Monthly Archives: May 2016

Situating agency 1

Feminist debates on violence against women have often become polarized by conflicting ideas about women’s agency. But in her research on street harassment, Fiona Vera-Gray found that Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of ‘situation’ offered a way to move our thinking forward.

There is a growing need to revisit our conceptual frameworks for understanding men’s violence against women and girls. Recent high-profile cases have raised public awareness of the extent of sexual violence; by using digital media, feminist activists have highlighted the everyday nature of men’s intrusive behaviour. The diverse voices that give feminism as a political movement its complexity and reflexivity have undoubtedly been amplified. But the internet has also changed the way we create, take in and distribute information; often we end up speaking over rather than to one another.

Has our thinking paid the price for this? When we are caught up in the practicalities of provision, prevention, prosecution and policy-making, we can easily miss opportunities to reflect on our differing perspectives and the unresolved tensions between them—to think about how our practice can inform our concepts, and how our concepts can inform our practice. Here I want to briefly sketch my own attempts to grapple with some of these issues – in particular the challenges of theorising women’s agency in the context of men’s intrusion – and share how I discovered an untapped resource in the work of Simone de Beauvoir.

Safety vs. freedom

Across feminist perspectives there is what has been described as a ‘chronic need’ to theorise women’s agency, and in particular women’s embodied agency. That need is felt particularly in relation to debates on issues like prostitution and pornography, where it is often suggested that placing emphasis on the context in which women are making choices is equivalent to negating their ability to choose (a view exemplified in the recent decision of Amnesty International to support the decriminalisation of the prostitution system). It is also seen in the routine rejection of feminist self-defence as a rape prevention strategy, on the grounds that this may encourage victim-blaming in cases where women do not fight back. It seems we have reached a point where suggesting that women can act through our bodies is equated with blaming us for when we can’t.

The absence of a framework which recognizes both that women have agency and that it is limited by the context in which it is exercised can have devastating real world effects. An illustration can be found in the independent inquiry on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which revealed systemic failings in the statutory response—many of them rooted in a misunderstanding of what appeared on the surface to be young women’s agency. Instead of being seen as making choices in a context of coercion and constraint, young women were imagined as free and autonomous agents who were effectively choosing their own exploitation.

Focusing on violence against women and girls as a context which structures and limits our freedom often prompts accusations of espousing a ‘victim feminism’ that undermines women’s sexual agency. But that perspective is itself unhelpfully reductive: it does not acknowledge the complex, multiple and uneasy ways in which women, individually and collectively, actually live our agency, and our oppression, within the current gender order.

I came to recognise the need to expand our thinking about women’s embodied agency when I was doing research on what is commonly termed ‘street harassment’, meaning men’s intrusions on women in public space. I struggled to find a way of celebrating women’s skilful navigation of men’s intrusions – looking down, wearing headphones, dressing in dark colours, always sitting near the door – while at the same time acknowledging how this ‘safety work’ limits our freedom.

‘Safety work’ is the term Liz Kelly uses to describe the strategising and planning that women and girls undertake in responding to, avoiding and/or coping with men’s violence. The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive: we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive without external confirmation. That confirmation generally comes in the form of escalation: he moves from staring to touching, he walks quicker behind you, he blocks your path. This escalation is what safety work is designed to disrupt. Women learn to quietly make changes, continually evaluating the situation to decide what constitutes ‘the right amount of panic’. Such work, repeated over time, becomes habitual: it is absorbed into the body as a kind of hidden labour.

From the perspective of lived experience there is an opposition between taking actions to increase our safety and taking actions to increase our freedom—increasing one means decreasing the other. But from the perspective of theory, how should we conceptualise a woman’s decision to limit her freedom in exchange for an increased feeling of safety? On one hand it does not seem helpful to argue that she has no choice: a feminist argument that denies the ability of women and girls to act does nothing to increase their capacity for action. On the other hand there is something distinctly uncomfortable about claiming women’s ‘safety work’, which decreases their freedom, as an expression of women’s agency.

