In a wide-ranging interview, the feminist academic Tanya Serisier, spoke to Green Agenda editor, Simon Copland, about the #MeToo movement; the history of campaigns against sexual assault; issues related to the politics of consent; and the challenges and complexities of solving sexual violence.
Simon Copland: Today I’m talking with Tanya Serisier, a lecturer of criminology at Birkbeck at University of London. Tanya’s primary areas of interests are in sexual violence and feminist politics, and she also does research in queer studies and the regulation of sexuality.
We’re talking about the #MeToo movement and taking a critical look at some of the solutions presented to deal with sexual violence.
Tanya, thank you for talking with Green Agenda.
It’s been about a year since the rise of the #MeToo movement. I know it’s really early to properly analyse it, and I know you talk about that quite a lot in the podcast you did with Living The Dream. I’m wondering however if you could give me some sort of sense of what you feel like the #MeToo movement has achieved since it launched last year.
Tanya Serisier: The first thing to say is – and this is something that Tarana Burke, who is the women who came up with the phrase ‘Me Too’ (not the hashtag) actually talks about a lot – the question of whether or not this is a movement hasn’t actually been determined. I think that’s really true.
The thing that Tarana Burke likes to talk about, which I’ve just started thinking about in my writing and work, is this idea of ‘the work’. She talks about the ‘Me Too’ moment of people sharing stories and doing these things as opening up a space in which what she calls ‘the work’ around gendered violence can begin to be done, in which a movement can be built. You can create the possibility for that to happen. I think one of the biggest questions is whether this going to become or kickoff a movement, or, will it remain a ‘moment’?
In that sense, in terms of work achieved, there’s obviously particular things in particular industries. There have been kind of bizarre things, I think, in a way where it has actually spread and where it hasn’t. So for instance in the UK one of the biggest places has actually been Westminster in the Parliament. There’s been a number of sexual harassment scandals there. I know in Australia it’s been a little bit more focused on the entertainment industry, with the likes of Don Burke.
But to me the biggest achievement, really, has been that opening up of a space and a potential for conversation.
The biggest achievement, really, has been that opening up of a space and a potential for conversation.
What’s difficult is that at the same time, #MeToo does seem to have kind of colonised certain spaces in a way that I’m not sure is always helpful. So, I was at a symposium in Canberra over the weekend, and at this symposium there were a lot of conversations about, ‘Oh well this certain location hasn’t had a #MeToo moment. Or #MeToo hasn’t spread there.’ But in these places people are talking about there’s actually a long history of activism against sexual violence.
It was funny too, because in other moments people would say, ‘Oh, you know, what’s weird is that that actually happened before Me Too’. This is one of the things I try to do in my work. The phenomenon of women and others speaking out about sexual violence is at least fifty years old. It has this cultural upsurges and, particularly in the social media era, before #MeToo there was #YesAllWomen, and #NotOkay around the election of Donald Trump.
There’s a funny kind of process that goes on that when people want to talk about #MeToo it’s often within the context of erasing these other quite similar moments. That actually makes me more pessimistic than anything about what will actually come out of it. Because there is cycle of speech and then forgetting that speech that seems to go on. The danger, I suppose, is that in the end it will be another one of those moments.
I mean there are very particular characteristics to it which we could talk about a little bit, but to be very academic, I am really committed to the position that we don’t know what it will achieve yet and that that’s still being determined.
Simon Copland: I was going to ask you about how this is almost treated as being entirely new, but it actually has a history behind it. Obviously you do a lot of research in that. You said that there’s got some specific characteristics behind it.
Maybe could you give us a sense of how it sits in this historical moment – What’s similar to what’s happened before? What are some of those specific characteristics that might make it different? Is it different?
Tanya Serisier: One of the moments that I find it to be very similar to is the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s specifically in the context of the US, which is the epicenter of #MeToo. You have this moment in the aftermath of the election that a progressive Democrat was widely expected to win and didn’t and a conservative Republican won instead.
Simon Copland: You’re talking about Dukakis.
