Sussex Anti-Privatisation campaign officially asks SWP to end their visible presence at demos

4 Mar

If you read my previous post, you will know that many people feel strong opposition to the SWP having a visible presence at campus demos.

Whilst my opposition goes beyond that, it’s with great pleasure that I read this statement from the Sussex Anti-Privatisation campaign. They’ve asked the SWP to stop bringing placards, papers etc. to demos and the SWP have agreed (and if they hadn’t I’ve got faith that they’d have then been told rather than asked). The statement is really heartfelt, as it comes from a survivor who explains that it took them a while to compose it; they’ve got my support and admiration.

Whilst there’s been some oppressive noise from certain members of the campaign recently, mostly on social media, I take some solace from this step. 

You can show your support for this move by commenting on the statement here.

I heard you have an SWP problem

15 Dec

The Socialist Workers' Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads "There's no recovery for us." Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus

The Socialist Workers’ Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads “There’s no recovery for us.” Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus

Update: The same day that I wrote this, Comrade X (one of the sexual assault survivors) resigned from the SWP and wrote about it here. It sheds more light on the horrendous activities of the SWP.

The take-home message of the recent anti-privatisation protests at Sussex and the #copsoffcampus demos in London has been “solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” “Solidarity” is  an action, not an empty utterance. It means you stand with me, even when it is easier not to. It means those who stand against us will have to put up a fight. It means you see my anger and don’t turn away, but listen and learn.

Some context

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have in recent months been revealed to be a pit of misogyny, rape cover-ups and apologism. You can find a summary of events here (content note: sexual violence, victim-blaming) and a testimony from one of the survivors here (content note applies here too).

It’s important to note that the survivor’s express wishes are that we no longer organise with the SWP, a request that decent people should respect. Rape and the silencing of rape survivors has been a central concern of the feminist movements for decades; we live in a society which condemns rape in theory, but in practice blames the victim, makes it traumatic to report assault, denies rape’s position as a form of gender-based violence and, as we’ve seen in the SWP’s case, has more concerns about the alleged rapist than the victim.

This must also be put in context of misogyny and sexism within the Left;  the second-wave of feminism started in the 196os partly because women were sick of being involved in lefty organising and being treated like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, this legacy of ignoring feminist issues has continued in many activists circles (I and some other members of the Brighton Feminist Collective ran a workshop only this year on sexism on the Left; you should have heard some of the women’s stories).

Creeps off campus

Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads "To the SWP: We're getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013". Taken from here.

Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads “To the SWP: We’re getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013″. Taken from here.

The upshot of the revelations about the SWP has created some division. Members have left in droves, and many have vowed never to orgnaise with the SWP again. Others have decided to stay in the party, and try to change the culture from the inside. Some have decided they don’t give a shit about it and are happily defending their rape apologist mates.

And so we return to events on Sussex campus. At the most recent protests against privatisation (and against the suspension of 5 students involved in the campaign), the SWP presence was very visible. The group’s modus operandi has always been to arrive at any lefty protest with hundreds of SWP-stamped placards, their ubiquitous newspapers and usually a stall; you’ll see their signs in photographs of any protest from the student marches of 2010 to Slutwalks in cities across the UK.

This used to be merely annoying; now, it is utterly sickening. The presence of SWP members is one thing – you can’t tell who’s a swuppie just by looking at them. I have my opinions about people who have stayed in the party, but realise some are genuinely trying to change the culture from within. However, the visible presence of the signs and stalls, the merchandise being hawked around and literally shoved in your face is un-fucking-acceptable. If you’re still an SWP member, you answer to your conscience, but at least have the decency to be slightly embarrassed and not proudly display your allegiance to rape apologists. 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 12 men. Rape survivors are at these protests, and they deserve to feel safe, believed and able to take part in the campaign.

Arriving at the most recent protest, I felt punched in the stomach when I saw the SWP stall outside the library. My heart was beating double-time, I felt sick, I could barely concentrate on the speeches. I felt like crying, because I knew I couldn’t stand there without confronting someone, and I felt scared. Then, there was an almighty crash from behind me; someone had knocked the SWP stall over, ripped up their placards, and splashed their papers with water. The people who were brave enough to do this have tweeted and blogged about it; my contribution was to shout in response to an SWP member who called them sectarian, “it’s not sectarian to stand against fucking rape apologists.” It’s the small things.

