When you pay for writing, what is it you're buying? What if you pay upfront, for writing which you may never in fact read? It's well known that the average subscriber accumulates dozens of unread journals and magazines which promise an array of complex experiences and entertainments, but which are just too much work to actually read. The vast majority of Sunday supplements, bursting with colour pictures and writing, end up in the bin. What if you pay upfront for writing that may or may not happen, and which would in any case be available to you without the payment? What are you buying then?
Writing is surely one of those things that, by definition, you can't pay for. If you own a newspaper corporation, you can pay for a certain word count, on a certain subject, assuming the writer cares enough about the subject or the money. If you're a reader, you can pay for access to a certain quantity of words in a certain font with a certain layout. But money is just a condition of possibility, and beyond a certain point, you can't get more or better writing by paying more.
You can't pay someone to have a dream, to fall in love, to grieve, to have erotic fantasies, or form an attachment, or whatever else it is that might make them want to write. You can't pay someone to get into your head, or get out of your head, turn you off or on, or provoke a mood, or create a mental space, or lift your depression. Reading is work, an exercise of fantasy and the unconscious, and you can't pay anyone else to do that for you. It would be as if you bought a gym membership and paid for the trainer to do your workout for you: even if you could, you wouldn't receive any of the benefits.
In fact, then, what you're paying for is the means with which to do a certain kind of work -- work which might be pleasurable, or even transformative, but it is work nonetheless. But that still leaves the question of why you should pay for this privilege when it is otherwise available without payment.
Payment, the Jesuit Michel de Certeau wrote, belongs to the order of belief. In paying, you make a claim on the future. You sacrifice something in the belief that you will get it back; that an other will recognise an obligation to give it back to you in some form. Of course, that means the other in whom you believe has to share your belief. In this sense, belief is always belief in the belief of the other.
But what if the other lets you down? There has to be another other who also beliefs, and who can act as a guarantor. Belief always refers up, to an ultimate guarantor, an ultimate reality -- one whose existence is supported by a 'secret network' of believers. Without such a secret network, neither God, nor money, nor the state, could exist.
To this extent, the economic crisis in 'old media' is linked to a crisis of belief. To keep the old media going, enough people had to believe in the guarantee, the certainty, that by paying the price one would get one's money's worth -- even though it was never clear what that could even mean, there being such a radical incommensurability between money and writing. The internet, and the entire new economy of interactions that it produced, shattered that old order of legitimate beliefs. No one really believes any more, that if they pay their money they will get their money's worth. People in the media often say that the public has to realise they need to pay for journalism; but that is the very belief system that has broken down.
This crisis obviously affects freelance writers, as it both transforms and in some ways diminishes their opportunities to make a regular living, a state of affairs which services like Patreon hope to capitalise on. But the model that Patreon works on is one in which you offer readers special perks -- early access, sneak peeks, first sight, etc -- which justifies their payment. It depends on the idea that people pay for services; that, even if it's never clear how these perks could be 'worth the money', you have to offer something as a quid pro quo, to make it part of a system of economic value.
But the fact that there can be no equivalence between what is given and what is received, the fact that there cannot be value for money, because the two sides are incommensurable, suggests that the 'perk' is just a fetish, just an empty signifier, which enables belief.
For almost fourteen years now, I have written on this blog, at first compulsively and now episodically compulsively.
I began to ask readers for 'donations' or 'subscriptions' back in 2009. Beyond some vague intimations of future work to come, I didn't offer any perks or services. So there was nothing to sustain belief, no reason to think that anyone would get their money's worth. And yet, I was surprised by how much good will there was. It seemed that for many people, there was at least initially a palpable sense of paying me back. As though a debt had been incurred merely because I had written of my own volition, because I needed to, and they happened to like what I had written. For others, no doubt, it was about putting me in their debt, which could be seen as another way of disposing of a debt, by displacing it.
One way or another, what we are always paying off is debt; through belief, we put the future in our debt, but it is the past to which we are obligated. Winnicott once said that anyone who is sane and has a meaningful life owes a huge and unpayable debt to a woman. The labour involved merely in carrying a child to birth and tending it in the early months, is extraordinary and yet absolutely essential. At a more abstract level, we owe the Other a debt that we should never believe can be repaid; attempts to do so are apt to turn morbid. As Freud put it, we all owe life a death. That is the only payment we can make. And there, the incommensurability truly is radical: what you receive and what you give back, has nothing in common.
But another way of talking about debt is to talk about solidarity or, in an older idiom, kindness. It is a scandal today, an affront or a titillating revelation, to find that people actually enjoy kindness. Something about solidarity, when we are capable of it, gives people a decided satisfaction. This satisfaction would, within in a certain market metaphysic, be taken as proof of the ultimate selfishness of kindness. We could allow that argument, and even invert it and add that it is also proof of the ultimate kindness of selfishness -- viz., we are all, in addition to being highly individual, more or less identical shells. Except that we would have to add that satisfaction is never quite the same thing as getting your money's worth. As with most satisfactions, whatever money you might pay for it is a token of something else you are giving up, a necessarily failed attempt to put monetary value on a sacrifice -- and all satisfactions require a sacrifice somewhere. What one sacrifices is precisely a debt; to be in debt, for sure, is to be burdened with an obligation, but it is also to have an advantage which, in paying it off, one gives up.
But this brings us back to what it is you could be paying for. Lacan says somewhere, in one of his Ecrits, that speech and language are part of a gift economy; speech and writing itself, is a gift. The specific words spoken, or written, are less important than that they are exchanged. They create bonds; they create solidarities; they create kindnesses or likenesses. This is how writing puts you in its debt. It is part of a gift economy in which some sort of reciprocity is expected, and yet you mostly cannot repay in speech or writing. So, on the perfectly pragmatic and excellent grounds that if no one paid, the writer would not be able to continue writing, you put a monetary value on the debt you cannot pay, even as I put a verbal value on my debt, and get into ever more debt in so doing.