Tanya Serisier: I’m taking about Dukakis, yes. In that election George Bush Sr. won unexpectedly. That election is very famous, at least in criminology, for being the inauguration of what’s known as ‘penal populism’. The embrace on both the left and the right in mainstream politics, particularly in the kind of Anglophone countries like the US, UK, and Australia of a tough on crime agenda. That’s how Dukakis lost it, he was seen to be ‘weak on crime’.
But actually, how he lost it, and the way that he was seen to be ‘weak on crime’ was through the figure of Willie Horton. He was an African-American man who was released on furlough, like weekend leave, from prison and he escaped and committed a series of crimes including the rape of a white woman. He became the centerpiece of a really aggressive advertising campaign by the Republicans, and he was brought up in the presidential debates. That was how Dukakis was seen to have lost the election. So in the aftermath of that, the Democrats under Bill Clinton, and New Labor under Tony Blair embraced this ‘tough on crime’ perspective. The Labor Party in Australia did as well.
Sexual violence and feminist politics around sexual violence were really central to that. In the couple of years after that, or around the same time, you had an explosion of interest in sexual violence and stories of sexual violence. You had the film ‘The Accused’, which was the first Hollywood film, starring Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, to really deal seriously with rape. One of the stars, Kelly McGillis, came out and spoke out about being a rape survivor. A couple of other celebrities did too. You had in the UK and in Australia, for the first time, big stories. There were front page stories and series about ordinary women talking about their experiences of violence and if you look back at the media rhetoric around it, it’s very similar to the stuff that you have seen in the last few years around social media, with people saying, “This is amazing. We’re going through this cultural watershed. Nothing will ever be the same again. Because women are speaking out, we’ve changed the way we think about rape.” But in the end, looking back, no one really remembers that aspect of the late 1980s.
It’s seen as just a period of feminist backlash, basically, which is how it’s famously known. In all that’s remembered about the 1988 election is the ‘penal populism’. People don’t really talk about it in terms of politics around sexual assault. So that’s one moment, I think, that’s really interesting.
Since about 2014, in more recent history, there have been ever so often this proclamation mainly from media sources like The Guardian, that 2014 was supposed to be the year of the ‘New Feminism’ that then got claimed in about 2017 again. One of the things that an academic whose work I really like, Clare Hemmings, talks about the construction in the last five years of what she calls, “a feminism that everyone can agree on”. She talks about Emma Watson and the UN speech and those t-shirts that are made with sweatshop labor that say ‘this is what a feminist looks like’.
Violence occupies a really particular position in that feminist politics, because everyone is opposed to sexual violence. It’s very easy to be opposed to it. It’s very easy to make very simplistic claims. It’s very easy to be opposed, for instance, to sexual violence but not be opposed to, I suppose, the violence of sweatshop labor and things like that.
Hemmings argues that in this kind of feminist era, we have this politics that’s very much centered around violence but also very much centered around surface solutions that pose at being systemic to violence. It only looks at violence in a very particular and limited way.
#MeToo brings up a lot things, and it brings up a lot of things that aren’t talked about. One of the things it brings up is the violence of work, for women and for others. That has only been a little bit part of the conversation however. The other side of it is that there is an oscillation between viewing it as something that shows the systemic nature of violence, gendered violence, sexual harassment and something that reproduces these figures of this kind of monstrous individual man like Harvey Weinstein or to go back a little bit, Bill Cosby or some of the other men that have come up in the #MeToo moment. Then, you see things like, ‘Everyone knows a Harvey Weinstein’. The problem is not that you have these isolated men, but about the normative structures that allow these kinds of behaviours to be accepted, and acceptable.
The problem is not that you have these isolated men, but about the normative structures that allow these kinds of behaviours to be accepted, and acceptable.
Simon Copland: I was interested in what you said, that ‘it’s framed as feminism that everyone can agree with’.
It made me think about the fact that there are some feminists who have come out publicly saying ‘We don’t agree with the #MeToo movement. I’m thinking about figures such as Germaine Greer, and the Catherine Deneuve letter in France.
