When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate,

Cross-posted from: Not the news in brief
Originally published: 26.11.17

When there is conflict between trans rights and women’s rights (such as whether toilets and changing rooms should be segregated by ‘sex’ or ‘gender’) an open debate should be encouraged to ascertain how best to accommodate the rights of both parties. This hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t happened in a big way, so it’s worth looking at how and why the debate has been stifled.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gave trans people a right to be legally recognised as the opposite sex. The Equality Act 2010 gave the characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ a protected category status. At that time ‘gender reassignment’ essentially meant ‘sex change’ – the language used in the Act refers to transsexuals, and people understood ‘trans’ to mean a transition of some sort, usually (at that time) from male to female. The Act was for a person who was ‘…proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’. Although biologically impossible, sex change was recognised in law as it was the only treatment which could alleviate the suffering of a minority of people with gender dysphoria.
Read more When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate,

Academia and Class Politics, by @RevoltingWoman

Cross-posted from: Opinionated Planet
Originally published: 07.08.17

I’ve not felt this working class in a long time. For working class, read inferior/not up to standard/not our sort – delete as applicable.
Applying for a funded PhD is a fairly painful process at the best of times. Even applying for one that you self-fund is a trial. But without your own secret stash of cash, it can be a valuable lesson in class politics.

Class politics. You know, the social class system that doesn’t exist anymore because the Tories got rid of it and made us all equal? Or maybe it was New Labour. I forget now. I was probably cleaning toilets or doing some woman’s ironing for a shilling or something working class like that at the time. Busy making myself equal.

Anyway, why should applying for a PhD have anything to do with class politics I hear you ask.

Mek a brew, duck, an ah’ll tell ya..
Read more Academia and Class Politics, by @RevoltingWoman

Include me out. How ‘inclusion’ is killing feminism.

Cross-posted from: Sister Hex
Originally published: 16.12.15

The problem with this modern obsession for ‘inclusion’, especially for university societies, is that it’s not only killing the soul of feminism or lesbian/gay rights but it’s basically devoid of any common sense.

The reason we’ve always had separation in activism has never been particularly about exclusion specifically, but for reasons of focus, empowerment, allowing an oppressed voice space to speak and sharing experience. This, in turn, lead to clear analysis and particular campaigning. Separation in activism is both common and successful and has been used in anything from civil to gay rights.


Read more Include me out. How ‘inclusion’ is killing feminism.

The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 15.03.17

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1 & 2). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update (17/03.17): this essay is now available in French.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity. 
Read more The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist by @ClaireShrugged

The Sex Delusion by @GappyTales

Cross-posted from: Jeni Harvey
Originally published: 24.04.17

We live in an age of alternative facts.

And so this article will begin with the premise that there are knowable truths, separate from our personal perspectives and belief systems. Water is wet, for example. Whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, water is never dry. With this in mind, here are some long agreed upon and universally recognised word definitions: 
Read more The Sex Delusion by @GappyTales

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 14.11.16

A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 12, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.


Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context. 
Read more For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

WHAT FEMINISM MEANS TO ME.

Cross-posted from: The All Women Show
Originally published: 14.08.14

Our feminist society is making a zine, the theme is ‘What feminism means to me’ and here is my contribution!

F = Freedom

The most important notion in feminism is a woman’s freedom. Freedom covers a whole lot of things, freedom over her own body, freedom of speech, and freedom in the public domain. Feminism works towards giving women freedom. So we can wear what we want, say what we want, walk where we want and be who ever we want, without anyone taking advantage of us, in any situation.
Read more WHAT FEMINISM MEANS TO ME.

Black History Month An Introduction to Welsh Writers by @Durre_Shahwar.

Cross-posted from: Durre Shahwar
Originally published: 16.10.16

To celebrate Black History Month Wales, I compiled a non-exhaustive list of black writers with strong connection to Wales, who should be celebrated and known about for their work and achievements. The article, published on Wales Arts Review, features brief bios and recommendations to the works of the following writers: Leonora Brito, Professor Charlotte Williams OBE, Patience Agbabi, Eric Ngalle Charles, and Bevin Magama.