The politics of trashing stalls

Is it OK to upturn a stall, rip up placards, aggressively confront people in this way? I know that many in the anti-privatisation campaign think not. I would remind them of the techniques their own campaign has employed. Remember the people who said occupying a building was too far? Who said ‘why don’t you just talk to management instead’? Who could only focus on a smashed-in door rather than your message? If you can, you should also remember your reply. When democratic channels break down, when people refuse to listen to the people being fucked over, it’s not only right but necessary for direct action. It’s absurd to focus on a smashed-in door, a burnt-out bin or a knocked over stall rather than the angry and righteous message being conveyed.

I have heard people try to talk about the necessity of chucking the SWP off campus, and I have heard them being ignored and shut down. A woman behind me at a recent Sussex protest defended the SWP by saying, ‘it was only one member’ who was raped. How many rapes, cover-ups and angry confrontations will it take?

A final consideration: the sexual violence and cover-up is not only the actions of a few people who happen to be in the SWP. This is an institutional problem. A large group of people ostensibly in charge of resolving ‘disputes’ within the party put a rape survivor on trial in a kangeroo court. The SWP recently had their annual conference; the pre-conference bulletin contained a long rape-apologist screed (pp. 5-11) and instructions to recruit young students who are less likely to be aware of the recent rape cover-ups (p. 81). There are also reports that during the conference, a member expressed the view that because women lie about rape, the SWP’s actions were completely justified.

What we should do

We need to keep the pressure up. The more voices are raised against the SWP’s visible presence on campus and at protests, the quicker we can shut them down.

If you feel you can, verbally confront those giving out SWP merchandise, and those accepting it. This shouldn’t be our job, and goodness knows I rarely have the mental energy or courage to do it alone, but if you can, do.

If you see someone confronting SWP members, back them up. Even if it’s only shouting encouragement, or talking to them afterwards and letting them know you’re on their side.

Write, tweet and blog about it.

For those of you involved in the anti-privatisation campaign or Occupy Sussex, hear your own words. “Solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” When the word “solidarity” slips out of the mouth of an SWP supporter, it’s like a knife in the back of women, feminists, and rape survivors. It tells us you don’t understand what solidarity means. It shows us you’ll let us have some justice, but only after your revolution.

You have an SWP problem in your ranks. And we’re going to do something about it.

Further reading

Kill the SWP inside your head – Another Angry Woman

Rape Culture – Geek Feminism Wiki

“The politics of the SWP crisis – a response - International Socialism

SWP off campus – Autonomous Student Network Sussex

An infestation of SWP leeches – Revolting Pleb

UPDATE: Socialist Feminist in the comments noted that the Socialist Party are also having a misogyny problem, revolving around a domestic violence case. You can read about it here: The left and women’s rights: Why the cases of Steve Hedley is as serious as the case of Martin Smith – Women’s Fightback

 

A self-fulfilling prophecy

28 Apr

I recently read a comment on a this really interesting piece by Ally Fogg, which argued that intersectionality is not an ‘intellectually sound’ concept and that there is no basis for it in academia.

This is the most ironic comment in the history of comments.

The concept ‘intersectionality’ originated outside of the academy. The concept came from Black feminists, particularly groups like the Combahee River Collective, whose statement is a cornerstone of intersectional feminism. From roots outside of academia, it planted itself firmly at the heart of disciplines like Black feminist and critical race studies.  The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an academic. It’s at the heart of  ‘Black Feminist Thought,’ Patricia Hill Collins, an academic. It’s what bell hooks, an (you guessed it!) academic, wrote about so accessibly and powerfully.

Black feminist academics were writing about intersectionality before most of us were out of nappies.

If you believe intersectionality is not ‘intellectually sound,’ and you believe it is a new fangled word being shoehorned into the national lexicon by a bunch of over-privileged Gender Studies students, you are demonstrating the widespread silencing of Black feminist contributions to the academy, and to the movement as a whole.

Let’s be clear: intersectionality is a lived experience. It is the idea that people can experience different forms of interlinking oppression all at the same time. As a sociologist, that makes it ‘intellectually sound’ in my book.

