#Metooism & Conservative feminist history

Note: This essay is formatted from an academic essay done while I was in grad school. I recently graduated grad school so my thoughts are pretty current.

Narratives of accountability for sexual violence have existed for decades now in feminist advocacy. It should be no surprise then, that #metoo is the latest iteration of an ongoing fight against sexual violence specifically against women. #Metoo however seems less like the latest epoch of accountability and more so inauspicious. In fact, Metoo has colloquially assumed a verb tense. The act of being “metooed” is commonplace in Western society and undoubtedly expected within media. “Did you hear such and such got metooed?”, “I cannot believe they were metooed!”. I want to argue that aside from displacing the object of the presumed violence (AKA the women themselves) #metoo is a vulgar instance of sexual accountability and a re-articulation of a latent conservatism that has coalesced into many moral sex panics.

An essay that has greatly influenced my own thoughts concerning the concept of “conservative feminism” was Elizabeth Bernstein’s essay on “Carceral Feminism” (Bernstein 2010). Bernstein’s concept was to convey an issue looming in feminism, that being of castigating any and all sex work as sex trafficking. Bernstein’s critique does not just describe a relic of a discursive feminist past but intervenes into a poignant cultural moment. Specifically, Bernstein speaks of how Feminism is co-opted into traditional conservative narratives surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality. Bernstein’s intervention is not just relevant to the time she writes on, that being the late 1970s and 1980s, but emblematic of how feminist discourses have long since been a source of “affective” displacement. This displacement is the substitution of latent conservatism within traditional “progressive” feminist praxis and consciousness. The seemingly non-problematic crossover with traditionalist right-wing groups and traditionally left-wing feminist groups are not coincidental nor accidental. It is embedded within both group's political imagination.

Feminist sexual narratives

Bernstein suggests that these narratives of accountability and protection are not novel, nor have they always been in the service of a statist ethic. The first iterations of what we may reasonably call feminist advocacy (in the west) originated with the first-wave feminist discussion of sexual violence. Abolitionism was the widespread term and focus of many feminists in the mid to late 19th century. In fact, it was the exploration and public detailing of sexual violence that provided many formations of early abolition movements. Writing on the history of sexual violence in America, Carol Harrington notes that “Although the history of political thought includes a lengthy tradition of rape as a political trope of tyranny, abolitionists built the first international social movement that documented and publicized first-hand accounts of sexual violence, forging discourses and techniques that continued to be used by twentieth-century “human rights” and women’s organizations” (Harrington 2011, 6). Many of these publicized narratives were meant to circumvent the current time’s laws concerning Master-Slave relationships and were further adapted by 20th-century feminists.

As middle to upper-class women’s agency expanded into the new century, the language and tactics of 19th-century abolitionism were adapted into 20th-century strategies for exposing sexual violence against women. In this era, we see the origin of a more organized feminist effort, collecting not just narratives but statistical data. This data is compiled to suggest sexual inequity was directly tied to sexual violence and that the state should absolutely be concerned (Harrington 2011). A lot of these strategies, and the height of World War 1, politicized rape and sexual violence to a point where it had not been recognized prior to the 20th century.

The importance of this background about collective feminist wins for categorizing sexual violence as an ethical, moral, and political concern is the utilization of the state for legitimization. The appeal to state power or the usage of the state is as Bernstein notes, is not new but in a post-Fordist and now neoliberal world, the sentimentalities of narratives are readily weaponized. In the fight against sex trafficking, many feminists, and perhaps categorically anti-feminist, organizations coalesced into the age-old feminist advocacy against sexual violence. The difference, however, is as Bernstein suggests that while these narratives of protection are not new, they are certainly more artificial than “simply a humanitarian concern with individuals trapped in “modern-day slavery,” (Bernstein 2010, 47). Many popular feminist organizations of the 1970s and 80s such as the National Woman’s Organization (NOW), Women Against Violence Against Women, and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) were in the forefront against the proposed epidemic of sex trafficking.