Bringing back Beauvoir

For me, it was Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of the self as a situated embodied subject that provided a framework for understanding this tension. It might seem strange to talk about ‘bringing back Beauvoir’, since her groundbreaking work The Second Sex is referenced constantly in feminist theoretical discussions. But Beauvoir’s ideas have often been misrepresented or misunderstood. In recent debates on sex and gender, her work has been invoked to support both the voluntarist conception of gender favoured by queer theorists, and the opposing view that emphasizes the biological realities of the female body and the role of social processes in gendering it. In fact, both of these views are incompatible with Beauvoir’s understanding of our culturally inscribed, material embodiment. The ‘objective’ body described by biologists simply does not exist in Beauvoir’s account. Her thought is located in a phenomenological tradition that tried to limit abstraction and instead describe experience as it is lived. We can never experience the human body outside of it being someone’s body, a lived bodily-self situated in a particular place and time.

Historically, a major obstacle to English-speaking feminists’ understanding of Beauvoir was their reliance, for over fifty years, on an extremely problematic translation of The Second Sex. The translator, a male zoologist, cut a third of the original text, and had no understanding of the philosophical tradition that shaped Beauvoir’s own linguistic choices. There is now a new translation which, though not without its own problems, goes some way towards giving the English-speaking reader a truer sense of Beauvoir’s ideas about the situation of women. But when her work is fragmented, reduced to the occasional quote dropped into an argument to support one or other of the orthodox positions, we are missing the uniqueness of her insights overall, and how they can help move us forward in our conceptual thinking about men’s violence against women.

(Re)located in its original philosophical context, The Second Sex provides a map for building theory that speaks to the commonality of women’s experience of men’s violence without losing sight of the way our varying social and personal histories shape the way violence is individually experienced. Beauvoir offers us a theory of embodied selfhood that also accounts for the different meanings given to the individual and generated by the individual through their socio-historical location. Crucially, her account of the self as ‘always uniquely situated’ acknowledges the way agency is rooted in real, and often restrictive, contexts, without suggesting that any acknowledgment of the limits of particular situations effectively denies women autonomy.

The situated self

Beauvoir credited Jean-Paul Sartre with originating the idea of ‘situation’, but correspondence between the two of them that was published after her death revealed this as a misrepresentation. Rather what the letters contain is a series of disagreements about, and developments of, the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger on the concept of ‘being-in-situation’.

For Heidegger, human existence has the inescapable characteristic of ‘thrownness’. We are thrown without knowledge or choice into a world that was there before us and will remain after us, and in this thrownness we find ourselves in the world always already in a particular situation, again one that is not of our own choosing.

For example, I was born as a white, able-bodied female in the early 1980s, in a small logging town on the North Island of New Zealand. None of these material conditions, their socio-historical meaning, or indeed my entry into the world itself, are expressions of my freedom; but my freedom nevertheless depends on them. My situation is what makes my freedom possible, as well as being the starting point from which I choose my projects. The influence of our situation on our choice of projects is seen in the way that situation acts to expand our possibilities in the world. A change to my birthplace would have changed my possibilities; a change to my body would have altered the starting point for my perspective on the world. From our situation we make choices from which in turn we derive our meaning. Our situation does not determine us, yet it does give us a location within the world through which it becomes meaningful – through which it becomes ‘ours’.

Beauvoir developed Heidegger’s concept to talk about how this situation that we find ourselves thrown into, a situation which includes our embodiment and the associated meanings and possibilities, is both the point from which we make choices—and thus the basis of our freedom—and the source of our limitations. Human ‘being’ is such that we have the ability to act on the world, and to make it our own through the taking up of projects we find meaningful (the project of ending men’s violence against women, for example). At the same time our situation is constituted by forces that are not of our making, forces that may act to limit the projects we choose and the meanings they have for us (would we have chosen the same projects if we did not have certain lived experiences—e.g., for many of us, experiences of men’s violence?)