Lessons to be learned:

a) something shouldn’t have to be embedded into the academy for you to accept that people live it every day

b) loudly explaining that intersectionality is not intellectually sound – and thereby ignoring the contribution of Black feminists to the academy – is demonstrating the need for intersectional thinking and activism.  The more you protest intersectionality isn’t a thing, the more it is definitely a thing.

c) anyone arrogant enough to proclaim that anything is not ‘intellectually sound’ should be prepared to have their ass handed to them, unless they can demonstrate they have dedicated their academic career to understanding this one concept and have concluded, after a great deal of analysis, that said concept isn’t ‘intellectually sound.’

Edited to add: A commenter kindly pointed out to me that Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined ‘intersectionality, so I updated the third paragraph to make that clear. I also added bell hook, cos, you know, bell goddam hooks!

“Stop squabbling, ladies”

11 Feb

There is a constant stream of articles from various online sources – newspapers, blogs, periodicals – which argue along these lines: Feminism’s main problem right now is in-fighting. We’re too busy firing shots at one another and getting ourselves worked up about the latest Twitter spat that we’re forgetting the Real Enemy. The Real Enemy is watching our catfights, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together in glee, and maybe hoping we’ll all have a pillow fight in our underwear. He is Patriarchy, and we are letting him win.

That’s bollocks.

When it’s pointed out how bollocks that argument is (I can have a Twitter spat and still have a hand free to fight the Patriarchy, easy), then some feminists themselves weigh in with a bit of yellow-bellied kow-towery. “We are a bit aggressive sometimes,” they wheedle. “You lot really were nasty to Caitlin Moran,” they pout. “You’re making feminism look more elitist than the Bullingdon Club. You’re discouraging dissent and punishing those who disagree,” they wail.

That’s also bollocks.

Here’s the deal with almost any political movement on the planet, which I’ll illustrate by invoking the (universal, I’m sure) metaphor of a student political group meeting. I’ll dub them Student Political Group. Here’s how it goes: You have some unifying goals, otherwise you wouldn’t all be at the meeting. You have lots of other stuff you wildly disagree on, and that’s cool. You stick with the people you agree with, but have useful debate and healthy disagreement with others. But then there’s always someone careering around the room, interjecting every five minutes with some non sequitur about Isreal and Palestine, making a nuisance of themselves, and saying things like, “so what if Julian Assange had sex with her whilst she was sleeping, it’s not rape-rape!”

This person needs to be dealt with, because they are identifying as a member of Student Political Group, they keep writing their vile views in the student newspaper because their mate’s the editor, and they are making everyone ashamed to be associated with them. They are actively destroying the useful work Student Political Group are trying to do, because they are a complete and utter knob.

So, you ask them to leave, or write a response to their article in Student Newspaper, or continually have explosive, derailing arguments about why exactly it is white people don’t use the n-word. And people, most of whom aren’t even involved with Student Political Group, accuse you of crushing dissent like a big hairy Feminazi.

Here’s another little truism: if you, a Famous Person, say sexist/racist/transphobic shit on Twitter, you may as well be shouting it through a loud-hailer into a crowd of millions. People will shout back. And, as with most crowds of people, 50% of that shouting will actually be constructive and attempting to open debate, 25% will be people shouting “I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU, YOU CAN DO NO WRONG,” 15% will be absolute knobs and bullies who just want to humiliate and threaten you, and 10% will be people saying “What the fuck? What did I miss? Why are we shouting? WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?” But in the end, it all just sounds like shouting to you, the Famous Person who shouted through the loud-hailer in the first place.  Yes, I agree that nobody should be bullying, slanderous, threatening or abusive just because you don’t like something that Famous Person said. But I also think that you will get that knobbish 10% who will be abusive and threatening no matter what subject you’ve shouted about down that loud-hailer. You don’t stamp them out by saying, “stop arguing on Twitter.” They are knobs. They won’t listen.

Let’s apply all of this useful advice (which I’m doling out for free, you lucky things) to our favourite whipping-girl of the moment, the feminist movement. We can’t police one anothers’ identities  by saying that someone can’t identify as a feminist because they slut-shame, ignore the experiences of non-white people, or engage in hate speech against trans people. The reason that we can’t say that is because no one has a monopoly on what the label ‘feminist’ means. However, we can self-critique. We can self-improve. We can say, “you might call yourself a feminist, but that slut-shaming article you just wrote plays into strong misogynist ideas about women, and that’s not cool.” We can say, “Banning trans women from your women-only event means you have a strict idea about what a woman is, and as a fellow feminist I’m not down with that.” We can say, “I respect that we have differing views on sex work, but when you reduce sex workers to caricatures you’re engaging in some really oppressive language, and I don’t find that fits with your other feminist beliefs.”