Chimamanda Adichie is a liberal feminist. She has never claimed to be anything else. Her coordinates are those of an ideology that has already been mainstreamed, viz. that gender socialisation and male privilege represent serious and iniquitous obstacles to the success and achievement of women. Gender, as she put it to Channel 4 News, is about sociology, not biology.
This is all, up to a point, completely unobjectionable. However, the fact that Adichie's terms led her, when queried, to seemingly dispute the status of trans women as women, is not an accident. Indeed, the fact that Adichie clearly has no malice in this, and seemingly has no desire to deny anyone rights, is indicative of how much it is the discourse
that is limiting.
But Adichie is also far too good a writer, far too good at smoothing over the cracks that is, to let the discourse's symptoms appear too obviously. It is really her defenders, some of whom were far worse than she on this question, whose slips are most interesting. Just as an example, I want to mention this
widely shared Feminist Current piece. If you read it, I don't think I will need to underline the point too much: it is, symptomatically, all over the place, sliding between the uncertain terms of sex and gender. It cannot decide whether the problem is with the idea that transwomen are "literally women" or the idea that they are "female". The strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender, one strongly supported in most transphobic forms of feminism, is seen here to collapse. Indeed, I think it is destined to.
One reason why transphobic forms of feminism gain an exaggerated influence, I want to suggest, is that they insinuate themselves into a serious analytical deadlock of this already mainstreamed feminism that I have referred to. Specifically, the strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender. In this partitioning of the sexed being, sex is the organic, the purely given, while gender is the social, and thus the domain of choice. This separation was, initially, made possible by the innovation of trans technologies and treatments, but it was taken up by feminists in the Second Wave. The problem it seemed to solve was that it made a sharp distinction between the accidents of biology and the huge apparatuses of exploitation and exclusion and violence that are pinned to this contingent facts.
But some radical feminists, like Monica Wittig, never had much respect for or interest in this opposition. Wittig's argument was that sex itself was the problem, the foundation of violence. Sex, she insisted, was more a type of relationship than a type of being. From this point of view, to reduce it to its organic substratum, which is always sedimented with power and discourse, is to participate in the essentialising strategies of sexist domination. But that is not the argument that was successfully mainstreamed, and it is not the argument that began to influence media presentation and policymaking. So, we have inherited a discourse according to which sexism exploits contingent facts of biology and physical reproduction, linking it through socialisation and the allocation of relative privilege, to the production of gender.
The problems with this discourse as a kind of 'common sense' begin with its deployment in a certain kind of 'Lean In' feminism. Both 'socialisation' and 'male privilege' tend to act as reified blob concepts within what I'm short-handedly calling liberal feminism. The problems with 'privilege' as a term are well-rehearsed and I won't go through them here. Suffice to say, it is one that we can only use sous rature
, under erasure, while waiting for something more adequate The problems with 'socialisation', though, are less clear and less commonly talked about. Because, one thing that trans politics shows us, is that many many people resist their socialisation. Indeed, isn't that also, in a way, what feminist politics shows us? Would we be capable of talking about liberation at all, if we didn't all in some way resist socialisation?
And that raises the question, of course, of what we mean by socialisation. At most, we gather that somehow the way we are treated leaves an imprint on us. It's clear that social structures get into our souls, as it were. Somehow we are constituted by them, and yet at the same time we reject them. Somehow we are made into girls and boys by them, and yet somehow we never quite fully adapt to those identifications. Somehow we are split subjects, in our relationship to our socialisation. And sometimes, it fails completely. Sometimes, those the system wants to make into boys, and treats as boys, and gives every incentive and warning to be boys, turn out not to be boys; sometimes those assigned as girls, turn out not to be girls. Trans is a type of solution to what one is not, an art of becoming whose starting point is the breakdown of socialisation.
And all of this is to say that between the false oppositions of sex and gender, there is something else, another level of analysis that is missing. That level, I suggest, is unconscious desire
One of the ways in which a paranoid hermeneutics gains consent is that it is confused with rigour; anything more charitable appears somehow naive. Or, from the paranoid point of view, complicit.
Now this long-standing tradition of paranoid readings on the Left has been conjoined to the Twittering machine. The attack on Jacobin
-- those snarky hipster social democrat Berniebro reformist liberal class-reductionist fancy typesetting designer leftist imperialist cop loving etc etc -- resembles nothing so much as what China Miéville has called "punitive schwarmerei
The outrage, over a tweet
, isolated from a series of live tweets reporting a speech by the Indian Marxist Nivedita Majumdar, is completely out of proportion to any specific disagreement with its content. The tweet contains a reference to "intersectional theory" trying to undermine Marxism by displacing the foundational, determining role of class.
No doubt, some of the nuance was lost in being condensed for tweet form. Even in that context, however, it is clear that Majumdar wasn't dismissing intersectionality as a trope, let alone downgrading the political salience of gender, race or sexuality. It was stating a position which, with greater or lesser sophistication and nuance, is probably the default among marxists, viz. that class is more fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism than other oppressions. I don't really agree with this argument, but it is hardly an outrageous position.