Seeing as the list was non conclusive, people have been suggesting more writers such as Maggie HarrisTony Wright (playwright), and Catherine Johnson. It’s really good to see that happening, as that was partly the reason for writing the article; to instigate conversation about other BAME writers living in or strongly connected to Wales, which has then has an impact on their writing in some way. 
Read more Black History Month An Introduction to Welsh Writers by @Durre_Shahwar.

Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 08.08.16

On the personal and political implications of misogynoir.


THE PERSONAL

I should be writing my dissertation. I should be writing the abstract for that conference paper. I should be preparing the workshop on feminist voice I am to deliver. There are a hundred and one things I should be doing – things essential to my life that I am not doing, because I am curled under my desk having a panic attack.  The abuse I receive online has reached new heights. For the first time (and probably not the last) I feel physically unsafe because of it. Along with the persistent misogyny, the overt racism, the steady drip drip drip of “shut up nigger”, there is something new: the threat of violence.

A white man told me that he wanted to hit me with his car. He wanted to hit me with his car and reverse over my body to make sure that I was dead. The scenario was so specific, the regard for my humanity so little, that it felt more real somehow than any of the other abuse I have received. It shocked me in a way that nothing on Twitter ever had before. I could hear my bones crack. He believed I deserved to die for being Black and having an opinion different to his own, that endorsing Black Lives Matter made me a legitimate target of violence. Seconds later, another white man appeared in my mentions with a chilling casualness to say that my being ran over would be “fair enough.”

It is not ‘just the internet’. This abuse does not fade from the mind when I close my laptop, when I put down my phone. It is a part of my life. It has altered my way of being. It is, at points, debilitating. There is a clear pattern: it is when I am most vocal, most visible as a Black feminist woman, that the abuse occurs most frequently, is the most vitriolic. Not a single one of the accounts I have reported in the week (for calling me nigger, for threatening me, for telling me to go back to Africa, etc.) has been suspended. Twitter Support’s failure to penalise accounts spreading racist threats and harassment creates the impression that people are free to abuse others with impunity – and Black women are so often the targets of that abuse. 
Read more Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma by @ClaireShrugged

5 Good Reasons Why the LGBTQIA+ Acronym Shouldn’t Include ‘Ally’ by @sianfergs

Cross-posted from: Sian Ferguson
Originally published: 11.08.16

What does the “A” in “LGBTQIA+” stand for?

Ally, right?

Well, no. Despite what a lot of folks say, it doesn’t stand for ally – nor should it. 

There are a number of issues with the acronym, and these issues are worth debating. For example, there are discussions about whether “intersex” should be included in the acronym. There’s also debate about whether a collection of letters is an inadequate label for a community with a great deal of diverse orientations and identities.

But for the purpose of this article alone, I want to focus on the idea that ‘ally’ is, or should be, a part of the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

Here are a few reasons why ally doesn’t belong in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.   …

The full article can be found at Everyday Feminism.

Just a South African Woman : An intersectional feminist blog tackling issues from a unique South African perspective. The posts attempt to explain and discuss some academic feminist theories in a simple manner, so as to make feminism accessible to more people. Follow me on Twitter @sianfergs

Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 27.07.16

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last few years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over what intersectionality actually means and, subsequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has resulted in a degree of backlash, claims that intersectionality distracts women’s energy from the key aims of the feminist movement – dismantling patriarchy, ending male dominance and violence against women – when in fact it is only through a truly intersectional approach that these goals become possible for all women, not simply the white and middle-class. And feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal which becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences relating to the hierarchy of gender. This is where intersectionality becomes essential.


Read more Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide by @ClaireShrugged

The Snowflake Awards: A Review of White Feminism™ in Pop Culture by @GoddessKerriLyn

Cross-posted from: FOCUS: Feminist Observations Connecting Unified Spirits
Originally published: 29.10.15

Last month at the Emmy’s, Viola Davis became the first black woman in its 67 year history to win Best Actress in a Drama Series. In her acceptance speech, she quoted Harriet Tubman:Snowflake poem

Though it was written in the 1800’s, “that line” is still there, and it represents the racism that separates Intersectional Feminists from White Feminists™.


