Activism against Sexual Violence is Central to a New Women’s Movement: Resistance to Trump, Campus Sexual Assault, and #metoo

By Nancy Whittier

Cross-posted with permission from Mobilizing Ideas

Sexual violence and harassment have been central issues in almost every era of women’s organizing and they are central to a contemporary women’s movement that both builds on and differs from earlier activism. Since 2010, a new generation of activists has targeted sexual violence in new ways. Slutwalks, a theatrical form of protest against the idea that women provoke rape by their dress, brought a new spin to long-standing “Take Back the Night” marches against violence against women. The wave of activism grew as college students began speaking out about assault on campus and gained a broad platform through social media. Students protested institutional failures to follow procedures for addressing sexual assault and used symbolic tactics to highlight the issue. For example, in 2014/15, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carried her dorm room mattress everywhere as a protest against Columbia’s inaction after she reported sexual assault. “Carry That Weight,” her project title, became the name for an emerging activist group. Another, “No Red Tape,” led to a cross-campus day of action in which activists attached pieces of red tape to clothes or campus statues.

Activism against sexual assault on campus found an opportunity for influence in stepped-up enforcement of Title IX (the federal law barring sex discrimination in educational institutions) under the Obama administration). The federal Department of Education under Obama interpreted Title IX as requiring colleges to adjudicate complaints of sexual assault promptly and effectively and address the risk of sexual assault as a violation of women’s right to educational access. Students used this opportunity to pressure institutions, organizing across campuses to teach each other how to file Title IX complaints through organizations like “Know your IX.”

This percolating movement was significant, but limited mainly to college campuses. It took the election of Trump to connect the campus sexual assault campaign to a broader movement. Trump’s attitudes toward women were well known before the campaign but his recorded comments about kissing and grabbing women nevertheless were shocking. When numerous women alleged that Trump had grabbed, fondled, and forcibly kissed them, his opponents framed him as an unrepentant sexual assaulter. The gender politics were enhanced by the fact that Trump’s opponent in the election was a woman.

All this set the stage for activists to frame mass protests against Trump as a women’s march. Despite the name, the marches included people of all genders and a focus on every possible issue within a progressive coalition, including sexism, racism, immigration, homophobia, reproductive rights, sexual assault, environmental protection and climate change, labor, democracy, and more. Dana Fisher has shown the prevalence of intersectional frames at the march, connecting across issues and emphasizing how race, class, and gender work together to shape experiences and needs. Sexual assault was a key issue for protesters and sparked the iconic “pussy hats” and slogans like “pussy grabs back.”

The mass mobilization of the women’s marches, Trump’s sexism, and pre-existing organizing against sexual violence together fueled the #metoo movement. In the wake of Trump’s pre-election comments, women around the country reportedly began speaking with their family and friends about their own experiences of sexual assault. #Metoo as an organizing phrase, coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, grew exponentially in 2017. The cultural visibility of sexual assault and harassment that began after Trump’s recorded comments combined with the viral hashtag to produce something unprecedented.

From a social movement theory perspective, #metoo is both a frame and a tactic. As a frame, it suggests the widespread nature of sexual assault and frames all forms of sexual harassment and violence as part of a similar phenomenon of gendered power. As a tactic, it encourages solidarity and visibility as women and people of other genders “come out” about their experience. And, of course, the many men in government and entertainment who have lost their positions suggests a concrete, but individual, outcome. Because sexual harassment and assault are already illegal, activists’ goals center on cultural change, including enforcement of existing law and – equally important – changes in norms of interaction, views of gender, and practices of sexual consent.

In the 1970s, when feminists first focused on sexual violence, they framed it as “violence against women.” Over time, activists began to address violence against men, transgender and gender non-confirming people, and children.Activists grappled with the impact of race and class, both in terms of the greater vulnerability of women of color and low-income women to sexual assault and in terms of the elevation of a raced and classed ideal of sexual purity, and like most movements, they grappled with race and class dynamics within the movement itself. Debates are percolating between younger and older activists, between activists steeped in anti-racist and intersectional organizing and those taking a single-issue approach, and between those who support “pussy hats” as a way of asserting self-determination and those who see them as advancing a biological essentialism that marginalizes transgender women and women of color.

The Women’s Marches were broadly coalitional even as they sparked debate over their gender and racial dynamics. Similarly, the nascent #metoo movement is beginning to form such coalitions and to address sexual violence through an intersectional lens. For example, prominent actresses brought activists from groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance to the Golden Globe awards to bring attention to sexual harassment in less-visible, less-powerful industries. It is too soon to know, however, whether the women’s marches and anti-violence movement will become truly intersectional in their frame, diverse in composition, and coalitional.

At the same time, women of color and queer people have been leading some of the most vibrant protests of the past few years, such as Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock Pipeline protests, and the Dreamers movement. In these movements, gender and sexuality are framed as integral to the issues of racism, immigration, and environmental protection. These movements are an integral part of a “new women’s movement,” and they point out the importance of defining that movement broadly.

Will these various strands gel into a durable and powerful coalition? What will the place of activism against sexual violence be in such a coalition? Paths into the future are not determined, but the decisions that activists make now will progressively constrain them. As scholars, we know that shared enemies can foster coalitions, but that cross-cutting inequalities and difference of collective identity can foreclose them. Sexual violence has been an enduring issue in organizing by women across race and class. As this new movement unfolds, its dynamics of coalition and conflict will shape the degree to which it is a “women’s movement,” narrowly defined, or a broader movement that centers class, race, and a range of genders.

Nancy Whittier is Professor of Sociology at Smith College. She is the author of The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse (Oxford, 2009), Feminist Generations (Temple, 1995), numerous articles and chapters on gender and social movements, and a forthcoming book on how feminists and conservatives influence policy on sexual violence. Her article can be found in the February 2016 30 (1) issue of Gender & Society.

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