Many of these organizations talked about the horrors of sex trafficking and how women were second class citizens readily disposed to these horrors. This, of course, ran concurrently with the second wave, and specifically, radical feminism which paradigmatically placed women as not only current day second class citizens, but globally and primordially oppressed in almost all instances (Tong 2009, 49). A lot of how this advocacy happened was reminiscent of early feminist efforts, which was the circulation of narratives of sexual violence, trafficking, and how porn how damaged relationships or gave unrealistic expectations of women. In many ways, radical feminism was a left wing project though a strong co-advocate of these narratives were many Christian, often conservative, right wing groups.

Sex trafficking had long been a severe crime in the United States dating back to the 1910s (Jolluck 2017). The 1970s, however, saw the advent of neoliberalism, the emergence of a global world and as radical feminists saw it, the global oppressed woman. This is why anti-trafficking efforts attempted to pierce more than just the domestic American, but the global citizen. The efficacy of these supposed feminist goals rings strangely in contrast to other feminist advocacies which are largely ignored or combatted against by the state, however, as Bernstein notes, the state and street feminists had a purported coalition against the horrors of sex trafficking. In the years of increased propaganda about foreign “others” plotting to sex traffic the young, white, and American girls (as well as the infantilized girls abroad), many efforts have been put forth on “cracking down” on sex trafficking and specifically those engaged in sex work of any kind.

American state intervention, however, is an end goal for religious conservatives and secular liberals (which function more times than not as two sides of the same coin) as these narratives of the unabashed sex trafficker and hyper-violent (and often a person of color) pimp are circulated, restructuring the[TE1] “other.” Bernstein’s ethnographic work details how feminism’s myopic focus on criminalization, and accountability functions as a sort of test case for increased criminalization in other areas. One has to ask why not? If the Other perpetuates this sinister epidemic in one area of social life, it is not a stretch of the imagination to think they would do so in other socio-political arenas (Bernstein 2010, 56).

#Metooism

The state is a powerful tool of cultural intervention and the core of carceral feminism is giving ground to the state apparatus, synthesizing culture through the state and repackaging our own imaginations and ideas back to us and others abroad. The issues that Bernstein speaks of, however, is not outdated but newly reformed with each passing generation of feminists and feminist advocacy. I argue that #metoo follows the same sort of carceral logic and is a re-articulation of the same flows of affects that construct bad actors.

Originating as a Myspace post in 2006, “Metoo” was coined by activist Tarana Burke. The phrase was meant as a way to express that others were not alone in their experience with sexual violence. It was meant to be “empowerment through empathy” but years later developed into a sort of rallying call for liberal women in Hollywood speaking out against sexual assault and abuse in the industry and elsewhere (Guerra 2017). It has since been a rallying call for many different types of people since its initial evocation against prominent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

One could say that initially Metoo was meant as a tool of restorative justice. A way of connecting the different narratives and stories of different individuals who had experienced sexual violence. Metoo, however, has been the ultimate test case of an increased punitivity in the west, bringing back old narratives of the archetypical bad sexual actor that must be gotten rid of. Metoo shows its limits in two very distinct ways with this modern iteration of Bernstein’s carceral feminism. In an effort to increase women’s agency by exposing sexual violence, metoo discourses have actually limited the sexual agency of women. Metoo as well has demonstrated its inability to act as a liberating political tool, often failing to indict the very same structure that perpetuates violence.

Political disarmament

Metoo, as a political apparatus, has been deployed as a means of demonstrating the cultural power of modern liberal feminism. It is the case, however, that because metoo and earlier feminist sexual accountability politics have been easily co-opted by traditionally conservative and right-wing groups, it’s efficacy has diminishing returns. Metoo has long gone past invocations of rape and sexual assault. Metoo discourses now account for any intimate or sexual transgression not easily being defined as assault or rape. It is this reason why metoo fails to indict.

One recent example is the case of President elect, Joe Biden and his many different intimate transgressions with more than a few women. Kissing women at inappropriate times, touching them inappropriately, smelling them, etc. (Frost 2019). This is besides his longstanding rape allegation by Tara Reade. Despite these public accusations, Biden remained not only a front-runner in the Democratic primary but beating out incumbent Donald Trump for the presidency. Many champions of Metoo in the era of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, fell eerily silent and downright dismissive when Joe Biden was being metooed. Liberal activist and actor Alyssa Milano went so far as to remove metoo from her Twitter bio in defense of Biden.