And I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve said when that stuff has happened they have called those women ‘rape apologists’, or those sorts of things, essentially framing them as being anti-opposition to sexual violence in its entirety because of these statements. What do you make of those moves and the tension that seems to exist between second and third wave feminism, where second wave feminism is being spoken almost in a very derogative way, as if it’s something that’s really a bygone thing that should be completely abandoned?
Tanya Serisier: I think that there’s some separate elements in what you’re asking about.
So firstly, to start at the end, I’m always really skeptical of all those generational motifs and things. They’re very media driven as well. I think they come up throughout social movements and throughout our society. We have a society that’s framed very much around logics of youth and youthfulness. A society that does actually work through this really weird generational segregation. I think that’s what’s more interesting is the substance of the debates. It was not that long ago that second wave feminists were being accused by other women of playing the victim and seeing violence everywhere.
If you remember, the mid to late 1990s was another era in which there was a lot of public discussion of sexual violence. It’s when ‘date rape’, not just acquaintance rape, particularly on university campuses, really entered the public agenda and the media agenda. You had very prominent women and feminists saying young women now call themselves ‘victims’ and all of this stuff. Actually, some of those young women are now, I suppose like me, they were around twenty then, and they’re around forty now. Some of them are now saying exactly the same things about the current moment.
The thing is if you read Laura Kipnis’ book ‘Unwanted Advances’, which is about sexual politics on US campuses now in the States, there’s a lot of parallels with the kind of books that were published in the mid-1990s, like for instance the very famous Australian text ‘The First Stone’ by Helen Garner.
So I suppose the first thing to say that these debates aren’t new, again. You end up in this kind of cycle. They’re not new, but what I think what they have that is productive is that there is a paradox, a problem, at the centre of feminist politics around sexual violence. This is one thing I’m actually very interested in my work, that I’ve just written a book on. The main way feminists, well since the second wave, since the 1970s, have chosen to combat sexual violence has been attempts at speaking out. So you have this idea that breaking the silence ends the violence. That to tell these stories of sexual victimisation will have such a political charge that it’s capable of overcoming violence.
Now in some ways that politics has been very effective and in some ways it’s been very limited. So it does draw attention to issues, its stories are important, they need to be heard as opposed to being repressed, but they don’t actually offer a solution or a model for liberatory politics. So I think that is part of the reason that we sit in these cycles.
So, when you look at feminist critics of what’s going on, to me, some of the things they say make sense. Some of the things they say don’t, but I agree with them that there is a limitation in this politics. That telling stories of ourselves as victims doesn’t produce in your politics. I think that at a really broad level that’s true, though that doesn’t mean it might be wrong or it’s not necessary.
If you want to talk specifically about it, I think Catherine Deneuve and that letter — I have a colleague who works on it, and he thinks that’s as much about French Nationalism and anti-Americanism as anything else. So I think there is a particular kind of French politics there.
Germaine Greer is also about to release a book. There’s lots of things you can say about Germaine Greer, but she does some things that I completely agree with. One of the thing she says is that she doesn’t think that increasing the severity of sentencing around sexual violence is going to solve the problem.
Simon Copland: I agree with that too.
Tanya Serisier: But also Germaine Greer tries to say she’s the only person who says that and when she says that she’s speaking up against a feminist orthodoxy that you can’t say these types of things.
I guess to me it’s less productive to get into dismissing people and saying they’re rape apologists and they’re this and that. I think that Germaine Greer can veer towards that by saying those stupid things at times. But there is something substantive, a reason people keep coming up with these arguments and people keep being uncomfortable with that. There is a whole debate that goes back to the second wave and that’s been had in various less sophisticated terms in what actually is the role of victimisation, and challenges victimisation in feminist politics. It’s quite difficult I think.
Simon Copland: On the interview you did on ‘Living the Dream’, you spoke about how the statistics as far as you read them suggest that sexual violence has not dropped, has sort of stayed steady, over the past decades – basically we’re not seeing drops in numbers of sexual violence.
What does that say about responses to sexual violence, and what does it say about the limitations of those responses in regards to what’s been happening in these sort of cycles you’re talking about?
