(re)Thinking Sex Positivity, Abolition Feminism, and the #MeToo Movement: Opportunity for a New Synthesis

[image: from the “See Red Women’s Workshop, Feminist Posters 1974-1990” (link)]

by Brooke Lober

Sexism, gendered harassment, and sexual assault are so common in our culture that they constitute norms; the phrase “rape culture” puts a name to this phenomenon. While assault and harassment remain rampant, a renewed sexual conservatism—consonant with the current right-wing power-grab and evacuation of the already ravaged social safety net—reproduces systematic inequity through an overt culture of misogyny, along with the privileging of marriage and monogamous partnership, heterosexuality, and sex/gender normativity. This hierarchy is produced at the expense of sexual outsiders including survivors of rape, abuse, and harassment, who lead the current public outcry on gender-based violence.

For the last forty years and more, feminist and queer movements have arisen to identify and resist the conditions of social subordination that are created through sex and gender hierarchy, while at the same time, these movements propose expansions of sexual freedom and gender self-determination. The current wave of protest and public speech against sexual violence, under the sign of #MeToo, while extraordinary, is not without precedent. But it offers a renewed chance to synthesize a popular framework for freedom through which we can work toward two longstanding feminist goals: freedom from sexual violence, and freedom to enact and celebrate all forms of consensual sexuality. Two feminist actions demonstrate these two aspects of sexual liberty. Since 1975, Take Back the Night marches and rallies have provided space for the outpouring of stories of sexual assault; and since 2011, Slutwalk has offered a site for the reclamation of self-determined sexuality as a public, political, and participatory act. While often emerging as opposed interests, freedom from violence and the struggle for sexual liberation are linked. As Adrienne Marie Brown writes, “Your strong and solid no makes way for your deep, authentic yes.” Feminist movements including women of color feminism, abolition feminism, and the sex-workers’ rights movement all offer possibilities for the integration of freedom from sexual coercion, and the freedom to engage in all consensual forms of sex. The radical imaginaries offered by these movements are crucial for activists who are now considering the next steps for countering omnipresent sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

The current moment, in which #MeToo attunes popular attention to the abolition of sexism and sexual violence, holds an opportunity for a new sex positivity that synthesizes the opposition between two forms of feminist freedom, which feminist theorist Breanne Fahs names “freedom to” and “freedom from.” “While the sex-positive movement has made a significant contribution to the advancement of women’s sexuality,” Fahs writes, “much of this work has emphasized ‘positive liberty,’ that is, women’s freedom to expand sexual expression and sexual diversity. This work has too often failed to address the need for women’s freedom from oppressive mandates and requirements about their sexuality, that is, ‘negative liberty.’” Fahs argues that sex-positive feminists, who have crucially promoted positive liberty, must also mobilize in movements for freedom from sexual obligation, including the everyday sexism embedded in gendered requirements of heteronormativity. As the #MeToo movement facilitates the creation of new cultural space to address sexual violence, sex-positivity can provide a necessary supplement to this feminist reclamation of self-determination.

The wave of demand for accountability currently sweeping the U.S. represents a key innovation. Opposition to sexual assault and harassment has erupted on college campuses in recent years, inspiring both feminist support for and critique of Title IX processes that address sexual violence. Title IX, currently contested at the federal level, was created in 1972 to address systematic inequality in education. In 2011 President Obama significantly expanded Title IX, in particular, to respond to the inequity that results from gender-based violence—but the institutionalization of Title IX, and its expansion, have largely failed to produce egalitarian circumstances or support survivors of abuse. To critically analyze campus-based diversity claims, feminist theorist Sara Ahmed is currently investigating the “gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen” in response to complaints of abuse, harassment, and sexual assault at colleges and universities. But this year’s public speech by survivors represents a departure from the campus-based movement: while feminist movements against gender-based violence have often been marginalized or institutionalized at the expense of their own potency, this flood of speech-acts is mainstream, and effective. Making headlines, instigating innumerable forums for the recounting of experience and the expression of outrage against sexism and sexual violence, the #MeToo movement has facilitated public admission and apology, the loss of status, and the destruction of careers for numerous abusers from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. While survivors of gender-based violence are routinely vilified, ostracized, and accused of lying, #MeToo has characterized the speech-acts of survivors as heroic.