Read more The Snowflake Awards: A Review of White Feminism™ in Pop Culture by @GoddessKerriLyn

The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged (Part 2)

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 25.04.16

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is a work of personal reflection. No individuals, organisations, or events are/will be named or directly identified. My objective is neither to call out nor to heap praise on any woman, but rather to highlight some realities of interracial dynamics between women in feminism. Part one of the series The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement is available here.

 

The personal is political. So goes the rallying cry of second wave feminism, a perspective which has characterised a significant body of feminist theory. It is for this reason that I have decided to share a reflection upon my experience as a Black woman within the movement. There is a theory within Black feminism that being an outsider on the grounds of both race and sex positions Black women as watchers, gives us particular insight into dominant power structures and the means by which they manifest (Hill Collins, 2000). With this in mind, I aim to live up to the standards set by my foremothers and improve this movement for the women of colour who will follow after me.

Feminism is for everybody – so says bell hooks. (Note: hooks is not arguing that the movement should prioritise men, or any other dominant class, but rather be fully inclusive on grounds of race, class, and sexuality.) This text was critical in my development of a Black radical feminism, the moment when black became Black. Feminism is for Everybody outlined the importance of acknowledging race and class alongside sex if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to be dismantled, and provided a blueprint for true interracial solidarity between women. Here, hooks posited that sisterhood can exist between women of colour and white women provided that race is acknowledged as a hierarchy, racism as a system of power, from which white women benefit. If white women continue to deny the privilege of whiteness, disregarding countless testimonies delivered by women of colour, we have no reason to trust them as political allies – this is hooks’ perspective, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly. 
Read more The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged (Part 2)

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 18.04.16

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered. Part two of the series The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement is available here


 

Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.

White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.
Read more Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged

On repetition and power

Cross-posted from: Neocolonial Thoughts
Originally published: 06.03.16

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of whycertain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have been accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.
Read more On repetition and power

On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass by @saramsalem

Cross-posted from: Neocolonial thoughts and it's discontents
Originally published: 29.07.15

41ggc7o4IFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.


Read more On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass by @saramsalem

Identity, experience, choice and responsibility

Cross-posted from: Gender, Bodies, Politics
Originally published: 27.06.15

This is the transcript of my keynote speech at a conference at Queen Mary University on June 27th 2015, entitled ‘Feminist Futures: critical engagements with the fourth wave‘. The full title of my talk was ‘Identity, experience, choice and responsibility: feminism in a neoliberal and neoconservative age.’ Versions of this speech have also been given at the Universities of Brighton, Leeds and Birmingham. There are various sources linked throughout – if you are not within a university and therefore unable to access the academic journal articles, send me an Email and I can download them for you.

Slide1

Hello. I’m Alison Phipps and I’m Director of Gender Studies at Sussex. It’s great to be here and I’d like to thank Amaleena, Alice and Anna for inviting me to speak today. We can – and I’m sure we will – debate whether we’re currently witnessing a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism and what this is, but for now I’d like to say it’s fantastic to be part of such a dynamic and thoughtful group. Looking at the other abstracts, I’m especially flattered to have been invited to give the keynote and hope I don’t disappoint!

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


Read more Identity, experience, choice and responsibility

Is the term FGM cissexist? by Kalwinder Sandhu

The argument by some trans activists that the term Female Genital Mutilation is cissexist, and offensive to transgender people has caused much debate, frustration and anger from all sides. Transgender activists feel that the term is oppressive to them because it denies their identity of being woman and excludes them from being female.

A Unicef report (2013) states that FGM is practiced in 29 countries in the north-east, west and east of Africa and in some countries in Asia, and the Middle East. In the UK girls from migrant communities from these areas are also cut and mutilated.

Experiences of oppression are not solely forged out of how we identify with our gender. As females we are socialised as ‘women’ and ‘girls’. We experience oppression in many ways, through FGM, forced marriage, dowry etc; because of biology that we inherit at birth and how we are socialised and treated as women and girls. As Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women the intersection of race together with our female bodies at birth, amongst other categories like social class and disability dictate the oppression that we experience. The oppression forges through the inequality that is of being woman.


Read more Is the term FGM cissexist? by Kalwinder Sandhu

TIME MISSES THE POINT: FEMINISM ISN’T ABOUT BEING PALATABLE TO MEN by @sianfergs

(Cross-posted from Sian Fergs)

I’ve been reading many articles that deal with the idea of rebranding feminism as of late, but one which especially amused me was this article in TIME, entitled ‘Ironic Misandry: Why Feminists Pretending to Hate Men Isn’t Funny’.