Tanya Serisier: Well, it’s really difficult. People always want to go to statistics. I mean one of the things it says about statistics in this area is that they are rubbish, basically. I’m not a statistician, but most countries have been only collecting statistics on sexual violence in a way that vaguely works, as opposed to not working at all, for, I suppose, coming up now to about thirty years. But really, the early 1990s.
At the same time, that’s also been a period in which definitions, understandings, the boundaries around sexual violence have shifted. Except a few exceptions, there’s been no other area of the criminal law that is in such constant flux.
There have been major revisions to try and change the definitions, to try to have a more acceptable definition. There’s been moves from ‘force’ to ‘consent’ to different ways of understanding consent. There’s been discussion about different boundaries around what might be assault and not. For instance in the Julian Assange case, his lawyer had an interesting defense, which was he basically tried to argue that what Julian Assange had done was morally and ethically reprehensible, but that it wasn’t illegal. So, it’s an area where what we’re measuring has also changed – what we consider violence, and also, what we consider to be violence that’s worthy of state intervention. I mean, that’s a whole other question. I would say at one level, the question is that – how we define violence, how we understand it. And that’s changed, and actually expanded.
That doesn’t change the fact, that yes, we’re not reducing levels of sexual violence really as far as we know. I think that that’s true everywhere.
Rose Corrigan who is an American researcher, she calls it ‘the failures of success’. This great paradox, in some ways sexual violence, domestic violence as well, these areas of gendered violence are one of the great areas of feminist success in that they’re one of the areas where feminism has had the most policy influence. They are also an area of great failure in terms of those overriding numbers. So what does it say?
It says, to me, that we don’t have solutions. I think, not necessarily in the sense, because I don’t know if you’re thinking about The Guardian article that you sent me.
Simon Copland: I was going to ask you about that next, actually.
Tanya Serisier: The argument from that article has been going on for a while. That it’s too ideological, that there is too much commitment to this gender model. But, what I would say is we don’t actually have tools at all really to change deeply rooted gendered behaviours. I’m talking about very intimate behaviours. We’re talking about, if you want to talk about sexual violence, we’re talking about societies, to go back to Foucault, that have no ‘Ars Erotica’. We’re not a society that teaches people about sex, we’re not a society that talks about sex, we’re not a society that believes that people have things like sexual skills. All of those kinds of things are all very new.
To me it’s not really surprising that we’re failing in a way. Because really, speaking very broadly, programs about what you might need to really intervene in cultures of sexual violence are actually things that the criminal justice system does not have any ability to deliver. They’re not really things government policy has any ability to deliver.
A parallel would be the gender division of labor in the home. So, we’ve known that’s a problem for almost as long as we’ve known sexual violence is a problem. We talked about it. And you see a shift in the 70s and 80s when people first get the idea, ‘Oh yeah, maybe men should do some housework.’ But if you’re talking about heterosexual relationships from the point of actual raw hours of work the proportion of heterosexual relationships of housework done by women and men doesn’t shift. That’s one of the hardest things to shift.
When you’re talking about sexual violence and domestic violence, they’re very intimate problems. We’ve actually been really unsuccessful as a society at changing a great many things that happen in the privacy of the home. There’s really intimate patterns of gender and re-creations of gender hierarchy. I suppose, maybe I’m being a little bit defensive, because I’m quite critical in various ways of aspects of feminist politics around sexual violence. At the same time, you are talking about very fundamental things that we find very hard to shift in any other area as well.
When you’re talking about sexual violence and domestic violence, they’re very intimate problems. We’ve actually been really unsuccessful as a society at changing a great many things that happen in the privacy of the home.
Simon Copland: Yes, but I think this is what I found interesting about that article. So this is an article by Gay Alcorn about, it was titled ‘Let’s not use the murders of women to score ideological points’. And obviously in Australia we had a very high profile incident of a murder a month or two ago, Eurydice Dixon. I’m not sure if you followed that story when it happened, but obviously a really terrible thing that happened. And what Gay Alcorn says, I’m quoting her here, she says, ‘Laying a feminist template over every instance of violence against women does not fit in all cases, and does not allow for the nuance needed to understand or reduce these crimes.’