For Beauvoir we are both free and constrained, with neither lived reality cancelling out the other. Her philosophy insists on the ambiguity of human existence, rejecting simple binary oppositions between freedom and constraint, subject and object, actor and victim: it is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

Situated agency

Beauvoir’s work offers important insights for current feminist theorizing about women’s agency, especially though not only sexual agency, as it is lived under patriarchy. Her concept of situation provides us with a theoretical tool that enables us to explore the ambiguous, ‘both/and’ position of the ‘victim-survivor’. It helped me to see that safety work is an expression of the way women are both acted on by, and capable of choosing to act within, the patriarchal gender order. The idea of situated agency, agency that is simultaneously free and restricted, can help us resist the temptation to see women’s responses to male violence and intrusion as evidence of their lack of agency, without feeling obliged to go to the other extreme and suggest that their actions are expressions of absolute freedom.

There are connections here with Evan Stark’s theorisation of the constraints imposed on women by controlling partners as limiting women’s opportunities rather than their capacity to enact their life projects. Stark states that in reconceptualising domestic violence from an assault-based model to one of experienced reality, ‘no challenge was more formidable than conveying the extent of women’s resiliency, resistance, capacity and courage in the face of coercive control without minimizing the comprehensiveness of the strategy’. Such a claim connects to Beauvoir’s idea of ‘situation’, referring to the total context in which and through which we choose our projects and so give our life meaning. For Stark, as for Beauvoir, freedom and agency are situated.

The ideas developed by Beauvoir open up a space for feminists wanting to talk about Liz Kelly’s concept of the continuum of sexual violence as a constraining context for women, without denying women’s autonomy and our acts of resistance and resilience. Our choices, our actions, and even our desires are not free-floating: they spring from our material bodies, which are located in ways that open up some possibilities to us while closing down others. All agency is situated.

In the frame 1

Debbie Cameron takes a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution.

Let’s start with a question. Are you pro-sex or anti-sex?

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘of course I’m not anti-sex, who the hell would be against sex?’

Or maybe you’re thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, aren’t those terms a bit loaded?’

And of course, they are. But that comes with the territory. It’s in the nature of political arguments to be conducted in loaded language. The proverbial ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is always, among other things, a war of words.

‘Pro-sex’ (or ‘sex positive’) and ‘anti-sex’ are shorthand labels for political positions on a set of issues (including pornography and prostitution) which have divided feminists since the 19th century. ‘Anti-sex’ is what the ‘pro-sex’ camp call the people on the other side of the argument: it’s not what the other side call themselves. (Because who the hell would be against sex?)

But the competing terms in a political argument aren’t always straightforward opposites like ‘pro-/anti-sex’. In debates on abortion, the opposing camps are most commonly labelled ‘pro-choice’ (supporting women’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy) and ‘pro-life’ (defending the sanctity of human life and the rights of unborn children). Each side has chosen a label that suits its own argument, and both have been relatively successful in getting others, including the media, to respect their terminological preferences.

There’s more to these preferences than just the words themselves. As the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains, ‘every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework’. For instance,

If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing.

So when the people in a suburban street complain about the council’s new parking restrictions and the local newspaper reports this under the headline ‘Residents in parking revolt’, that implicitly directs us to judge their action in positive terms, as if they were downtrodden peasants courageously resisting tyranny. If instead the paper had called it a ‘parking squabble’, that would frame the residents’ grievance as trivial and petty.

The power of framing to shape perceptions of an issue is what makes the choice of terms tactically important. Lakoff has written extensively about the way this works in arguments between conservatives and progressives in the USA. One of the cases he examines is the argument about cutting taxes for the wealthy—or as the conservatives who favour this measure put it, offering them ‘tax relief’. Progressives oppose tax cuts, but they also use the term ‘tax relief’, and in Lakoff’s view that’s a tactical mistake. The word ‘relief’ frames paying tax as a painful affliction—a frame that reflects the conservative view and so gives them an advantage in the argument. When the progressives declare themselves ‘against tax relief’, they are accepting rather than challenging the conservative view of tax as an intolerable burden. And when tax is framed as a burden, the politician who offers ‘relief’ will be more popular than the one who doesn’t.

What Lakoff thinks the progressives should do is frame the issue in a different way. Like, ‘paying taxes is paying your dues to your country’. If rich people take pride in their ability to pay the hefty subscriptions charged by exclusive country clubs, they should also be proud to pay for their membership of what so many of them like to call ‘the greatest country on earth’. More generally, he argues that whoever controls the framing of an issue stands a better chance of winning the argument. It’s a mistake to accept terms which have been chosen by your opponents to serve their own interests, and to let them define your position for you.