Here’s another nugget of truth. Suggesting feminists argue too much amongst themselves plays into the hands of misogynists. Feminists don’t have an obligation to be nice and polite to one another, or anyone else; we have only the obligation that everyone in the world has, that of being a Decent Human Being. If you suggest that we all need to calm down, hug it out, and face the world with a sisterly smile, you’re the one who can’t tolerate dissent.

It is a concern if feminist debates turn people away from the movement. I have hope, however, which I draw from my own experience. When I first encountered feminism, I read some books, a blog post or two, and went along to a couple of meetings. Slowly but surely, I developed an idea of what type of feminist I was, and only then began to follow debates online, and formed opinions on them. I did not get thrown into the Twitterpit to fend for myself as feminists duelled around me, flinging words like ‘intersectionality,’ ‘kyriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’ around. I’m not sure why people imagine that’s the way new feminists are being introduced into the movement, as if the only feminist activity around is centered on a small collection of blogs and Twitter spats.

So go forth, argue amongst yourselves, and never stop getting worked up about the latest Moran faux-pas. Because you’re not the carrying the future of the movement on your shoulders, you’re not setting a bad example; you’re thinking critically and contributing to a continually adapting feminist discourse.

Just try not to be a knob about it, OK?

‘Being Queer’ vs. ‘Doing Queer’

10 Feb

In my previous post , in which I attempted a clear and accessible definition of ‘queer,’ I noted that:

“Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.”

This weekend, I went to a talk about gay/queer identity, part of the Science of Sex programme hosted by Brighton Science Festival. The speaker, Charlie Bauer, defined ‘queer’ as anything outside of that core nexus of identities that constitutes ‘the norm’: white, male, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, straight etc.

This provoked mixed reactions from the friends I was with, some of whom would feel uncomfortable if a straight guy identified as ‘queer’ because he was subverting some other norm, for example, by being voluntarily celibate (which we don’t expect men to be) or happy and fat (which we don’t expect overweight people to be.

I think in light of this understandable discomfort, there’s an important nuance to be teased out between ‘being queer’ and ‘doing queer.’ There are some people who I consider to be ‘queering’ something, whilst not identifying as queer. If you’re queering something, you’re challenging a binary, questioning a norm, or rejecting an expectation. My northern, male, broad, rugby-playing partner is queering certain norms by being a vegan and proudly identifying as feminist. But he wouldn’t identify as queer.

Identifying as queer is heavily caught up with
sexuality and gender, after all, and my partner is cis and straight. But what about straight men who like anal sex, fantasise about same-sex encounters, and like to wear women’s underwear in bed? Are they queer, or are they queering aspects of their identities?

The obvious answer is: it depends how they feel! Allowing people to self-identify is an integral part of repecting people’s sexualities and their experiences, so if those men say they’re queer, I’m down with that. I know, however, there would be a point where I’d think, “This straight, cis person is appropriating a label that doesn’t belong to them.” So how do we respect self-identification whilst being free to criticise appropriation?

I have no clear answer to this (maybe you can all help me out in the comments.) Do you feel queer, or do you queer aspects of your identity? How do heterosexual people saying they are queer make you feel?

Queering Forth

8 Feb

The definition of  ‘queer’ is quite complicated. However, for people like me who are immersed in Gender Studies, have queer friends, and live in Brighton, it’s easy to forget that! After hearing some poor attempts from people trying to succinctly explain ‘queer’ to people unsure of the term, I thought I’d have a go myself.

I think the most basic explanation is that ‘queer’ means ‘traditional labels for sexuality (or gender) don’t fit me.’ As far as I can see, there are 4 main uses of the term ‘queer,’ some of which overlap:

  • As a term of abuse – ‘Queer’ was originally a slur directed at gay people. This used to be more common a few decades ago; now, the LGBT community has reclaimed the term, and many use it to refer to themselves. However, some people still throw the term around as an insult. It’s all about context!
  • As an umbrella term for LGBT - Sometimes people will use ‘queer’ as a shorthand for all sexualities that aren’t ‘straight’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual…it’s useful to have a shorthand!)
  • As a term for sexual orientation that doesn’t fit traditional labels - Some people feel that ‘gay’, ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ or any other term doesn’t quite fit them. We have quite strong cultural ideas about what these labels mean, and some people feel those categories don’t reflect the complicated nature of their sexualities. So, if someone says their orientation is ‘queer,’ it means they’re not heterosexual,* but their orientation also isn’t ‘gay,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘lesbian.’
  • As a term for gender identity that doesn’t fit traditional labels - If someone identifies as ‘genderqueer,’ rather than ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or anything else, it means they don’t feel those labels fit them. They might see male/female as too strict a binary, categories which have a lot of cultural associations that just don’t work for them. So, they’re genderqueer. Simple!