While celebrities and politicians have dominated the recent #MeToo discourse, grassroots activists respond to this trend and expand representation of the movement, in part by honoring the work of Tarana Burke, the Black feminist who created the hashtag #MeToo ten years ago, and has ceaselessly worked as an organizer against sexual violence. As Burke says, her work raises the voices of survivors, using “the power of empathy to stomp out shame.” The acknowledgement of Burke’s work may signal renewed support and appreciation of grassroots antiviolence advocates, but activists have expressed concern that the centrality of fame and political power in this new discourse would limit the issue to elite networks and, through an individualist framing that lacks analysis of the systematic nature of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism, center (heterosexual) white women at the expense of others. While white women and elite stars continually occupy center stage in the cultural attention to sexual assault, gender-based violence against people of color remains woefully unaddressed—and when it is addressed, often, more violence ensues at the hands of the racist state. But the refreshed recognition of everyday sexism, harassment, and assault ushered in by #MeToo promises to take effect in all sectors of society. As exemplified at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony and the “Time’s Up” campaign, activists are building coalitions with powerful public figures, including allies in the entertainment industry, to make this potential a reality. High-profile outcry against both egregious violence and everyday forms of degradation and harassment has catalyzed popular activity, from social media sites and groups organizing communication about assault and harassment, to meetings in town halls, churches, schools, and board rooms. In November, a letter representing 700,000 women farmworkers was sent in solidarity to women speaking out about sexual abuse in Hollywood; in December, the National Organization for Women announced the #EnoughIsEnough campaign to end sexist harassment and assault in the hospitality industry and other sites where low-wage workers—mostly women of color and immigrants—are routinely exploited.

Speech-acts by survivors of violence and all those subordinated on the level of gender and sexuality are a foundational feminist practice, but familiar contradictions among feminists arise in the new outpouring of reports of abuse. The initial and most obvious result of #MeToo, in vilification, shaming, and loss of status for perpetrators, appears to restore the form of liberal feminism that uncritically appeals to the state to produce accountability and protection against assault. “I think they should all go to jail,” Jane Fonda bluntly declared in  response to the Harvey Weinstein revelations, and related sexist violence as an everyday practice in Hollywood. Her sentiment represents a common public feeling of righteous anger translated into calls for state protection and control. Such a desire for “justice” by the state is the normative response of many who feel that the symbolic power of punishment, in the case of Weinstein and others whose egregious violence has been exposed, would be a victory for all critics of sexist oppression. At the same time, this push for incarceration continues the legacy of white-dominated liberal feminism, which has overseen the expansion of state-based punishment while failing to uproot the problem of gendered violence, as women of color and indigenous feminists have long argued.

Women of color feminists have for decades named and resisted the power dynamics that take shape through the combination of racism and (hetero)sexism at the levels of society and the state. As antiracist feminist movements combat intimate forms of violence, the role of the state is also necessarily contested. Far from a neutral actor, repressive state techniques reproduce racialized, classed forms of inequality and violence. Addressing the intersection of raced and gendered violence, contemporary feminist, antiracist, antiviolence movements have produced an integrated model to support survivors and resistors of intimate and state violence; work toward a society free from misogyny; oppose the inequity produced through heteronormative gender; and resist racism, including racialized state violence. In particular, women of color feminism unmasks the ways that state-based protection from violence is a racial project. The pretense of protection of the “innocent” status of white women is regularly operationalized to castigate men of color, while women of color are rarely perceived as legitimate victims and survivors of violence. The INCITE! Critical Resistance Statement, “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex,” is a primary text for an abolitionist feminist vision that opposes criminalization of abusers, and proposes community-based responses to social harm that can holistically counter racial and gender oppression, and related forms of violence.

While opposing the ascendancy of state power in responses to intimate violence, antiviolence activists in women of color feminist and abolitionist movements advocate forms of collective “healing justice” meant to replace the punishment model that often passes for accountability. This approach to addressing social harm relies on both structural and cultural transformation that would allow for people to have the chance to recognize and address harmful and violent actions. Organizer and educator Mariame Kaba emphasizes the apparent impossibility of accountability in our society: “People have to take accountability for things that they actually do wrong. They have to decide that this is wrong. They have to say, ‘This is wrong and I want to be part of making some sort of amends or repairing this or not doing it again.’ The question is: What in our culture allows people to do that? What are the structural things that exist? What in our culture encourages people who assault people and harm people to take responsibility? What I see is almost nothing.” In a society based on punishment at the expense of compassion, ethical relationality that includes accountability is improbable at best.

