given escalating cuts and recent attempts to cut out the ‘dead wood’. Brexit and its implications for international recruitment play a role here, as does the TEF. The new decisions for REF 2021 are also significant – staff who have left the institution, for whatever reason, can now be submitted. In light of all this, I’m not sure we should be advocating anything which makes it easier for universities to manage staff out of their jobs.
There is potential for conduct codes to be weaponised in the current political context. Several US academics have been disciplined after being targeted by far-right groups. Many are scholars of colour who have challenged institutional racism or supported movements like Black Lives Matter. Campaigns against them have used the notion of ‘reverse racism’, as if critiquing white privilege, even in the strongest terms, is equal to centuries of racialised oppression. On this side of the Atlantic, social justice discourse is also being painted as intolerant and oppressive. Conduct codes could support these types of attacks on academics, if not implemented wisely.
Intersectionality tells us punitive systems don’t treat us all equally – there are disparities around structures like class and race. Certain people are more likely to be seen as aggressors or bullies – see the ‘angry black woman’ trope and the fact that the ‘police blotter rapist’, as Angela Davis points out, tends to be a black man. Or the persistent construction, now enjoying a resurgence, of queers and trans people as sexually deviant and dangerous. Historical and prevailing notions of ‘respectability’ also shape the experiences of victims: they are more ‘believable’ the more privileged they are, by every demographic measure. Given all this, I wonder who might be more likely to be complained about, as well as which complaints might be more likely to be upheld. Seeking justice on sexual harassment without acknowledging the injustices built into the fabric of institutions may protect some at the expense of others.
Intersectionality is also about ‘asking the other question’. This usually means considering multiple forms of discrimination. But it also pushes us to understand our lives, on the ‘everyday’ level at least, as complex mixtures of victimhood and perpetration. Like other privileged women, I’ve been sexually harassed at work. However, I can’t claim to have never perpetrated discrimination myself – racism, ableism, or transphobia for example. This doesn’t invalidate my experiences of sexual harassment, but it does make me loath to cast the first stone. ‘Zero tolerance’ only works if perpetrators and victims are easy to tell apart.
We desperately need accountability in the sector – there absolutely need to be repercussions. It may be necessary for some academics to stop working with young people. I’m also aware that, as Ahmed points out, critiques of carceral/punitive justice can be mis-used by perpetrators to try to avoid this accountability, a tactic which is particularly effective in academic and ‘progressive’ communities. This also, I argue in my book The Politics of the Body, resonates strongly in the present neoconservative moment where feminism is being mis-cast as the oppressor.
Nevertheless, one size does not fit all when we are dealing with an issue as complex and multidimensional as sexual harassment, and ‘zero tolerance’ approaches sometimes threaten to impede our understanding of how gendered and intersecting structures frame and exacerbate a range of problematic behaviours. Furthermore, naming, shaming and punishing is an inversion of, not a departure from, the power relations which produce sexual harassment in the first place. I understand the urge to do it – I have felt that urge myself. As Sarah Schulman writes, survivors often need to feel in control, to feel safe. But this isn’t the best basis for policy.
Changing behaviour instead of policing it means addressing dysfunctional cultures and gendered (and many other) forms of entitlement. We need to focus less on ‘bad’ individuals and more on the institutional and the systemic. Working from this place, where the institution is not neutral but deeply discriminatory, means being reluctant to wield its disciplinary powers and daring to imagine something different. One of the things this requires is strong values – and in many of our universities, economic values have replaced civic ones. Instead of the insipid notion of ‘excellence’ that currently dominates university mission statements, we need terms we can identify with, that enable us to dismantle oppressive structures and have the potential to positively shape our actions institutionally, interpersonally, and individually. Then, when we tackle sexual harassment, we might begin to create cultural change.
This is the transcript of a presentation given as part of a symposium at the 2017 Gender and Education conference (University of Middlesex, June 21-23), focused on the Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence project. The other papers in the symposium were given by Vanita Sundaram, Anne Chappell and Charlotte Jones.
I want to start with a reflection on how things have changed since we first developed the USVSV project. When we submitted our bid, disclosure training was not common in universities. Now, at least in the UK, there are a number of excellent models about. I think this is testament to the energy and commitment that’s been created around the issue of sexual violence in universities. Sara Ahmed talks about equality and diversity work using the metaphor of the brick wall – in institutions, this often doesn’t become apparent until it’s experienced (producing the figure of the ‘institutional killjoy’ who complains about walls other just cannot see). But WE know the walls are there. Some of us have been chipping away at the bricks for years. I think we are starting to do this:
But I also think we need to be careful: the cracks could easily be bricked up again. Universities face economic and political uncertainty, in the UK and overseas. This frames their responses to sexual harassment and violence, which tend to be ‘reckoned up’ in a neoliberal framework. In this very short paper I’m going to sketch that process, presenting an analysis based on 12 years of work in many different institutions: my ‘lad culture’ projects, my new initiative Changing University Cultures, and Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence. I am not going to ‘name and shame’ universities – in fact the data I present here might appear quite decontextualised – but I feel quite strongly that pointing the finger is not the way to go (also, I have found that the issues are remarkably similar in different institutions).
