In this interview with Jo Reger, editor of Gender & Society, I discuss how the issue of child sexual abuse fits into an intersectional feminist agenda.
[Cross-posted at 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 gen
[Cross-posted from Gender & Society blog]
Child sexual abuse is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem. Highly publicized cases of child rapes at Penn State and in the Catholic Church have brought attention to the issue of child sexual abuse. Beyond the publicized cases, sexual violence against children and adolescents is widespread. At least half of forcible rapes reported to police are against minors and 17% of girls and 4% of boys age 14-17 report ever having been sexually assaulted. Although feminist sociologists have been largely silent on the issue, we have a lot to contribute to understanding social responses to child sexual abuse. In turn, the way we think about child sexual abuse shapes the solutions we can imagine to the problem.
Child sexual abuse and social responses to it are structured by intersecting dimensions of inequality: gender, race, class, and – centrally – age. Children and adolescents have limited legal rights or social, economic, and political power and little influence over the child protective and criminal justice institutions charged with protecting them. As a result, they are vulnerable to assault and exploitation by adults. Sexual assault against children also is shaped by gender, including patriarchal power in the family and girls’ and boys’ different positions in schools and the public sphere. Child sexual abuse is also shaped by race and class. Institutions, including schools, child welfare, and law enforcement, commit and permit violence against children differentially, according to race and class, and communities of color have a well-founded mistrust of police that can make them reluctant to report assailants, as Beth Richie shows. Low-income and racial minority families are more subject to surveillance by state agencies, while sexual abuse can go undetected in racially and class privileged families. While white girls are viewed as vulnerable innocents, boys of color are framed as sexually dangerous, and their own sexual victimization is virtually invisible. Thinking about child sexual abuse intersectionally points to the need to better respond to sexual victimization among children of color, decrease structural vulnerabilities of age, and incorporate challenges to gendered power (as it operates against both girls and boys) into responses to child sexual abuse.
To complicate matters, consensual sexual activity among adolescents may be legally defined as child sexual abuse. Research on adolescent sexual activity is rarely framed in terms of child sexual abuse. But children and adolescents of all ages are often conflated under the law. In some jurisdictions, all sexual relationships between teenagers are illegal; in some, they are considered child sexual assault if one partner turns 18 before the other. Teenagers also can be prosecuted under child pornography law for consensual “sexting.” Prosecution is more likely in same-sex relationships and for youth of color. While the law assumes that it is impossible for adolescents to consent to sex, a central question for feminists studying adolescent sexuality is the tension between sexual desire and societal shaping and silencing of desire. We need to simultaneously analyze girls’ sexual agency alongside their structural inequalities, power imbalance with adults, and the very real prevalence of sexual violence.
Societal responses to child sexual abuse are clearly inadequate and, often, counterproductive. The prevailing response emphasizes prosecution and punishment, consistent with the rise of the prison state. Sex offenders come in for particularly harsh rhetoric and post-incarceration punishment. Yet carceral responses – rightly criticized by feminists as racist and for strengthening state control– have little actual effect on child sexual abuse. Given children’s structural powerlessness, scholars and activists should consider seriously what societal responses could effectively intervene in child sexual abuse without strengthening a racist and sexist criminal justice system.
Child sexual abuse is an urgent problem with little effective response. It was feminist activists and theorists who brought child sexual abuse into public view in the 1970s and 1980s, but as the issue gained mainstream attention, feminist analyses became peripheral. As the issue returns to public attention, feminist scholarship is crucial to academic understanding and effective social response.