As writer and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore argues, for many sexual assault and abuse survivors and antiviolence advocates, the current moment of public shame provokes alienation. How can abuse and harassment be addressed in a way that will establish real accountability and heal social harm? What does restitution for such harm look like? What approaches will result in the eradication of sexism and gender-based violence? Practitioners of restorative and transformative justice have long sought to respond to these questions with theory and practice. Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective writes, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impact your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties, but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” For Mingus, “Accountability is often bound up with healing.” Importantly, this is a social, perhaps intimate process: “tackling our trauma is work that is best done with someone(s) we can trust and rely on.” The deep relational work that undergirds the potential for accountability is anathema to contemporary capitalism, which works through dispossession and alienation at the individual level, and deracination and fragmentation at the community level. Capitalist processes destabilize, eradicate, or exploit social formations for material and emotional connection and support. This restricts the potential for the creation of conditions that would facilitate the community-based accountability models that Mingus and the Transformative Justice Collective promote and produce. In a contribution to the extensive debate about self-care and community care that circulated in activist networks in 2012, Caroline Picker argued that we must heal not only the self, but also “our collective body, this world,” and that much of what passes for self-care care amounts to “resource hoarding,” indulged in by privileged actors who often, as Picker writes, choose self-care over community care. As many grassroots activists and healers argue, functional practices of care at individual and collective levels are required for accountability.

The development of accessible and equitable networks for care is a necessary component of abolition feminism. This year, Black feminism and abolition feminism took center stage at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. At a roundtable on “Prison Abolition, Mass Incarceration, and Black Feminism,” Angela Davis emphasized the necessity of an expansive vision for the creation of ethical practices implied in abolitionist politics. She concluded with remarks on the nature of abolitionism as infusing every aspect of social life. Far from a politics solely focused on the abolition of criminalization and incarceration, Davis reiterated her thesis that abolitionism is the active struggle to “imagine and work toward a society that no longer has a need for these [carceral] institutions.” Rather, as Davis has long argued, and as advocates of transformative and restorative justice assert, to produce a world without the “need” for prisons and related forms of punishment as a response to social harm, the increase of many forms of ethical relationship-building, and community-based care, in the context of an enlarged public sphere—resulting in the improved health of the overall social fabric—must replace the punishment model.

This feminist abolitionist vision is often eclipsed by forms of radical and liberal feminism that rely on punishment and engage the state to regulate not just violence, but also sexuality. In the famous “sex wars” of the 1980s, feminists well-known for their radical critiques of the requirements laden upon women in sexist culture, including Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, dubiously joined forces with right-wing conservatives in anti-pornography campaigns, billed as the prevention of violence against women. As anti-porn policies were enacted, and queer people and women were among those persecuted for sexual deviancy as well as sexist representation, sex-positive feminists and queer activists and intellectuals defended sexual liberties. Lisa Duggan, historian of the sex wars and a key figure for feminist promotion of the “complete deregulation of consensual sexuality and its representations” thirty years ago, as today, is among those queer scholars who are currently sounding the alarm. These proponents of queer and feminist politics of liberatory public sexuality worry that #MeToo may instigate a new “sex panic,” in which, rather than sexism, sex itself, especially “deviant” sex, becomes suspect and persecuted by law. As these scholars argue, sexual liberation must supplant sexual regulation. The #MeToo era provides an opportunity to ensure that contemporary feminism works toward the abolition of institutionalized, systematic sexism, and resists state violence—while advocating for the expansion of sexual freedom, including both self-determination and the practice of positive consent.