In the case of abortion feminists haven’t fallen into that trap. But on other issues, especially issues which feminists are divided on, the situation is rather different.

Prostitution/sex work: framing the debate

The current debate on what to do about prostitution (or ‘sex work’—different terms, different frames) is a case in point. On this issue there are two competing arguments which both claim to be progressive. The first is that commercial sex should be legally available in the same way as other personal services: the state should treat the (mainly female) purveyors and the (overwhelmingly male) consumers as equal, autonomous agents, and should not limit their freedom by making the buying or selling of sex a crime. Wanting less state interference and fewer restrictions on free trade is a position typically associated with the political right, but in the case of the sex trade it’s more common on the left. It’s also the position taken by some feminists.

Other feminists, however, view prostitution as a fundamentally exploitative institution which depends on and reproduces inequality between men and women. From that perspective there is nothing ‘progressive’ (or as Jeremy Corbyn recently put it, ‘civilized’), about making it more easily accessible and more socially acceptable. Supporters of this argument do agree with the opposing camp that the state should stop punishing prostitutes. What they favour is the ‘Nordic model’ (so called because it was pioneered in Scandinavia, though it has recently also been adopted in France), in which the law defines purchasing sex as a crime, and it’s the buyer rather than the seller who is penalized.

This second group of feminists has struggled to present itself as ‘progressive’ and to resist being labelled ‘conservative’ by the first group. In Britain last August, a YouGov poll found that the majority of respondents thought ‘consensual sex work’ should be legal—though the overall majority in favour wasn’t large (around 54%), and there was a significant difference between men and women. A clear majority (65%) of men were in favour, with only 15% opposed; most women, by contrast, were either opposed (27%) or undecided (30%), with 43% in favour.

The reasons why people hold the views they do are likely to be multiple and complex; but one relevant consideration may be the way language has been used in this debate. Feminist opponents of prostitution have arguably done the same thing Lakoff criticizes progressives in the US for doing in the argument about tax relief: they’ve accepted terms that favour the other side. In particular, they’ve accepted that what they’re arguing about is most aptly described as the ‘decriminalization’ of prostitution.

One immediate problem with this is that it’s confusing. In reality, both sides want to decriminalize the selling of sex: the point they disagree on is whether buying sex should be legal. Sometimes, campaigners for the Nordic model try to get around this confusion by explaining that what they oppose is ‘full’ decriminalization (meaning, of buyers and sellers alike). How well this works depends on how aware the audience is of the details of the competing legal proposals (for those who are not deeply engaged with the debate, the difference between ‘decriminalization’ and ‘full decriminalization’ is probably obscure). But in any case, there’s a more general issue about the way the term ‘decriminalization’ frames the question being debated.

Whenever there’s a proposal to ‘decriminalize’ something, the implication is that its current status as a crime is arbitrary and unjust. The fact that it has been ‘criminalized’–made into a crime–is either a reflection of conservative social attitudes from which most people have now moved on, or else an expression of the state’s need to control its citizens, especially those it perceives as a threat to the existing order (e.g. youth, the poor, and members of ethnic or sexual minorities). This was the argument that led to the decriminalizing (under certain conditions) of abortion and sex between men in the late 1960s. These were/are said to be ‘victimless crimes’, acts which do not harm others, and which therefore should not be forbidden or punished.

For people on the political left, who pride themselves on their tolerant social attitudes and their resistance to authoritarianism and injustice, the term ‘decriminalization’ works like ‘revolt’ in Lakoff’s example: it frames the proposal in positive terms, as the obviously ‘progressive’ thing to do. Conversely, the label ‘anti-decriminalization’ frames the people it is applied to as the opposite of progressive. The label says nothing about their political motives; it merely suggests that they are standing in the way of change, and so endorsing a right-wing ‘law and order’ agenda. In fact, feminist critics of prostitution reject the traditional conservative case against it (that it flouts the religious/moral norm prohibiting extra-marital sex, and that the women involved in it are ‘dirty’); but they do not believe it is ‘victimless’ or harmless. However, the ‘pro-versus-anti-decriminalization’ frame does nothing to help feminists get that argument across.