Neoliberalism is a slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. It operates as an economic framework, a managerial system, and a motif deployed politically in ways which transcend left/right ideological boundaries. Economically, Harvey defines neoliberalism as a process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’: our pursuits are configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state or of the self.
The university is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Everyone in this audience will be well-acquainted with the metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. These sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class.
Sexual violence in UK universities appeared on the agenda after the 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned me to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. The subsequent moral panic around alcohol, pornography and casual sex, set against equally reactionary rhetoric around ‘free speech’, was the backdrop to a wave of initiatives, most of which were student- and faculty-led. It would take another three years, and much lobbying, for a Universities UK taskforce to be set up to demand meaningful action at institutional level.
The difficulty of getting university administrations to take action on sexual violence reflects how it is ‘reckoned up.’ This brings us back to higher education markets, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity grants perpetrators extra layers of protection, as the institutional impact of disclosure is projected and totted up.
We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media or NSS scores to cause a drop in the league tables. The airbrushing of the institution renders the impact of disclosures on future value more concerning than the acts of violence they reveal. Survivors are but one variable among many. Partly, this just reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one other, with no inherent value of their own. However, there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. Ball uses the example of the REF, in which aggregate research rankings determine the value of our departments, while the people in them disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently.
This power (of being a ‘four-star’ academic, for example) can be used to perpetrate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Disclosures are threatening when they target those whose welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. Compared to them, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:
They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.
My work has taken me into many different universities, but I have been struck by their similarities in how violence is ‘reckoned up’. The previous quote is from an elite UK institution, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a participant from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet and dealing with them internally, which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.
‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’ Her mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When survivors disclose within this framework they only expose themselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ of institutional betrayal. They become variables in institutional ‘reckonings’, and disappear as people.
This objectification is compounded by university bureaucracy, which can even repress empathy for survivors in systems designed to support them. One of my research participants spoke of a ‘Student Wellbeing Centre’, which
…told me I had a six week wait until I could discuss my anxiety with them, and required [a] doctor’s letter to be provided with assessment extensions due to mitigated circumstances, something I was not asking for. I just wanted someone to talk to and make everything seem better.
It is significant that ‘helping survivors’ is understood here as ensuring they meet their assessment requirements. Or ensuring you meet your own: another participant felt her counselling focused more on ‘ticking the clinic’s boxes for progression of clients than actually helping the victim.’ The bureaucratisation of student support also means that survivors are more likely to present as people with ‘deficit disorders’ than victims of institutionalised violence. This is a good example of what Foucault called the ‘dividing practices’ of pastoral power, and one of the ways in which neoliberal systems ration empathy and suppress political critique.
In a neoliberal society, success is measured through our capacity for self-care via the market. What one of my research participants referred to as a ‘sink or swim’ attitude in their institution is reflected in the world at large. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education frames a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. Of course, as Carolyn Pedwell points out, neoliberalism has also commodified empathy, and turned it into demands for ‘emotional intelligence’ which can increase our individual speculative value or business profitability. A member of staff in my research commented that ‘the reputation of being supportive’ at their institution was ‘more important than the reality’ – and the metrics which measure this are not designed to capture the difference between the two. In a ‘tick-box’ culture, we can instrumentalise empathy while continuing to support practices which suppress it.
Commodified versions of empathy, Pedwell argues, often involve a feel-good false equivalence or ‘understanding’. She sketches alternative forms characterized by conflict, negotiation and attunement within an appreciation of structural difference. For me this owes much to Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger, in which she highlights the need for white women to listen to black women’s anger without being defensive or taking up too much space. Lorde is talking about small consciousness-raising groups and we are dealing with large institutions, but I keep returning to the idea (or ideal) of empathy not devoid of politics.
For Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus: she argues that as business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, the space of the demos is swallowed. However, her search for homo politicus seems to end at traditional liberal arts education and party politics. For me, these establishments are empty compared to the resistance movements many of us are already part of, which do ask us to do the difficult work of connecting across intersectional lines. I am thinking of campaigns such as this:
The sex workers’ rights slogan ‘rights not rescue’ problematises mainstream feminist empathy for ‘victims’ of prostitution, arguing that this produces criminal justice interventions which make sex workers’ lives more unsafe. In rejecting this empathy, however, sex workers invoke alternatives: the phrase ‘nothing about us, without us’ demands dialogue, not not an extension of ‘understanding’ from the privileged to those on the margins. This is a provocation and a challenge. Similarly, the US campaign Say Her Name, in the process of generating empathy for black women targeted by police violence, compels white women to face our complicity with it.
I want to end on a note of hope: these movements, and others like them, are enjoying a resurgence at present, in the UK and elsewhere. The general election in the UK has brought together a progressive movement of people who reject the neoliberal consensus and dare to imagine something better. Now is the time to build, both within and outside our institutions. Too often, resistance to the neoliberal ‘reckoning up’ of sexual violence is an outrage which becomes an end in itself. To create cultures in which survivors can disclose more safely, we need to think more positively about the kinds of spaces we want our universities to be.