What I find interesting about what you just said about the intimate nature of these violent acts is that each one of them has this nuance. Is there a potential tendency, and it’s not just feminist politics, but politics in general, to ignore that nuance, or ignore the intimate nature of it? Both of those seem to be something that we have to understand to be able to even consider dealing with it in the first place.
Tanya Serisier: I would say no, in the sense, that I think the areas of politics that I’m interested in: feminist politics, queer politics, have always been about intimacy. Also, very much about asserting the fact that our intimate lives are not any less political than our public lives. They’re political in different ways, and things manifest differently. They don’t respond very well to top-down government solutions. Whether things in the public sphere do, or not, is another question. I would say, no, I think politics doesn’t necessarily get rid of nuance because you need a politics that can account for nuance. There is a lot of very good feminist work that does engage in this nuance.
In my mind, the very mainstream policy solutions that governments adopt don’t tend to be the work that’s nuanced. This is capitalist liberal democracy. You have this whole problem of government and the way we tend to solve problems. In terms of that article, I think yes, obviously these are all individual instances involving individual people and individual stories. That’s something I work on a lot. Women’s stories of sexual violence and the fact that there is this tendency to reduce them to a single template, even by feminists – that we know this story of sexual violence, there’s this story of experiencing sexual violence.
To go back to Germaine Greer, this is one of the things she says as well. Again, she thinks she’s the only person who says it, but she’s not. Feminists have asserted that rape is a hugely traumatic experience. That sexual assault is a hugely traumatic experience. They do so in order to counter society’s neglect and minimisation of it, and the erasure of the consequences. The consequence of that, however, has been that we have what Nicole Gavey calls the ‘dominant trauma narrative’ where the only way you can talk about experience of sexual violence is that it’s deeply and permanently traumatising. To experience it is to be permanently traumatised.
Actually, we know that large numbers of people, and not just women, have experiences of sexual violence and not all of them are permanently traumatised in the same way. People respond to experiences differently, and that doesn’t have to be the measure, even if it’s something harmful. You don’t have to tell a story of permanent damage, or permanent trauma, to be able to say that what happened was wrong. What happened shouldn’t have happened. You even see that in terms of people responded to Germaine Greer. One of the things she does is talk about her experience of being sexually assaulted when she was eighteen. She says she wasn’t traumatised by it. What’s interesting to me is that a lot of people, a lot of feminists, who respond to that suddenly it’s all, ‘She has this syndrome. She has PTSD, or she doesn’t know how she feels,’ that ‘she’s saying these terrible things because she hasn’t processed her own experience of rape.’ That is feminists saying that. I think politically, that’s awful. It actually prevents women from being subjects, and being political agents. It disqualifies her words on the basis that they’ve had this damaging experience that should leave them permanently traumatised. I find Germaine Greer deeply problematic politically, but you cannot take this experience and tell her how to experience it. To tell someone they have to experience it in a certain way, I think that’s a big problem.
You don’t have to tell a story of permanent damage, or permanent trauma, to be able to say that what happened was wrong.
The case of Eurydice Dixon. In the Guardian article, the author Gay Alcorn talks about this being a very statistically rare crime. And that’s completely true. What was interesting to me, in looking at the kinds of responses to it, was how much this myth, that this is the ‘typical experience of rape’, seemed to be so dominant. People were saying things like, sometimes jokingly, sometimes serious ‘We need to have a curfew for men. We need to have all these things.’ It really drove me kind of crazy in the sense that I said, ‘Well, actually, if we know, and we’ve known for decades that the vast majority of sexual violence occurs in intimate relations, occurs in the home.’
Simon Copland: The curfew for men would potentially have the opposite effect.
Tanya Serisier: Well yeah exactly. Don’t let them come home. That’s if you actually want to reduce sexual violence don’t let men come home.
Not all cases of sexual violence are the same. I think where the real epidemic of violence in our society is, is not in the streets, and in kind of random street attacks. It’s in intimate spaces. It’s in relationships. In the article it says that giving respect for relationship counseling and things like that isn’t necessarily going to stop these very rare instances of women being attacked by strangers in the streets and that’s true, as far as it goes. At the same time, I think, if you actually want to talk about sexual violence as a social problem, then you do need to talk about sex and gender. And understandings of sexual relationships. You need to do it in a nuanced way.