For a second, let’s put aside the fact that the author assumes that misandry is a real thing (hating men occurs, but the institutional oppression of men does not), and that it’s at all equitable with the oppression of women.

This particular article interested me because it asserted that feminists pretending to be misandrists hurts feminism’s PR. Sara Begley writes, “What feminists really hate is the patriarchy—the web of institutions that systemically oppress women. And to tear it down, we need as many allies as we can get.” She later adds, “To get folks on your side, you need an appealing message.”

Discussions about ‘rebranding’ feminism aren’t new. Last year, Elle UK decided to launch a project in which ad companies were tasked with rebranding feminism, resulting in heated discussion about whether feminism needs rebranding or not.

Often, rebranding feminism is directed at convincing people to identify as feminists. Flowcharts and quizzes are created to convince everyone who supports equality is a feminist.  Feminism is so much more than that – it is decades of academic theory, decades longer of praxis, and a diverse and dynamic movement. These flowcharts might inspire some people to educate themselves, but focussing on making feminism appealing rather than inclusive or informative doesn’t result in any real change. How does a person simply identifying as a feminist improve my movement, or my lived experience? Rebranding, I’ve come to realise, is oversimplification.

The capitalistic language (‘rebranding’, ‘PR’) reflects the increasing popularity of neoliberal feminism: feminism that focuses on the empowerment of women and not the destruction of systemic oppression. Contrast this feminism – as exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – to intersectional feminism, which demands the acknowledgement and abolition of the kyriarchy.

The increasing interest in rebranding feminism prompts me to ask: why are we marketing our movement to the oppressor? Last time I checked, feminism wasn’t a company and men were not our target market.

There are a number of useful, valid critiques of feminism. Feminism has traditionally excluded both trans women and women of colour; it has generally focussed on the needs of white, middle-class, educated, cisgender, heterosexual women and not people with fewer privileges. While many feminists – like the ones at Guerrilla Feminism – actively work to counter this, feminism still is exclusionary.

It interests me that TIME chose not to focus on the real, exclusionary, problematic aspects of feminism, but rather on a perception propagated by the patriarchal mass-media. It interests me that Sara Begley is concerned about feminism alienating men, and not actual oppressed groups. It interests me that many feminists are more intent on recruiting ‘allies’ than being ‘allies’ ourselves.

Feminism shouldn’t have to involve choosing between our supporters and the people we support. But the conundrum arises often: in the feminist spaces I’ve occupied, I have witnessed many people afraid of calling others out on their racism, transantagonism, ableism and heterosexism for fear of alienating a potential ‘ally’. We tone-police others in an attempt to gain more faux support. We value the quantity of our supporters over the quality of our support. This attitude implies that a privileged person’s support is more important than an oppressed person’s safety.

We seem more interested in appealing to men than supporting other women. By paying more attention to gaining the support of privileged people, we are perpetuating oppressive systems ourselves. Could it be more evident that we live in a kyriarchal world?

In the spaces I navigate, I have an obligation to ensure that they are as safe as possible for trans women, women of colour and disabled folk. As someone who has privilege over these – and other – groups of people, I have a responsibility to change feminism for the sake of the oppressed, not rebrand it for the sake of the privileged.

 

Just a South African Woman: An intersectional feminist blog tackling issues from a unique South African perspective. The posts attempt to explain and discuss some academic feminist theories in a simple manner, so as to make feminism accessible to more people. Follow me on Twitter at @sianfergs.

Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience by @alisonphipps

(cross-posted from genders, bodies, politics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alison Phipps: This blog presents some examples of my academic and non-academic writing, on issues around gendered bodies, politics, and contemporary sexual cultures. I’m currently Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University and my work encompasses sexual violence, sex work, childbirth, breastfeeding, and abortion. I also have a specific interest in ‘lad cultures’ amongst students and how they are shaped by both neoliberal themes and postfeminist sexual tropes. You can find me on Twitter at @alisonphipps and you can download some of my academic papers at http://sussex.academia.edu/AlisonPhipps.