Most people responded as if the tweet was standalone, though clearly numbered and threaded, and as if it was a Jacobin editorial statement, though the thread made it clear that it wasn't. Far more importantly, they reacted as if what had been written was politically beyond the pale
. As if it was outrageous, shocking, disgusting, that anyone would think that "intersectional theory" is anti-Marxist, or that class is more fundamental to capitalism than the other oppressions bound up with it. As if, moreover, theoretical discussion was reducible to a political instrumentality, so that to assign to class a foundational role at the level of theory must result in a direct diminution of 'non-class' struggles at the level of everyday politics.
To reiterate, one can disagree with this view without sharing the extraordinary, libidinised reactions of those calling it "disgusting," or claiming that Jacobin thinks that gay rights should be dropped from the agenda, or expressing outrage that Jacobin has yet again had to be "called out" or "confronted" on its "shit". One can, for example, think that "intersectional theory" is a straw figure, and that no such cohesive, univocal theoretical entity exists. One can align with any number of theoretical inflections of historical materialism which assign a more "fundamental", determining role to oppressions -- for example, social reproduction theory, or Roediger & Esch's "production of difference" model. But it's hard to see these theoretical differences as being that
There is, nonetheless, a grumbling in some quarters that Jacobin must have known what they were doing, and if they didn't foresee how it would appear, then they were unprofessional. Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate 'likes' and 'retweets'. This is how the Twittering machine works
, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.
Therefore, the question is: is there any way of wording a point like that made by Majumdar, in 140 characters, which would not have led these people to react in exactly the way they did? For quite a large number of their assailants, the problem was merely that someone, somewhere had besmirched the name of 'intersectionality'. For others, it was their own projections about Berniebros and such. Others -- and we know how this works -- joined in without seeming entirely sure what the problem was. None of this really amounts to an engagement even with what was in the isolated tweet, let alone the speech being reported on. A secondary question: is there any way of wording a response to all of this that wouldn't sound defensive or double outrageous to some people? I suspect the answer is 'no'. Once the wheels are turning, the train doesn't stop until it becomes a trainwreck.
This problem can surely only be experienced, ruminated on, and diagnosed so many times before we take the hint. At a certain level, and to a certain extent, Twitter is the organisation of stupidity, malice, paranoia and narrow-mindedness. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of machine to which we can take a Luddite hammer; not the sort of factory we can burn to the ground. We can only find ways to work with the grain of it, use it, or refuse it.
I don't want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general
, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored
, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly
acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate 'timeline'. But the 'mentions' column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they're entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email -- meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.
I wrote this for Strike Mag about two and a half years ago and republish it here on International Women's Day, and on the occasion of the women's strike. I would change a few things now, but not the snark about 'allyship' and 'male feminism', and not the emphasis on the fact that the old Brit left's comprehensive failure on gender politics, its refusal to take feminism seriously, contributed to its failure to meet the capitalist crisis creatively.
The Left Needs Feminism – by Richard Seymour
Every now and again, one catches an article by a sweet-natured, well-meaning, often gaunt and gentle-looking beta-male, explaining why men need feminism. And they are so, so precious. Be a feminist so that you can cry, so that you can be compassionate, so that you can be into cooking, and watch My Little Pony without embarrassment. If this doesn’t make you want to vomit into your own mouth, then I question your integrity and that of your parents.
Perhaps this is unkind. These articles also call one to a basic level of self-reflexivity, which is always a desideratum; and their demand that you ‘check your privilege’ can be useful. Shorn of the pleas to emote, and let emote, the desire to examine and take a share of responsibility for the micro-politics of gender can only be positive. Not only that but, as bell hooks suggested, the success of feminism depends on winning over men; if only women could be convinced of feminist analysis, it would stand little chance of succeeding politically, and could be comfortably ignored rather than provoking a backlash.
The problem is that the macro-politics can be lost in what usually turns out to be an individualised analysis in which the male desire to be an ‘ally’ or (Jesus fucking Christ) a ‘male feminist’ is both ratified by individual behaviour, and ultimately explained in terms of individual conscience and suffering. Not only that, but it leaves expediently nebulous the status of the term ‘feminism’. Hugo Schwyzer much?
I propose to re-pivot this whole question onto a different axis, and ask: can the Left get anywhere without feminism? And, how should male activists respond to the answer?
By now it is clear enough that we are amid a fourth wave of feminism. In the anglophone countries, this is driven by a particular demographic – 18-29 year old women, usually social media adepts. It has its own particular concerns, some of which are inherited from the third wave: media representations, the micro-politics of #everydaysexism, and the delicate politics of (class, racial, national, sexual) difference among women. Emblematising the latter concern, the term ‘intersectionality’ is at the fulcrum of contemporary feminist debates and the attempts, particularly by black feminists and women from the global south, not to be squeezed out of the emerging debates.
The question of what to do about this is not merely a tactical question prompted by the conjuncture. The fact of the global women’s insurgency is of huge significance, but it presents no surety of the future salience of feminism. The fact is that women, and women’s bodies, have actually been central to the dominant political narratives of the last decade or so, and are disproportionately leaned on in the context of austerity politics.
In the ‘war on terror’, women were used to provide what Zillah Eisenstein calls a ‘sexual decoy’, conscripted to war narratives in order to obscure the fundamentally masculinist nature of the imperialist drive under Bush the Younger, as well as to provide a vaguely progressive-sounding rationale for racist, Islamophobic repression. This purloined ‘feminism’ was always rather thin. Neither Malalai Joya nor Malala Youzafszai could be comfortably assimilated into such imperialist narratives; and in the imperialist countries themselves, women’s groups were generally in the anti-war camp. Nonetheless, the gender-conservative thrust of such war fables should be spelled out. The argument, then as now, has been that women in ‘the West’ have essentially ‘made it’. They have reached, through their achievement of the vote and the ability of a few of their number to scale the summits of industry and politics, the zenith of civilisation. Everything else is downhill. The only thing to do, in this context, would be to defend what has already been gained (against Muslims, chiefly), and rally to the Pentagon and the State Department as the sanctified defenders of women’s liberation.