I think where the real epidemic of violence in our society is, is not in the streets, and in kind of random street attacks. It’s in intimate spaces. It’s in relationships.
As you would’ve heard when I was talking to Dave, I’m very critical of a lot of the politics around consent. That’s precisely because it isn’t so nuanced. It’s not the only reason, but we’re talking about nuance. There’s this idea, in the mainstream discussions of consent, that actually it’s very simple. All these kind of slogans, ‘Consent: Just Get It’. Which to me is so, heteronormative, and imagines this real macho man and this gatekeeping woman. Anyway, ‘Consent is sexy’, all of these things. That these conversations are easy, that teaching consent is simple.
I don’t think consent works as a framework for sexual ethics at all for a variety of reasons. The idea that it’s simple just seems the most ridiculous thing to me in the world.
I’m not surprised that people have this impression about how intimate relationships are complex. So politics can’t fix it. We think of politics in six word slogans, or a three week class, where you tell school kids that they have to ask people before they have sex with them. Then yeah politics can’t fix it, if that’s what you imagine politics to be. Politics is about reducing the nuance of life, to these three word slogans. But that’s not what I think of as politics. It’s not what I think of as feminist politics, but it is a problem. In part, it is a problem because The Guardian article you’re talking about is talking about a very specific area of politics, which is policy.
There is a lot of work on what’s happened to feminism over the past decades. Since the 1970s, feminism has gone further and further into the academy, which as we know, is where I work. And it has become very abstract and removed. It has also become very bound up in governance, becoming very bound up in policy making, policy decisions, and that policy framework. It’s often focused on needing to compete, for instance, for money. Which also is part of what this article is about. Who should be given the money to solve domestic violence. There’s money around should it go to drug and alcohol services? Should it go to feminists? Should it go to whoever?
I come from a libertarian and very critical Marxist tradition originally. I think that there’s a lot of valuable work done by feminists and others in government around violence, but I don’t think that kind of work is capable of instituting the cultural and social changes that are needed to make real impacts in the problem of gender and sexual violence. It’s a different kind of politics that’s needed for that.
Simon Copland: That’s a good lead in to the last question I want to ask you. In the last year, and this obviously not new, I’ve seen lots and lots of discussion about solutions for the problem. I think you’ve argued that it’s often very simplified. We’re talking about the consent and there’s a lot of discourse around revolving around enthusiastic consent on university campuses. We’re seeing universities, particularly in Australia —
Tanya Serisier: But don’t you think —
Simon Copland: Go for it.
Tanya Serisier: To me, enthusiastic consent is normative and disciplinary. I’m just not a very enthusiastic person. I do get enthusiastic about sex, obviously, but the idea that you have to be enthusiastic is just ludicrous.
Simon Copland: No, no, no. I totally agree with you. I feel like we could have a whole discussion about consent because I think it’s such an interesting topic. But I 100% agree with you. I’ve had discussions about this with a number of friends who say, ‘Well, it’s just not who I am’ or it’s, ‘Sometimes, I like going to gay bars where there’s a space and it’s sexualized and sometimes you get touched without being asked for it beforehand. And I’m totally okay with that.’ That for me, it works. But for some other people it doesn’t work. So you can’t just have this blanket thing that works for everybody, because it doesn’t work like that. It’s more complicated than just saying, ‘Can I touch you here now?’, or, ‘Can I give you a kiss now?’ That kind of stuff.
Tanya Serisier: Yeah. Our lives are very complicated. You’re talking a bit more about intimacy. Intimacy is so complicated.
Anyway, I derailed you from your last question.
Simon Copland: No, it’s alright. What I was saying is you’ve seen solutions like enthusiastic consent. There’s been a whole bunch of stuff around increasing changing legislation, or having stricter penalties in regards to rape. Then there are things, on university campus in Australia in particular, there was a big report about sexual assault on university campuses that came out about a year ago. There’s been universities that are now implementing mandatory courses that students have to take. Online courses… that if we do this online course we can solve this problem.