Cultural critic and author Amber Frost wrote, prior to the Reade allegations, “… Biden is not being accused of anything approaching assault… Furthermore, Biden’s political base includes a large swath of committed civilian and high-profile supporters, as well as respected #MeToo activists” (Frost 2019). Frost surmises the limitations of political function of Metoo well in saying “#MeToo-ing your opponents is now the ultimate form of ersatz politics, and not only will it fail to dissuade the accused’s supporters, it may cause them to double down.” (Frost 2019). What Frost shows is that the act of “Me-tooing” or the act of affectively displacing individuals into “bad sex actors” can only harm women when the tactics do not penetrate state power. In fact, Metoo rarely ever fails to indict state power as it is imbued with the same carceral logics that the state deploys itself. Ultimately metoo becomes a hyper-neoliberal form of politicking that obscures the very real and material effects of sexual assault and rape that women face. Legal scholar and lawyer Heidi Matthews echoes Frost in her assessment of the failures of metoo. Matthews writes “Central to the logic of #MeToo is the weaponization of trauma in the service of power politics. That is, the movement justifies its claims on the back of individual stories about pain and suffering, and the anger that so often attends these stories. However, #MeToo has only been successful in unseating powerful men when the interests of public morality and the political ruling class converge. Neither of these conditions are met with respect to Biden” (Matthews 2019).

Feminists of the 70s had many complaints but only the anti-sex trafficking efforts seemed to have coalitional support from feminists, right-wing conservatives, and the state enlarge. It is because the state was able to weaponize many traumatic positions into soft power and expanding global capital gains. Metoo seems to be the next mechanism for this.

Bad sex

Political theorist Iris Young speaks on how these narratives not only set up the parlous “other” but equally demonstrate the state’s masculinist hard power. In Young’s article “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State” Young speaks on the role of “masculine protector” as the state. The subjects who are the feminized “protected” are subjects within the United States that must be protected from the outside evil. In everyday life, we hear this same discourse repeated to us domestically. Young’s example is every time a father warns his daughter of the dangerous men, he fears will exploit her and forbids her from “running around” the city, he inhabits the role of the male protector and he inhibits the daughter’s agency (Young 2003, 6–7). Iris Young’s statements of the Father who disallows his daughter’s engagement with the outside world for fear of the “bad men” is recalled here in an effort to show how #metoo discourses are also an affective displacement of women’s agency. “Consent” discourses amount to women’s indefinite inordinate power to men, where sexual desire is always known to men and withheld from women. Sexuality, then, is handed to the Father whom knows best, or in short, the state. The masculinized state becomes the arbiter of what is and isn’t sex.

Heidi Matthews writes “The idea that consent to sexual activity should be the benchmark for deciding what constitutes legally permissible and socially desirable sex is far from obvious… Paid sex might indeed be conducive to transactional, negotiated terms…” Matthews goes on to say “But not all sex can be reduced to an atomistic meeting of the minds of two individuals. Sometimes what we want is not fully known to us in advance. The details of desire and satisfaction are often discovered, and produced, in the sexual moment” (Matthews 2018). The emotion of fear, fear of the “other,” fear of sexuality is front and center of neo-conservative sexual and libidinal politics and is explicitly replicated by supposed left-wing feminist movements who no longer impede the hyper-carceral motivations of the state.

I, and Matthews, call this reactive sublimating apparatus of metoo, a Me-tooism. Me-tooism is the deployment of these affect-laden narratives and discourses in an effort of restructuring sexuality. Conversations regarding female genital mutilation (FGM) abroad, for example, come under the scope of metoo. Conservative publications such as Fox News, have suggested that FGM should be under the scope of metoo (Moody 2018). The politics of Metoo, I suggest here, are not just co-opted by conservatives but is readily embedded in a conservative neoliberal logic that defines sexuality on the basis of normative traditionalist scales. Additionally, these iterations of supposed “emancipatory” feminist politics work in hand with the logic of patriarchy which seeks to make clear delineations of sexed ontologies. Patriarchy also inhibits agency of women and other feminized subjects. #Metoo is in the long line of agency denying carceral logics that do not allow “satisfaction to be produced in the moment” (Matthews 2018) yet circulate the image of the “bad” subjects. Increasing the power of the state and limiting the efficacy and scope of women’s liberation.