The global recession has since changed the context and valence of such appeals. When the recession hit, it was women who suffered first and most. When the austerity solution was pioneered, it was clear that the effects – since a central component of it is an assault on the social wage, which covers the invisible labour of reproduction still disproportionately carried out by women – would fall harder on women. Increasingly, state occupants such as David Cameron fall back on the idea that ‘the family’ (meaning the unacknowledged labour of women) can replace the welfare state. This is not a plea to go back to the ‘male breadwinner’ model in any simple way: the idea is that women continue to participate in the labour market, and indeed should do so more eagerly given the penury of living on welfare. In essence, women should work more for less; thus, some of the costs of the recession can be allocated according to a moral economy in which women are deemed most blameful, and least deserving. In this context, the fusion of Islamophobia and nationalism takes on a new role, allowing the problem of women’s servitude to be represented as a pathology of foreign dogma, rather than a structural feature of advanced, neoliberal capitalism.
This is merely to mention a couple of the ways in which gendered politics has been essential to the forms of political domination, to repression, imperialism and exploitation, in the last decade or so. It is merely to gesture at the fact that politics can hardly be done without confronting the huge, invidious fact of women’s oppression; merely to hint at the material circumstances from which the fourth wave has emerged. So, how well has the Left acquitted itself in this context?
‘Manarchists’, or ‘brocialists’: does it matter what we call them? The fact is that there is something particularly incongruous about men of the Left, whether they are George Galloway, or ‘Comrade Delta’, or their many apologists and acolytes, or (in the case of Delta) the institutional forms that defend them, who betray their ostensibly egalitarian ideals with sexist behaviour. And in fact, the cited cases are merely the prominent tips of the chauvinist iceberg. From the horizontal networks of Occupy, to the more traditionally hierarchical organisations of the far left, case after case of sexist abuse has come up in which ingrained assumptions or institutional pressures led to perpetrators being protected.
To be absolutely clear: this is not more serious than the problem of sexism in the wider society; it is probably far less prevalent on the Left than on the Right. It is simply that the Left does not exist in splendid isolation from the oppressive society in which it seeks to operate. It is immersed in the world and is susceptible to its pressures. Sexism is not peculiar to the Left, but it is a problem for the Left, relative to its normative aspirations, and its aspiration to grow and assemble an alliance of forces capable of challenging capitalism.
The fact is that the discourse of a section of the Left around recent controversies about sexism is at its best strikingly conservative. In its most ostensibly serious form, this involves claiming that the focus on feminism and intersectionality is just identity politics, and a distraction from the real issue of class. This totally ignores the fact that, as feminists such as Silvia Federici, Selma James and Avtar Brah (or more recently Abbie Bakan and Brenna Bhandar) have shown, our understanding of class, labour and surplus value is totally transformed once the realities of gender (and race, and so on) are assimilated. This is hardly irrelevant to the age of austerity and the attacks on the social wage. What those talking about class in the unreconstructed sense want is not to defend class politics, but to conserve class as a kind of identity politics for a specific layer of white men.
This is an inherently minoritarian approach; white men, no matter what the television says, are not the majority of people on the planet by a considerable distance. They may in general hold more power and influence than others, but they cannot by themselves assemble the movement necessary to challenge capitalism. They are not necessarily even the most politically militant sections of the working class. Gramsci’s point about building hegemonic alliances holds. No authentic alliance is possible in which oppressed groups are expected to hold their tongue, and submerge their own interests and demands – indeed, using the language of intersectionality, this is exactly the problem that fourth wave feminists have been confronting.
The Left needs feminism, then, because it urgently needs to update its epistemological assumptions in order to analyse the situation in which it finds itself, and because it needs to be able to fuse together the interests of all the oppressed and exploited in order to be adequate to the political circumstance. But to get to grips with this challenge, it needs to combat its most retrograde elements, those who in fact represent at worst a pungent form of rape culture, or who are at best the left representatives of the backlash culture.
Either that or you can weep over My Little Pony. Your call.
We live in an age of consent, or so we are supposed to
believe. Nothing is supposed to be done to us without our having been
consulted. That’s democracy and, in a democracy, there can’t be any such thing
as compulsory ideas – ideas which everyone has to believe. How can we consent
to an idea, if we can’t even talk about it? That raises the question of whether
there are some ideas that no one should be allowed to consent to. Ideas which
it is barbarous even to ‘have a conversation’ about: maybe democracy will only
get you so far.
One of the ironies of the alt-right’s rise is that it has
hedged everything it has done in terms of “free speech,” while using the
resources of free and lavishly paid-for speech to create a tyrannical climate
of shame and doxing and bullying. It spirals
between trolling and witch-hunting
, each reciprocally feeding from the
other. The troll punishes, and the witch-hunter trolls. It makes conversation impossible.
No one embodies this poison more than Milo Yiannopoulos. He
is fabulously gay yet also insists that he and people like him are
pathological, deviant monsters; a gay man who is also a Catholic homophobe. A
troll who is also pursuing a deadly serious political agenda. A witch-hunter
who doxes trans students and outs undocumented migrants, but who is only joking.
Someone who wants to paedo-bait trans women by talking of the need to protect
little girls in bathrooms from them, but also pungently explain the benefits of
underage sex with a Catholic priest. Someone who wants to align with the
neo-masculinist, patriarchal alt-right and then open up shock-jock-style
discussions around consent and teenage sex.