If you’ve never met anyone who identifies this way, it might be difficult to understand. But part of the point of the term ‘queer’ is to challenge the categories we have created for ourselves; in many ways it is a byword for subverting traditional labels and binaries, and challenging the idea of ‘normal.’

*Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.

What do you think the term ‘queer’ means? Is there anything else I’ve missed?

Moving beyond abortion law (Part 2): Change culture, not law

4 Feb

As I go through my MA,  I am encountering many ideas  which are becoming integral to my activism and politics, so I am going to write a series of posts which make some of those ideas clear and accessible. The first one was about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. This, part two, will look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.

 

As we have seen, the medicalisation of abortion in the UK has couched the issue in scientific, politically ‘neutral’ terms in law. This creates pretence that abortion is a private medical decision one makes about one’s health, and an exercise of an individual right. I explored in my previous post that this medicalisation also means greater surveillance and control of women’s bodies.

So, if it’s the medicalised language that’s the problem, we should just change the law, right? The problem is, a legal right cannot guarantee good access to abortion. As we’ve seen in the US, where abortion is enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, there are some states where abortion access is so poor it may as well be banned.

Also, dealing with abortion purely from the perspective of legal rights plays into the neoliberal fetishisation of ‘choice’ as an end in itself. The language of rights claims is individualistic and shies away from the reality that access to abortion is a societal problem. Taking into account the realities of hospital care, adoption processes, and the state’s contribution to childcare costs, unwanted children are a physical, emotional and financial burden on society, not just the unwilling parent. Therefore, abortion is not an issue for individual women but for society as whole.

This is not to reject rights claims as unimportant. The right to abortion is, of course, fundamentally important to women’s reproductive freedom, and framing social justice issues in terms of rights legitimizes them. However, as Carol Smart wrote in Feminism and the power of Law that “in accepting law’s terms in order to challenge law, feminism always concedes too much,” and that applies significantly to abortion if feminists stop short at rights-based claims and do not recognise the restricted freedom a formal right entails.

Many people have a top-down approach to law which implies a change in the legal framework would trickle down to change cultural discourses. Changing abortion law in the hope that it would improve women’s reproductive freedom and access to services still plays in to the fallacy that  that society follows law, when in fact there are strongly rooted cultural discourses around abortion which make access difficult. The reality is, law generally follows society. Look at the Equal Marriage campaign – it’s happening now because legislators are finally catching up with a society that is increasingly supportive of LGBT equality.

There is no silver-bullet approach to achieving the feminist aim of reproductive freedom. However, be wary of approaches which only aim at changing the law. Reforming existing legislation on abortion in the UK is unlikely to shift power from doctors to pregnant women, because there is no indication that MPs want to de-medicalise the existing Abortion Act. Changing abortion law does not guarantee a wider change in the manner that medicine and the law approaches women’s bodies; it certainly doesn’t solve the problem of anti-abortion sentiments and cultural stereotypes of women who seek abortions as irresponsible or immoral.

Carol Smart warns us that “it is impossible to ensure that legislation, once in force, will be used progressively in the future,” and we still believe that changing the law solves our problems[1]. What we really need to change is cultural attitudes, the attitudes which lead even pro-choice campaigners to say “every abortion is a tragedy”[2]. These ideas can be challenged, but not simply by law; we have to fight misinformation and misrepresentation of abortion everywhere we see it (we also need to improve sex education, but that is a whole other post!). If they are challenged by feminist campaigns, and a wide enough slice of society shifts its values, only then can abortion legislation eventually change to become feminist and woman-centred.


[1] Smart, 106.

[2] Diane Abbot, MP, in Hansard HC Debate, 31st October, 2012, Volume 522, Part 60, Column 89WH, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm121031/halltext/121031h0001.htm#12103141000308 [accessed 19th December, 2012].

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