How these accountability discourses and narratives are co-opted by the state and conservative minds alike is not just the circulation of affectations, but what I call empty affects. Empty affects are empty signifiers that are heavily laden with constructive power. Phrases such as “believe womxn” are circulated as a result of the metoo moment. The phrase is meant to give women (and those coded as women) a benefit of the doubt when they speak about their experiences with sexual violence. Historically women’s concerns about the violence inflicted upon them is ignored colloquially and structurally thus a phrase that signals individuals to believe women when they are expressing these concerns is warranted. The problem, however, comes with the phrase itself. Because of the ubiquity and broad nature of the phrase, it is easily co-opted by any group and quickly dilutes the original affective sentiment. “Believe womxn” begins to signal everything thus it signals nothing but the affect is still there. The circulation of empty affects have the problem of diminishing women’s claims to violence whilst still constructing them as the protected.

Conclusion

The deployment of “empty affects” and the ceding of ground to state power to determine sexuality is what I understand as “Me-tooism.” #Metoo is not the first politics of accountability, nor do I suspect it will be the last. It is, however, a re-articulation of conservative sexual politics enhanced by a greater affective dimension by which metoo discourses circulate. If permutations on sexuality and reliance on the state were precursors for increased state control and imperial intervention abroad, with the expansion of global capitalism, #metoo will be an even stronger force of creating sexed subjects with a limited agency. Conversations surrounding “consent” have over-determined and castigated sex work once again by limiting sexual encounters by a simple “melding of the mind” though most sexual encounters do not share this reality. It is only in service to a conservative ethic that metoo is a medium of change and it is only detrimental to a left-oriented feminism to advocate for sexual freedom whilst hanging on to the affective phantasms of the past.

Dem Citations tho:

Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117–39. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-22-2_79-117.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism: The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Antitrafficking Campaigns.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36, no. 1 (2010): 45–71. https://doi.org/10.1086/652918.

Guerra, Cristela. “Where Did ‘Me Too’ Come from? Activist Tarana Burke, Long before Hashtags — The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. The Boston Globe, October 17, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2017/10/17/alyssa-milano-credits-activist-tarana-burke-with-founding-metoo-movement-years-ago/o2Jv29v6ljObkKPTPB9KGP/story.html.

Frost, Amber. “Choosing Battles: Amber A’Lee Frost.” The Baffler, May 24, 2019. https://thebaffler.com/all-tomorrows-parties/choosing-battles-frost.

Harrington, Carol. Politicization of Sexual Violence: from Abolitionism to Peacekeeping. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

Jolluck, Katherine R. “The Gordian Knot of Prostitution and Trafficking.” Journal of Womens History 29, no. 4 (2017): 196–203. https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2017.0056.

Matthews, Heidi. “How Do We Understand Sexual Pleasure in This Age of ‘Consent’? — Heidi Matthews: Aeon Ideas.” Aeon. Aeon, March 6, 2018. https://aeon.co/ideas/how-do-we-understand-sexual-pleasure-in-this-age-of-consent.

Matthews, Heidi. “Biden’s Status as Democratic Front-Runner Reveals #MeToo as Weak Political Strategy.” The Conversation, April 3, 2019. http://theconversation.com/bidens-status-as-democratic-front-runner-reveals-metoo-as-weak-political-strategy-114813.

Moody, John. “Hey, #MeToo: Isn’t Female Genital Mutilation the Cruelest Cut?” Fox News. FOX News Network, January 18, 2018. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/hey-metoo-isnt-female-genital-mutilation-the-cruelest-cut.

Richard, Analiese, and Daromir Rudnyckyj. “Economies of Affect.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15, no. 1 (2009): 57–77. doi:10.1111/j.1467–9655.2008.01530.x.

Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. Feminist Thought: a More Comprehensive Introduction. S.l.: Routledge, 2009.

Young, Iris Marion. “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State.” Women and Citizenship, January 2003, 15–34. https://doi.org/10.1093/0195175344.003.0002.

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Travis Edwards

Travis Edwards

Anthropologist specializing in gender, psychoanalysis, and failure.