And in a very different, and differently performative,
register of contradiction, he is also someone who wants to say he wasn’t
abused, and enjoyed his adolescent sexual experiences, and then later retract
this and say that it was abuse.
We should take these contradictions seriously: many of them
are integral to his particular form of reactionary performance politics; the
latter was integral to its breakdown. There are those who claim he “doesn’t
mean” what he says; even if that were true in one sense, it doesn’t matter. Yes,
he argues in bad faith: that is integral to the performance. But whatever one
says always has a psychological meaning at least; after all, you could have
said anything else. Far from meaning nothing that he says, he means everything
that he says, one way and another.
The worst thing you can do with a reactionary provocateur is
have the conversation on their terms. Any such conversation will always be toxic.
In Yiannopoulos’s case, if you talk about trans women or gay people on his
terms, you end up circling around the idea of pathology, which leads only to
normalisation and moralism, and ultimately to violence. If you talk about the
age of consent or the complexities of adolescent sexuality on his terms, you’re
staring into the abyss of ‘paedophilia’, which is usually the point at which
people stop talking and start throwing things. Conversation breaks down because
bad faith has been insinuated into everything from the start, beginning with
everything that Milo Yiannopoulos said and the way in which he said it.
James Butler’s LRB
put it concisely and well: Yiannopoulos’s trolling “admits, though
for shock purposes, the unsettling complexity of adolescent sexuality, even as
it disdains to take seriously the need for protection
against exploitation”. He gestured to something real, but his gesturing is
unusable: to even talk about this, one has to wrestle the subject back from
him. That is why it is useless to debate him on any of these issues, or to
restrict oneself to an evaluation of his words. The next worst thing you can do,
however, is conclude that, because of that toxicity, the conversation shouldn’t
be had at all: as though that were at all possible, even if it was desirable.
The reactions to Yiannopoulos’s downfall on the Left include
a lot of justified cheering and jeering. From being feted on Bill Maher’s
programme to grovelling at a press conference, resigning from Breitbart, having
his book deal cancelled, and losing half of his allies on the alt-right, is a
precipitous and cheering fall from an elevated disgrace. The laughter is
immense. And yet, some of the reactions going beyond this, in the assumptions
they make, in their implications, and sometimes in their performative
grandstanding, are quite terrifying. There is always performance in politics,
as the alt-right knows and the left often doesn’t, but the specifics of this
kind of performance, for example in the unhinged and often spiteful sanctimony
towards those tackling the most difficult
and complex subjects
from Yiannopoulos’s claims, suggests that we’re miles
away from a culture that can hear about child abuse, let alone talk about it.
There is a palpable sense of relief that some people seem to experience at
being licensed to let go of rigour and nuance in a difficult terrain, because
of who started the argument, and slip straight into rote excoriation.
And this matters, because social media is increasingly where
we do a lot of our politics, like it or (mostly) not. We are too easily looped
into Yiannopoulos’s pathologies, too easily set on the groove of a narrow kind
of conversation that he obviously wanted, and that can only go in one
direction, toward mutual contempt and distrust. The alt-right troll is not a
defender of speech, but its saboteur.
When I wrote on the guilt
of the abused
two years ago, I described two things that happened to me. In
the first instance, of which I have no direct memory but of which there are
bureaucratic records, I was raped with a razor-sharp knife at barely three
years old. On the plus side, for some people, that experience will give me a
right to have an opinion about these matters. For others, of course, it will be
all the more reason to discount what I have to say.
In the second experience, which I do remember, when I was
fifteen a man responsible for my care invited me to have sex with him. I
remember that, in describing the second experience I adopted a slightly arch
tone, because I felt that he hadn’t done any harm. After all, while his
behaviour was hardly appropriate, and he was exploiting his position, and
putting me in a position that I shouldn’t have been in, he hadn’t forced
himself on me. I also thought that, if I’d had the desire to consent I was able
to do so, and I might even have enjoyed myself.
I am no longer entirely sure of all that; it is in question.
And even if I was still sure of it, and even if I’d had the desire to take up
this offer, and even if it had been enjoyable at the time, it doesn’t follow
that it would have been wise to do so. What if, even in retrospect, I
overestimate my own precocious bearing and insight at the time? Still, I’m
aware of people who had sex with adults as teenagers, and not only don’t feel
that they were abused, but are expressly grateful for the experience. I’m glad
that they feel able to say so. I’m glad for that matter that I was able to have
a series of conversations about my experiences, without having to defer to
someone else’s idea of what abuse might be, and without paying any attention to
It doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that some people
had enjoyable sex with adults as teenagers, that the people they had sex with
behaved well, or that this should in general be condoned – and I will return to
this. But to insist that the people giving this testimony about themselves must
be, definitionally, wrong, to insist that they are victims
, regardless of their own stated belief, is also to say that
they are ‘bad victims’: it is a complex form of shaming dressed up as concern
What I find troubling in so many left-wing responses to the
these sorts of discussions about adolescent sexuality, consent and abuse, is
the implied idea that people like me shouldn’t think or say these things about
ourselves – that they can feign some sort of omniscience about our life
stories. Essentially, the idea is that no matter what I might say, I couldn’t
have consented, and any idea that I could have is inherently either wicked or
stupid – this is usually prefaced by a tragic shake-of-the-head about the ‘denial’
and ‘confusion’ in which some abuse victims live. What is adverted to here is
the idea of the ‘bad victim’, the one who doesn’t feel as abused as they must
if our moral standards are to be preserved.