Feminist movements and their fellow travelers in social justice formations have too often remained split between the false choice of advocating sexual liberation, or opposing sexual violence; through a transformative, abolitionist feminist politics, this opposition can now transform into an alliance. While feminists must resist new circulations of sexism, and the re-stigmatization of queer and deviant sexualities, a new empowerment project is also necessary, along with feminist practices of care in a world in which social marginalization, poverty, and violence produce inequity. Like a politics of reproductive justice, a new feminist empowerment project can include a call for freedom from harassment, coercion, and abuse in public and in private. It can also build on the history of socialist feminism to advocate for social transformation toward the potential for well-being, for everyone. In this moment, the sex workers’ rights movement provides an exemplary model for a new feminist synthesis. For forty years, this movement has addressed the marginalization and vilification of sex workers, offering philosophies of sexual empowerment and countering exploitation through the recognition of sex work as labor, while mobilizing through a harm reduction framework to meet the material needs of the most vulnerable social sectors. This is an expansive movement that includes, but goes beyond, the basic politics of sex-positivity. By combining a capacious vision of sexual freedom with support for marginalized and stigmatized populations, the sex workers’ rights movement provides an example of a visionary materialist feminism.

For instance, at the St. James Infirmary, an occupational clinic and organizing site for sex workers and their communities in San Francisco, while the immediate and long-term health and safety needs of sex workers remain the principal work of the clinic, their creation of a “bad date” list prefigures the current #MeToo activism. Sex workers have long shared information about violent and unethical clients as a mode of community protection. St. James Infirmary put the list online and created an app, offering a “community-based violence intervention tool utilized by sex workers to share information regarding ‘bad dates.’ A ‘Bad Date’ may be any person who threatens, behaves violently towards, robs, extorts, or engages in any behavior that violates the agreed upon terms and boundaries of the exchange. This list may also be used to report bad encounters with law enforcement.” By increasing communication about many forms of abuse, through the “bad date” list, sex workers simultaneously mobilize an ethics of care; assert opposition to violence, coercion, and exploitation; and fight for the destigmatization of sexual commerce.

#MeToo must not result in a new carceral feminism, wielding feminist justice to punish abusers at the hands of the state, and instigating new cycles of violence. The new mass recognition of sexual unfreedom should not produce shame and punishment. Rather, a compassionate antiviolence movement can value vulnerability, promote accountability, and creatively advocate forms of restitution for social harm—both increasing understanding of systems of abusive power, and producing social networks that offer love and care. As Black feminist Saidiya Hartman submits in commentary on Christina Sharpe’s writing on anti-Blackness, “care is the antidote to violence.” Even while we identify systematic abuses of power, we can address situations of intimate violence with deep understanding, recognizing social harm in its context: the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist society that conditions power dynamics, teaches violence by exacting violence, and normalizes abusive behaviors, beginning in early childhood and continuing through the life cycle. Nothing less than a compassionate and generous society that can hear and respond to these reports—paired with a new paradigm for teaching bodily autonomy from the youngest age onward, and creating a compassionate system to address abuse—will uproot cycles of violence. As Fania Davis, proponent of restorative justice, explains simply: “harmed people harm people. Healed people heal people. If we are to have peace in our communities, we need a justice that heals.”

A renewed abolitionist politics of feminist antiviolence will increase communication among survivors and their loved ones, resulting in empowerment and advocacy for comprehensive social transformation that supports a healthier and more just social world, replete with many forms of freedom—including, but going far beyond, sexual openness. To formulate this transformation, the sex workers’ rights movement, abolition feminism, women of color feminism, and related movements offer politics and practices that expand the public sphere. Such visionary innovations can include basic income, equitable labor, affordable housing, universal healthcare, education access, and socialized childcare, amounting to a progressive redistribution of material and cultural resources. This radical imaginary also reaches toward the abolition of both state and popular violence through cultural means, produced through projects including the representation of self-love and self-respect, self-defense classes, sex education that promotes positive consent, and related forms of feminist empowerment—along with sexual liberation. Only such a radical agenda will resolve the ubiquitous problem the #MeToo movement reveals: not only that women, trans, and queer people, and other sexual dissidents are systematically subject to marginalization and violence, but also that broad cultural transformation and structural change are necessary for the equality, empowerment, and liberation we seek.

Brooke Lober is a scholar, teacher, artist, and activist. She is a Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University and San Francisco State University, and a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley. Her current research on the history of Bay Area-based revolutionary feminist activism can be viewed online at womenagainstimperialism.com

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