Could feminist opponents of prostitution take Lakoff’s advice, and use different terms to put the issue in a different frame? Some campaigners do call themselves ‘abolitionists’, thus placing themselves in the tradition of earlier struggles to abolish slavery. Another possible reframing is suggested by the writer Rae Story, a former prostitute who now describes herself as a ‘sex-industry critical feminist’. Discussing the support recently expressed for decriminalization by the left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Story comments on the paradox of a committed socialist taking this position. The sex industry is run on capitalist principles: the argument for ‘full decriminalization’  is, she says,

in effect an argument for the full industrialisation of prostitution. It opens the way for businesses to be able to leverage their wealth to build large brothels and chains, thus consolidating potential industry profits and hiving them off into smaller and smaller numbers of hands.

This isn’t just wild speculation: the proliferation of mega-brothels run on super-exploitative, neoliberal lines is what has happened in Germany since the sex industry there was decriminalized.  Would leftists find the cause so obviously progressive if it were described as ‘the industrialization of prostitution’, or in other terms which activate a ‘neoliberal capitalism’ frame, like ‘deregulation’ and ‘free market’? Would people who associate ‘decriminalization’ with campaigns for social justice feel the same about a campaign for ‘legalized brothels’?

But being labelled ‘anti-decriminalization’ isn’t the only problem for feminist opponents of prostitution. Another problem is the framing of their position as ‘anti-sex’.

From prudes to pearl-clutchers: the rhetoric of ‘anti-sex’

Attitudes to sex are a major dividing line between modern conservative and progressive ideologies. Whereas conservatives see sex as a socially disruptive force which must be regulated and contained, progressives regard it as positive and socially liberating. Because of this, anyone who expresses concern about any kind of sexual behaviour is liable to be described by progressives as ‘anti-sex’, meaning conservative, moralistic, intolerant and prudish.

Feminists of my generation have been hearing this accusation for nearly 50 years—originally it came from anti-feminist men, and now it often comes from younger feminists, who maintain that female sexual agency and pleasure were not part of the second-wave agenda. In reality, these were key questions for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. One of the most-read texts produced by the early WLM was Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’ (1970):  after observing that women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’, Koedt asserted that it was time for them to insist on their own right to sexual pleasure:

We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard.

What Koedt and her contemporaries were against wasn’t sex, it was men dictating the terms for sex. And men dictated the terms just as surely in the ‘progressive’ counter-culture of the 1960s as they did in the most conservative family homes. The terms themselves were different, but men’s entitlement to set them was the same. And feminists had had enough of that.

Unsurprisingly, some men were less than delighted by the prospect of sisters doing it for themselves—defining their own desires, making their own demands, saying no to sex they didn’t want (and in some cases, to heterosex in general). That kind of female agency wasn’t what men had in mind when they talked about sexual ‘liberation’. (An apter word than ‘agency’ might have been ‘availability’.) Calling feminists ‘uptight’, ‘frigid’ or ‘prudes’ was a way of dismissing the challenge feminism posed to traditional, male-centred ideas about sex. Terms like ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pearl-clutching’ do the same job today. The vocabulary has changed, but the framing is the same.

On some issues, feminists have succeeded in changing the frame. 50 years ago, for instance, you could be labelled ‘uptight’ for expressing concern about rape. Today you can disapprove of rape without being labelled ‘anti-sex’, because rape has been reframed as an act of violence rather than sex. But feminist criticisms of prostitution have not had the same impact. On this topic we still hear all the old arguments about men’s sexual needs, and even the claim that if prostituted women did not provide an ‘outlet’, the rest of the female population would be at greater risk of rape. We also hear a newer set of arguments about the ‘empowering’ nature of commercial sex work for women. Feminists who disagree are called ‘whorephobic’, and accused of denying other women agency and choice.

Of course, feminists have contested these arguments and accusations; they haven’t just retreated into silence. But Lakoff would say that engaging in debate with an opponent on their terms, using their preferred language, is a less effective strategy than redefining the issue in your own terms. If you want to change the picture, change the frame.