It has even been charmingly suggested that those who take a
libertarian view on age of consent laws might be victims of childhood sexual
abuse who have become paedophiles. As I’ll momentarily indicate, my own view of
the laws is not in any straightforward sense ‘libertarian’: I think we need age
of consent laws, and am pragmatic about what that age should be. Nevertheless, it
is worth unpacking this claim in order to demonstrate that it is moral
panic-fuelled reactionary poison dressed up as intra-left critique, and thus
indicate something of the nature of this problem.
The intergenerational ‘cycle of abuse’ idea, originating in
the Sixties, became very popular in the Eighties. As it evolved from being a
crude prejudice to an object of knowledge, it came to rely on statistical data
which suggested that there was a positive correlation for a minority of people,
between the experienced of being physically or sexually abused as a child, and
going to physically or sexually assault children. The statistics vary, but in
no case that I am aware of are a majority of perpetrators made up of those who
were themselves abused. In one study
of sexual abuse,
it suggested that the correlation was weak overall, but strong in the case of
men who were sexually assaulted by women. The most recent large-scale study of
physical abuse found no
of that kind at all. One study finds the rate of
intergenerational transmission to be approximately 7 percent
, and that in
its turn is explained by the study in terms of other, mediating factors. I don’t
cite any of these studies to endorse them, but to indicate the state of
professional knowledge on this front, which is not good. And even where it
exists, correlation is not causality, and statistics aren’t a theory.
For a ‘cycle of abuse’ theory to emerge, data had to be combined
with a vulgarised version of an idea drawn from psychoanalysis, namely ‘repetition’.
This idea that ‘repeating abuse’ meant finding children of your own to abuse, was
enormously reductive, and missed the point: what is repeated is not abuse per
se, but trauma. Feminists rightly criticised the tendency encoded in this
concept to reduce child abuse to the activities of a pathologised minority,
while ignoring the gendered distribution of victims and perpetrators. For the
liberal-minded, one advantage of the idea is that it seems to resist
dehumanising perpetrators, by situating their action in an explicable context.
The problem, of course, is that it also participates in the culture of shaming
abuse survivors, of telling them that they are broken, permanently damaged, and
thus a threat to be kept an eye on. This is where victimology segues straight
into demonology: you are a victim and, because you cannot help being a victim,
you will probably become a perpetrator. Here is the ‘bad victim’ in another
guise: having been abused becomes a reason why one should be abused.
It is, perhaps, easy to cop an attitude when you’re talking
about someone as demonstratively loathsome and self-loathing, and
self-contradictory, as Yiannopoulos. But it is an attitude, and anyone
brandishing it flippantly or maliciously in order to shut people up is many
things but not, in that instant, any comrade to the survivors of child abuse.
It hardly seems worth being on the Left, if you end up sounding like a version
of Milo in your rhetorical choices. And insofar as there is an argument lurking
behind all this, it depends on a reactionary, class-blind conception of human
development – the life-cycle – which, perforce, takes no account of the
specificities of experience, of different ways in which we come to desire, and
formulate our desires, and become worldly about desire. The very messiness of
concrete situations to which Yiannopoulos gestured for his own
attention-seeking reasons, is occluded. Since it is assumed that we already
know what abuse is, who needs to listen?
The “automatic belief” in survivors of abuse thus has a
strange flipside; the automatic disbelief in those who say they aren’t survivors
of abuse. Both are a way of not taking people and their testimonies seriously.
Rather than giving a certain credence to what people say about themselves, with
all due awareness of the limitations of memory, knowledge and
self-understanding, we gainsay the question by resolving it in an absolutist
way. And it is no good to patronisingly vouchsafe the right of abuse survivors
to speak about their experiences, while insisting that others must hold their
tongues: that is another way of not taking it seriously, of ensuring that this
testimony has no effect. Either we can all
have these difficult conversations about abuse and adolescent sexuality and
consent, seriously and rigorously, or the conversation is essentially ceded to
fascists, hatemongers and provocateurs.
The polite way to put this is to say that it leads to, or
rather already is, a bad politics of abuse. But one of the dimensions of abuse
is that you don’t have any say in what happens to you; your life story is
written by someone else. When people claim a right to speak on your behalf, so that
what you say about yourself doesn’t matter, this is in its own way abusive.
One excellent reason not to discuss the age of consent on
Milo Yiannopoulos’s terms, is that if you get caught up in his tangle of
contradictions, provocations, hedged political agendas, backtracking,
self-justifications, and self-hate, what comes out will be reactionary,
moralistic poison. Trolling begets trolls. That is exactly what has happened. The
homophobic undertow of many online reactions from the right includes reference
to the old trope that gays just want to do away with age of consent laws so
that they can rape children with impunity. There is also a lurking idea,
expressed in some of the alt-right
‘defences’ of Yiannopoulos
, that homosexuality is a tragic byproduct of
abuse – a crudely homophobic version of the way in which anyone who is abused
is pathologised, as if anything they might believe or do that is disagreeable
or troubling to you must be a result of mental scarring. These are tropes that
I don’t doubt Yiannopoulos was happy to activate. His own paedo-baiting has
come back to haunt him.
Symptomatically, in defending his position, he taxed the
left with a kind of repressive moral absolutism about age of consent laws. Yiannopoulos
comes from Britain, where debates about the age of consent in recent decades
have coincided with the gay struggle for equality. The age of consent for gay
men after decriminalisation in 1967 was 21. It wasn’t until 1992, that it was
reduced to 18; and not until 2001 was it finally reduced to 16, which is now the
legal age of consent for all sexual relationships in the UK.
Throughout all of this change, the constant reactionary
refrain on the part of those who opposed it, was that changing the age of
consent laws would expose adolescent boys to predation at the hands of adult
men. Anne Widdecombe went so far as to suggest raising the age of consent for
heterosexual couples, so that there could be an equality of legal repression.