To me often these seem very simplified, very based in governance, which is something that you’ve critiqued very strongly. So maybe instead of running over that critique, what I’d be interested to think about is as a starting point. What is a different sort of politics that can exist which can then deal with this in a less simplified way? Where should we start, given the fact that things haven’t changed in terms of the numbers?
Tanya Serisier: That’s a good question to round up on. I suppose in a way the kind of overwhelming answer to that is we need to start on a whole range of fronts. There’s no magic bullet, and there’s no untying the knot.
Having said that there’s maybe a theme that I think is important. That is, actually, having a policy that can reckon with both prevalence, to use a very policy oriented word, and the complexity of sexual and interpersonal, not just violence, but harm in our lives as well. We do those harms to each other, also that those harms are enacted by the state. That those harms are enacted by corporations. It seems to me, and I think this is completely fair enough in a lot of ways, that that’s something that is very hard to have a politics around. Not only, not primarily because it’s complex but because it’s a very hard thing emotionally, I guess, to effectively to sit with.
You see it for instance, there’s been for quite a while now in different places, people trying to do community responses. Radical communities, community responses to sexual violence that are both preventative, and that can respond to sexual violence where and when it occurs.
Recently my work hosted the International Conference on Penal Abolition, and I did a workshop with a friend of mine about community responses to sexual violence. We had loads of people come. The thing that we all agreed is that most of the time they’re done really badly, they go really badly, and it’s so complex. What’s one of the things that’s really hard to deal with is to not get into this mode of just producing a scapegoat figure that you want to expel and you think that will solve the problem. I think it’s very, very difficult to do that. It’s very difficult to do that in a way that works around prevention as well.
Where I’ve seen the potential is at a very community based, micro-politics level. Obviously, the risk of that it’s most extreme you get into a liberal self-improvement mode. Which is not particularly helpful either. How do you actually make that a collective politics? In the end it’s about having it as part of other work that you’re doing. So, for instance, the kinds of groups and communities that I know of who have been the most successful and also the most committed to thinking about and dealing with sexual violence in different ways are the growing abolitionist movements. Mainly in the US, but countries like Australia, the UK, and elsewhere. Where the problem of criminalisation and mass incarceration is linked very much to real problems of harm and violence.
And this is the problem that has come up again and again, is that you can’t just say, ‘Oh well, the government locks up poor people and that’s terrible’. Which is what the radical criminologists of the 1960s and 1970s say. Because you say that, then you get a backlash of people of, ‘Actually, you know, there’s real violence and kind of devastation in our communities. We need something to be done about it.’ And if that something is only ever criminalisation, or a carceral solution, than that’s what people turn to.
So I think the thing is, in the end, imagining a society without sexual violence. A society where sexual violence is actually rare, is unthinkable, is imagining a different society.
So I think the thing is, in the end, imagining a society without sexual violence. A society where sexual violence is actually rare, is unthinkable, is imagining a different society.
This is something a few feminist scholars talk about, is we do need to reclaim our utopian horizon around that. The idea that we can build a different kind of world, because we need to. It’s a world building project, it’s about changing society, changing ourselves. Which is why, to get back to the policy oriented people, you know it doesn’t really work. The way that we start is we start with fundamental politics, which isn’t a very immediate solution, I suppose.
Simon Copland: Yeah, and that’s the interesting thing about this whole discussion is that you’ve got to have the nuance of understanding but also having some big picture ideas of what the world is that we want.
You can have both of those nuanced, micro understandings of intimate relationships whilst also having this broader idealized utopian vision of a better world.
Tanya Serisier: Yes, for sure. I think they have to be a part of each other. You were talking about politics before, the shortcomings of politics. To me that’s a major shortcoming of Western radicalised politics of the last few centuries is the idea that those are two separate things.
Actually, how do you imagine a utopia that isn’t a re-imagining of the everyday? That is our life, actually. It has to be fundamental to our political vision.
Actually, how do you imagine a utopia that isn’t a re-imagining of the everyday? That is our life, actually. It has to be fundamental to our political vision.
Simon Copland: Absolutely. I think we should just leave it there – thank you very much.
Tanya Serisier: Thank you as well.