Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers by @alisonphipps

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014

There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.

What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.

What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.

Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.

Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.

Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?

I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps

* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.

** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.

 

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.

Reclaim the Night by @Sianushka

(cross-posted from sian and crooked rib)

 

Violence against women is not inevitable

Here’s the speech I gave at Bristol Reclaim the Night on Friday.
Thank you so much for all being here tonight. Standing here, together in solidarity, you are showing your commitment to ending the international crisis of violence against women and girls.
Today is a day of celebration. For it is the 4th birthday of the Bristol Feminist Network. I know that I am so proud to stand here with you all today, part of a network that is buzzing and vibrant and making such a difference to gender inequality in the city and beyond. I have been with the network since it began in November 2007, in fact I was one of the organisers of Ladyfest Bristol 2007, from which BFN was born. I am so proud of the achievements of our network, and so happy to stand with you all tonight, as we say no more to violence against women and girls.
So, why are we here? What are we fighting against? The recent Bristol Fawcett report, Cutting Women Out, estimated that 130 women will be raped in Bristol each month. That means that since we began planning this year’s Reclaim the Night in August, there will have been approximately 500 rapes in our city. This week in the UK, two women will have been murdered by her partner or ex partner and many, many more will have been abused. In fact, across the world, 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetimes. In the UK, 1 in 4 adult women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime, a figure that goes up to 1 in 3 teen girls.
Surely then, these figures should be on the front page of the newspapers every day. Surely this should be a national scandal. Surely, with these numbers, our government should be investing serious money in funding support services, tackling rape myths and improving a justice system that so often lets rapists go free. And yet, instead of action to end violence against women and girls, we see cuts. Cuts to legal aid, preventing victims and survivors of domestic abuse from accessing affordable legal representation. Cuts to vital local support services for victims and survivors. Cuts to social housing, making it hard for victims and survivors to escape violent homes. When I wrote to Theresa May in April, she assured me that ending violence against women and girls was a priority for this government. But, as she said to the Women’s Aid conference in 2010, it’s actions that count, not words. And I’ve counted this government’s actions. It isn’t looking good.
It is very rare that cases of violence against women and girls get reported in our media. However, there have been three cases this year that have stood out in my mind and that have revealed so much about how rape and sexual violence is discussed in the mainstream. They were the accusations against Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the gang rape of 12 and 13 year old girls in Reading, where a group of men were found guilty and sentenced.
Whatever people here tonight think about the accusations against Assange and DSK, because of course we do not know what happened, one thing has been clear. The reaction to the cases was a checklist of how pervasive rape myths and victim blaming is in our society. All three alleged victims have been portrayed as liars, and have had their sex lives, politics, poverty, nationality and friendships used to discredit them. They have found themselves at the centre of conspiracy theories, and in some cases we have seen the legal definition of rape mocked and disregarded by lawyers, and by left and right wing commentators. We do not know what happened in either of those cases. But we do know that the immediate and continued reaction was to discredit and disbelieve the women. Because, in a rape culture that is almost always our reaction.
In the third case a 12 year old girl was gang raped, and her 13 year old friend was raped by one man. The men were convicted in March, but by July they were free after winning their appeal. One of the reasons given by the judge for their release was that the 12 year old girl was more sexually experienced than the men, and the convicted rapists had shown remorse. Yes, you heard that right. Our judicial system basically said that if someone rapes a child, but can then find a way that makes it look like the child was to blame, then they have nothing to worry about. Just admit it frankly, show a bit of remorse and easy. You’ll be out of jail in less than a year.
In a rape culture, victim blaming, lack of justice and silence around the levels of violence against women and girls is the norm.
But what I want to say to you all here tonight is that rape culture does not have to be the norm. Violence against women and girls is not a fact of life. It is not inevitable. It is something that can change, something that can and will end. By standing here tonight, by marching through our city streets, you have shown your commitment to ending it. The aims of Reclaim the Night, education on consent and respect, support for victim and survivor services and improving the justice system – these are all steps on the road to end violence against women and girls. Things are better than they were when the first Reclaim the Night was held in the 70s, and together, standing in solidarity together, we can make a difference and we will make a difference. I believe that. That belief gets me out of bed every day. A world without violence is possible, and by being here tonight, you are part of the movement to make that world a daily reality for everyone.

Thank you.