On all these fights, the Left was not invariably on the right side, but was
more likely to be so than Yiannopoulos’s erstwhile political allies.
Meanwhile, when gay activists like Peter Tatchell suggest
lowering the age of consent to 14, as it already is in some countries and as a
Home Office study has suggested it should be, in order not to criminalise the
majority of adolescents who do start to have sex at that age, he is baited
as a paedophile by the far right
. The irony of this is that Tatchell’s
argument, agree with him or not, is for empowering and educating children
regarding their sexuality. He even suggested having graduated consent laws, so
that the ability to consent would be partly contingent on the age of the older
partner – similar to the close-in-age sliding scale that exists in Canadian law.
Again, agree or not, this is a nuanced position that is clearly aimed at helping
young people. It is the desire, hardly limited to fascists, to preserve the
idea of an innocent, pre-sexual personhood, of childhood as a realm untroubled
by sexuality, that protects sexually exploitative patriarchy and deprives
children of the knowledge they need to defend themselves.
If the discussion about the age of consent is had on the
terms set by Yiannopoulous, it won’t be anything to do with preventing child
sexual abuse. It will be a mirror of alt-right-style snark predicated on the
intrinsic bad faith of any such discussion, hinting that anyone who thinks this
is a debate worth having must be either a paedophile or an apologist. It will
be people strutting about and attempting to intimidate others into not saying
things they can’t bear to hear. And indeed, that is exactly what is happening,
on the social media Left.
Laws are pragmatic, not perfect. Even in the best cases, they
define a bandwidth of acceptable behaviour, which necessarily includes some
harmful behaviour, while also prohibiting a lot of harmless behaviour. You
can’t legislate for exceptions, because legislation is all about the rule, the
average, the norm. Any age of consent law is not about eradicating harm, but
limiting it. We need age of consent laws, not because consent is simple, but
because it is messy: it is always to some degree constrained and structured by
power. The difference between children and adults in terms of social power,
resources and sophistication is qualitatively great enough that at some point the
law has to say, no sexual relationship can be allowed. This always be
negotiated imperfection, there will always be exceptional situations, and the
law will always do some harm both to those it does protect, and to those it
fails to protect. If there’s a case for reducing the age of consent, therefore,
it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that some people say that they
were able to consent to sex with an adult when they were pubescent. Even
Yiannopoulos, in full fascist enfant
mode, didn’t try to claim otherwise.
Like any law, however, age of consent laws are materialised
in police action. What effect they really have depends in part on how police
choose to enforce them. That in turn depends on the political and moral culture
that police officers partake of. The very fact that there are children being
arrested and cautioned for having sex, or being charged on child pornography
offences merely for sending
another semi-naked photographs
indicates what some of that culture is like. The fact that people are actually reporting
children to police
, and that police are keeping intelligence databases
children who sext, and threatening them with the sex
, is another indication.
This is where the ideological presumption of childhood
innocence – a presumption which is all the more effective since everyone knows
it is bullshit – feeds into the institutions of the state, and is embodied in
violence. And it is violence directed, not mainly against ‘paedophiles’, but against
children who are experimenting with their sexuality, as they always will. The
potential problems with sexting – abuse, online humiliation, shaming, bullying
– are cited as reasons to surveille and punish sexting among children. When we
talk about childhood sexuality, we only tend to talk about the problems and
dangers, in a manner that implies that the chimera of a danger-free sexuality could be a reality.
We don’t talk about how exciting it is for them to discover their own sexuality
because, when it comes to childhood sexuality, we want to know nothing about it.
We want innocence: ours, as the precondition for theirs; or theirs, as the
precondition for ours.
The presumption of innocence also doubles up as a
presumption of guilt. Eighteen-year-old Kaitlyn
was engaged in a long-term relationship with her fourteen-year-old
girlfriend, when her girlfriend’s parents complained to police, and she was
charged with felony child abuse. The girlfriend adamantly denied being in any
way a victim, and was no part of the prosecution – though, of course, her say
had no weight as she was a child. Hunt’s parents, launching a campaign to free
her, argued with some plausibility that the prosecution driven by an anti-gay witch-hunt
was seventeen when he had sex with a fifteen-year-old girl. Wilson
was black, and his sexual partner was white. When video-tape emerged of the
pair engaging in consensual sex, along with others, Wilson was arrested by
Georgia cops. A number of his friends were also arrested, and plea-bargained.
Wilson rightly did not accept that he was a child molester, and so went to
trial. He was found guilty of aggravated child molestation by a Georgia jury, given
a mandatory ten year sentence and put on the sex offender’s register. The
fifteen-year-old, of course, had no say in this.
It is worth remarking that there are many countries in which
this kind of sexual relationship would simply never have been treated as a
crime. In most European and Latin American countries, the age of consent is
either fifteen or fourteen. In Argentina, Japan and South Korea, it is
thirteen. If this case had come up in France, Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden,
Denmark, Iceland, Poland, Romania, Austria, Colombia, China, or the Czech
Republic, it would not have been tried. It is doubtful whether the police would
even have been called. The necessary imperfection of the law is also
necessarily shaped by history, culture and political struggle – in this case,
the history of Jim Crow and America’s unique culture of sex panics.
When sexual moralism is weaponised by the legal system, its
effects long outlast its action. Wilson, though he succeeded in clearing his
name, believes, without having ever spoken to her about it, that he ‘harmed
the girl he had sex with. Guilt is a terrible adhesive; it sticks to you even
when it doesn’t belong to you.
There’s always a sense in which protection becomes persecution.
Whoever is protected cedes a certain amount of power and autonomy. What is
usually being protected in this case, though, is an idea of white childhood,
linked to heteronormative family values. Kaitlyn Hunt and Genarlow Wilson – and
their respective, necessarily silent, partners – are the living proof of the
power of this. This is part of the reason why the discourse of protection has
been slowly losing support among social workers and other child service professionals.
Another reason is that, by refusing to listen to children,
which is what it does, and by assuming that they are spoken for by credible
authorities (their parents, police, teachers), ‘protection’ overlooks the ways
in which children often have strategies for defending themselves against
predation, and for experimenting with their own sexuality. It leads to anti-abuse
approaches which, rather than giving children knowledge to improve their
self-defence and enjoy their sexuality, encourage children to defer to and
trust adults as their protectors, or to defer to the authorities. This leads to
overzealous surveillance and control on the part of parents and authorities,
since the entire burden is on them to stop abuse. Consider the case of schools banning
the photography of children by their parents
, say at sporting events – the idea
that a someone might get a hold of one of these pictures and be aroused by it,
had to be pre-emptively crushed. And since the children who are most vulnerable
to being abused are least likely to have good relations with adults or to have
good access to the state, it also increases the likelihood of their being
Fundamentally, however, the discourse of protection centres
on the scapegoat. Child abuse is, in this view, something perpetrated not by average
adults but by strange, exotic creatures called ‘paedophiles’ from whom children
have to be protected. In all of the “Milo is a paedo” exultation, I am struck
by the universal tendency to focus on the name for an orientation (paedophilia)
and not for an action (rape). I doubt that there is a necessary overlap between
the two. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of adults who rape children
are not consumed by paedophilic desires, and are completely capable of having
adult sexual relationships, and indeed do so – in some cases before procreating
the children that they go on to rape. There are paedophiles and hebephiles, and
many of them rape children; but the statistics suggest that quite a lot of
other people do too.
This is enough to make one wonder what it is that the
ubiquitous figure of the ‘paedophile’ might be doing for us. Although long
surpassed in the professional literature, it continues to haunt the popular
imagination. Might it, much like the resurfacing figure of ‘ritual abuse’
wherein Satanists are supposedly doing unbelievably and elaborately vile things
to children, be performing some important ideological work? It’s as if we can
only deal with this subject by means of either demonology or pathology: it’s
either evil, or mental illness that does it. In its favour, this figure at
least allows us to talk and think about these issues, albeit often in the tacitly
prurient way that Brass Eye satirised with its Paedogeddon
But of course, it’s also a way of not
talking and thinking about certain things. Whatever questions
you might have about your own sexuality, whatever discomforts you about it,
matters a lot less when there are paedophiles to worry about. And whatever evil
or violence you think resides in you can always be projected onto someone else,
real or imaginary. You take whatever it is that you can’t deal with about
yourself, put it on the other side of the fence, and close the gate: shouting
‘paedo’ as you do. All the performative peacocking and spite I referred to
earlier is, in a way, a plea of innocence. There are a lot of things that are
being protected by the discourse of protection.
This is not rocket science: it is the most obvious thing in
the world when people do it. And yet, people do it as if it won’t be noticed that
this is what they are doing. As if we all tacitly agree not to notice; as if
moral panic is a contract of mutual ignorance.
To some extent, it is necessary to talk about Milo
Yiannopoulos in order not to talk about him. We have to push him over into the
margins in order to free up space for the kind of conversation we need. Having
done that, we are bound to still find plenty of other obstacles to talking: the big guns are always on the side of silence.
It’s part of my unconscious hero myth that I never have to
duck a difficult argument. The age of social media demolishes this kind of
intellectual pride. It reminds you that writing is a social activity, and that
to write convincingly is to have a public that can be convinced; to speak
fluently is to have a culture that can hear what you have to say. But I am,
like almost everyone else, powerfully drawn to this performative online ranting
that I describe: in particular, the drive to respond to it with bitterly
caustic ranting of my own is almost overpowering. And I can only resist the
temptation to retort to online claques of belligerent moralists and bullies
with an open invitation to come at me
if I promise myself to write on my own terms, in my own time. Writing is an
antidote to testosterone-fuelled social media addiction.
There are, though, more urgent reasons to write on this
subject. Part of the ongoing legacy of abuse is that it leaves you with a series
of existential questions, not least of which is: ‘why?’. Childhood is, among
other things, a research project. You are always asking big questions, about
sexuality (“where do babies come from?”), sex (“am I a boy or a girl?”), and
desire (what others want from you and for you, and what you want yourself).
What does abuse do to the way in which you answer those questions? What does it
do the way in which you answer those questions if you begin to think
that you might have been abused?
What does it do, if you’re routinely told
that you were abused by parents or judges or teachers or cops that you were
abused, even if you don’t think you were? What does it do, if you come to think
that a lot of what is normal today might one day look
like abuse – and thus, by virtue of how it is culturally
recognised as such, be experienced in that way, be actually (more) harmful as a
What does it do, if there is no
way to articulate these questions, to speak about them, because discussing it
is surrounded by so many invested taboos?
Whether or not we have been abused, we are all survivors of
our own history in one way or another. And we all have questions about that,
and we are all also the only people who can answer those questions – though not
in isolation, and not with any surety of finding the right answer. Adults who
know that they were abused are often left with questions like, “is that what I
wanted?”, “did I deserve it?”, “did I actually enjoy it, and does that make me
evil?” and so on. It is rather important that these questions are allowed to be
heard, without anyone else pretending to know the answers. The culture that is
so unreflexively, nihilistically invested in competitive self-righteousness and
moral simplicity – the culture that feeds both troll and witch-hunter – can’t
possibly hear them.